Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tending the Vineyard of Jewish Peoplehood - Yizkor, Eighth-Day Pesah 5773

Just before Pesah, a few news organizations came out with lists of rabbis - ranking them as “America’s Best Rabbis” or “Top Rabbis”. I am not particularly fond of these lists; they are an unfortunate side-effect of our love of rankings and of celebrity. The power of clergy, I think, is in their ability to make personal connections with and inspire individual members of their congregations, and most of the people that top these lists are those colleagues who have mastered the media-attention game.

Or maybe I’m just bitter because they’ve never picked me. ;) 

Regardless, in the Forwards list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis,” there was a gem of a story. Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, a 34-year-old Orthodox rabbi serving a congregation in Portland, Maine, ordained at the liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, was on this list. In nominating him, a Reform rabbi, Rabbi Alice Goldfinger, wrote the following: 
I cannot drive to the synagogue I served as rabbi for 10 years. It is about 15 miles from my home in Falmouth, Maine. I slipped on the ice outside that synagogue on December 13, 2009, and sustained a traumatic brain injury. I will most likely never be able to work as a rabbi again. My former congregation didn’t know what to do with me and my two kids (I am a single mom), so they didn’t do anything. But I still need to say Kaddish for my mother, who died when I was 15. There is only one Reform synagogue in town, the one I served. Rabbi Herzfeld is Orthodox, but he opened his shul’s door, heart and mind. He suggested I lead the Kabbalat Shabbat at his shul and say Kaddish for my mother. My children, who aren’t comfortable with Orthodoxy after attending Orthodox public schools during a sabbatical in Jerusalem, stood with me. After the service Rabbi Herzfeld said, “I want you to know that I do not believe women should lead worship with men present. But one of us had to be uncomfortable. Why should it be you and not me?” He can’t repair my broken brain, but Rabbi Herzfeld brought healing to my broken heart.”
In today’s climate of finger-pointing across the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, such stories are rare. News outlets love to grab Jewish attention with stories about women arrested at the Kotel for wearing tallitot, and the Israeli rabbinate invalidating conversions and so forth, but how often do we hear heartwarming tales of Jews taking care of other Jews despite their differences? How often do we hear of Jews putting aside their discomfort with the practices of other Jews for the sake of making another feel welcome? 

We were regular shul-goers when I was a kid. I remember occasionally thinking, as we took out the Torah to read on Shabbat morning at my synagogue in Pittsfield, MA, that the same thing was happening at the same time at synagogues all over the Eastern time zone. I remember leaving the sanctuary during Yizkor, an opportunity to hang out with friends in the parking lot, and thinking that thousands of teens like me were doing exactly the same thing. And, growing up in a place with so few Jews, it was all the more powerful - I am communing with my people, thought I. We were not close to the major urban centers of Jewish settlement, but I felt that we were all together in spirit at this moment. 

In some ways, the Jewish world has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Orthodoxy is resurgent, buoyed by the Haredim on the right. The non-Orthodox movements, not what they once were in American Jewish life, are holding their own, although secularism is growing, and along with it intermarriage. Regular synagogue attendance seems to be on the wane. And so while on a Shabbat morning there are still plenty of Jews taking out the Torah at the same time, the demographic cross-section of those Jews is quite different. The Jewish people have changed; the 21st-century definition of Jewish peoplehood has changed. 

It had not occurred to me until recently that the idea of “Jewish peoplehoodis a modern construct (and indeed, “peoplehood” is a modern word, according to this Philologos column from 2004). I have heard the term “kelal Yisrael,” what Solomon Schechter used to refer to as “Catholic Israel,” throughout my life. The concept is something like this: As Jews, we are all interconnected with each other, and together we form a people (or perhaps a nation) who share not only a religious tradition but also a common set of values, ideals, and destiny. Though we have been dispersed from our original land and scattered all over the world for more than two millennia, we are united in history, language, and culture. 

The Babylonian Talmud, compiled in the Diaspora, in Baghdad-area yeshivot about 1500 years ago, hints at the idea of kelal Yisrael when it says (BT Shevuot 39a):

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh

All of Israel is responsible for one another. 
But the idea of the Jews as a unified nation with that word’s modern connotations seems to have emerged in the 19th century, a product of the Jewish Enlightenment and early Zionism.

Here’s the problem: I’m not sure if it’s still true (or, for that matter, if it was ever true). Consider this: today’s Jewish world contains religious groups that not only do not agree about matters of Jewish law and practice, but even on more fundamental issues of identity. That is, who is in the fold and who is out; who may count in a minyan and who may not; who has the right to make decisions regarding Jewish law or may speak to Jewish community issues, and who may not; whose conversions are valid and whose are not, and on and on.

However, there is a dangerous trap here, one that I am inclined to fall into myself. That trap is to portray Orthodoxy (in all its many non-monolithic shades and varieties) as guilty of not participating in kelal yisrael. We, the non-Orthodox, are sometimes put off by some of Orthodoxy’s characteristics, like the reluctance by some to participate in aspects modern life and society, or to cooperate with non-Orthodox institutions, a tendency to elevate the minutiae of  halakhah and minhagim, Jewish law and customs, over all other Jewish values, and perhaps most insultingly, a refusal to acknowledge that non-Orthodox movements are legitimate expressions of Judaism).

Despite this, I think that we can sound here a hopeful note. The Torah, in all its full glory of interpretation and re-interpretation throughout the ages, still belongs to all of us, that nobody holds the keys to absolute truth, and there are certainly things other than anti-Semitism that unite us as Jews.

Nestled in among our volumes of midrashic readings of Jewish life is an image that I find quite striking: the people of Israel as a vineyard. Not a neatly-pruned, efficiently-designed modern grape factory, but a wild, sprawling, creeping tangle of vines. There are young vines and old vines, big and small leaves, sweet and sour grapes, and we are all interconnected, and all growing from the same root stock.

One of Judaism’s greatest strengths, and perhaps the only reason that we have survived for two thousand years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, is that we are decentralized - a mess of vines with no center. The Romans, you might say, did us a kind of favor; they ended the Israelite sacrificial cult described in the Torah, and created a spiritual void among Jews that was eventually filled with Rabbinic Judaism. That is the Judaism that we all practice, the series of laws and customs elaborated upon by the rabbis who wrote the Talmud between the 1st and 6th centuries. Rabbinic Judaism, unlike the sacrificial system, is both portable and malleable.

It spoke to us in Baghdad in the 9th century and Barcelona in the 12th; Budapest in the 19th century and Brooklyn in the 20th. Wherever we have traveled, we have taken our Torah and Talmud with us, as our outlook and fortunes and relations with the non-Jews have morphed.

But even while crossing centuries and continents, we have remained connected to each other through shared stories and memories. Our tradition reinforces these memories, not only by means of Jewish law and customs, ritual and prayer and holidays, but also by remembering those who have come before us -- the ones we have known personally and the ones whose names have been lost to ages of wandering and persecution.

On this day of memory, we invoke those shared memories -- the tangle of vines that we all share.

And it is worth remembering, ladies and gentlemen, as this eight-day festival draws to a close, that the freedom that we celebrate on Pesah is what has enabled modern Judaism to flower into different streams. And although we might not all see eye-to-eye on many issues, there is a certain responsibility for maintaining this admittedly-modern idea of kelal Yisrael. Rabbi Herzfeld put aside his own feelings for the sake of kelal Yisrael in Maine; we should all follow his example.

We need to reach out both ways, and we here in the American Jewish middle, the Conservative movement, are uniquely poised to do so. The principles of Conservative Judaism include not only fealty to halakhic tradition, as in Orthodoxy, but also an open, egalitarian outlook, as in Reform.

So, with an eye to kelal Yisrael, perhaps we should consider the following ways of reaching out to others in our community, to the right and to the left of us, here on Old Mill Road and the rest of the peninsula. A few of you might know that the JCRC, the Jewish Communal Relations Council, has already begun an inter-movement discussion on our relationship with the State of Israel, in which a few members of our community are participating. Also, many of you came to hear the Rabbinic Dialogue on the Sunday before Pesah, but lately that has been the only cross-movement forum here in Great Neck.

Let’s have joint study sessions, where all members of our community learn Jewish text from one another and from our respective rabbis and get an opportunity to see how others approach Jewish learning.

Let’s bring our teenagers together for softball games.

Let’s express our communal support for neighbors and colleagues of different streams by welcoming them as guests, visiting them when they are ill, and making the best effort to attend shiv’ah minyanim, even when a non-egalitarian service might make us uncomfortable. 

Let's host a community-wide, respectful dialogue about what it will require to make sure that our grandchildren are Jewish, and Jewishly-committed, in a way that does not resort to mere finger-pointing and declarations that "our way is right." 

These are just a few ideas about how we might invest in kelal Yisrael.

It is well-known to all who know and appreciate wine that the oldest vines produce the finest grapes -- the most complex, tasty fruit. In some sense, we owe it to our ancestors, the ones who provided us with the sublime words of Jewish tradition that continue to inspire us today, to make sure that kelal Yisrael, that Jewish peoplehood continues to sustain us as we move forward. As we now recall the names of those who have left this world, we should remember that the future of our people should also reflect the values that they held dear.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Tuesday morning, 4/2/13.) 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pesah Salsa Cruda with Horseradish

I was desperate for something spicy and crunchy yesterday afternoon, on the second day of Pesah. So I improvised the following, and was pleasantly surprised with the results:

  • One tomato
  • Half of an onion (more or less, depending on the size and pungency of the onion; red onion would probably be best)
  • Half of a bell pepper
  • Several leaves of cilantro
  • 1/2 tablespoon of prepared horseradish (the kind that most of us use for maror on the Passover Seder plate)
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pepper to taste
Finely chop tomato, onion, pepper, and cilantro. Combine in a bowl; add horseradish, lime juice, salt and pepper. Mix well. Serve with pieces of whole wheat matzah. Recall the bitterness of slavery while savoring the taste of New World freedom.

חג שמח / Hag Sameah!

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Rest of Pesah: An Opportunity for Self-Improvement

The leftovers are in the fridge, the matzah is growing tiresome, and the haggadot have been put away for next year. So why do we need six more days of Pesah?

This holiday is something of an endurance test, and not just for your gastro-intestinal tract. Pesah is a challenge: eight days of limiting yourself to a hametz-free existence, and if you have family origins in Eastern Europe, it is even more limited than that. (We Ashkenazi vegetarians are particularly hard up during Pesah - without soy, mealtimes are particularly meager, although the recent availability of quinoa, which is acceptable for Pesah, has proven to be a real blessing.) This is about mind over matter, about conquering the stomach’s dominion over your life.

And there is no question that doing so every once in a while is good for you. Our 24/7 culture with its constant availability of all sorts of food, much of it unhealthy, rarely forces us to think twice about what we are putting into our bodies. But Pesah upends the food equation; for eight days of the year, I have to rethink my dietary choices, to refocus my relationship with food.

Although we spend the first two nights of Pesah recalling our journey from slavery to freedom, from the physical distress of Mitzrayim (Egypt) to the spiritual satisfaction of receiving the Torah and claiming God’s Promised Land, the remainder of the festival is about the discipline that freedom warrants. So before you hoist that matzah sandwich to your mouth, or test the edibility of that kosher-for-Passover “cookie,” try to remember that setting limits builds strength of character. And maybe some fresh fruits and vegetables would be better for you, anyway. Hag sameah!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, 3/28/13.)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Four Essential Jewish Questions of Our Time - Shabbat HaGadol, 5773

Every year around this time, Rabbi Stecker and I find ourselves working very hard to help others with their sedarim. Starting a month before Pesah, we teach seder skills and material in a wide variety of formats and before many different audiences: the Men’s Club, the Nitzanim Family Connection, the Religious School Bet class, the Shabbat afternoon se’udah shelisheet crowd, and so forth. 

Pesah is, as I am sure many of you know, the most-practiced ritual of the Jewish year among American Jews. About 4 out of 5 of us show up to a seder of some sort, and for some of those Jews, this will be the ONLY Jewish experience that they will have in 5773; far more people come to a seder than seek forgiveness in the traditional ways on Yom Kippur.  For those of us who are regulars, who are committed to Jewish life, this is an opportunity to engage, and I encourage everybody here to reach out as ambassadors of Jewish living.

Related to that, I think that now is the time to start asking the hard questions about American Judaism, and talk about them around the seder table. After all, the seder is meant to be not only a meal, but also a discussion. It is modeled after the Greek symposium, an ancient type of dinner party that featured food, wine, discussion, and entertainment, all of which was enjoyed while reclining. We have the haggadah to guide us through our Jewish symposium. But the haggadah is only a guideline, a kind of framework: you can fulfill your Pesah obligation of “Vehigadta levinkha bayom hahu,” (Shemot / Exodus 13:8) of telling the story to your children on that day by reading it from the haggadah, but you can also fulfill it if you leave the printed page. The very word, “haggadah,” is derived from the same shoresh / Hebrew root of the commandment “vehigadta” in that verse; haggadah means telling, and does not necessarily mean reciting from a book.

Telling the story of Pesah, of traveling from slavery to freedom, usually raises a few questions. Well, four at least. But in fulfilling the obligation of “vehigadta levinkha,” of telling your children, should we not connect our modern world with our ancient tales? Here are four more questions for discussion, questions that we should all be asking around the table on Monday and Tuesday night:

1. On this Festival of Freedom, how will we ensure that our own contemporary freedom does not lessen, or indeed sever our connection with Judaism?

2. Is it indeed possible for us to continue to be Jewish while enjoying full assimilation into American society? Or is the only recourse to preserve our Jewish identity, as the Haredi world seems to believe, to self-segregate, i.e. to “enslave” ourselves, to curtail our independence?

3. What kind of Jewish world do we want in the future?

4. What are the things that we can do to make sure that our grandchildren have strong Jewish identities, and healthy, modern and open synagogue communities where they can practice comfortably?

And, like the traditional Four Questions of the seder, these can be summed up in one question: “Where are you headed, Jewishly speaking?” The question is to be asked, as it is to the Four Sons, in a manner that is both national and personal.

Let me tell you why these are the essential questions of our time.

Five years ago, Dr. Arnold Eisen, then the newly-minted Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, spoke here at Temple Israel. Responding to the state of the Conservative movement, he said that the decline in our numbers was not insurmountable, but that if things did not turn around in 5-10 years, the then-future prospects were not so good. Well, it’s been five years, and (Temple Israel’s relative stability notwithstanding) I have not detected any real change in the slope of that decline.

Numbers in the Reform movement and in Modern Orthodoxy are not much better. The only segment within Judaism that is growing rapidly is, of course, the Haredim, the fervently Orthodox.

There is no question that we Jews have greater freedom here and now than we have ever had; we are fully integrated into American society. There are few remaining barriers to Jews: We are not excluded from the best universities, as some of us were in the first half of the 20th century; we are welcome at the most prestigious workplaces and social forums in the nation; we occupy a third of the United States Supreme Court; the idea of a Jewish president is not beyond the realm of possibility; and much of non-Jewish America is willing not only to date us but to marry us as well.

There are no surprises here; we have come a long way in a few generations. Many of you know that statistics (from, for example, the National Jewish Population Survey) have shown the intermarriage rate hovering at about 50% for more than two decades. Related numbers show that children in intermarried families, on the whole, grow up with a far lower connection to Judaism. There are, of course, Jews who have married non-Jews who succeed in raising strongly-identified Jewish children, and there are many non-Jewish parents who are committed to raising Jewish children -- bringing their kids to synagogue, Hebrew school, and so forth -- but they are the exception, not the rule. 

But really, the issue is not intermarriage, which is I think merely a symptom of the greater problem. It’s about American Judaism in general, and particularly non-Orthodox Judaism. It’s time to think critically, not just about numbers, but the strength of our community’s connection to Judaism.

We know that Orthodoxy, and in particular Haredi Orthodoxy, is booming. They are growing rapidly, with many children per family, strong communal interconnection, and of course a zeal for Judaism and Jewish life. You may have read NY Times columnist David Brooks’ piece on this recently, a fawning account of his visit to black-hat Brooklyn titled “The Orthodox Surge.”

Brooks reports an excursion to Pomegranate, the top-shelf kosher grocery store that he likens to the specialty-food supermarket giant Whole Foods. I will not dwell on the strengths of Brooks’ argument, or its weaknesses. But in response, Jordana Horn of the Forward wrote an opinion piece that should be mandatory reading at your seder table. Ms. Horn describes herself as a committed Conservative Jew, and resents Mr. Brooks’ implication that Orthodoxy holds the Jewish future.

After pointing out that it is possible to be dedicated to Judaism and not Orthodox, she makes the following observations:

I fear that when my children grow up, they will encounter a world in which they will have to choose to be Orthodox or secular, and that no other options will exist — that while Conservative and Reform Jews were busy building gorgeous edifices of synagogues, they will have neglected to build communities that ensure their survival. 

I long for someone to stand up in Conservative and Reform synagogues and say, “Hey — if we want our egalitarian models of Judaism to have a fighting chance in the future, we need to think out of the box.

“We need to put our money where our mouths are when it comes to ensuring a Jewish future. We need to make sure our young congregants are on JDate. We need to make sure to reach out to and include Jewish singles and young families as much as we do senior citizens.

“We need to have a financial plan for making Jewish nursery school the best possible option, and an accessible one, for Jewish parents. We need Jewish day care in our synagogues for working parents so that the synagogue is seen as an indispensable part of life. We need to have infant and child care in every single service and program we offer.”

Ms. Horn is right on. And she could have said far more. Not just Chabad, but many variants of Orthodoxy have a tremendously impressive suite of outreach offerings that are easy to enter; they bring them right to you. They go where the Jews are, and they invite people in. Ladies and gentlemen, we say on two nights of every year, in front of all of our friends and family, “Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul,” “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” But aren’t we just paying Aramaic lip service? Are we really working hard to bring people into our fold? 

And furthermore, are we working hard with the people who are already there at the seder table, young and old, intermarried and in-married, to give them the tools that they need to live authentically Jewish lives as mainstream Americans?

Many of you have heard me say this many times in this space that we in the Conservative movement are committed to Rabbi Mordecai Waxman’s slogan of “tradition and change.” You know that I am committed to the Judaism of the Torah and the Talmud, the faith which inspired our ancestors and sustained them through centuries of misery, poverty, persecution, and wandering across continents and oceans. You know that I hold steadfast to the principles that Moses Mendelssohn, as the first emancipated Jew, held dear in the middle of the 18th century when he successfully joined German society as a practicing Jew. You know that I reject the isolation that the Haredi world pursues, that I am committed to living as much as an American as a Jew, that I support the moderate approach to halakhah and interpreting our canonical texts through a lens that is at once traditional and modern and scholarly. You know that I, that we at Temple Israel, stand for open engagement with both the Torah and with science, with egalitarianism and modernity, with Israel and with America.

And yet I, like Jordana Horn, wonder if my daughter and her children and grandchildren will have to choose between the Jewish approach that is stuck in 18th-century Poland and the one that hangs bagel ornaments on Christmas trees.

So those are the four questions we should be asking our friends, our family, our children and grandchildren. Where are you going, Jewishly? 

And hey, maybe that’s OK with most of those 80% of American Jews who show up for a seder. Maybe they do not care if there is a middle ground to Judaism. But I’d like to think that they do, and that if we all reach out to them, just like Chabad is doing so successfully, maybe they would be happy to come around here once in awhile, and not just on a major holiday or a family simhah.

For extra credit, the followup question is this: If you do indeed want a middle path to Jewish life, what are you going to do to make sure it does not disappear? Are you going to marry a Jewish person, or insist on conversion for a non-Jewish partner, or at the very least, work to agree that said partner will commit to raising your children as Jews? Are you going to join a synagogue? Are you going to take your family on vacation to Israel, rather than Mexico? Are you going to make sure your children obtain a Jewish education? Are you going to challenge yourself to try on for size just one new mitzvah, one that is easy and meaningful to you, like lighting Shabbat candles or blessing your children on Friday night, or studying some Torah? Are you going to discuss with your children how important it is to you that your grandchildren know that they are Jewish and why?

After all, what is the use of freedom, and freedom to practice our religion, if there is only one variety to choose from, and that variety rejects the very freedom we enjoy, and the secular structures that make it possible?

From the second day of Pesah until Shavuot we count off seven weeks of Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the sheaves of grain that our ancestors were commanded by the Torah to do. Although today we bring no sheaves, we are understand this period as one of self-discipline, of kabbalistic meditation on the emanations of God, and as a period of preparation for receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai. It is a time of study, and as it seems likely that the theme for our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot will be an examination of the role and power of the qehillah qedoshah, the synagogue community, I urge you to begin to consider these themes as we launch into Pesah and beyond.

 Where are you going, Jewishly? Ask these questions around your seder table.  Shabbat shalom and hag sameah.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 3/23/2013.)