Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Democracy of the Temple & the Value of Dirty Dishes, Delivered Erev Shabbat ha-Gadol, 5770

It finally happened. No, I’m not referring to the signing of the new Health Care bill, though for the record, I’m a huge proponent of change in our health care system and believe this momentous legislation is an important albeit first step towards change. No, I’m referring to the fact that this week my number came up! Yep, for the first time in my close to 26 years of being eligible, I was called in to sit and wait with a crowd of other dutiful, if not abit bored, Baltimore County citizens for jury selection this past Wednesday. My first reaction to my summons notice was perhaps like many, “I am way too busy for this. How am I going to carve out time in my week for this, the week before pesach no less…I wonder if I can get out of it…can clergy get special dispensation from jury duty?” But as I walked into the courthouse with my cup of ‘joe’ that served sadly as my breakfast (instead of my well earned post workout oatmeal and yogurt that got skipped along with the workout) and sat through the necessary but tedious educational video that reviewed the details and importance of our civic duties, my sense of American identity was heightened.

I listened to the opening remarks offered by the judicial chief charged with administrating the system: the recognition of the inconvenience of the task and the tedium and boredom of waiting but also the importance of our presence whether called for a trial or not and the importance of using our intellect and our basic common sense if indeed called upon. I was reminded of the unique, though not without fault but certainly democratic American system of justice – where else in the world do regular citizens, all of us, take such a vital part in such a critical and defining part of society?

In hearing these comments, I recognized a number of parallels between our democratic judicial system and the sacrificial cult outlined so thoroughly in Leviticus. Certainly, like I did, the ancient Israelites likewise must have thought it a huge inconvenience to find the time to make pilgrimage to the Temple altar let alone while finding and then schlepping their blemish free animals and the choice flour necessary for their service to the community.

At first glance, the ancient Temple system of worship hardly seems democratic. The hierarchy of the priestly caste in and of itself is the antithesis of democracy. This was not an earned or elected societal position but rather one gained solely by biological destiny. Indeed, so contrary to the democratic values of the modern western world, the removal of the division of the community into classes of Kohanim, Levi’im, and Yisraelim, was one of the most significant (and sometimes controversial) changes that Reform Judaism instituted in response to European enlightenment. Yet, as a system of worship in the ancient world, the Temple cult may offer an early example of the values that would later come to be labeled as ‘democratic’ and can serve to remind us of the role of leaders in a democratic society, namely to function on behalf of the demos in democracy, the people.

According to Merrian-Webster’s online Dictionary, the only resource available to me while waiting to fulfill the American privilege of serving on a jury (thank goodness I could bring a laptop instead of a blemish free bull), the word democracy has roots that extend back to the Greek: dēmokratia, from dēmos: people and kratia: rule. Democracy – the people rule, as opposed to aristocracy for instance, where the aristo, or the ‘best’, the ‘upper echelons’, rule.

While the Kohanim and the Levites had various powers of administration not shared with the rest of society (no so unlike our appointed judges and elected political leaders today), the power of worship in this system resided fully with the people, not with the priests. It was up to the people, the general population to bring the offerings to the priests in the Temple. The entire system was based on the ability of the common folk to get to the Temple with their offerings. Their participation was not optional; it was vital, not only for supporting but also for the proper functioning of the entire worship system. It was those physical offerings that supported the Temple and the priestly caste. Furthermore, though the priests benefited, the goal of the system wasn’t to service people, but rather the entire system is framed as worship and service to God. And, not so unlike our judicial system, was equally intended to centralize and bring cohesion to the community in the name of that service. Be clear, even the Torah reminds us that God doesn’t care about the specifics of the offerings. How often do we come across that repeated refrain: אשה ריח ניחח ליהוה? The sacrifice is turned to smoke of pleasing odor for God. No matter into what economic category one falls, and what one is required and/or able to bring – whether meal, goat, bird, or bull – all are ultimately reduced to smell and ash, smell that God apparently finds pleasing and ash that needs to be cleaned up.

What’s fascinating about the workings of the Temple – and perhaps a lesson to us living in apparently democratic societies - is that while the common folk bring the myriad of offerings up to the altar, to support it, it is the upper echelons of society, the priest no less, who continually feeds the fire and cleans up the mess. It doesn’t get more democratic in terms of division of labor than that!

A few weeks ago, I participated in a workshop that is part of a series on Food & Faith co-sponsored by the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The goal of the series in large part is to raise awareness about the reality of inner city food deserts and to encourage the participants, primarily faith based leaders, to brainstorm ways in which to raise awareness in our own communities and to help coax change. One of the participants in my break out group a few weeks ago noted the general failure of those with plenty to recognize the holiness in dirty dishes. You heard that right – the kedusha, the inherent holiness of our mess – the ashes left over after we cook our food and eat it. Just as the ashes on the Temple altar, the remains of our feast tell a sacred story, and like the priests, those of us who have plenty due to the work of others often also have plenty of dishes to clean.

The Temple has a very democratic system. Who cleans up? The Kohen, the priest. The ashes, the mess is considered a sacred task. Rabbinic tradition likens our homes, our tables to mikdashim me’atim, miniature Temples. It is easy to curse the mess in the kitchen, but when we sit down this week at our seder tables, at our sacred altars, to celebrate our history and our inherited freedom, let us not take for granted the dirty dishes and the mess that we leave behind. Let those dishes remind us of our bounty and the wonderful experience of the seder we were able to enjoy with family and friends. Moreover, let us allow the sacred task of cleaning up after ourselves remind us of our responsibility to all of those in our world who simply don’t have enough in order to leave such ashes behind.
Reform Judaism, in its effort to counter the traditional hierarchical system inherent in the biblical text, elevated us all to priests. Accordingly, it is all of our responsibility to tend the fire that will serve the community; it is all of our responsibility to help bring about redemption for all humanity.

As the writers of the early Union Prayer Book and their subsequent editors so eloquently express:
When justice burns like a flaming fire within us, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we demonstrate our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, then Your goodness enters our lives, and we CAN begin to change the world… (p. 39 UPB, p. 117 MT, caps mine).

This Z’man Cherutenu, this Season of our Redemption, may we be inspired to act like priests in this world – tending the fires of social justice and helping the world become a place where everyone has dirty dishes.
Ken y'hi ratzon!

Friday, March 19, 2010

"Why do Mitzvot?" Delivered Social Action Shabbat, 3/12/2010

Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, social action has been a hallmark of Reform Judaism. Inspired by our prophetic tradition, Reform ideology – and in particular American Reform ideology - placed a premium on the mandate of ethical behavior as a way to identify itself not only as distinct from Orthodoxy but from Unitarian Christianity. To paraphrase Michael Meyer, a renowned scholar of the history of Reform Judaism, the practical application of social justice and the principles of morality greatly overshadowed and even replaced ritual and law as the basis of Reform religious expression. This impulse for elevating social action over and above Jewish law may seem like an outgrowth of Reform Judaism’s emphasis on rationalism as well as its theological concept of the messianic age and our role in bringing it about. Taking care of the world and each other is certainly a reasoned approach to enabling redemption. Yet, mysticism has its own brand of social action grounded in the 16th century Lurianic Kabbalistic theology of tikkun olam, a phrase which has become the most popular Jewish catch phrase for social action. These mystics, recently exiled from Spain, understood the need for human action in the form of mitzvot as a vehicle of repair for the world as well as for God – both of which in Kabbalistic thought are viewed as shattered, as broken.

I find it compelling that the Lurianic Kabbalists of 16th century Safed, despite their traumatic experiences, did not abandon God. Viewing God as in desperate need of human intervention, for sure, though they created an understanding of God that not only correlated with their experiences but that could also bring cohesion to the community. According to Robert Wright, author of Three Scientists and their God and a recent guest on NPR’s Speaking of Faith series, the intention of religious doctrine throughout history has been to keep chaos at bay. Lurianic Kabbalism adapted an existing religious system keeping God at the center while mobilizing the community to action. It wasn’t an absence of God that failed them, it was human failure. Accordingly, God needs mitzvot. In this system, social action, Tikkun olam, translated to conformity and abidance to Jewish law - that was the manner in which humankind could redeem both God and the world for this school of mystics.

While no longer, by choice of course, defined by halacha -- by the bounds of Jewish law, we too believe that our actions matter, and that it is our mandate l’taken olam, to fix the world. But, with the loss of a legal definition of social action (or mitzvot), must we lose the sense of God as a unifying and motivating factor in our mitzvot? I’d bet most of us engage in social action not because of a Divine impulse per se, but because of what we would define as our heightened sense of social consciousness, a value no doubt inherited in part from the early giants of the Reform movement such as Isaac Mayer Wise, David Einhorn, and Kaufman Kohler.

God, however, was central to the Reformers’ vision of the mandate of social action, and I’d argue that despite our individual beliefs (or doubts) regarding the existence of a personal God, a Divine impulse from outside of ourselves must be central to our own motivation for social justice. This is not an easily stated assessment mind you. I struggle with the existence and presence of God in our world as much as any other modern Jew living in such a predominately secular culture. As a whole, Jews are not particularly comfortable discussing God. In my years at Hebrew Union College, the seminary for the training of our Reform leaders, I rarely experienced a discussion about God (and this was typical). The richest discussions that I did have about God were for the most part an outgrowth of my chaplaincy training which was under the auspices of an interfaith, not a specifically Jewish, internship program. While anecdotal at best, my experiences working as a chaplain intern in a hospital setting underscored this observation. It was my Christian patients who sought out dialogue about and with God. My Jewish patients were far more content with playing Jewish geography. It seemed they were far more interested in a relationship with me, a kind visitor, than with God.

Our discomfort in discussing God which I believe stems in large part from our doubts about God’s presence need not translate into an abandonment of the ideology of God as a motivating factor behind social action. There need not be such a direct correlation between ideology and faith, in my mind. Here there is much to learn from our early Reform theologians.

Emil Hirsch, in his poetic translation of his grandfather David Einhorn’s Yom Kippur Avodah for the innovative 19th century siddur, Olath Tamid, writes:
“The yearning after Thee and the thought of Thy salvation, the assurance that Thou, O God, wilt refresh those that cry unto Thee in the drought. Yea, this is our spiritual patrimony, Thy love which worketh wonders, hath marvelously preserved for us amidst the destructive storms and from the raging billows of millennia. The survey of the ages which stretch from the hoary past of our weak beginnings to the young days of our present fuller strength may well fill us with wonder at the triumphant preservation of the fundamental truth, the underlying thought, in the ceaseless whirl of changing forms, customs and circumstances; but this fact should also be an incentive unto us to contribute in due measure….” (p. 181)

It isn’t enough to be awed by God and the wondrous workings of the world, rather this sense of something larger and more profound than ourselves should propel us towards organized action. Recall Robert Wright’s notion of religion as a balm against chaos. A God concept at the very least can serve to unify us in mission. Even Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century philosopher who was excommunicated by the Dutch Jewish community for his then heretical ideas regarding the nature of God understood the power of God as a motivating force for justice in the world, “The very essence of religion is belief in a Supreme Being who delights in justice and mercy…. and whose worship consists in the practice of justice and charity toward our neighbors,” he wrote.

God mandated action smacks of fundamentalism, yet, without God as an outside motivating factor for our deeds of social action, we run the risk of losing an important barometer of moral sense. Our early American Reformers understood this need for something profound, beyond ourselves, to encourage us, to help us push ourselves to be the best selves we can by acting justly in the world.
20th century philosopher and activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught that “a mitzvah is where God and man meet.” An anthropomorphic image, of course, but one that can offer us a metaphor for our engagement in social action today. I don’t believe that God acts directly upon the world, but perhaps as Heschel suggests, it is through our acts of love and kindness, through the pursuit of social justice, that we can rise out of our mundane world to a level of divinity.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What Ki Tisa Teaches us bout Anger Management, delivered Shabbat Parah, 3/6/2010

Parashat Ki Tisa is best known perhaps for the famous story of the golden calf contained within. It’s a great story with lots of material for discussion. What struck this year upon studying the parasha is the lesson Ki Tisa offers about anger management. God has just witnessed the scene at the base of the mountain. This people that God (him, her, itself?) has liberated and given law to – law to which the Israelites just agreed to כל אשר דבר יי נעשה ונשמע all that God says, we will do and listen - has now in their impatience created an idol of ba-al worship. Moses has yet to descend from the mountain with the tablets representing that law and already they are challenging it. To put it bluntly, God is beyond mad. If you’ll excuse my language, God is pissed. ועתה הניחה לי ויחר אפי בהם ואכלם..., “now let me be,” God says to Moses, “so that my anger will blaze forth upon them and consume them.” (Ex. 32:10). The biblical Hebrew for this anger provides a wonderful visual metaphor, literally “‘my nose’ became ‘hot’ or ‘inflammed’ at them.” Whenever I see this phrase ויחר אף I imagine an angry fire breathing dragon (nice image for God, no? – but there it is in the text). More subtle but perhaps more significant is how God now refers to the Israelites. No longer referred to by God as עמי, my people, as they were throughout their experience in Egypt, but now as “עמך” ‘your people’ – Moses people. God seems to be distancing, removing Godself from the relationship, the covenant. This isn’t ‘my people’, Moses, they are ‘your’ problem now.

At first glance, the peshat, the plain meaning of the text, tells us that Moses refuses to ‘let God be’ and proceeds instead to successfully convince God to rethink acting out such anger. Verses 11-13 of chapter 32 (pp. 588-589) narrate Moses imploring God not to let anger dictate action, but to think about the consequences.

But of course, Jewish textual study never leaves the peshat, that first glance, alone. The Rabbinic literature struggles immensely with the idea of God losing it so completely. Exodus Rabbah, for instance, a collection of midrashim gathered over time but codified in the early medival period, offers more than one opinion on this scene in parashat Ki Tisa. On the one hand, God is depicted in dire need of intervention while Moses is the ultimate conciliator. After Moses recognizes the extent of God’s anger, the midrash imagines him thinking to himself; If I leave Israel to their fate …they can never survive. I will not stir from here before I have sought mercy for them. Whereupon Moses begins to urge God, pleading with God – who in the midrash needs quite a bit of convincing – not to act harshly against the people. In the very next midrash in the compilation, however, a different scene is imagined. Noting the change in God’s language to Moses from the imperative לך רד, GO DOWN! to the softer preterite form, such as ויאמר, the midrashist comments, “God began to open up to Moses paths for pleading mercy for them.”

Another tactic of commentators who seek a kinder understanding of God is to reflect on this phrase ועתה הניחה לי now, let me be. This phrase is understood by many commentators not as a dismissal of Moses, but instead as an invitation to intervene. According to the 11th century Rashi, who himself draws significantly from the Midrash, ועתה הניחה לי is God’s cue to Moses to rally on their behalf. God’s behavior now depends on Moses (‘let me be’ Moses. These are ‘your’ people now; their fate at this moment is in your hands. Implicit in this understanding is God’s challenge to Moses, “so what are you going to do about it?”). Accordingly, God doesn’t want to act hastily, God wants Moses to act, to pray on their behalf, to care deeply about this people.

Moses apparently learns the lesson. He does intervene. God’s anger cools, and the Israelites are saved. Happy ending, right? Or perhaps not. Actions do speak louder than words, and God’s heated moment of anger made a far stronger impression on Moses then his ‘now, let me be.’ What happens when Moses descends the mountain and sees for himself what God has been talking about? As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, ויחר אפ משה, (there’s that fabulous metaphor again) he becomes enraged and throws down the freshly engraved tablets of law. Then he proceeds to not only make the Israelites drink the molten stew left after burning the Golden calf, but he rallies the men of Levi to attack their fellow Israelites.

Ooops! So much for that lesson of taking a moment to step back and think through the consequences of acting out of such rage. Moses took in God’s va-yichar af, the initial heated moment apparently far more than God’s v’atah ha-ni-cha li. Yet, perhaps there is a positive lesson in Moses’ heated reaction. Moses’ anger could be understood as a sign that he does accept responsibility for this people. Their actions make him angry because indeed he does care and wants the best of them and for them. In that sense he has modeled God.

God gets the reality of anger. God understands how emotionally heated one can get when those we love act badly. After this episode when God is sending the Israelites out on their continued journey, God says, (Ex. 33:3) “Since you are a stiff-necked people, I will not go in your midst, lest I destroy you on the way!” Sometimes we have to recognize our own limitations and that may require giving ourselves some space to reconcile our emotions before acting hastily upon them. It is unclear if Moses ever learns this part of the critical lesson. Anger is a valid emotion that can rise to the surface pretty quickly, but we can learn to recognize it and take a moment to consider how we express that anger.

In this week’s portion, both God and Moses have experienced the same pain and frustration resulting from the actions of ‘their’ people. They have each confronted such anger, panim el panim, face to face. Their ultimate reactions, the outcomes of their anger, were however gravely different and serve to remind us of the challenges and responsiblity of taming our humanity in the face of heated emotion.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Response to Marc Rosenstein's Galilee Diary, delivered by Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman on Shabbat Zachor, 2/27/2010

In his Union of Reform Judaism on-line column, Galilee Diary, Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, an American (HUC trained) transplant who made aliyah to Israel in 1990, offers his opinion that while the “status of liberal Jews” is an issue of import in Israel, our energy should not be focused so much on their plight but rather on “[standing] up for those other groups in society whose lot is significantly worse than ours.” He is, of course, commenting in large part on recent events encountered by the Women of the Wall demanding us, the reader – by and large American liberal Jews – this is a URJ column, to keep, and I quote him, “the persecution or disenfranchisement of liberal Jews in perspective.”

Rosenstein acknowledges the challenges the liberal community faces in Israel, but he underscores the gradual progress that has been made noting the opening of non-Orthodox synagogues despite opposition from the right (and apathy from the majority of secular Jews) as well as the increased demand for non-Orthodox wedding ceremonies, ceremonies that require a civil license from abroad as non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized by the Israeli government. Despite the added bureaucratic task of obtaining a non-Israeli license, hundreds of Israelis do choose this option instead of conforming to the Orthodox standards required by the state.

Rabbi Rosenstein’s view is not uncommon among Israelis. We heard it ourselves directly from Rabbi Maya Leibovich of Mevasseret Zion during her visit this past November. Not only as a liberal Jew, but as a female rabbi, she felt the demands of the Women of the Wall simply unrealistic. She believes they should stop pushing the issue and focus their energies elsewhere. Of all the challenges Israel faces, many view the failure of the right, the Orthodox establishment, to recognize religious pluralism, let alone Progressive Judaism proper, as far less important than the security of Israel and a humanitarian solution to the Palestinian conflict.

There is no question that Rosenstein raises a compelling point. How can the liberal Jewish community demand recognition for religious pluralism in Israel while in its struggle to maintain its very security, Israel must deal with the manner in which it treats non-Jews, and non-Israelis living within its borders in particular. Rosenstein doesn’t argue that the lack of legal status and protections for liberal Jews within Israel is acceptable, far from it; but, the point he makes is that it shouldn’t be, in his words, “the most urgent” concern.

I disagree. If the Women of the Wall cannot expect to be treated with dignity and respect, than how on earth can the majority of Israelis be expected to treat anyone viewed as ‘the other’ with any level of dignity and respect? The recognition of religious pluralism, the full acceptance of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, is equally important as the sundry of other issues this young nation faces and more importantly, sets a standard of humanitarian treatment for all.

Rosenstein dismisses the persecution of the Women of the Wall as a “symbolic offense” noting that most liberal Jews do not experience regular episodes of discrimination or persecution. Perhaps gender obfuscates the issue for Rabbi Rosenstein. The Kotel is not the only place where liberal values are being threatened, and in each place where liberal values are being scratched away, women are increasingly being forced to subject themselves to discrimination.

Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in Israel has taken an Egged bus. The Egged bus system is Israel’s primary mode of public transportation. Until recently it was accessible, affordable, and generally safe. Beginning in the 1990s, Egged began offering segregated bus service to areas heavily populated Haredim, the most fervently Orthodox in order to encourage their use of the public transportation. What started as a limited practice to accommodate a minority population has expanded to the extent that, according to IRAC, the Israeli Religious Action Center, there is no choice but to use segregated buses on 5 intercity routes. Moreover, where there are still options, the segregated alternative is often the cheapest and fastest. A trip from Jerusalem to Petach Tikva (a trip I took regularly 20 years ago with no challenges) now requires two buses with a 15 minute stop between and a fare of 28.50 NIS, that is unless I don’t mind a segregated bus. The segregated bus offers a non-stop 79 minute ride costing 19.70 NIS. Travelling from Ashdod to Arad? The segregated choice demands a 2 hour ride for 24 NIS. The non-segregated option demands a 4 hour ride at a fare of 60 NIS!

One could argue, ‘what’s the big deal, take the segregated bus!’ Well, we’ve experienced segregation in America, haven’t we. A reminder of what a segregated bus looks like: separate entrances in this case for men and women with women seated squarely at the back of the bus. And for those Rosa Parks of Israeli society who resist such degrading treatment, there are some who have taken it upon themselves, using physical force when necessary, to enforce this supposed ‘voluntary’ segregation on the buses. While the High Court of Justice in Israel just this week scolded the transportation minister for not following recommendations by an investigatory committee that segregation be fully voluntary and not compulsory on any public bus, no attempts have been made by the Israeli government to outlaw this degrading and “voluntary” form of segregation.

The Western Wall, the Egged bus system,… what’s next? I hesitate to imagine, and frankly I don’t need to. There is at least one Haredi neighborhood in Israel that has actually established segregated side-walks. A company, admittedly privately owned not public, has started marketing personal michitzas, boundaries, for the Orthodox to use when travelling to prevent any unintentional and potentially inappropriate encounter. Perhaps Rabbi Rosenstein doesn’t feel persecuted by such changes, but I’d bet lots of Israelis do. Certainly lots of women do.

The recognition of religious pluralism by the Israeli government is vital to Israel’s growth as well as to its security. To state that the demands for recognition by progressive Jewry, while important, are not pressing, or to imply that the Women of the Wall are somehow needlessly pushing the envelope in the public square and thus creating unnecessary static, is to ignore a troubling reality and to even forward a misogynistic agenda. More significantly, such advances of the religious establishment into the public arena alienate not only Israel’s own citizens, but also us – those of us who choose to live outside of Israel but who support Israel in a myriad of ways. Israel needs our support. Israel needs support from Jews and non-Jews throughout the international community, and it simply can’t afford to place the needs of a radical Orthodox minority over the needs of the nation.

Israel has a choice. It can either continue in its path of being dictated solely by the religious right, or it can strive to become a fully democratic state that recognizes and allows for the public expression of the full breadth of Jewish life. Despite the sense among the Orthodox that Progressive Judaism threatens Jewish vitality, history teaches otherwise. Religious pluralism has marked Jewish life since its inception. It has enriched Jewish life leading to the growth of a wealth of literature, including our Rabbinic literature, differing points of view, and cultural expressions. It can continue to do so if Israel’s legislature would give it the opportunity.

One point Rabbi Rosenstein makes with which I fully and passionately agree: “feeling challenged to educate and litigate and demonstrate toward a more perfect Jewish democratic state is not the same as nor does it justify statements that imply washing our hands of Israel, or feeling that we have no stake in it.” We do have a stake – yes, in part because we are Jews, and we have an historical connection to the land. Yes, in part because we know from experience that there is a need for a place that will open its borders to any Jew in need. But also, because as Theodore Herzl reminded us, the world benefits from Israel’s presence and all it has to offer the international community. Do we really want to imagine the Middle East without Israel? We may not be Israeli citizens. We may get frustrated by the news we read. But we must care – and we must dare to voice our concern so that Israel can grow to become that more perfect Jewish democratic state we so hope it to be.