Why do you try to be so inclusive? It’s OBVIOUS that you are liberal because you care about these marginalized groups! Why do you have to be politically correct all the time?
These questions and more are often posed to Orthodox rabbis and individuals who care and advocate for the full inclusion of all Jews in organized Jewish life. Regardless of whether the advocacy is on behalf of people with differing physical and mental capabilities, women, LGBTQ Jews or others invariably there will be those in the community who label those actions of inclusion as gestures of political correctness and/or secular liberal values.
I would argue though that there is a deep underlying Jewish value for the full inclusion of all Jews in Jewish life that does not depend on someone being politically correct or solely motivated by secular liberal values. Indeed, full inclusion is an imperative that serves as a prerequisite for meaningful Jewish life for anyone and its roots are at Sinai:
“In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:1-2)”
“Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel…’ (19:3)”
“Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!’ and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord. (19:7)”
The Torah in introducing the moment of Sinai emphasizes that all the people were present for the episode of the great theophany. The liberation from Egypt and the journey through the desert were for this experience. The people were forged into a nation through the servitude of Egypt but only at Sinai did they become a nation with destiny.
Rashi, the great medieval commentator, offers the insight quoting the early midrashic work Mekhilta, that the people were as “one person with one heart.” The exceedingly large, disparate and diverse group of Jews encamped in the desert wilderness became unified in heart and soul. Each person valued intrinsically every other person in the community. No one person saw another person as an instrument towards a greater goal or, the reverse, as an impediment towards a desired outcome. Every member of the community was valued. Every member of the community was welcome. Every member of the community was powerfully present.
During the holiday of Shavuot we carve out a single time in the year where we attempt to recreate the experience of revelation. Many people have the custom to stay up all night studying in anticipation for the first rays of light of the revelation. We declare in our prayers that Shavuot is the “time of our receiving of the Torah.” The truth is that while Shavuot is a specially designated time for recreating the Sinai experience, we are called upon to approach God and the Torah anew every day. Every day is a new opportunity to meet God in a revelatory experience through prayer, study and sacred interactions. The aspiration of the synagogue prayer experience is to encounter Sinai anew again every day.
However, the Sinai moment cannot be recreated, the mountain cannot be gathered around and God cannot be heard unless every member of the community is present just as they were at the first Sinai moment in the desert wilderness. The religious life of every Jew and the religious life of the entire community is deficient when not everyone is able to be present. That is why it is so fundamentally important that historically marginalized groups are treated with dignity, respect and honor just like anyone else in the community. When the barriers towards inclusion and access are removed and every member of our community — not just those who already have a seat at the table — are fully present then we will have restored the community to a point ready to encounter Sinai.
Those who see the work of inclusion as a concession to political correctness or some outside values that do not stem from the Torah would do well to hearken to the story of revelation. The story of how a diverse and large group of former slaves found a way to stand next to a mountain with respect and dignity for all paved the way for the chasm between heaven and earth to have been bridged and the Torah, the book that lit the world with Divine meaning and purpose, to be revealed is not just a narrative to be revered but an imperative to strive towards achieving that level of inclusion in our modern communities today.
For: It’s traditional. It affirms a family’s connection with the traditions of Abraham. It’s a tangible marker of Jewish identity. If the boy grows up in a Jewish cultural setting, he will want to look like other boys, and be acceptable to his mate. If he is raised without religious guidance, and chooses as an adult to be Jewish, he will not have to choose circumcision surgery as an adult. Research shows circumcision reduces transmission of the HIV virus to partners. Men circumcised as adults say it increases sexual pleasure. Ritual circumcision is gentle, compared to hospital circumcision.
Against: It’s primitive. It’s not needed to make a child Jewish; Jewish identity is the birthright of anyone born to a Jewish mother. Circumcision marks the child as a member of a Jewish minority, which can lead to ridicule and bullying. It directs a child’s religious identity before he has had a chance to learn anything about religion. Research on circumcision and HIV is flawed; it’s confined to populations in three countries. The foreskin has nerve endings; removing it reduces sexual pleasure. Elective surgery on a newborn is barbaric, and some traditional mohelim (circumcisers) don’t follow modern health protocols.
Sometimes expectant Jewish parents find themselves caught in a stalemate as they try rationally to reconcile these two parallel but incompatible sides. Sometimes they are deeply reflective. “We want to initiate our son into Judaism,” they say. “But this physical initiation seems like a big decision to make for him.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to discuss initiation. That, experientially, a brit milah is not an initiation rite for the baby. It’s an initiation for parents. Over the years, parents will be making many life-directing decisions on behalf of their child. Choosing brit milah is a leap into that responsibility.
Sometimes it’s helpful to let go of the ping-pong of rational debate, and enter the symbolic world of Torah, in itself a gateway into powerful teachings about unconscious human dynamics. Two Torah stories, interpreted psychoanalytically, give us hints about circumcision as an initiation into parenthood.
In Exodus 4:24-26, Moses is on his way to Egypt with his wife Zipporah. Along the way, he nearly dies. Zipporah quickly circumcises their infant son. She touches her husband’s feet with the foreskin and says “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me…because of the circumcision.”
Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney speaks of the enviable power of a mother’s role: to give birth, nurture, and raise children. Historian of Judaism Lawrence Hoffman says that even to men in the Talmudic era, women’s power seemed wild and natural. Through menstrual cycles and the sometimes bloody secrets of giving birth, women take an active part in creating life. Through procreation, women have a natural covenant of blood with God. Male circumcision creates an analogous covenant through the procreative organ. It is, however, a tamer covenant, in which only one drop of blood is shed, and on only one occasion.
In this story, Zipporah the birthgiver is already initiated into parenthood. Moses, however, needs to let his old self-image go, and fully take on this new role. When Zipporah touches his feet with his son’s foreskin, she declares, “You and I are partners in this sacred covenant of creating a new family.” She initiates Moses, communicating that the responsibility of procreation belongs to both parents.
In Deuteronomy 10:16, elderly Moses encourages the Israelites to open themselves to personal, unmediated relationships with God. “Circumcise your hearts,” he says. Perhaps this is shorthand for, “You did the physical ritual; now take its meaning seriously.”
Jungian scholar Anne Maguire describes an ancient Near Eastern myth about a powerful patriarchal God, who appears as a hooded figure. His true nature and spiritual power are hidden by his cloak. He represents male procreative power and human creativity in general. These powers are normally hidden; to receive their infusion, we must be receptive at the right times. In this spirit, Moses teaches, “Allow your heart to be open when God’s presence opens to you.” Circumcision expresses a commitment to be open to spirituality, creativity, and procreation. And, in the case of procreation, to new responsibilities that call.
This digression into psychoanalytic Torah helps deeply reflective expectant parents find a wider lens for making a decision. It shifts the question from “How can we do something so irresponsible?” to “How can we recognize the sacred responsibility landing in our lives?” And from “Which side of the argument makes better points?” to “What deep fears, worries and yearnings are at play here?”
Sometimes this shift itself begins the spiritual initiation.
Image: wikipedia. Cross-posted with www.onsophiastreet.com
I was speaking with a friend who was trying mightily to do the right thing in a tough situation. She was visiting Senior Living apartments with her ailing mother who both did and didn’t want to move. She was trying to balance intervening on her mother’s behalf with letting her mother make her own choices. My friend was doing everything she could, but still was not sure she was getting the balance right. There are no graceful ways through the messy chapters of our lives. When I told her that I would pray for grace on her behalf, she asked, “Is grace Jewish?”
Some words, some ideas, especially where religion or politics are involved, fall out of favor when they become associated with something ‘other’. “Grace” is such a word. Is ‘grace’ a Jewish idea? It is – the Biblical Hebrew term “Hen‘ means ‘grace’ – but we don’t talk about it much because it sounds so christian (which is not in and of itself a bad thing).
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
We are, we humans, such a confounding species. While we are capable of lofty thoughts and complex reasoning, nonetheless we also have our reptilian brains – associated with the functions of the basil ganglia. The evolutionary functions of our reptilian brains account for our jealousy, our anger, our aggression, our survivalist selfishness. It also accounts for our fears, our desire for revenge, our protectiveness of our tribe (why we feel close to our smaller circles and suspicious of others) and our base desire to keep what is ours (my favorite example from childhood: “See with your eyes not with your hands”).
To be sure, we are also capable of kindness, of love, of forgiveness, of understanding, of patience, and of acts of selflessness. It can often take great effort and will to listen to the calling of these higher attributes of our humanity over and above the din of our fears and insecurities coursing through our basil ganglia.
It seems to be our biological lot to bounce between the persons we are and the persons we wish we could always be. Try as we may, and successful as we may sometimes be, what it means to get the balance of our lives just right, is to find, or more accurately to accept the grace that God extends to us. It is impossible for us to balance our animal-selves with our angelic-selves on our own at all times. By simple example: We might fast on Yom Kippur to be like angels, but inevitably we get hungry. We are humans after-all, with a biology, a physiology, a psychology that keeps even the most saintly among us from being perfect all the time.
Why must I feel like this today
I’m a soldier but afraid sometimes
To face the things that may
Block the sun from shinin’ rays
And fill my life with shades of grey
But still I long to find a way
So today I pray for grace – Pray for Grace, Lyrics by Michael Franti
We are not inherently graceful. We may get close to controling our impulses, but we are never rid of our baser selves. We are bound to be less than perfect. The idea that grace is a human trait is an illusion. Grace is inherently divine and is a gift of God’s love. By extension, gracefulness, is the act of embracing God’s love of our imperfect selves. Grace is something granted to us, not as a reward for our right actions, but whenever we are able to receive God’s love – even when we fear we don’t quite deserve it.
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
Within the Priestly Blessings described in the Book of Numbers, famous words used to this day to bless the people, including on Friday nights our children is this phrase:
Ya’er Adonai Panav Elecha v’Chuneka
May God’s illumined face enlighten you and grant you grace.
It is difficult to believe in a God this unconditionally loving and accepting of us. This is our on-going challenge: Rescuing grace not from Christianity, but from our own suspicion that such acceptance of our imperfections is possible.
Sometimes the most challenging part of being a committed Reform Jew is seeking ways to incorporate Judaism into our home life in ways that are meaningful. Complicating matters for our family is that our oldest child, Ben, is on the autism spectrum. And so incorporating anything into our regular routine can prove to be challenging for one who thrives on consistency.
Shavuot, which begins at sundown this evening, has always gotten the short end of the stick in our household. Although it is one of the three major festivals on the Jewish calendar, it has been the hardest to observe with our kids. Reform communities tend to have the main celebration during the evening service at the beginning of the holiday. But for families with young children, and those with family members who go to bed very early, evening observances are often out of the realm of reason. Not because the family is not committed to observing the holiday, but because it is simply not possible given the current circumstances. And that is certainly the case in our home.
So while I, as an adult, crave the spiritual and intellectual experiences that Shavuot has the potential to give me, my children need something different. And I, as the parent, am charged with creating a Shavuot observance that will inspire them and become part of our family’s story.
It takes a different shape each year as the needs and developmental stages of our kids shift. There is, however, one constant; ice cream.
The tradition to serve dairy foods on Shavuot is long-standing and has several explanations for its origin. Whatever the reason, it became clear to me that a great way to connect my kids to this tradition was to serve ice cream. One year it was an ice cream cake in the shape (sort-of) of a Torah. That happened once and only once. Over time, it has become our tradition to have a sundae bar for dinner. With crudités, cheese, and crackers as a forshpeis. Sparkling limeade and a fancy table set with flowers and crystal send the message that it is a night unlike other nights. By candlelight, God-willing, our conversation will include discussions of Torah, ancient and modern. Suggestions of how we might still hear God speaking to and through us will be shared. And in the morning, a breakfast of milk (still with the dairy theme) and Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donuts. Because I ate them for the first time at my very first all-night Shavuot study session as a kid. Because they were a favourite of my grandmother, z”l, and it keeps her memory alive for my children. Because the study of Torah is never-ending.
Traditional? Not in the normative sense. But it is our family’s tradition. While they are young. And when they are ready for a more conventional observance, that is what we will do. Though I suspect ice cream will still be involved.
A recent brouhaha has emerged in the Jewish blogosphere over Rabbi Ari Hart’s recent post, “Should I Thank God For Not Making Me A Woman?” Rabbi Hart references one of a series of morning prayers, collectively termed Birkot Hashahar, in which Orthodox men proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” Women, and both genders in the prayerbooks (“siddurim“) of the other Jewish denominations, instead proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made me according to His will.” Rabbi Hart, an Orthodox rabbi who is the co-founder of a leading Orthodox social justice organization, bemoans the sexism and misogyny the former prayer supports within the Orthodox world but feels duty-bound, as a matter of Jewish law (“halakha“), to continue reciting the prayer every day. He hopes that saying the prayer will make him more mindful of gender inequality in the world and more committed to fighting for equality.
Not surprisingly, Hart’s blog registered some vociferous responses. Those on the religious right have sought to defend the prayer as reflecting the fact that, according to traditional halakha, only men are obligated to perform positive, time-bound commands (“mitzvot“). According to this perspective, men who say the prayer are virtuously accepting the yoke of commandedness that does not similarly bind women. Of course, this system of differentiating between men and women on the basis of time-bound mitzvot itself is the product of an historical context in which women were solely charged with domestic responsibilities that were thought to conflict with the performance of time-sensitive religious obligations. Conspicuously absent from these defenses is any discussion of the propriety of maintaining such a standard in a contemporary society where domestic responsibilities increasingly are becoming shared, if not reversed.
Those on the religious left have reacted with vitriol. They view Hart’s apologist defense of the blessing’s continued relevance as privileging misogyny over equality. Others have protested Hart’s attempt to have it both ways—to bemoan the prayer’s contribution to sexism within Orthodoxy but to assume that adopting a certain mindset while reciting it will somehow eliminate the misogyny engendered by this attitude.
But there is a third approach that has been conspicuously absent from this online debate: why not have women bless God explicitly for making them women? Why not let women thank God for not making them men? Surprisingly, this is not some modern, liberal attempt to mess with tradition. Instead, such a prayer actually exists in a siddur dating back to 1471 Northern Italy, which you can see here (p. 5v). This siddur was written by Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol, a well-respected Italian rabbi at a time when there were no Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or other denominations of Judaism. The prayer’s language is unambiguous and unabashed: blessing God “she-asitani ishah v’lo ish”–for making me a woman and not a man. The beauty of this prayer is that, in one line, it affirms the inherent dignity and worthiness of women in society, rebutting (though by no means removing) the toxicity of the male praise for not being made a woman. Its poignant language promotes gratitude for the privilege of having been born as a woman.
Ultimately, my preference is for both men and women to proclaim the gender-neutral “who has made me according to His will.” This language, which has been endorsed liturgically by all non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, ensures no confusion about which gender is normatively preferred. It recasts the blessing from a negative (and therefore seemingly perjorative) connotation—thanks for not making me X—to a positive one. And it has the added benefit of providing a means for affirming individuals who experience gender fluidity. But for places of worship that, for whatever reason(s), prefer to use the original male-centric wording, I hope that they will also embrace the tradition of the 1471 female-centric prayer as a viable text for women to use in expressing praise to their Creator.
As a rabbi who also happens to be a mother of small kids, I am often asked for creative ideas to enliven a seder. I have decided to dedicate this post to sharing some of these ideas. Feel free to pass it around, and please use the comments section below to share some of your own creative rituals.
The truth is, our family’s seders are long – very long – and our kids are back and forth from the table all evening. They are present for the pieces that are meaningful to them, and they play during the sections that feel more “adult.” I believe that just as it is important to engage the kids in the seder rituals, it is also important to engage the adults in deep thought and discovery. It is also vital for our kids to see that the seder is not simply a pediatric ritual, but rather an experience that speaks to people of each and every age. Therefore, this list includes ideas for both kids and adults. Enjoy!
- Karpas: This is my number one suggestions for keeping a seder strong. When we dip parsley in salt water, we say “borei pri ha’adamah” – the blessing over the fruit of the earth. This means that we have actually created an opening to eat any “fruit” that comes from the earth, i.e. vegetables – broccoli, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus… even strawberries dipped in chocolate! In fact, since we’ve already dipped in salt water, we figure we might as well keep up the dipping – which is what the well-to-do in Greco-Roman times did at their symposium banquets, the main inspiration for the seder. So… balsamic vinaigrette, salsa, olive oil, mayonnaise – anything that you can dip vegetables in can make this section even more fun. In our family, we have found that people are much more willing to engage in rich seder conversation when they have a full plate of appetizers in front of them. We are excited to hear all questions, but “When do we eat?” is far less relevant, because we are grazing throughout the entire seder.
- Mah Nishtanah: Did you know that, according to the Talmud, you are only obligated to ask the Four Questions if other questions have not yet been asked? The Four Questions exist as a way of sparking a questioning environment. In addition to singing these questions, we can do other things to inspire questions as well. The rabbis of the Talmud speak about clearing the host’s plate before s/he has eaten in order to attract people’s attention and invite questions (Why in the world are you doing THAT?) We too can do things a little bit differently to get the questions rolling. Put odd toys on the table. Wear something strange on your head. Once people start asking questions, rewarding questioners with candy and other goodies (thrown across the table, of course!) is a great way to keep the inquisitive nature of the conversation ripe.
- Speaking of Questions: Pre-plan some of them. Look through the Haggadah. Look online. Ask your Rabbi. Come up with some key discussion topics that will engage your guests in deeper and more creative thinking. An example: How can matzah be both “the bread of our affliction” and a symbol of our freedom? How can one item symbolize both concepts, opposite in nature? Discuss!
- Costumes: Invite guests to come dressed in character. Or, better yet, provide a costume box to enable people to grab some garb before they sit down.
- Passover Poetry: Invite your guests to come with their own Passover haikus. Haikus are fairly easy to write, and can be very funny and also incredibly poignant. Incorporating a range of haikus, written by guests, can add to the creative vibe of any seder. Got a really creative guest list? Invite them to come with a “poetry slam”-style piece on the topic of “slavery” or “freedom.”
- Turn Your Table into a Beit Midrash: Bring articles, Jewish texts, and poetry and pass them out to your guests. Have your guests sit with a chevrutah partner and learn their piece for 10 or 15 minutes, and then regroup and invite each partnership to share what they have learned.
- Niggunim and Songs: Don’t be afraid to sing, and others will follow. Song inspires the soul, and even a song leader who is not a Broadway star can enliven a seder with spirit and joy. There are great resources online for traditional seder songs, as well as Passover lyrics written to modern and funny melodies.
- We Were Slaves in Egypt: Tell the story in your own words. Put down the Haggadah, and place yourself into the world of ancient Egypt. WE were slaves… when we left Egypt, were we scared? Were we excited? What did we bring? As we stood at the sea, what did we see? There is the possibility here of inviting guests to take on different roles, speaking from the “I” perspective, and reliving the voyage of our ancestors. Invite one guest to serve as the moderator. (Oprah Winfrey style!)
- Now We Are Free: Invite guests to bring an item that represents their freedom. This could be an object that reminds them of an aspect of freedom, or it could be something that represents an aspect of their lives that would be very different if they were not free. Ask guests to put their item on the table and share its story to your seder community.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Move: The seder doesn’t have to happen at a dinning room table. Some years, we have done the whole first half of the seder in the living room, Bedouin style. This enables guests to sit on couches, chairs, and on pillows and back-jacks on the floor, and invites kids to move around, while still participating in the discussion.
- Scallions Aren’t Just For Eating: There is a Persian custom of hitting each other with scallions during Dayenu. The scallions represent the whips of our oppressors. Although this may seem a little morbid, young and old alike have a wonderful time violating social norms and slamming each other with green onions.
- Orange on the Seder Plate: The orange on the seder plate has come to symbolize full inclusion of the GLBT community, as well as women, in modern day Judaism. Encourage guests to consider how we make our communities open and welcoming of people who may seem different from us. This can include folks with disabilities, people who are intermarried, divorced, struggling financially, etc.
- Become Elijah the Prophet: Tradition tells us that we have a cup for Elijah at our seder, in the hope that he will come and usher in the messianic age. We don’t need to wait for the messiah to bring an end to injustice, slavery, and destruction. We can connect with the piece of Elijah that resides in each of us, and work for a better tomorrow right here, today. Invite guests to articulate what they can do to create more light and more holiness in our world.
- Miriam’s Cup: Tradition teaches us that a well of water followed Miriam wherever she went, and quenched the thirst of the people Israel. We call our Torah a “mayim chayim,” living waters, because the customs of the Jewish people sustain us emotionally and spiritually and fill our lives with meaning. Invite guests to speak about a particular experience that has sustained them this past year.
- Modern Day Slavery: On Pesach, we tell the story of our people’s trajectory, our people’s movement from the pain of slavery to the joy of freedom. There are people today, right here in the United States and throughout the world, who are still enslaved. We call this human trafficking. Educate guests about the realities of slavery today, and encourage them to take a stand in fighting these horrifying modern atrocities.
Chag Sameach! May we all be blessed with meaningful and dynamic seders, and may the entire holiday of Passover be sweet. Next year in Jerusalem!
Around this time of year I often find myself fielding questions about what haggadah to use, and how families can spice up their Seder rituals at home. There are so many choices these days, and the answer may depend on who will be at your Seder, the age of the children, and the relative value you place on nostalgia vs creativity or innovation, among other factors.
But the one element that I have found to be a game-changer when it comes to how Seder night is experienced is an element that is often completely overlooked: Logistics and lay-out. This is one of the most overlooked elements of the Seder but one that I have come to appreciate as crucial. While not every home has the space to accommodate some creativity in this department, we have found that sitting on sofas, cushions and chairs in concentric circles around a coffee table in a living room to be much more conducive, at least for the pre-meal part of the Seder, than sitting still around a formally-laid table. Young children can get up and move around more easily without being a distraction, and the atmosphere engenders more conversation and interaction between the adults too. At our Seder we often hang colorful fabrics in the room to create the feeling of sitting under a tent. Some homes are large enough to move people to tables for the meal, but going for a more informal buffet and continuing to eat in the same space as you’ve gathered for the ritual can be just as good an option too.
In truth, while I highlight logistics and layout as the game-changer because it is so often not even considered as a player in the creation of a great Seder, there is another element to our family Seder that has been just as significant a game-changer in the Passover experience. At our Seder, we have taken to inserting different freedom-related themes each year, as we invite guests to add their own midrashim – in the form of news articles, photos, videos, and more. In our home we compile these images into a powerpoint presentation ahead of time and project the images for all to see and to discuss during the Seder, but a household that doesn’t want to use technology in this way on a festival night can achieve the same kind by simply handing around printed copies. And so, when we get to the maggid section of the Seder (the telling of the story), we often depart from the Rabbis’ retellings from centuries ago embedded in the pages of our various haggadot. In each generation we must experience the exodus from Egypt as if it were our personal experience. When we add our own stories and images, we can dramatically engage each other in meaningful conversations about the nature of freedom that can be viscerally felt at a deeper level.
Take a look at my posting on Maggid 2.0 where I reported on our first year of taking this approach at our 2011 Seder, for an example of this visually-rich and conversation-stimulating approach to Passover.
Many blessings for a wonderful, engaging, meaningful Passover!
“Habemus Papam!” — “We have a pope!” After days of breathless anticipation by Catholics around the world, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran appeared on a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and uttered the words that precede the announcement of every new pope: “Habemus Papum!” The media has been abuzz ever since about the new Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina. His selection has been considered noteworthy for being the first Jesuit priest to become pope, the first pope to choose the name Francis, and, most of all, for being the first pope from the Americas. What stood out to to me, though, was not the novelty of all these “firsts” but the relationship between this sense of newness and the role of Catholic ritual that permeated Francis’ selection: from the cardinals sequestering themselves in their conclave to the black and then white smoke billowing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel to signify that a new pope had been elected. Ultimately, the appointment of the new pope was about this dynamic between tradition and change.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the pope was chosen at the same time Jews segue in our cycle of Torah reading to the Book of Leviticus/Sefer Vayikra. Leviticus takes us from the narrative of the Israelite exodus and the foundational moment of revelation at Sinai into the arcane, elaborate, and often hard to penetrate world of ritual sacrifice and impurity. The first two Torah portions in Leviticus, Vayikra and Tzav, offer extensive sacrificial taxonomies, describing with painstaking detail the rituals of the burnt, meal, sin, guilt, and well-being offerings. And the gory details would make even Quentin Tarantino blush: blood being sprinkled about the altar, entrails removed, and on and on. Let’s face it: Leviticus is hard to read and even harder to connect with. How are we to relate to these materials? Is Vayikra obsolete? Unapproachable to modern Jews?
Our Sages of old faced these same questions, but with a good deal more existential angst. Leviticus had served as a priestly manual, instructing the High Priest and his assistants how to perform sacrifices at the Temple. But once the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifice became impossible. How, then, were Jews supposed to remain Jews? The ancient rabbis, in a brilliant move, took sacrifice and transformed its function into two new modes that would come to define Judaism for the next 2000 years. First, they used the structure of the sacrificial system—its times for sacrifice (daily and holiday) and its liturgical accompaniments (such as the psalms that Levites recited)–to create a new system of daily and holiday fixed prayer. Instead of offering sacrifices as the medium for interacting with God, Jews could pray in synagogues and retain the same (or even better, according to the scholar Maimonides) ability to engage with the Divine.
Second, though there was no longer a need to know the ritual details of the sacrificial system for practical purposes, the rabbis insisted that Jews continue to study Leviticus because the act of studying itself became a proxy for the act of sacrifice. ”One who occupies himself with the study of Torah has no need for the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, nor the guilt offering.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate M’nachot 110a) Indeed, nearly the entirety of the Fifth Order of the Mishnah, entitled Kodashim, pertains to Temple worship even though it was redacted several hundred years after the Temple was destroyed. Grappling with our textual tradition and seeking to derive wisdom from it became an end in itself as important as sacrifice was to our ancestors. What the rabbis did, in sum, was to innovate, to radically change Judaism, but to do so through a deep, organic connection to our tradition.
Tradition and change remains the dialectic through which we live our Judaism today. The challenge Judaism addresses, the challenge that faces each of us every day, is to live in the murky waters between tradition and change. If we change too much, giving up aspects of our religion that might not feel important anymore, we risk losing our connection to our heritage. But if we remain too rigid, holding on to rituals and practices just because that’s what our parents and grandparents did, then we risk creating future generations that will be disconnected from, and likely reject, our heritage. What we must do is to follow the lead of our Sages: to push ourselves to engage with our tradition’s rituals and sacred texts so that we can deduce new meanings and new contexts from them, meanings and contexts that will resonate for us in our contemporary lives. It is worth noting that the term “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning “to make something holy.” In Hebrew, the common biblical word for sacrifice is, “korban,” which means “something brought near.” Through our modern-day “sacrifices” of prayer and engaging with our sacred texts, we have the opportunity to draw nearer to God and to embrace holiness.
In some ways, our Catholic friends have it easy. They can rely on a pope to lead them, to be the intermediary between God/tradition and their daily lives. We Jews, however, reject the idea of an intermediary. We are all, in a sense, High Priests. This gives us both the blessing of direct access to the Almighty but also the obligation to do what it takes to gain that direct access. It is my hope and prayer that we will rise to this challenge, creating a vibrant, intelligent, and meaningful Judaism for the 21st century.
I’ve never, I have to admit, been a big fan of mikvah. Nearly every month for many years now, I trudge down to our local mikvah for a ritual immersion at the end of my menstrual cycle, not because I find it “spiritually fulfilling” – I don’t. I immerse because I am obligated to, and so I do. In perfect frankness, I find it to be a big pain in the neck and a complete inconvenience. I know that there has recently been a big vogue for turning mikvah into some kind of healing center or spa-like experience, and I’m glad for people who immerse themselves in the waters and find that it is uplifting or spiritual, but I am afraid that I am basically a mitnaged (on one foot, that’s the opposite of a chasid, favoring study over feeling) by temperament, and am suspicious of spirituality not deeply embedded in either discipline or study. Yes, that’s right, I am a cranky grump.
Which is why it didn’t particularly bother me that even though I needed to go to the mikvah today, I was in a pretty foul mood. I was very angry for most of the day – and not without cause. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that while I occasionally get annoyed, I rarely get really angry – it takes a lot. But even the most cantankerous of mitnagdim know that you can’t immerse yourself and say a blessing with thoughts of strangulation (not literally, don’t worry) running through one’s mind, and so by the time i got done with my pre-mikvah shower, and was halfway down the steps into the mikvah, I was trying to figure out how to get rid of the thoughts in my head – at least long enough to complete what I was doing.
It was not easy. Usually, immersion is pretty quick for me – I dip myself, say the blessing, try to focus for a few minutes on my prayers for my family – when my kid grows up, if I’m not around, someone can tell him: I pray for him to be worthy of torah, chuppah and maasim tovim: Jewish study, Jewish marriage and good deeds. I add to that health, that he should be smart enough to do good and wise enough to do well, attractive enough to find a partner, and loving enough to be worthy of him or her, a job to sustain him and his family, that also does some good for the world – and I pray that I’ll be around to see it and his children grow up to those things- I can get through that in half an hour, even with a shower after.
But today was possibly the longest time I ever spent in the mikvah, because I couldn’t get to the part where I could even think about the immersion and the blessing. All I had to offer was rage. (In retrospect, I rather wonder what it was like to be around me the rest of the day. I hope I didn’t run anyone over). I’m glad no one else was scheduled for the mikvah late this afternoon, because it took me an hour and a half to immerse.
I’m not claiming that mikvah fixed me. Nor am I claiming that I’m not angry any more. And least of all am I claiming that I had a profound spiritual experience that left me changed forever. At least not if by spiritual you mean something divorced from religion, or from discipline. But the effort of finding a way to get that out of my head while I had to do this other thing which was obligatory, was a “spiritual” moment, in the sense that it forced me to think of something other than the rage that I was experiencing.
I had to clear my head to be there, then, and not think about what I was going to do later, somewhere else. And perhaps if nothing else, that does help explain the value of the obligatory. Because even if I am still angry, several hours later, having cleared my head for long enough to think of those other things and to finish by closing my eyes and saying to God, “Let Thy will be my will,” I have at least cleared up enough space in my head for a few minutes to ask whether I can’t just get through the rest of the day before deciding to do something irrevocable, but also to consider whether not doing the irrevocable thing is a sort of cowardice. Maybe I don’t have to decide right now; maybe I can just tread water a little longer.