Friday, August 9, 2013

The Change Must Go On (Summer Sermon Series #7) - Shofetim 5773

Today is the dramatic wrap-up (stupendous summation / sensational send-off) of the seven-part Summer Sermon Series, a definition of who we are at Temple Israel, and a vision of who we should be.

A few years back, Temple Israel’s Institute for Lifelong Learning celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Rabbi Mordecai Waxman’s seminal work, Tradition and Change. Among the featured speakers was his son, Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, who regaled the attendees with a litany of ways in which the world had changed since 1958, when his father’s book was first published.

The world has not merely changed in the last half-century. Rather, the world has been completely turned upside-down. Consider just one thing: the ubiquity of small computers for personal use has changed our lives in ways that are so profound that many of us cannot even imagine a world without them. Of course, most of us here remember a time without such devices, and of course we all managed just fine. But the way that we receive, store, and use information has changed who we are in fundamental ways.

And of course, the Jewish landscape has changed as well. Jews have many more options today for their Jewish involvement, including, of course, the option of opting out entirely. Torah learning is widely available through wonderful translations and new electronic tools, as I noted earlier this summer.

And when Tradition and Change was published, the Conservative movement accounted for half of American Jewry. Today, demographic studies suggest that about one-third of affiliated American Jews are members of Conservative synagogues. And the number of Conservative synagogues is going down as smaller congregations merge or close.

In Rabbi Waxman’s original introduction, he points out that critics of the Conservative movement in the middle of the 20th century charged it with failing to define itself. He saw his task in editing the book to defy those critics, and define Conservative Judaism. He indicated the following (among others) as essential features of our movement:

1. A commitment to Kelal Yisrael: Rabbi Waxman uses Rabbi Solomon Schechter’s term, “Catholic Israel,” the idea that all Jews are one people, united by common texts, rituals, and values, a common language and shared history.

2. Foundations in Positive-Historical Judaism: This is a concept that originated in the 19th-century German-Jewish sphere, that our approach to Judaism is at once aware of the historical changes within Jewish law, halakhah, and custom, minhag, and that we emphasize our connection with history as we look to the future.

3. Acceptance of modern thought: Our approach to Torah demands that we open our minds to the changing currents of science, philosophy, archaeology, Biblical criticism, and so forth, and not ignore them or obfuscate when they challenge accepted tradition.

4. Authority and interpretation: We are bound by Jewish legal tradition, and our reading of halakhah depends on the classical methods of interpretation that Jewish scholars have used for millennia in different lands. And yet we are able to make serious changes in halakhic practice based on our engagement with modern thought and values. We are, in body and in spirit, involved in modern life, and as such seek to marry our heritage with who we are, and where we are today.

I believe firmly in this formula. I could never have articulated this stuff before going to rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but looking back at the Conservative synagogue of my youth, my summers at Camp Ramah in New England, even my family’s Shabbat dinners, I can see how these ideas were essential to my formative years: how all of the members of my family read Torah, how my Hebrew school experience complemented my secular studies, how I knew that although driving a car to synagogue on Shabbat would violate several Shabbat principles, that nonetheless the Conservative movement had decided that it was more in the spirit of Shabbat to drive there than not to go to synagogue at all, etc.

No matter the numbers of the Conservative movement, we are still here. And we still stand for the principles of Tradition and Change - of the approach to halakhah / Jewish law, as halakhic decisors have guided it for centuries.  That is, rabbis have always issued halakhic decisions appropriate to the times and places in which Jews have lived. What was true for Rambam in the 12th century in Egypt was not necessarily true for Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Rema, in 16th-century Poland, and so forth.

Rabbi Waxman’s principles still apply today. And, of course, the Conservative movement has changed in the last half-century. In particular, in 1958, the extent of egalitarianism in American Judaism was mixed seating. I think we have also witnessed a change in Conservative clergy. The Rabbi Waxman model was rabbi-as-academic-scholar. Today’s Conservative rabbis and cantors are scholarly, yes, but are also expected to make personal connections and work harder at community-building initiatives, to focus on pastoral care and counseling congregants in new ways.

And, of course, the Conservative laity has changed dramatically. While the bulk of Jews in the Conservative pews in 1958 were immigrants and children of immigrants, people that knew the sound and feel of Central and Eastern European synagogues, today’s membership is in a different place. We are largely not naturalized Americans. We are Americans, no longer living in the shadow of the Holocaust, no longer plagued by the types of institutional anti-Semitism that kept our people down for centuries. The State of Israel is a given. Attendance at synagogue service is way down. Sermonic pyrotechnics and cantorial recitatives that moved congregations of the last century are rarely heard, let alone appreciated, by Jews under the age of 40.

And American society has changed dramatically as well. Formality is out; digital interconnectedness is in, even while our actual, physical interconnectedness (that which sociologist Robert Putnam calls “social capital”) is down. Personal choice is our highest ideal. Membership in organizations of all kinds, including religious institutions, is declining. Intermarriage of all kinds is in; homosexuality has moved into the mainstream.

And for all these reasons, the need for synagogues like Temple Israel of Great Neck is as prominent as ever. Ladies and gentlemen, Judaism needs the American middle. Let me tell you why:

The vast majority of American Jews (near 90%) are not Orthodox, and no matter how much money Orthodox organizations like Aish HaTorah and Chabad spend on outreach, most of us will never be Orthodox with respect to Jewish practice. Yes, there will be a few young people who grew up in non-Orthodox homes whom they will succeed in bringing into the Orthodox fold. so-called “ba’alei teshuvah.” But most American Jews are very well educated, and will be unwilling to buy into a set of beliefs that refuses to admit to the human hand in the Torah, that demands commitment to the tiniest stringencies, some of which only emerged just last week, that tends to isolation from our non-Jewish neighbors and co-workers, that in some cases even rejects the State of Israel and Zionism. We do not live in a shtetl, and most of us are not moving back there; we are integrated into American society, proud of our heritage, and dedicated to maintaining our Jewish connection without isolating ourselves.

And yet, most Jews want some kind of Jewish experience, and many of those, when they come for their Judaism fix, they want it to be traditional, and yet open to contemporary thought and sensibility.

Consider the recent Conservative publication, The Observant Life. Meant as a successor to the classic halakhic work by Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (1979), The Observant Life contains all you need to know not only to practice the ritual aspects of Judaism (kashrut, Shabbat and holidays, daily tefillah / prayer, mourning practices and so forth), but also includes chapters on such non-ritual topics as business ethics, civic morality, sexuality, intellectual property, caring for the needy, and so forth. As such, this book is an invaluable addition to the contemporary Jewish bookshelf, providing useful, readable answers firmly based in Jewish sources, from a moderate, open perspective. You should own this book (and btw, I get no commission; and also Rabbi Stecker and I will be leading a seminar for adults on this book in the coming year, so watch for it.)

American Judaism needs the middle. And that means that we in the middle are going to have to work harder to maintain ourselves. We need to take a longer, harder look at the “Change” part of Rabbi Waxman’s slogan, and consider ways to make the middle more viable. What makes us Conservative Jews is that we accept change conservatively, and even Rabbi Waxman conceded that by 1958, there had been few really drastic changes effected by the Conservative movement. But the world around us continues to change. To that end, I am going to suggest two important areas that we need to address, in the spirit of Tradition and Change.

1. Ladies and gentlemen, the social fabric of America has been permanently altered. The very definition of what it means to be a family has changed, and Judaism needs an authentic Jewish response to single-parent families, to families with two spouses of the same gender, to intermarriage.

Some of you may have heard that Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, one of the most prominent Conservative synagogues in America, recently announced that he and the other clergy will perform gay marriages. He was taken by surprise at the very serious backlash to this announcement. But in his recent three-part sermon series on Conservative Judaism’s take on God, Torah, and Israel, he noted that Jews are meant to bring light into this world, and that we cannot do this if we do not engage with it.

Now, we may not be ready yet to have that particular conversation here. After all, this ain’t California. But we cannot close our eyes to the changing realities of the modern Jewish family.

2. Ladies and gentlemen, the powers that be in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism decided a few months ago to cut funding to Koach, the on-campus arm of the movement. This move virtually guarantees that the only people reaching out to our college students will be various types of Orthodox organizations. There are many of these, trying to bring us into their fold; they dismiss our approach to Judaism, and believe very strongly and teach that we are illegitimate.

At the same time, in the current issue of The Jewish Week, there is a profile of the newly-named President of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Aaron Panken. What’s he talking about? The congregation that wants their rabbi outside the building - finding the Jews at Starbucks, meeting them at the gym, bumping into them at the bookstore. He hopes to make “creative outreach,” including the use of various new technologies, a key component of Reform rabbinic training.

And you know what? Kol hakavod to all of them, to putting their resources into attracting young people. Why aren’t WE doing that as a movement?


Today in Parashat Shofetim, we read about the commandment to the (at this point theoretical) Israelite king that he must keep a copy of the Torah next to his throne. Nobody is above the words of the Torah, the words of God. But a flesh-and-blood king deals with real problems; he must be engaged with society in real time. The Torah is not to keep him in the past, but rather to help him confront the present.

One more thing that Rabbi Wolpe mentioned: when Rambam was asked why he rejected astrology, when the rabbis of the Talmud clearly believed in it, he answered by saying that our eyes are in front of us, so that we look to the future, and not to the past.

We will continue in the spirit of Tradition and Change, and change we must if we are continue to provide a home for the much-needed Jewish middle ground.

A final note: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is celebrating its 100th year, October 13-15 in Baltimore. Rabbi Stecker and I will be there, and Rabbi Waxman will be there in spirit. Join us.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/10/2013.) 

This is the seventh and final installment in the Summer Sermon Series, an exploration of the most essential values of Temple Israel of Great Neck. The previous six installments were:

5. Israel 
6. Tiqqun Olam (repairing the world)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Surprising Thank-You

I was in Israel briefly last week, and a curious thing happened at Ben Gurion International Airport. I had a couple of slices of greasy pizza at the kosher Pizza Hut in the departures hall, and then took my refuse to a nearby garbage can. After I deposited and started back to collect my bag, I heard an electronic voice say, “Thank you!” I whirled around to see something that I had not noticed earlier: a light near the top of the can suggesting that this was no ordinary receptacle.

Then something occurred to me. Why, in the Jewish state, where the primary language is Hebrew, did this garbage can not say, “Todah rabbah,” or at the very least, “Todah”? Why, in the place where Eliezer Ben-Yehuda almost single-handedly brought an ancient, scholarly language back to life, to be spoken by poets and professors, custodians and car salesmen, did the programmers of this very friendly public-service device choose to have it speak English? Why could it not deliver its acknowledgment of responsibility in the language of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and Prophets? What would Eliezer think?

Certainly, one might make the argument that areas of an international airport are frequented by many who do not speak the local language, and so an English “thank you” would be more easily understood by a greater range of people. The choice was simply practical, and we Jews are fundamentally practical people.

But one might argue that this is indeed a lost opportunity for what people in my line of work often refer to as a “teachable moment.” If you travel to a country where the spoken language is not your mother tongue, and you fail to learn how to say “thank you,” then shame on you! Even in the departure hall at the airport it’s not too late to acquire a taste of a beautiful, ancient tongue. Do you suppose the French would tolerate an English-speaking garbage can?

Sure, it’s just a talking garbage can, and who cares? But there is a lesson here about the bittersweet reality of contemporary Israel. Thank God, Israel is no longer isolated, a few kibbutzim and archaeological sites cut off from the rest of the world by hostile neighbors. Israel now has a thoroughly global economy and thriving tourism. Although English and Arabic are both official languages of Israel, Hebrew is spoken by everybody (on my flight, I had the pleasure of translating English-language announcements into Hebrew for the Russian-born Israeli couple sitting next to me). But there is not the pressure today to speak only Hebrew as there was in the past; on the contrary, learning English is considered a primary educational goal for younger Israelis, and one sees ads for English language instruction all over Israel. Perhaps the garbage can is as much about teaching Israelis English as rewarding tourists for good behavior.

Ivri, dabber Ivrit” (“Jew, speak Hebrew”) was the Hebraist slogan of the early 20th century. Today, the miracle of Hebrew’s rebirth as a modern language complete, the fact that Israeli society can go along with international language trends speaks, in some sense, to the strength of Hebrew culture today. But I cannot help but wonder if the Jewish people have lost something greater - the pride in our holy tongue that has accompanied the building of the Jewish state.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, Aug. 2, 2013.)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Making Tiqqun Olam a Part of the Conversation (Summer Sermon Series #6) - Re'eh 5773

The Torah teaches us in many places that we are individually and collectively responsible for working toward improving the condition of our world. This concept can be found among the mitzvot / commandments that are identified in Parashat Re’eh, which we read this morning (Deut. 15:4):
אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה-בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן:  כִּי-בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ, יְהוָה, בָּאָרֶץ
There shall be no needy among you, since the Lord your God will bless you in the land...
This promise of plentitude applies only if, as is stated in the following verse (15:5),

רַק אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם.
If only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.
Sounds great, right? Except for the fact that God assumes that we will not follow orders, and hence there will always be needy people among us. And furthermore, the Torah requires us to take care of them (15:7-8):

לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת-יָדְךָ, מֵאָחִיךָ, הָאֶבְיוֹן.  כִּי-פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ, לוֹ; וְהַעֲבֵט, תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ, דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ.
Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must surely open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.
Not only will there always be people in need, but we are eternally obligated to take care of them, to help them get back on their feet when they are down. Many of us refer to these verses and others like them as referring to tiqqun olam, repairing the world. The Torah teaches us here and elsewhere that the world will always need repair, and we are obligated at least to try to fix it.

A few years back, Temple Israel had a tiqqun olam consult with one of my colleagues, Rabbi Jill Jacobs. Rabbi Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, an organization of clergy from across the North American Jewish spectrum that works for protecting human rights. Rabbi Jacobs spoke with us about our ongoing involvement in social action programs. During the course of our discussion, she highlighted a message that has continued to resonate with me - that we should raise the volume of discussion about social action, that tiqqun olam should be considered as an essential plank in the building of community.

Which brings me back to what I am sure you will recognize as one of my favorite topics: community. The whole point of this Summer Sermon Series is to identify the essential values of our community. And as far as I am concerned, the true value of community is exhibited in what we do for one another, in how we take care of each other.

Why do we gather to pray, ladies and gentlemen? Is it merely to fulfill the rabbinically-ordained mitzvah of daily prayer, to discharge our otherwise-meaningless obligations to God? I hope not, although there is a segment of the Jewish world that things so. Is it to improve ourselves through the meditative process of self-consideration? Maybe. Is it to ensure that we rub elbows with the other members of our community from time to time? Perhaps.

More likely, it is to open us up, to sensitize us to the world around us. Jewish custom dictates that a synagogue must have windows, so that we do not get so wrapped up in spiritual expression that we lose sight of the outside world, that we forget that our relationship with God includes the other, the less fortunate, the members of our wider community that are not here with us.

In short, prayer is a call to action. It is to inspire us to feel God’s presence, to inspire us to go out and repair the world. A good tefillah experience will take you outside yourself, will help you see the things that need repair.

And all the more so, that is the whole point of being a community. Temple Israel is not a country club, where you pay dues to gain entry. On the contrary, Jews have formed communal organizations wherever they have lived throughout history so that they could take care of each other. Our people has an excellent track record of communal responsibility; a quick glance at the list of all the various Jewish organizations, the “alephbet soup” of Jewish institutions. I think that we are the only ethnic group that has an umbrella organization of organization leaders: the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, of which our illustrious congregant Jack Stein, alav hashalom, was once the Chairman.

Often, we Jews look inward, and take care of our own. And sometimes we look outward: As the great sage Hillel said in Pirqei Avot (1:14):

אם אין אני לי, מי לי;
וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני;
ואם לא עכשיו, אימתיי.
Im ein ani li mi li?
Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi mah ani?
Ve’im lo akhshav, eimatai?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
These three deceptively simple questions speak to the depth of our obligation to look both inward and outward -- the task of tiqqun olam must be done now, and we must spend as much time repairing ourselves as repairing the rest of the world.

I think that if Hillel were to reappear in the 21st century, two millennia after his time on this Earth, he would be shocked at the way we live today. We have unprecedented personal wealth; even America’s working poor might seem quite well off compared to ancient rabbis living in the Middle Eastern agrarian society of the first few centuries of the common era, the period in which the Talmud emerged. We have technology that enables us to eat the same foods year-round, regardless of climate or location; we can travel great distances very quickly; we can communicate immediately with people all over the world. Our economics and technology have enabled to live far more independently than all of the generations that have preceded us. And this is, in many ways, contrary to the way that the rabbis envisioned Judaism.

Today, you do not need to be a part of any community. If you can work and earn enough money to pay your bills, you can live entirely independently. You can move to a place where nobody knows you and be completely anonymous.

But that is not the Jewish way. Jews have always depended on each other. And I am a fierce advocate for the case that Jews need Judaism, and they need their community -- if not for the material support, then at least for the spiritual nourishment. Because if there is one thing that we are sorely lacking in today’s world of great independence, it is guidance for the soul.

When we repair the world, ladies and gentlemen, we find within ourselves the Divine sparks that nourish our souls.

To return to Rabbi Jill Jacobs for a moment, how do we raise our consciousness about tiqqun olam? How do we move forward with our commitment to social action? Her concern, and it is a valid one, is that what happens in many communities is that a few dedicated volunteers take on the responsibility for all of the social action activities of the congregation. And soon enough, these folks get tired and burnt out and resentful that they are doing all the work. And so the goal should be not necessarily to do more, but (and this seems counter-intuitive) rather to talk more about tiqqun olam, to make social action a part of the regular discourse of the community.

But how do we do that? Sure, Rabbi Stecker and I can dedicate a certain fraction of every sermon to tiqqun olam, and benei mitzvah can talk about their “mitzvah project” every week, and so forth. But I do not think that’s enough.

Maybe we need to bring more speakers from different charitable organizations to talk about what they are doing in the world. Maybe we need to host panel discussions about big issues, like hunger or the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa or urban decay. Maybe we need to arrange a congregational mission to Cuba or Uganda or Detroit. Maybe we can dedicate next year’s Tiqqun Leil Shavuot to tiqqun olam.

Or maybe we can connect this with the subject of the third installment in the Summer Sermon Series: Torah. The key, it seems, is learning. The more we learn from our traditional sources (Torah, Talmud, commentaries, halakhic codes and so forth) about our obligations regarding others, the greater chance that we have of increasing our own levels of engagement with tiqqun olam, and the more likely that we will work more effectively as a community to repair the world.

This I know from personal experience: learning leads to action.

I was recently asked about God’s role in today’s world. Does God actively bring about the good and bad things that happen to us? Does God actually (as we state in the second paragraph of the Shema, which we read last week in Parashat Eqev) bring the rains when we follow the mitzvot, and shut off the heavenly water spout when we do not?

Anybody who has ever heard me talk about God knows that I cannot accept this sort of simply-constructed theology at face value. And neither can at least some of the rabbis of the Talmud, given their own observations of who is rewarded and who is punished (Berakhot 7a). Furthermore, I have no satisfying answers to the ancient question of why bad things happen to good people, but of course I am in good company with regard to that.

But one thing of which I am sure is as follows: that our God is fundamentally good, and that the proof of this is that God has given us the capability to do good for others. When we read in Bereshit / Genesis that God created us in the Divine image, we can understand this as meaning that God gave us a share in Divine goodness. It is through performing acts of hesed, lovingkindness, that we raise those sparks of Divine holiness, that we illuminate the faces of our friends, family, neighbors, and even complete strangers with the light of God’s own face.

Our very conception of what it means to be a sacred community must therefore include the idea of responsibility for each other, the obligation to, as the Torah puts it, open our hands. Let’s keep mining our holy books for the imperative to raise ourselves up through helping others in need; learning leads to action.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/3/2013.) 

This is the sixth in the Summer Sermon Series, a seven-part exploration of the most essential values of Temple Israel of Great Neck. The previous five installments were:

5. Israel