Friday, August 31, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: The Stubborn and Rebellious Son

Deuteronomy 21:18-21, towards the beginning of this week's Parasha Ki Tetze, contains what is known as the "Law of the Stubborn and Rebellious Son." According to this law, if a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his parents, they can have him executed. Now if truth be told, I was a pretty good kid, but nevertheless I did go through a rebellious phase during my teenage years. I suspect that if this law were to be literally followed, few of us would survive adolescence.

It is not clear whether this law was ever implemented in Biblical times, but the rabbis placed so many conditions on it as to make it unenforceable. Among other things, the rabbis emphasized that the biblical verse has the parents tell the judge "this our son does not listen to our voice." Our voice, not our voices. So they reasoned that in order to enforce the law, the parents had to have the identical voice, not only metaphorically but literally. Unless the two parents' voices sounded identical, the law could not be enforced. And since our voice is influenced by, among other things, our body, both parents had to be the same height and weight to enforce this law. The Talmud, in Chapter 8 of Tractate Sanhedrin, tells us that a case which met the requirements of this law "never existed and never will exist." Why then was the law given? So that we could receive the merit of learning and properly interpreting it.

This abbreviated discussion of a complicated subject raises some questions. Is the rabbinic interpretation faithful to the biblical intent? Personally, I think not, but as my teacher Rabbi Michael Cook told us in Bible I, "Judaism is not what the Bible says; Judaism is what the Rabbis said the Bible means." It does point out the fact that one does not understand Judaism if one knows only the plain text of the Torah. The rabbis strove constantly to interpret difficult Torah texts in the most humane way possible and made the death penalty nearly impossible to implement.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Pleonasms

The word “shoftim” means judges or magistrates, and this week’s Parasha begins with the command to establish a justice sytem. Most of Parashat Shoftim consists of “political” material -- political in the sense of the Greek word polis which means a body of citizens. Parashat Shoftim is interested in teaching us how to create a just society.

Much of Jewish biblical interpretation is rooted in a very close reading of the biblical text. If the Torah uses more language than seems necessary to convey the point in question, (technically known as a pleonasm), the Sages conclude that the additional language comes to teach us something we would not otherwise know.

Two examples in Shoftim have been significant in the development of Jewish law and lore. In Deuteronomy 16:20 we read tzedek tzedek tirdof, “justice justice shall you pursue.” Why does the text say “justice justice” when simply saying “justice” could have sufficed? What does the additional “justice” teach us? Various commentators have suggested a number of possibilities: that justice trumps other competing values (such as compassion or communal harmony); that the pursuit of justice must be carried out in a just manner and the ends do not justify the means; that not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done and that the procedures must be fair and transparent. What are your thoughts?

The second example is Deuteronomy 17:8, where we are instructed to turn for judgments to “the magistrate in charge at the time.” Here, too, the Sages point out that “in charge at the time: is superfluous, that the text could simply have said to go to “the magistrate.” After all, you can only go to the magistrate in charge at the time; you can’t go to a magistrate who lived in a prior era or one who has not yet been born! So what does the text add to our knowledge?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Shabbat and Technology

Almost twenty years ago, I was the part-time interim rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in Reno, Nevada, spending every other Friday through Sunday in that community. One of the members of the congregation asked for some guidance regarding Shabbat observance.

This congregant and his wife were born in another country and came from a Sephardic background. They were among the most observant members of the congregation. Like pretty much everyone else in the community, they lived far away from the synagogue and drove to services, but they did not go to their office or go shopping or to the movies, etc., on Shabbat. They tried to observe Shabbat as fully as they could within the context of the community in which they lived.

The problem was that their kids, especially in the spring and summer when Shabbat ended pretty late on Saturday, were starting to dread Shabbat. There weren’t many other kids in the neighborhood to play with, and the kids were really starting to feel both bored and isolated. He didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, he really did not want his kids watching television on Shabbat; on the other hand, he didn’t want his kids growing up hating Shabbat either, with the likelihood that they would abandon Jewish observance when they grew up and moved out.

What advice would you have given this man? What advice do you think I, as a Conservative rabbi, should have given him?

Jewish Ideas Daily recently ran an appreciation of Yosef Achituv, a leading educator of the Religious (i.e. Orthodox) Kibbutz Movement, who passed away in early June. In many ways the ideology of the Religious Kibbutz Movement is similar to that of Conservative Judaism, and Achituv was a Fellow of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a pluralistic institution where he taught side-by-side with Conservative and Reform thinkers. While he appreciated Conservative Judaism, he was also critical of it, according to Jewish Ideas Daily, because “its halakhic innovation did not emerge from the ongoing life of communities but was rather the product of meta-reflection by the movement's intellectuals, inorganically grafted onto the halakhic process.”

In other words, Conservative Judaism lacks a true community which actually lives by the halakhic decisions that the movement promulgates. There is a certain validity to this critique. Most of our members do not observe Shabbat, kashrut, or daily prayer according to the theoretical standards of Conservative Judaism. On a certain level, there is no pressing need to resolve halakhic problems, because our members in general will do what they feel is right regardless of what the Movement’s rabbis tell them.

An example which to some extent validates Achituv’s critique is a recent responsum by Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the Dean of JTS’ Rabbinical School, on the use of electronic devices on Shabbat, which was approved by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement.

Rabbi Nevins first reiterates previous rulings that the use of electricity per se is not a violation of Shabbat. He demonstrates, correctly in my opinion, that the classic Orthodox equations of electricity with either fire or “making something new” (a circuit) are erroneous and there is no actual prohibition on the use of electricity.

However, while the use of electricity per se may be permitted, actions which nonetheless constitute Shabbat violations in and of themselves do not become permitted simply because they are done by means of electricity. Cooking, for example, is an activity which is forbidden on Shabbat, and that prohibition includes heating water. So, for example, I permit turning on lights in the synagogue on Shabbat, but a Jewish person is not allowed to plug in a coffee pot on Shabbat, because in doing so he or she violates the prohibition on cooking.

While I agree with much of what Rabbi Nevins wrote in his responsum, I am not sure that I agree, for example, with his prohibition of the use of e-readers on Shabbat. He notes that almost all e-readers are connected to the Internet and even those which are not, nevertheless make a record of where one has stopped reading so that it can return to the same page later on. Rabbi Nevins considers this “writing” and thus a biblical violation of Shabbat.

Rabbi Nevins is certainly a greater scholar than I and his responsum has made me re-think my own usage of an e-reader on Shabbat. I have decided that from now on, I will turn off the Internet function of my Kindle on Shabbat as a symbolic separation of workday from Shabbat activities. But I don’t consider the Kindle’s use of memory to remember where I have stopped reading a particular book or magazine to be “writing.” It isn’t permanent, for one thing, and part of the definition of prohibited writing on Shabbat is permanence. Beyond that, it seems to me that even though the electronic record may be an inevitable by-product of using an e-reader, it is at worst in halachic terms a p’sik reisha d’lo ichpat lei (an inevitable consequence but one that the user doesn’t really desire or care about) and thus at worst a rabbinic violation.

Beyond that, there is a question of what values we are trying to implement and live by and who our community really consists of. I remember many years ago attending a class taught by Rabbi Joel Roth, a Talmud professor at JTS and generally considered one of the more stringent halachic decisors in the Conservative movement. To the surprise of many of us in his lecture, he advocated that Conservative synagogues should allow acoustic instrumental music on Shabbat at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah luncheon. His reasoning was as follows: instrumental music on Shabbat is only a rabbinic prohibition while eating non-kosher food is a biblical prohibition. Since the likely result of prohibiting instrumental music would be that the Bar or Bat Mitzvah family would hold a non-kosher reception in a restaurant rather than a kosher reception in the synagogue, he would allow the instrumental music in order to have more Jews eating kosher.

I would maintain that the use of e-readers will soon be analogous if it is not already so. E-books are much cheaper than paper books, and this allows works of Jewish thought and spirituality to be read by more people than ever before. They are also more environmentally-friendly, and Rabbi Nevins correctly notes that the Jewish value of bal taschit, not wasting resources, is one of the issues to be considered in evaluating any particular technology. I suspect that within the lifetime of many who are reading this, standard books will be almost if not entirely replaced by e-books. It may be that if enough Jews refrain from the use of e-readers on Shabbat, Jewish publishers will continue to print regular books, but they will become so expensive that few will be able to afford them. I think that Rabbi Nevins’ prohibition of the use of e-readers on Shabbat is one that few Conservative Jews who are not rabbis or JTS rabbinical students will follow.

To return to the situation with which I started this discussion, my advice to my Reno congregant was that he allow his children to watch videos on Shabbat, but that it be limited to videos with Jewish content only. In this way, Shabbat would be made distinct from the rest of the week, his kids would be exposed to more Jewish learning, and they would not grow up finding Shabbat a burden rather than a delight.

Similarly, I would encourage us to disconnect our e-readers from the Internet on Shabbat and read books of Jewish content on that day.

I have tried to stress over the years that Jewish observance is not a case of “all or nothing.” The questions posed to Conservative rabbis at times do not have simple answers, because the questioners are trying to include more Jewishness in their lives without necessarily making a commitment to full observance. I am grateful to be part of a Movement that struggles with these issues and recognizes that different rabbis and different communities may legitimately come up with different answers.

Two-Minute Torah: Do Not Add or Detract

As rabbi of a synagogue, one of my roles is to answer questions of Jewish law. While on occasion I get questions about kashrut or Shabbat or burial and mourning, the area where I tend to get the most questions is naming. The typical question is something like the following: "My grandfather's name was Irving, but we are not sure what his Hebrew name was. We want to name our baby after him. If it is a boy we want to name him Jared and if it is a girl, Jordana. Is that OK? I was taught that it has to be the same first letter to count, but in Hebrew both I and J would be written with a yud, so we figure that's OK. Right, Rabbi?"

When faced with a question such as this, I would generally answer that there is absolutely no halacha (Jewish law) whatsoever about naming. That it is all a matter of custom, not law, and the happy parents are free to name their baby anything they wish, but they should try to be sensitive to the feelings of other family members. And they usually respond in stark disbelief, because "everyone knows" what the Jewish "law" is on this subject.

This is to some extent an example of something that our Torah portion this week warns us against. In Deuteronomy 13:1 Moses says in God's name "be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you; neither add to it nor take away from it." We are required to observe God's commandments, but we are not supposed to invent new ones on our own. Tradition and custom are fine, but we have to be careful to distinguish between what is actually law and what is merely custom. I wish that more of us would be as scrupulous in observance of the actual mitzvot as we are in observing customs, many of which are based in superstition. Name your child whatever you wish, but the cause of Judaism would be better served by making sure that the meal for the bris or baby-naming, and later on the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, is kosher.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Old Tablets, New Tablets

In this week's Parasha, Ekev, Moses continues his summation of everything that Israel has experienced from the Exodus to this moment, when he is delivering his farewell address. He of course will lead the people to the edge of the Promised Land but he will not cross over the Jordan with them.

In the tenth Chapter of Exodus, Moses reminds his people of the sin of the Golden Calf, his response of shattering the tablets of the Law, and God's acceptance of Israel's repentance through the issuance of a new set of tablets. In verse five, Moses says "I placed the tablets in the Ark." It is not explicit to which set of tablets Moses is referring, but the Midrash tells us that both the new, intact set and the old, shattered one were placed in the Ark.

This action, to me, symbolizes what we as Conservative Jews should strive to do. As Jews of the middle ground, we are struggling mightily against two opposite tendencies. The first tendency is to see everything ancient as useless and outmoded. Everything new is the latest and the best; it must be adopted immediately or one is hopelessly uncool, even if, as we often find, the technology is not really ready for the market.

The second tendency is fundamentalism, reaction. Everything ancient must be preserved exactly as it is. No change is permissible, even though we know that anything which fails to evolve must die. Therefore people of this ilk invent a false past. According to this type of mythology, the Founding Fathers were all Evangelical Christians (though in reality most were either Deists or Unitarians) and Jews in Boro Park, Brooklyn, live in precisely the same way our ancestors lived in ancient Israel (a land which never saw black coats and fur hats or Yiddish until about 150 years ago).

As Conservative Jews we take the lessons of Moses. Both the old (the broken tablets) and the new (the second set of tablets) are holy.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Two-minute Torah: The Lord is One, But are We?

As many of you know I grew up as a Reform Jew. At the point in services when we would recite the Shema, which appears in this week's Torah portion VaEtchanan, the rabbi would call on us to rise (Reform Jews generally stand for the Shema) and recite "the watchword of our faith.' My brother, who is almost five years younger than I, misheard this phrase as "the wash word of our face" which at least had some internal logic to it. Of course, it became impossible for me to keep from laughing inside whenever the rabbi would recite that phrase.

There are many ways to translate the Shema but let us for the moment stick with the most common translation. "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." Notice that this verse which is often called the most important prayer in Judaism is not in fact a prayer at all. Prayers are addressed to God. This verse talks about God but it is in fact addressed to the people of Israel.

The Lord may be one but the people of Israel are certainly not. Two years ago a “Conversion Bill” was introduced in the Israeli Knesset which would formally grant all power over conversion in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate -- effectively denying the right of non-Orthodox converts, and their descendants, to make aliyah and gain Israeli citizenship. An outcry from Diapora Jews has led so far to a delay in passing this proposed law. A commission was set up shortly after to study the issue “for six months” and has still not produced its recommendations. In the meanwhile, however, new procedures have been implemented giving the Israeli Chief Rabbinate control over recognition of Orthodox conversions outside of Israel. So for the time being if you are a Reform or Conservative convert you can still make aliyah and get an Israeli identity card which says you are a Jew. But if you are an Orthodox convert, unless you were converted by one of the very small number of American rabbis the Israeli Chief Rabbinate considers sufficiently stringent, you cannot.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has announced he will retire in 2013 and they are trying to figure out a process to name his successor. The problem is how exactly to do that. While Rabbi Sacks is often called the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, he is in reality the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue. (Yes, in the UK the “United Synagogue” is the umbrella body of modern Orthodoxy, not of Conservative Judaism as it is here. Solomon Schechter brought the idea for the name over with him when he moved from Cambridge University to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.) Which means that Rabbi Sacks is actually the Chief Rabbi of those who agree to accept him as the Chief Rabbi.

Who do not accept him as the Chief Rabbi? Let’s enumerate the groups: first, the Federation of Synagogues which is a more stringently Orthodox body than the United Synagogue. Then there are the Sephardim, who point out that they got to England first. Then there are the Reform, the Liberal (two different movements in the UK), and the Masorti (Conservative). All of these bodies reject the authority of the Chief Rabbi and many reject the concept of a Chief Rabbinate at all. And yet, the perception of the non-Jewish public in the UK is that the “Chief Rabbi” is head of all Jewry in the way that the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the Anglican Church or the Cardinal of Westminster is the head of all Catholics in the UK.

So the raging topic in British Jewry is how to select a new Chief Rabbi. Should the groups which don’t accept his authority still have a say, since they are impacted willy-nilly by how the Chief Rabbi is perceived in the larger world? Should there be a Chief Rabbi at all? Or maybe more than one?

Everyone is in favor of Jewish unity but mostly when we speak of unity, we mean “everyone else should be more like we are.” The fact is that we are not one, and any attempt to formulate a universally-acceptable definition of Jewish identity, belief or practice is going to fail. On its simplest level, the Haredim will never recognize a Conservative convert as a Jew, and we Conservative Jews will never agree to a definition which leaves more and more of us (including my own wife and daughter) defined as non-Jews. What is needed is a way for us to respect and honor our differences, and to work together even when we do not agree.


I write this on my first day as your new rabbi Both our new home and my study in the synagogue are filled with cartons waiting to be unpacked. Still, I am reminded that the four weeks between my election as your rabbi and my family’s move to Gaithersburg compares quite favorably with the haste in which our ancestors left Egypt. While four weeks is not much time to find a house, find a mover, pack, and so on, at least we would have had time to allow our bread to rise -- if we were bakers, which we are not!

But the story of the Exodus is not just about leaving in haste. We learn many things from the Torah, but one of the lessons that we often fail to learn is that a transition is not an event, it is a process. Our ancestors did not go overnight from Egypt to the Promised Land. It took forty years to get there, forty years of struggle and strife, of hope and despair and nostalgia for an Egypt which was so much nicer in retrospect than it ever was in reality. The lesson of the Forty Years in the Desert is deeply countercultural, because we live in a society that expects results and expects them now. But as many a musician can testify, it takes years of work to become an overnight success.

Author and psychologist William Bridges is one of the leading experts on transition. Bridges describes a successful transition as consisting of three periods -- the ending, or letting go of the past; the neutral zone, where the end of the old era is in sight but the new era has not yet started; and a new beginning. It’s counterintuitive, because we usually think of something as having a beginning, a middle and an end. But Bridges shows us that transitions have an end, a middle, and a beginning. It seems to me that in the last few months the story of Kehilat Shalom and the story of the Arian family have so far both followed the pattern which Bridges describes.

When I came to Gaithersburg to interview with Kehilat Shalom, and subsequently when my wife Keleigh and I came to look for our new home, I have discussed with many of you my belief that Jewish life, Jewish identity, and the nature of religious belonging in American society are in a period of rapid change, and synagogues will have to adapt or become irrelevant. But I also believe that the most important thing a synagogue can offer is a sense of real community. I love the fact that Kehilat Shalom sees itself as a place “where friends become family” and we have certainly felt that to be the case.

My goal as your rabbi is to preserve the best of the past as we move together into the future. The key word in that goal is “together.” My hope in the next several months is to meet as many congregants as possible and get to know you as individuals. There will be a number of events to which the whole congregation is invited but there will also be many small group invitations to tea or coffee or a nosh. Please take these opportunities to get to know me, to share your hopes and dreams for our shul. I hope it will take less than forty years, and I know that together we can reach the Promised Land.