This past week in synagogues throughout the world we rolled the Torah scroll forward and began reading from the Book of Leviticus. Each week during Shabbat services congregations all over will be reading the account of the sacrificial system that encompassed the ritual life of the Jewish people throughout their wanderings in the desert with the Tabernacle, and later with the construction of both the first and second Temples. These readings can feel foreign and removed from the lives we lead, as people disconnected from a religion that revolves around sacrifices, whether animal or grain based. What can there possibly be to learn from these sections of Torah?
Maimonides in his chief work of philosophy, The Guide to the Perplexed, suggests that the sacrificial system instituted in the Torah was a pedagogical tool meant to transform us and to change us in radical ways. What precisely is the educational aim of the sacrifices?
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, the 19th century rabbi of Berlin, in his introduction to the Book of Leviticus, connects the sacrificial system recorded in Leviticus to that near sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of his father Abraham in the Book of Genesis. That moment, bracketing the psychological and emotional dilemmas it presents, demonstrated in an extreme fashion the notion of self-sacrifice, of giving up something precious for a more lofty purpose. It involved taking a “leap of faith,” as the philosopher Soren Kierkagaard understood the near sacrifice of Isaac to be, that giving of yourself, sacrificing a part of what is important to you for someone or something else, will not only benefit the recipient but will benefit you as well. Thus, we can see the Torah’s sacrificial system as being the institutionalized mechanism by which the Jewish people live that value on a daily basis.
This very much is reminiscent of the famous line by President John F. Kennedy: “And so my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy was leading the country towards understanding that when we all invest into the project of building America, not only will America as a whole become stronger and greater, but each citizen, each person who puts of themselves into the project, will also reap the reward. Likewise, the impact and meaning we want and need from Judaism in our lives will only be realized and only be possible if we take the time and the energy to give of ourselves into it. We will receive according to what we put in and we will benefit and all those similarly invested will benefit from our efforts as well.
As we progress through Leviticus, let us ask ourselves: What am I ready to give of myself into the Jewish project so that it becomes richer, deeper, more profound and meaningful and will come to enrich, deepen and add meaning to my life as well?
I have been an active participant in a group of Muslims, Christians and Jews that meets two to three times a year for presentations and dialogue. All of us would define ourselves as active religious practitioners. Our conversations have moved into areas of genuine dialogue and have space for disagreements and different views from both within our religious traditions as well as between religions. In other words, we have begun to trust each other.
Our meeting last week looked at the question of interfaith marriage. I was asked to be the Jewish presenter and a Catholic priest and Muslim chaplain at a local university presented their traditions.
What I found fascinating was that the priest, although an expert in canon law, approached the question from a pastoral care perspective. He clearly saw the couple and the success of their marriage as his desired outcome. The Muslim presenter gave a legal discourse and argued that while Muslim law allowed men to marry Christian and Jewish women, the reverse was not accepted. She argued that this should not be the case and that Muslim women should be allowed to marry Christian or Jewish men, citing a number of contemporary Muslim authorities. Parenthetically, at my table during conversation one of the Muslim participants commented that most Muslims would not find the contemporary authorities cited as being authoritative. This certainly has its parallels in contemporary Jewish legal debates and sounded very familiar to me as an Orthodox rabbi. My primary focus was a theological argument why Jews should marry other Jews. It was not intended to be an argument against interfaith marriage which would be silly and futile for reasons that my readers surely understand. Rather the primary focus was on understanding Jewish Peoplehood in theological/legal terms and how one’s decision whom to marry might be shaped by this understanding.
This is what I said:
“Jews stand in relationship to God as members of the covenant. In the Bible, this covenant while it begins in the Bible with Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish people as a nation enter into this covenant at Mount Sinai when they receive and accept the Torah and it is reaffirmed forty years later in the Book of Deuteronomy before the death of Moses.
“You are standing, this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – the leaders of your tribes, your elders, your officers, every Jewish individual; your children, your wives, the strangers in the midst of your camp, from the hewers of wood to the drawers of water; to bring you into the covenant of Lord your God and His oath, which God is making with you today.
In order to establish you today as a nation unto Him, and He shall be your God, as He told you; and as He promised your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And not only with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath; but rather, with those that are here with us standing today before the Lord, our God, and with those THAT ARE NOT HERE WITH US TODAY.” (Deut. 29, 9-11).
This Deuteronomy passage reaffirms the covenant that began in Genesis with a family, continued in the Book of Exodus as a nation at Sinai-thus the reference to be your God, and then adds with those who are not here today. This is understood to include all those not yet born. Covenant is rooted in family and peoplehood. It is not a relationship made with a single individual qua individual, but with a family and then a nation.
The next passage from the Mekhilta, a third century rabbinic text, builds on this and elaborates on the implications of this covenant relationship.
“Rabbi says: This proclaims the excellence of Israel. For when they all stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah they all made up their mind alike’ to accept the reign of God joyfully. Furthermore, they pledged themselves for one another. And it was not only concerning overt acts that God, revealing Himself to them, wished to make His covenant with them but also concerning secret acts, as it is said: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God’ and the things that are revealed,” etc. (Deut. 29.28). But they said to Him: Concerning overt acts we are ready to make a covenant with You, but we will not make a covenant with You in regard to secret acts lest one of us commit a sin secretly and the entire community be held responsible for it.”
Now this passage is seen as a dialogue between God and the people. God makes a covenant, but the implications of the covenant are that that the people are responsible one for another and therefore accountable when people sin and transgress. Here the people agree to that but with one limitation, it only applies to public transgressions. How can I be responsible for something someone has done in private? God agrees and therefore a text from Deuteronomy 29 is quoted that secret acts belong to God, but revealed public acts are the responsibility of the people.
Now this understanding creates the principle of “All Jews are responsible one for another, kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”. Now this was not understood as only responsibility and accountability on a social level, but as a metaphysical construct of creating a religious sense of peoplehood. Let me describe how this plays out. For example, before I eat I am required to make a blessing over the food. It is quick and usually all of 7-9 words. However, Friday night for example in my home before we eat the bread at the Sabbath dinner only my wife makes the blessing and everyone answers Amen. Now if it is my responsibility to say the blessing, how can my wife recite it for me or the others at the table? The answer is we share this covenantal peoplehood bond, and her reciting of it is as if I have done it as well. We are linked together in the performance of commandments.
You can see this also in the Jewish wedding ceremony. This is the last blessing recited at the wedding ceremony.
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King/Ruler of the universe, who created joy and happiness, groom and bride, gladness, jubilation, cheer and delight, love, friendship, harmony and fellowship. Lord our God, let there speedily be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride, the sound of exultation of grooms from under their huppah, and youths from their joyous banquets. Blessed are You Lord, who gladdens the groom with the bride.”
The wedding ceremony is not only about my joining in marriage with another person, but it also means we share the same vision. The vision of redemption in this blessing is the vision of a redeemed people, and a wedding is the manifestation of that redemption. The prophet Jeremiah whose words are paraphrased here sees weddings as sign of the redemption and in getting married my wedding is a foretaste, a hint, a statement of faith, of the redemption of my people And this redemption is not a spiritual redemption of the soul, but a physical, in history redemption of a people into an ideal political, spiritual life. Weddings here are not a metaphor of redemption, but an expression of it. Under the huppah, the wedding canopy, is this affirmation of peoplehood, again not a social construct, but a religious entity.
Finally, the vehicle, the institution for teaching the faith, but more importantly for living Judaism is not the synagogue, although it is needed and important, but it really is the family. Shabbat is observed at my table, I transmit and teach my children at the Passover Seder centered around my table. My table is an altar and the Temple, long destroyed, is recreated in my home. It is around this table that I teach my children. In particular we see this at Passover and Deuteronomy 6 is an important text of the Seder. “If your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you?”. You shall say to your son, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)
My child asks what does this mean to you and I answer we. It is not about me and you, but about us. Our religious identity is centered in our we, being part of the people who stood at Sinai and we are in covenant with God. And it is that sense of we that I transmit to my family in the holy moments we gather in family.
This is why I married a Jew, this is why I want my children to marry Jews, and I cannot simply imagine sharing this covenantal responsibility and bond with someone who is not part of the people who share this consciousness. I cannot imagine having the deepest most intimate relationship with someone with whom it is only me and you and not we, sharing a sense of covenantal peoplehood. Can I fall in love with someone outside my faith who is a wonderful person in all the right ways, yes. Can I have a successful marriage, very possibly yes. But can I share a common religious bond, common religious language, stand as covenantal partners reaffirming Sinai and transmitting this consciousness? Here I would answer in the negative.”
What do you think?
I prepared the bimah with two kiddush cups, a bottle of kosher wine and a glass wrapped in a white linen napkin. With the chuppah above me, I waited for the processional music to begin. The bridesmaids and the groomsmen walked down respectfully. The Chatan savored his steady pace as his parents walked by his side.
As the music changed its melody, the drama inside the sanctuary began. The congregation turned their heads towards the action behind them. They stood and gazed at the beautiful Kallah as if she was the Shechinah herself entering into this holy palace. When the Chatan took the hand of his beloved and guided her up the steps to the chuppah, a rush of spiritual seduction filled the cavernous space at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District of Columbia.
The music stopped. An expectant stillness descended while the couple circled each other before settling inside the sanctified chuppah for the single purpose: to wed each other.
At that moment in time and space, we become the witnesses to their private love story and we are inoculated with a joy drip.
After the exchange of rings and their vows, the ketubah was read.
One of the joys of being a rabbi is witnessing the making of a marriage. The journey towards the chuppah may be a few months or a few years or sometimes a few decades. When the invitations arrive by email or by snail mail, many of us sigh knowing that we have the possibility of being moved, inspired and transformed, if only momentarily.
Last week, I brought two families together under the chuppah with an energy I didn’t think I had. I imagined that we were in the Garden of Eden and that all our desires were taken care of and all the craziness of life had somehow disappeared. Time and space evolved to make this love story come alive.
The connection between bride, groom and rabbi doesn’t just happen. For me there is no pro forma wedding ceremony. I meet with all my couples for a minimum of three sessions and a maximum of five sessions. Through face to face meetings, skype and phone calls and emails, I contract with them for a period of time from their engagement to the chuppah.
My relationship with them and the relationship to each other creates a vibration field of energy that promotes a spiritual outcome. Why would any couple want less from their officiant? But are they willing to spend the time and the money to enhance not just the ceremony but the marriage itself?
As a rabbi, I know that when a couple decides to marry, they want someone who understands their joy and their pain, their deepest dreams and their darkest fears. They want someone who is interested in their spiritual interiority and can listen without judgment or critique. Who else will have these conversations if not their spiritual leader and confidante? These transitional times in our lives call for reflection, mindfulness and soul expansion.
The Baal Shem Tov expressed it best.
From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together, and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.
As a rabbi, I am called to bring these lights together and to add my light and the light of the Holy One into the love story called Kiddushin. You may now break the glass! Mazal Tov!
Modest dressing — what does it mean for a woman? Many religious communities have strict rules about what a woman should wear and how much of her body can show. Look at examples in the Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, Mormon, and strict Christian denominations.
This is an issue I have often struggled with. On one hand, I am a liberal Jewish feminist woman who firmly believes that a woman should have the freedom to dress as she pleases. If that means wearing short skirts, and exposing cleavage, then OK. However, my principles get tested quite often. Last Shabbat I watched a young teenage girl walk in to synagogue to attend a friend’s bat mitzvah wearing 5 inch heels and a skirt that was so short you could almost see her underwear when she walked. This outfit was not OK. I was horrified that this girl’s mother let her leave the house that way. I wanted to lecture her on the holiness of her body and ask her to change.
And… I was amused by my own reaction to her outfit. Rationally I know that she was copying a look she sees on TV and magazines. She had internalized some message that this look is attractive, and she wanted to be attractive. Yet, she was also sexualizing herself in a way that was not appropriate for her age, and the occasion she was attending.
Where is the balance between dressing to feel attractive and dressing to convey a sense of respect for your body? Who determines this balance? Is it totally subjective or not?
How we dress conveys messages to the people around us. My seven year old daughter has already picked this up. She has divided the girls in her first grade class in to “girly girls” who wear a lot of pink, “tomboys” who dress more like boys, and “cool girls” who wear black. She wants to define herself as a cool girl, and black instead of pink has become her color of choice.
Clinton and Stacy, the style gurus on TLC’s program What Not to Wear work with women on each episode to find a style of dress that sends the particular message the wearer wants to send. In some cases they encourage a woman to wear more reveling clothes. In other cases, they encourage a woman to cover up, and show her sexiness without letting it all hang out. In all cases they choose clothes which are generally more sophisticated that the woman was wearing before, and the end result is a woman who looks put together and in control of her life. I find it fascinating that Clinton and Stacy always seem to find this elusive balance between dressing a woman to be attractive and respecting her body. Somehow they have discovered some objective rules for a balanced way to dress, yet these rules are applied subjectively with each different woman they encounter.
I am an avid fan of the show because I want to be able to ferret out these rules to use on myself and to teach my daughter about how to dress. I want both of us to send the message that we are strong confident women who are comfortable with our bodies.
Issues of modesty, body image, and self confidence have all gotten rolled together. This is a difficult ball to unwind. Finding the balance may just mean applying some objective rules subjectively. A skirt should cover most of a woman’s thighs, how much is “appropriate” depends on the particular woman, her body type, and the event she is attending. A top could dip lower for social occasions, but not for work. And exactly how low depends on the size of a woman’s chest.
In the end, the women are free to dress how they like side of me is horrified that I would apply any rules at all to women’s dress. However, the practical women must wear power clothes to look their best, and it is not about their bodies, side of me acknowledges that some rules are necessary to achieve a self confident, powerful, put together image in today’s world.
I will continue to struggle to find the right balance between these views.
At the beginning of the night of the 14th of Nisan (the evening before Passover), check for chametz (leavened products) by the light of a candle, in the holes and in the hidden spots, in all the places that chametz might have entered.
The Shulkhan Arukh, 431:1, 16th Century codified source of Jewish Law
As I begin my Passover cleaning, I am keeping my eyes on the prize: a home that is free of chametz. The quote above describes the final act of Passover cleaning. This experience, performed in the dark, with one tiny flame, reminds us that although we are each small individuals — and a small people — we have a profound impact on our own redemption.
On the night before Passover, after all of our cupboards have been cleaned of chametz and our kitchens have been made kosher for Passover, Jews all over the world search their homes with a candle in one hand and a feather and wooden spoon in the other. Tradition tells us to plant little pieces of bread throughout our homes, and then, in the dark of night, to search for them. These pieces of chametz are then collected and burned the next morning, before we say the final proclamation ridding ourselves of any chametz that we may have unwittingly missed in our cleaning.
This ritual — which is great fun for little ones — is not only about Passover cleaning. Chametz symbolizes the swollen parts that exist within us — our egos, our wrongdoings, our imperfections. The process of cleaning out our cupboards is symbolic of the internal cleaning we desire to do at this time of year.
Why, then, does the Shulkhan Arukh tell us to do this final act of cleaning in the depths of the night? Would it not make more sense to do this in broad daylight, when all can be seen?
No. We engage in this final search in darkness of the night for a reason. On the night before Pesach, as we stand with a candle in hand, we recognize that there is much darkness in our world, and that we are continually in need of redemption — both in our own personal lives and in the universal human struggles that plague our larger communities. We acknowledge that this redemption cannot come without our commitment to being the very candle we hold. It is our job to be the flame, truly shining our light into the darkness, into the crevices and holes that are filled with our personal chametz; by facing our most personal struggles, we begin our self-improvement for the coming year. We must not limit our light to our own crevices, however. We must also shine our light into the larger world, illuminating the various ills of society and doing our part to solve our more universal problems.
The Sfat Emet, a 19th Century Chasidic Commentator, teaches that we each have a pure kernel of God within us. This kernal is renewed each year at Passover, and it is our job, for the remainder of the year, to allow this kernal to emerge and expand to spread this deep goodness.
This kernal is our candle, our flame.
Each Passover we tell of our past redemption and we dream of our redemption in the future. May we strive this Passover to move from dream to action. May we connect with that Godly flame inside of ourselves, and may we embody it. May we allow that light to shine brightly in the dark areas of our lives, spotlighting the corners where there is chametz, and enabling us to become better individuals as we work to create a more just world.
If you’ve ever walked down the condiment aisle of a grocery store, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by the ever-expanding number of varieties of mustard or salad dressing. But for some reason, ketchup has stayed essentially the same since it was created. How come?
According to Malcolm Gladwell, what makes ketchup so amazing is that it hits all five of the basic tastes at once — we get sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (that proteiny, full-bodied taste in chicken soup and soy sauce). There really aren’t many other foods that hit all five. So the reason ketchup has stayed the same is that it encompasses all five of our major taste-senses.
And in fact, that’s the reason kids like ketchup so much. When they’re faced with a new and potentially scary food, they can use the fact that ketchup gives us everything we need in order to make this new food palatable.
So the “essence” of ketchup seems to be two-fold. First, it encompasses all the major taste-senses. And second, its universality allows it to be an outstanding complement to a whole range of foods, providing stability and comfort when we are faced with a new taste.
How is Torah Like Food?
The rabbis often made comparisons between Torah and food. It’s not hard to see the connection — in the Rabbis’ mindset, both Torah and food provide sustenance, both are seen as gifts from God, and both help give us strength.
But it’s not just the idea of “food in general” the Rabbis focused on. They often looked at very specific foods (and usually ones that everyone ate, and knew some facts about), and asked, “How is Torah like this particular food?”
For example, when children start to learn Hebrew, the teacher is supposed to put a dab of honey on each letter. Why? Because “Torah is as sweet as honey.” Notice that the focus is on the main aspect of honey –when we’re comparing Torah to honey, it doesn’t really matter that honey is made by bees, or that it takes a long time to make, or there’s always a little extra drip that you have to find a way to get off the spoon. No, the Rabbis want children to focus on the sweetness of honey, and hope that Torah feels just as sweet in their mouths.
Torah as a Fig-Tree
Let’s look at another example — this time using a food we don’t know as much about. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba compares Torah to a fig tree and asks, “How is Torah like it?”
“Why are the words of Torah like a fig tree? As a fig tree yields its fruit whenever it is shaken, so does Torah always give us new teachings whenever it is repeated.” (Eruvin 54a)
What is the “essence” of a fig tree that allows it to be compared to Torah? Because the more you shake a fig tree, the more figs come down. So just like a fig tree, the more we grapple with Torah (“shake it,” if you will), the more insights will come out of it. In fact, we can find something specific about almost any food — its “essence” — and we can try to ask, “How is Torah like it?”
So even though this may border on the heretical, let’s ask: how is Torah like ketchup?
How is Torah like Ketchup?
We certainly know a lot more about ketchup than we do about fig trees, and as we’ve seen, the Rabbis had no problem comparing Torah to a wide range of foodstuffs. And the eternal and universal nature of ketchup certainly has echoes of what Torah could be. So how is Torah like ketchup?
My own suggestion is this: ketchup does not stand on its own — it is always used in conjunction with another food. And no one has succeeded in changing ketchup because it gives us everything we need taste-wise. We need its stability in order for us to branch out and explore a wider variety of foods.
Similarly, Torah does not stand on its own. It is to be used in conjunction with what is happening in our own lives. And the eternal nature of Torah (we’ve been studying it for 3000 years!) can help us evaluate the new information that comes out every day.
So how is Torah like ketchup? Because just as ketchup encompasses all we need, but needs to be used as a companion to another food in order to be fully utilized, so too does Torah encompass all we know, but needs be used as companion to our life experiences in order to be brought into this world.
Women and women’s rights have received a lot of attention in politics and media in recent weeks. March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of women in the USA, particularly contributions to social and economic justice, and women’s rights. How ironic, therefore, that the beginning of March saw a debacle over women’s freedoms to make personal and moral choices about their own bodies. We saw women being silenced through their absence from important conversations taking place in congressional committees, and we heard Rush Limbaugh using crass language to dismiss the perspective of one young, brave woman who offered her opinion.
I know there are many perspectives on the issues themselves. But I am deeply concerned by the tone of the conversation, and what appears to be an increasing inability to engage in respectful discourse.
This past week, I was talking with a group of students at my congregation about two different ways of thinking about the power of speech. On the one hand is the US Constitution, guaranteeing the right to free speech. This is a core American value, and my students were all able to express the importance of this legal construct intelligently and articulately – our middle schools are teaching them well.
On the other hand, we explored some Jewish values and teachings on the subject of lashon hara. Literally meaning ‘evil tongue’, the term is often used to talk about the negative impacts of gossip, but the teachings apply to much more than that. Jewish wisdom sees speech as such a powerful tool that even saying something positive about someone should be done with great care (it may have a negative impact, such as stirring up feelings of jealousy in someone else). That might seem extreme, but it is indicative of how strongly the tradition feels we should guard our tongue and try to always speak from the highest place possible.
At our Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat at the end of last month, we engaged in an exercise where we took issues in the public realm where we felt strongly one way, and were required to make a persuasive argument for the other side. It was a powerful exercise in which we were able to see the validity of another perspective. I highly recommend trying it – it becomes much more difficult to demonize ‘the other side’ when we recognize that they do not come from a place of malice, but have another way of seeing things that also contain some truths.
It is true and important that the first amendment protects the right to free speech. But just because we can say it, doesn’t mean that we should say it. Our moral values point to a higher standard, and it is also good and true to hold those who speak in the public arena to this higher standard. They set the tone for the rest of us.
A version of this article was first published in the Op-Ed pages of The Bridgeport News, Bridgeport CT on March 16, 2012
I’m writing this post in Boston, where I’m attending the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), but its roots are in Austin, Texas.
Though you’d never guess it from our name, the CCAR is the rabbinical arm of the Reform Movement. Our name is a reminder of Isaac Mayer Wise‘s dream to create set of institutions to serve American Judaism that would transcend denominational labels: they would be, simply, “American.”
That’s not how it turned out, of course. American Judaism organized around denominations, and they defined the religious landscape for most of the twentieth century. Jews who belonged to synagogues often chose those synagogues based on their denomination. Reform Jews sought out Reform temples; Orthodox Jews congregated in Orthodox shuls; and Conservative Jews found their way to Conservative synagogues. Reconstructionism was a later addition, founded to transcend the labels but “denominationalized” in due time. Jewish Renewal, Jewish Humanism, Open Orthodoxy…. the list goes on.
What follows is a personal observation, and not any grand statement about the need for movements: these denominational lines feel less important to me now than they did when I began my own rabbinate. In recent years, I’ve intentionally sought out opportunities to cross them, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and of course in my fellowship at Rabbis Without Borders. My rabbinate has been enriched by these experiences, and by the relationships I’ve forged with rabbis who didn’t attend my seminary or who don’t serve in my movement.
Which brings me to Austin, and to Bruce Springsteen’s SXSW keynote address. Last Thursday, the Boss referenced “denominationalism” in the world of popular music, running through a list of dozens of sub-genres of rock music, to comedic effect, and ending with “then just add ‘neo’ or ‘post’ to everything I said.”
Later in the talk, he offered a loving critique of musicians’ tendencies to get hung up on labels:
We live in a post-authentic world. Today authenticity is a house of mirrors. It’s all just what you’re bringing when the lights go down. It’s your teachers, your influences, your personal history, and at the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that still matters.
As I hear it, in light of that earlier riff on genre, Springsteen means by “authenticity” the tendency among musicians and their fans to hang only with people in their own “denomination.” He is commenting on the way people sneer at “sell-outs” or “crossover” artists. Forget the labels, he’s saying; just listen to the music. When the lights go down, does it have power and purpose?
Back to Boston, and to this gathering of Reform rabbis. For me, the highlights of the conference so far have involved studying with Nehemiah Polen and Arthur Green. Later today I’ll be forced to make an excruciating choice between learning with Or Rose or Ebn Leader, who are up against each other in the same time slot (as is Harold Kushner!). None of these teachers would be labeled “Reform;” all of them are drawing good crowds of my Reform colleagues.
These are my teachers, and I’m not so concerned with how they label themselves, which seminary bestowed the title “Rabbi” upon them, or where they currently teach. When the lights go down, they’re bringing some pretty great Torah…and that’s what matters.
Last week we celebrated the holiday of Purim in which we recall the survival of the Jewish people against the attempted genocide by Haman, the chief adviser to King Ahasuerus of Persia. Every year we rejoice on the holiday of Purim just a few short weeks prior to entering the season of Passover and I believe that this is not at all a coincidence.
The story of Purim is the story of a Jewish community that had forgotten who it was. It is the story of a highly acculturated and integrated community into the larger Persian society. A Jewish woman named Hadassah changes her name to the Persian Esther and marries the King and no one even comments on this intermarriage in the account offered in the Book of Esther. [However, there is much rabbinic conversation on this subject offered in the Talmud.]
It is within this backdrop that Esther’s uncle Mordechai resists the wholesale neglect of the particular in favor of the universal and takes a stand, which is decidedly not a bow, against the phenomenon. He is singled out by Haman in particular for punishment and the entire Jewish people broadly. In a society marked by expected cultural conformity, one cannot have any sub-group demonstrating their uniqueness, living a counter-cultural life, so the decree issued by the government under Haman is nothing less than total annihilation.
To save the Jewish people Mordechai guides Esther to see who she really is and to be true to herself and to her husband, the King. In so doing she raises her mask from upon her face and embraces her destiny. Esther becomes a symbol for all the Jews in the empire to also raise their respective masks, the societally and the self-imposed barriers to full Jewish expression, and through their collective action and their renewed pride, overcome the challenge set before them and survive.
The message of Purim is an essential one for the work of self-reflection that the time of Passover calls us to. Passover, as the foundational narrative of the Jewish people, is not only about our physical liberation from Egypt. It is not only about our miraculous rescue from the grip of oppression and the entering into the daylight of freedom from the nighttime of torment. Passover is about defining us as a people. It is about preparing us to be ready to stand at Mount Sinai only a short while later and receive the Book that would transform human civilization for all time.
To be able to experience a Passover in our lives and to be able to relive the account of the Exodus as our tradition commands of us (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5) we need to be able to lift the masks from our faces that work to hide us and to conceal us from ourselves and from others. The transition from Purim to Passover is about being ready to be capable of redemption. The first step in that redemptive process is reclaiming who we are – not who we act as or who we present ourselves as, but who we are at the deepest levels of our selves.
Cruising on Fifth Avenue one day, a taxi is hailed by a man standing on the corner. Entering the cab, the man says, “Take me to the Palmer House.”
“The Palmer House?” says the cabbie. “That’s in Chicago.”
“I know,” says his fare. “That’s where I want to go.” “I’ll drive you to Kennedy,” says the cabbie. “You can fly.”
“I’m afraid of flying.”
“Then I’ll drive you over to Grand Central and you can take the train.”
“No, the train takes too long and besides, then I’d have to get from Union Station to the Palmer House.”
“If I drove you all the way to Chicago it would cost a fortune. Twice a fortune, because you’d have to pay for me to deadhead back to New York.”
“That’s OK, I can afford it. Here’s a few hundred dollars now. I’ll pay the rest when we get there.”
With no further argument to make, the cabbie drives out of Manhattan into New Jersey and then connects with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, thence to the Ohio Turnpike, the Indiana Turnpike, and finally the Skyway into Chicago. He takes Stony Island to 57th Street, where he turns onto Lake Shore Drive. He drives north as far as Congress, cuts over to Michigan Avenue, goes north again until he can pull over to Wabash, drives back one block south, and screeches to a stop in front of the Wabash entrance to the Palmer House-after two days and one night of nonstop driving.
The passenger peers at the meter, gives the cabbie several hundred dollars to cover the fare and a decent tip, and then opens the door to step onto the sidewalk.
Before anyone can close the door, two women who have been standing at the curb slide into the back seat. Before the startled cabbie can speak, one of the women says, “We want to go to an address on Flatbush Avenue.”
“Uh-uh, lady,” says the cabbie. “I don’t go to Brooklyn.”
While you may have to be a New Yorker to fully appreciate the joke, the truth is there are many places we are willing to go and also some to which we refuse to venture. Some places we refuse to go based on principle, while other places we may be scared to approach. Sometimes there are borders or boundaries that may actually prevent us from going forth and other times we may not realize that all we have to do is gather up some courage and move forward.
This past week I had the opportunity to speak with students at a local university. There were two rabbis and each of us was asked to describe our formative moments in our Jewish development. What stood out for me was my first rabbinic position as the associate director of Hillel at major Midwest university. I was fresh out of eight years at Yeshiva. My boss was a Reform rabbi. Working with him and the hundreds of students I met forced me to move from having some deep commitments to issues to also having deep responsibilities to people. When issues became people, things became much more complex. Boundaries may have expanded or in some cases contracted, but they became rooted in genuine human experiences. My responsibility was no longer only to the issue or ideology, but to the person as well.
In traditional congregations, an additional Torah portion will be read this Shabbat known as Parashat Parah-or Red Heifer Shabbat. To enter the Sanctuary or later the Temple, one had to be in a state of religious purity. If one had encountered a dead body, even in a circumstance of burial and fulfilling a commandment to look after the dead, one would become ritually impure. You would require a sprinkling of the ashes from the Red Heifer as part of the ritual purification process. To cross the sacred boundary in an impure state would result in karet, spiritual excision.
What are the boundaries worth crossing? What borders should remain closed? When might our desires to be embracing of others open up doors for us. When do we say we cannot go there? What are the limits of the sacred we should not cross?