Friday, May 23, 2014

The Two Keys to the Jewish Future: S + T = J (Bemidbar 5774)

I cannot look at the beginning of Bemidbar / Numbers, with its census figures of the twelve tribes, and not think about where we are as a people. I cannot help but think of the lot of demographic studies of Jews in the New York Area and nationwide of the past several years, most of which reveal shifts in measures of engagement, affiliation, and intermarriage that do not bode well for the future of Judaism in America, particularly non-Orthodox Judaism. I cannot help but wring my hands, as we have collectively done as a people for a long time.

I ask myself, “What will maintain us as a people? What will preserve our fundamental distinctiveness?” Many of you know that this is the question that keeps me up at night.

And when you read the numbers in the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, you see that we have been obsessed with the quantitative measures of our nation from its very inception. An extended family of 70 people went down into Egypt; two million emerged from slavery as a people, Am Yisrael. A million of our number were expelled from Spain in 1492, and perhaps as many remained as New Christians; six million died in the Shoah; the State of Israel was established by half a million mandate-era residents of Palestine. There are roughly five million of us here in America today.

We are captivated with counting ourselves, and the demographic bug afflicted us heavily when it emerged in the late 19th century as an outgrowth of the Zionist movement in Russia, and in particular the work of the great Jewish historian Shimon Dubnow, who established the Jewish Historical Ethnographical Committee of the Society for the Promotion of Culture Among the Jews of Russia in 1892.

We are not only fascinated with documenting and counting ourselves, but we are also continually convinced that we are on the verge of disappearing. (I noticed with interest this week that the Mashadi community, not by any stretch of the imagination in danger of evaporating, issued a taqqanah about not allowing converts to be a part of their community, similar to that issued by the Syrian Jews in Brooklyn in 1935.)

The Zionist philosopher and historian Shimon Rawidowicz labeled us “the Ever-Dying People,” and published a book by that name in 1948. (Rawidowicz, BTW, was also the editor of a collection of Dubnow’s essays and letters.). He wrote:
“The world makes many images of Israel, but Israel makes only one image of itself: that of a being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.”
These ideas are built into our liturgy and our theology. On weekdays, when we recite the words of tahanun (“supplication”), we chant somewhat mournfully:  
Shomer Yisrael, shemor she’erit Yisrael. Guardian of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel.”
It is no wonder that even today we obsess about our nascent disappearance; we are hard-wired to do so.

A Talmud professor of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. David Kraemer, once enlivened our class with a sidebar discussion about Jews and their attachment to Judaism. He noted that there have been times in our history when we have been more committed and engaged to living a religiously-Jewish life, and times of lesser commitment. We have survived periods of oppression, war, intermarriage, conversion away and assimilation and really all the the same issues that we face today. There is really nothing new under the sun, suggested Dr. Kraemer, and so why should we worry? “Should our children be permitted to celebrate Halloween?” we wondered. “Why not?” offered Dr. Kraemer. We rebutted with, “What about Christmas?” He gave us a wry smile, and quietly said (something like), “We already do.”

He was not talking about modern Jews adopting Christmas from their Christian neighbors, but that Hanukkah, like Christmas, is an echo of the festivals adjacent to the winter solstice that many ancient agrarian societies celebrated. Yes, our rabbis gave it a new name, a new backstory, and so forth, but fundamentally it is the same holiday.

Dr. Kraemer’s point was that we have always managed to maintain our peoplehood and traditions, whatever the outside world has thrown at us.

So what is it, then, that has worked about Judaism? Why are there still 14 million or so Jews in the world, when we could have disappeared many times over?

It can only be the strength of our heritage, the value of our teachings, the compelling nature of our rituals.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have a rich, varied, and powerful tradition, one that speaks to people even in these vastly secular, disinterested times.

We have to overcome our fears regarding assimilation, and live Jewish lives of quiet confidence and commitment. And how do we do that? By focusing on our core of active participants, by strengthening the core of our community, and by creating a communal experience that is so compelling that it will draw more people in. And I think we can do so by invoking three essential concepts in Jewish tradition, the themes of the Shema section of Shaharit, which we recited this morning (as we do every morning). Those essential themes are: Creation,  Revelation, and Redemption.

Creation is, of course, about the traditional week, the six days in which God metaphorically created the world, followed by Shabbat. It’s about not only the natural environment that we inhabit, but also the rhythm of the Jewish week.

Revelation is an intimidating (and, let’s face it, goyish-sounding) word referring to our receiving of the Torah (which we will commemorate in a mere 11 days on Shavuot). It’s our national story, the basis for our rich textual heritage.

The classic sense of redemption is that God took us out of Egypt, setting us free from slavery.  However, when we talk about that ancient redemption, we are also hinting at a coming redemption. And we make that connection every morning in Shaharit.

Ladies and gentlemen, those three concepts are not just a series. They can also be read as an equation (and here is where Numbers creeps back into the discussion):

Creation + Revelation = Redemption

In an effort to make this easier to remember, I’m going to abbreviate it as follows:

S = Shabbat, i.e. Creation
T = Torah, i.e. Revelation
J = the Jewish future, i.e. Redemption


S + T = J

That’s it, ladies and gentlemen. Let me explain what I mean.

I took a couple of journeys within the last two weeks; the first was to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in Dallas, where I learned a whole lot of Torah, reconnected with colleagues, and reminisced about the five years I spent living in Texas. Talmud Torah, engaging with the words of our ancient tradition, is not only the greatest mitzvah among the 613 (see Mishnah Peah 1:1); it is also refreshing. We recited this morning in Pesuqei Dezimrah this morning (Psalm 19:8) “Torat Adonai temimah, meshivat nafesh.” God’s Torah is perfect, restoring the soul.

Torah, revelation, is not just refreshing to me; it is in fact what has sustained us through centuries of dispersion, oppression, and destruction. If it were not for the Torah, we might have evaporated after the First and Second Temples were destroyed. The Torah contains not only the mitzvot, but also our national story, our heritage, and our secret to everlasting peoplehood. It is greater than the sum of its parts.

But the other half of the equation is Creation, and that speaks to the second journey I took. Right after returning from Texas, my family and I drove up to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires for the second annual Vav Class Family Retreat, where Danny Mishkin and Rabbi Roth and I facilitated a phenomenal Shabbat experience for thirteen member families. What has made this program work so well now for two years running is, primarily, the simplicity of Shabbat. In camp, we observe Shabbat traditionally, including tefillot, festive meals, games, learning, discussion, and other Shabbat-friendly activities. We discourage the use of electronic devices, and of course there is nowhere to travel to and nothing to spend money on. The results are truly beautiful and inspiring.

What makes Shabbat work is that it is a great “reset”-button. It is a chance to reconnect with family, friends, and Creation. And what better place to do that than in camp? And, as if to heighten that experience, all of our tefillah experiences were held outdoors. Synagogue buildings can of course be inspiring places to communicate with God, but davening outside brings a heightened kavvanah.

For minhah on Shabbat afternoon, we first read Torah, as is traditional. Then, after the Torah was returned to the ark, we took a walk out into camp to sensitize ourselves to the beauty of Creation found all around us. We completed minhah by reciting the Amidah in a field, standing far apart from one another to recite the words of tefillah alone with God and nature. Some of us found it very moving.

Shabbat brings us back to Creation. And, moving forward, this will be an essential part of our work here on Earth. At the ordination/investiture ceremony for new rabbis and cantors at the Jewish Theological Seminary this past week, Dr. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor, made the following remarks:
“I strongly suspect that the mitzvah on which our ultimate worth and future turns—yours and mine—may well be that of preserving God's creation. ’Tending the garden’ means something different than it ever has before, now that the survival of the planet is in question.”
Shabbat and Creation go together. And Creation + Revelation = Redemption. S + T = J.

So what is this redemption? It is that we will merit an infinite future on this planet, which God has created.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jews and Judaism have existed on this planet for millennia, and we will continue to exist. Our redemption is our continuation. We have outlasted the Babylonians, the Romans, and a host of other civilizations. All we have to do is keep the ideas of Creation and Revelation in front of us, and the future will glisten with the power of Torah, of Shabbat, and of a healthy planet to sustain us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 5/24/2014.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

On Derekh Eretz and Being Refreshed in Texas

I lived in Texas for five and a half years, earning an M.S. at Texas A&M University (Go Aggies!) and then working in steamy Houston for a huge, multinational engineering and construction firm. When I returned to Dallas last week for the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional organization of Conservative / Masorti rabbis, I was flooded with memories of my time in Texas, and particularly that Texans LOVE air conditioning, and prefer it to be blowing on them on full blast at all times. So while the weather outside the Dallas Hilton was pleasant and not too hot, inside it felt like March in Iceland.
Nonetheless, the company was warm, and the material was hot. I had a few shiurim with one of my beloved Bible teachers from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Walter Hertzberg, who laid out a stunning array of traditional commentaries for us to sample and draw on. I heard sessions on crafting new, engaging tefillah experiences (a particularly timely talk with respect to our process here in Great Neck), reaching out to so-called Millennials and Gen-Xers, expanding adult learning options. 

I also participated in a stellar four-hour marathon examination of textual sources with Dr. Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem (where Rabbi Stecker is sabbatical-ing in July) on the tension between fulfilling God’s word and moderating some of the extreme halakhic positions found in the Jewish canon. Maimonides, for example, notes in his halakhic compendium, the Mishneh Torah (Laws Pertaining to Acquisition 9:8), that while the Torah permits one to order your Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor, it is more important to treat slaves justly and mercifully. Not that slavery of any kind today is permitted or encouraged in any way, but the wider point that Maimonides makes is that even within the letter of the law there is an obligation to treat others with respect and dignity, even if it may contradict the fundamental understanding of the written and oral Torah. This wider message is essential for the work that we do in the Conservative movement: halakhah (Jewish law) is valuable and binding, but must also be moderated by derekh eretz (respect) as well as contemporary sensibilities.

The convention atmosphere was bullish on the future, and as we welcomed a new president of the RA, Rabbi William Gershon of Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas, speeches were made about the vitality of the Conservative movement and the bright spots that lay ahead despite the well-known challenges that we face. While my own optimism has been occasionally challenged by the relentless stories of the movement’s decline that may be found in virtually any Jewish newspaper, I always find my spirits buoyed by fellowship with colleagues. To hear about the inspired work that my colleagues and Seminary buddies are bringing to their individual congregations is always encouraging, and so I return with not only new insights to offer as divrei Torah, but also a list of hot new ideas that have succeeded in other communities.

Put succinctly, we’re not dead yet. My rabbinic colleagues and I are still working to engage, inspire, and enlighten our kehillot (congregations), and to do it in a way that reflects our positions of moderation and derekh eretz. I look eagerly to the future with a renewed sense of purpose.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(To be published in the Temple Israel Voice, 5/29/14.)