Friday, June 28, 2013

Summer Sermon Series #1: Leading With Our Narrative - Pinehas 5773

I rarely have time for television, and in fact there have been times in recent years when I have questioned whether paying for cable is indeed a fiscally-sound choice.

However, two years ago Judy and I acquired a guilty pleasure: Mad Men, the series about a 1960s-era Madison Avenue advertising agency. It is an extraordinarily well-crafted show, and we take great pleasure in watching the characters and storylines unfold from week to week. Mad Men has just concluded its sixth season, and just a few episodes ago we realized that the series creators planted information in early episodes that fed into the later ones. I really do not have time for this, but it makes me want to go back and review those early episodes to put the entire puzzle together (fortunately, I have them on DVR.)

Mad Men Season 6

That is the power of narrative. It connects us; it draws us in.

Usually, I give a sermon once a month or so. This is the first time that I will be doing it for seven straight Shabbatot. I have been inspired by Mad Men to plot out these seven sermons very carefully so that they all fit together in a natural progression. What we will have, after this seven-part series is complete, is a blueprint for a vision of what Temple Israel is: who we are as a community, what we stand for, what we believe. So the topics that we will be discussing today and the next six Shabbatot are as follows:

1. Leading with our narrative (Pinehas)
2. Welcoming Others (Mattot - Mas'ei)
3. Learning / Torah (Devarim)
4. Egalitarianism (Va-ethannan)
5. Israel (Eqev)
6. Repairing the World (Re’eh)
7. Tradition and Change (Shofetim)

Why do this at all? Why not merely discuss the weekly parashah?

Having been here in Great Neck for six years, some things have come into focus. We now have a professional staff in place that is solid, works well together, and is supremely capable of making things happen. That is very good news for this community, because when the professionals work well together, we are able to build. And our ultimate goal is to continue to build – to build a congregation of shared Jewish values, of close-knit social involvement, of personal connections forged in the context of qehillah qedoshah, a holy community.

And of course, building means attracting others to join our qehillah. To do so, we need to be the kind of community that people want to join. And that's not such an easy sell nowadays.  Most Jewish involvement today can be characterized as “episodic.” That is, people show up from lifecycle event to lifecycle event, or perhaps from holiday to holiday. For the vast majority of us, the days of regular attendance at synagogue events, that is, services or dinners or volunteer activities or events, when many American Jews saw the synagogue as the center of their social lives, are largely gone. And that makes the task of attracting others even harder. After all, how can you justify spending thousands of dollars on synagogue dues when you will rarely take advantage of what the synagogue offers?

As a rabbi, my primary goal is to teach Torah, in the widest sense of that word, as I discussed in this space two weeks ago. We as a congregation can spread more Torah if we have more people tuned in to what we offer. And the way to reach more people is as follows:

  1. We must have a clear sense of who we are and what we stand for. Now, of course we do not agree on everything. But there are some basic principles here that differentiate us from other congregations, and those are the items upon which we must focus.
  2. We have to invite people in. If nobody new comes in, and we do not reach out to new people, Temple Israel will not continue long into the future. I will be speaking more extensively about that next week.
  3. We have to tell our story more effectively - that is, who we are, what we stand for, and why being a part of this community is worth your time and your financial investment. Telling our story will strengthen our core and draw others in.

And that is today’s theme: We must lead with the narrative of who we are.

So who are we?

The sign out front on Old Mill Road defines us as a “Conservative, Egalitarian Synagogue.” That's a good start; we are committed to the principles of Conservative Judaism, including an open approach to Judaism that incorporates contemporary scholarship when studying Jewish text, a sense that Judaism has always been open to change and outside influence, that halakhic observance is important, but not necessarily the only or even the highest aspiration of Jewish life, that men and women are considered equal under Jewish law and tradition, and that change within Judaism comes about conservatively, that is, through careful consideration of the relevant sources and customs (hence the name of our movement). But that is not enough.

Our congregational narrative, that is, story of Temple Israel’s past, present, and future, includes not only those things, but also the following:

א. That Rabbi Mordecai Waxman served as the Senior Rabbi here for 55 years, and during that time not only wrote the book whose title became the unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement in the latter half of the 20th century (i.e. “Tradition and Change”), but also became a pioneer in egalitarianism by calling his own wife, Ruth Waxman, to the Torah in 1976, far earlier than most Conservative synagogues. As such, this congregation has been something of a standard-bearer for the movement and for egalitarianism for half a century.

ב. That the growth of this congregation, one of the largest Conservative congregations in the New York area, came after World War II, when many Ashkenazi Jews were leaving urban enclaves for leafier suburbs, and that the last quarter of the 20th century brought an influx of Jews who had left Iran in the wake of the revolution there. This synagogue, therefore, is unusual in the Conservative movement because of its rich ethnic diversity, and this is a strength upon which we continually draw.

ג. That Rabbi Stecker, Cantor Frieder, Rabbi Roth, Danny Mishkin, Leon Silverberg, Rachel Mathless and I, and a complement of lay volunteers are working very hard to maintain our level of quality in programming, educational offerings, and ritual services. Furthermore, we, in partnership with the laity, are committed to developing a vision of the Temple Israel of the future, a vision that will incorporate all of the items that I will be discussing over the next six Shabbatot.

ד. That although Temple Israel of Great Neck is one of the oldest congregations on this peninsula, the landscape has changed. We are now one of 20 or so synagogues, most of which are Orthodox. Just as we embrace diversity within our immediate community, we seek to maintain diversity and cooperation without.  It is of vital importance for TIGN to survive as the sole Conservative congregation and thrive on the peninsula for the sake of Kelal Yisrael, the idea that all Jews are interconnected as a nation. But it is also essential that we look outward as well. I mentioned two weeks ago that I hope that in the near future we will look for opportunities to reach outside these walls, particularly through learning Torah together with our neighbors.


This communal narrative must be told and retold. The way that we build connections between people is by having them share their stories: our individual, personal stories and collective stories. Our congregation is not just a place to come to services or to get “bar mitzvahed”. It is a strong, vital community of more than 900 families, each with their own stories, and each a part of our communal narrative. Narrative, storytelling, builds connections, and builds community.

Parashat Pinehas is the parashah that we read from most frequently throughout the year. It contains instructions to the kohanim / priests for the sacrifices that were performed in the Temple in Jerusalem for every holiday. Today, we continue to read this passage about how to perform rituals that have not been performed for 1,943 years, as of the 17th of Tammuz, this past Tuesday. That is the day that the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) identifies as the date when the daily Tamid offering ceased, when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Since then (more or less), we have given the words of our mouths and hearts as offerings to God in place of animal sacrifice; I think that this is a much better path to holiness and communication with God.

But here’s the important part: the rabbis could have decided, in the wake of the Temple’s destruction, that reading the parts of the Torah related to sacrifice, such as this one, was no longer relevant to us and thus could be omitted. Instead, they insisted not only that we read them, but that we read the entire Torah every year. Instead of casting them aside, we incorporated the story of the sacrifices and the destruction of the Temple into our national story in many other ways as well: we mention it at various points of our tefillot; we invoke it at various holy moments, such as when we add salt to our hallah at Shabbat meals, or when we break a glass at the conclusion of a wedding; and of course it is the theme of the Three Weeks that stretch from last Tuesday until Tish’ah Be’Av, the Ninth Day of Av, this year on July 16.

The Torah is the essence of the Jewish narrative; as Jews, we lead with that narrative, and it has been a rallying point for millennia. It has kept us Jewish, and enabled us to thrive through centuries of oppression and wandering.

Our communal story here at Temple Israel, as we have begun to discuss this week, is the focal point that makes us strong as a community, that keeps us coming back to the synagogue, and that attracts new members. We need to tell it and retell it, just like the Torah.

Next week, we’ll talk about inviting people in. Shabbat shalom!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Get on the Torah Train!

When I first entered cantorial school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, ostensibly there to learn how to lead services properly and chant our traditional nusah and melodies, I was struck by something odd: the use of a very familiar Hebrew word that I had never heard used in that way before. Rabbinical students were using this word all the time, and at first I found it puzzling and disorienting.

The word was “Torah.” Not, “The Torah,” i.e. the Five Books of Moses, the scrolls that live in the aron ha-qodesh, the “closet of holiness.” Not the ancient book that I had read from on many Shabbat mornings at my home synagogue in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, but just “Torah.” Torah in its wider sense, which is difficult to translate into English. But it’s a meaning that we should all get to know.

The word “Torah” means “instruction,” and it is related to the Hebrew root meaning “to teach,” lehorot, from  which we also derive the words “moreh / morah,” meaning “teacher.” Torah used in this sense means, “learning from the full complement of Jewish textual sources.” Not just The Torah, but the entire Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), the Talmud, midrashim, halakhic literature, medieval poetry and letters, tefillah / the words of the siddur, and in its broadest sense, even Jewish music and art. The entire historical and cultural discourse of Jewish life might very well be included in “Torah.”

And the rabbis of the Talmud, the ones whose discussions and arguments shaped the Judaism that we practice today, saw the study of Torah for its own sake, in Hebrew, Torah lishmah, as the highest ideal in Jewish life. You might also call this activity, “recreational Torah study”:
רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה, וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְּדַאי הוּא לוֹ
Rabbi Meir taught: Whoever studies Torah for its own sake merits many things; moreover, it was worth creating the world for his sake alone. (Mishnah Avot 6:1)
The rabbis saw the learning of Torah for its own sake, solely for the pleasure of learning, as the highest ideal. Elsewhere in the Mishnah, the mitzvah of learning Torah is described as outweighing all the other mitzvot combined (Pe’ah 1:1).

So why had I not encountered the idea of Torah lishmah? Prior to entering cantorial school, I was under the impression that knew I quite a bit about Judaism: I had a decent familiarity with many of the stories in The Torah; I could read Hebrew fairly well and lead parts of many services; I could chant several different trope systems (Torah, Haftarah, Eikhah, Esther); I had grown up in a kosher home (well, OK, so we became kosher when I was ten years old); I had a solid grounding in Shabbat and holiday observances, even if we did stop off at the video store on the way home from Shabbat services; and so forth. How did I miss the greatest mitzvah in the crown of Jewish life?

So here’s the truth about Judaism’s highest ideal: it seems that for much of our history, it was relegated to a few elite scholars: those who were extraordinarily adept at studying obscure texts in ancient languages, and recalling from memory extensive tracts of interpretation and argument.

But toward the end of the 11th century CE, there was a paradigm shift.  Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaqi, whom we usually call Rashi wrote a commentary on The Torah and much of the Talmud that made it possible for many more people to learn Torah. Suddenly these students, still cloistered in the Jewish Ivory Tower, had an easy way to cross-reference midrashim and Talmudic passages. This revolutionized the learning of Torah.

And it was not until the end of the 15th century, when the first Jewish books were printed with the new printing press, that acquiring books to learn from was even possible, unless you had a wealthy supporter. Prior to that, most people could not afford to spend time learning; it was simply too expensive. That is one reason that learning has always been respected in Jewish life; historically, we have acknowledged that those who live a life of poverty in order to study Torah are making a particularly holy choice. It is an important statement about Judaism that a rabbi is not a priest; he or she is a scholar.

Still, for subsequent centuries, only a handful of these Jewish scholars were studying Torah, because you still had to learn to read and speak Hebrew and Aramaic, a ridiculously high bar for virtually all of our ancestors.

These are the historical reasons why most Jews, outside of that small circle of elite scholars, have not dedicated themselves to Torah lishmah. But things are vastly different today. We are living in an age of the great democratization of Torah. Within the last few decades, most of those ancient, obscure texts have been reprinted with new, modern translations and accessible commentaries. There are electronic resources that make everything available on your smartphone or tablet. There is a new user-edited website out there called which is busy building a collection of Hebrew and English texts, and will produce for you an study sheet of textual sources that you can select and personalize. Before all of these innovations, if you wanted to learn Torah, you had to plow through multiple heavy tomes in order even to find what you were looking for, and translations were hard to come by. Now it’s all a few clicks away.

Danny Mishkin, the Director of the Youth House and Teen Engagement, and I attended a conference two weeks ago hosted by the Jewish Education Project called, “Whose Torah is it Anyway?” One of the speakers at this conference, Rabbi Irwin Kula, pointed out that there are more people learning Torah than in any time in our history. And that’s not just because Haredim tend to have big families. More regular, modern Jews are studying Torah than ever before.

So while historically, the way that most Jews could connect to Judaism was by participating in the physical mitzvot - lighting candles, synagogue services, holiday meals, and so forth - today we can all easily participate in Mitzvah Number One: Talmud Torah, studying our holy texts.

But that is only part of the story. We are also seeing, particularly in Israel, a resurgence in interest in the texts that have given Jews inspiration for centuries, not only among very fervent Jews, but among the ranks of the secular! Somewhere near half of Israel’s population is not traditionally observant - they do not keep kashrut; they never go to a synagogue; if they celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah, it is likely just a party.

And yet, there are now springing up all over Israel, get this, secular yeshivot. Non-religious Israeli Jews are engaging in Torah lishmah for the values that it teaches, for the intellectual exercise of breaking your teeth on a tough Talmudic sugya (passage), and for the sheer nationalistic joy in learning something that our people have studied for centuries, even if it was only the sages secluded in the beit midrash, the classic Jewish study hall. In the current issue of The Jewish Week, there is an opinion piece about one initiative in Israel that is attempting to bridge the gap between religious and secular Israelis. It is for men and women who have recently finished their army service, and what do they do? They come together to study Torah. (This is, by the way, something that I would like to do in Great Neck.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we are seeing a paradigm shift, a Rashi-sized change in what it means to be Jewish. The Information Age has reached the Jewish sphere, and Torah is becoming universally accessible. As you can imagine, I am very excited about this; access to Torah is good for the Jews.

And yet, this comes in the context of decreasing involvement in Jewish life in America. Among non-Orthodox Jews, synagogue affiliation is down. Ritual practice is down. A bar mitzvah may be celebrated with a rabbi-for-hire without the need for congregational involvement or any educational requirements for the child. Commitment of any kind is down.

But it seems that learning Torah is ascendant; consider the Limmud programs hosted now in several cities that draw thousands of participants for Torah lishmah. What with all of the new tools, the bar is lower than ever for entry. And so I would like to propose the following: we need to embrace Torah lishmah. We need to make a positive statement about who we are as Jews - for the sake of our children, for the Jewish future, and for the sake of Torah - by reaching for that low-hanging, ancient fruit.

We learn in the Talmud (Qiddushin 40b) that study is greater than action, because while action is important, study leads to action. Ladies and gentlemen, we need to study more.

And here are three reasons why:

1. Learning Torah for its own sake teaches us about ourselves and the world. Not only do we draw valuable lessons about life, relationships, parenting, personal priorities and so forth from our ancient texts, but also the implicit lessons - about interacting with your study partner or your teacher, about the value of knowledge and the message it sends to our family and friends.

2. Learning Torah is an intellectual challenge that sharpens your mind. All the research shows that the best way to avoid diseases like Alzheimer’s is to keep your brain active and supple. Studying Jewish text for recreation is a great way to do that.

3. Learning Torah is fun! OK, so it’s not exactly like a day at the beach. But there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from puzzling through our holy books, and connecting it to our own lives. And, if you are studying with a friend or a group, there is a social benefit as well.

Another speaker of note that Danny and I heard at this conference was the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, whose latest book, Present Shock, is about how digital media have created a world of the eternal present. No past, no future, just, “What’s happening right now?” as Facebook eternally asks. Rushkoff suggested that Torah can be a part of what’s happening now, and would be all the more value because it comes with history and authenticity. 

In a previous book, however, the boldly-titled Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, Rushkoff suggests that Judaism might be featured more prominently in the lives of ordinary Jews if we rise to the challenge of widely-available, open Torah study for all. He laments the fact that over the centuries, Jews “lost direct access to the Torah and grew increasingly disconnected from the spirit of inquiry,” and that Torah learning was relegated to a few bits of Jewish education in the sermons of well-meaning rabbis. Rushkoff goes on to suggest that, “In order to fuel a renaissance in participatory Judaism, we will need to reverse this trend and reinvent a beit midrash for our age.”

The Beit Midrash at the Conservative Yeshivah, Jerusalem

Ladies and gentlemen, we can create that beit midrash, here at Temple Israel, online, in your own home. I hope that this will be the next wave of Jewish engagement, that of learning, thinking, discussing, sharing. It’s what’s already happening now. Let’s embrace it. Find some Torah and jump in.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, June 15, 2013.)