Tag Archives: dvar torah

B’hukotai: Sing Unto God a New Song

jewish-music-carlebach

This D’var Torah was given at the final Shabbat service of my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, Jerusalem campus, May 2014.

Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. These words of the ancient Psalmist are some of the most beloved today, especially because of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s beautiful rendition that is now sung worldwide during Kabbalat Shabbat. We all know Rabbi Carlebach from his renowned rejuvenation of Jewish music, but we tend to forget his other accomplishment of helping to bring Chasidic thought into mainstream Judaism. The power of the transformation he affected in our own movement is so clear that his own daughter Neshama recently declared her “aliyah” to Reform Judaism. His ability to radicalize Jewish mystical thought is well attested. Some may even say that he went too far at times.

Once, before leading a community in his rendition of Psalm 96, he asked, “How could it be that with all the Torah that was being studied and all the great luminaries in Europe, this tragic event could have occurred?”

We tend to shy away from answering this question when it comes to the Holocaust, or really any tragedy that has stricken the Jewish people in Modern times. Rabbi Carlebach was not so shy. “Perhaps,” he said, “The Torah being studied there was not good enough. Perhaps we need a new Torah.”

Shiru l’adonai shir hadash.

In our Torah portion this week, B’hukotai, we are regaled with a whole host of blessings and curses based on whether or not the Israelites follow God’s laws. Of course, one must immediately ask which laws. Reliable as always, Rashi jumps right in stating that what the Israelites, and therefore we, are commanded to do is toil in the study of Torah. This study is described by Rashi to be the foundation for maintaining the covenant with God, as he states that one who does not toil over the Torah, will then not fulfill the commandments, which leads to despising those who do follow the commandments and hating the Sages, which itself will lead to preventing others from fulfilling the commandments, and eventually ends with denying the authenticity of the commandments and God as well.

If there’s one thing I really don’t like, it’s a slippery slope argument. Yeah, I know, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah, but I’d rather flip Rashi on his head here and declare these things in the positive. To keep the covenant we must toil over Torah, which will lead us to following the commandments, loving those others who also do, and our Sages, and so on and so on, until through our embracing of our tradition we finally see, understand, and accept the omnipotence of God.

By flipping this around, we end up with a totally different relationship to God and the commandments. Our first step, which we have all embarked upon in earnest this year, is toiling over the Torah. We’ve toiled over the Torah of Moses, the Torah of Hazal,  the individual Torah of each individual’s personal experience, and the wonderful Torah brought to us by all of our faculty. Sounds like we’re on our way to some blessings, right? The rest of the path will just flow naturally out of our learning. And, following this, one of the blessings our Torah portion says we will receive for doing as God commands is that God will set up a covenant with us, with God’s people. In Rashi’s interpretation of this blessing, he sees the promise of a new covenant with the Israelites once they settle in their land, studying the Torah that had yet to be fully written.

Funny enough, in the narrative of the Torah, we’re just now ending Leviticus, which means the first covenant has only just now been established. In conjunction with this fact, the Israelites still have two books worth left of trekking before they reach the destination in which this whole blessing and curse formula will take effect. They are still a full generation out of their Promised Land, and are already being dealt out the stipulations for their descendent’s eventual habitation there.

We too are in a similar situation. We’ve just finished the first leg of our journey towards a lifetime of devotion to the Jewish people, and we know that there’s an endpoint to this training somewhere out there, but we may as well have the Sinai desert, checkpoints, border crossings, and all, between us and the endpoints of our programs.

We’ve also received quite a few warnings of blessings and curses that may come during the rest of our long haul in regards to our levels of toiling. Sure, we haven’t been threatened with having our sky turned to iron and our ground to copper like God threatened the Israelites, but I’ve got a feeling that our administration has some serious smiting power. So we’d better be toiling over that Torah. The question, though, is which Torah?

Rabbi Carlebach’s question about the Holocaust, and suggestion as to the answer, is rooted in a Kabbalistic teaching about the nature of Torah. According to the mystics, the Torah is to be renewed in every generation. It is remade by the masters for the students in a way that meets the needs of the particular time and place. One reading of his statement about the Torah of Europe prior to the Holocaust is that to make way for a new Torah, the old one had to be destroyed.

If we apply this idea to Rashi’s reading of the new covenant that was to be established should the Israelites follow all of God’s laws, what does this mean about the old covenant? Should we, as Reform Jews, be reimagining our covenant with God not only in terms of continuity with the past, but also to supersede the past? The first Reformers certainly did when they made their big break with the orthodoxies of their time, but what are the Reform orthodoxies of our time that make up our generation’s received, but yet to be renewed, Torah? What are we taking for granted?

I think that this question should be at the very core of each and every one of our minds. Ordained or still in school, part of the faculty or administration, if we are truly a community focused on Reform, the verb and the movement, our relationship to the past and the past’s relationship to the future should be weighed in every programmatic, theological, liturgical, and pedagogical decision we make. Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. Sing unto God a new song. We sing this regularly, often without considering the fact that it is a command. Even someone like me who doesn’t know the difference between soprano or tenor is commanded to sing a new song, in spite of the distress it might cause to everyone else’s ears.

Rashi, although obliquely, said the same thing: Toil over the Torah until a new covenant is made. Rabbi Carlebach said it much more directly: Sometimes the old Torah must make way for the new. Both of these men were ardently traditional, but both saw a path forward not through more of the same, but through the new.

This year in Israel I have been very lucky to be exposed to some wonderful new phenomena arising throughout the country. An attempt to renew the Israeli population’s relationship to Torah is under way. Dr. Ruth Calderon and those like her pushing for a renewal of the relationship of the hilonim to our textual traditions have made great strides. Yossi Klein Halevi sees hope in this renewal through the Israeli music scene, which we were lucky enough to experience first hand with Kobi Oz, System Ali, the rejuvenation of modern piyyutim, and countless other musical expressions of Judaism in Israel’s ever-growing music scene. I heard that some Israelis have even begun calling the people ordained here at HUC rabbis! The battle towards a new view on Progressive Judaism in Israel is underway, even if it sometimes seems bleak. The new Torah of the state of Israel is already being written, some of it right in these hallways.

Rabbi Carlebach’s reading of the Holocaust and its relationship to Jewish history and religion is definitely a radical one. There are many who would protest any such use of the Holocaust within a theological or religious framework due to the extremity and closeness of the event. These individuals would have a strong argument to do so. Regardless of the legitimacy of his thought, he made the statement. He taught new Torah from his heart.

Let us embarking upon a path of Jewish leadership not forget that we too can do this. We too can sing a new song, teach a new Torah. And not only can we, but we must. B’hukotai demands this of us, and so does the world. Let us teach a Torah of inclusion; a Torah of fearlessness in the face of change; a Torah no longer striving to maintain Jewish existence only for its own sake, but striving to make the Jewish people a blessing to all of the nations of the world; a Torah focused on how to bless our lives with meaning, not on a constant looming fear of curses. Wherever there is life, there is new Torah to be learned, and then to be taught. Let us never settle for teaching the same Torah that has been taught before. Let us teach a new Torah, each and every one, for the good of the Jewish people, and the good of the world. Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. Shabbat Shalom

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Everything Is Amazing and Nobody is Happy

This week’s Torah portion is easily one of the most famous. Everyone knows the general

outline – God tells Noah that he’s going to destroy the world which has become corrupted

beyond redemption, and Noah needs to build an ark to save himself, his family, and all of

the animals of the world. When learning this story, from a young age on, we’re taught to

identify with Noah, the most righteous of his generation. So what was so wrong with this

generation that a guy like Noah, who didn’t even bother to warn his fellow humans of the

impending doom, was the most righteous?

 

One of the explanations our ancient sages gave us in the Talmud was that this generation

had become haughty because of the goodness that God showered upon them (Sanhedrin,

108b). Citing the book of Job to describe these wicked people the Talmudic baraita goes

on to say that they enjoyed so much abundance and such great wealth that they came

to believe that they didn’t need God for anything at all. This wicked generation enjoyed

extremely long lives in which they were never lacking in food or pleasures, music was

always readily at hand, and their children danced.

 

A few years ago, one of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., was on Conan O’Brien’s

talk show and pointed out some pretty clear truths about today’s generation. The general

theme of his interview was that, today, everything is amazing and nobody is happy. His

most clear elucidation of this theme is the fact that people complain about their cellphone

reception not being strong enough to surf the internet, without considering the fact that

the signal has to go all the way up to outer space and back. Similarly, a few generations

ago, it would have been inconceivable to have a piece of equipment like a modern day

smartphone be available for nearly everyone.

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I complain about these things; with modern conveniences

come modern inconveniences. I also must admit that in comparison to the early rabbis of

around 1800 years ago who wrote the baraita quoted above, my life has so far matched

their description of the generation of the flood to a tee. I have certainly been quite lucky

in my life, but I would also say that the majority of my friends in the Jewish world

have had similar luck. If we are like Louis C.K. says and absurdly taking the wonders

of our world for granted, are we then mirroring the generation of the flood? Are we

similarly devoid of thanks to God, losing our ability to see the wonders in what is now

our everyday life? In short, should someone start building an ark?

 

Well, I think an ark might be a bit much, but there’s another clear alternative: Let’s be

more thankful. But thankful to whom? The second problem of the generation of the Flood

according to the baraita, that of casting God off, is another struggle that we face today.

One of the greatest issues in Modern Judaism is with the conception of God. We are so

often confronted with ideas and conceptions of God that are inherently contradictory

to a modern, scientific mindset that it is sometimes quite difficult to conceive of fully

believing in a God. It is especially difficult to believe in one that has the power to flood

the entire earth, but needs a human being to build an ark to save a remnant of inhabitants.

This is not a reason to dismiss the whole concept of a higher power, though, but instead

a challenge to the conception we have of our rational sensibilities to fully understand

our reality. The critique of thanklessness found in both the Talmud and Louis C.K. is a

similar challenge. Although we may have cast aside the idea of a man in the sky pulling

strings and deciding upon punishment and reward, at the very least we can marvel at the

wonders of nature, human ingenuity, and sheer beauty in the world around us. If just that

spark of wonder can be fanned, thankfulness for these phenomena will surely follow.

Luckily our tradition has a built in mechanism for reminding us of the wonders of our

life. The Jewish practice of reciting blessings is designed specifically to orient us towards

acknowledgment of the wondrous goings on around us. The morning prayer sequence in

particular (shaharit) is designed to start our day by thanking God for returning our souls

to a working body, along with giving us all of the things we need, from sight to physical

flexibility to consciousness, to go about our day.

 

It seems unlikely that we are heading towards another great destruction akin to that of

the story of Noah. Even if we don’t actually face a doom that necessitates an ark, we can

certainly take something away from the commentary of our rabbinic tradition. If mere

haughty thanklessness in a time of great plenty was thought of as enough to warrant utter

destruction, we ought to take this into account. In fact, if we read Noah’s collection of all

of the creatures of creation as an acknowledgment of the many various wonders of the

world, instead of as a literal gathering of the species onto a boat, we even find the answer

to the problem right in the story. Acknowledging the wonders of our daily life, and our

lack of control or full understanding of these wonders, is something we can all benefit

from. It brings a sense of awe to the everyday that can enrich even the most banal of

moments when utilized correctly. If this is the way that Noah became the most righteous

in his generation, let us all strive for such righteousness!

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Faith and Grace in Judaism

This weeks Torah portion, Tazriah-Metzorah, continues the theme of structure that pervades the Priestly literature. An obsession with order is the central concern of all of these pieces of ritual legislation, and this week we dive into purity associated with bodies. The priests are commanded to diagnose and treat a couple of different skin conditions, along with similar conditions afflicting buildings, and how to deal with all kinds of other fun things like genital discharge and menstruation. As I wrote last year, this was my bar mitzvah torah portion. It’s not much easier to write about now than it was then.

Mining meaning from Torah portions is really an act of faith. Judaism often balks at the topic of faith, but in my opinion, faith is a huge portion of our religion. For Christians, faith in Christ as the eternal savior and redeemer is central. For Jews, though, faith is an entirely different construct. Faith in God has been tough for us since the get go. Heck, one of the etymologies for Israel is to struggle with God. To struggle with the concept of God is inherent to the religion. Faith is not focused in the supernatural for Jews. We learned long ago that we don’t really understand and certainly can’t control whatever supernatural powers are out there. Faith in tradition is our cornerstone.

Faith in tradition doesn’t mean that one must believe that our texts are handed down from on high. In fact, I believe that does us a disservice. Our texts were never something to be accepted as directly perfect revelation for simple, easy human understanding. They are to be read, poured over, debated, critiqued. They are to be put through the cognitive grinder in an attempt to distill them, and that takes a lot of work and devotion. In fact, faith in the texts is only really upheld by the grace of their abilities to withstand the tests of time and to continue to transmit meaning to those who attempt to distill it.

Delving into Jewish text, be it Torah, Tanach, Talmud,Midrash, or even a Siddur, is actually very much like the ritual prescribed in this weeks portion.

Leviticus 14:

God said to Moses, “This is to be the law concerning the person afflicted with tzara‘at (a skin disease) on the day of his purification. He is to be brought to the cohen, and the cohen is to go outside the camp and examine him there. If he sees that the tzara‘at sores have been healed in the afflicted person, then the cohen will order that two living clean birds be taken for the one to be purified, along with cedar-wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop leaves. The cohen is to order one of the birds slaughtered in a clay pot over running water. As for the live bird, he is to take it with the cedar-wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird slaughtered over running water, and sprinkle the person to be purified from the tzara‘at seven times. Next he is to set the live bird free in an open field. He who is to be purified must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water. Then he will be clean; and after that, he may enter the camp; but he must live outside his tent for seven days. 9

It is kind of a troubling ritual, especially for the two birds. But in a way it’s also quite beautiful. One bird is sacrificed, and the other acts as a kind of  homeopathic magical surrogate for the person recovering from the skin disease. Faith in sacrificing the one bird, while setting the other bird free, carrying a magical concoction on with it, is quite similar to faith in these ancient texts to help clarify the still entirely confounding world thousands of years on.

As one devotes his or her time, ultimately our most precious commodity as it is the quantifiable measurement of our lives, to studying these texts, one sacrifices all other possible uses of the time with faith that the tradition will help to free us from whatever bindings we are being tied down by. These bindings may be simple human limitations, such as needing a framework for which to understand our lives, or just the limiting nature of our current, disenchanted material reality. The time spent reading our tradition’s stories and writings is not just an act of sacrifice and devotion to God, it is an act of sacrifice and devotion to the composers, compilers, editors, translators, and interpreters that came before us. We bathe our minds and spirits in these texts and traditions in hope of being set free. May it be that we, like the bird allowed to live on anointed by the sacrifice of its friend, are set free by the sacrifices of those who approached our tradition with faith in its grace to help guide our lives, and transmitted their findings to us in the faith that we would continue the process.

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The Ins and Outs of Hoopoes and Bovines

This weeks Torah portion, Sh’mini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47), is all about defining in and out. Starting with a depiction of the first major cultic sacrifice, which leads to God appearing to the whole of Israel, the portion tailspins into the death of Aaron’s sons as punishment for their having offered an unsuitable sacrifice of incense. God forbids the family of the dead any mourning. This scene is immediately followed by the prohibition of alcohol to any of the priests while in the Tabernacle (no sacrificing while drunk!), and the categorizing of animals into pure or impure (kosher or unkosher).

So we’ve got some pretty clear in grouping and out grouping. Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, are certainly out. But what did they do wrong? The text is really ambiguous. They are accused of having offered God “alien fire.” There are plenty of theories on what this means, but none of them help to clarify our main concern here, which is what is it that makes one part of the in-group.

If we assume that the breaking up of the Torah portions was done with distinct purpose and thematically, the idea that a couple of people in the high priesthood stepping slightly, and possibly only mistakenly, out of line could be so immediately dangerous says a lot about the rest of the portion. Offering something unacceptable or simply not commanded as deadly, grouped together portion-wise with the laying out of the laws of purity of animals might give us a hint at a deeper meaning behind the relation of these two segments. If we are explicitly told here which animals are to be eaten, which animals are not to be eaten, and which animals cause impurity, we may be able to derive a boundary for ourselves based on the qualities that makes these animals kosher or unkosher.

Most of the things that are impure are animals that will eat other things within their same category. Four pawed animals often eat other four pawed animals, birds of prey often eat other birds. Things in the sea without scales and fins are also often carnivorous within their own category.  And we all know that pigs will eat anything. Their corpses are treated similarly to that of human corpses by the law, too. So their status can then be seen as similar to us. This animal that has a relationship where it consumes other animals makes them in some way akin to us.

Mary Douglas has pointed out that the animals considered clean are generally ones that are domesticated by humans as food sources, or are closely related to these animals. In this case, we see their purpose within the world as being their identifier. So let us combine these qualities:  animals whose actual purpose is feeding us are to be eaten, while those who function is eating other animals are not.

Relationships between eater and eaten are actually interesting when you think about it. Why is it that something is appetizing? How can one account for what one has a taste for? It’s certainly not just that the nutritional value is high. There are plenty of things that I crave to eat that aren’t good for me. And I don’t ever seem to crave something I’ve never tried before. In a way, purpose is similar. How does one figure out one’s purpose? By trying things out, and finding what speaks to you. Many humans have this luxury, but it is arguable that animals do not. Despite what those conniving, tricky folks at Pixar might have us believe, I have the sneaking suspicion that animals don’t really have an issue with a sense of purpose in life. So if an animal’s purpose is decided for it, and the animals whose purpose is service are the kosher ones according to the Torah, then the Torah-described kosher ones of humanity must also be those whose purpose is service.

This then makes a  case for the Jew as one whose innate purpose is service. That isn’t to say that those outside of Judaism don’t serve a purpose, it is simply a different one, and one of much greater freedom. There’s nothing wrong with a cougar or a hoopoe. They’re very beautiful animals that have purposes within their own biomes. Should one of these hoopoes decide that a life of service to humanity through the Jewish covenant with God is a beautiful thing, I don’t see what the hoopoe shouldn’t be allowed to join in as well. We Jews, though, like the sheep, goat, bovine, are born into service. We don’t have a choice. Some of us are even born outside of Jewish families and find our way into service as Jews later. What kind of service are we born into? We are born into the service of God, according to the Torah. But as Abraham was promised at the moment Jews point to as the beginning of the everlasting covenant between us and God, we are to be a blessing to all of the nations.  And as our prophets told us even before the destruction of the first Temple, it is not that God wants us to make sacrifices, which today is akin to the prayer services and the ritual mitzvot, it is that God wants us to deal with humanity in a righteous way. So our purpose carries us even outside of our biome, into the realm of the universal, as a people meant to bless the world with righteousness.

This may be pie-in-the-sky idealism about what Judaism means, but we are talking about religion and mythology here, so idealism fits. One of the greatest concerns today in Reform Judaism is also the issue of who is in and who is out, as can be seen in this exchange between two rabbinical students about intermarriage.   At one point, these two rabbinical students start talking about  “ultimate concerns” in regards to Jewish theology when discussing intermarriage, but neither broach the subject of what the ultimate concern of the Jew should be. Maybe with a little more focus on an idealistic ultimate concern as being our defining factor, the ultimate litmus test of our in-group would simply be commitment to our mission to be a blessing to all nations through our covenant.

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The Boundaries of Purity and Pollution

toxic

This week’s Torah portion, Tsav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) is a continuation of last week’s focus on the cult of sacrifice in ancient Israelite religion. Last week, we were given the basic rundown of the sacrificial cult, the bare-bones outline of the form of worship. This week, some of the nitty-gritty is laid out. There is quite a bit of repetition of the sacrifice ritual itself, but this sets apart the new information in stark contrast. Ultimately, the new focus is on what is actually done with the offerings.

In my experience, most people just assume that sacrifices are something that has to be painful; a practice of depriving one’s self for some sort of repentance or greater good. Some of the sacrificial ritual described here is certainly this, but it also has a much greater function.

According to Mary Douglas, having a structure of culturally delimited pollutants and methods of purifying one’s self once polluted helps to maintain boundaries that aid in general social cohesion. To set up boundaries for social cohesion means to provide maintenance for a national or social identity, and to therefore define an in-group or out-group. This fits closely with the actual meaning of the Hebrew word that is often translated at “sacrifice.” The Hebrew word korban (קרבן) is related not necessarily to the idea of sacrifice as we have it in Western culture, but more to drawing close, or being in the midst of something. The qualities of pollution and purity found in relation to sacrifice here are really about whether one is fit to draw close to God or not, and if one draws close without being fit, the legislation is crystal clear: this individual is exiled. If one is fitly purified, one may actually come close enough to share a meal with God, as is found in Lev. 7:12-21. It is easily noted by any human being that sharing food is one of our primary ways of showing camaraderie, and delimiting who is inside of a group and who is outside.

So here we see the meaning of ancient Israelite sacrifice – camaraderie with God, and maintenance of cultural boundaries of pollution and purity as the method of maintaining social cohesion. Regardless of any suspicion one may hold of the priesthood (and there is a lot of suspicion to be held!) let us skip over that question, and view them as maintainers of social cohesion via these rituals. Assuming the best intentions of the Priesthood, the rituals can then be read as having twofold meaning.

One, this document is a method of maintaining social cohesion and social boundaries for a self-determining culture. According to this, the establishment of the Priestly cult would be a way of keeping the people together as one. Secondly, this ritual form was a way for people to draw close to God.

Although the priesthood and the power structure at the Temple in Jerusalem went through many upheavals, it is safe to assume that the structure of sacrifice held the same role throughout the Second Temple period. Many breakaway sects of Judaism who concluded that the Priesthood was indeed corrupt called this into question late in the game, though. The Pharisees were the most notable of these groups.

The Pharisees’ reaction to the Priesthood of their time was not just a simple dismissal – it was instead an adoption of the laws of purity that the Priesthood held to. Rather than doing away with the system and ideas of pollution and purity altogether, the Pharisees decided that all Jews should live lives of utmost purity, being a nation of Priests according to Exodus 19:6, and draw close to God in their own way, which was focused on study, practice of the religious laws now termed halacha, and prayer. This non-sacrifice centered approach (they still offered sacrifices at the Temple when it stood, though) allowed them to survive as a practicing group well after the destruction of the Temple.

This reaction to the need for in-group boundary maintenance, along with methods of drawing close to God, was established close to 2000 years ago. In the intervening period, mainstream Jewish approaches to God have changed very little. Reform Judaism changed it a bit in its own way, by focusing on the ethical commandments, doing away with the ritual commandments, and centralizing prayer as something done communally in the vernacular. This shift is often looked at as a specifically Modernist attempt to move away from the primitiveness of symbolic garb and action. But let us take a step back and look at it from a different direction.

As I wrote about last week, Isaac Luria was a great kabbalist in the 16th Century who formulated the idea that there are sparks of holiness hidden within the shells, or klipot, of our mundane reality. In order for us to better the world, we must raise these sparks of holiness from their klipot through the practice of both the commandments of God, and also acts of loving-kindness or compassion in our day-to-day life, which is referred to in Lurianic thought as tikkun olam, or repairing the world. So according to Lurianic mysticism, the conception of pollution is no longer about maintaining personal purity to allow us to draw closer to God. Instead, God is all around us, hidden within the mundane moments of everyday life. Our requirement is to help to diffuse the pollution through our actions, as opposed to diffusing the pollution around ourselves through ritual sacrifice.

This approach to communing with God, through acts of loving kindness, was picked up by Martin Buber, a 19th century philosopher who believed that our greatest experience with God can come through acts of pure, non-instrumental relation. To put it more plainly, when you approach someone or something in a moment, without considering what this someone or something looks like, can be described as, or can do for you, you are approaching it in non-instrumental (I-Thou) relation. This conception of pure relation is a pragmatic manner of looking at Lurianic kabbalah. You are not judging this someone or something by its klipah, you are looking beyond into its holy spark.

This new basis for drawing close to God certainly creates a method of communing with the divine in every day life. If we are able to view our interactions as sacred and holy in this way, then we are constantly interacting with divinity, and every choice we make draws us closer or pushes us farther away. The great quandary that is now raised by this new approach, though, is the issue boundary maintenance. As Liberal Judaism progresses, it has continually struggled with the issue of boundary maintenance. In Torah portion Shemini, I will focus more on the issue of boundary maintenance in our world today, especially in regards to Liberal Judaism. As it stands, though, this method of drawing close to God, of viewing our interactions as chances for the experience of divinity in and of itself, is a life- and world- changing approach to spirituality. The next time you are confronted with a decision of how to treat someone or something, or how to look at a circumstance you are in, consider the divine implications of raising the holy sparks out of every interaction. Through this constant attempt at drawing close to God, our lives gain immediate purpose, and are renewed with a sense of wonderment in the actual miracle of every day life.

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Gateways to God

ImageLast week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26), begins the record of the Priestly vocation in ancient Israelite religion.  Most scholars agree that the entirety of Leviticus was written well after any stage of roving worship, and that the language of Leviticus that prescribes cultic activity based around the mishkan, the travelling abode of God, was written down by the priesthood during the period of the cult being centered in Jerusalem.

This Torah portion recounts the most common of ritual sacrifices of the time. Each sacrifice either requires a domesticated animal or domesticated crops. The individual wishing to make this offering was required to bring it to the altar found in front of the mishkan, where he would have to lay his hands on the head of the sacrifice, and then slaughter the sacrifice for the priests. Then, depending upon the specific sacrifice, the priests would take the blood, either spread it on the altar or scatter it around the altar, and remove specific fat and organs from the sacrifice. If it is an offering of grain, it is prepared as a specific unleavened bread product. The sacrifice is then burnt, its smoke rising as a pleasing odor to God.

It’s a complex, detailed, and messy business. At the time, these rituals were the gateway between God and the people of Israel. But the book of Leviticus stands on its own today, its Priestly writers lost in the mist of history.  We are left to decode it, and to understand its underlying values, the spirit it is holding within.

Lurianic Kabbalah tells us that our world is full of empty shells, called klipot, waiting to be opened to reveal their internal holy spark. The shells act as a barrier between humanity and the Divine.  To call the rites of Leviticus klipot is surely heresy in some circles, but as we live in a world without a mishkan and without a strong connection to the ritual praxis of the Levites, we are entirely disconnected from spiritual content of these sacrifices. A shell certainly exists around them, especially if we take seriously the reality implicit to the rituals of their being a gateway between humanity and God. With the destruction of the Temples, this gateway was closed.

Rabbinic Judaism attempted to use prayer in place of sacrifice, creating an analogous structure in the prayer service to that of the sacrifice service. Part of the traditional Jewish prayer service is a recounting of portions of Leviticus, followed by a prayer that God will accept the recounting as if it were an actual sacrifice. The early Rabbis’ splitting and reinterpreting of the sacrificial cult via language is a brilliant method of dealing with the very clear problem of how to reopen this gateway to God. Words, in that time, were seen as miraculously powerful. Magic still existed in the minds of the public, and words were able to change and shape reality in incredible ways.

Unfortunately for most today, though, to enter into the real heart of the Jewish prayer structure is requires a great deal of study, a relatively high level of comfort with Hebrew, and an understanding of the meaning of the structure in relation to the Jewish understanding of connection to God. Many find prayer services meaningful without really understanding the background, but my experience has shown me that just as many, if not more, do not.

As Max Weber said, we have disenchanted our reality through industrialization, commodification, and materialization. Words have become nearly worthless. Any shmo such as myself can have a blog where his or her words are posted up for anyone in the world to read. In many ways, silence, the lack of language, has become far holier. In fact, to go back to the original topic, the sacrificial rituals according to Leviticus were completely silent, a far cry from the prayer services we attend today as Jews.

The first parashah of Leviticus is a statement of the general tools of the priesthood; an introduction to the basic procedures that will be expounded upon and specified in greater detail as they become more clearly elucidated. The general outline of sacrifice offered in this parashah gives me my tools to use to interpret it: The main players are the Priesthood, the objects of sacrifice, the methods of sacrifice, and the purpose of sacrifice. Please allow this d’var torah to be the same.  As we move forward into further portions, I will attempt to more greatly elucidate our situation today in relation to our own gateways to God, be it through prayer, silence, or attempting to peel away the klipot, the shells, surrounding these rituals to reveal the divine spark within.

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The Many Returns of the Jews

This week’s parsha, Nitzavim, is the beginning of the end of the Torah. As such, the focus is on warning the Israelites once again that unless they remain vigilant about their worship of God, and only God, they will be viciously torn from the land that (in the narrative of the Torah) they are just now being given. Let’s keep in mind that this text was probably composed right after the Northern Israelite Kingdom was sacked by the Assyrians, and in the midst of the Babylonian Empire’s rampage throughout the region, which was swiftly approaching Jerusalem’s gates. In short, the composers of Deuteronomy saw the exile coming, and were trying to figure out how to avoid it.

As history shows us, they failed. In this week’s Torah portion, though, they also seem to have known that they were going to. A few lines are devoted to a prophetic description of the post-exilic period, and God’s reaction to the people post-exile. The portion says that the exiles, who are being punished for their lack of loyalty to God, will one day see the error of their ways and return their focus of worship to God. Once they do this they are guaranteed to be returned to their land, and God will “circumcise their hearts.”Again we see the need for Israel to be made more sensitive to their God. We also must keep in mind that the heart was considered the center of thought, not emotion as we tend to think of it today, in the Israelite world. A heart circumcised by God would be one with its outer barrier removed. What can this mean other than the removal of the Israelites’  famed stiff necked-ness? Which, in my opinion, can only mean widespread direct communication with God. Now that we have been through not one, but two exiles and returns what does this mean for the Book of Deuteronomy and the nature of the Jewish people’s relationship with God and the land of Israel?

The idea of this text being an infallible word of God is clearly undermined by the historical realities that have occurred since its composition. In fact, what this very book prescribes to do with a prophet who makes a prediction that fails to come true would have us ignore Moses. So how should we treat this text?

In my estimation, the real impetus behind this prophecy is not to predict actual events and futures. Taking it to be a literal attempt at foreseeing an almost eschatological event which included a widespread communication with God is to assume that the people composing this text had more or less no connection to reality, when the rest of the text deals with some very real material. Instead, it might be worth giving them a little more credit by assuming that the writers were attempting to affect their readership in a particular way. Instilling hope in the readers (or listeners) of this text, may have actually been the direct cause of the steadfastness of the Jewish people in exile. A lingering and continual hope for return to the land of their forefathers was an undeniably central tenet of Judaism both in the first and second diaspora. There is no way that the Deuteronomic authors could have known that Cyrus the emperor of Persia would both conquer the Babylonian Empire and reestablish the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Even if one would like to ascribe greater knowledge of the future to the writers of Deuteronomy, though, one would have to accept that they made no mention of a second, even more horrific exile, along with a second, even stranger return to the land. And one would have to concede that it is pretty apparent that we Jews have still yet to have our hearts circumcised by God. So can we even apply this to ourselves today? Or should we just chalk this portion of Deuteronomy up to an ancient piece of well-meaning propaganda?

As we head into Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I think we should allow for the possibility of this text to be deeply meaningful and impactful today. Teshuvah, the Hebrew word for return, is referenced consistently throughout both this passage and Rosh Hashanah. It is often used throughout the Jewish world as “repentance” as well. The mixture of these two things, the idea of repenting and the idea of returning, are deeply interwoven in this parsha. This makes me wonder if we should even take the literal land of Israel as the desired goal of teshuvah in this passage. As it is relatively clear that living in the land of Israel didn’t actually create a more righteous, prosperous, or happy nation (just look at what happens narratively throughout the Tanach!), it appears that the real goal of the teshuvah would be the circumcision of the Israelites’ hearts.

This eschatological possibility is one that we should take to heart today. Instead of waiting for God to do this for us, though, we must do it ourselves. We must look back into the mists of time, relying upon the scraps passed forward to us from our ancestors to describe their highest goals and aspirations, but we mustn’t also take their hopes and aspirations forward as merely hopes and aspirations for our future. That would defeat the purpose of the transmission. We must, instead, attempt to enact these hopes and dreams for ourselves and our people by our own hands and hearts. The Zionists proved that it was possible to will one of our greatest dreams into reality in 1948, but I don’t know that we are any closer to the dream of our hearts being circumcised into sensitive instruments of morality and justice. Let us use this time of year, the Jewish New Year, to repent and return to the hopes and dreams of our ancestors. Before we deserve to live in a world where God will speak to our sensitized hearts and minds, we must first act the part. Shanah Tovah!

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Persecution Colored Glasses

This week’s portion Devarim (Deut. 1:1-3:22), is the first in the book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim in Hebrew . It is a recap of everything that has happened with the Israelites since leaving Egypt and landing on the east side of the Jordan River. A whole lot of it is Moses saying “Shame on you!” to the Israelites for constantly complaining and misbehaving. To highlight this, the haftarah portion is from the book of Isaiah (Is. 1:1-27). The entirety of it is God telling the Israelites through Isaiah that they’re pretty awful and miserable people, and that they’re going to be punished and kicked out of their land.

Putting these two things together, we see a historically based accusation against the Israelites for misbehaving and bringing misfortune upon themselves. In the Jewish calendar, this portion comes at a pretty appropriate time. Tisha b’Av, the holiday where Jews mourn basically every misfortune that has ever happened to us. The name of the holiday is actually just a date: the 9th day of Av, the fifth month.  The mourning is mainly focused on the destruction of the two temples, the first of which the portion of Isaiah here is alluding to, but we tend to throw it all in, claiming that both of the temples were destroyed on this day, that the expulsion from Spain happened on this day, that Hitler was born on this day, and on and on. If you check out the Wikipedia page I linked above, they’ve got a pretty good list of things that happened on Tisha b’Av. It’s just a crappy day for all of us, and we are supposed to fast and do all kinds of other difficult and painstaking things, like reading the book of Job.

I’m a little ambivalent about the holiday. This is mainly because I feel that so much of my Jewish identity has been built up around these tragedies, even outside of the holiday. As a people, we tend to focus on all of the horrible, terrible things that have happened to us throughout history as one of the (maybe even the) defining characteristics of our peoplehood. Now, I am not here to discount the huge and long lasting impact of all of the terrible things that have been done to us as a people throughout our history. They have certainly been a continual trend, and continue to this day. To focus on them as the central locus of our identity, though, leaves us in a pretty difficult spot as a people.

Throughout my childhood, I can remember a few instances of us celebrating something good happening to the Jews. We received the Torah at Sinai, and we love to celebrate that. God led us out of Egypt, which we also love to celebrate. We also love to celebrate when we end the Torah cycle for the year. These three things, though, were a mystery to me as a child. As a Reform Jew, there’s always a strange and difficult tension about religious celebrations. A product of modernity, Reform Judaism pulled off a pretty strong disenchantment of our tradition. This is particularly confusing for children. I deal with this tension daily when school is in session. Kids always ask “Did this really happen?” or “Are we supposed to really believe this?” The party line for Reform Judaism on both questions is a definitive “No.” But I don’t say that. I ask them to think about it themselves, and I try to encourage them to develop their own opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, the only concrete things we do offer the kids about history tend to circulate around the historical persecution of the Jews, and the foundation of the modern state of Israel.

This was also true for me. What you end up with as a Reform Jew is often a general lack of clarity on what we are supposed to believe or think about our religion, but a definite clarity on most of history being a terrible place for Jews, with the exception of the modern state of Israel. Of course, you eventually find out that Israel can be a pretty terrible place for Jews too, especially due to the ever-looming war and carnage. As a child, though, it’s just a wonderful place of magic and mystery where everyone is a Jew and you are welcome because you are too!

Now, I’m not going to delve into my feelings about the place of the state of Israel in contemporary Judaism. It’s too complicated a subject to do justice in this post. I will say, though, that the foundation of being Jewish that is offered to most kids (which is basically a mixture of the constant persecution of Jews in the pre-Israel world, and the magic and glamor of the world with a Jewish state), is highly problematic. What you end up with is a general sense that the world is hostile for a Jew, which bleeds into your Jewish identity in the Diaspora as being something inherently negative. I can tell you that there is certainly some truth to this. I was referred to as “the Jew” in high school (I went to a highschool of about 2100 with a population of about 5 Jews), and have definitely experienced the whole stranger in a strange land thing. My home synagogue was vandalized a few times while I was growing up, too. So yes, anti-semitism exists still today, but like any other minority identity, to allow the tragedies and the persecution to be the center locus for identity only creates an identity dependent upon our persecutors.

To create a healthy and strong Jewish identity in a form of Judaism that does not create binding religious strictures on what it means to be a Jew, we need to focus both on the positive and wonderful things that have happened throughout our history along with the negative and horrible things. Throughout history we have flourished in many places, allowing for people like Rav, Rashi, Moses Maimonides, Moses de Leon, Spinoza, and many more to continue adding to our amazing religious, literary, and cultural tradition. We can also consider our existence in America a similarly positive experience. When we talk about the Diaspora, why do we never talk about this?

On this Tisha b’Av, let us mourn the things we have to mourn. They are certainly there, and there are certainly a lot of them. At the same time, let us not forget some of the wonders that have occurred in the Jewish Diaspora. We are not simply a collection of grievances against the persecutions of our past. We are also a collection of  wonderful experiences had throughout the world as Jews, that have continually added new, amazing, and positive aspects to our peoplehood. The world has not been only hostile to us. Maybe on Eser b’Av (the 10th of Av) we should celebrate our victories, our accomplishments, and the moments of peace and harmony we have experienced throughout our history.

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Beating a Dead Rock

This week’s Torah portion is called chukat, Numbers 19:1-21:1. It starts very abruptly (much like this blog post) informing the reader that what is to follow is a fixed commandment of the Torah, a rule of divine knowledge for the nation of Israel. Throughout this week I’ve been in an argument on reddit with a Chabadnik about the nature of the relationship between God and the Jews. It is generally understood that the Torah contains, amongst other things, contractual obligations between the Jewish people and God. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy mimics a contractual formula found throughout the ancient Near East used between larger nations who were going to become the rulers of smaller nations. My argument is that much like other contracts, our contractual relationship with God has changed throughout time, resting my proof on the fact that we simply can’t do most of the things we agreed to, as the Temple was destroyed. In my mind, the post-Temple shift is just one instance of our continually changing, developing (dare I say reforming?) relationship with God. The Chabad fellow, though, holds that we are still bound to the exact same covenant as before, but that the Oral Law, which he believes was handed down in an unbroken chain from God, to Moses, to many intermediaries, and eventually written down in the Talmud, is what lays out the practices required of us. It is my belief that the unbroken chain tradition is simply another example of certain religious and political leaders using their authority to proclaim their laws and beliefs as divine.

The Chabad fellow did make some interesting points. A big portion of our conversation, beyond the rifts in our theology, was the question of what it is that Chabad is doing right. They are poaching Jews from synagogues of all flavors all over the world. My home community in Tacoma, WA is one example of this. According to my mom, who still lives there, the Reform synagogue is struggling greatly, while the Chabad synagogue is flourishing. And there simply aren’t that many Jews to go around in ol’ Tacoma. So lets take it as a given that there’s something that Chabad is doing that Reform is not doing that is making Reform (and other) Jews head to Chabad. I’d bet that most of these people haven’t fully adopted the Orthodox strictures of Chabad, but they are at least relying upon to them for their ritual and communal needs.

So what is it? The Chabad fellow claims that people want things that are binding. In short, he’s saying that all of the people leaving Reform synagogues to go to Chabad want to be told, “These and these are the divine rules for the nation of Israel.” Interestingly enough, this week’s Torah portion has a piece of narrative that ends up being deeply related to this. The people of Israel, still wandering in the wilderness, run out of water and complain once again that they’d rather be dead and rather go back to Egypt, the whole shebang. But this time God tells Moses to go talk to a rock, and that it will flow freely with water. Moses and Aaron instead go and say in front of everyone, “You want us to give you water? Here. We’ll give you water,” then, instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits the rock. This angers God, and he says that Moses and Aaron will die before they reach the Promised Land. In fact, Aaron dies at the end of this Torah portion.

Instead of following God’s directions, Moses and Aaron claimed that they were going to make the water appear, and then Moses hit the rock instead of just speaking to it. As I’ve said before, it appears that God initially chose Moses because he didn’t want the power or the honor. Now we see Moses, the great prophet who speaks with God face to face, given the ultimate punishment for his moment’s hubris. In Moses’ rush to claim this power for himself, he didn’t follow God’s actual instructions of asking the rock for the water. Instead, he leaned upon the past commandment God gave in a different time, place, and circumstance in Exodus 17 where he was told to strike a rock to procure water. Maybe this points to the middle ground to the argument I was having with the fellow from Chabad.

We should not be so quick to rely wholly on our past understandings of God’s expectations of us. The original commandments from and contract with God may have been written in stone back at Sinai, but today, we have no trace of these stone tablets. The Oral Torah is a great treasury of thought, knowledge, and tradition, in the same way that the Written Torah (Tanach/Old Testament) is. But in the same way that the rabbis of the Oral Torah didn’t follow the exact word of the Written Torah, we today need not follow the exact word of either of these documents. Things change. Unfortunately for us, though, we don’t have a direct line to God like Moses did, so there is no way for us to claim a binding commandment from the mouth of God today.  But if we look at Moses’ relationship to the rock in this story, we see someone so caught up in the moment, so ready to do the great act and take the leadership role once again, so ready to quell the herd of whiners and gripers, that he didn’t even stop to think about what he was doing. He fell into the patterns of the past.

So maybe my Chabadnik friend isn’t right about what people want. Just relying upon age-old power structures probably isn’t the answer. Maybe what everyone really wants is something different, something that feels matched to their time and place, and definitely something authentic. Now, authenticity is a huge problem in and of itself, and one form of “authentic Judaism” isn’t something that I think exists. But I do think the feeling of authenticity comes with just the right mixture of knowledge and passion. Chabad definitely has both of those things down. It also has the youthful vigor of a movement just now finding its full stride. As an individual devoted to the Reform movement, I hope that we can find the rocks that we’re still hitting, and instead start speaking to them in a way that can renew our knowledge, passion and vigor to create a way of channeling God and Torah that matches our time, place, and needs as a movement.

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