Reading – and Speaking – About Sexuality on Yom Kippur Afternoon – Parashat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777

Our Mahzor Lev Shalem offers two possible readings for the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  The Traditional one from Leviticus, chapter 18, or an Alternate reading from Leviticus, chapter 19.

Leviticus 18 describes what are commonly referred to as the arayot – forbidden sexual relationships, mainly incest.  Also included  are adultery and the now infamous Leviticus 18:22, which describes male homosexuality as an “abomination.“

Leviticus 19 is known as “The Holiness Code.”  It opens with the instruction Kedoshim tih’yu ki kadosh Ani adonai Eloheikhem – “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”  It then lists a variety of commandments that constitute a guide to a life of holiness.  The diverse subjects of these commandments include interpersonal relationships, business practices, ritual behavior, criminal law, and more.

Neither Leviticus 18 nor Leviticus 19 contain a single reference to Yom Kippur or any of its themes.

This morning,  as luck would have it, we read the double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.  In years when these parashiyot are combined, it creates a juxtaposition of the 18th and 19th chapters of Leviticus, the Traditional and Alternate Torah readings that appear in our High Holiday Mahzor.  In fact, parts of both chapters are even read in the same aliyah.

When they chose to add a second possible reading to Mahzor Lev Shalem, the Editors forced communities to ask themselves a question that they might otherwise never have considered: which portion should we read?  This year, our congregation has been addressing this question.

As the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai, I am the Mara D’Atra, Aramaic for “Master of the Place.”  This means that I am entrusted with the responsibility for making halakhic decisions for the community.

As you may recall, I wrote an article about it in the January Voice.  That month, there was an open meeting of the Ritual Committee to learn about the issues and hear from each other.  Personally, I have spent countless hours researching and consulting with members, colleagues, and teachers.

I am enormously uncomfortable being the decider.  When a decision is made to abandon or change a practice, there usually is no going back.  As a Rabbi, I think about that a lot.  Who am I to change thousands of years of tradition?  Sometimes, of course, change is necessary.  But when does the need for change outweigh the demands of history?  I don’t take that dilemma lightly.

For some people, this is a serious, emotional issue.  Whatever the outcome is, someone is going to be upset.  I lose sleep knowing this.  Please understand that I have attempted to reach a conclusion in good faith.  I take the sacred role that you have entrusted with me seriously.  I am strengthened by knowing that, whatever the outcome, you have my back.

Before I share my decision, let me clarify a few things.  We read the entire Torah every year.  We do not skip over any troubling passages because we do not like them.  And there is plenty in the Torah that is troubling.  This is not a question about eliminating a Torah reading.  We will continue to chant Torah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

Let’s be honest about Minchah on Yom Kippur.  When the service begins, around 5:00 in the afternoon, there are typically about 75 people in the room.  At that point in the day, they are weak from the fast, and a bit spacey.  Of those 75 people, how many of them are paying close attention to the Torah reading, and really pondering its message for their lives?  Our sanctuary is not exactly filled with kavanah – religious intension.  From that perspective, it does not matter which of the two readings we select.

I hope that by addressing this question, we can transform a relatively lazy part of Yom Kippur into a meaningful, kavannah-infused moment.

So why would a congregation choose to read the Traditional or the Alternate portions?  Mahzor Lev Shalem includes meaningful commentaries and explanations for both readings.  It does not, however, explain why the Alternate reading was included, nor does it suggest any reasons for why a community might choose to replace the Traditional reading.

I consulted with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the Chair of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, which issues halakhic rulings for the Conservative Movement.  He responded to my inquiry that the particular selection of readings for the holidays is custom rather than law.  Rabbi Dorff explained that “the authors of Mahzor Lev Shalem were concerned with bringing up the prohibition of homosexual relations in Leviticus 18, given what we have done with that halakhically.”  He was referring to the CJLS’s decision in 2006 to overturn Judaism’s traditional ban on homosexuality.  He added that “Leviticus 19 is much more uplifting and much more connected to the theme of Yom Kippur than Leviticus 18 is.”

In other words, the Alternative reading was added because a lot of Conservative Jews are troubled by Leviticus 18:22, which states “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

The question comes down to: do we change a long-established custom because we are offended by a particular verse?

Where did the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading come from? Even though it makes no mention of Yom Kippur and does not deal with any of the basic themes of the holiday, at some point, a person or community thought it would be a good idea to read about forbidden sexual relationships on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

The earliest mention of it occurs in the Talmud, in Tractate Megillah (30b-31a).  A second century text from the land of Israel states “At minhah [on Yom Kippur] we read the section of forbidden sexual relationships (that is to say, Leviticus 18) and for haftarah the book of Jonah.”

The Talmud records numerous variant practices for which portions are read at the various holidays.  There were significant discrepancies between Israel and Babylonia.  But with regard to the Yom Kippur minchah reading, there are no differences.  We can say with a high degree of certainty that Jews have been reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur afternoon since at least the second century, making it a 1,900 year old custom.

But why this reading?  The Talmud offers no answers.  In his commentary, Adin Steinsaltz writes:  “Given the solemnity and holiness of the day, this choice of Torah portion is quite surprising.  Various suggestions for the choice have been offered…”

One possible reason is suggested a Mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit that describes a custom that took place during Second Temple times.

There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such… The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family…’

With all of this matchmaking taking place on Yom Kippur afternoon, it would have been especially important to remind all of the single people who is and is not eligible to them.  This might explain why Leviticus 18 was chosen.  It should be noted, however, that the Talmud itself does not make this connection.

Rashi, in the eleventh century, points out that sins having to do with sexual relationships are ever-present, and a person’s desires and inclinations can be overwhelming.  They also tend to be secret.  And so, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, reading about prohibited sexual relationships is meant to awaken a person to teshuvah about something which is so difficult to resist.

Tosafot, in Rashi’s grandchildren’s generation, adds that women are often dressed up fancy on Yom Kippur.  The Torah reading, therefore, serves as a reminder to worshippers not to stumble.

Turei Zahav, a seventeenth century commentator on the Shulchan Arukh by Rabbi David ha-Levy Segal captures it succinctly:

In my opinion, since a person’s soul thirsts for forbidden sexual relationships more than all [other] sins, we are warned about it on Yom Kippur, which is an awe-some day that is inscribed upon the human heart more than all the other days of the year.

Human nature has not changed much over the centuries in that regard.  Would anyone suggest that we, in our “enlightened” twenty first century, do a better job of controlling our sexual urges than in previous generations?

I think not.

Leviticus 18 certainly has something to tell us today.  It might not be quite as uplifting as Leviticus 19’s “You shall be holy…,” but it is a message we need to hear.

Judith Plaskow wrote an influential article in 1997 called “Sexuality and Teshuvah: Leviticus 18.”  In it, she writes:

As someone who has long been disturbed by the content of Leviticus 18, I had always applauded the substitution of an alternative Torah reading—until a particular incident made me reconsider the link between sex and Yom Kippur. After a lecture I delivered in the spring of 1995 on rethinking Jewish attitudes toward sexuality, a woman approached me very distressed. She belonged to a Conservative synagogue that had abandoned the practice of reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur, and as a victim of childhood sexual abuse by her grandfather, she felt betrayed by that decision.  While she was not necessarily committed to the understanding of sexual holiness contained in Leviticus, she felt that in quietly changing the reading without communal discussion, her congregation had avoided issues of sexual responsibility altogether.

Our failure in the past has not been that we have continued to read a passage that is offensive to gay men.  Our failure has been that we have not openly addressed issues of sexual abuse and impropriety.  To cease reading the traditional Torah portion would be just as problematic as if we kept on reading the words while ignoring their meaning.

We cannot expand understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of GLBTQ individuals if we refuse to acknowledge that there is an issue.

If, instead, we maintain the traditional reading and address the issues that it raises, our kavanah will improve.

This is why I have decided, as Sinai’s Rabbi, that we will continue the traditional practice of reading Leviticus 18 during the afternoon of Yom Kippur – with an addition.  There will be a D’var Torah delivered by a Sinai member to introduce the Torah reading.  The purpose will be to reflect on themes raised by the portion so as to draw us into the reading, and provoke us to respond to it in some way.  Torah is not supposed to make us feel good.  It is supposed to challenge us.  If Torah makes us feel good, it is not doing its job.

Reading and speaking about Leviticus 18, on the holiest day of the year, will give us an opportunity to reflect on the most intimate aspects of our lives, rather than pretend they do not exist.  It will also allow us to recognize the pain and exclusion that our GLBTQ friends and relatives have faced over the millennia because of Judaism’s, and society’s, past intolerance.

In this ruling for our community, both aspects are equally important.  Our members will be called upon to consider how Leviticus 18 speaks to us today.  I hope you will consider giving a D’var Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Of course, I am here to help.

It is important to recognize that this approach – dealing with a difficult text by speaking about it – has been embraced by numerous communities in every denomination: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox.  This solution puts Sinai in good company.

One of the sidebar commentaries in our Mahzor is by Judith Plaskow.  She writes: “Leviticus 18 seeks to implement [its] ideas in its own time and place.  But we need to find ways to express those insights in the context of an ethic of sexual holiness appropriate for the 21st century.”

May Torah inspire us to holiness in all aspects of our lives.

 

Bibliography

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, “Preaching Against the Text: An Argument in Favor of restoring Leviticus 18 to Yom Kippur Afternoon” – This is an important article by a Reform rabbi that argues why it is important for communities to continue reading Leviticus 18.

Keshet is a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.  Its website contains a wealth of information, including numerous sermons and kavanot  on Levitucs 18.

Living With Hope – Haftarah for Parashat Behar 5776

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.

V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge…

But the main thing to recall, is to have no, have no fear at all.

This is possibly the most famous teaching of the great Hassidic Rebbe, Nachman of Bratslov.  It is so famous that Baruch Chait turned it into a song which any Jewish child who goes to summer camp or youth group learns by heart.

To be honest, until this week I never really thought about what it means.  “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.”  Ok.  I get that.  It is a metaphor for the precariousness of life.  It is difficult to know what the best path is, and we are constantly forced to choose between options that could plunge us over the side, not necessarily to literal destruction, but perhaps to spiritual oblivion.  A bit dramatic, but I can accept that.

“But the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.”  Stop.  That is ridiculous.  Despite the constant danger we face, we are supposed to banish all fear?  Is that really what Rebbe Nachman is saying?  Not only is it a virtually impossible ideal for most human beings, fear is a good thing.  Fear saves lives.  Come on, any ten year old who saw Inside Out knows that.

What is Rebbe Nachman talking about?

The problem is that the person who translated the song into English wanted to make sure that it would rhyme – “the main thing to recall is to have no hear at all.”

Conveniently, it also rhymes with the Hebrew.  Lo l’fached k’lal.  What does k’lal mean?  To be fair, it can mean “at all.”  But I don’t think that is what it means here.

The Hebrew of the verse is quite clever.  The word is repeated three times.  Listen carefully:  Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.  V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lalKol, Kulo, and K’lal are all from the same root.

Let me suggest a more accurate translation: “The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.  And the main principle is not to be afraid…”

It could have ended right here.  But then we add the final word.  K’lal.

What is a k’lal?  A k’lal is an all-inclusive principal.  It is a synonym for ikar.  Here, I think it means “And the main principle is not to be afraid entirely.”  We should not be overwhelmed by fear.  Because fear can overwhelm us.

Fear can prevent us from taking action.  It can cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing things as they truly are.  Fear, if we are “entirely” afraid, destroys hope.

But fear also leads us to take risks.  It causes us to reach out to each other.  It inspires religious yearning.  Many of us respond to fear by turning to God.

This morning’s Haftarah, from the Book of Jeremiah, takes place during an extremely fearful time.  Jeremiah is a Prophet who lives during the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, through the reigns of its last four monarchs.  He witnesses the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and ultimately flees to Egypt with some of the other refugees.  He prophesizes a seventy year period of exile, followed by a return to the Holy Land and a restoration of Israel.

Throughout his career, Jeremiah is a reluctant Prophet.  The people hate him for his pronouncements of doom and destruction and his critique of their behavior, but they are never able to witness the deep love and compassion he feels for them.  The other Prophets ridicule Jeremiah, and the King cannot not stand him.  Along with his external challenges, Jeremiah lives with constant internal struggles.  He argues with God continually, lamenting his plight.  His is a truly tormented soul, but he is unable to prevent the Prophetic message from bursting forth.

As the reading begins, Jeremiah is languishing in prison in Jerusalem.  He is there for speaking truth to power.  Unlike the other court prophets, who are all “yes men,” telling King Zedekiah exactly what he wants to hear, Jeremiah speaks the word of God.

At the time, Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians.  Jeremiah issues a pronouncement that God intends to deliver the city into the enemy’s hands.  King Zedekiah himself will be taken captive and sent to Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar will triumph over him in person.

Needless to say, the Judean King does not like the message.  He expresses his displeasure by “shooting the messenger,” so to speak.  Jeremiah is thrown into prison.

Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel comes to visit him in prison, as Jeremiah has prophetically foreseen.  Hanamel, it seems, has fallen upon hard times and is no longer able to keep possession of the land that has been his ancestors’ since ancient times.

As we read about in the Torah portion, in ancient Israel, land is supposed to remain in the family.  If property must be sold off temporarily, it will be restored every half century during the Jubilee year.  Until the Jubilee year, however, other members of the family have the right to redeem the land themselves.  In fact, if they have the means to do so, it is an obligation to buy it back.  That is what Hanamel is asking Jeremiah, his heir, to do.  Hanamel cannot keep the land, so he asks his goel, his redeemer, to buy it from him.

It is not really a good time for Jeremiah.

First of all, he is in jail.  His future is uncertain.  Second, the property in question is in Anatot, which is a few kilometers north of Jerusalem.  By this point, the entire country has been ravaged by the Babylonians.  Many Israelites have already been sent into exile, and Jerusalem is under siege.  Finally, Jeremiah knows that he is going to personally go into exile.

Generally speaking, these are not good conditions for real estate speculation.

Nevertheless, Jeremiah purchases the land for seventeen shekels of silver.  He weighs out the money, writes up a contract, and has it witnessed and signed.  Next, he deposits the contract with his personal secretary, Barukh ben Neriah in front of his cousin and the witnesses.  He instructs Barukh to place the document in an earthen vessel so that it will remain safe and unharmed for many years.

Is Jeremiah crazy?  Or is he just a terrible businessman?

Perhaps his statement at the conclusion of the business transaction explains what is going through Jeremiah’s mind.  He declares, “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.'”  (Jer. 32:15)

What could possibly explain Jeremiah’s decision?  In a single word: hope.  Tikvah.

Jeremiah knows, better than anyone, the direness of the situation.  He knows that God has chosen the Babylonians as a Divine instrument to punish Israel for its sinfulness.  He knows that he and many of his brothers and sisters will be forced to leave their land.  He also knows that they will remain in exile for generations – seventy years in all.  But in those seventy years, the Babylonian Empire will fall.  The descendants of the exiles, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will be restored.

Jeremiah’s hopeful realism contrasts with the foolishness of the rest of the nation.  The people, the prophets, and the King do not want to hear Jeremiah’s truth.  Instead, they would rather hear false assurances that things are about to turn around.  The Babylonians will fall and Israel will be made great again.  This is not hope, but wishful thinking.  This is fear blinding the masses from the reality of their situation.

In the second half of the Haftarah, Jeremiah offers a prayer to God.  He recounts God’s power as the Creator of the world, extols God’s compassion, and recalls how God freed the Israelites from slavery and brought them to the Land of Milk and Honey.  Then Jeremiah acknowledges that the people have persisted in not following God’s instructions, leading to the current  crisis.  Jeremiah ends his prayer with a statement that is either a question or a challenge.  “Yet you, Lord God, said to me: Buy the land for money and call in witnesses-when the city is at the mercy of the Chaldeans!”

God’s response:  “Behold I am the Lord, the God of all flesh.  Is anything too wondrous for Me?”  The Haftarah ends here, but God’s response to Jeremiah continues, explaining how the people will eventually return and the land will flourish once again.

While the present situation is bleak, Jeremiah has not given up hope.  He redeems his family’s property now, knowing that he will never personally set foot on it.  But he has hope that his descendants will, one day, make their return.

We are a people that has lived with hope for thousands of years.  Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah, “The Hope,” expresses it beautifully.

Od lo avda tikvateinu, Hatikvah bat sh’not alfayim.  “Our hope is still not lost, the hope of two thousand years.”  Through thousands of years of exile, during some very bleak times, the Jewish people has always had hope.

This is what Rebbe Nachman, living in his difficult times, might have been thinking about.  Despite the darkness, despite the narrowness, the seeming lack of options, we must not be overwhelmed by fear.  We must keep hope.

This is a powerful message for us not only as a nation, but as individual human beings.

We each face a lot of difficulties over the course of our lives.  Sickness, mental illness, abuse, broken relationships, deaths of loved ones.  Some of us have lived through war and persecution.  We have faced financial struggles.  The difficulties we experience sometimes persist for many years.  And some people seem to face more than their share.

Do we have the ability, like Jeremiah, to redeem land in the face of despair.  Can we maintain our hope during dark times?

Can we heed the encouragement of Rebbe Nachman?  Even though the world is a narrow bridge, sometimes vanishingly narrow, can we avoid being consumed by fear?

 

Make Each Day “Complete” – Emor 5776

This morning’s Torah portion includes one of the Torah’s sacred calendars.  After introducing Shabbat, it then describes the biblical holidays beginning with Passover.  In the process, it describes the period of time in which we currently find ourselves, the omer.

An omer is a sheaf of grain.  Imagine a field full of stalks of grain.  To get an omer, one would tie a bunch of them together and then chop the stalks off at the base.

The Torah commands Israelite farmers to bring the first omer of the new harvest to the Priest in the Temple so that he can make a special wave offering to God.  After that, Israelite farmers are allowed to consume grain from the new crop.  The omer offering took place on the second night of Passover.

After describing this ritual, the Torah then tells us to start counting.

You will count for yourselves on the day after the sabbath – from the day on which you bring the omer for waving – seven sabbaths, complete they shall be.  Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count fifty days…  (Lev. 23:15-16)

The Torah’s language is somewhat unusual: Sheva shabatot t’mimot ti-h’yenah – “seven sabbaths, complete they shall be.”  What does the Torah mean by saying t’mimot – “complete?”

The medieval commentator Rashi emphasizes the numerical aspect of “complete,” and cites the halakhic, or Jewish legal, interpretation.  “The counting must begin in the evening, for otherwise the weeks would not be complete.”  (Rashi on Lev. 23:15)  The Torah is very precise.  If it tells us to count seven complete weeks, then we have got to make sure to acknowledge every single day.

In Judaism, the day begins at night.  Therefore, the mitzvah of counting the omer is at nighttime, that is to say, as early as possible once the new day begins.

The ritual begins with a b’rakhah, a blessing acknowledging that the action we are about to perform is a mitzvah, a commandment.  Then, we count the new day, using the particular “omer counting formula.”

What happens if I forget to count at night?  Jewish law is very precise.  If I remember the next day, I should count during the day day without reciting the b’rakhah, since I missed the opportunity to do it at the proper time.  Then, that night, I can resume by reciting the b’rakhah and continuing the count.

If I forget entirely for a full 24 hour period, I can no longer count the omer with the b’rakhah, even at night.  Since the Torah says to count “seven complete sabbaths,” the opportunity has been lost.  There are no do-overs.  I am out of the omer game.

Every year, it is a challenge to stay in the omer game.  It is surprisingly difficult to remember every single day.  And the stakes are high, because if I miss even once, I’m out.  So far this year, thank God, I’m still in.

So, it is daytime – not the time to count with a b’rakhah.  This will be a repetition for those who remembered to count last night.  Please repeat after me:

Hayom shmonah v’esrim yom, she’hem arba’ah shavuot la-omer.

Today is the eight and twentieth day, being four weeks of the omer.

Is the omer just a game of memory and persistence?  If it is a game, there must be a prize.  It’s a good one.  At the end of seven complete weeks, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot when we re-enact the revelation at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.

With such a holy and ancient prize, we would expect there to be a little more to the omer game than simply trying not to get kicked out of it.

A midrash notes something peculiar about the way that the Torah describes the requirement to count the omer.  It does not use the typical Hebrew word for “complete.”  Normally, if I wanted to say seven whole weeks, I would say sheva shabatot sheleimot.  The word shalem means “whole” or “complete.”  It is related to the word shalom for “peace.”

The word in our verse is t’mimot, or tamim in the singular.  This word adds an additional dimension.

In an ancient midrash, “Rabbi Hiyya taught: seven sabbaths, complete they shall be – when are they complete?” he asks.  “When Israel fulfills God’s will.”  (Leviticus Rabbah 28:3)

The word tamim has two typical uses in the Torah.  One is to describe animals without blemishes which are brought as sacrifices to God in the Temple.  The other is to describe people, who themselves have no moral defects.  They are blameless, or complete in their character.

The Torah says about Noah: tamim hayah b’dorotav – “Blameless he was in his generation.”  (Gen. 5:9)  God instructs Abraham: hit’halekh l’fanai ve’h’yeh tamim – “walk before Me and be blameless.”  (Gen. 17:1)

Thus, tamim implies complete in quality rather than in quantity.  Given this additional aspect, what does it mean to count seven “complete” weeks – or rather, seven “blameless” weeks?

One commentator suggests that the period of the omer, that is to say, the period between our freedom from Egypt and our receiving the Torah, offers us a unique spiritual opportunity.

“And you shall count for yourselves” implies introspection and stock-taking in order to choose the true good… just as one carefully examines the amount and integrity of the money he receives so as to avoid deficient or counterfeit coins, thus also when counting the seven weeks he must make sure to complete the number, and preserve the quality of each day, that they may not detract from spiritual integrity… Hence the expression t’mimut which refers to spiritual integrity.  (HaKtav VeHaKabbalah, citing Rabbi Shelomo Pappenheim)

I had a low quality day this week, a day on which I felt completely unproductive.  I just couldn’t get focused, couldn’t accomplish anything.  It was not a day on which I felt that I had fulfilled God’s will – despite the fact that I had recited the blessing and counted the omer the night before.

I imagine we all have days like this from time to time.  The period of the omer, as we prepare ourselves spiritually to receive the Torah, offers us a special opportunity and a challenge to, as Rabbi Hiyya puts it, fulfill God’s will.

How does one count each day?  By making each day count.

Today is the twenty eighth day of the omer.  For the remaining days – I’ll let you do the math to figure out how many there are – let’s commit to making each day count.  Every day, let’s commit ourselves to perform one quality action that will be a fulfillment of God’s will.

Give to tzedakha.  Study the Torah portion for the upcoming Shabbat.  Invite someone to Shabbat dinner.  Reach out to a person whom you know is going through a difficult time.  Volunteer.

Each day offers us a new opportunity to be tamim, to be complete.

 

Bibliography: Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Vaykira, Vol. 2

Judaism, Meat, and the Environment – Acharei Mot 5776

This morning’s Torah portion contains some of the central principles of kashrut, our Jewish dietary practices.  While other sections of the Torah describe the kinds of animals that may or may not be eaten, Parashat Acharei Mot tells us how they are to be eaten.

It seems to be describing an early stage of ancient Israelite society, when there were lots of local shrines with altars throughout the land of Israel.

God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites that when they get a hunkering for meat, they may not just slaughter animals from their herds wherever they want.  It must be done in the sanctuary.  The blood must be poured out, and certain internal fats must be burned on the altar as a pleasing offering to God.  This requirement essentially transforms all meat consumption into a sacrifice, and elevates our eating into a sacred act.

The purpose of this requirement, God tells Moses, is to stop the people from making their offerings to the se’irim.  The se’irim seem to have been some sort of goat-demon that resided in the wilderness, and ancient Canaanites would apparently make offerings to them out in the wild.

The Torah goes on to state that whenever an animal is slaughtered outside of this sacred context, that person is considered to be cut off from the rest of the people.

The next restriction has to do with hunted game.  There were certain undomesticated animals that were kosher, and could be hunted.  Elsewhere the bible mentions deer, gazelles, roebuck, and several other unidentified species.  Most likely, these were only available to the elite.  But the Torah has to account for these as well.  So it specifies that when someone hunts an animal, it’s blood must be poured out on the ground and covered in order to be eaten.

You might be thinking right about now, “but Jews don’t hunt.”  And you would be correct.  These rules about eating meat have not reflected Jewish practice for thousands of years.  They describe an earlier time, before worship was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was possible to bring an animal to the local shrine so that it could be slaughtered in a sacred context.

Later, as described in the book of Deuteronomy, the local shrines are abolished and worship is consolidated to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Along with this change, Israelites are given permission to slaughter animals on their own, outside of a sacrificial context.

Our great commentator Rashi notices something about the Torah’s regulations regarding meat – and specifically the hunting clause.  The word “hunt” appears twice.  asher yatzud tzeid-chayyah.  …anyone who “hunts down any hunted wild animal…”  Seemingly superfluous words are typically interpreted to have additional meanings.  Rashi cites the Talmudic teaching that a person should never eat meat as a casual thing.  (BT Chullin 84a)  Any time we eat meat, we should consider it as if we had gone through the extensive trouble of actually hunting it down.  In its context, the Talmud seems to be concerned with what in those days was the exorbitant cost of meat.  It advises that a person should not impoverish himself or neglect his family’s needs to satisfy his cravings.  It reports that a given quantity of meat costs 50 times the same quantity of vegetables.  And so, the Talmud recommends that, except for the very wealthy, a person should only have a little bit of meat once a week, on Shabbat.

Rashi cites the Talmud’s initial conclusion that eating meat should not be casual to us, but he does not cite the economic reasons.  Rather, meat consumption itself should be uncommon and special.

This would seem to reflect the early practice of our ancient Israelite ancestors, for whom meat could only be eaten in a sacred context.  By taking life to nourish ourselves, we commit an inherently violent act.  That is why it can only be done in a sacred context, recognizing that it is only God who has the right to determine matters of life and death.

How far we have descended from that lofty ideal.  Now, most of us never meet the animals we eat.  We buy them off the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, wrapped in styrofoam and plastic.  Kosher meat is no different.  Are those of us who do eat meat living up to Rashi’s ideal of meat consumption not being casual?

The most famous Jew to argue for vegetarianism from a religious standpoint was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel.  Rav Kook was a Chassidic Rebbe, a mystic, an early Zionist, and a prolific thinker and writer.  He believed that religious and non-religious Jews needed to work together, and that Judaism needed to be an active and involved force for change in the world.

Rav Kook notes that God’s original plan for creation is for humans to be vegetarians.  When Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, they are given the plants and the fruit bearing trees for consumption, but not the animals.  Only after humanity has corrupted its ways on Earth, prompting God to wipe out all creation with the flood and start over, does God introduce the idea of eating meat.

It is a concession, argues Rav Kook, to humanity’s inability to reign in its appetites.  While God’s compassion is equal for all creatures, God recognizes that humans need to be given an elevated view of themselves vis a vis other animals in order to get them to concentrate on improving their relations with each other.

And so, God authorizes Noah and his descendants to have dominion over the animals, including eating them – but with certain restrictions.

To the Jewish people, God gives even more restrictions.  The menu of available animals is severely limited to us.  We are forbidden from consuming the blood.  We cannot mix meat and milk.  And there are additional restrictions as well.  Each of these restrictions, according to Rav Kook, is intended to elevate our moral consciousness and instill in us a profound reverence for life, even while we are eating animals.  We should never take eating meat for granted.  As Rashi says, it should not be a casual thing for us.

For example, Rav Kook explains that pouring out and covering the blood of the hunted animal is an act of “shame” on our part for committing such a “morally base” act of killing a living creature which had once known freedom.  There are similar moral and spiritual dimensions to each of the other mitzvot that regulate our eating of animals.

If we are paying close attention, we will as individuals come closer and closer to the ideal.  We will live in greater balance with the world around us.  We will treat God’s other creations better, reduce suffering, and be altogether more peaceful in our lives.  As a people, and collectively, as humanity, our heightened consciousness will produce greater unity and harmony in the world.

Rav Kook’s vegetarianism was an integral part of his Messianism.  The permission to eat meat is only temporary, he says.  It is a “transitional tax” until we arrive at a “brighter era” when we will all return to vegetarianism.  When that day arrives, human beings themselves will detest the idea of eating meat with “moral loathing.”  We will all become vegetarians, and balance between the species will be restored.  The sacrifices which will be offered in the rebuilt Temple will be exclusively plant-based.

In his personal life, Rav Kook would eat a small amount of chicken each Shabbat in acknowledgment that the day had not yet arrived.  Rav Kook was incredibly optimistic.  He lived at a time when Jews were building a life in the land of Israel.  He saw humanity as moving forward, closer and closer to perfection.  Rav Kook died in 1935, and so he did not witness the cataclysm of the Holocaust which surely would have affected his positive view of human moral progress.  But he has much to teach us.

In recent weeks, we have received reports of collapsing populations of coral in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and across the globe off the coast of Florida – the results of rising ocean temperatures and acid levels.  I am scared about what that portends for ocean ecosystems upon which we are more dependent than we know.

As a global species, we have done a terrible job of managing our consumption of this planet’s resources.  The Jewish laws of kashrut, in placing limitations on our consumption of meat, offer us a model for how we might relate to our consumption of the other resources of our world.

While Rav Kook’s vegetarianism does not reflect mainstream Jewish attitudes, he gives us something important to consider.  He suggests that there are spiritual and ethical dimensions of consumption, along with the environmental.  God created our world with the intention that its creatures live on it in balance.  As humans, our purpose across generations is to gradually approach that ideal of perfection.

Our Jewish tradition offers us thoughtful limits on our behavior when it comes to diet, and most other aspects of our lives.  If we are paying attention, living by the Torah will refine our character and help us to become our ideal selves.

In the contemporary world, with our scientific abilities to study the global environment and understand our lifestyles’ impacts on the global ecosystem, we would do well to consider what limits we ought to impose on ourselves, not only on our consumption of meat, but of are use of all the resources of this wonderful world that God has created for us.

Rav Kook, by personally eating a little bit of chicken each week, models for us that it does not have to be all or nothing.  Let’s pay a bit closer attention to what we consume.  Let’s try to distinguish between what we need to survive, and what we want.  What is necessary for us to live, and what, if we are really honest with ourselves, can we live without?

 

Bibliography: Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, Edited by Rabbi David Cohen

 

Bechukotai 5774 – Climate Change, DNA, and God’s Challenge to Us

On Monday of this week, two scientific papers were released by two separate teams that studied melting patterns on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  The groups conducted their studies independently, and used different methods to conduct their studies.  They did, however, come to the same conclusion.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet sits on a bowl shaped depression of earth, with the base of the ice below sea level.  Ice on the edge of that bowl has been melting as it comes into contact with warming ocean water.  As that ice melts, it destabilizes the rest of the ice sheet, starting a chain reaction that will cause it to slide off the continent into the ocean.  The studies found that the melting has passed the point of no return.  Even if the water temperature goes back down, the progress of the glaciers cannot be stopped.  In fact, they will continue to accelerate into the ocean.

The cause is not clear.  Scientists think it has something to do with stronger winds stirring up the ocean and raising water temperatures.  Some think the stronger winds are caused by increased temperatures in other parts of the world due to global warming.  Others think that the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has added energy to the winds.  Natural variability may also be a factor.

The result, according to the studies, will be an additional rise of global sea levels of up to twelve feet over the next few centuries.  That is on top of other predictions, which do not take the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into account.  The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already warned that sea levels could rise up to three feet by the end of the century without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  With the new discovery, that estimate will have to be raised.

We are not going to go into whether global warming is caused by humans or not.  People’s emotions tend to overwhelm their brains in such discussions.

Let me state one undeniable fact: climate change, whatever the cause, exists.

What will the impact of rising sea levels be?  In America, a rise of up to four feet would inundate the homes of 3.7 million Americans.  Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Boston, and New York would all be vulnerable.

It is already happening.  The question is: what are we doing to prepare for it?  The collective decisions that we make over the coming decades will determine what kind of toll climate change will take on human lives.

The first half of this morning’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, records a series of blessings and curses which will befall the Israelites depending on their adherence to the covenant with God.  Im bechukotai telechu… it begins.  “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…”

The blessings are everything that ancient people could want: abundant rain, successful crops, peace in the land, strength to defeat their enemies, and a constant awareness of God’s Presence and love in their midst.

The curses are the opposite.  The sky will turn to iron, the land will not produce food, disease will spread, famine will ensue, enemies will terrorize the land, and eventually the nation will be exiled.

Whether the blessings or the curses befall the Israelites is entirely up to them.  The national fate will be determined by whether the people follow the mitzvot, that is, the commandments outlined in the Torah that are the Jewish people’s covenental obligations to God.

As moderns, the idea of the weather or the conduct of enemy nations being determined by our actions is a troubling theology.

What these blessings and curses are describing is not so much theology, however, but human nature.  The extent to which a community embraces shared values determines to a large extent whether a crisis will result in blessing or curse.

When the oceans rise, the impact on human lives will be determined by how we have prepared for that event, and how our society cares for the people that are affected.  Developed countries will fare better than poor countries.  We know this, because that is what always happens in natural disasters.  But human societies, whether in local communities, in nations, or globally, have it in their hands to do something about it.  The question is: will we?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably: not very likely.

Every living creature has a biological imperative to perpetutate its own existence.  Human beings are no different.  It is built into our DNA.  But that imperative operates at the individual level rather than the collective.  Individuals tend to do things which enhance their own abilities to survive, thrive, and repopulate.  It seems that there is no collective biological imperative for the perpetuation of humanity’s existence.

We form groups for the benefits they bring to our own ability to survive.  We make choices about what we think will further our own well-being, but are far less inclined to make decisions that will benefit humanity, especially when it will involve some sort of self-sacrifice.

This is not a moral point.  It is a matter of biology and genetics.

So many human civilizations over the millenia have ignored the warning signs and gone down paths that led to their collapse.  The biological imperative is for individual survival, not for collective survival.  That perhaps explains why so many societies today engage in wasteful and self-destructive behaviors.  We are not naturally inclined to do what is best for humanity as a whole.

So we pollute our environment, we use up too much of our fresh water, and we drive other species into extinction.  Why?  Because there is nothing in our DNA to stop us.

The Torah challenges us to overcome our biology.  The mitzvot, the commandments, are a comprehensive system of laws that govern all aspects of our lives: how we treat ourselves, how we function within our families and our communities, and how we are to treat the strangers among us.

Our tradition also tells us how to function within the context of a larger society that is not Jewish.

And of course, Jewish life is full of rituals that bind us through the observance of sacred practices and the marking of sacred time to Jewish people of the past, present and future.  Ritual also enables us to express our yearnings to God.

In asking us to live by the mitzvot, God challenges us to rise above our genetics.

To follow halakhah, the Jewish system of commandments, is to impose an unnatural code of ethics on our human interactions, and to instill a deep sense of humility into our relationship with Creation.

Ki li kol ha-aretz  “For the entire Earth is Mine,” God declares at Mount Sinai before giving us the Ten Commandments.  As Jews in a covenantal relationship with God, we are asked to remember this at all times, and not treat the earth as something that exists only for our exploitation.  As God’s possession, the earth must be treated with reverence.

In the kedushah we recite the words kadosh kadosh kadosh, Adonai tzeva-ot, m’lo kol ha-aretz kevodo.  “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of hosts, the fullness of the the entire earth is God’s glory.”  How might human treatment of our planet differ if we saw every element in the natural world as a manifestation of God’s glory?  Think about the impact on things like pollution, deforestation, and carbon emissions.  Consider how our own behavior might change with regard to the kinds of plants we put in our gardens, the length of our showers, and the things we choose to purchase, if we were conscious of utilizing resources that belonged to God.

The Torah is speaking to a particular community: the Jewish people.  The Torah’s way is the Jewish recipe for overcoming our basic human instincts.  But the underlying principle is universal.  It applies to all peoples separately, and to humanity as a whole.  God asks all of us to be more than our DNA.  To work for the flourishing of all people, and to treat the earth with humility.

As evidenced by our behavior, it seems that humanity does not have an especially humble posture with regard to the earth.

A detail in the presentation of curses reveals an insightful point about human behavior.  The curses do not all happen at once.  They come in waves.  After each wave, we are offered a chance to return to God.  If we do not take advantage of that opportunity, then the next wave will strike.  One gets a sense that God really wants Israel to redeem itself, to prevent further curses.  But the Torah describes it as almost inevitable that the community will not be able to reverse course.  Curses will follow more curses, with people never recognizing that their fate is the result of having gone off course from the path of blessing.

The cycle ends with the land desolate and the people in exile.  Only then will a small remnant realize their mistakes and the mistakes of their ancestors and return to the covenant.  When that happens, God will be waiting, eager to take them back.

Weird weather, rising ocean temperatures and acidity, melting glaciers, more powerful hurricanes, shrinking fresh water reserves – as we see sign after sign pointing to increasingly severe consequences of climate change, what are we going to do?

When will we start to take real action?  The kind of action that calls on us to make lifestyle changes, to transform how and where we live, and what we eat.  Action that will shift how our economy is structured and how success is measured?

Humanity’s track record is not great.  We tend to not be good about making investments in preventative strategies for catastrophes that are not yet upon us.

Whether the challenge is man-made or not, our responses are always in our own hands.  The way that we come together as a community will determine whether this challenge will become a curse or not.

Emor 5774 – The Corners of the Fields, the Omer, and Homelessness in Our Community

Chapter twenty three of Leviticus is one of several texts in the Torah that describes the various holidays.  Each time the Torah lists all of the holidays, there are slight variations, including how exactly they are observed, the names that are used, their symbolic meaning, and so on.  As we might expect from the Book of Leviticus, the emphasis here is on agriculture, and the proper offerings that must be brought to the Priests to be offered as sacrifices.

It starts with Shabbat, then continues with Passover, the counting of the Omer, Shavuot (although it is not given a name),  Rosh Hashanah (again without being named), then Yom Kippur, Succot, and finally Shemini Atzeret.

The descriptions here discuss the various sacrifices that must be offered, as well as some of the rituals that individuals must observe – practices like not performing any labor, taking the Four Species on Succot, eating unleavened bread on Passover, and so on.

But there is one verse appearing precisely in the middle of this detailed calendar of holidays that does not seem to fit.  In the 44-verse chapter that lists all of the holidays, it is verse 22.  It comes between the descriptions of Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah.

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.  (Leviticus 23:22)

There are a few problems raised by this verse’s appearance here.

First of all, what does it have to do with the holidays?

Second, we already heard this commandment last week.  Just four chapters previously, in Parashat Kedoshim, we read the exact same mitzvah – word for word.  The Torah is repeating itself, as if we have already forgotten.  For a book that does not like to waste ink with superfluous and repetative details, this seems strange.

The commentators pick up on these questions, and offer some answers.  Ibn Ezra, the twelfth century Spanish Rabbi, points out that it appears precisely in the context of the holiday of Shavuot.  As an agricultural holiday, Shavuot marks the beginning of the barley harvest.  Barley is the first of the major cereal grains to ripen.  Wheat comes later on during the summer.  As we are getting excited to start bringing in the grain, the Torah repeats its instruction to leave the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor and the strangers in our communities.

Ramban and Rashbam offer a different explanation.  They say that it has to do with the description of the Omer a few verses earlier.  The Torah describes what is going to happen when the Israelites enter the Promised Land.  They are going to plant their crops and reap the harvest.  Before they can consume any of that crop themselves, they have to bring the first sheaf, the omer, to the Priest.  He will then wave it around as an elevation offering before God.  This is going to take place, at the earliest, on the second day of Passover.  None of the new crop may be consumed until this omer waving presentation has taken place.

This is where Ramban and Rashbam’s explanation comes in.  The Torah is warning us that the mitzvah of gathering the first of the crop as a presentation to God does not override the requirement to leave the corners of the field untrimmed for the poor and the strangers.

Put another way, the ritual obligation does not take precedence over the moral obligation.

There are several important lessons here.

First, that we cannot own the land outright.  Ultimately, the earth and everything in it belongs to God.  We are given permission to use and enjoy it, but not without certain qualifications.  L’ovdah u-l’shomrah, “to work it and to protect it,” God instructs the first human in the Garden of Eden.

Here, in the context of describing sacred time, we are told that we must both acknowledge God as the Creator of the earth and the One who makes it possible for us to cause it to produce food, and to provide for those who are less fortunate.  Only then may we enjoy it ourselves.  To consume the grain before both these steps have been taken is tantamount to theft.

The second lesson is that our dedication to religious ritual does not obviate our obligation to other human beings who need us.  This is the message of Prophets like Isaiah.  Don’t think that God wants your sacrifices while you let the weakest among you starve, he reiterates over and over again.

For us to do our part as Jews in our covenantal relationship with God means both that we acknowledge God’s Presence in our lives through ritual, and that we affirm God’s presence in other human beings through serving them.

In an agricultural society, the requirement to leave the corners of the fields untrimmed was public.  Everybody could see that a farmer had done his duty.  Not just the hungry who relied on it, but also fellow farmers and members of the community.  If someone shirked his or her responsibilities, everyone would know it.

Today, we are so far removed from from the most vulnerable members of society.  We can pretend that human suffering does not exist without suffering any consequences.

But suffering certainly exists among us.

Homelessness in our community is a human tragedy in our backyard. Santa Clara County has the fifth-largest unsheltered population in the country with the highest percentage of homeless veterans anywhere.  More than 7,500 people are homeless on any given night, with almost three quarters of that number unsheltered.

The tent city that has grown up along the Guadalupe River by Story Road is the largest homeless encampment in the country.

The numbers have ballooned in recent years, due by a significant degree to the high cost of housing in the Bay Area.  The reasons for homelessness are complicated, and solutions are elusive.

But if our tradition teaches us anything, it is that we have an obligation to care for the strangers who live among us because of our experience as strangers in the land of Egypt.

The lesson of leaving the corners of our fields unharvested and bringing the omer to God are that we cannot take the blessings in our lives for granted.  Our tradition offers us specific ways to acknowledge that gratitude: offering thanks to God, and being generous to our fellow human beings.

Rashi adds an additional commentary on the appearance of the mitzvah of leaving the corners of the fields in the middle of the sacred calendar.

Why does the text teach this in between the festivals, with Passover and Shavuot on one side and Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot on the other?  To teach you that everyone who leaves gleanings for the poor is rewarded as if he had built the Temple and offered sacrifices there.  (Rashi on Leviticus 23:22)

As we struggle in our broader  community to address the challenges of /homelessness, may we open our eyes to the human suffering around us.  Through our actions, let us build a Temple of compassion and generosity as we recognize that so many of the blessings in our lives come from the Ultimate Source of compassion and generosity.

 

Inclusivity and Pesach Sheni: Be-Ha’alotekha 5773

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?

Starting with Leviticus – Vayikra 5773

I just saw the documentary from a few years ago, Waiting for Superman. It notes that American students’ rankings have been falling precipitously in math and science over the past few decades. It also notes that every President since Eisenhower has claimed to be the Education President. As our nation struggles to get back on track, education is once again brought out as a key concern. Universal access to quality education has been an important principle since our nation’s founding. Nowadays, everyone recognizes that a failing educational system will have economic and social impacts down the road, but we can’t come together on the best way to fix our broken system.

The emphasis on education is an aspect of Jewish culture in which we take great pride. From our people’s beginnings, education has been considered to be of utmost importance. Our tradition does not entrust the transmission of knowledge to an intellectual or religious elite. Since the days of the Torah itself, the importance of passing on knowledge to one’s child has been a primary religious obligation.

It is not only an individual responsibility. We can even identify in our sources an obligation to entire communities to provide universal education. With one caveat: as anyone who has seen Yentl knows, until modern times, the focus was on educating boys, and girls were often an afterthought.

The Shulchan Arukh, the great sixteenth century law code, lays out specific instructions about public education. While it is true that parents have to teach Torah to their own children, the community as a whole also bears responsibility. The Shulchan Arukh*1* teaches that a community is obligated to hire a melamed, a teacher, for its children. The men in any community that does not have a melamed are to be excommunicated until they hire someone.

Children are supposed to start learning the aleph bet when they are 3, and then start school at 5 or 6 years old, beginning with the study of Torah.

An ancient midrash reports the custom of beginning a child’s education with the Book of Leviticus. Then it asks the question: Why do children begin their learning with the Book of Leviticus rather than the Book of Genesis?

After all, for a young child, the laws of sacrifices seem like a strange place to begin. If I was designing a curriculum for Torah study, I might choose to start somewhere different. Perhaps Genesis, as the midrash asks about. After all, it is the beginning. It describes the creation of the world. It is full of stories about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs…

Or, maybe we might choose to begin with the Book of Exodus. It describes the beginnings of the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt, and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

But no. The tradition was to begin with Leviticus. To teach children about different categories of sin, and the respective types of offerings that had to be brought for each one. To memorize the techniques of slaughtering animals and sprinkling blood on the altar. To learn how to distinguish between the various offerings that were brought at different times of the year. And all of these details about a way of worshipping God that had ceased entirely when the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. Why, the midrash asks, would we start children’s education here?

The answer, as taught by Rabbi Asi, has to do with a certain similiarity between children and sacrifices. All of the sacrifices written in Leviticus have to do with purity. Children are pure, and have not yet experienced sin. Therefore, the Holy One said, ‘let the pure ones come and engage with matters of purity, and I will consider it as if you were standing before Me and offering sacrifices.’ It is children continuing to learn the laws of sacrifices that enables the world to continue to stand.*2*

Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen, a mid-seventeenth century Ashkenazi Rabbi reports that the custom of starting a child’s education with the Book of Leviticus was still being practiced in his day.*3*

I don’t know of any Jewish schools that continue this tradition, although I bet there is at least one yeshivah in Brooklyn that does. I am not endorsing a change in our curriculum that would have us teaching the laws of sacrifices to 5 year olds.

But I like the idea expressed in the midrash that God considers children learning to be the equivalent of worship in the Holy Temple. And that the world itself is sustained on the merit of children learning.

Those have certainly been core values in Judaism.

But let’s look at where things stand now. In California, between 1981 and 2011, higher education spending has decreased by 13% in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the same time period, spending on prisons has increased by 436%.*4* The state Legislative Analysts Office reported that in 2011-2012, the state spent $179,000 per incarcerated youth. For every child in Kindergarten through 12th grade, the state spent $7,500 per year.*5*

Nationally, as an overall percentage of all federal spending, children account for about 10%. Over the next ten years, that is expected to fall to 8%, with the biggest drops expected to be in education.*6*

If the world stands on the learning of children, we need to do something radically different with regard to our priorities.

 

*1* Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 245:7,8

*2* Leviticus Rabbah 7:3, Midrash Tanhuma Tzav 14

*3* Siftei Kohen on Yoreh Deah 245:8

*4* http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/06/california-prisons-colleges_n_1863101.html

*5* http://www.cjcj.org/post/juvenile/justice/misplaced/priorities/california/s/spending/prisons/vs/higher/education

*6* http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/15/feds-spend-7-on-elderly-for-every-1-on-kids/

 

Osher va’Osher – Behar-Bechukotai 5772

There is a cute greeting in Hebrew.  You might say mazal tov!  osher va’osher!  Congratulations.  May you have happiness and wealth.
The word osher, depending on how it is spelled, can mean two different things.  With an aleph, osher means “happiness.”  With an ayin, osher means “wealth,” as in material wealth.
It is a fascinating homophone.
You’ve probably heard the English expression, “Money can’t buy happiness.”  The world is not quite so simplistic.  Because money can certainly pay for a whole bunch of things that make life not only possible, but easier, and more enjoyable.  Without enough money to satisfy our needs, a life of happiness and fulfillment becomes quite a challenge.
Nevertheless, the unrelenting pursuit of osher with an ayin, money, can indeed keep us from a life of osher with an aleph, happiness.
Isaac Arama was a fifteenth century Spanish Rabbi who published weekly sermons in a book called Aqaydat Yitzchaq.  He goes so far as to  say that “material possessions are a handicap to one’s efforts to determine true values.”  Money gets in the way of a meaningful life.
But Arama is a realist.  He acknowledges the importance of material possessions.  Human beings have physical needs, and it is through labor that we acquire those things that we need to survive and to thrive.  He cites the mishnah in Pirkei Avot: im ein kemach ein torah, im ein torah, ein kemach.  “If there is no flour, there can be no Torah.”  Material wealth is necessary to enable a person to study Torah.  A person who is constantly struggling to put food on the table, to pay for health care, rent, and electricity, doesn’t have much time, or even peace of mind, to luxuriate on the development of his soul.  Having enough material possessions makes it possible for us to acquire spiritual values.  On the other hand, where there is no Torah, there is no flour.  Without Torah, without the proper use of our material possessions, true living is not possible.  Spiritual fulfillment cannot be achieved.
Maybe that is why we wish each other both osher va’osher.  True happiness, true fulfillment, with the material blessings that make it possible.
But most human societies today do not offer a healthy balance of material and spiritual opportunities.  Today, we face so much pressure to be always available for our jobs, to measure our success in life by how much stuff we have, and to never give ourselves a real break.  We are constantly in pursuit of osher with an ayin, wealth.  But do we do what we ought to truly cultivate osher with an aleph?
But this is not a dilemma only for the fast-paced twenty first century.  Go back three thousand years and find that human beings were also struggling to find that balance.
Parashat Behar, the first of this morning’s double portion, begins with the laws of the Shemittah, the sabbatical year.  Every seven years, the Israelite farmers are prohibited from working the land.  Whatever it produces on its own will sustain them.  Indeed, as long as the Israelites follow the rules, God promises to bless the land with so much abundance in the sixth year that there will be plenty of food throughout the seventh.
Interestingly, the beginning of God’s instructions are only partially directed towards the Israelites.  “When you (Israelites) enter the land that I assign to you,”
וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַה’
“the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord.”  (Lev. 25:2)
Notice, the instruction is not given to the Israelites to let the land rest.  The subject of the verb “observe a sabbath” is “the land.”  We learn that the land also gets to rest.  The land is personified.
What does it mean for the land to rest?  There are a few details.  First, there is to no agricultural work performed on the land or on trees.  Second, anything the land produces on its own, all produce, is ownerless.  Anybody can come and pick it.  Jewish law forbids a farmer from putting up fences or gates around his fields, or stockpiling produce during the seventh year.  Anyone is supposed to be able to come on to his property and pick whatever they want.  Later on, in the book of Deuteronomy, a third rule is mentioned which refers to the cancellation of debts in the seventh year.
What is the reason for the shemitah.  Why does the land get to rest?
One might say that it makes good economic sense to require a sabbatical year.  After all, letting land lie fallow and rotating crops is good for farming.  It enables the earth to regain nutrients, and ultimately to be more productive.  There is certainly a connection between good agricultural practices and the laws of shemitah.  But farmers should not need to be commanded to rotate their crops.  They do it because it is good practice to do so.  In fact, simply letting your fields lie fallow once every seven years would not be particularly effective.  According to one scholar, ancient Israelites probably let their land lie fallow biennially, even though the Torah does not mention this.  There must be something else to the Torah’s idea of shemitah.
Many scholars notice the similarities between the commandment to let the land rest every seven years, and for people to rest every seven days.  Throughout the Torah, the only two things that are described as shabbat ladonai – a sabbath unto God – are the seventh day, and the seventh year.  None of the holidays, not even Yom Kippur, is described as such.  There is a close link between Shabbat and Shemitah.
The symbolic meaning of Shabbat is as a reminder of the Creation of the universe.  Just as God rested on the seventh day after six days of creation, we rest on the seventh day.
To be clear, this is not meant to teach us the scientific origin of the world.  It is meant to teach us about our relationship to the world.  That the world belongs to God, and that we are ultimately dependent on God.  Shabbat instills a sense of humility in human beings.  By regularly spending a day not dominating our world, we are reminded that there is something greater than us.  The shemitah, with its many similarities to Shabbat, embodies this lesson as well.
With regard to Shabbat, we are told that every living thing among us is entitled to rest: our son and our daughter, our male and female slaves, our animals, and the strangers living among us.  During the shemitah year as well, the Torah lists everyone who is entitled to freely eat from anything the land produces: you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, your cattle, and the beasts of the field.  Ownership of land is basically put on hold for that year.
Focusing on this ceasing of economic activity, one commentator sees the shemitah as promoting union and peace.  All strife comes from the attitude of “what’s mine is mine.”  The shemitah year says, effectively, nothing really belongs to any of us.  Every human being is equal.
Isaac Arama, who I mentioned earlier, points to an additional lesson.  He says that “the suspension of work in every seventh year causes us to realize that our mission on earth is not to be slaves to the soil but a much higher and nobler one.  Work should only serve the purpose of providing food and other needs, while our task is to attain the supreme end; the purpose of giving this land to this people was not to be brought into the land in order to be enslaved by it, and addicted to tilling it and gather in the crops and enrich themselves…  Their purpose is to accomplish themselves and seek perfection, according to the will of their Creator, while satisfying the needs of their sustenance.”
In other words, properly observing the shemitah will enable us to reach a healthy balance between our pursuit of osher with an ayin and osher with an aleph, between wealth and happiness.
But the laws of shemitah have very little practical significance to us today.  First of all, they do not apply to land outside of Israel.  Second, Jewish communities throughout the millenia were always trying to find ways to circumvent the restrictions of shemitah.  If it is to pay taxes to the Romans, it is ok to cultivate some crops.  If you sell the land to a non-Jew, that person can work the land and sell the produce back to you.  And many other creative ways to not have to stop economic activity for a year.  The human drive to get more stuff is just too powerful.
That does not mean, however, that we should ignore what the laws of shemitah would ask of us.
Isaac Arama would have us ask ourselves, “Is my mission on earth to be a slave acquiring more material wealth, or is my mission a higher and nobler one?  Am I working to provide just enough for myself and loved ones to survive and thrive, or have I gone beyond that”  “How am I living a fulfilled life?”  “Will the direction in which my life is going  lead to true happiness?”
Shabbat and Shemitah tell us that, to get at what truly matters, we have to take a break from material pursuits.  Let’s ask ourselves: Am I taking breaks?  Am I turning off my cell phone?  Am I finding time to study Torah?  Am I giving extended amounts of uninterrupted attention to the people I love?
In short, am I pursuing a life that places equal value on both osher and osher?
*1*Hopkins 1985: 201
*2*Kli Yakar, Deut. 31:12

Income Inequality – Behar 5771

As you know, economists have officially declared the recession over.  That may be true on paper, but there are still millions who have lost their jobs, and their homes, and are struggling to get by.  Despite the immensity of the recession, it has not impacted everyone the same. Some have come through just fine, and even prospered.  One of the recent critiques we have heard is that the national unemployment rate is still well over 8 percent while some of the largest American corporations are making record profits and sitting on billions of dollars.  There are vast differences between the economic experiences of Americans.  I don’t think there is much disagreement that there is something broken in the socio-economics of this country.  There is a lot of disagreement about what is broken and how to fix it.

As a Diaspora people, Jews have lived in many different societies.  But wherever we have lived, we have taken our Torah, and our teachings with us, and we have applied their lessons to the situations we face.  This morning’s Torah portion has a lot to say to us about the relationship between the rich and the poor in society.

Most of Parshat Behar, is a presentation of the laws of land ownership in ancient Israel.  It describes an economic system that is vastly different from what we have today.  It is agriculturally based.  There is no money.  And land is apportioned to tribes, clans, and families.  As in some other societies in the Ancient World, land could not really be sold.  Great value was placed on keeping ancestral land within the family.  The Torah adds an innovative, and powerful moral concept with far-reaching implications.  God instructs the people, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  (Lev. 25:23)

The Israelites get this reminder every seven years, when they observe shemitah, and let the land lie fallow.  Every fifty years, they observe the yovel, the Jubilee.  In that year, all land reverts back to its original owner.  Any Israelite who had to indenture himself into servitude regains his freedom, and his land.  All debts are cancelled.

This economic model, if fully implemented, would have some pretty significant effects.  Families would not fall into multi-generational poverty, since there would effectively be an economic reset every fifty years.

Also, it would be impossible for anyone to accumulate huge amounts of property, since any land or debt that a successful business person acquired would revert on the Jubilee year.  There is not even such a thing as selling land, just leasing it for a period of time up until the fiftieth year.

The result would be a flattening of economic disparities.  You can imagine that the gap between the richest and the poorest in society would never get that huge if everything reset itself every half century.

What I especially appreciate about the system that the Torah dscribes is that it is not a pie in the sky utopia.  It does not say that everyone will be equal.  This is not “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  This system understands that some people are going to be wealthier, better educated, shrewder, and luckier, than others.

Remember, the underlying moral value is that the land ultimately is owned by God, and not us.  While prosperity is important, there are values that are more important to pursue than the accumulation of wealth.

In his commentary on the Book of Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom describes these laws as trying to stop the loss of land by debtors to the rich, as well as reduce “the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor.”  The Biblical Prophets condemned the mistreatment of the poor in their particular prophetic style.  They harangued a society for ignoring the light of the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.  Here in the Book of Leviticus, Israel’s priests are trying to fix the immorality of economic inequality, not through moral pronouncements, but through law.

Nevertheless, the historical evidence suggests that the Jubilee year as presented in the Torah was never actually practiced.  What are we to make of its appearance here?  It is a presentation of values.  An ancient reader would see in this theoretical economic system a critique of what was probably a less just society in which those with less money, and less power, did not have many opportunities.  A society in which bankruptcy risked dooming a family to poverty for generations.

We seem to have some of the same issues today.

As you no doubt are aware, the last several decades have seen a significant rise in income inequality around the world.

Of all developed countries, the income gap between the rich and the poor is greatest in the United States.  In 2008, the top earning 20 percent of Americans, who earn at least $100,000 per year, received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the country  The bottom 20 percent received  just 3.4 percent of all income.  The relative gap is the widest that it has been since the U.S. Census Bureau started collecting data in 1968.

We are not going to get into what causes income disparities, or how to reduce them.  But I do want to talk about the effects.

There has been a lot of study over the last few decades about the impact that large gaps between the rich and the poor has on society.

Robert Putnam, the professor of political science at Harvard University, conducted a study on the relationship between social capital, or the connections between members of a society, and economic inequality.  He found that throughout the twentieth century, social connectedness and civic engagement moved “in tandem” with economic equality.  The flatter the gap between the rich and the poor, the more society was interconnected.  The high point in social capital, according to Putnam, occurred during the 1950’s and 1960’s, which was also the most economically egalitarian period in the twentieth century.  “Conversely,” he writes, “the last third of the twentieth century was a time of growing inequality and eroding social capital… The timing of the two trends is striking: somewhere around 1965-70 America reversed course and started becoming both less just economically and less well connected socially and politically.”

In other words, when the rich-poor gap is smaller, society functions better.  There are more interactions between people.  Communities are tighter-knit.  Individuals are more engaged politically, meaning that they are more involved in shaping the course of society.

There are many other social factors that have been also statistically correlated to income inequality.  To the extant that the income gap is reduced, societies in the developed world experience lower homicide rates, fewer mental health problems and less teen-age pregnancy.  But the gap is expanding.

It was not always like this.  In 1831, in his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville talked about how wonderful the economic equality was that he witnessed.  He writes:

Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me with greater force than the equality of conditions.  I easily perceived the enormous influence that this primary fact exercises on the workings of society.  It gives a particular direction to the public mind, a particular turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and particular habits to the governed…  It creates opinions, gives rise to sentiments, inspires customs, and modifies everything it does not produce…  I kept finding that fact before me again and again as a central point to which all of my observations were leading.

De Tocqueville was describing an engaged, inspired population.  I don’t think de Tocqueville would be able to make those comment today.

Today, with the widest gap between the wealthy and the poor this country has seen since the 1920’s, it seems that there is a tremendous  despair among individuals about our ability to affect society.  With corporations now defined as people, and large PACs with unknown sources of funding able to influence politics with huge amounts of money, that despair seems justified.

The point I want to make this morning is that our Jewish tradition has always understood large gaps between the rich and the poor to be highly problematic.  Such disparities are harmful to a cohesive society, and are antithetical to the Jewish notion of justice.  To be clear, our tradition encourages us to be involved in the material world around us.  We pray for God to bless us with prosperity.  Wealth and prosperity are things to pursue.  But not as ends in and of themselves.  Only as means to do the more important work of serving God by creating a just world.

It is said that you can always cherry pick a text that will support your position.  I don’t think that can be said about this issue.  I have never heard or read any Jewish thinker, speaking from within the tradition, defend the idea that the rich should be free to acquire as much as they can without regard to the consequences on the rest of society.  As Jews, we have a moral and a legal obligation to create opportunities for the people at the bottom to succeed.  We can argue about strategy – raise taxes, lower taxes, expand social services, cut medicaid – but from a Jewish perspective, something has to be done about income inequality.