At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. As he saw Joseph coming out of the synagogue, the rabbi grabbed Joseph by the hand and pulled him aside. Impassioned by the holiness of the day, the rabbi said to him, “You need to join the Army of God!”
Joseph replied, “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”
The rabbi questioned, “Then how come I don’t see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Joseph whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”
I’ve often wondered what it is that brings people to enlist in the secret service exclusively for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, I believe it is a sense of nostalgia for tradition. For others, it is a source of community. Some come for the beauty of the Hazzanut, of the Cantor beautifully chanting sacred melodies. Some even come because they enjoy praying.
But I think for many, the reason we come to synagogue on the High Holidays is the safety of the boredom we encounter. We know that if we sit (and often stand) for hours on end, in uncomfortable dress clothes and in poorly air conditioned buildings, we have “done” our Jewish thing, done our introspection for the year. We can check off the box. It is the holiday equivalent of taking our medicine: if we successfully endure the High Holiday services, we have done what is expected of us (by society? by deceased parents whose guilt-trips about Jewish identity still weigh upon us? by a God of Judgment lurking somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds?). And we can move on with our “real” lives about as quickly as we digest the lox and bagel at our break the fast meal.
The truth is, though, that our boredom serves as a protective barrier during the High Holidays. The purpose of the Days of Awe, from the liturgy to the haunting melodies, from the shofar to the sacred task of teshuvah (repentance/turning from our prior ways), is to shatter our delusions of safety and comfort with existential questions, alerting us to the precariousness of our mortality and challenging us about the quality of the life we have been living. The reason for coming to shul is not to endure boredom but to confront the messiness of life. So as we embark on the year 5774 on Wednesday evening, I hope that we will have the courage to reject boredom during the Days of Awe. I pray that rabbis and laity alike will use the sacred tools of the Yamim Noraim to challenge ourselves to lead more mindful, more meaningful, and more holy lives in the coming year.
That sentence strikes fear in to the heart of many pulpit rabbis. There is so much preparation that goes in to creating a Rosh Hashannah service. The pressure on the clergy is immense. Thousands of Jews come to synagogue on the High Holidays who only show up that one time a year. The rabbi must lead a meaningful, interesting, and moving service while at the same time inspiring each person in the congregation with his or her sermon. The bar is set very high.
I sit in a very interesting space for the High Holidays. I am a rabbi who does not lead services. I sit in the pews with other congregants, and this gives me a unique perspective. I experience both the tension of my fellow clergy in preparing for the services and the expectations of my fellow congregants when I come to synagogue. I listen intently to both what the rabbi has to say from the pulpit and what the Jews in the pews say in response.
One thing has become abundantly clear to me. The rabbi and other service leaders do have an impact on a congregant’s prayer experience. They set a tone and space for spiritual contemplation. However the people who have the most meaningful experiences at services do so because they take responsibility for their own experience.
What does this mean? It means that they take time BEFORE service to think about what they want to do DURING the service. This plays out differently for different people. Some people spend time before Rosh Hashannah reflecting on the year that is ending, and come to services ready to dedicate themselves to new goals. They then use the time during the service to clarify their goals for the year to come. Others decide to spend the service time itself reflecting on the year that has past. Others bring reading material with them to the service, not just to keep them from getting bored, but to help them move down whatever path they are traveling. I have seen people read Jewish texts, spiritual guidebooks, and self help books. Some people use the familiar melodies and prayers to contemplate God, and pray. And some people use the service time to catch up with old friends since this is one of the few times of year they see each other.
All of these are meaningful options. What matters is that these people have put some thought in to how they want to spend the few hours they are in synagogue. The time we have to sit in synagogue is really a gift. Instead of being bored, and let’s be honest, the most common complaint I hear is that services are boring, do some preparation so that you are not going to be bored. The prayers, the music and the rabbi’s words are there to help us get to in to a different spiritual space. But as with anything else in life, if we don’t take responsibility for our own actions, we are not going to achieve anything.
So, if you want to have a more meaningful High Holiday experience this year, you now have a month to prepare. Think about what would be a meaningful use of your time this year. What do you need to reflect on in your life? What might you want to change or improve upon? What do you want to read about? Can others in your life help? What would you like to say to God?
It is one month until the New Year. What do you need to do to prepare?
“Why do we pray?” I asked before we entered our makeshift sanctuary. We had gathered at the cabins. Dressed in white, we walked along the road accompanying the Torah, the quiet solemn march was visually powerful. But even with this wonderful set up, part of me worried. I attend a great many Shabbat services in a variety of settings, formal and informal, Orthodox, Reform, unaffiliated. Far too often the young people have trouble engaging. They don’t sing along. They fidget. They talk. They don’t seem to pray.
So while the question was genuine, I was also hedging my bets. Trying to have the campers set up a framework that made sense to them and would allow them to find their own way into prayer. But I need not have worried. Kids pray at camp.
Throughout the summer, my social media networks –which admittedly have a strong clergy faction -have been filled with reports of inspiring prayer services at camps across the country. Early in the summer I had dinner with a woman in her 70s, who recalled the yearly ritual of a day spent in prayer each summer, mourning the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Over 50 years later, it remains one of the most powerful prayer experiences of her life. I can still recall sitting under the trees by the lake when I was not even ten years old and writing my own prayers. My pride at having my words included in our prayer book still resonates. I often hear adults mourn the really spiritual praying they were able to do at camp but eludes them as grown ups.
At Camp Be’chol Lashon where I work now, the campers lead the service. Some are very familiar with Jewish prayer while others are encountering it for the first time. In pairs or small groups they take their place in front of the community, explain, lead and engage. There is lots of music, some discussion, and tons of participation. It is a tight community. There is a sense of intimacy. The atmosphere is serious but relaxed. Campers easily offer up thing for which they are grateful, the names of those in their lives who are sick, the memories of those who have passed.
Away from camp, young people pray –but mostly it is a private affair- when the personal needs strikes. Judaism encourages communal prayer but outside of camp the tone is different, the sense of empowerment and fun can be lacking.
Spaces where children take the center stage for prayer are less common. Schools come with the baggage of expectations and evaluation. Youth group gathering are few. Most sanctuaries are dominated by adults and even on the occasion of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service when a child is welcomed into their growing role in the community, the adults, their rules, their seriousness and tunes dominate.
The campers at Camp Be’chol Lashon easily provided answers to my “why pray” query. “To talk with God.” “To let our wishes be known.” “To give voice to our hopes.” As I facilitated the short conversation, which also touched on the fact that one need not believe to participate, their answers reminded me that young people understand prayer in the abstract. The inspiring service that followed, was proof positive that given the tools, freedom and encouragement, young people can and do pray.
Middle school is hard. Bodies betray young people as they lurch uncertainly towards adulthood. Emotions rear up and overtake sensibility and perspective. Desire for the other surprises, delights and overwhelms.
The result: drama, drama and more drama.
On the sports field or in the locker rooms, by text or by chat, during class or at camp, intentionally and more often without intention little actions, and sometimes big ones, are hurtful, or perceived hurtfully, or are downright idiotic. Seriously–insert eye roll.
And to make it worse everyone is talking about you. You are not just imaging it. They are. Everyone is looking to the left and the right, watching to see what exactly is the right move, the wrong move, the way forward.
The thing about middle schoolers is that they are just working to figure it out. Adults know, there are no simple answers. But middle schoolers are just emerging from that precious time of life when they held on the notions of perfect solutions, the right and wrong way to do things, heroes and happy endings. Middle schoolers are lost in a sea of unclear possibilities without the tools or power to contend with the complexity of the increasing challenging world that they are discovering. Wisdom will likely come but it has not yet arrived.
These were some of the thoughts that were swishing about in my brain as I recently came to the end of the central silent prayer at an evening service. It is one of my favorites. I don’t remember when it became so beloved but as I read it, it dawned on me that it may have been during middle school. It ought to be renamed The Middle School Prayer.
It pleads with a personal God, after all being in middle school is all about “me, me, me.” Ultimately it is when everything is about me that things inevitably start to go wrong. It asks for help with stopping all those things that are on the tip of our tongue from actually tumbling out. It asks for help figuring out how to do the right thing and to foil the plans of those who scheme against us. But ultimately it moves beyond the personal, to remind God, that this help is needed for the sake of the whole community. Every little bit less crazy talk and nastiness make it all better. It ends with a fervent plea to “Save with Your power, and answer me,” because ultimately that is what we are hoping for, to find the answers, to be saved from ourselves and the people around us.
I think that it is still one of my favorite prayers because for me, as for many of us, the bewilderment of middle school never entirely disappears. As adults we are blessed with frontal cortexes that are more fully developed and often the patience, perspective and wisdom that goes with aging. But still. We still say the wrong thing. We still have people talking behind our backs. We confront situations that put us at a loss. So what to do? For me The Middle School Prayer (officially know as Elohai N’tzor) continues to resonate. I think of it as my moral compass, reminding me what I am continually striving for.
Read it in a translation of the original. If it feels too Jewy, feel free to substitute “Your Wisdom” for “Your Torah” “Your vision” for “Your mitzvot” –it still works.
Let me know what you think and whether it resonates for you.
My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.
Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.
Open my heart to Your Torah, that I may pursue Your mitzvot.
As for all who think evil of me, cancel their designs and frustrate their schemes.
Act for Your own sake, for the sake of Your Power,
for the sake of Your Holiness, for the sake of Your Torah,
so that Your loved ones may be rescued.
Save with Your power, and answer me.
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.
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.
During my first year with a new congregation, I’ve been offering a creative service slot once a month. Borrowing the term from Rabbi Hayyim Herring’s book, ‘Tomorrow’s Synagogues Today’, our ‘Ritual Lab’ Shabbat lets congregants know to come expecting the unexpected for that particular service. Over the course of the year, some services have been more experimental in format than others – more or less similar to the flow and musical styles of our regular Shabbat worship – but each have had a specific goal in mind.
My ‘training’, such as it was, for shaping these creative services came from the Jewish Renewal movement, having spent many years praying with these communities and creating prayer services in that context prior to my formal rabbinic studies. There, one of the terms coined is ‘interpretive davenning‘ – a way of entering the prayer experience in an interpretive mode so that there is a sense of narrative and conscious spiritual journeying that accompanies the flow from one prayer in our liturgy to the next. Different modes may be explored to accompany particular prayers in a way that helps to peel back the layers of history, poetry, and other aspects of meaning found in each prayer. Each of these modes helps to uncover something of the meaning of the prayer, or highlights an aspect of personal spiritual reflection that a prayer might help to highlight. Sometimes it is the mind that is engaged, and sometimes it is something more experiential that helps us see the words of prayer as vehicles for getting beyond words; in many ways this can be the deepest experience of prayer. Such modes can include meditation chanting, movement, dance, study/discussion of a prayer text in pairs, juxtaposing traditional prayers with other kinds of texts to create new readings and meanings, and more.
I so often hear congregants say that the words of our traditional liturgy get in the way of being able to find spirituality in the Jewish communal prayer experience.This is partially because we lack the tools in our spiritual toolbox to unpack the layers of meaning and possibility found in those prayers. But it is also because the sheer amount of words can be overwhelming so that we cannot possibly derive significant meaning from all of them in every service. Of course, not everyone enters into prayer with this expectation – for those who pray in a more traditional mode, it is the overall ritual and rhythm of the familiar prayers that provide the vessel for taking time out to enter into a different mode that is the primary experience. But for many Jews, and certainly in what has been, historically, the more rationally-focused Reform movement’s approach to prayer, the perceived lack of meaning gets in the way for many individuals seeking a spiritual practice that truly touches and transforms them.
In our ‘Ritual Lab’ services, typically two things happen simultaneously; the prayer service becomes a vehicle through which we can attach a learning experience on an infinite number of topics and, at the same time, the materials or experiences we weave into the service brings a new sense of meaning to the individual prayers that have always been there. The next time we pray our way through our traditional liturgy, we bring the insights from these interpretive experiences with us, and they forever change our understanding of and relationship to these traditional prayers.
So, for example, the Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, we held a drumming worship service, juxtaposing insights from Native American spiritual traditions with Jewish ideas and writings that resonated with similar insights. During Pesach we held a ‘Song of Songs Shabbat’ that raised awareness of the Song of Songs being read at Pesach, introduced Jewish mantra chanting into the worship experience, explored the mystical roots of Kabbalat Shabbat and the connections to Song of Songs, and highlighted the nature imagery in our traditional prayers and our own spiritual experiences in nature. Sometimes I’ve been intentionally provocative. For example, there is great ambivalence in the Jewish world about acknowledging Halloween in any way in our Jewish community. I personally don’t feel that this is a useful battle to pursue, given the place of this day in American popular culture and the families and children who delight in the modern expressions of dressing up and going trick-or-treating. Instead, the Friday night closest to Halloween became a time to weave teachings about Ghosts, ghouls and demons found in Jewish folk and mystical tradition into the fabric of our service, demonstrating how some specific prayer and ritual traditions that we still have today may have their roots in these stories and beliefs.
For some of our more regularly attending worshipers, these services have become a highlight. They tell me that the format offers a way for them to be exposed to different kinds of spiritual practice and ways to pray that are accessible and can be internalized, while also providing a forum for learning in a setting other than an adult learning class. The feedback tells me that these creative services are fulfilling their purpose. I look forward to another year of experimentation in our Ritual Lab.
Yesterday, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu posted a thoughtful and heartfelt prayer by our colleague, Rabbi Aaron Weininger in response to the attack at the Boston Marathon. I appreciate the words, and those of other colleagues who have created and shared words of prayer these past 24 hours. I will, no doubt, share some of those words with my own congregation this coming Shabbat. But, I must be quite honest, today I don’t feel much like praying. Today I feel angry.
Yesterday was my first time being up close to the proceedings of a marathon in this country. A number of years ago, while I still lived in the UK, I spent several years volunteering with a first aid organization, the St. John’s Ambulance, and had the opportunity to assist at the London Marathon. But this year, with my step-daughter volunteering as a guide to a participant with cerebral palsy, racing in a chair, we took advantage of the fact that we live just 5 miles from the starting line to cheer them on for the earlier parts of the race.
We arrived in Hopkinton early enough to spend some time with the Achilles team as they warmed up and prepared. It was nothing short of inspiring to see racers in chairs make sure that the custom-made works of art that they race in were reading for action; others have the use of prosthetic legs. Many are war veterans. I, whose crowning physical achievement was to build up to a 5km run for charity a couple of years ago, was humbled by the determination and dedication of the men and women racing, and their volunteer guides who enable those who need additional support to participate as equals.
We watched the first few waves of starts take off from Hopkinton, cheering on our team and many of the other mobility-impaired early starters. Then we made our way to Natick and were lucky enough to get another moment of cheering in as my step-daughter’s athlete and his team came by at around the 9 mile mark. We didn’t progress any further down the track, knowing that it would be challenging to get into Boston. I was in my car listening to NPR when I got the first news of the attack close to the finishing line.
I cannot stop thinking about the family waiting to cheer on a father, whose 8 year old son is never coming home. Mother and daughter are still contending with serious injuries. I cannot stop thinking about the spectators who were cheering on these inspirational runners one moment – many of whom have dedicated hundreds of hours as volunteers to support teams that raise thousands and thousands of dollars for charity – who today are dealing with the trauma of a lost limb. In a split second the world has changed for these people. Yes, the world changes for many others too – the ones who were close by, the ones who waited with baited breath to hear from loved ones who might have been there. We are shaken too. But we are the lucky ones.
I am angry. I am incensed that someone or some group has caused such devastating harm. Is this different from any other act of terror, or violent attack that kills and injures innocent bystanders? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is on the heels of watching Senators play politics in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting that I find myself in a different mood this time around. I’m not interested in gentle words or prayers. I remain inspired by those who helped in the moment of need, just as I was inspired by the athletes I met at the start of the day. But I don’t simply wish to express my thanks for those who made a difference in the face of terror. I wish to express radical indignation that such random acts of callousness are committed by those who have the gall to believe they can justify turning the lives of others upside down.
I’m noticing these feelings arise, and I am not trying to keep them down today. From what place do we garner strength and energy to act? Sometimes from prayer. But perhaps sometimes we need to get in touch with the anger, and we need to be willing to turn toward the images of torn limbs and bloodied bodies because this, too, can re-energize us to act differently. To truly treasure each day, to treasure each human interaction, to foster more caring and do even more in all the ways we live and act, because we have to counter hate with as much lovingkindness as we can.
And I pray, deeply I pray, that the authorities catch those responsible and bring the full weight of justice upon their heads.
A Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, Rabbi Aaron Weininger wrote this beautiful poem/prayer in response to yesterday’s attacks. We are praying for all who have been impacted by this tragedy.
God of Runners, God of Responders
by Aaron Weininger
God of Runners
God of Responders
We mourn the loss of life
Our cries crack through the icy spring of Minneapolis
To the blood-soaked streets of Boston.
As we remember those whose lives were taken by senseless hate
Lives and limbs torn apart in the blasts of bombs
As we remember people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds
Who seek the help of doctors and therapists, of communities and clergy
Let us open our hearts to heal and hope.
God of Runners
God of Responders
Give us strength to love our neighbors as ourselves *
To reach across borders
To love beyond finish lines
To pray for healing of mind and, whenever possible, healing of body.
God of Runners
God of Responders
Cry with us in our mourning
Lift us again to love
Hear us in our prayer for hope, in our prayer for healing
Shelter us with peace.
* Leviticus 19:18
“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.