It is told that once, just before the start of Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov went up to a Jew in the back of the synagogue and asked him to lead the Kol Nidre service.
The man looked up at the Baal Shem and did what any of us might do in the situation: he tried to get out of it. He said, “Rebbe, I’m not a very religious man” But the Rebbe insisted.
So the man said, ““Rebbe, I’m sorry, I don’t know the prayers very well.” But still the Baal Shem Tov insisted.”
So finally, the poor man didn’t know what else say and he blurted out, “Rebbe, I’m afraid!”
And to this the Baal Shem Tov replied, “When you can say what you are, you can lead the people.” And the man ascended the bima and led the Kol Nidrei prayers.
It sounds like every Jew’s worst nightmare, right? That the rabbi will jump off the bima, hand you a prayerbook, and tell you to go sing Avinu Malkeinu. It’s like the Jewish equivalent of that dream where it’s opening night of a play and you don’t know any of your lines. Or the one where you show up to school in your underwear.
We’ve all had these dreams. We can all relate to that feeling of being inauthentic. We know it in our secular lives; we know it from our bad dreams; and we know it very well in our religious life.
The Kelemer Maggid, another Chassidic master, used to teach that Yom Kippur is actually Yom K-Purim – a day that is like Purim. How is Yom Kippur like Purim, he taught: On both days we wear masks. On Purim we masquerade as Esther and Mordecai. On Yom Kippur, we masquerade as the pious and religious Jews we are not.
I very often have conversations that sound an awful lot like the one in the story, where people say to me apologetically, “Rabbi I’m not very religious.”
That’s our way of explaining why we don’t come to services enough, or we don’t keep kosher enough, or we don’t know enough: We’re not very religious.
And it usually comes with some kind of disclaimer:
- Rabbi, I’m not very religious, but I’m looking for a community.
- I’m not very religious, but I want my children to be Jewish.
- I’m not very religious, but I’m spiritual. I meditate every day.
- I’m not very religious, but I believe in Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.
I have to tell you, as a rabbi I don’t know any way to define “religious” other than to say that it involves seeking community, and building a spiritual life, and passing traditions on to our children, and working to repair the world. For people who are “not very religious,” we sure do a lot of religious things!
And yet too often we go through life feeling like we are dressed up as something we are not.
Two weeks ago, we held a Shabbat morning talk for Religious School parents about God. We started off by defining our own beliefs and experiences of God. People said amazing things – they talked about finding God in nature, in relationships, in their children, in their learning. And then we compared that to what we believe “Judaism says about God.” And we found a huge disconnect. Where our God was found in nature and relationships, the “Jewish God,” we believed, was found in supernatural miracles and ritual commandments.
I think that for far too many of us, there is Judaism on the one hand, and then there is us – our beliefs and our practices – on the other hand. We’ll say things like:
- “Judaism says God created the world in 7 days, but I believe in the Big Bang.”
- “Judaism says that Moses parted the Red Sea. But I think it was probably just low tide.”
- “Judaism says we are supposed to keep kosher, but I only keep kosher style, and only inside the house, and not on vacation.”
We constantly we set ourselves up as outside of Judaism. As something less than the real thing. Somewhere in the back of our minds we still believe that there is an authentic way to be Jewish – that it looks like Orthodoxy, or it looks like our grandparents. Either way it doesn’t look like us. No wonder we feel like showed up at play practice without learning our lines.
We are not the first Jews to contend with this kind of inferiority complex. You can see that from the Kelemer Maggid’s little teaching about Yom Kippur and Purim. But even earlier than that, Judaism has always struggled with an idea called Yeridat Hadorot – the decline of the generations. This is the notion that each successive generation, as it moves further and further from Sinai, becomes a little weaker, a little more corrupted, a little less authentic.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Zera is quoted as saying: “If the earlier scholars were like angels, then we are mere human beings. And if the earlier scholars were human beings, then we are like donkeys.”
And that was 1500 years ago. Imagine what that makes us!
This is a truly self-defeating way to look at the world. And it doesn’t actually represent how we feel about ourselves – at least not in the secular sphere. In 21st century Canada, we believe that we are living in the most diverse, most progressive society ever to exist. We believe that, far from declining with each generation, we get to make life more fulfilling as time marches forward, by learning about the world around us and applying that learning to our laws and our customs. That’s how we evolve as a society. So why can’t we also apply that kind of thinking to Judaism?
It turns out that in fact, the Rabbis already did. In fact, Judaism as we know it is built on just that kind of thinking. When the Temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, the Rabbis of the time began to meet to debate and discuss how Judaism would move forward in this new era. The Talmud records one of these debates in the form of a story:
It tells that that once, the great sages were gathered in the Beit Midrash arguing over a certain point of Jewish law. The specific point doesn’t matter, but what matters is that all of the Rabbis believed one way, and only Rabbi Eliezer disagreed.
Rabbi Eliezer declared: “If I am right, then let this carob tree prove it!” And the carob tree flew out of the ground and landed a hundred cubits away.
And then Rabbi Eliezer said: “If I am right, then let the stream of water prove it.” And the stream of water flowed backwards.
And so on and so forth with all kinds of miracles until finally, Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages, “If the law agrees with me, then let it be proved by heaven.” And a heavenly voice cried out: “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? His rulings are always right!”
But the other rabbis weren’t impressed. And the great Rabbi Joshua stood and said words from the Torah portion that we will read tomorrow morning: “Lo bashamayim hi. Torah is not in Heaven.”
At that moment, the sages say, God started laughing and said, “Nitzachuni banai, Nitzachuni banai – My children have overruled me! My children have overruled me!” (Baba Metzia 59a)
My teacher Dr. Mark Washofky used to call this story the “Declaration of Independence of Rabbinic Judaism.” This is the ancient Rabbis declaring independence from the orthodoxies of their time. Declaring independence from the idea that there was only ONE right way to be Jewish, and that we could never measure up. Instead, they declare that we Jews have the right – and the responsibility – to reinterpret Judaism in every generation.
And there are about a thousand examples of this. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the rabbis decided that you could pray in a synagogue anywhere in the world. When you could no longer bring a Passover sacrifice, they created the Pesach Seder based on Roman practices. The Jewish calendar, the wedding ketubah, the rituals of Chanukah, the medieval philosophical writings – all of these are examples of innovations and that made their way into Judaism because of the needs of the moment and because of the cultural context in which Jews were living.
Judaism has always been Reform Judaism. Judaism has always been aware of the world around it; has always offered multiple paths to fulfillment; has always been about making real meaning in the real world.
Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who was one of the giants of early Reform Judaism, wrote about 100 years ago that “the very spirit of Reform that empowered [the early Rabbis] to declare the sanctuary of learning to be as holy as the Temple at Jerusalem, ought by all means to empower us to assign our temples the same divine holiness.”
In other words, it is our sacred responsibility not only to follow the traditions, but to be ongoing interpreters of Jewish traditions.
It turns out that we are not at play practice without a script. The script is right here in our hands; and Judaism even gives us a pencil – to make edits and interpretations along the way. That’s also what the ancient rabbis did. It is the original, and the most authentic approach to Jewish life. It is the very definition of being a religious Jew.
I think that as Reform Jews, we need to work to reclaim words like “religious” and “kosher.” To define them based not on Orthodoxy or on our grandparents’ lives, but on what they mean in our context.
To be “religious” doesn’t just mean to observe a bunch of rituals; it means to thoughtfully learn about Judaism and about the world around us and to make meaningful choices based on that learning.
To be Shomer Shabbat – to be Sabbath observant – doesn’t only mean not to turn on lights on Saturday. It might also mean making the choice to drive to the synagogue or to friends’ houses, or gathering our families for movies or meals, or doing the gardening while refraining from paying the bills.
To keep kosher doesn’t only mean eating a certain hechsher or keeping 2 sets of dishes. It might also mean paying attention to the ethical impact of our food we’re eating – choosing local, or free range, or any of the other mindful choices that our Jewish values drive us to make.
These are real and authentic definitions of Jewish words. They are real and authentic ways to live as a Jew. And they place a real and authentic responsibility on us – to be active learners and to be active agents in building our own Jewish lives. Liberal Judaism is a religion of process, not product. It matters less exactly how you keep a given mitzvah and more how you came to that decision. In the principles of Reform Judaism it says:
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.
That is not at all easy to do. Being a Reform Jew involves learning and choosing, and then when our beliefs or our circumstances shift, it involves learning and choosing all over again.
The danger of liberal Judaism is that when we don’t do that kind of work, it is easy to slip into something complacent. And then we become the fulfillment of our own insecurities about not being authentic enough, not being “religious enough.” When we say that, it’s not about whether somebody else approves of our standard of kashrut – it’s about whether we approve of our own choices.
And that means that those questions of the High Holy Days – questions about living our lives authentically, about whether our actions match our values – these are questions that we need to be asking ourselves every day of our lives.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that the process of teshuvah – of repentence – “must energize an ever-ascending spiral in [our] spiritual state.” In other words, that the process of teshuvah can be a kind of springboard for the growth and authenticity we are seeking.
When our Jewish lives reflect honest reflection and real learning and mindful decision making, we become the most authentic versions of ourselves and the most authentic Jews we can be.
So that is the challenge of the new year, and really the challenge of every day. To pick up a new book. To learn something new about our Judaism and about ourselves. To ask ourselves hard questions: Does my Shabbat practice really reflect my what I believe about the importance of family and self-care and emotional health? Do my eating habits reflect my own ethical ideas? Am I putting effort into building the community that I need? Would I honestly define myself – not according to someone else’s definition but according to my own – as living the Jewish life that I choose?
Rabbi Akiva once said to his students: “God showed us love by creating us in the Divine Image, but God showed us even greater love by making us conscious that we are created in the Divine Image.”
We are blessed with the consciousness of God – with the ability to come to know ourselves through learning and reflection. To build the life and the self that we wish to build, and in so doing to make the world a better place. There is no act more religious than this. There is no path more authentic.
In the coming year, may we challenge ourselves and our assumptions.
May we celebrate our choices and our values.
And may we work to see ourselves as the recipients and the embodiment of an ancient tradition, as guardians of an eternal and ever-evolving way of life.
 Based on The Yom Kippur Anthology p. 120.
 Ibid 123.
 B. Shabbat 112b.
 “Blowing of the Shofar on the Sabbath.” American Reform Responsa XXIII, pp. 182-3)
 Soloveichik, Joseph. “The Jewish Concept of Teshuvah.”The Yom Kippur Anthology. P 143.
 Mishnah., Qtd in Gates of Repentence p. 4.
“Think for yourself.”
It’s what every teacher and every professor ever said to us.
“Think for yourself.”
It’s what we hope for our children as they go out into the world.
“Think for yourself.”
Socrates said that, “to find yourself, you must think for yourself” And, Christopher Hitchens wrote that, “[If you} take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you…”
There may be no greater virtue in our individualist, post-enlightenment world, than the ability to think for yourself.
But I wonder if we really do.
I want to show you a cartoon that I’ve always loved. It’s from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.” And it’s about what you might call an “individualist penguin”:
If you’ll notice, all of these penguins look just alike, but the one in the middle – who looks like all the others – is singing out: “I gotta be me. Oh, I just gotta be me.”
I think in some way, we are all that penguin. We strive to be ourselves – to live authentic lives based on our own choices and our own values. But at the same time, we are social creatures. The ways that we think and the ways behave are influenced by the thinking and the behaviour of those around us.
It turns out thinking for yourself isn’t so simple after all.
Maybe the starkest example of this comes from the darkest period of our history.
In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executionists¸ the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes about the cultural influences in early 20th century Germany that led to the Holocaust.
He writes that for a whole variety of social, historical, economic, and other reasons “the German people [of that period] were more dangerously oriented toward Jews than they had been during any other time ….”
In other words, even the Holocaust was, in some sense, a cultural phenomenon. People’s thinking, people’s willingness to act, was influenced by social and cultural factors around them. And to drive home the point, we need only look across Germany’s northern border to Denmark, a country which – wholesale – refused to deport its Jews. In fact, on Erev Rosh Hashanah of 1943 – exactly 73 years ago yesterday – the Danish people smuggled nearly the entire Jewish population of their country across the sea to safety in Sweden.
Two countries, two sides of a border, and their collective responses were like night and day. Of course, there were exceptions. There were Danes who turned in Jews. And there were Germans – many thousands of them – who risked their own lives to save Jews. But on the whole, the social and cultural climates of the two countries moved their citizens to think and behave in wildly different ways
SO what happened? Was one country made of good people and one made of bad people? Or was this an example of how our collective values and circumstances work together to construct a culture, and how that culture in turn shapes each of us.
In 2016, we are fortunate not to be living through such terrible times. But our world is also not simple. And many of the issues that we deal with also relate to group identity and affiliation: On a personal level, how do we build community? How do we establish a safe and supportive environment for ourselves and our families? And on a much larger level, how do we welcome refugees from other countries? How do we build bridges of understanding between communities that look and talk and pray differently?
Do our own religious and national and cultural affiliations impact on the assumptions we make about other people?
Of course they do. That’s part of being human.
Aristotle already said 23 centuries ago that “Man is by nature a social animal.” And much more recently, Atul Gawande, a physician and writer, added more recently that “simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”
We are wired to seek out being part of a group. And we are wired to take on certain assumptions and tendencies of the group. That’s what Hillel means in Pirke Avot when he says “Al tifrosh min hatzibbur – You can’t separate yourself from the community.” Our sense of self is, in some way, tied up with the communities and groups that we are part of. And that means that when we think we are thinking for ourselves, what we’re often actually doing is applying the norms and assumptions taught to us by those groups.
By the way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing – it is a feature of the human experience. And this shaping of our psyche starts very, very early.
Research out of Stanford University has shown that a person’s native language – the language we start learning at birth – can be a powerful shaper of worldview. For example, speakers of Russian are often better able to differentiate different shades of blue, because their language has more words for different shades of blue. And speakers of Japanese and Spanish are less likely on the whole to be concerned with fault or blame, because their languages describe things reflexively: “The vase broke itself/was broken” rather than “Such and such broke the vase.”
And interestingly enough, people who are bilingual have been found to think or feel or react differently depending on which language they are speaking at the time. (So the next time my kids ask me why I’m driving so aggressively in Israel, I’ll just blame the Hebrew language.)
Our cultural influences are constantly shaping our thinking and our worldview. As much as we are individuals with free will, we are also products of the societies we grow up in, the families we come from, and the groups we choose to affiliate with.
It has to be that way. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as what we call “Jewish values” or what we call “Canadian values.”
These things are real, even if we can’t always agree on what they are. Because we are Jewish, we tend value education, and community, and social action. Because we are Canadian we tend to value diversity, and consensus, and winter sports. It’s not that 100% of us share these things. And it’s not that they necessarily make us different from anybody else – non-Jews also like books; non-Canadians also like hockey. But our values are formed in part because of the groups we are part of.
And when we look at the world around us right now – the weary, fearful world around us – we see a great deal of concern about what happens when our values come into contact or come into conflict with someone else’s. Whether we’re talking about exiting the European Union, or working to curb interfaith marriage, or screening immigrants, or building a great wall, these things are born out of a fear – a very real and palpable fear – that someone else’s values might be dangerous to ours.
Judaism places values at the centre of our lives. And it places community affiliation at the centre of our lives as well. And it teaches us that we don’t need to live in fear, because we have the ability – we have the power – to be carriers of values. We get to build culture. We get to lead those around us.
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks to the Jewish people about our mission on earth. He says:
נָקֵל מִֽהְיֽוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד…. וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם
“It is not enough that you should serve Me (says God). I will also make you Or Lagoyim – a light to the nations.”
In other words, God gives us a mission to transmit certain values and ideas beyond ourselves to the world around us.
This has sometimes been interpreted as being about proselytization– that we should actively work to teach our values and our religion to the rest of the world. I don’t think that’s what the prophet is saying at all. I believe that this passage represents a call to each of us to share our values with those around us by living them authentically.
“Think for yourself,” says the prophet. It’s true that you are part of a group. And it’s true that you are the product of a culture. But you also get to create culture through the way you live your life.
The Bible tells that the in ancient times, there was one leader who truly captured the hearts and allegiance of the Jewish people: and that’s King David. David wasn’t the first King of Israel, and he wasn’t the most powerful. He wasn’t the founder of Judaism or the father of the Jewish people. And yet, he was beloved perhaps more than any other leader in Israelite history.
What was it about David? He marched at the vanguard of the troops. He danced with incredible public joy in front of God’s ark. He worshipped with sincerity, and he owned up to his failings. David publicly embodied the values he wished to convey. And he was beloved for it, and he was emulated for it.
Anyone who has ever been a parent or a boss or really a person knows that modeling is the most powerful way to convey values. We see this in our own lives all the time, both in little ways and in very big ways.
- If I, as a parent, model for my kids (the little cellphone addicts) what it looks like to put down the device during meals, then we get to open a conversation about the values inherent in that action.
- If we, as a congregation, model what it looks like to truly welcome the stranger and build a culture of warmth and openness, then we get to participate in a conversation about why that matters.
- And if we as a nation model what it is to be a society built on tolerance and diversity, then we get to lead that conversation amongst the nations of the world.
To be a carrier of values means most of all to live authentically. It means to focus not on what frightens us about others or the world around us, but rather to focus on what we want to be in the world.
And that’s why we’re here on the High Holy Days. This is the time of year when we think about what we want to be in the world. We do so as a group, and we do so most of all as individuals.
Interestingly, the High Holy Day prayerbook actually acknowledges just how central our group affiliations are – how our communities help shape our selves. It does so by making teshuvah – repentance – in part a communal activity. When we say “Ashamnu bagadnu gazalnu – WE are guilty, We have sinned, We have done wrong,” we confess each other’s sins. Because in some sense, the collective “we,” the culture we build, the assumptions we promulgate, contribute to the actions we perform.
But Judaism doesn’t let us off the hook. On these Days of Awe, each of us stands alone before God. Each of us stands alone in judgment before ourselves.
The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Rebbe, what’s the matter?
And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, “I have learned the question – the terrible question – that the angels will ask me when I enter Olam Haba – when I enter the next world.”
The Rabbi’s followers were puzzled. “But Rebbe Zusya, you are pious and wise and humble. What question about your life could possibly be so terrifying?”
Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ And they will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Joshua?’ They will not ask, ‘Why weren’t you Maimonides or Rashi or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will say to me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”
The project of the Days of Awe – the task that is before us during these next 10 days – is to ask ourselves what we we wish to be, and to challenge ourselves to live it even more authentically than we did last year.
And our tradition believes that when we do so, we have the power to to reshape worlds, to shift cultures, to start the right conversations, to be Or Lagoyim – to be a source of light to those around us.
Mahatma Ghandi is said to have once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Actually, he never said that. It’s just a bumper sticker. But what Ghandi really said is far more powerful:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change… We need not wait to see what others do.”
This is the power we have – no less than the power to change the entire world by beginning with ourselves.
If we want to be part of families who prioritize and make time for each other, then we can start by making the time ourselves.
If we want to live in neighourhoods where people smile at each other and know one another, then we can start by learning the names of the people who live on either side of us.
If we want to be part of a congregation that truly takes care of one another and truly makes everyone feel welcome, then we can start by greeting the next unfamiliar face who walks through the door, or by attending the shiva service of someone we didn’t know, just to support their family.
If we want to live in a country that feeds the hungry and cares for the poor, then we can start by making sure that we are really giving what we can afford to give.
And if we want to live in a world that treats everyone with respect and dignity, where people no longer fear each other based on race or religion or accent, then we have to start by examining our own preconceptions, our own biases, our own prejudice.
A Jew once came to his rabbi in tears. He said, “Rabbi, I feel so paralyzed. I’ve tried so hard to repair the world and the world is still as broken as ever.” The rabbi embraced the man and told him to have hope. He said, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself. And when you change yourself, you change your community. And when you change your community you change your nation. And that is how you begin the task of repairing the world.”
When we strive to live as our most authentic selves, our influence extends far beyond ourselves.
May these next ten days be for us a time of honest reflection, in which we work to accept our own faults, and challenge ourselves to be our best.
May we learn to view ourselves as carriers of values, as architects of culture.
And may we know that within us lies the power to bring healing and light and goodness not only to ourselves, but to others around us, to our communities, and to our world.
 Goldhagen, Daniel J. Hitler’s Willing Executionists. Knopf; New York: 1996. P. 79.
 Isaiah 49:6.
NOTE: This essay was cross posted at Kol Ami.
In the Passover seder, we are commanded to tell our story of freedom beginning with the words: “Arami Oveid Avi – My father was a wandering/escaped Aramean.” There are differences of opinion regarding whether this line refers to Abraham or to Jacob. But either way, its meaning is clear. Our people got their start as escapees from the land of Aram, which is now in northern Syria. We begin our Jewish story as Syrian refugees.
In fact, the Jewish experience is one of being the stranger and welcoming the stranger. Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, were known for keeping their tent open on all four sides, so that they might rush out and bring passersby into their home. It’s known as Hachnasat Orchim – Welcoming the guest. Later, as our people emerged from slavery, we were commanded “V’ahavtem et Hageir – You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And only 8 decades ago, our people once again were the strangers and the refugees, trying to escape the dangers around them in Europe, and often labeled as security threats or subversives.
As Jews, that’s the religious and historical experience that we bring to the current refugee crisis. As Canadians, we also bring a deep respect for pluralism and for the immigration mentality that has made this country what it is. Aware of the security risks, aware of the challenges that immigration can bring with it, we approach the world with a desire to uphold Tzelem Elohim – to uphold the image of God in each human being.
May this season of freedom be a harbinger of freedom for all people, in all corners of the world. Someday may there be a time when no one will every have to say “Arami oveid avi – My father was a refugee.”
They say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I’m not so sure about that.
This weekend, Jewish families all over the world will sit down at their tables for the Passover Seder. This season celebrates freedom; it acknowledges that somewhere in the depths of our history/mythology we were slaves. And that through forces human and divine, we were made free.
The main character of this drama is, of course, Moses. Moses the miracle baby. Moses the Egyptian prince. Moses the freedom fighter. Moses the reticent leader. Moses the prophet. Moses the philosopher. Moses the rabbi. He plays more roles in Jewish tradition than any other figure. He is the archetype for EVERYTHING.
Which makes it exceedingly curious that as you make your way through the traditional Haggadah – the prayerbook for the Passover Seder – the name of Moses appears not a single time.
Why is Moses absent from the seder? Maybe the framers of the Haggadah wanted to attribute the miracles to God. Maybe they didn’t want to encourage Moses-worship. Maybe they wished to universalize the story, allowing it to speak to oppressed peoples in every time and place. Whatever the reason, there is a sense that Moses’ actions are so extraordinary that they speak for themselves. We don’t even need to mention his name.
Moses is lucky – we know he’s there even when he’s not mentioned. But that’s not usually the meaning of absence. And that is what the US Treasury Department acknowledged this week when it announced that for the first time, a woman will be featured on an American bill. Finally, a woman’s presence on US currency! Finally, an end to this glaring absence of female voices and faces in an important federal institution.
And appropriately for Passover, the US Treasury department chose none other than Moses. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then committed her life to shepherding other slaves to freedom, was known in the abolitionist movement as “Moses,” because of her commitment to freeing her people. A human rights activist, a suffragist, and a symbol for freedom, her actions – like those of the original Moses – have long outlived her own lifetime.
By placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, we acknowledge the central Jewish value that individuals have the power to repair the world. That where there is slavery or oppression or hatred, brave women and men can to change it. It reminds us that that our presence is felt through our actions.
May the name of “Moses” – and her picture on our currency – inspire us to be our best, and to bring freedom and peace to our world.
Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Passover to all!
In the movie The Ten Commandments, Moses comes down the mountain with two tablets, containing the 10 laws that the Israelites are to follow.
I love that movie. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Jewish tradition tells says what happened at Sinai was far bigger than any 10 Commandments. It was even bigger then the entire Torah, with its 613 commandments. What was given to us at Sinai with the entirety of Judaism – the written and oral traditions, the ethics and morals and stories and laws.
This week’s Torah portion is part of that. It’s called Mishpatim, which means “laws.” And boy, does it have laws. This portion contains everything from the laws of slavery to the different kinds of sacrifice, from how to keep kosher to the prohibition against accepting bribes.
The point is that this is also Sinai. Last week, we received the 10 Commandments. This week, still standing at Sinai, we receive the laws of how to be a good society.
It says in the Mechilta of Bar Yochai, “Rules of the just society have the same divine origin as the Decalogue.”
This is an important principle in Judaism. As a religious way of life, Torah doesn’t only govern how we pray and how we perform rituals. In Jewish space, how we relate to our fellow human beings is just as important as how we relate to God.
And this week, we have seen a watershed moment in terms of how we relate to our fellow human beings in Jewish space.
This week, we learned that for the first time, the Israeli government agreed to create a true egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
This announcement is the result of a long negotiation that involves the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall, and the government of Israel.
It provides, essentially, that the two year old “mixed gender prayer space” that is to the south of the Western Wall will be refurbished, expanded, and made equal to the existing, gender segregated space. And after that’s done, Women of the Wall will move their prayer services to that space, and the liberal movements will essentially govern a Kotel, just like the Orthodox.
This is an extraordinary shift. Rabbi Denise Eger, president of the Central Conference of American rabbis, writes:
For the first time, the Israeli government recognized the authentic ritual and religious needs of those of us who believe in egalitarian prayer and women’s equality.
Let’s not minimize that fact. The Israeli government has, begrudgingly, begun to recognize some liberal rabbis, pay a few salaries, and provide some prayer spaces. But this is the first time in history that space has been made for non-orthodox prayer at a communal Jewish holy site. That is a very big deal.
But the compromise is not perfect. Not by any stretch. There are three basic critiques of this deal I’ve seen tossed around the airwaves for the last few days. I’d like to address each one briefly, and think about what responsibilities they give us.
The first critique is the one that says “this isn’t really the Kotel.”
Take a look at the picture of the Kotel/Robinson’s Arch area. What we’re talking about here is the more “off the beaten track” area to the south of the current Kotel Plaza. The two are separated by the Mughrabi bridge that leads to the Dome of the Rock. This is actually part of an archaeological excavation, and it’s only been over the course of the last 30 to 40 years. Which means, that it’s correct to say that for the last 2000 years this wasn’t part of the Kotel. However, it IS part of the western retaining wall of the ancient temple. As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has pointed out, it has the same holiness and the same historicity.
And as Yair Ettinger writes in Haaretz:
The Southern Wall is a site no less sacred than the northern plaza, and in many senses is a more dignified, quieter and more beautiful site, and Jewish history is strongly present due to important archaeological finds scattered there.
In other words, this really IS the Kotel. It’s just the less famous part. It’s kind of like moving into a new house – it’s no less your house, it’s just not the one you’ve been living in.
Our challenge, then, is to make it our house. To build new memories and new associations with this extraordinarily holy spot. Think of the opportunity this presents – to create a holy space – a kotel – that reflects the kind of Judaism that we believe in. It’s exciting, and it’s challenging.
Which brings me to the second critique – the charge that this compromise divides the Jewish people.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein writes:
The resistance of the heterodox movements to the mechitzah in the Kotel plaza means that they have erected an even larger, more ominous one between millions of Jews.
A Mechitzah is a dividing wall. And there’s no question that this creation of a parallel Kotel divides the Jews.
I’m of two minds about this one. On the one hand, I believe deeply in the value of K’lal Yisrael – Jewish unity. I think we have to choose carefully when it comes to pitting ourselves against fellow Jews. The Talmud teaches that it wasn’t actually the Romans, rather causeless hatred between Jews, that brought down the very second temple that we’re fighting about right now. That’s an important lesson for all of us.
But at the same time, my Jewish values teach me that I can’t let injustice stand. This isn’t simply a case of different ritual practices. This is about the basic moral issue of men’s and women’s equality. The basic question of whether Jewish sites should be available to all Jews. That’s why our movement made this decision.
And this isn’t the first time that we liberal movements have chosen to deprioritize Jewish unity because of some moral issue. We did the same thing when we were gained women rabbis, when we begin to perform same-sex marriages. And each time we’ve done so, we’ve seen that eventually, the Jewish world follows us. My hope and prayer is that this new liberal Kotel will be an opportunity for that to happen again.
It’s worth noting in all this that with the creation of a liberal Kotel to the parallel the Ultra Orthodox Kotel, there is one group being left behind. And that is the third critique of the compromise.
In the new setup, the Liberal section will be governed according to the laws of liberal Judaism – women and men may pray together, women’s prayer groups may read from the Torah and wear t’fillin. But that will still not be the case for the women’s section on the Orthodox side. And, as Yair Ettinger writes, that leaves “no room for Liberal orthodox.”
The big losers in this deal are the Orthodox women who wish to be able to sing, worship, and pray together as orthodox women. There will be space set aside for them in the mixed section to do so, but that’s not really what they’re looking for.
It’s a reminder to us that we still have much work to do. That this is a marathon and not a sprint. That we are still deeply engaged in fighting for the religious rights of all Jews – liberal AND Orthodox – in the Jewish state.
Eleh hamispatim asher tasim. These are the laws you shall establish.
Law is an expression of values. As we rejoice in this moment, may we recognize the ways that these new laws express an evolution in the values of the Jewish state.
At the same time, may we recognize our responsibility to continue that work.
And may Ahavat Yisrael – our love for the people and land of Israel – always be our guiding light.
 Etz Hayim 477, note 3.
“I have been a stranger in a strange land.” (Exodus 2:22)
I am an American living in Canada.
It’s not a major culture shock. Sure, there are differences – social, cultural, linguistic, political – between my country of origin and my country of residence. There are things that take getting used to; cultural assumptions that surprised me. But the two countries are deeply aligned in their values and ways of life. (In fact, when we moved here five years ago, my then-seven year old son confided in me how disappointed he was that it wasn’t “more different.” He thought moving to a new country would entail the wholesale adoption of a new way of life!)
And yet, Thanksgiving Day has always been hard for me. In Canada, of course, today is an ordinary day. I dropped my children at their school buses, and I sit at my desk in my office. And I am aware that “back home,” people are sleeping in, preparing meals, watching football, celebrating a holiday. It is a day on which I feel separated from friends and family, on which I feel far from home. So it’s a small reminder to me that it is not always easy to make a new life in a new country. And that I have been very, very lucky.
Thanksgiving is, at its core, about immigration. It is a celebration of the experience of coming to a new country, being welcomed, and making a life.
That is a message that we need today, perhaps more than ever. Right now, millions of refugees around the world are seeking new countries and new homes. They are seeking to start over, to rebuild their lives in a place of safety and security. Just as the Pilgrims did nearly 400 years ago. Just as my Jewish ancestors did 3 generations ago.
Jewish tradition knows well the experience of the refugee. The Torah tells us that we were slaves in Egypt and sought a new life in the Promised Land. The Passover Seder reminds us that “Arami oveid avi – Our father was (literally!) an Aramean/Syrian refugee.” And it was less than 100 years ago that our own people were the asylum seekers, desperate to escape the dangers of their countries, too often labeled as subversives or security threats.
And so, I am proud of this Jewish community’s response to the current refugee crisis. My congregation has raised thousands of dollars toward resettlement. Some local congregations are actively “adopting” refugees. Some close friends here in Toronto are literally preparing to welcome a refugee family into their own home if necessary. These are our Jewish values at work.
I don’t begin to answer the political questions. I know there are potential security risks. But I also know that there are real people – real families – “yearning to breathe free.” And I know that if there’s anything my country of origin and my country of residence have in common, it is that they are societies of immigrants – great, diverse communities made stronger because they are composed of people whose parents or grandparents or great-grandparents came from somewhere else. We North Americans know what it is to be a stranger. We know what it is to wander, and we know what it is to build a life in a new home.
On Thanksgiving Day, of all days, we ought to remember that.
NOTE: this entry was cross-posted at Jewish Values Online.
The great Rabbi Akiba used to tell this story:
A fox once spotted a fish darting to and fro in the water. He asked the fish, “From whom are you fleeing?”
And the fish answered, “From the fisherman’s net.”
So the crafty fox offered, “Would you like to come up to safety on dry land?”
To which the fish responded, “Aren’t you a clever one! If I am in danger here in the water, how much more so if I remove myself from it.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 61b)
In Judaism, water is a symbol for Torah. The lesson of the story is that we are strongest when we surround ourselves with the Torah and its learning. Reform Jewish life is based on this idea: We read from the Torah weekly; we study it regularly; we seek ways to incorporate its teachings into our lives.
So who wrote the Torah?
For most Reform Jews, Torah is not the literal “word of God.” That is to say, we mostly don’t believe that it was penned by God and handed down in its complete form to Moses at Sinai. In fact, critical scholars have taught us that the Torah contains many different voices and views. The first two chapters of Genesis tell two very different – and in some ways opposite – stories of the world’s creation. Genesis 6-9 seems to be a blending of two different stories of Noah and flood. And the many different names for God apparently represent different expressions of Jewish spirituality in ancient Israel…and they don’t always agree with each other!
So where is God in all of this? If the Torah was written by human beings, what makes it so special?
Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes in the introduction to his classic Torah commentary:
God is not the author of the text, the people are; but God’s voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds. (Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition. Xxxviii.)
Judaism has always taught that God is to be found through the actions and ideas of human beings. In Avot 3:3, it teaches that “When two people exchange words of Torah, the divine presence rests between them.” In other words, “Torah” is not only a book, but an action – an act of study and learning, an act of seeking the divine amidst the mundane, an act of trying to bring the holy into an ordinary world.
And the book we call “The Torah” is no different. It is a divine book, but was written by human beings. It is the human side of an ongoing conversation between our people and God. To quote Rabbi Plaut again, it is “a book about humanity’s understanding of and experience with God.”
This makes the Torah different from Aesop’s fables or the writings of Shakespeare, because it is an attempt to express not only universal truths, but divine truths.
This also means that as liberal Jews, we have to read the Torah on two levels – as a literature that comes out of a certain time and place, AND as a timeless literature that speaks to our lives as well. To ignore either of those levels would be to sell the Torah short, to deny part of its essence.
Most of all, it means that we are called upon to surround ourselves with words of Torah like fish in water. Talmud Torah – Study of Torah – is our opportunity to engage with the ways that our ancient ancestors found God in the world, and it is our opportunity to add our own voices to that eternal dialogue.