Tuesday, August 11, 2015


I have moved - spiritually, physically, and blogically. The Modern Rabbi is now located at:


In person, you can find me at Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh, PA. Come visit! Pittsburgh is lovely this time of year, and my door is usually open.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Monday, July 20, 2015

Three Journeys, or, How I Learned to Find the Love in Jewish Text - Mattot-Masei 5775

I think that Mattot-Mas’ei is an ideal parashah for moving on, because (a) it's the end of Bemidbar, and (b) it's about journeys, especially Mas'ei. And so, as Judy and I are busy packing to go (the second most-stressful lifecycle event, BTW), I have been thinking quite a bit about my own journey, and how it fits into the context of our people.

There are different kinds of journeys: those of the body, those of the mind, and those of the heart. This parashah is about all three: the physical journey of the Israelites through the desert, and the mental journey, that of the mind, as they receive the Torah and struggle to live it and learn it; and the spiritual journey, that of the heart, as they endeavor to build a relationship, a berit / covenant, with their God.

392: Route of Israelites in the desert

A midrash about Mas'ei, about the journeys from place to place that we read today, where all the places are identified, is as follows. God recounts the names of each of these places to remind the Israelites where they were and what transpired along the way: “Here you needed water; here you were ill; and so forth. And from this we learn that we, as Israelites and as Jews, take note of our journeys.

Because we are all on a type of journey. We never really stop moving, even when we put down tent stakes and never pull up the tent for decades.

The journey is the interesting part. “Life,” as John Lennon once put it, “is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.” I never expected to become a rabbi or a cantor. I never expected to be living on Long Island. I never expected to move to Pittsburgh. I never expected to be married to a ballet dancer who speaks Hungarian. I never expected to have a son who lives in Israel most of the year. I never expected to get to know all of you so well. I did not plan for any of these things. But they have all made my life very, very rich.

When I graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary, I thought that the most important type of journey was that of the mind. In the seven years that I spent there, I put a sizeable spike on my knowledge curve in the area of Torah, halakhah, Jewish history, ritual, critical approaches to the Tanakh, etc.

But one thing that I have learned in my eight years here, and arguably the most important thing, is that the journey of the heart is much more important. The spiritual journey is the one we need to emphasize more.

There is a school of thought out there that believes that rabbis ultimately tend to give the same sermon over and over and over: the sermon that he or she needs to hear.

And it took me a few years, but I think I discovered the sermon that I needed to hear. In fact, you can very much trace my development as a rabbi from the first sermon I gave here, on my interview weekend in March of 2007. It was Parashat Ki Tissa, and I gave what I now understand to be a very heady sermon - an analysis of the language of the episode of the Molten Calf that was rooted in a close reading of one of the verses of the parashah.

Over the last eight years I have learned that it’s nice to appeal to the mind, and sometimes a rabbi has to do that. But an appeal to the heart is much more valuable, much more welcome, and much more likely to inspire people (i.e. you). I can give the most sophisticated, deep, self-impressed reading of Torah verses, and it might be greeted with a shrug at qiddush. But I have found that when I demonstrate that the Torah can be interpreted to help us live better lives as Jews and as people, I find that the message is far more likely to be heard, understood, and appreciated.

So, for example, looking at Parashat Mattot, which we read (earlier) today, we see that it opens with a detailed explanation of some of the laws surrounding vows, nedarim. Much of the detail of the law is lost on us today; most of it is irrelevant, some of it is offensive to modern people, and furthermore, we nullify personal vows in advance on Yom Kippur when we recite Kol Nidrei as a community.

However, you might make the case that the overarching message of the passage on vows is about the power of words: how they have the potential to do good or to do harm, depending on how they are used. What comes out of our mouths should be holy - it should build relationships and not destroy them. Our words should be pure, powerful and carefully considered to make sure that they are as effective as possible in repairing the world. To do anything less is to insult our God-given ability to communicate, to besmirch the sanctity of human relationships.

And that type of appeal to the heart is far more attractive, homiletically-speaking, then the most well-executed midrashic analysis that is delivered entirely divorced from the realities of our lives. The Torah is meant to teach us lessons about how to live better, not to be analyzed dispassionately in slices arrayed on sterile glass slides.

And that is the sermon that I needed to hear. JTS, bless her soul, is the Jewish ivory tower. I learned to think critically about Jewish text. I learned to review and interpret textual oddities by checking extant contemporary manuscripts. I learned about the evolution of Jewish law and custom through the lens of Jewish history. I learned to read and interpret high-minded Jewish philosophers like Buber and Heschel. I learned to read Akkadian in the original cuneiform. In short, I took a journey of the mind.

But what I did not learn is what I feel the Jewish world, and particularly the Conservative Jewish world needs. And that is a wee bit more heart. I was preparing to be too much the Scarecrow and not enough of the Tin Man.

But Rabbis, and Jews in general, should be talking about love. We should be talking about repairing the world. We should be demonstrating that our tradition teaches us how to live in a way that is better for us as individuals, better for us as a people, and better for the world as a whole. Because it is. We are Or Lagoyim, a light unto the nations. We have the potential to bring everybody the message that our bottom line is not measured in dollars or in trinkets or in how many degrees we have acquired, but in the quality of the relationships we build, within and without. As Paul McCartney once put it, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” (Can you tell I'm a Beatles fan?) That’s what mitzvot are all about. We have the potential to increase the love in this world by acting in it, by reaching out beyond ourselves.

When we study Torah, we acknowledge that there are shiv’im panim latorah, seventy faces to the Torah, that is, seventy ways (at least) of understanding every passage, every word, every story, every mitzvah, and so forth. (OK, so maybe not seventy, but that’s just rabbinic-speak for “a whole bunch.”)

There are many ways of understanding our foundational text, and the way we approach this text, referred to rabbinically as “Talmud Torah,” we must take as axiomatic the idea that no single approach is the lone correct understanding. Talmud Torah includes the seventy faces. And among those faces are those of the heart and those of the mind.

So while it makes sense to study Torah from both the rational perspective, the cool, removed, just-the-facts-ma’am position, as well as from the spiritual perspective. We should not merely ask, “What does this mean?” but also, “What does this mean to us?” And this takes a whole lot more work. So while the standard commentators (Rashi, Ramban, ibn Ezra, etc.) usually try to resolve issues within the text by working through the challenging language, the midrashic approach seeks to humanize the text by telling stories. And Hasidic tales tend to go even further by seeking the personal angle - how might we learn from this to emulate the acts of piety and selflessness of which Hasidic lore often speaks.

It took me a long time to figure out that the journey of the heart is where it’s at, since my own inclination is to be analytical. (If my wife would let me I'd be going for my 6th degree in something...anything... I love that Ivory Tower.) But Talmud Torah for the modern audience has to hit us where we live: to answer questions like this:
  • What do I want my children to learn about life?
  • How do I make a difference in this world?
  • Why is this world so much more complex than it used to be, and how do I navigate the complexity?
And so forth.

These are all essential questions that we might often overlook if they are not staring us in the face. And that’s why the most important mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah (see Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1, etc.). You can light all the Hanukkah candles you want; you can daven with passion while fasting on Yom Kippur; you can gorge yourself on matzah and sit in the Sukkah and make sure your boys are circumcized and your doorposts have mezuzot and on and on, but until you commit to learning the precious words of the Jewish bookshelf, you cannot fully appreciate the richness and value of our tradition. When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.

The Beit Midrash

Bottom line is that I learned here in Great Neck the value of the third, and most important, Jewish journey. And I am going to exhort you to step up to the plate: the beit midrash awaits.

Don't be afraid to take that journey. Embrace it. That is the way we move forward, the way that we discover who we are.

I found my voice here at Temple Israel. I found my stride, my legs. I discovered my hands, and the good works that I could do for others. My true passions were revealed to me here.

This stuff actually works.

Talmud Torah keneged kulam. The study of Torah weighs more than all of the other mitzvot combined. Keep learning, and asking “What does this mean to us?” You are not taking a physical journey like we are (though Pittsburgh is a great place to visit - just sayin'). But I hope you will all keep moving forward, and work hard to bring everybody else in this community along with you. Keep moving.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 7/18/2015.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Fractured Peace of Zealotry - Pinehas 5775

It’s a classic curse: You should live in interesting times. The Jewish world has never had a dull moment, and this week was no exception.

Earlier in the week a curious piece of news crossed my screen. A group of Brooklyn residents, Jews and non-Jews, are suing four Brooklyn rabbis over the performance of one of the more curious (and offensive) rituals in the Jewish world: that of shlogn kapores, where one swings a chicken over one’s head and recites the phrase,

זה חליפתי, זה תמורתי, זה כפרתי, זה הכסף ילך לי ואני אלך ואכנס לחיים טובים ארוכים ולשלום.
Zeh halifati, zeh temurati, zeh kapparati, zeh hakkesef yelekh li va-ani elekh ve-ekkanes lehayyim tovim arukkim ulshalom.

This is in my stead. May this be my substitute; may this be my atonement. This money will go to tzedaqah / charity, that I may enter the path to a good, long life, and to peace.

The meat of the dead chicken is to be donated to a needy person, or (even better), it is sold and then the money is to be donated. (Calls to mind the scapegoat; goal is that tzedaqah helps us with atonement - lessens the severity of the decree. So why the chicken?)

Now it is worth pointing out, first of all, is that this is nothing new. My mother tells me that when she was a little girl, she witnessed her grandmother perform this ritual in Boston. And it is enshrined in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 605:1), the 16th-century codification of Jewish law and custom that features voices from both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic world. The custom was apparently widespread, and goes back much further than the 16th century. (I have also been told by members of this community that it was performed in Iran not only before Yom Kippur, but also to help sick family members.)

Today, many rabbinic authorities (including myself) agree that this practice is outmoded, and surely violates the mitzvah of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, our obligation to refrain from causing unnecessary suffering to animals. As such, the traditional chicken-swinging is not permissible under Jewish law. The preferred practice is to put some money in an envelope and swing the envelope over your head, and then donate the money to tzedaqah. (Not quite as dramatic, of course, but equally effective.)

Nonetheless, there are many in the Jewish world who still use chickens, and the aforementioned lawsuit alleges that the number of practitioners in Brooklyn has been growing, and that it is becoming a public nuisance: live or half-dead chickens running around city streets, blood and chicken parts left to foul the environment, and so forth. Furthermore, many of the chickens are not donated to charity or to people in need, but merely end up in the garbage. They estimate that as many as 50,000 are being used in Brooklyn. If this latter charge is the case (and given the volume, it seems likely, since the logistics of donating and processing 50,000 chickens at once for charitable purposes seem daunting at best), then this ritual on such a scale also grossly violates the mitzvah of bal tashhit.

So that was one piece of news. The second came from Israel, where the newly-appointed Minister of Religion, David Azoulay of the Shas party, who in an interview on IDF radio dismissed Reform Jews as being not really Jewish:

“The moment a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel, let’s say there’s a problem. I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.”

When he was asked specifically about American Reform Jews, Mr. Azoulay referred to people who “try to fake and do not carry out the religious law properly, and give it other interpretations. These are Jews who erred along the way.”

When the inevitable uproar ensued, including a rebuke from PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Azoulay offered a sort of half-apology:

“It’s clear to everyone that Jews, even though they sin, are Jews. Having said that, we see with great pain the damage that Reform Judaism has done, which has brought the greatest danger to the Jewish people of assimilation. We will continue to pray that the entire Jewish people returns to the faith and we will do everything to be a beacon of light and values to everyone.”
Not much of an apology, eh?

It is worth noting that lest we might be inclined to think that he directed his remarks solely at Reform Judaism, he was merely speaking in shorthand. I am certain that Mr. Azoulay feels the same way about us (i.e. the Masorti / Conservative movement): that we are misguided sinners who have been led astray by contemporary rabbis such as myself. It is likely that anybody who dares think that it might be better to swing some money in an envelope over your head rather than a chicken prior to Yom Kippur might be a sinner.

And add to this that the Israeli cabinet earlier in the week reversed certain reforms aimed at making conversions easier for non-Jewish Israelis, and we can see a definite shift to the religious right under PM Netanyahu’s new coalition, which includes members of the religious parties.

The good news for all these guys is that we have no shortage of zealots in our national history to refer to, and we encountered one of them in today’s parashah. In fact, he’s the title character: Pinehas.

You see, we did not actually read the complete tale about him today. The real story about Pinehas was buried at the end of last week’s parashah. And there is a good reason for it. When the rabbis divided up the Torah into 54 parashiyyot, they often (or so it seems) placed the most interesting, relevant, or homiletically potent tidbits in the opening passages. Now that is not always the case, and of course I cannot prove this, but it makes sense - we’re more focused on the first aliyah because we read it four times over the course of the week.

In this case, it seems as though the rabbis who came up with the division of parashiyyot deliberately placed the introduction of Pinehas prior to the parashah named after him, which of course leads us to ask why?

Last week, at the end of Parashat Balaq, the Israelites had taken up with Moabite women (the Torah uses the word “liznot,” to whore), and God was not happy. In an egregious demonstration of zeal, Pinehas killed a such an illicit couple by sticking a spear through both of them at the same time. At the beginning of today’s parashah, God seems to reward Pinehas.

But then something curious happens: you can’t see this in your humash, but in the Torah scroll itself, the “vav” in the word “shalom” is broken in half.

The suggestion is this: God rewards Pinehas for standing up for the mitzvot, for fulfilling God’s word and turning back God’s anger, and so forth. The medieval commentators generally praise Pinehas for his zeal. But they miss something: that the passion of Pinehas is, quite simply,  murderous. It is destructive. Rashi describes him as “burning with anger to get revenge,” but that characterization is positive because Pinehas shares God’s anger. The broken vav suggests that although Pinehas stood up for God and against the poor behavior of the Israelites, his shalom, his peace, is fractured. It’s broken.

The theology to which I subscribe does not include God as condoning murder and anger. I don’t believe in the God of anger, of jealousy, of murderous passion, even though those episodes are described frequently in the Torah.

Rather, I believe in the God of love, of compassion, of healing, of wisdom, of derekh eretz, respect. And so do you, and so do they ancient rabbis who were involved with producing our liturgy: when we recite the Shelosh Esrei Middot, the Thirteen Attributes of God, quoted in Exodus 34:6-7, on holidays and particularly on Yom Kippur, we include the good attributes and leave off the negative ones that follow it. We effectively truncate our understanding of God to moderate God’s apparent anger, vengefulness and zealotry.

We are not zealots, like Pinehas. We do not fulfill our Jewish obligations through violence and terror. We do not blindly pursue what we perceive to be God’s word with no appreciation for the damage it may cause. We can leave that for fringe groups like the Islamic State, which rules through terror and violence.

Rather, we have to consider the world in which we live, a world in which thousands of dead chickens left for sanitation workers to take care of is unacceptable. A world that is much more universalistic in its outlook, in which we have to try to get along with each other, even when we do not see eye-to-eye. A world in which my understanding of God and halakhah may not match yours, but we still agree to live side-by-side respectfully. That’s the world of those who do not subscribe to the mindset of Pinehas.

The Jewish world is fractured enough, and there are fewer and fewer of us. I understand that some in this world may not approve of our brand of Judaism, or of Reform. Some members of our tribe do not want to accommodate modernity. But I hope that we can all agree that zealotry in all its forms is bad, and it is our duty as contemporary Jews, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and Haredi, to prevent the zealots in our midst to gain a foothold.

Shabbat shalom.

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 7/11/2015.)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Idolatry and the Confederate Flag - Huqqat 5775

About a month ago, I was in Budapest with my family to celebrate my sister’s having given birth to a baby girl, her first child. We did not have a lot of time for sightseeing, but I did do something there that I had not done before: I went to the municipal flea market. It was a weekday and deep into the afternoon, so not many stalls were open. But of the handful that were, several had Nazi items on display for sale: SS pins, swastika rings, standard-issue helmets, a soldier’s jacket. Some of these items were, perhaps most jarringly, for sale alongside Soviet memorabilia and Judaica items as well.

Now I suppose that finding WWII-era military paraphernalia is nothing unusual, particularly at flea markets. But the fact that these things were casually, non-judgmentally on display, merely for sale next to Jewish odds-and-ends was particularly jolting, since it suggested that Hungarians do not quite appreciate how deplorable these symbols are, how they stand for hatred and killing and the worst that humanity has to offer.

I found it utterly fascinating this week that in the wake of the horrible killings at the Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a number of southern states are finally, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, moving to remove the Confederate flag from their public spaces. Yes, it is “only” a symbol, and removing symbols means nothing if it does not change the content of our hearts and minds. Taking down the flag at the South Carolina capitol building will not cure the problem of white supremacist activities in that state or anywhere else. But it is a step, and, at least with respect to Jewish tradition, a significant one. Allow me to explain:

We read today in Parashat Huqqat that might give us some insight into the scourge of hatred.

God was angry at the Israelites for complaining their way across the desert, speaking out against God and Moshe, and so, for inexplicable reasons, God sends serpents to bite them. What do the Israelites do? They apologize, but then ask for Moshe to intercede with God to get rid of the serpents. So God has Moshe build a seraph / winged serpent figure out of copper and mount it on a flagpole, and when anyone is bitten by a serpent, he or she is instantly cured.

But later there is a problem. This seraph-on-a-pole stays with the people for hundreds of years, and they forget its original purpose, but it continues to be revered. So later, as recounted in the book of II Kings (18:4), King Hezekiah destroys it as part of his anti-idolatry reforms.

Idolatry is one of the biggest no-nos of the Torah. The Talmud counts it among the three biggest sins, the three that Jews are forbidden to violate, even to save a life (the other two are murder and sexual impropriety). We are told in our halakhic codes that we must stay far away from anything that is in any way connected to idolatry. (The Hebrew term is avodah zarah, “foreign worship”).

So for example, we cannot eat foods produced by idolaters, or drink wine made by idolaters, lest these items may have been used in some idolatrous ritual. We cannot enter a temple containing idols. We cannot have business dealings with idolaters in the days immediately before one of their festivals because we may make them more happy and hence more likely to praise their idols. And so on. (It’s worth noting that true idolaters are hard to find today: Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and many contemporary pagans do not fall into this category.)

Why is avodah zarah / idolatry so reviled by Jewish text and tradition? Why must we avoid it so zealously? Because it corrupts us, it leads us astray. When the Israelites are told that they will enter the land of Canaan to possess it, one of the first obligations they are given is to destroy the bamot, the unholy altars of the Canaanites, lest they be tempted to worship. Throughout the Prophetic books, the Israelites struggle with the influence of Canaanite gods. And our tradition teaches us that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians due to the Big Three transgressions identified earlier. Idolatry is an infection that proves hard to remove, even though King Hezekiah tries valiantly.

So why am I telling you this? Because in the public discourse this week surrounding the church shooting and the removal of Confederate flags, all I could think about was avodah zarah. That flag is a symbol of a particular kind of idolatry: the idolatry of institutionalized racism.

Symbols are used precisely because they have the power to inspire for good or bad.  But hatred corrupts, just like idolatry. It leads people astray, to do things that are violent and disgusting, acts which damage people and society. And although defenders of the Confederate flag might claim that it is merely a symbol of Southern pride and/or culture or the principles of “states’ rights,” we know better. The flag is a symbol of slavery, of racism, of hatred.

Confederate Flag protest in South Carolina (16 images)

And furthermore, it is clear that even if all the Confederate flags in America were to magically disappear, it would not cure the pernicious problem of racism. It might drive it further underground. (Think of the worldwide collective guilt inspired by the Shoah; it drove anti-Semitism into the shadows for decades, but we see it now begin to re-emerge in all its insidious forms.)

But our tradition teaches us something very important here: that the way to eliminate a problem is to distance yourself physically from all of its trappings. We the Jews are still around, thousands of years after the idol-worshipping Canaanites, Babylonians, Hellenists and Romans are all gone. The strategy worked; you don’t find too many Jews today seduced by the appeal of Ba’al or Zeus.

And that brings us to an essential principle in Jewish tradition: that symbolic acts ultimately lead to a change in one’s behavior and/or beliefs. That idea is encapsulated in the following passage from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b:
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצווה, אפילו שלא לשמה, שמתוך שלא לשמה - בא לשמה. שבשכר ארבעים ושתים קורבנות שהקריב בלק, זכה ויצאה ממנו רות.
Rav Yehudah said in Rav's name: One should always occupy oneself with Torah and good deeds, though it may not be for their own sake; because when one does something not for its own sake, eventually it comes to be for its own sake. For as a reward for the forty-two sacrifices offered up by Balaq, he was privileged that Ruth should be his descendant.
To explain, a midrash suggests that Balaq, the Moabite ruler who appears in next week’s parashah, and, by the way, is also mentioned in today’s haftarah. Balaq hires Bil’am ben Be’or to curse the Israelites, but Bil’am blesses them instead. So Balaq makes restitution by offering sacrifices to the Israelite God.  After doing so symbolically 42 times, his heart had truly changed, and thus he ultimately became the grandfather of the Moabitess Ruth, who is largely considered the first convert to Judaism, and is the subject of her own book of the Tanakh.

Judaism has always highlighted deeds over beliefs, because the performance of a deed, even without the proper kavvanah / intention, will ultimately change one’s motivation behind it. Do we all necessarily understand why we pray daily, wear curious ritual items during prayer, eat only kosher foods, abstain from certain creative or destructive acts on Shabbat? No. But we encourage fellow Jews who do not do those things regularly to do so. Why? Because after doing something 42 times, you will come to understand how the act improves your life, how it makes you a better person.

Our tradition teaches us that symbolic behavior, even if there is nothing behind it, leads one to change.

That is why we teach our children tefillah / prayer, or how to sing Shabbat songs, or how to participate in the Passover seder, etc. Because although we know that they will someday make their own choices about whether or not to be involved with Jewish life, the basis of having done something at least a few times will make the chance that they will embrace these rituals as adults much greater. Furthermore, the more often our children have participated in these rituals, the greater their chance of embracing their heritage for the rest of their lives.

If Rav Yehudah were here to counsel us on how to end the scourge of hatred, he would probably suggest that the way to cure racism is to compel everybody to seek out somebody of a different racial group, or even a different ethnic group, each day, and talk to that person, to spend some time getting to know him/her, to hear his/her story, to try to understand. You all know that each of us carries with us a certain amount of prejudice, a modicum of opinions that we form about people that are different from ourselves. But when we meet and get to know people from another group, those prejudices break down. The individual relationship outweighs any other opinions. And at first, while these inter-group conversations would be entirely symbolic, soon the symbolism would be replaced by genuine trust and admiration.

Now Rav Yehuda’s (theoretical) plan of action might be a little impractical. But we have to start somewhere, and the disappearance of the symbols of slavery might be a good start. Although, as many commentators have observed, taking down the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina capitol building will not change what is in people’s minds, it will certainly change the perception of what is tangibly acceptable, and what is not. And that will go a long way toward changing people’s thinking and behavior.

Hatred is idolatry. Racism is idolatry. We have to distance ourselves from the trappings of racism and hatred. Only that will cure us as a society.

Perhaps only with the coming of the mashiah / messiah will we eliminate hatred, racism,  anti-Semitism, and any other form of “my-people-are-better-than-your-people-ism.” But we CAN purify our hearts by working harder to lead more haters away from their idolatry. Let’s take down those Canaanite bamot. Remove the idols.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 6/27/2015.)