Friday, January 2, 2015

One Big, Happy, Pluralistic, Dysfunctional Family - Vayehi 5775

I returned from Israel last Thursday, flying from Ben-Gurion Airport on Christmas Eve, which in Israel is known as “Wednesday night.”

My son and I spent two weeks having fun around the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). One day we went up to Mercaz Canada, the Canada Centre, in Metulla, which is a huge complex built entirely by Canadian Jewish communities. Its central feature, of course, is the regulation-size ice rink, where no professional hockey team ever actually plays, but there is a hockey school for kids and plenty of aspiring skaters come to practice. We spent some time on the ice there, and then warmed up by immersing ourselves in the jacuzzi. Soaking alongside us was an older Israeli couple, whom I will call Yossi and Iris. They were very talkative, and soon I knew everything about their family, of whom they were clearly very proud. At some point, they ascertained that I was a Conservative rabbi, and then Iris asked me, “Is it true that you have women rabbis in your movement?” I responded affirmatively.

Yossi offered that he was very troubled by the extreme measures that some haredi Jews were taking to separate men and women: the gender-segregated buses, the separate sidewalks, and so forth. And then he told me something that made my jaw hit the warm, bubbly water: that there are now stores in Benei Beraq (a predominantly haredi city near Tel Aviv) where men and women shop separately.

“What, you mean that there are two sides, and the men get their cottage cheese on one side, and the women get their cottage cheese on the other side, from a separate refrigerator?”

“Yes,” he replied. We sat and soaked that one up. Iris, a calloused police officer, clucked her tongue and shook her head. She asked me if I had heard about Women of the Wall. “Of course,” I said.

Sitting there in the jacuzzi, I gave them a thumbnail sketch of what it means to be a Conservative Jew: like Orthodoxy, we understand halakhah / Jewish law to be valid and binding, but we account for modernity with conservative changes within the halakhic system. We accept men and women as being equal under Jewish law. We have a historical view of Judaism, understanding our tradition as having unfolded gradually in the context of many places and cultures, rather than having all been given at Sinai. We accept contemporary understandings of the origins of the Torah and of God.

Many of these ideas are not welcome in some quarters of the Jewish world, and some of the ideas that emerge from those quarters I find objectionable. But there is still, at least for now, some mutual sense of belonging. We are all still Jews. And as we soaked there in the hot tub, we shared what you might call a little pluralistic moment - an acknowledgment of the different ways of being Jewish.

We concluded the first book of the Torah today, and as Bereshit drew to a close with the patriarch Jacob on his death bed, each of his sons received some parting words. Some were flowery words of praise; others were clearly critical. For example:

Gen. 49:8 (re: Judah)
יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ--יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ.
You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;
Your father’s sons shall bow low to you...

cf. Gen. 49:5-6 (re: Simeon and Levi)
שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים--כְּלֵי חָמָס, מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל-תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל-תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי:  כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר.
Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.

At this stage, the Israelite nation is really only a family. Jacob is here driving home the point, at the end of his life and effectively the end of the family narrative, that our family has internal strife. (BTW, I am from the tribe of Levi!) Not only do we disagree with each other, we are sometimes openly hostile. Not too dissimilar today - our internecine struggles are effectively ancient.

Jacob Jordaens - Self-Portrait with Parents, Brothers, and Sisters. c. 1615. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
In some ways we still retain the sense of family. The Talmud (BT Shevuot 39a) tells us that:
כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh
All of Israel is responsible for one another.

We are all dependent on one another, all connected. We have always thought of ourselves in this way. We even have our own term for our connectedness: kelal Yisrael. Loosely translated, it means, “All of us Israelites.”

We are kind of like a giant cousins’ club. Since the late 19th century and the beginnings of the Zionist movement, some have called this phenomenon “peoplehood.” One of the major results of this sense of peoplehood in modern times is the State of Israel; a more mild form is the pride that American Jews used to take in playing “Spot the Jew”: knowing that the Three Stooges and and Dinah Shore and Kirk Douglas were all Jewish.

But the Jewish world is much more fractured than it used to be. I am not sure exactly why this happened, but I think it might be harder today for us to acknowledge that we are all connected, that our souls are bound together, that we have a shared destiny, common values, and so forth.

Nonetheless, I believe we are indeed still one people. We are all Jews, even if large fractions of the Jewish world do not accept other large fractions. And certainly, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in some quarters of the world might serve to remind us all that those who hate us surely do not care about our divergent approaches to halakhah or whether or not we ordain female rabbis or call women to the Torah.

Let’s consider where we are as a people.

Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Chabad (they get their own category), Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, apathetic. Yes, the demographic studies of recent years continue to show that we are on a continuum with respect to religious observance and other measures of engagement. But we are also deeply divided, and to some extent, that is the Jewish tradition. From the moment that the Israelites left Egypt, when they began to complain to Moshe Rabbeinu about the lack of food in the desert, continuing through to the Talmudic tradition of rabbinic argument (Beit Hillel vs. Beit Shammai, etc.), to the response to modernity that gave us the range of movements and synagogues and political and cultural rivals, we like to disagree.

Even so, it seems to me that the rift between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy is still growing. It used to be that most American Jews, regardless of their level of Jewish observance, kept a kosher kitchen so that anybody could come over and eat. That is hardly the case today; I suspect that not too many Orthodox-identified Jews would even eat in my house.

Perhaps the greatest point of fracture is intermarriage. You know the numbers, at least anecdotally: two-thirds or more of American Jews marry non-Jews. Yes, that statistic is lower for Conservative-identified Jews (roughly ⅓ of those who grow up in our movement marry out), and much lower for Orthodox. But the reality is inescapable. We are not going to stem the tide of intermarriage. That ship has sailed. The question facing us all now, and particularly here in the Conservative movement is, how can we stay true to our principles of accepting the validity of halakhah and yet not lose all of those Jews?

A colleague of mine, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, the senior rabbi of a large Conservative congregation in suburban Boston, recently floated a trial balloon about intermarriage. As you may know, Conservative rabbis are bound by a standard of rabbinic practice not to perform weddings between Jews and non-Jews. His idea was to perform such weddings, with the proviso that the non-Jewish partner commits to raising Jewish children.

Immediately after going public with the idea, there was an uproar in his congregation that compelled Rabbi Gardenswartz to backtrack.

And furthermore in the “uproar” department,just last week at the USY International Convention, the student leadership of USY voted to change the language in its policy regarding inter-dating for regional officers. While the policy used to say, “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating,” the new language is, “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of interdating, but certainly not quite as strong as the original language. (I actually prefer the newer language because, rather than merely being prohibitive, it actually challenges our teens to consider the aspects of holiness in human relationships.) Coverage in the Jewish press has been scathing (the JTA wire article on the subject was titled, perhaps unfairly, “USY Drops Ban on Interdating”).

The issue goes right to the heart of who we are today, not as Conservative Jews per se, but as American Jews. Do we see ourselves as Americans who occasionally dip our toes into the sea of Judaism, or does halakhah infuse all parts of our lives with holiness? Obviously, this issue is so trying because some of the members of our cousins’ club see any tolerance of intermarriage and intermarried Jews as a threat. In their minds, this is not Hillel vs. Shammai; this is Hillel vs. Antiochus and the hellenized Syrians of yore.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that the concept of kelal Yisrael, of the Jewish sense of shared heritage, destiny, and values still resonates. We have made certain strides right here in Great Neck, and that bodes well: the recent Shabbat Project, the joint study and siyyum in memory of those massacred in a Jerusalem synagogue in November, and the ongoing friendly Rabbinic Dialogue are all good signs of healthy, pluralistic engagement and cooperation.

Pluralism means that we should tolerate each other, acknowledge each other. We who call women to the Torah will never agree with those who must walk and ride and shop in single-gender environments. Those of us who support the State of Israel with all our hearts will never understand our fellow Jews who protest its very existence. We do not have to agree, but we have to at least acknowledge each other as fellow members of the tribe. And I think that we are still doing that. We may be a dysfunctional family, but we are still a family.

We have to continue to work together, for the benefit of our extended cousins’ club. I very much hope that we will.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(A variation of this sermon was originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 1/3/2015.)

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