Monday, August 30, 2010

Yamim Noraim - The Fear - full Days, delivered Erev Shabbat Ki Tavo, 8/27/2010

Erev Shabbat Ki Tavo – 18 Elul, 5770

One of the feature articles in the most recent Reform Judaism magazine discusses the challenges of reading ancient text in translation. Joel Hoffman, the author and an expert on semitic languages, encourages us to think twice before accepting the pshat, the simple meaning, of the English placed before us even in our valued Plaut translation and commentary and to consider the context and nuances of the original language – Hebrew. A challenge for most of us even those among us with a certain facility and comfort level with the Hebrew language. A challenge made all the more interesting, as Dr. Hoffman points out, by the fact that Biblical Hebrew is no longer a living language…it is strikingly different from the modern Hebrew spoken freely in Israel today.

Reading through this article this past week – during these final days of preparation leading to our yamim hanoraim and when we are reading parashat Ki Tavo in our Torah cycle – caused me to ponder on the word Nora…this word for AWE that we use to describe these days ahead of us.

Awe: Nora – is drawn from the root yarei ירא – to fear, to dread. ירא is not the only Hebrew word for fear, however, pachad פחד also connotes fear or dread.

So why are the upcoming days understood in Hebrew asימים נוראים and not פחדים ימים ?

The difference in meaning between these words for fear is subtle yet significant, and our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, and indeed the entire work of the Deuteronomist, can give us insight into our task during these days.

Now,I have not done a detailed lexical study – that is comparing the use of these two words throughout the biblical text; yet from my initial perusings, I sense that a primary difference in these words has to do with our behavior in response to whatever is provoking fear. Pachad appears to imply a paralyzing fear, one that can be so thoroughly overwhelming that that it cause physical symptoms of dread, but at the same time, sticks us to our place/immobilizes us. And, used as an adjective, pachadim can imply terrifying and unfit for action.

Yarei, on the other hand, appears to be used in situations that on the contrary require action. The fear – most often used in connection with God – is to inspire doing!

The author of our Deuteronomic text understood the motivating power of fear. The litany of curses contained in this week’s portion, as dreadful as they are, were not intended to paralyze the community with trembling, but rather were intended to inspire proper behavior and commitment to the centralized leadership of the day (expressed through commitment to God).

Yamim Noraim – These days of Awe, these fear filled days, should be difficult and perhaps cause fear. The process of tshuvah of looking inward at ourselves and evaluating how our actions have impacted others is challenging; it can freeze us in our places. Recognizing our faults and that we have hurt ourselves and others can cause us so much pain and fear, that we are prevented from moving forward. But that is precisely NOT the point of this holiday season, rather the goal is for that ‘awe’ that ‘fear’ yarei, to propel us to action – to seek repentance from those we hurt, to recommit ourselves to communal goals even at the risk of trumping a few of our individual ones, to strive to do better.

Nothing wrong with a little fear as long as we use it and respond to it wisely - may the upcoming ‘Days of Awe’ be a little 'fear filled' - just enough to inspire us to meaningful action and change.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Right to Choose: A VIew on Intermarriage

Parashat Re’eh opens with an interesting imperative:
ראה אנכי נתן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה

Take note!! I am placing before you today blessing and curse: blessing if you obey God’s commandments and curse if you do not obey. The imperative expressed by the verb ראה – literally, see or look here! – is in actuality the implied message “choose!” A rigid system of divine retribution is presented, but free will is always present - ultimately the choice is ours.

Let’s be clear that the biblical author was most concerned with idolatry. As we’ve discussed before, when viewed in light of historical events that took place at the time when scholars believe the Deuteronomic tradition was written down, the text can be read as a “how to consolidate the masses” manual. The centralization of the worship cult and the eradication of all idolatry were the primary and necessary goals; so much so, that this understanding of the text has endured over time. Even as late as the medieval period, Rashi understood the verse, if you do not obey the commandments of God as referring specifically to one who serves idols.

Today, the word “choose” when used within the context of Jewish tradition and תשמעו אל מצות יהוה אלהיכם ‘guarding God’s commandments’ rarely conjures up images of idolatry or any form of the cultic worship described in our portion; yet, still the word “choose” particularly when used within the context of the Reform movement’s mandate of informed autonomy, compels us to consciously formulate our public and private expressions of Judaism. No one can be Jewish for us – it will not be mandated for us - the free will is ours; yet, we must be cognizant of the consequences of our actions. And, in a very real sense, for Judaism to remain compelling in the 21st century and beyond, we must all become Jews by conscious choice.

This past week, our nation has been fixated to a large degree on the marriage of former President Bill and current Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea to Marc Mezvinsky. It was dubbed by the Huffington Post (among other media outlets) as “America’s Wedding.” Now perhaps the marriage of a former President’s daughter is always big news (particularly when said daughter has dealt so gracefully with the less savory events of her dad’s presidency), but it seems to have consumed our attention – particularly our Jewish attention - in part due to the fact that Chelsea’s beau is Jewish and she, of course, is not.

Intermarriage has always been a touchy subject among us Jews. How many of us were raised with warnings of getting too involved with a non-Jew…ok to be friends, maybe to date, but to marry? Shame, shame. Two messages seem to be contained in that sense of shame. One, ‘they’ will never truly accept ‘you/us’, and two, ‘your’ action may bring ruin, albeit slow painful ruin, to the entire Jewish people. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), the self subtitled Global News Service of the Jewish People, echoes such sentiment in its commentary this week on the Clinton wedding with what reads to me like a scolding tone of concern, “Is it possible that the first iconic Jewish picture of the decade is of an interfaith marriage?”

Honestly, isn’t it time we get over it? Choice. The power to choose. In the 19th century period of European enlightenment that followed on the heels of the French revolution, Jews worldwide demanded the rights of national citizenship. We chose and fought hard to leave the ghetto, and we succeeded! We chose to be a part of mainstream society even when others didn’t want us there. When we came to America, we consciously liberated ourselves from the constraints of the Gemeinde, the state sponsored body of authority over religious matters. As contemporary Reform Jews, we demand the right of informed choice in all religious and ritual matters both here and abroad, and we expect the separation of church and state to protect this right to choose. And yet, when we discuss the prospect of intermarriage, there still often arises a swell of panic. Yes, we want to participate fully in American society and culture, but if we intermarry, we fear we may be swallowed up whole (not unlike Jonah) by that same choice.

Our Torah portion is clear, choices have consequences. No debate here. But the choice to intermarry need not be followed by choices that lead to the evaporation of Jewish life. There are more choices to made after that brief wedding ceremony, and it’s those choices that the Jewish community should be concerned about not only for those who chose to marry non-Jews, but also for Jews who marry Jews. Far too often, we view marriage as an end point. A Jewish wedding marks success, and interfaith wedding, even if unspoken,feels on some level to be some sort of failure. On the contrary, if we are truly concerned with Jewish survival and the opportunity to pass on the blessings of Jewish life to future generations, then we should be less concerned with condemning marriages that frankly are a natural outgrowth of our choice to live and participate fully in an integrated and pluralistic society and instead provide welcoming and supportive opportunities for those couples to get involved. Every marriage that involves a Jewish partner should be viewed as an opportunity to create a new and vibrant Jewish household. A marriage should be viewed as the start – an open door, not the end.

Choices have consequences. Our choices and the choices of those who come before us have enabled us to live well and with little persecution (particularly when compared to state-sponsored anti-semitism of previous generations). Indeed, Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky’s very public wedding can be viewed, as sociologist Steven Cohen notes, as marking “the full acceptance of Jews by the larger society…” In what other generation could such a wedding take place with really so little fanfare, and as far as I can tell virtually no criticism accept from the far religious right (the Jewish righ)?

The tough choices are still ahead for this young couple, as they would be for any young couple – Jewish, non -, or as in this case, one of each. Hopefully, they will approach the choices they have in front of them with sensitivity, reason, and a look both to past history and future posterity. To quote the Union of Reform Judaism’s head Rabbi Eric Yoffe, with whose sentiment I most fully agree with regard to all couples married under a chuppah, “I hope they will make a choice to raise their children in a single religious and tradition, and second, as a Jew and as a Rabbi, I hope it will be Judaism.”

Re’eh – Look! We have choices. Those choices demand thoughtful, open, and informed conversation – only then will we and our future progeny be blessed with the opportunity to choose a life of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut chasadim.