This afternoon I participated in a Jewish Diversity Program for our Border Patrol off of their main office adjacent to Davis Monthan Air Force Base. One of the lessons I taught them was that for many religions – especially for Judaism and Christianity – our rituals, symbols and traditions have arisen from a connection with the culture from which we have existed. Tonight I would like to share with you one such historical development that has had a lasting impact on us as Reform Jews.
Our Israelite ancestors borrowed and transformed a rich legacy from the Canaanites. But it is the Pharisees who appropriated from the Greco-Roman world a new sense of individualism and a new method of parsing texts.
A change took place at that time that changed the outlook of the Jews from the communal national status of the Israelites to the ethical responsibilities of the individual. Categories of individuals were now delegated particular responsibilities within the communal setting: Men had responsibilities different than those of women, and Jews and gentiles had distinctions established that did not exist within the biblical text.
The bible had clarity as far as the source of one’s moral responsibility coming from God. Now, though the source is still from God, the acts are determined by the individual’s mind and heart.
Additionally, the rabbis 2000 years ago clarified the boundary mitzvot like Shabbat, holidays, and kashrut, which determined the rules by which Jews are distinguished from their neighbors. At the same time they also established values that may lead to a violation of those very boundary mitzvot that establish the Jews as a homogeneous community. The Bible never did this.
Remember last week when I asked you to think about the opening line of this week’s portion: “If you observe my commandments”? “If” being the definitive word, meaning “choice.” You are giving the choice to keep and observe the laws and statutes of God.
- How do you choose?
- What do you choose?
- Upon what basis do you make these choices?
As a liberal movement that has set aside many of the boundary mitzvot because we no longer wanted to be separate from our neighbors, must we apologize for such openness to the world?
The challenge for us is to neither to embrace indiscriminately mitzvot, rituals, symbols, and traditions, nor do we wish to reject mindlessly the wisdom of those around us, but to respond creatively with respect for core truths and the sacred texts of Torah.
We can be thankful that we inherit the minds of our Talmudic teachers two thousand years ago. They came to us to interpret the Bible, its laws, its values, and transform in a meaningful way a path to God, a path to living a more meaningful and purposeful life.
One example is the value of Kevod habriyot – “Respect for the dignity of God’s creatures” – concern for human dignity. In the Talmud there are numerous stories where the rabbis permitted individuals to violate a rabbinic prohibition in order not to suffer an indignity. Later in the Shulkhan Arukh there is a dramatic example of kevod habriyot where Jewish law requires the removal of biblically prohibited clothing even if it leaves a colleague naked in the marketplace. If a person wore the clothing in error then a person does not have to tell him about it in the marketplace because of kevod habriyot. He should remain silent and not remove it due to the wearer’s error. Don’t say anything that might publicly embarrass an individual.
And what of the boundary mitzvot I mentioned earlier? Can there be a violation of their prohibitions due to a respect for human dignity? Such an incident actually happened when Moses Isserles was the head of the Bet Din in Cracow. The bride was an orphan, and the litigation over the dowry dragged on until two hours after sunset on Friday. Isserles himself performed the marriage even though it was the Sabbath, as he describes in his Responsa. He justifies his act at length on the basis of the importance of human dignity and the pain which the bride and groom would experience if the marriage were not to take place. Ki gadol kavod haberiyot – “for the dignity of people is great.” This teaching helps us understand that we must withhold from doing what we think is right at the moment in order to prevent public embarrassment. This value prevents one who presumes to know the Divine imperative so well – or any rules so well – that one may trample one’s fellow underfoot. Humiliation and shame must be prevented and a person’s dignity must not be compromised.
This is the tradition that Reform Judaism has inherited. As we learn to make connections to God and to each other, we reject that the more closely you observe, the more authentic your observance. On Shabbat we value four principles as a goal to achieve in our own way and not in a structure or a manner imposed upon us by a more traditional Jewish approach.
- Oneg – joy;
- Menuchah – physical rest and renewal;
- Tefilah – spiritual renewal;
- and Keruv mishpachah – family togetherness.
How we achieve those each week is both up to us to determine as a religious community; but also up to us as individuals.
We believe in revelation (Sinai) and at the same time we accept as true the texts of Torah filtered through the human soul and pen and mindset.
There are times, therefore, when we must declare with Martin Buber that the prophet Samuel misunderstood God. We can view our Torah – that scroll over there in our ark, and the writings of our dear prophets: Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah – as sacred, see that they have something profound to say to us about standing up for the disenfranchised among us, embracing the stranger in your midst as a member of your own family: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). And at the same time, these people misunderstood God. God is not vengeful, and we will not be punished for every mistake nor rewarded for every act of righteousness. We do believe in the God who dwells within our soul that urges us to be better tomorrow than we were today.
We admire the God of Sinai begging us to formulate boundaries and at the same time, we ask the God of Sinai, “What do you require of me in this time and place?” It cannot be as heartless and as simple as following 613 commandments!
The danger for the Orthodox is being too rigid, which might lead to a lapse into fanaticisms and intolerance.
For the liberal, it is the danger that freedom of choice will lapse into a lack of seriousness.
Some feel comfortable in a life meticulously structured; and then there are those who require tolerance for ambiguity and a leverage of greater personal choice.
For Reform Jews, it is the challenge between Torah and life.
It is the challenge is between Torah and my life!
Time, Space and Circumstance determine how we look at these sacred texts to make the best choices. It is through honest and serious study by which you can speak of, the choices I do make, the commandments I wish to follow are the ones that have gadol kavod haberiyot – the greatest respect for human dignity. Then we can cheer our choice to observe God’s commandments with:
Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu, blessed are we! How good is our portion! How pleasant our lot! How beautiful our legacy!