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.) 

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