Friday, June 13, 2014

Wearing Metaphorical Tzitzit - Shelah Lekha 5774

A few days ago, my wife was speaking on the phone to a friend about plans for tomorrow, which is of course Fathers’ Day. I overheard her say, “Well, Seth will do whatever I plan for him on Fathers’ Day.” Upon hearing this, I remarked, in all seriousness, “Oh, it’s Fathers’ Day?” It’s my job to remember when Shavuot falls, or Rosh Hodesh, or the 17th of Tammuz (which is a minor fast day - falls on Tuesday, July 15th this year - plan ahead!). But Mothers’ Day, Valentines’ Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, even? Fahgettaboutit.

I occasionally have a hard time remembering all the things that I need to remember. Of course, now that my schedule is entirely owned by Google Calendar, it’s even harder for me to recall my next appointment, let alone what’s happening three weeks from now. This is a peril that we all face in the Information Age: too much information! I cannot keep it all straight, and that’s why I have electronic devices to help me out. Of course, relying on the computer or smartphone is only compounding the problem.

But here is something for which we may need reminders: being Jewish. Doing Jewish things in Jewish time. Reminders of the value of Judaism. Reminders of our heritage. Reminders to keep the important stuff in view, because there are so many distractions. There are so many ways to avoid the great intangibles: God, the Torah, and all of the non-remunerative value that comes from investing our ever-limited attention in Jewish life.

But what are the most important features of being Jewish? That is the essential Jewish question of our time.

There are some in the Jewish world who say that the answer is fulfilling 613 mitzvot in excruciating detail, and that’s the end of the story. That preserving the traditions and customs associated with fulfilling Jewish law, classically understood as God’s word to us, is the most important thing. And that approach has yielded a bounty of activity and success in the the Jewish world. Let’s face it: those of our people who are zealously committed to the fulfillment of halakhah / Jewish law and custom to the tiniest jot and tittle are reproducing at a much faster rate than the rest of us.

Problem is, it is possible, and even easy, to pursue halakhah without thinking too deeply about what it all means. Actions are important, but the thought behind the action is just as important if not more so. And when the end goal is the action itself, the fulfillment of the minutiae of halakhah, does the intention matter so much?

There is even a strain of Jewish thought that says that mitzvot have no intrinsic value or meaning - that they are simply commandments that must be followed. For example, there is a mitzvah / commandment in the Torah known as shilluah ha-qen, the requirement of shooing away the mother bird before taking her young from the nest (Deut. 22:6-7). The Mishnah (Berakhot 5:3) tells us that this should not be interpreted as displaying mercy so that God will be merciful to us.Rather, it is merely a statute to be followed, just like so many others in the Torah, because it is there.

But I cannot be Jewish in this way. I need to connect with my tradition with my heart and mind, to understand that God asked us to do certain things for a reason. I have trouble performing particular actions just because that is the way it has always been done; I need motivation, and cannot suspend my reason and logic (and I’d guess that most of us here are in the same boat).

Tefillah / prayer, for example, can be deeply meaningful, but only if you actually wrestle with the text. The mere recitation of words in a foreign language because ancient rabbis dictated a standard framework for tefillah is uninspiring. And prayer merely for its own sake is a hard sell. But the combination of meaning, words, themes, music, meditation, and choreography brings me clarity, improves my concentration, helps me to examine myself, gives me a daily dose of qedushah / holiness and humility, and frames my day. Ladies and gentlemen, that is meaning.

At the other end of the Jewish spectrum, there are those who feel that Jewish values are the most essential feature of Jewish life, that we should behave not according to ancient law codes and customs, but rather that our behavior should be guided by traditional values evident in Jewish text: tiqqun olam (repairing the world), hakhnassat orhim (welcoming guests into your home), biqqur holim (visiting the ill), derekh eretz (respect), praise and gratitude and so forth.

But values are not enough. There is an intermediate position, a path that pursues both the traditional actions, the mitzvot, and also encourages thought about the values that drive them. And that’s the kind of Jew that I want to be. Sign me up for that: the marriage of action and intent.

I want to be part of the Jewish world that not only fasts on Yom Kippur, but also sees the fast as being connected to repentance and being cleansed and making better choices next time. I want to live the Judaism that relates the Pesah seder with the message of freedom and urges us to act in the continuing struggle against slavery in all its forms today. I want to engage with a Judaism that celebrates the joy of Shabbat positively, and does not see the day of rest and enjoyment as merely a burdensome series of prohibitions.

And in my mind, this type of Judaism is suggested by today’s parashah. We chanted the passage which we know and love as the third paragraph of the Shema, the one about the tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41). The passage says explicitly that wearing the tzitzit (plural: tzitziyyot) is to remind us of the mitzvot and not to stray from the right path. But then it goes on to invoke the Exodus from Egypt, a seminal event in the establishment of the Jewish nation. The passage thereby suggests that the purpose of the mitzvot is not only their performance, but connecting them with our history, our peoplehood, and our obligation to remember where we came from and the obligations we have to aid the oppressed, the bound, the enslaved.

The tallit gadol, which many of us are wearing right now, is generally thought of as a ritual article, that is, something worn during services. But many also follow the custom of wearing a tallit qatan under our clothes, so that we are always reminded of all of the above all day long. (If you put on a tallit gadol, you are also fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzit). And, of course, here at Temple Israel we encourage women to take upon themselves this mitzvah as well; even though it has traditionally been observed by men, the Talmud (e.g. Menahot 43a) and many prominent rabbis throughout history (e.g. Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Rambam) indicate that women are not merely encouraged, but required to perform the mitzvah of tzitzit (similarly, Jewish sources also permit women to wear tefillin, including the great Maimonides).

But I’d like to suggest the following: when we are not in the synagogue, we need reminders. We need metaphorical tzitziyyot. We need to be reminded of the important things: yes, the values; yes, the customs; yes, the laws. We need to connect the doing with the understanding. We need for Judaism to create meaning for us. If not, it will be simply crowded out by all the distractions in our lives.

Ladies and gentlemen, the struggle for the Jewish future will be a struggle for meaning - for understanding the values embedded within Jewish practice, for relating those things to how we live our lives on a daily basis. We need the “why” behind the “what,” and that is the The tallit is so integral to Jewish life that we see it every time we look at the flag of the state of Israel; it is such an intimate part of our experience as Jews that there is a custom of burying one’s tallit with the deceased - it is effectively the only thing we take with us when we leave this world.

So how do we maintain those reminders? How do we don those metaphorical tzitziyyot? By going out of our way to set aside holy moments for ourselves in which we recall the richness of our ancient heritage. By making the Shabbat special, a day apart from the craziness of the week, in whatever ways we can, traditional or otherwise. By choosing a diet that reflects our holy relationship with God’s Creation. By sanctifying our relationships and always seeking to partner with God in repairing this world. By seeking out the ancient wisdom in our textual heritage through all the contemporary means available in the Information Age (it has its advantages!).

Find those metaphorical tzitziyyot, and keep the reminders of the important features of Jewish life in front of you. To all my fellow dads, happy Fathers’ Day! See you on the 17th of Tammuz.

Shabbat shalom!

~Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 6/14/2014.)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Torah of Moderation - First Day Shavuot, 5774

Today we celebrate Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Usually, when we mention the “giving of the Torah” or the “receiving,” we are talking about God to Moses, or God to the Jews. But really we should understand this as the gift from the Jews to the world.

Because if there is one thing that we can proudly point to as Jews and say, this is ours, it’s the Torah. Not, of course, the Torah alone, but “Torah” in the wider sense of that word: incorporating the millennia of commentary and interpretation based on and illuminating the Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. We have shared that wider gift of Torah with the world.  

And this distinction, between the written Torah and all of its interpretation is essential. ‘Cause let’s face it: the Torah is a complicated book. Yes, there are many wonderful Jewish values that originate in the Torah: welcoming guests (Genesis 18:1-8), taking care of the poor among us (many places, including Leviticus 19:9-10), treating the strangers among us fairly (many places, including Lev. 19:33-34), business ethics (e.g. Lev. 19:13, 35-36ת Deut. 25:13-16), and so forth. But there are many items in the Torah that challenge us as modern, thinking people. Consider for a moment some of the more extreme positions that the Torah takes:

    A disobedient son should be put to death. (Deut. 21:18-21)
    One who violates the Shabbat in public (e.g. by gathering wood) should be put to death. (Num. 15:32-36)
    The Sotah ritual (Numbers 5)

And so forth. But it is essential to note that the Torah alone is not Judaism! Our tradition is not about the literal application of the words of the Torah. We do not put anybody to death or practice humiliating rituals. The rabbinic tradition, through a process that began in the 2nd century CE and continues to this very day, has studied the words of Torah, interpreted them and codified them according to contemporary norms in every generation.  What we know, understand and practice as Judaism is not the written Torah, but rather, as it is filtered through the rabbinic lens. We are not ancient Israelites; we are rabbinic Jews.

For example, we do not stone disobedient children to death, even though that is clearly commanded in the Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 68bff) re-interpreted the very concept of what it means to be disobedient to set the bar so high that it would actually be impossible for a child to meet this qualification, thereby mitigating the severity of the Torah’s imperative.

When I was at the Rabbinical Assembly convention two weeks ago, I participated in an extended learning session with Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, on the subject of the precedence of certain mitzvot over others. For example, the Talmud tells us (Berakhot 19b) that if you discover that you or somebody else is wearing an item of clothing containing a forbidden mixture of fibers (e.g. wool and linen; aka shaatnez), you must tear it off immediately. One page later, the Talmud tells a story about a certain R. Ada bar Ahavah who, upon seeing a woman in the market wearing a headress which he thinks to contain shaatnez, and knocks it off her head, causing the woman much shame and stirring up a major hubbub. As it turns out, she’s not even Jewish! So R. Ada bar Ahavah is in the wrong, and has doubly transgressed.

In some places, our tradition upholds a certain kind of zealotry. But elsewhere, we find that the intricacies and sensibilities of human relationships require more attention than the letter of the law. Elsewhere in the Talmud (Megillah 3b) we find that the rabbis ask about the priority of certain mitzvot. If one is faced with taking care of an unclaimed corpse (known as a met mitzvah) versus reading Megillat Esther on Purim, the met mitzvah takes precedence, due to the principle of kevod haberiyot, the respect for all God’s creatures. Furthermore, the Talmud emphasizes that this latter mitzvah, respect, is of such great importance that it outweighs all negative commandments of the Torah.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, aka Nahmanides or Ramban, who lived in 13th-century Spain, cites a verse in the Torah to extend this logic even further (Deut. 6:18):

וְעָשִׂיתָ הַיָּשָׁר וְהַטּוֹב, בְּעֵינֵי ה' --לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ, וּבָאתָ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּע ה' לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.
Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you and that you may be able to possess the good land that the Lord your God promised on oath to your fathers.

Ramban tells us that this verse is a kind of legal catch-all that covers every detail of human behavior that is not otherwise addressed in the Torah - that is, that we should go beyond the letter of the law. This is a principle known as “lifnim mishurat hadin.” We are not only obligated to fulfill the mitzvot that are explicitly identified, but also to extend the logic of what is right and good to everything else. Ramban tells us that we must refine our behavior so that our reputations are spotless, and that our conversations with others are always pleasant, so that we may be worthy of being known by others as “right and good.”

Returning for a moment to the case of the R. Ada bar Ahavah, who knocks off the woman’s headress in the market, since he has violated kevod haberiyot / respect for all God’s creatures and damaged his reputation, he has therefore transgressed. Sometimes respect trumps the letter of the law.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the moderation for which we stand, for which the greater Torah stands. And this is the gift that we Jews bring to the world, the very gift that we celebrate today. We are not zealots; we are not fanatics. The ancient rabbis, and even some of us today want us to be sensitive to how we behave while fulfilling the law, and make sure that it reflects well upon us. We must not just perform mitzvot, but must do it in a respectful way that maintains our reputations.

The Talmud (Yoma 86a) also identifies for us the label applied to those who claim to act in the name of God but are in fact profaning God’s name. The term for this is hillul haShem:

But if someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, serves Torah scholars, but is dishonest in business, and discourteous in his relations with people, what do people say about him? Woe unto him who studied the Torah; woe unto his father who taught him Torah; woe unto his teacher who taught him Torah! This man studied the Torah; look how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways.

It is certainly possible to follow the letter of the law and still commit hillul haShem. We need not look too deeply into the Jewish world to see plenty of examples.

Last week, when the rabbinic head of the Agudath Israel, an umbrella organization of Haredi Jews, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, was giving a brief devar Torah at a celebratory dinner attended by Mayor Bill DeBlasio. He used his opportunity to slander non-Orthodox Jews (and some Modern Orthodox Jews as well). From the New York Times:

Rabbi Perlow offered a shower of condemnation for Reform and Conservative Jews, who he said were among those who “subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people.” These movements, he said, “have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation.”
“They will be relegated,” he added, “to the dustbins of Jewish history.”
It was surely a deliberate choice to deliver these words when the mayor was present, because he knew that there would be media coverage, and the bulk of New York Jewry, who he knows are not Orthodox, would read his words. He also knew that Mayor DeBlasio would likely let the remarks go by without comment, which he did.

Just two days later, the same Rabbi Perlow delivered a speech to 10,000 women in his community about the dangers of the Internet. And what’s more, he spoke to them separated from his audience by a one-way mirror, so he could not see the women. That’s right - he actually spoke while looking at himself in the mirror. The possibilities for commentary here are endless.

The moderate conception of Judaism which we emphasize values women and men equally and does not see women merely as sources of temptation that must be obscured from view. This is not how women are perceived outside the synagogue, and it should not be that way on the inside.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Torah is not black and white, to be fulfilled to its letter at the expense of others. Doing what is right and good in the eyes of God means that we acknowledge not only the ethical norms of the society in which we live and the innovations that human ingenuity has brought, but is also respectful of all. What sort of people would the Jews be if we stuck our heads in the sand? How would we fulfill our mission on Earth of bringing this Torah of moderation to the world if we cannot even look at people?

Our task as Conservative Jews is to live our ideals proudly and boldly, continuing to emphasize the voice of moderation, of kevod haberiyot / respect for God’s creatures, that is evident in the wider Torah, for the Jews and for the world. We must remind the Rabbi Perlows of this world that the Second Temple was destroyed due to sin’at hinam, causeless hatred, and that the only path that we have together into the Jewish future is one of mutual encouragement and honor, one based on maintaining the good reputation and the pleasant conversation that Ramban suggests.

Hag Sameah!

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, first day of Shavuot, June 4, 2014.)