Why the Comma?
October 4, 2014
Yom Kippur 5775
The moon of Tishrei was barely visible ten days ago on Rosh HaShanah. It has swollen into an oval tonight on Yom Kippur. If the new moon on Rosh HaShanah represents birth, just as the holiday represents a reminder of the birth of Creation, then the oval moon tonight represents a development of identity. Tonight, we as a religious community are ready to face God and tonight, collectively, we feel our strongest partnership with God. The expression of that partnership, for many is found in the Bible. To this end, I would like to help you understand your partnership with God through the Bible.
Earlier this year I was asked to participate in a press conference to build support for freedom to marry in Arizona. I was one of fifty clergy from Flagstaff, Phoenix and Tucson presenting arguments on this important social issue. As I entered the church I noticed a banner on the wall with a large red comma and underneath a quote from Gracie Allen, George Burns’ wife. I asked, “Why the Comma?” I was told by my friend, Pastor Milligan, that the comma represented the anthem of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and was inspired by Gracie Allen’s quote: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”
The reference relates to how we look at our Bible. Is it the direct word of God or something else? Are these commands from God to be taken literally for all time or are they expressions of desired discipline for a people that may be interpreted in subsequent generations?
A rabbi asked his students, “What is the Bible?” A half-impudent and half-inconsiderate student replied, “It is a book.” This is incorrect. The Bible is kitvei kodesh, “holy writings.” The real question is what is its essence and is it meaningful for us today?
1. To a theologian it is the record of a great event in the history of the universe marking the time the divine entered the consciousness of the finite.
2. To a literary historian it is the first continual succession of deeply moving and creative literary expression, from the poetry of the Psalms to the meaningful history of the kings of Israel.
3. To Rabbi Solomon Freehoff, one of the great thinkers of Reform Judaism, the Bible describes the spiritual education of a special group of students – ex-slaves. In the beginning they were ignorant and miserable and these books taught them about the infinite God and the values which would sustain and protect them. This people, now taught about God and eternal values, possessed a fortress which no hatred or persecution could storm or capture.
We wonder how, despite the best efforts of those who have hated and discriminated against us; how, despite living in more open societies with the attraction of assimilation, that we have survived after all of this time? It is no wonder.
It cannot be because of the Bible, some have insisted. It is filled with violence, hypocrisy and inconsistencies – a charge not unnoticed by some of the great thinkers throughout time.
In preparing for my American Jewish citizenry classes on Mondays I discovered that Thomas Paine, American political activist and revolutionary, lashed out at the Bible in his book, The Age of Reason (1794) when he said:
When ever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called
it the word of a demon, than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.
There is great validity to this charge. Our Bible describes God as loving, protective and compassionate at one moment and then in the next God is brutal, violent and cruel. How can we deal with such inconsistencies? How can this fortify us? How can we listen to God telling us to care for the poor, be righteous in how you deal with people, be a person of faith and integrity, do not slander others or do evil to your neighbor, and then in another passage, the ground swallows up the wicked, instructs us to stone our arrogant children, and not to associate with foreigners?
Do you associate or trust people in your life who are similarly inconsistent? How about your parents? Were they ever inconsistent in what they said and what they did? Then how could you trust them? Are you ever inconsistent? And if you are, do your virtues outweigh those inconsistencies? Despite the fact that our parents were not always consistent, we trusted them because we valued them as parents. We hope our children continue to trust us and our insights despite our inconsistencies.
At the end of Moses’ life, he was addressing the second generation. He wanted to fortify their faith beyond the teachings of the Bible. Perhaps he realized these inconsistencies in the sacred writings as well. He advised, “Ask your parents and they will tell you. Look to the days of past generations” (Deut. 32:7).
On the one hand it was clearly a reference to the history of the Exodus from Egypt. Remember God’s direct intervention in history. Out of that event came the celebration of Passover, the wine ceremony, the Kiddush prayer we chant on every Shabbat.
However with the long sequence of generations the deliverance from Egypt, as the central proof of God, is difficult to justify. That moment and others are full of miraculous and supernatural events we no longer believe in. How many of us believe that Moses waved his staff and the waters of the Nile turned to blood? Can you fathom plague after plague occurring one after another as depicted in the Exodus story? Do you believe that these former slaves wandered through the desert guided by a special pillar of cloud?
We moderns realize that this great event, the rescue from Egypt, was so marvelous that they could not write it any other way than in a language of miracles. The whole event was miraculous for them and so they described it that way.
Our trouble with miracles is not that we do not believe them. It is rather that they do not impress us. We can poison rivers more than the Nile was poisoned. We can kill our vegetation. And the mushroom cloud of an atomic blast is grander than the pillar of cloud that led the Children of Israel from bondage to freedom.
The advice from Moses, “Ask your parents and they will tell you,” means more than for us to remember the Exodus miracles. The rabbis used that verse two thousand years ago to justify lighting Chanukah candles. When the Talmud asks, how can you say, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’hadlik neir shel Chanukah, “who sanctified you by the commandments and commanded you to light the Chanukah candles?” you know and I know, and the rabbis two thousand years ago knew, that this commandment is found nowhere in the Bible. The Maccabees did not exist until centuries after the last prophets. And so, how does our God of the Bible command us to light the Chanukah candles? How do we know? – Ask your parents!
In other words, just like the “comma” in the United Church of Christ building, we believe, as they believe, that God is still talking to us! Just because the Bible is in print and if we open up to the last page we see a “period,” that doesn’t mean God stopped telling us what values are important. Judaism is predicated on God still speaking to us. Chanukah, Purim, how we perform weddings, funerals, how we view contemporary issues like abortion, homosexuality, our environment, are based on the values of the Bible and how we interpret them – Ask your parents because it won’t be on the written page of the Bible! Moses is telling the next generation of Jews after the Exodus and he is telling us, God is still speaking!
Friends, our Judaism, our religion, our faith is based on how we read and interpret the Bible, not on how our ancestors wrote down their stories.
This idea of the Comma invites us to believe that God speaks through other people, nature, music, art, our modern intellect to interpret the Bible.
The Comma reminds us of the unusual religious freedom and responsibility to engage the Bible with our own unique experiences, questions, and ideas.
The Comma reminds us to balance our rich religious past with openness to the new ideas, new people, and new possibilities of the future.
My friends, God did not speak to us only at Mount Sinai. We know (or should know) God had conversations with Abraham, with Moses and Aaron, and with the prophets. When we hold up our Torah and the 34 other books of our Bible we continue that conversation that began long ago. God is still speaking and God is speaking to you.
This afternoon I opened my bible to the 100th Psalm. The phrases that struck my heart —
“all the earth”,
“we are God’s people,”
“enter the gates with thanksgiving,”
“the Lord is good,”
“God’s love endures forever.”
Encouraged by how these passages opened up to me, I understand that our religion is more than laws, commandments and “do this’s” and “don’t do that’s.” Our vital Judaism is about relationships, collaboration, and it is not only for us Jews, it is for all people. It is about thanks, goodness and love. These are the values that we make meaningful every day, not just in a way a book told us to do it thousands of years ago.
How can we possibly adhere to literal words found in Proverbs, “spare the rod, spoil the child” in light of the domestic violence we have seen in the news that has hospitalized children and women? How about looking at the use of rod in the 23d Psalm as we read of God as a Shepherd and “Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.” How can a rod used to strike against the flesh bring comfort? Rather, a shepherd uses the rod to guide the sheep. If we, as parents, don’t guide our children to be good and decent human beings, then certainly they will be spoiled. That is the correct reading and understanding of the verse in the 21st century because God is still speaking to us today!
How possibly can we be living side by side with loving individuals who are of the same sex, living committed lives and raising a family and believe for one moment that the God who spoke about love and kindness is not speaking about them as well?
Tonight on Yom Kippur I want your identity, like the moon outside, to be developing in a renewed partnership with God and the values taught to us those thousands of years ago. The eternal values, not violence or cruelty is what will sustain us in this New Year and beyond. We reject the boundaries created by a literal reading of our Holy Writings and accept boundaries that work for us and are meaningful to us. That is the Comma, and it represents that God is still speaking.
I am assured that God speaks to all the people equally – may we all have ears to hear, hearts to love and hands to serve the Still-speaking God.
Let me share with you a moving story of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven premiered on May 7, 1824 in Vienna. It was remarkable for two reasons: “The Ninth” included a chorus and vocal soloists in the final movement. He was the first composer to do this in a symphony. And secondly, this was Beethoven’s first stage performance in almost twelve years and by this time he was almost entirely deaf.
He still wanted to be part of the performance, conducting. While Beethoven was conducting on center stage, Michael Umlauf was quietly conducting the choir and the musicians on the side. He was instructing the singers and the musicians to ignore Beethoven, who was entirely deaf.
The great composer’s actions were animated to say the least. The violinist, Joseph Bohm, who played that day, gave this account: “He stood in front of the conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor. He flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.” It was a good thing that the conductor had already instructed the musicians not to pay attention to the composer!
When the symphony was completed, he remained facing the orchestra and could not hear the thunderous applause of the audience for his new symphony. Caroline Unger, the mezzo-soprano soloist, had to tap the deaf composer’s arm and have him turn around so that he could see the crowd’s response. Many of those in attendance, including Miss Unger, had tears in their eyes when they realized the extent of Beethoven’s deafness. Beethoven himself began to weep.
Tonight, I ask each one of you to value the gifts from all of our kitvei kodesh, “holy writings.” If Beethoven had given up hope because he interpreted his deafness as a permanent boundary that limited him, the Ninth Symphony would never have been composed or performed. When we allow our kitvei kodesh, our “holy writings” to be read in a way that prevents us from creating our compositions or being present at our own performance, then we too are finished. Rather, Beethoven heard the notes, composed the music and we herald him for that. We too can hear the new notes from our fresh reading of Scripture and that can inspire us to live a life beyond our deafness. We must realize that perceived boundaries of the past do not define us today. Let reading the Bible with a “comma” define what you think and do. What defines you are your gifts that allow you to create Beethoven-like symphonies; to act with beauty, dignity, and compassion; to connect yourself to what really matters so you can live in a magnificent way.
Let the Comma be our anthem tonight from this day forward as a new way to proclaim “Our Faith is 5,000 years old, our thinking is not!”