Judaism is a religion of memory. All of our holidays, including Shabbat, have a central component that orients us back to some past event – whether the Creation of the World, the Exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the wilderness, the saving of our people in ancient Persia, the victory of the Maccabees and subsequent rededication of the Temple, the destruction of the Temples… and the list goes on. When we observe these holidays, we don’t just remember what happened once, a long time ago. It is always a reenactment. We continually re-experience the formative events of our predecessors. The ancient stories of our people become renewed through us.
This has two complimentary effects. The first effect is a (lower case “c”) conservative one. Our observance of Jewish holidays roots us in the history of our people. We perform the same traditions that our forebears have performed since ancient times. This establishes and strengthens our connection not just to the actual people who were redeemed from slavery in Egypt, but to every generation since that has remembered and re-enacted the Exodus since.
Alongside the conservatism implicit in an ancient tradition, we also innovate. In every generation, every single year, in fact, we have to be creative to make ancient traditions relevant to our lives today. That is why our holidays have layers of observance and meaning that have expanded over the centuries, and continue to expand today.
We see this conservatism and innovation expressed in the Torah from the very beginning. This morning’s parshah is set in the second year after the Israelites have left Egypt. On the fourteenth day of the first month, what we call the month of Nisan, the Israelites observe Passover. And what is remarkable is that only one year after the Exodus itself, they are already performing the ritual of remembrance. They are already making the transition into a people of memory.
But there are some folks, even then, who are left out of that first Passover after the Exodus. They had been in a state of ritual impurity, and the Torah says that in order to offer the Passover sacrifice, a person must be in a pure state. When everyone else is eating roast lamb with matzah and bitter herbs, they have to just watch.
This group of people is eager to celebrate Passover, and they are not content to sit on the sidelines. So they turn to Moses: “Yeah we’re impure, but why do we have to be left out?”
Moses does not have an answer for them, so he tells them: “Stand by, I’m going to ask God,” which he promptly does.
And God issues the ruling: “Anybody who can’t present the Passover offering because he is ritually impure or on a long journey should offer it exactly one month later, on the fourteenth day of the second month. But don’t think this is a free pass. A person who could have offered it at the right time but didn’t… is guilty.”
This has come to be known as Pesach Sheni – “Second Passover.” It is a rather unusual law in the Torah. Most of the Torah’s mitzvot are just given. This is one of only a handful of laws that comes as the result of a particular case.
One other example in particular, shares some similarities. Towards the end of the Book of Numbers, the five daughters of the deceased Zelophehad come to Moses. As in this morning’s case, the existing law leaves them out. The sisters point out that because only sons can inherit, their father’s land will be lost to their family. So they make the case that their father’s land should pass to them.
Again, Moses does not have an answer, so he turns to God. God affirms the sisters’ claim, and the law changes to allow daughters to inherit from their father when there is no male descendent.
Both stories, Pesach Sheni, and the daughters of Zelophehad, feature groups of people who are left out of the normative social structures. In the first, it’s a group of impure people who really want to celebrate Passover. In the second, it is women, who are ignored by the law.
They both make their case to the leader, Moses, who doesn’t know what to do. He understands what the law says, but he also knows that there are human beings in front of him. He turns to God. In both cases, God recognizes that the point is valid. These groups have been marginalized, left out, and so God changes the law to be more inclusive.
That these cases are codified in sacred scripture should tell us something. The Torah could have just presented the ruling. But it didn’t. It wanted us to know about the real, human situations behind the law. It wanted us to be aware that the rules of society in those particular times was excluding people.
It illustrates the tension between conservatism and innovation. Moses was lucky. He could just say: “Hold on a minute. Let me go ask God.” It’s not so easy for us. We are the ones who must negotiate often competing values. With an ancient tradition that is rooted in sacred scripture, but that also values inclusivity, how do we account for change?
This has been a constant tension in Judaism. To what extent do we preserve Jewish law and tradition as we have received it, on the one hand? And on the other hand, how much can we innovate to respond to new situations, new technologies, and new understandings of human experience.
This tension, between conservatism and innovation, is an identifying feature of Conservative Judaism: a movement that affirms halakhah, our commitment as individuals and communities to Jewish law; and a movement that also embraces the best of what modernity has to offer.
As for issues around inclusivity, this has meant that the Conservative movement has moved slower than some elements in the Jewish world, and faster than others.
Over the last century, the Conservative movement has embraced women’s equal involvement in religious life, it actively embraces Jews by choice, it has recently made greater efforts to reach out to intermarried families, and over the last decade has created new laws and traditions to welcome gay and lesbian Jews into mainstream Jewish life.
As in any established movement, the pace of change is slower than some would like, and faster than others would prefer.
But the overall direction in which we are moving is clear. We have made great strides in making our communities more welcoming to people who have been historically marginalized, whether due to gender, sexual orientation, wealth, ethnicity, etc. aBut we still have a long way to go to remove the walls that keep out those who would find a home in Jewish community.
I have learned that in many cases it is not enough to just say: “We are a friendly community. Everyone is welcome.”
At Sinai, we pride ourselves in being a fairly traditional, friendly, and heymish community – and that is by and large true for anyone who is courageous enough to walk through our doors. But with limited resources, we don’t do a whole lot to reach out beyond the walls of our synagogue.
It is one thing to say, “anyone who wants to join us is welcome.” It is something else to go out of our way to personally extend the invitation.
Our Torah, and our Jewish tradition, points us in the direction of inclusion. What can each of us do to make our community even more inclusive than it already is?