Praying and Working for Perfection

Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There is something Messianic about the High Holy Days. Though Jewish Tradition has us waiting and praying for the coming of the Messiah, there are things we can do to hasten the day. What are these things? They are the mitzvot we are supposed to do all the time. In other words, we have a role to play in the perfection of the world; our good and holy deeds can pave the way for the Messiah.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and the closeness to God it can bring, here is a hymn that speaks of the glorious future that we pray will come soon—and that we can help to bring. It was found in the Machzor Vitry, an 11th Century High Holy Day prayer book from France. No author is listed. The English translation is by Israel Zangwill, a Jewish public intellectual and man of letters in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It is slightly adapted.

All the World
All the world shall come to serve You,
And bless Your glorious Name.
And Your righteousness triumphant
The islands shall proclaim.
And the people shall go seeking
Who knew You not before.
And the ends of earth shall praise You
And tell Your greatness o’er.

They shall build for You their altars,
Their idols overthrown,
And their graven gods shall shame them,
As they turn to You alone.
They shall worship You at sunrise,
And feel Your Sovereign might,
And impart their understanding
To those astray in night.

With the coming of Your victory
The hills shall shout with song,
And the islands laugh exultant
That they to God belong.
And through all Your congregations
So loud Your praise shall ring,
that the utmost peoples, hearing,
Shall then Your greatness sing.

L'shanah Tovah!


We Were All There, At the Mountain

September 15th: Nitzavim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When the Torah says, “You are all standing here this day before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 29.9), the nature of the occasion and the constituency of the audience are both a little ambiguous. Is it a new covenant ceremony as the people prepare to enter the Promised Land? Is it a farewell lecture of Moses—reminding them of their national history? Is it a rehashing of the revelation at Mount Sinai? Is it a kind of initiation ceremony for the new generation, born in the wilderness after Mount Sinai? Or is it a ritual re-creation of the revelation intended to remind everyone of the covenant with God that is still in effect?

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to speak about the power of ritual re-creations in religion, referring to them as peak experiences domesticated. An important event happened long ago, but we want to feel its power and influence today. To accomplish this, we construct a ritual—some stories, some holy texts, some ritual process involving movement, chanting, special clothing, and even some food. They all revolve around the central purpose of putting us back in that moment of greatness or inspiration or insight.

This might have been a moment of great emotion for Moses and the Children of Israel—what, with Moses’ retirement coming up and the entrance to the Promised Land about to begin. There is every reason to see this grand gathering as a transition ceremony concluding one chapter of the national life and looking forward to the next. And yet, as the portion has been handed down for so many centuries, it has taken on the feeling of a re-creation-ritual in which these new Israelites (the ones born in the desert) and all the Israelites of subsequent generations see themselves as standing at another mountain, Mount Sinai, and hearing the voice of the Eternal as we entered God’s covenant.

When we read this passage in synagogue this weekend, this peak experience domesticated will certainly be on the agenda. And, when we read it again on Yom Kippur, we can again see ourselves at the mountain, hearing and responding to the Lord God.

As for the constituency of the audience, the text gives us both specificity and ambiguity: 
“You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your tribal captains, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; that you should enter into covenant with the Lord your God, and join in an oath which the Lord your God makes with you this day; that the Eternal may establish you today as a holy people, and that the Lord may be to you a God, as has been said to you, and as has been sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  It is not with you alone that I make this covenant and this oath; I make it both with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with those who are not here with us this day.” (Deuteronomy 29.9-14)

The listing is pretty comprehensive, but, at the very end, we have the cryptic, “It is not with you alone that I make this covenant and this oath; I make it both with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with those who are not here with us this day.”

Who exactly are “those who are not here with us this day?” The logical answer is that some people didn’t make it out of the camp that morning. With 600,000 or so people, you figure someone is ill, or taking care of the ill, or in a state of ritual impurity, or on guard duty, etc. The point here is that everyone in the community is included, whether he or she is physically present for the covenant ceremony.

However, our Sages picked up on this phrase and saw in it a much more mystical possibility. They taught that every Jew of every generation was present at Mount Sinai. Every Jew of every time was standing right there, hearing the voice of God and accepting our holy mission.

This would mean that our ritual recreation of this peak experience is really a matter of remembering something we all already know—because we were all there. So, rather than it being like a historical re-enactment (like the yearly Washington crossing the Delaware River event), this is more like a couple playing a tape of their wedding and feeling that special love again—or someone playing a tape of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and once again feeling the closeness to God from that special, special day.  

We were all there, so we can all, at some level, remember.

But, what about the converts—all those individuals who have chosen Judaism and joined our people in the intervening centuries? The answer is that they were there, too. All Jewish souls were present at Mount Sinai. All Jewish souls heard the thunder of God’s voice. All Jewish souls of all time were there to affirm the covenant with the Most High.

In other words, those who have chosen to convert to our faith already had Jewish souls. They were just born to non-Jewish families. As much as they loved and respected their birth families, their Jewish souls yearned to be with other Jews, and they gradually found their way into the Jewish community, spiritually settling into the religious home that their souls were seeking all along.

Thus do we stand together in this day, alongside all those people with whom we stood so long ago. Sinai is not just a story; it is a seminal moment of our lives—a pivotal and holy moment of our souls’ development. We have been somewhere special. We have witnessed God’s Presence ourselves. And, we are called to respond to this awesome memory in the way that we live our lives.


Living in the Promised Land: Politics & Religion

September 8th: Ki Tavo
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

“When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it…”  (Deuteronomy 26.1) Thus begins Parshat Ki Tavo and the mitzvah of taking first fruits and sharing them with God, with the Priests and Levites, and with orphans and widows and strangers. God’s blessings are gifts which should be shared with others.

Of course, for almost 2000 years, this particular mitzvah was impossible. Very few Jews lived in “The Land,” and therefore most Jews had to celebrate this mitzvah theoretically and in a different context. Thank God that this is no longer the case, and Jews can now both enter the Land of Israel and live in it, bringing Judaism’s holiness to the Holy Land.

Among the many challenges facing the modern State of Israel is religious diversity. There are many different approaches to Judaism and Jewishness among the Jews of Israel, and there are often conflicts about who is in charge and how will Judaism officially be practiced.

A lot of news was generated this summer over the issue of access to the Kotel, the Western (retaining) Wall of the Temple Mount. When the Kotel was regained in 1967, it could have been assigned to the Ministry of Antiquities as a historical site. However, politics being what they are, it was assigned to the Ministry of the Interior (and Religious Affairs) and thus was classified as a “synagogue” and given to the Orthodox Rabbanut to manage. In Orthodox synagogues, men and women pray separately, and so the two sides—a men’s and a women’s—became the new arrangement. (Formerly, before the Kotel was seized and desecrated by the Jordanians in 1948, men and women had prayed there together.)

For the past several years, a group of courageous and determined feminists, The Women of the Wall, has gathered on the women’s side every Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) and tried to lead a public service and read Torah. There has been a lot of resistance by the Orthodox, and, things have gotten pretty ugly on more than one occasion. It has been an example of the lack of religious freedom in Israel for non-Orthodox Jews. Then, a coalition of civil liberties activists, representatives of a range of Jewish “denominations,” and some high ranking governmental leaders worked on the problem and came up with a solution. Instead of two sections, the Kotel would have three: one for men, another for women, and a third for mixed groups and Liberal Jewish worship. The details were all hammered out, and everyone was on board, but, at the last minute in June, some Orthodox political parties threatened to withdraw their support from Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and the whole plan collapsed.

A lot of people had a lot to say, and the controversy reverberated around the Jewish world. Unfortunately, the Liberal branches of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—are too often marginalized in Israel, denied government funds, and thwarted by a wide range of Orthodox strategies. It is a continual struggle.

And yet, the story of Liberal Judaism is Israel is not a tale of woe or failure. There has been a lot of progress—a lot of success, and I want to share with you a recent statement of Rabbi Micky Boyden, one of the long-time leaders of Progressive Judaism in Israel. He writes:

 When one reads about the way in which Bibi backtracked on the Kotel agreement and the disgraceful manner in which the Women of the Wall are treated by the police and security personnel, one could be mistaken for believing that Reform Judaism is having a bad time of it in Israel.

If you add to that the dislike that many feel for Israel's right-wing/religious coalition government, one can see why many Reform Jews in North America and elsewhere are lukewarm about the Jewish State. That having been said, the High Holydays are approaching and it is time to put the record straight.

Reform Judaism in Israel is, by and large, an amazing success story. Thirty years ago there were only a handful of congregations and not one single purpose built Reform synagogue anywhere in Israel apart from at Leo Baeck in Haifa and HUC in Jerusalem. We were viewed as an American outpost, whose supporters were almost entirely from English speaking countries. There were maybe two or three couples a year who dared have a Reform rabbi officiate at their wedding.

 Fast forward thirty years. There are some 50 Reform congregations across the country. Religious pluralism is part of the landscape much to the dislike of the charedim. Many Reform synagogues are being built on public land. The Reform Movement in Israel conducts over 200 conversions per annum. Those who have converted through us are recognized as Jews by the State of Israel and registered as such in the Interior Ministry's population register. We
are inundated by couples wishing us to officiate at their weddings. These requests, and indeed all of the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies at which we officiate, come from so-called "secular" Israelis disgusted by the religious establishment and looking for a liberal Jewish alternative.

Of course, many people don't like Bibi. (I know one or two people who aren't that happy with Donald Trump either!) However, that doesn't stop us from loving our country and working for a better tomorrow.

Ownership: Rights, Responsibilities, and Limits

September 1st: Ki Tetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Some sections of the Torah seem to be a random assortment of commandments, a kind of holy hodgepodge. Each mitzvah can certainly be understood on its own terms, but, sometimes, finding an overarching theme can help us to understand the mindset of our ancient ancestors and their moral code. In the case of Ki Tetze, one of the themes one can identify is that of property. Who owns what? What are the owner’s obligations and prerogatives? What is the relationship between the property of an individual and other people in the community.

Here are some of the mitzvot involved in this general theme:

21.10: In the course of war, women can be captured, but they cannot be abused. If a man desires a captive woman, he must marry her and give her the full rights of a wife.

21.15: If a man has two wives, he must treat both fairly, and he must give the eldest son his birthright—even if that son’s mother is less loved than her co-wife.

21.18: If parents have a “wayward and defiant son” who will not mend his evil ways, the parents shall bring him to the community to be stoned to death.

21.22: If someone is to be executed by impaling, his body must be buried the same day.

22.1: If you find lost property, you must return it to the owner or take care of it until the owner is found.

22.4: If you see someone else’s ox or donkey fallen on the road, you must help it up.

22.5: Woman may not wear men’s clothing, nor may men wear women’s clothing.

22.6: When you find a nest of eggs or hatchlings with the mother bird, do not take the mother along with the eggs or hatchlings. Send her away.

22.8: When you build a new house with a flat roof, put a parapet around the roof so no one will fall off.

22.9: Do not plant two species of plants together in a field.

22.10: Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together.

22.11: Do not wear cloth combining wool and linen.

Clearly, many of the mitzvot are far from our way of thinking. The mindset in which some of them are even thinkable—much less holy—is far from our sense of ethical behavior. They represent the difficult passages which tradition has had to interpret—and which I have discussed these past three weeks. Others, however, possess a rudimentary fairness and decency which makes us proud. Indeed, even in the midst of situations which we see as heinous (forcing captive women into marriage, stoning undisciplined children), there is an attempt, in an ancient and harsh society, to insert some decency and fairness.

In the case of the captive woman, forcing a woman into marriage is horrible, but one can see an attempt by the Bible to improve upon the custom of battlefield rape. A similar tendency can be seen in the passage about having one’s son stoned to death. Here it is in its entirety:
“If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21.18-21) Whereas, in other societies, parents owned children and could do with them what they wanted, the Bible establishes a set of very specific and frankly unlikely circumstances before such a stoning can take place—and it puts the ultimate judgment on the community and not on the parents. Killing in a fit of fury is not the way it works. Parents may own their children, but their autonomy is not without limits.

Indeed, this is the message in all of these passages and in the portion, in general. People own things—property, material possessions, livestock, and even people. (Remember the ancient notion that fathers owned their wives and their children. Why else would fathers give their daughters away at weddings?) But, God establishes limits on what we can do with what we own. There are standards of decency, respect for the property of others, respect for the comfort of animals, and respect for the natural order. As we learn over and over again in the Torah, the gifts we are granted by God are dependent upon how we treat them.

Let me close with two pieces which illustrate this sensibility. One is a Midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabba, and the other is from Kahlil Gibran, the modern Lebanese-American poet.

From Ecclesiastes Rabba 7.13:
“When Adam and Eve were created, God took them on a tour of the Garden of Eden. The trees, flowers, animals, and birds were so beautiful that they sang out, ‘How glorious are Your works, O Lord! In Wisdom have You made them all.’ Then God said, ‘My children, all these creations are gifts from Me to you and your children forever. They are yours to enjoy and yours to protect.  If anyone ever ruins them, there will be no one else to come after and repair the damage. This world is yours. Please take care of it.’” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7.13)

“On Children,” from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, 1923:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit,
not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, 
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”



Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part III

Shof’tim: August 25th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

What do you do when a text you revere and hold holy has passages which go against your notion of goodness and morality? Do you figure that your understanding of ethics is faulty and accept the holy command? Or, do you reject the whole book, figuring that anything with such an unfair or unrighteous decree must be wholly bad? Or, do your interpret the problematic passages in ways that defangs their poison. This third path, as I have observed over the last two weeks, is a long and venerable tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

These interpretations have generally involved non-literal readings of the passages, and we found, for example, that both historical records and Biblical records suggest that the Israelites did not destroy the Canaanite population when they moved into the Land—despite the command to do so in Deuteronomy and the report that they had done so in Joshua. We also considered the context of difficult passages, and found that understanding them in situ renders them much less hostile.

This week, I want to speak to the motivation of various interpreters/commentators and how it can play a major role in the messages found in holy texts.

The historian Ellis Rivkin used to note an interesting fact in regard to Christian and Muslim anti-Semitism. Though both religions have a long history of anti-Jewish teachings and actions—sometimes heinously cruel, neither Christianity nor Islam has ever united their disparate elements in the mission of ridding the world of Jews and Judaism. The record of anti-Semitism in both religions is remarkably spotty. When one king or sultan or bishop would embark on a campaign against Jews—burning the Talmud, massacring a village or a valley, or expelling all Jews, another Christian or Muslim leader down the road would welcome the Jews and treat them well.

If eliminating Jews or Judaism is a real pillar of either religion, why would there be this division of religious purpose? Dr. Rivkin’s reading (and that of many Christian and Muslim scholars!) is that neither Christianity nor Islam is inherently anti-Jewish or anti-Judaism. This suggests that the anti-Semites in both religions are doing some interpreting of their own, finding hostile messages because of their own motivations or agendas—and not those of the holy texts themselves.

What, Dr. Rivkin asked, would be a trigger for taking generally ignored anti-Jewish passages and using them for great evil? Looking at case after case of anti-Semitic episodes, Dr. Rivkin noticed a pattern. Every time, Christians or Moslems mounted a major onslaught against Jews or Judaism, it was connected to an economic crisis. Though generally ignored, anti-Semitic passages were been dredged up in the midst of financial disaster and used by demagogic religious leaders. In some cases, the demagoguery was to project blame from the real culprits to an easily other-able group. In other cases, the demagoguery was used by one group to steal money from another.

Let me give two examples. Though the Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula expelled both Muslims and Jews during the 15th Century, the only Jews remaining in Spain after 1492 were converts to Christianity—sincere converts. Many became priests, nuns, and even bishops. But, when a major economic crisis hit Spain, all of a sudden, Tomas Torquemada and his Inquisitors, based in one major Spanish economic center, discovered a whole network of secret Jews—all from the other major economic center. Despite all those romantic legends about persecuted Jews secretly practicing their religion, the only evidence for this secret Judaism comes from (1) claims by the Inquisition and (2) confessions exacted under torture. All these Jewish families who wanted to practice Judaism could have fled with the others—both during and following the 100 years of the Expulsion. The ones who stayed accepted Christianity and were real Christians. They were known as coming from Jewish parentage, and many occupied a position in Spanish cultural and intellectual society similar to the way New York Jewish intellectuals have been so influential in America. However, there is no evidence that any of them were anything other than loyal Christians. This pernicious myth of secret Judaism was used to dispossess the leadership and wealth of a major Spanish economic center so that the other center—Torquemada’s—could emerge wealthier and more powerful.

A second example comes from Russia in the latter part of the 19th Century and the terrible pogroms that caused great suffering and lots of emigration. The real problem was an extravagant imperial budget being financed by taxing a pre-industrial economy. The Russian tax base was much lower than that of Western European kingdoms, and the Czar had to tax much harder to enjoy an opulent life—and to run the Empire. Blaming the heavy tax burden on the Jews was a way of deflecting the criticism that eventually led to the various Russian Revolutions. Life in Russia for Jews was not wonderful, but the imperial regime fomented the discovery and use of anti-Semitic texts to inflame the peasant mobs.

The same pattern can be seen in countless European and African and Asian outbreaks of anti-Semitism. The hostile passages are there in the Christian or Muslim texts, but they are not important to the faith. The salient factor is the attitude or motivation of the religious leaders who, all of a sudden, find the passages and use them to promote other than religious agendas. It is a cynical and manifestly ungodly use of religion, and it has brought great suffering to the world.

And so, as we look at our own difficult passages, the key is to remember that ancient documents need to be interpreted for both ancient and modern readers—and that our interpreting needs to be done with kind, just, and godly motivations.

Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part II

Re’eh: August 18th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Last week, we considered how one can revere and follow Holy Scriptures while holding back or editing out some of its problematic passages. I gave the example of Thomas Jefferson’s “Bible” where he cut and pasted what he considered to be the gems of Christian teaching and left out the rest. Given that the Bible is an inconsistent work—with a variety of instructions and principles, some contradicting others, Jefferson joined in a long tradition of commentators who interpreted their way around offensive or ungodly passages. I observed that this tradition exists in Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity. Interpretation is vital to discerning God’s wishes.

The passages in Deuteronomy that provoked my discussion are the ones that command the Israelites to annihilate the native Canaanite population. These instructions are found many times in Deuteronomy, and their successful execution is reported in Joshua. And yet, the historical, archeological, and even Biblical records show that such a mass extermination did not occur. The point I drew last week is that the ancients did not regard these passages as marching orders or literal history. This is another kind of literature.

By the way, the one part of these instructions which the Israelites did apparently carry out—at least, in part—is a destruction of Canaanite idols and religious sites. The commandment is in this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 12.2-3): “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” And, sure enough, there are archeological ruins in Hatzor (northern Israel) showing burned Canaanite temples, with idols whose heads have been chopped off.

The subject this week is the context of ancient texts. Historical perspective and an understanding of context can often render problematic passages much less insistent on ungodly behavior.

In Christianity, the Jewish sages known as Pharisees are much maligned. Why? The Gospels tell of Pharisees arguing with Jesus, and later generations regarded these arguments as disrespectful. What many Christians do not know, however, is that Jesus himself seems to have been a part of Pharisaic Judaism—the movement that brought us the Rabbis, the Mishnah, the Oral Law, and the World to Come. The Pharisees (Pietists/Separatists) were scholars who made studying and teaching the Torah their life’s work. Part of the study involved discussing how various passages, laws, and principles were to be understood. Sometimes, these discussions got pretty animated, and one might refer to them as arguments. A historical reading of the Gospel stories shows a group of Pharisees (Jesus included!) discussing interpretations of Sabbath Law: what one can and cannot do on the Sabbath. In none of these arguments is Jesus voicing an opinion outside of Rabbinic/Pharisaic Judaism. He is simply putting forth one Pharisaic view, and the other Pharisees are arguing back with others. In the context, Jesus was just another Pharisaic Jew, discussing or arguing about Halachah. However, when these stories were told decades later, after Paul had crafted Christianity not from the historical Jesus but from his spiritual vision on the road to Damascus, Jesus was no longer seen as another teacher with whom one could discuss the Torah. At that point, Jesus was considered divine, and his words were to be obeyed and believed. The different context created the traditional Christian disparagement of the Pharisees—one which can still be heard in some Christian churches.

In the case of some very anti-Jewish passages in the Koran—passages that have recently made the news, it is important to remember the struggles of the founder of Islam. As with all religious innovators, Mohammed faced some fierce opposition from the authorities of his time, and, at one point, when his life was threatened, the Prophet took refuge among the Jews of Medina. They welcomed him and protected him for quite a while. Later, when he achieved success in his new understanding of religious monotheism, he expected those Jewish tribes to join him. When they refused, an armed conflict ensued, and he unleashed a torrent of anger on those Jews. Many were killed, and, to modern readers of the Koran, it can look like a blanket attack on all Jews of all times. This is not the inevitable interpretation of the Koran, but the passages are there if an interpreter chooses to use them in demagoguery.

For a truly shocking Jewish passage, let us turn to the Talmud, to Yevamot 61a. Here the rabbis are discussing the ritual impurity caused when someone dies, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai draws a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, saying, “The Jewish people are called Adam (men/humans), but Gentiles are not called Adam (men/humans).” Does this mean that Judaism does not consider non-Jews to be fully human? Do we not learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5: “All humanity was created as one person, the original Adam of Genesis, to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world. And also, to promote peace so that no one will say that ‘My ancestors are greater than yours.’”? All humans come from the same ancestor, Adam. All are created in the image of God. All people are human beings.

What then are we to make of Yevamot’s statement that Gentiles are not human? The passage is in the context of assigning ritual impurity in the presence of a corpse or buried body. Jewish corpses are buried in clearly designated cemeteries so that a priest can easily avoid walking through them. However, given that Gentiles do not always observe the Halachic burial rules—and that land use changes over centuries, it is possible that any place one walks could be over a long lost non-Jewish burial. Hence, ritual purity is always in doubt, and the Rabbis need a way to accommodate Jewish priests walking through the world. Though clearly not a theological point, they establish this legal fiction—that Gentiles are not human—in order to protect the ritual purity of a priest whose path covers what might have, at one point, been a place of burial.

In every other instance, Gentiles are clearly considered human—human and beloved children of God. So, when looking through the Talmud, it is possible for an unlearned reader to read a passage out of context and come to a totally incorrect conclusion about Judaism.

Let us remember that every communication originates in a particular context and for a particular purpose. If we want to understand a text, we need to understand its context and purpose.

Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part I

Ekev: August 11th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Thomas Jefferson was one of several founding fathers who were not mainstream Christians. Their approach to religion was called Deism, a construct that envisioned a supreme being as a sort of watchmaker who had created the world but no longer intervened directly in daily life. Though he was accused of being a “howling Atheist” in the 1800 presidential election, Jefferson was in fact a very religious man—a man dedicated to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. His dedication, however, was conditional and based on a discrepancy between what he saw as the true teachings of Jesus and the “corruption of schismatizing followers” which he believed had taken over the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament. His solution was cutting and pasting—excising what he thought were the pure and true teachings of Jesus and pasting them into a new “Bible.” In his words, this new work was “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has never been offered to man.”  (Thanks to the Smithsonian Magazine, January 2012, for this summary of Jefferson’s attitudes and Biblical work.)

In other words, Jefferson found some passages of the Holy Scriptures much more valuable than others, and some he found to be positively problematic. His solution was to choose the good and discard the bad. Though Jefferson’s “Bible” was a novel idea, editing the Scriptures has been a tradition among Biblical commentators for centuries. Why did they mold the Biblical message with their hermeneutic techniques, selective readings, and Midrash? Because, as much as we revere the Holy Scriptures and the Divine Author, there are some passages which contradict other passages or are in direct conflict with values and principles that are themselves Biblical.

The Bible is not a consistent document, and any serious reader must grapple with the varying views and instructions contained therein.

We get a first-hand look at the problem in a recurring theme in Deuteronomy, the commandment to the Israelites to completely obliterate the native Canaanite population. In this week’s portion, the theme is stated no less than four times. The first instance comes in 7.5: “You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity.” The second comes in verse 23: “The Lord your God will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic until they are wiped out. He will deliver their kinds into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.” I think you get the idea. It is a brutal instruction that makes one wonder what kind of moral code is being taught—and what kind of Moral Authority is doing the teaching.

The God we know would not and could not have given this command. So, what do we do with it? How can we read our Scripture reverently and devotedly and somehow neutralize or deal with such horrible instructions?

Over the next few weeks, I want to address this problem of Holy Scriptures with unholy commandments and discuss the problems that Judaism and our neighboring religions of Christianity and Islam have with such texts. It is a ubiquitous challenge for religions—and one in need of wisdom, moderation, and holy insight.

This first week, I’ll approach the passages in light of the historical record. Next week, we’ll look at context—both ancient and modern. And, the third week, we’ll look at how the motivation of the interpreter can affect the shape of Heaven’s message.

Though the wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites is ordered—and though the Book of Joshua documents its execution, the historical and archeological record show that such a genocide did not occur. While there are certainly archeological sites of destruction, they do not reveal the total annihilation the Bible both commands and reports. “Obliterating their name from under the heavens” would certainly have left some kind of evidence, but there is none. We do have, interestingly enough, evidence of the destruction of Canaanite gods—their heads cut off and burned, but there is no evidence of a mass destruction of the entire Canaanite population. In fact, the historical record gives ample evidence that these Canaanites were around for centuries—and are still around today! (Modern DNA evidence suggests that the Lebanese—not the “Palestinians”—may be the modern descendants of the ancient Canaanites.) The Bible agrees with this conclusion, describing the continuing snare of Canaanite gods and religious rituals for centuries after the Conquest. Clearly, the Canaanites were conquered by the Israelites, but they were never wiped out.

In other words, we are left with instructions that were never taken literally. And, if our ancient ancestors did not take them literally, we need to understand that such passages are not marching orders or history, but a different kind of literature.

We find a similar disconnect in the anti-Semitic history of Christianity and Islam. Though there are clearly some virulently anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament and the Koran, and though there have definitely been some terrible and murderous campaigns against Jews by both Christians and Muslims, Dr. Ellis Rivkin observes that neither religion has every united its own disparate elements in a common campaign of destruction against Jews and Judaism. This is not to minimize the terror that has been visited upon us many times, but where the ugly head of anti-Jewish Christianity or Islam has reared itself in one location, other elements of these two religions have been relatively welcoming and peaceful. In other words, killing Jews or Judaism is not a faith component of either religion, and the majority of Christians and Muslims through the centuries have known it.

In other words, there is something else operating in re these murderous passages: why they are usually ignored or filtered out, but sometimes seen as marching orders. Could we be seeing a battle between the good and evil inclinations in the hearts of religious leaders? Somewhere, somehow, there is some interpreting going on.

We shall return to this discussion next week.


How Does One "Love" the Lord our God?

August 4th: Va’et’chanan
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Almost all of the 613 mitzvot commanded in the Torah deal with specific behaviors: Do not murder anyone. Make sure your weights and measures are accurate. Do not let your goring ox go rampaging around the village. Build a parapet on your flat-roofed house—so people do not fall off. Leave some of your crops unharvested so that the poor can have something to eat. Do not oppress the stranger.

A few however, are not at all specific, and figuring them out can be a challenge. Take, for example, the mitzvah in this week’s Torah portion that follows the Shema in Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The command that we love God sounds like a wonderful thing, but what does it mean in terms of practical human behavior?

One could read this mitzvah as an instruction for an emotional attachment—a feeling of affection for the Eternal One. The problem, we all know, is that there is more to a relationship than feelings. In our human interactions, certain behaviors are required if we are to translate affection into relationships. This is the tack of many commentators in our Tradition as they take principles of human relationships and apply them to our relationship with God—showing us how we can love God.

 A first principle is that it is hard to have a relationship without spending time together. One might say that spending time with God is inevitable: since God is omnipresent—that it is impossible to ever be away from God. Then again, we all know that relationships require more than physical proximity; they involve intentional connection. In the case of God, this means setting aside time on a regular basis to pay attention to God. We could pray, study the Bible, meditate, or involve God-consciousness in the little moments of life: saying a blessing upon awakening and when retiring, or before or after meals. This kind of love and attention do not take us away from life; rather, they remind us of the Presence of God in each and every moment of life. This kind of attention loves God.    

Could this be why the Torah phrases the actual mitzvah of loving God in terms of a lifestyle of continuing awareness? Notice the way the Deuteronomy 6 passage continues: “These words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently unto your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and upon your gates.” God consciousness is not an addition to life; it can be part of life.

A second principle is that mutual interest and shared values bind a relationship together. One does not have to agree with the other on everything, but mutual sympathy and understanding are at the base of any friendship. They also provide a locus for the relationship. In the case of God, we can find a lot about God’s values and hopes by studying the Holy Scriptures. There are lots of values, but a common theme running through the Torah is that God cares about us—and wants us to care about each other. Notice the way the Torah presents its ultimate expression of Divine instructions, the Ten Commandments (also in this Torah portion, in Deuteronomy 5). Whereas other ancient religious texts explain how to treat the gods right, the Ten Commandments are more interested in how we treat each other than in how we treat God. Numbers 1-4 are God-oriented:
“I am the Lord your God; don’t have any other gods besides Me.
Don’t make idols and worship them.
Don’t take God’s Name in vain.
Remember and observe the Sabbath Day.”

Numbers 5-10, however, are human-oriented:
“Honor your parents.
Don’t murder, commit adultery, or steal.
Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.
Don’t let jealousy ruin relationships.”
These are all about treating other people right, and God commands them because God cares about us and the way we treat each other. Again and again the Bible teaches us that God deeply identifies with each and every person and cares about us. Sharing God’s values of righteousness and love can bring us closer, deepening our relationship with the Divine.

Third, there is the desire, among friends, for the happiness and success of the other. Even if the other’s pursuit is not ours, part of the relationship is hoping that the other’s pursuit is successful or satisfying. In the case of God, this principle of love invites us to participate with God in tikkun olam, the healing and repair of the world. One of our traditional prayers (Shochen Ad from the morning service for Shabbat), speaks of this reciprocity in our relationship with the Divine. It begins with a statement and verse from Psalms 33: “You dwell in the heavens; holy is Your Name. It is written, ‘The righteous rejoice with the Lord; it is fitting for the upright to praise God.’ (Psalm 33.1) At this point, the ancient liturgist reads the Psalmist’s “it is fitting for the upright to praise God” as a description of the types of human behavior a relationships with God requires: “By the mouths of the upright are You acclaimed. By the words of the righteous are You praised. By the tongues of the faithful are You exalted. In the midst of the holy are You made Holy.” In other words, God’s power and reputation are dependent on the behavior of God’s people. It is nice to declare our faith in God or to have a religious experience, but neither is complete unless we actually behave in godly ways. Praising God is fine, but praise from the righteous is what really counts. Sanctifying God is lovely, but only one who is behaving in a holy manner can show the world that God’s ways are worth adopting as our own.

Loving God is certainly an emotion, but it is much more. It is making time in our lives for an awareness of the Divine—a lifestyle of God-consciousness. It is learning God’s values and priorities and sharing them—making them our own values. And, it is joining in the work that God invites us to share, bringing the blessings of heaven to all the earth, manifesting God’s holiness and love with our eyes and our hearts and our hands.

Israel: A Real Country with Real People

June 16th: Shelach Lecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, once famously said that Israel will be a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes and the Jewish policemen arresting them will all conduct their business in Hebrew. In this rather earthly statement, he was echoing Hayim Nachman Bialik, the famed Hebrew poet, and other visionaries who knew that the Jewish State would be a real state with real people—and not a utopian Disneyland of Jewish culture and religion. In other words, the earthly manifestation of the Zionist dream would be less than perfect and subject to the full range of human thoughts, emotions, faults, and experiences.

This is not a new situation. In our Torah portion, we have perhaps the original debate about the dream of the Promised Land and its reality. In Numbers 13, Moses sends twelve scouts to the Land of Canaan to report back to the Israelites on their divinely assigned destination. The scouts/spies tour the land and find it an amazing place. In one particularly impressive area, the Wadi Eshkol, they cut down a single cluster of grapes that is so large that it takes two men with a carrying frame to bring it back to the Israelite camp. When the scouts return, they all agree that the Land is wonderful, but there is a difference of opinion about the realistic possibilities of taking it.

“We came to the land you sent us to scout; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted saying, “The country that we traveled and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim (giants) there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13.27-33)

Most of the people believe the ten pessimistic scouts and break into cries, weeping all night. “All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron, ‘If only we had died in the Land of Egypt…rather than we die in the wilderness!’” The end of the story is that they do end up dying in the wilderness: God decides that they are not ready to take the Land of Israel and so they are doomed to wander the desert for forty years—until the current generation dies out and a new, stronger, braver, and more resolute generation arises which will pursue God’s mission.

The people who built the modern State of Israel were, by and large, very tough people—strong, brave, resolute, and perhaps even fanatical in their drive to save themselves and Judaism by creating a Jewish State. They were not perfect. In fact, some of the greater Zionists had some significant faults. It is like the old Hebrew saying, “The greater the man, the greater his evil inclination.”

It is very fashionable to revisit Zionist history and dispel the myths of the heroic Zionist leadership—pointing out that pretty much every single Zionist hero had significant flaws. Some were egotistical while others were impatient. Some were greedy, while others mistrusted all non-Jews. Some were adulterers, and others suffered from various forms of mental illness. And, as their decisions are deconstructed and analyzed, some, it turns out, were less than perfect. Information was sketchy or incorrect. The graveness of the threat seemed existential when it was not. Some decisions were made in haste, and many brought unintended consequences. There were times that the Zionist endeavor wrought great morality and nobility to the challenges of human life, and there were times of tragic failure. The people were not perfect. Nor were the situations they faced. And, with the benefit of hindsight, criticisms abound.

The question, it seems to me, is what we do with this information. Do we use it to give the Jewish State a failing grade and devalue the Zionist process? Or, do we use it to analyze the discrete causes of current problems—unraveling them to find solutions? Do we revel in the toppling of heroes, or do we dismiss the analysis, repelled by the meanness in each stage of revisionism?

And, don’t forget politics. Depending on the perspective of the analyzer, the quality of historical figures can vary widely. A few years ago, I had the chance to visit the Menachem Begin museum, a beautiful facility near the old Train Station in Jerusalem. In my liberal (Labor Zionist/Mapam/Ratz/Shinui/Meretz) circles, Begin was a villain—a plague on the Zionist house. In his museum, however, his is a singular heroic life that brought life to the nation and to countless individual Israelis. As I went through the museum, I found myself wondering about their sources of information—and my own!

I believe that Zionism is akin to our American patriotism. It is possible to analyze and disagree and still be supportive and loyal. However, it is also possible to overdue the criticism and to follow it down the road to hateful de-legitimization. I hope we can stay on the loyalty side of this divide and maintain our constructive support of both our United States and Israel.

Israel is not perfect, but it is a wonderful example of how dedicated and imperfect people can create a democratic and successful state. It is not perfect, but, among human institutions, it is striving toward the ideal and making significant progress. Israel’s continuing quest to be the “land flowing with milk and honey” deserves our support.





Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, and a Family Squabble

June 9th: B’ha’alotecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week’s Torah portion offers us a glimpse into the family dynamics of Israel’s leading family. In Numbers 12, we read: “When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’ They said, ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?’ The Lord heard it. Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. Suddenly the Lord called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, ‘Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting.’ So the three of them went out. The Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, ‘Aaron and Miriam!’ The two of them came forward; and God said, ‘Hear these My words: when a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and be beholds the likeness of the Lord. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!’ Still incensed with them, the Lord departed.”

 “As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-while scales! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. And Aaron said to Moses, ‘O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, ‘O God, pray heal her!’”

 “But the Lord said to Moses, ‘If her father spat in her face, would she not bear the same for seven days? Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted.’ So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted. After that the people set out from Hazeroth and encamped in the wilderness of Paran.”

There is a lot in this story for us to consider. What is the actual complaint against Moses? Is there a connection between Moses’ wife being a Cushite and the competing claim for prophetic power? What is a Cushite, and is this term derogatory? Why is only Miriam punished? What does it mean for God to speak to Moses mouth to mouth, or for Moses to behold the likeness of the Lord?

Some commentators think that Cushite is a reference to Zipporah, Moses’ wife. While Cush is the Hebrew word for Ethiopia and Nubia—making Cushite a reference to a Nubian or Ethiopian, some scholars think it could be a reference to Zipporah’s clan in the Midianites, the Cushan tribe. If it was indeed Cushan, then the gossip would be about Zipporah. But, if Cushite refers to Ethiopian or Nubian, then perhaps Miriam’s issue is with her little brother’s second wife—whose name is not given.

We do not know what concerns Miriam and Aaron, though their questions, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?” suggest to me a concern with the influence Moses’ wife is having over the prophet. We all know situations where powerful people are caught between the differing influences of advisers or family members, and one can imagine Miriam and Aaron expressing their concern that their advice is not being heeded.

As for the punishment, it does not seem fair that misbehavior by both Miriam and Aaron brings about punishment for Miriam alone. Is this a matter of Biblical or Divine misogyny? Anything is possible, but the text gives us a hint that Miriam started the lashon hara (evil tongue/ gossip). In the opening verse, the verb for to speak against is in the feminine singular. In Hebrew, when a male and a female are doing something together, the verb form is both plural and male. In this case however, the verb form is singular and female. Perhaps older sister Miriam started the ugly talk, and Aaron was just drawn into it.

Another possible reason for only Miriam getting leprosy is that leprosy would render Aaron unfit for his priestly duties, and the whole Israelite people would suffer from not having a ritually-abled priest. On the other hand, Aaron had two sons who were ordained and who could function as priests—not high priests, but priests nonetheless.

The most important question regards the nature of Moses’ revelatory experiences with God. When I read the phrase “mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles,” or the statement that Moses “beholds the likeness of the Lord,” my first thought went to Exodus 33. There God refuses Moses’ request to “behold God’s Presence.” As God explains: “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But, you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live?” Knowing then that literally seeing God face to face is out of the question, perhaps these terms are colloquial and metaphorical, with the real meaning being in the comparison between getting a revelation from God in a difficult-to-interpret dreams and direct communication—“plainly and not in riddles.”

Or we could understand these words as a more mystical message. Since we know from Exodus 33 that the revelation from God is not face to face but rather in letting “all My goodness pass before you,” then perhaps Moses’ wisdom comes from reading the reality of God’s goodness in the world, of perceiving the wisdom that is imbedded in the goodness of life. When one looks hard enough and understands what one is seeing, then God’s goodness and God’s message of goodness, kindness, justice, compassion, righteousness, lovingkindness, and grace is self-evident. We just have to look and perceive—as did our teacher Moses.


The Priestly Benediction

June 2nd: Naso

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our weekly portion contains one of the most famous passages in religion.
“May the Lord bless you and protect you!
May the Lord smile upon you and be gracious to you!
May the Lord shine upon you and bless you with peace!”

It is a very moving passage, especially when used as a blessing. This is the blessing with which our Tradition teaches us to bless our children on Shabbat. It is a standard conclusion of the Jewish wedding ceremony. Many rabbis use it to bless Consecration, B’nay Mitzvah and Confirmation students. When I was growing up, many rabbis used this to conclude the service. I can still see our rabbi lifting his hands to bless the congregation and saying the words, first in Hebrew and then in English. It was a very solemn moment.

And, it is used by our Christian neighbors. I’ve heard it many times in Roman Catholic services, and, just the other night, Sister Julienne of Nonnatus House (in Call the Midwife) used it in wishing recovery to one of her patients.

The original context of the blessing, in Numbers 6 (verses 22-27), is very interesting. 
“The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: May the Lord bless you and protect you! May the Lord smile upon you and be gracious to you! May the Lord shine upon you and bless you with peace! Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

The blessing was spoken by Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim/priests, in ancient times, and Tradition has accorded this blessing as one of their few remaining priestly duties in Post-Temple Judaism. In a ceremony called duchanen, the priests present take off their shoes and go to the front of the synagogue. They cover their eyes and hands with their tallesim. Though the others cannot see their hands, the tradition is for them to make sign of the Shin with the fingers on each hand. Then, the prayer leader intones each line of the blessing, and the Kohanim repeat it. I have only seen it in Orthodox synagogues.

There is some discussion in Rabbinic texts about the process of this blessing, and, even though the priests are special, the Rabbis are clear that the Kohanim are not the ones blessing the people. They are just conduits for God’s blessing; the actual blessings come from the Lord.

By and large, the Reform Movement does not set apart the Kohanim (or the Levi’im) for special consideration or duty. As the Pittsburgh Platform (1885) explained it:
 “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

 As a result, duchanen is not something one would find in a Reform synagogue. However, the blessing itself is so compelling that an interesting parallel developed. In many Classical Reform Temples, at the conclusion of the service, the rabbi—whether a Kohen or not—would lift his hands recite this Priestly Benediction.

As I said above, I found this a very moving part of the service when I was a child, and, when I became a rabbi, it seemed like something I should do. I even learned how to make the Shin sign with my hands—though I am not a Kohen. Though rabbis are not priests, we do often function in a kind of priestly role, and there is that Rabbinic teaching: the blessing does not come from the Kohanim; it comes from God.

Why is this benediction so moving? There are, no doubt, many answers, but I like to focus on the last phrase of the instructions: “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” This translation is subjective. The literal translation is: “Thus they shall put My name on the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” When God’s name is put on us, we are reminded that we are one of God’s most important investments in the world. We have the ability to manifest God’s wisdom and goodness, and the Priestly Benediction reminds us and inspires us to fulfill our holy mission.


A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation

May 26th: Shavuot
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In anticipation of Shavuot—officially observed on May 31st, our weekly Torah portion will be the Ten Commandments. Though the text of the Ten is in Exodus 20, there is much to be learned from the context as set in Exodus 19. Beginning in the second verse, we are told that the Israelites “entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mount, and Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel, ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”

What does it mean for us to be a kingdom of priests?

 Perhaps the original intention was metaphorical. By virtue of our special relationship with God and our modeling of godly behavior in the world, we could function as a kind of moral and spiritual priesthood and lead the world toward holiness.

Or, the phrase could have referred to the sense of communal support that the actual priesthood received from the rest of the Israelites. Though the priests (kohanim) were the priests, the rest of the Israelite team supported them and, in that sense, were part of the priestly relationship with God. In the regular weekly Torah portion, Bemidbar, there is an interesting delegation of duties giving the various non-priests important work to do. For perhaps more detail than a modern needs, check out Numbers 4 where we have the instructions for packing up the Tent of Meeting and its holy utensils. When it was time for the Israelites to move from one place to another, the kohanim did the packing, but it was another group, their Kohathite cousins, who did the carrying. In the worship system detailed in Leviticus, the kohanim may be the main functionaries, but they are presented as helping the rest of the Israelites in their relationship with God. It was definitely cast as a team effort.

The longest enduring and most spiritually fulfilling interpretation came in the Rabbinic Period, 200 BCE – 200 CE. The Rabbis took this notion of everyone being a priest and used it to create a lifestyle of holiness for every Jew. Prior to this, individual Jews supported the Temple worship system, but their individual roles were restricted to support and occasional attendance—pretty much as spectators. There is certainly something to be said for attending and watching an event of great significance, but personal participation is another step that the Rabbis sought in their new and creative form of Judaism.

Individual Jews continued in their support of the Temple in Jerusalem and its worship system. However, the Rabbis crafted rituals and practices for non-priests, patterning them after the priestly functions. Rather than just support the Temple worship from afar, local Jews could pray in local synagogues using a service based on the Temple service. Rather than only have the priests wear special holy clothing, individual clothing mitzvot were adopted so that non-priestly Jews could develop their own sense of holiness with a holy uniform. The dietary rules, originally just intended for sacrificial meals, were applied to all Jews and all meals—again, bringing the holiness of the priesthood to all Jews.

In other words, though non-priestly Jews could not become priests, they could—through the Rabbinic lifestyle of holiness—develop a sense of God’s Presence in their lives and their own direct participation in the relationship with God.

All the Judaisms of today are heirs of this Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism, and realizing our religious theme—to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people”—can help us to see our significance and our purpose as Jews.



Religion in the Public Square, Part II

May 19th: Behar/B’chukkotai

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

As we observed last week, the sensibility of the Bible is that of a covenantal community—one bound to God and communally responsible for maintaining certain behaviors. Last week, we studied two passages where deviance by individuals brought severe punishment. This week’s portion brings us an extended promise of either communal reward or communal punishment.
“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land…But, if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules…I will wreak misery upon you…and I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.”  (Leviticus 26.3-20)

Given this need for community-wide obedience—in order to receive community-wide reward and avoid community-wide punishment, it behooved the institutions of society to enforce certain rules and protect everyone from the disobedience of a few. Though certain elements of individuality were certainly allowed, choosing to disagree with the community’s covenant and refusing to comply with its rules were simply not allowable options.

In the modern, secular world, we do not assume this communal covenant. In fact, we spend a great amount of effort figuring out where the community’s rights require individual acquiescence and where individual liberty should prevail. A line drawn in this balancing act is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The first passage, known as the Establishment Clause, has been at the heart of the gradually developing doctrine of what Thomas Jefferson called “the wall of separation between Church and State.” There are two issues here: (1) avoiding a situation in which the government establishes or supports a religion, and (2) avoiding a situation in which the government interferes with the free practice of a religion.

As with most freedoms and boundaries, exact lines are matters of continuing negotiation: the needs of the group must be compared to the rights of the individual. As with other civil liberties, there has been a gradual trend in America to allow religious individuals exemptions from some governmental regulations. During Prohibition, religious people needing sacramental wine were given exemptions to the law. Religious pacifists were allowed exemptions in from the Draft. Jehovah’s Witnesses are allowed not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. Native Americans are allowed to take Peyote Cactus in religious rituals, even though it is otherwise illegal. In some prisons, Orthodox Jews and Muslims are allowed or provided special meals according to their dietary laws. And, Jews and other religious minorities are allowed to miss work or school on religious holy days and not be penalized. In other words, American society has generally been working toward allowing religious groups exemptions from laws that compromise or violate their religious beliefs or practices.

This trend was continued by the Obama Administration in the struggle to pass the Affordable Care Act. The contraceptive medical care mandated by the ACA was of great concern to the Roman Catholic Church and its many institutions—churches, schools, colleges, and hospitals, and the Obama Administration worked out a way to exempt their insurance plans from including something anathema to their beliefs. Then, in the Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court extended this exemption to privately held companies whose owners also have religious objections to contraceptive medical care. The decision rankled many advocates of family planning, but it can be seen as part of a pattern of allowing religious exemptions from governmental policies.

So, when it comes to recent state laws or President Trump’s recent executive order allowing vendors to deny various goods and services to same-sex weddings, it can be seen as another in a long line of governmental exemptions for religious people based on their religious beliefs.

I do not know whether these so-called freedom of religion state statutes or orders will pass constitutional muster, but, if they do, the LGBT community and its many supporters may have to find relief from this discrimination using strategies other than legislation or adjudication. Perhaps our Torah portion’s notion of a holy community may provide some hints.

The spirit of the covenantal community called for a sense of camaraderie and fair play—a sense of mutual purpose and cooperation. If supporters of LGBT rights would see themselves this way—as a covenantal community, then here is a possible scenario. If a local florist in a small Indiana town would refuse to provide flower arrangements for a same-gender wedding, what would happen if supporters of LGBT rights would band together to (1) provide the flower arrangements—put together by volunteers rather than professionals, and (2) let it be known that a big part of the community would no longer be doing business with that uncooperative florist? The flowers would be provided, the community support would be obvious and emotionally powerful, and significant pressure would be brought to bear on that florist. Profit margins make controversial stands by business owners very dangerous, and organizing community pressure for a matter of conscience—giving LGBT individuals the respect due to all human beings—can put major pressure on vendors. In other words, if legal remedies—legislation or law-suits—turn out not to work in this particular struggle, community organizing and developing the conscience of a community—making it clear that LGBT rights are a religious principle—can fight against narrow-mindedness.

There are lots and lots of people who support LGBT rights. Organizing and leveraging this community support can keep us on the right road—the road to dignity and respect for all of God’s children.


Religion in the Public Square, Part I

May 12th: Emor

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Biblical idiom is one of communal covenant: the community is bound by covenant to God, and the community is responsible for maintaining standards of behavior. Given individuality, however, it has been a struggle throughout the ages for the community to enforce its standards on its members.

In this week’s Torah portion, we have two examples of very strong enforcement texts. Crossing some lines resulted in serious punishments.
(1)  In Leviticus 23.26-30’s rules for Yom Kippur, we read: “You shall do no work on that day for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. Any soul who does not practice self-affliction on that day shall be cut off from among his kin; any soul who does any work on that day, I will cause that person to perish from among his people.”

(2)  In Leviticus 24.15-16, we are warned: “Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name “Lord” (the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God we do not pronounce), he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him. Whether stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death.”

The social contract assigned the entire community a kind of responsibility for the sins of the individual. Either the community prevents the sins or punishes the sinners, OR the community itself is punished by God.

There is a tendency in religious rhetoric to invoke this same sensibility, i.e., for the speaker to command behavior in God’s name and to expect compliance. And yet, the horse of modernity has already left the barn. People insist on their individual autonomy, and, no matter what the preacher preaches, individuals make up their own minds.

I am thinking of this dynamic in the light of President Trump’s recent executive order in re religious freedom and the Johnson Amendment. Will the newfound freedom to preach politics from the pulpit have much of an effect? I wonder.

There has been for many years a vigorous debate among clergy and civil libertarians about political speech from the pulpit, and the issue is obscured by the curious way the line is drawn. It is not in regard to the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech. Rather, the line is drawn in the Tax Code and involves the tax-exempt status of the speaker’s religious institution.

Though the First Amendment says that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…,”the fact is that governments do a variety of things that help or support religions. From granting religious institutions exemptions from property taxes, sales taxes, or income taxes, to considering housing for clergy non-taxable for income tax purposes, to busing parochial school children on public school busses, the government is clearly involved with religion in a supportive role. The nature of this support has been a matter of negotiation for over 200 years, and I see the current controversy as part of that long-term give and take. Does the state’s special treatment of religious institutions—relative freedom from taxes—carry conditions of limited political action? The Johnson Amendment establishes such a condition: political opinions may be spoken “from the pulpit,” but not endorsements of particular candidates. President Trump’s executive order seems to have loosened that constraint.

However, given the ways religious institutions play games with the Johnson Amendment, I doubt that there will be any real effect. Though preachers and priests are not supposed to endorse particular candidates from the pulpit, it is often no secret whom the preacher or church supports. When a Roman Catholic Bishop says that voting for a candidate who is in favor of abortion rights is against Church teaching, the name of the candidates are unnecessary for the message to be communicated. In the Evangelical Christian community, the game is played by making available—in the vestibules of the sanctuary—voter’s guides detailing the candidates’ positions on various subjects: abortion rights, prayer in public schools, pornography, LGBT rights, etc. The preacher may not say, “Vote for Candidate A,” but the voter’s guide—published by various Evangelical or Conservative organizations—makes such an official endorsement unnecessary.

To be fair, the same can be said of African American Churches in re candidates’ stands on Civil Rights or of Jewish synagogues in re stands on Israel or religious liberties. It does not take an official statement from the pulpit for congregants to know what the preacher/priest/rabbi/imam thinks about the issues of the day and which candidates are in agreement.

And, there is that other little issue about people obeying the religion’s dictates. Look at all the Orthodox Jews who eat ham or shrimp. Look at all the Baptists who drink whiskey. Look at all the Catholics who use artificial contraception. It’s not like our religious communities are tightly controlled or capable of any kind of enforcement. The days of the Bible are long gone, and, even if people today listen to their religions, they make up their own minds.

Who knows what the whole executive order actually says—or what it will actually bring? My suspicion is that it will have more bark than bite.






Two Paths on a Similar Quest

May 5th: Acharay Mot/Kedoshim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This is one of those weeks when the double portion is a real blessing. Rather than deal with the very challenging Acharay Mot (Leviticus 16-18), we can choose Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) with its wonderful array of inspirational passages.
“You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” (19.12)
”When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field….you shall leave produce for the poor and the stranger.” (19.9-10)
“You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” (19.14)
“You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your neighbors fairly.” (19.15)
And, of course, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (19.18)

If it is a year when Acharay Mot is not combined with Kedoshim, then we are left with a less exalting portion, one that presents three themes. The first is the ancient scape-goat ritual for Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16). This is where the High Priest goes through a series of purification rituals—one for himself, one for his family, and one for the whole congregation of the Israelites. Then, he takes two goats and casts lots to see which one will be sacrificed and which one will be set free into the wilderness (for Azazel!). The slain goat’s blood helps atone for the people’s sins, and the priest “puts” the sins of the people on the head of the other goat that is then set free. It is an interesting ancient ritual, one which many synagogues read on Yom Kippur morning.

The second is concerned with the elimination of sacrifices to gods other than the Lord and with the proper preparation of meat. The main issue in slaughtering animals is that the blood not be eaten. As the Torah tells us in Leviticus 17.11-12, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the sacrificial altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation. Therefore I say to the Israelite people: No person among you shall partake of blood, nor shall the stranger who resides among you partake of blood."

It is interesting that, from a developmental view of Jewish history, we have the beginnings of the kosher slaughter rules. Note that the passage does not speak of a super-sharp knife or cutting the trachea, esophagus, carotid arteries, jugular veins, and vagus nerves in one swift action—as later Halachah prescribes. According to Leviticus, animals may be hunted, but, when it comes to slaughtering the immobilized animal, the blood must be drained. As the rules developed over time, hunting was eliminated from the possibilities: animals must be healthy (non-injured) and able to get up on their own before the slaughter. As with pretty much everything else in our religion (and in other religions, too!), experience brought adaptation and development in a kind of progressive revelation.

The third theme is much more challenging—especially if you’re a thirteen year old trying to base a speech on it. Chapter 18 deals with the laws of consanguinity—whom Israelites are forbidden to marry. For instance:
“None of you shall approach to any who is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness; I am the Lord. The nakedness of your father, or the nakedness of your mother, shall you not uncover; she is your mother; you shall not uncover her nakedness. The nakedness of your father’s wife shall you not uncover; it is your father’s nakedness. The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or daughter of your mother, whether she was born at home, or born abroad, their nakedness you shall not uncover. The nakedness of your son’s daughter, or of your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for theirs is your own nakedness. The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, fathered by your father; she is your sister, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s near kinswoman. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister; for she is your mother’s near kinswoman…” (Leviticus 18.6-13)

 Though perhaps a little graphic for a religious text, these passages show the Torah’s insistence on basic decency in human behavior—for living every aspect of our lives with respect for ourselves and with respect for the people in our families and communities. God is the Creator of life in all of its intricacies, and God has expectations that we are holy in all of our ways.

There is also the ancient contextual situation: these prohibited behaviors were practiced by other peoples. As the Torah explains, “Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, nor of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws.” (Leviticus 18.2-3)

And, “Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you…so that the land not vomit you out…” (Leviticus 18.24-28)

While God has unconditional love for us, the blessings which we so enjoy are not without condition. There are consequences to our actions, and God wants us to remember that vulgarity and disrespect create a society that is less than desirable for everyone.

In other words, though in much more graphic and disturbing ways, Leviticus 18 has a strikingly similar message to Leviticus 19. God wants us to behave in godly ways, loving our neighbors as ourselves and treating everyone with respect, decency, and awareness of God’s presence within each and every person.



Where the Haftarah Saves the Torah Portion

April 28th: Tazria/M’tzora
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

We do not have any records of the ancient rabbinic council that matched Torah portions with Haftarah portions, but, when it comes to this week, we can imagine smiles around the table. For the very unpleasant Torah portion about leprosy, the Second Book of Kings provides a story that is a perfect fit. It has nothing to do with the diagnosis and treatment of leprosy—either of the human body or of the house (a kind of black mold). Rather it tells the story of four lepers and their rather amazing discovery.

The setting, as described in Second Kings 6, is a siege around the city of Samaria—a siege which has left the people of the city starving. One may think that the dire situation is strictly a military matter, but the prophet Elisha sees it as a moral issue. God is using the Arameans to punish the Kingdom of Israel for its sins. Enter the lepers.

In a great Biblical example of gallows humor, four lepers outside the gates of the city are discussing their prospects. “Why should we sit here until we die? If we enter into the city, there’s a famine in the city, and we’ll die there. If we sit here, we’ll die of starvation. Let us, therefore, go to the camp of the Arameans. If they feed us, we shall live. If they kill us, we will not be any deader than if we stay here.” (Second Kings 7.3-4)

 So, they take their chances and go over to the besieging army’s camp. The surprise is that no one is there. Every single soldier is gone, though they seem to have left everything else behind: tents, donkeys, food, etc. At this point, the Narrator explains: “There was no man there, for the Lord had made the camp of the Arameans hear a noise of chariots, and a noise of horses, the noise of a great army; and they said one to another, Lo, the king of Israel must have hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of the Egyptians to gang up against us. Therefore the Arameans rose and fled in the twilight, leaving their tents and their horses and their donkeys, leaving the camp as it was and fleeing for their lives.”

 Realizing what they have found, the lepers proceed from tent to tent, eating food and selecting valuables to hide. This is all fine for a while, but then they realize that they have a moral duty to their city. “It is not right for us to keep this good news to ourselves. If we stay here all night, we deserve punishment for not sharing the news with the people in the city. Come, let us go and tell the king’s household about what we have found.”

So, the lepers tell the king’s guards, and—after a foray to make sure the Arameans are not waiting in ambush—the food left in the camp feeds the hungry people of the city.  The siege and the famine are over, and the people are left to ponder this incredible turn of events.

I find three lessons in the story.

1. The miraculous noise that scares the living daylights out of the sieging Arameans reminds us that God’s assistance can be dramatic. Lest we only look for economic or political or military reasons for our victories or defeats, the Bible suggests that we consider the moral dimension and the possibility of God’s intervention. As we read in Psalm 126:
“When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, we were like dreamers.
Our mouths were filled with laughter, and our tongues were singing.
It was reported among the nations that the Lord has done great things—
 great things for us! We are so happy! 
 Bring back our captives, O Lord, like a flash flood in the Negev.
 Those who plant in tears shall harvest in joy.
One who goes forth weeping, using food seeds for planting,
shall come back with shouts of joy, bringing instantly produced crops!”
The miraculous does not happen all the time, but it can happen, and it does.

 2. Despite their own difficult situation, the lepers see their moral duty to help the people of their city. Even when we are faced with tragedy or illness or poverty, there are still opportunities for us to help others or to participate in Tikkun Olam (the repair of the world). The lepers in ancient Samaria give us an example of not letting our bitterness get in the way of our humanity.

3. These lepers, excluded from society and probably considered of little value, had great value and made a major contribution to the lives of the city-dwellers. It is like Shimon ben Azzai says in Pirke Avot (4.3): “Despise no one and call nothing useless, for there is no one whose hour does not come, and there is no thing that does not have its place.”

There is also the moral question of how we treat the victims of disease. While society has the right to protect its members against the dangers of contagion, we must beware the tendency to devalue the ill among us. Remembering their humanity is always the right thing to do.

So, though the Torah deals with diagnosing and protecting against leprosy, the Haftarah expands the conversation into the moral realm, and the ancient council of sages must have been very pleased with the match.


Kashrut and Liberal Judaism

April 21st: Shemini
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our Torah portion this week introduces what we now know as Kashrut, our Jewish Dietary Laws. In Leviticus 11, our ancient ancestors are instructed as to which animals may be eaten and which animals are not allowed. There are four categories: land animals (verses 2-8), water-dwelling animals (verses 9-12), birds (13-19), and winged insects (verses 20-23).

In the case of land animals, only those which chew the cud and which have split hooves are considered ritually edible. In the case of water-dwelling animals, only those which have both fins and scales are considered ritually edible.

In the case of birds, there are no descriptions of what is allowed. We are merely told what is prohibited: “The following you shall abominate among the birds—they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, and the black vulture; the kite, falcons of every variety; all varieties of raven; the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull; hawks of every variety; the little owl, the cormorant, and the great owl; the white owl, the pelican, and the bustard; the stork; herons of every variety; the hoopoe, and the bat.” This leaves as edible what we consider standard barnyard fowl (chickens and geese) and doves and pigeons. To my knowledge, chickens and geese are not mentioned in the Torah, but doves and pigeons are. They are what a poor person should bring as a sacrifice if he/she cannot afford a lamb or a calf.

The section on insects is, to me, the most bizarre: “All winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination for you. But those you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground—of these you may eat the following: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper. But all other winged swarming things that have four legs shall be an abomination for you.” I am not aware of Jewish cuisine involving insects, but I was once told that eating insects was sometimes necessary in places experiencing plagues of locusts. They needed to eat something.

The bigger question, of course, is what we moderns think about these ancient dietary rules. Are they relevant to our modern lives? Do they help us in our relationship with God? As we evaluate our ancient tradition, continuing some things and discarding others, what do we do with Kashrut?

There was a time, in the early days of the Reform Movement, when many people believed that the dietary laws were antiquated and problematic. In the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, Plank #4 reads:  “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

Lest anyone think that these changes were impious, the Statement of Principles began with:“We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages. We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended midst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation, this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.”

But, given the many changes in modern life, the Rabbis believed that modern Jews need to make judgments about which parts of Tradition should be kept and which should be eliminated. Here is how they explained it, in Plank #3: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

 Many people thought that this kind of thinking meant a permanent rejection of many traditional elements, but the phrase, “maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives,” has turned out to be a kind of utility clause, making Reform a continually-reforming “verb” rather than a past-participle Reformed.

So, while Reform discarded many traditional elements in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of these have come back, e.g., kippot and tallitot, chanting, Bar Mitzvah, and Kashrut. Even the amount of Hebrew in Reform services has changed and changed back again. Whereas Classical Reform services had very little Hebrew, many modern Reform synagogues have 50% or more of the service in Hebrew.

The operative phrase for evaluating religious elements is “as elevate and sanctify our lives,” and the changing religious and cultural sensibilities of Reform Jews has resulting in a continuing process of reform.

This is why, as Reform Jews, we need to respect the individual choices that people make in regard to the ancient dietary laws and customs. Some may find that keeping kosher elevates and sanctifies their lives, and therefore this element of their Judaism is to be respected and encouraged. Others may not find Kashrut to be religiously or spiritually meaningful, and their decision, too, should be respected.

The purpose of religion, according to my teacher Dr. Alvin Reines, is the human search for ultimate meaningfulness. To the extent that the traditional elements of our religion enhance this quest, then they are great. To the extent that they do not help—or perhaps hinder—our spiritual process, then our understanding of Judaism allows and encourages each Jew to craft a religious response that elevates and sanctifies his/her life.


Joining a Holy Community

April 14th: Passover
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Why, in the original Exodus story, did God need the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses? Though God explains (Exodus 12.13), “The blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the Land of Egypt,” this does not make sense. Shouldn’t God already know which houses were Israelite and which houses were Egyptian? And, even if people were in houses other than their own, shouldn’t the God of the Universe—Who presumably knows everything—know? Why would God need a sign on the doorposts?

Some commentators point to the phrase “the blood…shall be a sign for you,” and understand the symbol as an opportunity for self-identification: by painting the doorposts and lintels, each individual Hebrew could voluntarily include himself/herself in Am Yisrael, the community of the People of Israel. It was a way of stating publicly that his/her household wanted out of Egypt and its cruel system.

It can also be seen as an opportunity for non-Hebrews to join in the holy community. We do not have descriptions of what non-Jews did that evening, but the Torah tells us that many of them joined us in the Exodus. The Torah calls this group the Erev Rav, the mixed multitude, and they apparently came from all of the many ethnic groups in the Egyptian empire. They did not start out Jewish, but they voluntarily joined our people and were with us for the Exodus, the Crossing of the Red Sea, and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. They became a part of us. So, perhaps the painting of the doorposts was a way for them to declare themselves part of the Israelite community, and perhaps the Lord passed over their houses, as well.

In this and so many other ways, Passover reminds us that our Jewish endeavor is a communal undertaking. Individual religiosity and morality are important, but the joining of many individuals into a community is vital for the actualization of individual principles and goals. To wit, I would like to tell you about some important community events coming up in the next month.

*On April 21, our congregation will restart our Tot Shabbat Program for toddlers and their families. Reimagined by Becca Thorsen and Jennifer White, the program will take place during the Friday night service. Toddlers and their families will begin in the sanctuary for singing and candle-lighting. Then, they’ll go into the social hall for activities. The parents can stay in the sanctuary or go to the social hall. It’s a great idea, and we’re really excited to get this program going again. For more information, you can contact Becca at Tot Shabbat begins at 7:00 PM on Friday April 21st.

*On April 23, our congregation will offer a program for Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Our featured speaker will be Willa Silverman, Professor of French and Jewish Studies at Penn State. Willa’s research has led her to an understanding of the uniquely French aspects and experiences of the Holocaust, and she’ll be sharing her knowledge with us. The program begins at 4:00 PM on Sunday April 23rd at our synagogue.

*On April 26, we have been invited by the Community Diversity Group to a Cultural Conversation. This non-profit in State College sponsors social events where people can come together and get to know diverse community members on a personal level. In this event, the focus will be on Jews and Judaism and what it is like to be a Jew in State College and in the United States. Aaron Kaufman from Hillel and I will be making short presentations, but the main activity will be small table discussion groups where individual Jews can share our experiences and insights with non-Jews. The program will begin at 6:30 PM on Wednesday April 26th, and it will be held at the State College Borough Building (the Community Room).

*On April 27, our across the street neighbor, the Christian Science congregation, will present an interfaith program on the Transformative Power of Unselfishness. There will be three panelists, one from the Christian Science religion, one from State College Presbyterian Church, and me. The program will be a good opportunity to learn about our neighbors’ spiritual thinking and to share with them our own spiritual insights. The program will begin at 7:00 PM on Thursday April 27th at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, across the street from Brit Shalom.

 *On April 30, the Centre Chamber Orchestra will present a Holocaust-themed concert. Put together by their Israeli-born conductor, Yaniv Attar, the concert will show that, even in the darkest terror of the Holocaust, the human spirit was capable of bringing forth beautiful and hopeful music. One piece was written in the Terezinstaat Concentration Camp by inmate Hans Krasa—composed on the backs of prisoner lists discarded by the Nazis. Another piece was written by the child of a survivor. One was written by Erwin Schulhoff, whose great popularity in Europe (he was known as the “Gershwin of Europe”) did not save him from the oppressors. And, there will be a piece by Felix Mendelsohn, who reclaimed his family’s Jewish name and was thus banned by the Nazis. As Yaniv characterizes the repertoire, “This concert has some of the most uplifting and inspiring works I have ever heard.”  This kind of art needs our support. For tickets call the Pennsylvania Centre Orchestra at (814) 234-8313, or see their website:

*And, on May 5th, our congregation will be hosting A Sabbath Service for the Community and for Our Communal Aspirations. We’ll share our Shabbat worship for members of the community, including our traditions of justice and compassion and involving some non-Jewish friends in the service. This would be a good time to bring your non-Jewish friends who are always asking you questions about our faith. The service will begin at 7:00 PM on Friday May 5th. It will be held in our sanctuary.  (ALSO, if you’d like to contribute baked goods for the Oneg Shabbat afterwards, it would be much appreciated!)

All of these programs are efforts at community-building and the development of mutual-respect and cooperation. Please join us as we make these important statements and work on our communal aspirations. These events need both your support and your attendance.

The Word "Mitzvah"

April 7th: Tzav and Shabbat Hagadol
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The title word for this portion is TZAV (Tzadee Vav) which means command:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Command Aaron and his sons….”
It comes from the same root as mitzvah / commandment, and it reminds us of the command structure in the Biblical system. There is a Commander (God) who gives commands (mitzvot) to various commandees (the Israelites or all humanity). They are not suggestions or ideas. They are commands, and the Biblical theology is quite explicit as to the rewards for obeying them and the punishments for disobeying them. The original definition of the word mitzvah is commandment.

 How, then, did we get to the various modern understandings of the word?

I think (and this is my own thinking on the subject) that some of this started in the Rabbinic Period (200 BCE – 200 CE). While the Bible presented a very active God, some of the Rabbis talked about God in less anthropomorphic terms. In particular, some of them referred to the Deity as HaMakom / The Place, as in the place where existence exists. They did not go all the way to panentheism, but they did speak of God more in passive terms than active: that God is the essence of Reality rather than a character that enters the world from time to time, taking various actions. In particular, the Rabbis taught that God’s revelations are no longer operative. Whereas God had certainly spoken and inspired the various Prophets in the Holy Scriptures, that was no longer the way the Deity worked. Now (from 200 BCE on), God has entrusted it to the Sages. They study the Torah, and they decide. They do not wait for new revelatory instructions.

One can see this kind of thinking through Jewish philosophy and mysticism from those Rabbinic days all the way through Kabbalah and Hassidism and various modern more panentheistic understandings of God and Torah. It has been a consistent theme.

Another development came in the hyperbolic use of the word mitzvah in Yiddish. While the original meaning was commandment, one can well see it being used as an intense encouragement. “Please do this. It’s a mitzvah”—meaning, the action is so good, it is as though it is a mitzvah (commanded by God). One can also make the case that, since God commands us to be nice to each other and helpful to strangers, any act of kindness and justice is therefore commanded by the Almighty—even though the Torah might not specify this particular good deed. In other words, the popular definition of mitzvah as a good deed is a secondary or tertiary definition, one that developed over time.

Another way to say that something is so good, it’s as though it’s a mitzvah, is to say something is compelling. Compelling does not usually carry with it the authoritarian structure of a commander/Commander, but it does speak of the authority of the situation or of reality compelling or commanding a particular behavior. In my mind, it harkens back to the Rabbinic notion of God being HaMakom, The Place of Reality, and the fact is that, in Reality, our principles and aspirations compel certain practices and behaviors.

There is also the modern post-Enlightenment understanding of individual autonomy in religious decisions. Rather than look at the mitzvot of Tradition as commands from the Most High, we look at them as the opinions of our ancient forebears on how humans can best live in relationship with God. We consider their opinions and try to appreciate their perspective, but, when it comes to our own religious thinking and practice, we choose what is compelling to us, and we defer those things that are not meaningful to us. Thus is the word mitzvah now used for those acts which are sanctifying—which help us to an apperception of the Divine and which help us in our relationship with the Divine.

At one level, this seems a far cry from the original sense of the Torah, but, then again, we are still concerned with the Ultimate Reality and how best we can understand it and consciously live in Its Presence.



Unwitting Guilt

March 31st: Vayikra
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Exegesis and Eisegesis are two terms used in Biblical interpretation. Exegesis is a legitimate drawing of a lesson from a Biblical passage. Eisegesis, on the other hand, involves using the Biblical passage as a springboard for a completely unrelated teaching important to the commentator (or sermon giver). One is supposed to make sure that commentaries are Exegesis, and one is supposed to resist Eisegesis, but every rule needs an occasional exception.

My point of departure this week is Leviticus 4.1: ““When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them…” Mistakes happen, and the Torah provides various ceremonies for people to get themselves ritually and spiritually right. Whereas the Torah is talking about inadvertently breaking rules, what I want to address are the ways that we can take on guilt mistakenly—feeling guilt that is undeserved.  

Many years ago, in the health food store, I chanced to see someone I sort of knew. We had never met, but I knew who he was. I happened to notice the things he was buying, and it struck me that he must be quite ill. He did not look ill, but the nature of his purchases gave me a feeling that something was seriously amiss. I didn’t say anything because I did not want to pry and, frankly, because we really didn’t know each other. Two days later, I read in the paper that he had committed suicide and that the reason was a recent diagnosis of a terrible disease. The whole thing was obviously a tragedy, but what struck me was my response. I felt guilty—as though I should have said or done something, as though whatever I could/should have done would have fixed the problems. It was ridiculous, but I felt guilty.

A more appropriate response would have been sadness, but I took the appropriate response and jumped straight to guilt—unfounded, unhelpful guilt.

There is a difference between sadness and guilt. There is a difference between disapproval and guilt. It is possible to grieve or disagree or even be angry without feeling responsible for something bad or sad. Guilt is for things for which we have responsibility, but we are masters of guilt and can transform any sad or bad news into guilt. It’s one of our Jewish abilities. In the Biblical idiom—we can “incur guilt unwittingly.”

A cause and a possible solution come from one of the great Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) texts in the Talmud. Though the Bible teaches us frequently that we should help the poor and the downtrodden, the enormity of suffering can be overwhelming, and we can become paralyzed in the face of it all. Rabbi Tarphon addresses this dynamic in Pirke Avot 2.21 when he says, “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.” Though the problems of the world are enormous, we should nonetheless do our small part to make it better—to heal or repair the world.

The problem, for many of us, is that we somehow do not hear the first part of Rabbi Tarphon’s teaching, “You are not required to complete the work.” Our sense of moral and social responsibility pushes us to want every problem fixed and every kind of suffering alleviated, and our inadequacy to fix everything can morph into guilt. Of course, we have an obligation to help—and some of us may not be doing enough, but guilt over the world’s problems is not appropriate or helpful. There is a difference between yearning for a better world and feeling guilty about the world’s imperfections.

Here are some of the problems of unwitting or inappropriate guilt

(1)   Guilt can obscure our analysis of actual problems and their possible solutions. Guilt is essentially an emotional response, and, as important as emotions are, clear and level-headed thinking is necessary if we are to figure out the causes and the possible solutions for the world’s problems.

(2)   Guilt can be self-indulgent. We can put so much energy into feeling guilty that the guilt becomes our response. We feel like we’re actually doing something, but the fact is that guilt does not help anyone. It is certainly not a contribution to Tikkun Olam.

(3)   Guilt can make us vulnerable to manipulation in policy discussions—manipulation that can be counterproductive for all involved. Some people think that identifying and blaming others is how a problem is solved. It is important to identify the causes of a problem, but the blame game is too often too simplistic and vindictive to see all the causes and all the possible solutions. If we add unnecessary guilt to the equation, we can allow ourselves to be held responsible for things over which we had/have no control. This can often involve blaming entire groups or excluding entire groups from discussion because of their guilt—a guilt which is neither deserved nor relevant.

The next time we hear terrible news, let us resist the temptation to feel guilt over something that is not our fault. Let us separate between sadness and guilt; between anger and guilt. Let us keep our wits about us and think clearly because clear thinking and a sober assessment of reality is our best bet for Tikkun Olam.

We can also consider Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s teaching on the subject. In his book, The Wisdom of the Jewish Sages, he rephrases Rabbi Tarphon’s proverb with a little help from the Prophet Micah: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now.”