In case you were unable to join us for Shabbat on June 3, 2023 as we celebrated the 50 anniversary of Rabbi Stephen Steindel's ordination, we've included below Rabbi Seth Adelson's remarks and Rabbi Steindel's sermon.
Rabbi Seth Adelson's Remarks
What does one say about the Rabbi Emeritus, who needs no introduction?
I could say that Rabbi Stephen Steindel served this congregation vigorously and honorably for 23 years.
I could say that every day I serve this congregation, I hope that I can be half the pastor that he has been.
I could say that I am proud and grateful for all that he did to build and guide Beth Shalom to make it the warm, engaged community that it is.
I could thank him for the Steindel Library collection on the third floor, where chances are pretty good that if I do not have a particular book, I can find it there.
I could say that, as we celebrate this anniversary of his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary half a century ago, I am envious that he was there at a time when he was able to learn with some of the greatest teachers of Judaism of the modern era.
But let me just say this: I am grateful for his supportive presence in the pews of Beth Shalom, where he has been a wonderful resource and help to me in my eight years here. I am also grateful for the presence of his family, who have welcomed us to Pittsburgh and become close friends, and I am extraordinarily grateful for his inspiring love of Torah and tefillah, the Hebrew language and the Jewish people, and for continuing to show me the way forward.
June 3, 2023 Sermon on the 50th Anniversary of my Ordination by Rabbi Stephen E. Steindel
I only made the front page of the NY Times once in my career. I was quoted by the religion editor in a story he was researching for the High Holidays. I said "A Rosh Hashanah sermon should be timely and timeless." I hope I fulfilled that mandate a quarter century ago and again here today.
Do you know what the number one crime in America is? It's not drugs or corporate greed, not car theft or domestic violence. It's not even double parking or income tax evasion. The number one crime in America is Identity Theft!
Everyone from sophisticated graduate students to unsuspecting widows is targeted. If you have a social security number, much less a credit or debit card in your name, you're a target for the most expensive crime in the land: Identity Theft. For Jews, America's Number One crime is our Number One crisis. Identity Theft threatens our very survival. Why do we find so many Jews abandoning their roots as shallow and superstitious? How can we affirm the Jewish Way as a better way for us, and a necessary way for the world?
The numbers game is less important than the sociological. How MANY Jews we are is a valid political and economic concern; what KIND of Jews we are is a vital spiritual and theological search. We need---our Covenant expects----and God deserves----a living and exciting expression of Jewish Identity for our day.
So here are my reflections on what I believe Jewish Identity can mean today. Firstly, from the Sabbath as Day of Rest to the kosher food traditions, Judaism affirms that there is a larger, greater, even holy task to which we have been called. And it isn't a game to see who can eat, buy, win, own, or keep the most. Our "roadway to holiness" is meant to curtail selfishness and diminish our human hungers. "BARUCH ATTA HA-SHEM" means that you and I are not the center of God's universe. Self-denial can become a form of self-enhancement when we come to understand that NO can be helpful advice, and THOU SHALT NOT is both good for the diet and good for the soul.
The essence of our tradition is to prevent us from doing everything of which we are capable. A life of excess leads neither to virtue nor to holiness. Nature does not exist solely to gratify human need or human greed. We are placed here by a higher being for a higher purpose. Religion is truest when it elevates you and me above our senses and above our lusts. And that's a basic ingredient of Jewish Identity that we need to re-gain and re-introduce today. In a world that celebrates the awesome skill of a violin virtuoso or the endless practice that make for mastery in sports, our Judaism can make the case for self-denial as a step toward transcendence; for self-discipline as a step toward holiness; for self-diminishment as a step closer to God.
Jewish Identity today dare not be reduced to wearing a chai bracelet or schmeering a bagel with cream cheese! Not the Ten Commandments frozen in stone in a public square, but all the commandments of God carried in our hearts and minds into every conversation, every relationship, every encounter. That's what God wants. That's what true Jewish Identity could look like.
And that by the way is why the ancient rabbis of Mishnaic times (not 20th, 19th, or 18th century "reformers") removed the Ten Commandments from our daily prayers---for fear that we'd focus only on those words and not the teachings and interpretations that flow from them. To be a Jew, God must never be far away or beyond our reach. I hear so many of you say it in normal conversation: God willing; God forbid; Got tzedonk. The challenge of life in our busy and secular society is to keep God Talk and our Divine Connection alive--in health and in illness---in joy and in sorrow----in simple conversation and in solemn prayer assembly. God talk is our way of saying that we're not in charge here. A power greater and stronger created us and commands us. And we're thankful for the connection back to Sinai and the eternal values of Torah and mitzvot that are like guard rails and safety nets in turbulent times.
Now our Jewish Identity can come into clearer focus. Torah calls on us to lead a holier life. Tzedaka teaches us to love one another. Tikun Olam recruits us to make this a better world for all. That's Jewish Identity at its truest. We are the birthplace and we are the bearers of the challenge to never give up, never surrender to evil, never abandon hope, never allow hatred, selfishness or despair to triumph. No-one said it would be an easy road or instant success, but it is Israel's historic calling and our eternal covenant with God.