“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.
Pope Benedict says that he’ll be stepping down at the end of February. It’s been 600 years since a sitting pontiff has taken such an action, usually you die in service. There were days on the bima, in front of the congregation, when I thought the same might happen to me. Alas, a story for another day.
I remember when this pope was elected, the plume of smoke that rose from a Vatican chimney signified that the Cardinals had made their secret selection. Such ceremony!
The opportunity to elect a new pope reminds of a recent article written by my dear colleague, Brad Hirschfield, on the ordination this past November of the Coptic Pope, of Egyptian christians, Pope Tawadros II (Washington Post):
“The 60-year-old, English-trained pharmacist born as Wagih Sobi Baqi Suleiman, became the head of the Coptic Church when a blindfolded child picked his name out of a bowl…Following three days of fasting and chanting, a child is selected to reach into the bowl and draw out the name of the person who will serve as the new leader.”
We Jews do not have such an elaborate process in choosing our rabbis. Instead, we are taught lessons such as “Make for yourself a rabbi (teacher), and earn for yourself a friend.” (Avot 1:6).
What a crazy teaching? You mean, unlike the Coptic church or the Vatican, the religious leaders we get are not chosen by God, however understood by the Cardinals in the case of the Rome or by the young boy in the case of the Copts? Instead, we choose? We, fallible, imperfects choose our own leaders. So we’ll choose a rabbi who already agrees with us, who won’t push us where we don’t want to be pushed. And this is indeed the case. Where given a choice of synagogues, the number one reason for choosing a synagogue is “like the rabbi.” This is a problem and blessing.
One the one hand, congregants in most synagogues have an unusual power over their religious leader. So how cutting edge can your rabbi be, if the threat of disapproval and the threat of an unrenewed contract looms over his or her head?
On the other hand, there is a lesson here as well. Judaism seems to prize a relationship with a teacher who can also be your friend over one who hold religious, moral, perhaps Godly authority over you. In this complicated relationship, that of rabbi-friend, is a religious secret:
You already know everything you need to know about God and how to be a good and happy person in the world. You don’t need a higher authority to tell you this. What you need is a friend to support you as you take what you know into your heart and out to the world.
Is your rabbi also your friend? If not why not? Is it him or her? Or, is your expectations that keep your rabbi at arms length?
On Christmas morning, I’m reviewing the news online and I catch the Huffington Post’s summary of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Mass message. In it, he bemoans the lack of space in our fast-paced lives for God:
“Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him,” said the pope, wearing gold and white vestments.
“The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full,” he said.
In the study sessions, the day-to-day conversations, the pastoral visits and other randomly occurring opportunities that I have with many people that touch on consciousness of the spiritual, I find a very different picture to the one that the Pope bemoans. Just this past week, when one of my congregants gave the d’var torah after reading from parsha Vayigash, she took a survey of the congregation that night that highlighted this very issue. At the moment in the Joseph story that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt, he responds to their fear that he will seek vengeance on them. He tells them that, while they may have meant their actions to do him harm, God meant it for good. It appears that Joseph believes that every step of his path was intended by God in order to bring him to the position of influence that he now has, without which he would not be in a position to save his family from famine. My congregant rejected this understanding of the unfolding of events. But, in surveying the congregation, she found that most people believed that God does show up in the fabric of our everyday lives, but not in a manner that is engineering every step of our experience, implied by some of our biblical narratives.
And this is what I see in the conversations that I have – many questions and the search for a God that is part of the fabric of our lives, but not the God that is described in the ancient mind of the biblical authors. Unlike the Pope, I do not see a wholesale rejection of God, or lives too busy to engage in the questions. For sure, atheism is a very present strand of thought in our society. But that is just one stage in the evolution of our understanding. What I see is the rejection of outdated God-ideas, but many are looking for part two – the search for new language to replace those ideas that emerge from our actual, lived experiences.
Rabbi Irwin Kula makes precisely this argument in the video short he created, ‘Time for a New God.’ He seeks a new understanding of God and new conversations about God that can emerge from our most intensely felt life experiences. Each and every moment is a potential doorway into something that gets us beyond a mundane interaction with our world and with each other. For, he suggests, ‘the whole world is really just God in drag.’
Time after time, when I don’t start with the presentation of old God-ideas delivered by the philosophers of past centuries, but I start with the powerful experiences that we all have as part of life, and we then try to find language to express something of the ‘beyondness’ that the experience points toward but which we can’t quite encapsulate in words, I find common ground on which we can stand. From there, it is possible to explore the possibilities of reclaiming the word ‘God’ to reflect what the inner reality of those experiences might be. Or sometimes we’ll explore reclaiming the word ‘kedushah’ – holiness – as a doorway into noticing and elevating the importance of our most deeply felt experiences for directing, guiding, or informing our lives. Whether I am having these conversations with adults, who may not have visited the God-idea since their bar or bat mitzvah, or I’m having these conversations with skeptical teenagers who feel empowered when they learn that they can claim a God-idea that jives with their experience of life, the result is often the same. We don’t reach conclusions or serve up pat answers; but there is no lack of interest in exploring the questions.
And so, for many of us it is not a matter of finding room for God. Rather, through the invitation to let go of old God-ideas that no longer work, in order to explore new doorways that can speak to the world we live in today, its more of a matter of finding God in the room.