Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My Remarks at My Installation Service -- 10/27/12

Thank you Rabbi (Jeffrey) Wohlberg for delivering the Installation Address. Rabbi Wohlberg was my first role model as a Conservative rabbi when I lived in Washington in the early 1990s and attended Adas Israel.

My childhood rabbi, Rabbi Henry Weiner, rabbi emeritus of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, NJ and his wife Rickie are also here tonight, and I am touched beyond words. Thank you to my rabbinical school friend Rabbi Laura Rappaport for giving the invocation. I am glad my father Elliott Arian and his wife Lee, my brother Peter and his daughter Maggie are here today. And my wife Keleigh, without whom I could do nothing. My mother Audrey was not well enough to travel from Florida and our daughter Berkeleigh could not get out of work in Louisville, where she lives.

In Pirkei Avot we read "azeihu chacham? Ha-lomed mi-kol adam" Who is wise? One who is open to learning from anybody. While I don't have the chutzpah to claim the title of "chacham" I will tell you that one of the people from whom I have learned the most is not a rabbi and not a Jew but a Jesuit priest, Fr. James Walsh, one of my professors at Georgetown University. He will be giving the benediction at the conclusion of this ceremony.

A number of years ago I happened upon a speech that Fr. Walsh gave as part of Commencement back in 1986, the year that I was ordained a rabbi and that my brother graduated from Georgetown.

In this speech, Fr. Walsh said that

"education is a matter of “conversation.” It has to do with listening to and taking part in a conversation that has been going on for four or five thousand years. It tries to bring you into that conversation, with Shakespeare and Aquinas and Freud and Plato and Isaiah and a great many other people. It forms habits of mind that make you capable of being part of that conversation: reverence, a historical sense, a certain critical (and self-critical) awareness, an ability to enter generously, sympathetically, and imaginatively into the lives and feelings of people of other times and cultures. It forms in you the ability to listen; to go out of yourself; to be friends. And what do you need to take part in this conversation? Why, those same qualities: the ability to listen, to go out of yourself, to be friends. The goal and the way to the goal are the same. In this conversation, there are people who have been at it for some time, who want to bring you in to it—to share with you what they love, and to enjoy it with you as friends.

It seems to me that much of what Fr. Walsh says about "education" also applies to Judaism. Yes, we are a religion, but there are many irreligious Jews who still consider themselves Jews. Yes, we are a nation, but most of us don't live in our national homeland or speak our national language. Yes, we are an ethnicity, but more and more Jews today are not biologically descended from Jewish ancestors. What Judaism really is, after all, is a kind of conversation across the generations, or in Hebrew "siach l'dor va-dor."
If you ask most Conservative or Reform Jews what the central text of Judaism is, they will probably say the Bible or the Torah. But really, our central text is the Talmud. As my rabbinical school professor Jacob Rader Marcus o.b. m. said in class, "the Bible is not a Jewish book. The Talmud is a Jewish book. The only thing the Bible is good for is she'neemar -- as it is written." Or as another professor of mine, Michael Cook, said: "Judaism is not what the Bible says. Judaism is what the Rabbis said the Bible means."

And what is the Talmud if not precisely a conversation, a siach, about "what the Bible means" and how to live our lives according to its teachings? One of the most amazing experiences a new student of Talmud can have is to follow a sugya, a back and forth discussion about a law or the interpretation of a text, where two sages are debating back and forth and attempting to refute each other, only to pick up a history book or a guide to Talmud study and realize that these two rabbis lived several hundred years apart and one lived in Palestine while the other lived in Babylonia. Obviously, these two sages were not in direct conversation with one another, but their teachings were known. Each had his disciples, and the rabbis of the Talmud were very careful to attribute teachings properly. And so, the editors of the Talmud some 1500 years ago were able to, as it were, reconstruct the conversion that would have taken place between the two -- a conversation across the generations.

The goal of Judaism is not individual salvation. It is to create a holy community -- a kehila kedosha, a term which most synagogues, including ours, have in their legal Hebrew names. This kehila functions on many levels -- the family, the synagogue, the regional, national and world Jewish communities, and the State of Israel.

Precisely because Judaism is lived in community, I am responsible not only to myself but to the others members of my community. If I am to say Kaddish, you must come to the minyan. If Mr. and Mrs. X's children are to have a religious school, Dr. Y must agree to teach and Ms. Z must agree to be the religious school principal.
So we are responsible to each other, and therefore we must converse with one another. Our conversation is about what God wants of us, how to best implement our understanding of God's demands in our lives, how to strengthen our community and how to make the world a better place. But our community is not just a random collection of individuals; our community is a Jewish community. That is why our conversation must be a conversation among the generations, siach l'dor va-dor.

We have a responsibility to past generations. We are Conservative Jews because we are committed to conserving the Jewish tradition. But we are not "preservative" Jews nor are we curators of a museum. We are not obligated to live our lives precisely as our ancestors did, but we should be able to feel that they would recognize in some way the ties that bind us to them and the continuities from their way of life to ours.

We are not preservative Jews because our responsibility is not only to the past, it is also to the future. The Midrash tells us that the soul of every Jew who ever would live stood at Sinai to receive the Torah. So our conversation between generations includes not only the past but the future as well. We must consider not only what will work best for us in the present and how we maintain our continuity with the past, but also what will best serve future generations.

This is not an easy task, and over the last couple of years this congregation has been through some difficult times. Our difficulties are not over -- we are still revamping and rationalizing our office procedures and looking for permanent staff to implement them.

But as we move forward I hope we will remember Father Walsh’s words -- the goal and the way to the goal are the same: to listen, to go out of yourself, to be friends. Over the last three months in sixteen separate “Coffee Chats” I have listened to 160 individual members of Kehilat Shalom talk about what brought them here and what keeps them here. I have heard some sadness and some pain and even some anger, but I have also heard a lot of love and hope and devotion.

I am quite confident that we can get through these challenges with a little help from God and a lot of hard work of our own. What will it take? The ability to listen, to go out of ourselves, to be friends.

We need to listen to each other -- it is OK to disagree and indeed we should disagree. Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting over. But our disagreements should never spill over into disrespect or questioning the other person’s motives.

We need to go out of ourselves -- yes, we should preserve what we love and what is familiar, but we need to step out of our comfort zone and accept the fact that there is nothing in life so inevitable as change.

And we need to be friends. Our congregational motto is “where friends become family” and in the three months we’ve been here, Keleigh and I have very much found this to be true. We have been embraced, loved, cared for. We are grateful beyond words.

Last night I installed the boards of the synagogue, sisterhood, and men’s club. Tonight, turnabout is fair play and you install me. Together, we can and we will make Kehilat Shalom a true Community of Peace -- if we listen, go out of ourselves, and be friends.

Ken y’hi ratzon -- May this be God’s will.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: For Your Own Good

First, a Hebrew lesson. The fourth word of this week's Parasha provides us with yet another example of how it is impossible to truly understand the Torah without at least a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew. God says to Abram "lech-lecha", but what does "lech-lecha" mean? The "lech" part is pretty simple, it is an imperative, a command, meaning "go." But the "lecha" part is not so clear. It can mean "to yourself" or "for yourself" or it could just be poetic alliteration.

Rashi understands it as meaning "for yourself" and amplifies it: "l'tovat'kha u'l'hana'at'kha" -- for your good and for your benefit. In other words, Rashi is telling us that God is promising Abram that the result of his journey will be beneficial to him.

In the midrashic tradition, Abraham (at this point still known as Abram) undergoes ten trials. The last, of course, is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. The first is this command, "lech lecha."

But wait, the Sefas Emes, a Chasidic commentator who lived about 100 years ago says. How can it be a trial if Abram knows that God has already promised him that it will be for his own benefit?

And then he answers his own question. Knowing that it would be beneficial to him was precisely the trial that Abram faced. Abram's desire was to do everything purely out of obedience to God and not for any other motive. How could he maintain that purity of motive knowing that his obedience would also prove beneficial to him in a "this world" way?

What a counter-cultural thought. Those of us who are rabbis and Jewish educators often find ourselves in the position of "selling" Judaism, of convincing people to observe mitzvot which they don't currently observe, to support the community and so on. We generally try to convince people that they will benefit personally in some way: people need a day of rest, a Shabbat meal brings the family together, keeping kosher will help you feel closer to God, and so on. But the Sefas Emes is saying that's not what Judaism is about at all. Our only desire should be obedience to God; any other motivation simply gets in the way.

Does this speak to you at all? What motivates you to do the Jewish things you do?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Righteous in His Generation

The Torah reading this week is Parashat Noach which begins with the story of Noah. The very first sentence of the parasha tells us that Noah was upright “in his generation.” Anyone familiar with rabbinic interpretation will immediately be drawn to that phrase, because it seems superfluous. Why doesn’t the Torah just tell us Noah was upright? What does “in his generation” add to our learning?

Rashi tells us that there are two possible interpretations, without himself choosing which one is correct. One possibility is that “in his generations” is a form of damning by faint praise. It is only “in his generation” that he is considered righteous -- in other words, comparatively but not absolutely. He was the least evil person in a very evil generation and thus by comparison could be considered righteous; but had he lived in a different generation he would not have been particularly noteworthy.

The other possibility is that Noah’s righteousness is all the more noteworthy given that he lived among evildoers. By this understanding, it is easy to be righteous when everyone around you is also righteous -- just as it is easier to keep kosher in Jerusalem than in New York City, and easier in New York City than in Gaithersburg. But it is harder to be righteous when all around you, social pressure is pushing you in the direction of evil.

Which is true? One thing for certain that we learn from this debate is that all living is contextual. Our surroundings do influence us. It is harder to hold to our principles when all around us we see others violating them; but perhaps on the other side, we deserve all the more credit for doing so. I suspect that in the end, both possibilities that Rashi offers can be true simultaneously.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: In the Beginning . . . of What?

Did you know that the Torah begins with a grammatical impossibility?

The first sentence of the Torah, "Bereshit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim v'et ha-aretz" cannot possibly mean "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" although that is how it is most often translated. Forgive me a little lesson in grammar, if you would.

The "be" part of "bereshit" is a participle which means "with" or "at" or "in" or "for." "Reshit" is what is known as a construct state and best translated as "beginning of." As an example of a construct state, look at the phrases "Simchat Torah" or "Birkat HaMazon." Simchat Torah means "joy of Torah" and in a non-construct state we do not say "simchat" but rather "simchah". Birkat HaMazon means "blessing for the food" and in a non-construct state we do not say "birkat" but rather "b'racha." So a literal translation of "bereshit bara Elohim" has to be "In the beginning of, God created." An accurate translation, to be sure, but one which makes no sense. In the beginning of what?

Since this is a "two-minute Torah" and not a "two-hour Torah," I will not explore all the possible understandings of why the Torah begins in this way and what those greater than I have said about this over the millenia. I'll just share with you the comment of Rashi, who says that in order to make sense of this you have to understand the verse not literally but rather midrashically. Rashi breaks the word "bereshit" down into its two components. He says what the Torah means to teach us here is that the world was created "with reshit" or "for the sake of reshit."

Rashi finds other examples of the word "reshit" in Scripture. Torah is called "reshit chochma", the beginning of wisdom, and Israel is called "reshit t'vuato," the first of God's fruits. So, Rashi says, the Torah wishes to teach us that God created the world for the sake of Torah and for the sake of Israel.

In other words, the key "take away" is that creation has a purpose. God created the world for a reason, and life is not meaningless.

Bear this in mind the next time you hear someone insist that the only possible understanding of Genesis is a literalist, creationist reading. More than 900 years ago, the greatest of all Jewish biblical commentators thought otherwise. The Bible is not about history, Rashi says, it is about theology. This does not mean the Bible "isn't true," it just means that the Bible's truth is symbolic and midrashic.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Seeing God's Face

This Shabbat is known as “Shabbat Hol Ha-Moed Sukkot,” the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot. When an intermediate day of either Sukkot or Pesach falls on Shabbat, we read a special reading rather than from the weekly cycle.

This Shabbat’s reading from Exodus concludes with the commandment to appear before God on the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, and this is why the reading was chosen. (As a linguistic aside, the Hebrew word “” which colloquially means holiday, strictly speaking refers only to the three pilgrimage festivals and is a cognate of the Arabic “h.ajj” or pilgrimge to Mecca.)

But immediately prior to this, Moses has what can only be described as a “meltdown” after he comes down from Mt. Sinai to find that the Israelites have made the Golden Calf. He demands that God show him His face or he will not agree to continue in his leadership role. God tells Moses that no one can see His face and live, but He will show Moses His back?

What does it mean to say that we cannot see God’s face but we can see His back? Does God have a face? A back? Why can we see the latter but not the former?

Come to shul this Shabbat morning to hear my perspective on this question and share your own thoughts.