Friday, December 27, 2013

Faith, Doubt, and Circumcision - Va-era 5774

Does God hear our prayer? All the time? Sometimes? Never? Not sure?

I was recently part of a discussion here at Temple Israel about tefillah, during which I remarked that I am not certain that God hears all prayer. Maybe God is listening sometimes, I said, but most of the time I am not convinced.

I professed what some might describe as doubt, although I would call it honest faith. And based on what we read today in Parashat Va-era, doubt is not necessarily an impediment to having a good, solid relationship with God. Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher Moses, clearly expressed his own doubts regarding God’s instructions. And he came out looking pretty good, right?

One of the attendees confided in me afterwards that he was uncomfortable with his rabbi expressing doubt. However, he said, I redeemed myself later by offering good reasons to participate in tefillah. (I will discuss those reasons this afternoon at Se’udah Shelisheet. If the herring in cream sauce is not enough of an incentive to come to Minhah, then maybe a discussion of how to get more out of services is! 3:55 PM.)

I offered the following in response: we all have doubts. Even rabbis. But the way to approach faith is not by eliminating all doubt (which is impossible), but to acknowledge it.

Now there is certainly a school of thought out there which believes that the rabbi is somehow different, that the rabbi must believe all that Jewish tradition teaches us about God with perfect faith. I disagree, and furthermore I might add that this is a ridiculous proposition, because “Jewish tradition” conflicts with itself! Maimonides, for example, strongly rejected the idea that God has any kind of physical form, or human-like body parts. But we all know that the Torah and many rabbinic texts reference God’s arm, or God’s face, or God’s hair. So which is “true”? And which do we believe? And, by the way, does God hear prayer without ears?

Doubt is a universally-human trait, and anybody who claims to be 100% certain about any spiritual matter is exaggerating. It would be deeply disengenuous of me to stand before you and say that I agree with everything in our tradition, that I accept every word of the Torah as the absolutely true word of God received by Moshe on Mt. Sinai, that I approach God and Judaism unquestioningly. And I sincerely doubt that God gave us intellect and reason specifically so that we could ignore that gift in matters of faith.  

To achieve honest faith, we must acknowledge our doubts. And as American Jews living in skeptical times, when religion holds far less sway than in past decades, we must openly embrace these doubts and those that have them, so that we can keep the door open for those who might otherwise leave. We here at Temple Israel, and the Conservative movement in general, maintain an intellectual openness that is essential today.

It seems that not a single sermon goes by now that I do not mention the Pew Research Center’s recent study on American Jews, which found that about a quarter of us, 22%, think of ourselves as “Jews of no religion.” For many of these Jews, surely doubt is an issue, although 45% claim some belief in God. But the greater issue in my mind is indifference. I am certainly no expert on this subject, but my suspicion is that many of those who identify themselves as “Jews of no religion” are not necessarily rejecting Judaism, but rather indifferent to it because they have never found any reason to think of it as valuable to them. Or they reject “organized religion.” Or they have never found a faith community that suits their needs, that welcomed them.  Or they were turned off by our “pay-to-pray” model. Or, as was the case with my wife Judy, they are interested in their Jewish heritage but do not know where or how to start learning. Not everyone can have the good fortune to marry a rabbi!

Let’s face it: religion is a hard sell today. The “Jews of no religion” group reflects the wider trends in American society, where the fastest-growing religion is “none.” These are deeply skeptical times; we have no more heros, no more prided institutions, brimming with hubris, to which we can look for uncorrupted inspiration. The American century is over, having dissolved by means of the assassinations of two Kennedys, the Watergate scandal, Vietnam, the Iranian Revolution, and so forth. As a society we are struggling to maintain traditions, religious and secular, in the wake of the fall from grace of our once-glorified political, social, and religious leaders. Our suspicions about authority of any kind - government, corporate, religious, even medical - run deep. All the emperors are naked.

Add to this the fact that we are quite far removed from the ancient daily struggles that kept our ancestors coming back to God. We do not face the immediate life and death challenges that our ancestors - Israelite farmers - faced: the dependence on rain, the helplessness in the face of disease and famine and war, the natural risks involved in childbearing, and so forth. And thank God, we live in an open society in which we can draw spiritual inspiration from many wells, not just the Jewish one.

All of these things conspire to make it very hard for any of us to feel very deeply about religion, let alone achieve faith in the face of doubt. Indifference is rampant. No thanks, Rabbi Adelson. I’m good.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary through the middle of the 20th century and among the foremost Jewish philosophers of our time, was unapologetically open about the human struggle with God. Regarding experiencing God, he wrote (Man is Not Alone, 165):
Each of us has at least once in his life experienced the momentous reality of God. Each of us has at least once caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. But such experiences are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered.
Rabbi Heschel was keenly aware of the challenge of faith. As we wrestle with God and ourselves, the likelihood is that our experiences of the Divine are fleeting, if not entirely absent. How then can we justify faith? Heschel says elsewhere (God in Search of Man, 154-5) that
Faith in the living God is not easily attained… Why, we often ask in our prayers, why hast Thou made it so difficult to find Thee? Why must we encounter so much anguish and travail before we can catch a glance of Thy presence?
We must work hard, says Heschel, to find God. And although most of us want, even the skeptics among us, to find that connection to the Divine, very few of us do. How then can we be certain of anything? Honest faith, therefore, must reflect this struggle; lack of certainty is an essential part of faith. It is in the struggle that Jews find God, just as Yaaqov did, and so too did Moshe. It is in this cosmic wrestling match that we discover the power that Judaism has to alter our lives. That is why we are Yisrael, the ones who struggle with God.

We read today in Parashat Va-era about Moshe’s doubts. In fact, there were a few places where Moshe expresses doubt since we started Shemot / Exodus last week.
  • Last week, when God instructed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moshe says, “Mi anokhi?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11).
  • He further protests (4:1) “What if they do not listen to me?” and (4:10) “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
  • And in this morning’s reading, when prompted by God to go to Pharaoh, he describes himself (twice: 6:12 and 6:30) as “aral sefatayim,” literally, “my lips are uncircumcised.” In other words, his speech is impeded.

What exactly does this mean? Rashi tells us that the word that is usually translated as “uncircumcised,” “arel,” actually means, “obstructed.” The prophet Jeremiah uses the term in reference to the ears and the heart, suggesting that these organs can also be obstructed.

There are, therefore, two things that come out of Moshe’s obstructed state:

1. That Moshe clearly is doubtful of his own abilities. And let’s face it, this is not somebody lacking in confidence! He grew up in the Pharaoh’s palace and must have had some kind of regal bearing. And remember the story of the Egyptian taskmaster? He is not a shrinking violet. But he is, nonetheless, doubtful.

2. That Moshe is concerned about his “uncircumcised lips” points, perhaps to a greater issue: that he fails to understand that his self-doubt is a strength, that as the Torah's chosen Everyman, he is the correct choice to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Ultimately, it is not his lips that are  uncircumcised, but rather his heart -- he does not grasp that he is, in fact, capable, reverting instead to his default position of doubt.

Moshe overcomes his uncircumcised lips, and with an all-star supporting cast of Aaron, Joshua, Nahshon ben Aminadav, and of course God, he manages the Exodus and leads the Israelites (almost) to Israel.

So what do we learn from all of this? That we can cut away that hardening around our hearts, and pursue our faith with an honest acknowledgment of doubt. It’s what makes us human.

We cannot allow the fundamentalist groups in the Jewish world, who tolerate no doubt, to control the dialogue about Judaism. We cannot allow the extremists in our midst to shift the conversation to some inhuman, unrealistic position that does not account for the complex nature of human thought. Uncertainty is an essential part of who we are. We do not unquestioningly accept every word of authority as truth. On the contrary, we challenge. We argue. We wrestle. And we occasionally do not believe.

Doubt is what makes faith real and honest. It is the essential nature of faith, that those of us who are sometimes uncertain still step forward to grasp the mantle of Jewish tradition. So cut away that which obstructs your ability to seek God wholeheartedly, and embrace the doubt.

Friday, December 20, 2013

You and I Will Change the World: Arik Einstein and the Hope of Israel

Leaving Israel is, for me, always accompanied by a certain sense of melancholy. Some authorities in our tradition (reading from Numbers 33:53) teach that while it is arguably a mitzvah to go to Israel, it is an aveirah, a transgression to leave.

But of course, I have a job and a family and a life here in Great Neck. I have a congregation that needs me (well, sometimes). I am 100% American, and in many ways I belong here. (Once in a while, I am complimented by actual Israelis about my accent in Hebrew, and they are surprised to learn that I grew up in Massachusetts. But I don't look or dress or have the body language of an Israeli, and the more astute observer can pick out an American long before he opens his mouth.)

Nonetheless, I feel a sense of belonging in Israel that I have never had here. These are my people. This is my land. Whether sitting at a cafe (and the cafes in Israel are numerous and excellent) drinking kafeh hafukh (literally, “upside-down coffee,” what the rest of the world calls cappucino), hiking through the desert, visiting an archaeological site, strolling through one of Israel’s many shopping malls (Israelis love malls!) or lounging on the beach, I feel at home. Yes, I speak the language, and I have spent in aggregate more than two years there, and am accustomed to the quirks and unpleasantries of Israeli society and culture that often make life there challenging for Americans. But there is something more there, a steadfast bond that connects me on a primal level to those ancient, contested rocks.

Apropos of the beginning of the book of Shemot / Exodus, the story is told of how God asked Moses which place he wanted to be the Promised Land. Moses, as we all know, was slow of tongue. So he starts to say California, but can’t quite get it out. So God says, “Canaan? That wasteland? Well, if you say so.”

But the last laugh may be on God, since the discovery of natural gas off the coast of Haifa in Israel’s territorial waters. It’s the largest natural gas field in the Middle East. Go figure!

I’m not sure exactly what is the source of my connection with Israel, or why it is so strong. But I do know that this feeling is quite real. Israel lights a fires in my soul. And my daughter seems to have the Israel bug as well: she has been saying for at least two years that she plans to marry her Beth HaGan classmate Andrew and make aliyah and live in Jerusalem. (Judy and I are not quite sure if Andrew was at all complicit in hatching this plan.)

And one thing of which I am certain is that Israel is a symbol of hope. It represents what the early Zionist poet Naftali Herz Imber called Hatikvah HaNoshannah, the ancient hope of our people to live in our own land. His poem was later modified to become the Israeli national anthem that we know and love. And there’s another hope, a hope for the future that Israel inspires in me: the hope of tiqqun olam, the potential for repairing the world. Both of these hopes were encapsulated in the best-known song of Israel’s most-beloved pop singer, Arik Einstein, who passed away a few weeks ago when I was there. Anybody who knows anything about Israeli pop will surely be familiar with some of his songs.

The NY Times ran an obituary for Mr. Einstein, which is remarkable not only because very few people in America have heard of him, but also because if we read anything in the American press about Israel, it’s only either about violence or the peace process, which paints a very narrow picture of Israel as it is. Let’s face it: Zionists only make for good copy when they are threatening or being threatened.

Arik Einstein's grave in Trumpeldor Cemetery, Tel Aviv, December 1, 2013.

But Arik Einstein was a Zionist - perhaps not overtly or politically, but he was an essential part of the fabric of Israeli culture, and a devoted citizen of the State of Israel and the voice of a musical revolution. Born in Tel Aviv in 1939, the son of a stage actor, he grew up in the center of the artistic and cultural ferment of the nascent Jewish State. Einstein took cues from the Beatles and other international pop groups of the 1960s and ultimately fashioned an experimental rock and roll sound that was at once distinctly Israeli and universal. While the state-sanctioned music of the time still presented the themes of love and war and good ol’ Eretz Yisrael, Mr. Einstein (to whom everybody in the country was referring as “Arik” in the wake of his death) emerged at a time when Israeli musicians, just like those all over the world, were beginning to challenge the status quo.

His best-known song was a favorite among American youth groups in the 70s and 80s: Ani VeAtah:
אני ואתה נשנה את העולם,
אני ואתה אז יבואו כבר כולם,
אמרו את זה קודם לפני,
לא משנה - אני ואתה נשנה את העולם.

אני ואתה ננסה מהתחלה,
יהיה לנו רע, אין דבר זה לא נורא,
אמרו את זה קודם לפני,
זה לא משנה - אני ואתה נשנה את העולם.
You and I will change the world
You and I, and then everybody else will come along too
Others have said it before me, but it doesn’t matter
You and I will change the world.

You and I will strive from the beginning
If there will be anything bad for us - no problem! No big deal.
Others have said it before me, but it doesn’t matter
You and I will change the world.
It is a tremendously moving song that speaks of the ability of each of us to influence those things that seem unchangeable, of the power that we each have to do good in the world and for each other, despite the naysayers. I have at times been moved to tears by this song.

Ani VeAtah is not explicitly Jewish, other than the fact that it is in Modern Hebrew. It does not quote any traditional source - the Torah or the Talmud or midrash or anything. But it implicitly references two fundamentally Jewish texts: Hatikvah, which I have already mentioned, and Aleinu, everybody’s favorite “we’re-almost-done-with-services” prayer.

Why Hatikvah? Because Ani VeAtah is the flip-side of the Israeli national anthem. Hatikvah is about the ancient Jewish yearning for return to Israel. It tells a story of hope, of national desire, and the actions of a small band of politicians, ideologues, and fighters that realized the ancient dream of Israel, a seeming impossibility. Arik’s anthem for changing the world is a plea to turn the realized ancient hope, that hope of 2,000 years, into the universal message that hope should never be lost in the future.

Why Aleinu? Because it contains a line (in the second paragraph, which we always recite silently here at Temple Israel) that speaks of our hope to repair the world: letaqqen olam bemalkhut Shaddai - we hope that that You, God, will perfect the world through Your sovereignty. In its original context, the author of Aleinu meant tiqqun olam to imply bringing everybody in the world to worship our God. But modern interpreters see this as the origin of the idea of repairing this very broken world through deeds of hesed, of lovingkindness to our fellow people. Arik’s 20th-century lyrics reflect our obligation to work toward this goal, that despite obstacles, we each have the potential to right the wrongs around us: to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to straighten the bent, to house the homeless, to promote environmental stewardship, to seek peace and pursue it, in the words of the Psalmist, and so forth.

You might think that the lyrics are naive, particularly given the great complexity of all of these challenges. And Arik himself confesses as much in the song. But, “lo meshaneh.” It doesn’t matter. The simple message of hope is the one that inspired the complex process that brought about the miracle of the State of Israel in our time, and this message will guide us in the future in our task of further perfecting the world.

It has often been observed that the book of Shemot is about the creation of the Israelite nation. Curiously, much of this nation-building takes place outside of the land of Israel, in Egypt and Sinai, and so from the very beginning of our people, we have faced the challenge of diaspora, of living away from our home.

There has been much talk, in the wake of the Pew Research Center study released in October, about the challenges facing American Jews concerning our relationship with Judaism. (Temple Israel and SHAI hosted Uri Cohen of the Queens College Hillel this past week, and he spoke about some of the implications of these statistics.) There are many voices in our sphere saying that contemporary Diaspora Judaism has a problem, that is, the disengagement of Jews with Judaism.

For centuries we have focused much of our yearning, as filtered through the lens of Jewish prayer and text, on redemption. This theme is found throughout your siddur, and permeates rabbinic literature. The future redemption that Jews have prayed for and meditated on and repeated over and over in the beit midrash, the study hall, like our first redemption from Egypt, is the return to our land after centuries of dispersion, the re-establishment of the Davidic throne over a united kingdom over the entire Promised Land.

Part of that redemption has arrived, ladies and gentlemen. It is an imperfect, incomplete redemption. But we now have sovereignty within our historical land. And that is, at least on a personal level, one of the most inspiring, most appealing aspects of living as a contemporary Jew, here in the Diaspora or in Israel.

The answer to the disengagement suggested by the Pew study is Israel. The messages sent by its pre-eminent rock-and-rollers, is the inspiration that we all need, the answer to the Diaspora’s Jewish malaise. It is the very essence of hope. Israel might very well be the world’s poster child for the ability of Hatikvah, of hope’s ability to effect change.

No, it's not perfect. No, it's mostly not even holy. Yes, there are many, many political and social problems in Israel.

But no other place gives me that sense of hope, of hatikvah hanoshannah, of ancient and future hopes that ignites a fire under my Jewish identity.

As another great Israeli songwriter, Ehud Manor, put it, “Ein li eretz aheret.” “I have no other land.” (Translation here.)

I am fortunate that on the heels of my most recent trip, I will be returning to Israel in February with 35 teens on Temple Israel’s Youth House trip to Israel. I know from having done this before that Israel will ignite a fire under those kids’ Jewish identities as well.

Through our active embrace of the Jewish State, by going there and experiencing all that Israel has to offer, we can sustain that feeling, that connection. We can feel the hope. And we can change the world.

Keep singing, Arik, and Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 12/21/2013.)