Author Archives: Rabbi Charles P. Sherman

Rabbi Charles P. Sherman

About Rabbi Charles P. Sherman

Rabbi Charles P. Sherman, D.D., has been the spiritual leader, teacher, and counselor of the Temple Israel in Tulsa, Oklahoma since 1976. Ordained in 1969 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, he is a Past-President of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis.

Yom Kippur All Year Long

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Provided by the Union of Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

In parashat Ahare Mot, the Torah’s fullest description of Yom Kippur appears. (Leviticus 16:2-34) But Holy Days, holidays, and festivals develop and evolve as human life changes. The Yom Kippur we celebrate in the twenty-first century is considerably different from the ritual and ceremony described in Leviticus 16. For example, one word prominently used in this chapter is a term with which most contemporary Jews are completely unfamiliar, namely, the word “Azazel.”

Two goats were brought before the High Priest, who cast lots to decide which of the goats was to be designated “for God” and which “for Azazel.” Laying his hands upon the head of the goat designated “for Azazel,” the High Priest confessed the sins of the entire congregation. This goat was then led forth to a high, rugged cliff in the wilderness, from which it was cast down as atonement for the sins of Israel.

Some translate the word “Azazel” as “scapegoat.” But falsely charging a person, group, or thing as the cause of the evils that befall us is a relatively modern idea. It was not the way of atonement in biblical days any more than it should be in ours. We cannot attribute our shortcomings to anything or anyone else. The authors of Leviticus were neither so primitive nor so naive as to hold this goat responsible for the sins that it carried.

I am persuaded by Mordecai Kaplan that “the meaning of that ritual was that you had to get rid of evil before you tried to do good.” The primary source of evil is always to be found by looking within. The need to begin with ourselves, to look within to find the cause of evil in our own midst, has not changed.

The Need for Yom Kippur

We do not need Azazel in our day, but we do need Yom Kippur. We also need to understand that the efficacy and value of Yom Kippur are for those who observe it during the whole year. The practice of mending our ways by approaching God with contrition and resolve to improve should not be limited to a single special day of judgment. One of our rabbis said, “A person is judged every day, every hour, every moment.”

This is not to say that the observance of a special day of repentance has no value. The first Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv referred to Yom Kippur as a “Temple in time,” an apt metaphor. As Professor Louis Jacobs explains, “God can be as little contained in a day as in a place. But just as human beings have found value in setting aside special places of worship for the God who is outside space and who embraces all of space, there is nothing incongruous with setting aside a portion of time for the concentrated worship of the God who is outside time and who embraces all time.”

We humans are influenced and inspired by periodic reminders of the truths we profess. The original Temple, like our own temples, was erected so that God would dwell in the hearts of our people. Like our ancestors, we are moved by the impressive rituals that take place within our temples, such as those performed on Yom Kippur. But God does not, as it were, come down to earth for only one day of the year.

If Yom Kippur is observed in the proper fashion–with no scapegoating but rather honest introspection and resolve to change–it will bring us nearer to God throughout the year. May our sacred spaces in our temples of time inspire us to come closer to God each and every day of our lives.

Questions for Discussion

How can we create mini-Yom Kippurs–opportunities for abbreviated or accelerated processes of t’shuvah (repentance)?

Who or what are the scapegoats of our time, the pass-the-buck mechanisms by which we slough off the consequences of our own misdoings? How can we confront and/or avoid them?

For Further Reading

For a full exposition of the biblical Yom Kippur as well as the role of Azazel, see W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary. UAHC Press, pp. 858-869.

Sidney Greenberg, Teaching and Preaching: High Holyday Bible Themes, A Resource Book, Vol. 2: Yom Kippur. New York: Hartmore House, 1974, pp. 9-86.

All Of Our Sins

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Violent Divine retribution. The slaughter of animals. The sprinkling of blood. Sexual perversions. Arcane rituals. Shame and atonement.

These are not topics culled from "yellow journals" or television "news magazines," but rather from the Torah portion, Ahare Mot, or "after the death…" Passages such as these have often been difficult for moderns to digest, let alone difficult to comprehend.

After all, why should we care to read about how the ancient priesthood of Judaism conducted ritual sacrifices, the slaughter of animals, or how to dash blood about? And why would anyone care to read, in precise detail, about seemingly arcane rites of purification, the priestly wardrobe? And does anyone really need to be told not to engage in bestiality?

Easy to Dismiss

It is easy to respond patronizingly to such texts and to explain them away as remnants of our primitive past. But "difficult" texts like Parashat Ahare Mot contain meaning for the contemporary world–and even for social action itself.

The death referred to in the title of this portion refers to the deaths of the High Priest Aaron‘s sons, who were punished by God after offering up "strange" sacrifices. This portion begins with descriptions of priestly sacrificial rites, outlines priestly conduct for Yom Kippur, and details forbidden sexual acts. We no longer offer up animal sacrifices to God, but the ethical insights of this text are eternal: it is not just about ritual purity, but moral purity as well.

Most especially, Ahare Mot is concerned with the purity of leaders. The text directs Aaron, the progenitor of the Jewish priesthood, that "from all your sins shall you be clean before God."

We might imagine that Aaron, alongside Moses the leader of the Jewish people in their exodus from slavery and their journey toward revelation, would not need to be told to behave in a pure fashion. And yet not only did Aaron’s sons cross the boundaries of Judaism, but Aaron himself was also a key participant in the idolatrous act of worshiping the golden calf. Leaders–even religious leaders–can clearly behave inappropriately and, unfortunately, unethically.

Even religious leaders who seem beyond reproach, the very leaders who seem to transcend the moral weaknesses of most human beings, are themselves sometimes subject to the same ethical challenges of humanity as a whole. But for many of us, including this writer, the moral failings of leaders are far more difficult to absorb than the sins of the proverbial "average Joe."

As the sages lament, power can stain those who possess it, and "would that on leaving the world" leaders be "as free of sin as upon entering it." From financial to sexual improprieties, we are endlessly bombarded with new revelations of our leaders’ failings. This is also true of our own Jewish communal leadership, and not simply that of society as a whole.

Ethics Matter

This Torah portion is in part a warning that no matter how charismatic, no matter how skilled, and no matter how successful in serving a cause–a leader’s ethics matter. No matter how much money is raised or how many people are served by a leader, his or her ethics have an impact upon the entire community and upon our community’s moral agenda. And efforts on behalf of tikkun olam (repairing the world) cannot somehow cancel out an individual’s ethical–or unethical–conduct.

This lesson, unfortunately, needs to be reiterated over and over again–not only in public life at large, but also in our own community. If the priests of antiquity needed to cleanse themselves of their sins, so too do our contemporary leaders–even, or especially, those identified with social action, and with Jewish causes at large–need to be ethically whole. Let us not morally compartmentalize our personal and common moral agenda. May all of us, leaders and "regular Joes" alike, strive to be clean before God.

Our Golden Calf: When Tzedakah Is Not Righteous

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Few principles are as valued or as central to Judaism as that of tzedakah, which translated literally means “righteousness” but is usually understood as the Jewish word for “charity.” And in the Torah portion Ki Tissa, the conceptual framework of giving and receiving takes center stage.

Ki Tissa is best recognized for containing one of the most infamous events of the Jewish people’s wanderings in Sinai: the construction of the Golden Calf. We might recall that even as Moses ascends Mount Sinai in anticipation of receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people Israel, in a swirl of panic and fear over Moses’ absence, devote their energies to constructing an idol made out of gold.

Idols vs. God

The construction of an idol is, of course, diametrically opposed to faith and service to the God of Israel, who is One, who is non-corporeal, and who, while being very much a part of human existence, also transcends the material realm. Indeed, an ongoing theme of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt is that Israel’s departure from the land of bondage is an ethical as well as physical journey.

golden calfEgypt under the pharaohs was the very model of the profound immorality of placing the accumulation of wealth over and above the value of human life. In embracing the covenant of the God of Israel, the Jewish people was leaving behind a world based upon the primacy of accumulating wealth, and setting forth on a journey towards a society based on justice, truth and peace, a society in which the value of all human life was an essential moral aim.

In the case of the Golden Calf, Israel’s sin of idolatry seems so glaring and obvious. But like ancient Egypt, we too live in a world in which the accumulation of wealth is often given primacy over the value of human life. At the same time, social action and charitable giving are ways in which the Jewish and other communities attempt to deal with the ills and injustices of society.

Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish thinker in the last one thousand years, devoted quite a bit of energy delineating the different levels of tzedakah. He rated anonymous giving, given out of free will, to be the highest level of charity. Just as the ancient Sages argued that it was more ethical to serve God out of love than fear, so too tzedakah given out of love and genuine concern for and service to others is a higher form of giving than charity given out of amoral interests.

What are we to do, then, when tzedakah is given for immoral reasons, and how are we to respond when charitable resources are derived from unethical and criminal pursuits?

Gangsters & Israel

I am reminded of two such instances, taking place in the throes of the creation of the State of Israel. As is now more widely-known, several Jewish gangsters contributed money, weapons and smuggling expertise on behalf of Israel’s struggle for independence.

One such gentleman, Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, was Al Capone’s accountant; another was Bugsy Siegel, a mob enforcer, and founder of the Las Vegas gambling industry. Some argue that when facing a basic existential crisis like the Jewish people did after the Holocaust, our community had no choice but to accept aid from any source. But what about today?

We in the social action community and indeed in the Jewish community as a whole must ask and challenge ourselves to think critically about when the ends justifies the means–and they don’t. In recent years, our community has increasingly had to ask whether financial resources gained from unethical activities should be accepted, or even applied specifically to social action concerns.

Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken and now Marc Rich, are well-known for their less than pure ways of accumulating wealth, but each also achieved notoriety for their seeming devotion to tzedekah. (Marc Rich, for example, did business and grew wealthy in part from his dealings with regimes such as Iran, Iraq and apartheid-era South Africa–and yet he also gave millions of dollars to Israel and other causes.)

Although this dilemma is not new, I fear that our community has yet to truly deal with this challenge. There are no hard and fast rules to these moral questions. But if we are not thoughtful about what we construct, and if we ignore the sources of our largesse, we too, like our ancestors in the wilderness of Sinai, may find ourselves building an idol made of gold rather than truly serving God and caring for humanity at large.