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

 

Shelach Lekha 5774 – Making the Minyan

A man living in Jerusalem was saying the mourner’s kaddish for his mother.  That’s the prayer that Jews say for eleven months after the death of a parent.  In order to say it, however, one needs to be praying with a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish adults over the age of Bar Mitzvah.

Every day, consistently, the man would go to a synagogue so that he could pray with a minyan, and thus be able to say the prayer.  One night, the man returns home really late, at 3 am.  He collapses into bed, exhausted.  As soon as he turns out the light, he bolts upright.  “Oh no!  I did not pray Arvit!” the evening prayer.  “I missed saying kaddish for my mother!”

With tremendous effort, he drags himself out of bed and starts to dress.

Where is he going to find a minyan at this hour?

No problem.  As anyone who lives in Jerusalem can tell you, day or night, you can always find a minyan at the Shteibelach— a building filled with a bunch of small synagogues in the Zichron Moshe neighborhood.  People gather in one of the rooms, and as soon as a minyan shows up, they start praying.  You can show up at pretty much any time of day and find a service about to begin.

But not at 3 am.  When the man gets to the shteibelach, it is empty.

He takes out his cell phone and dials the number for a taxi company.

“Hello! Can you please send six taxis to the Shteibelach in Zichron Moshe?”

Adoni (my dear sir)! It’s three o’clock in the morning! You think I have six taxis? What do you think I am, a magician? …I only have five.”

“Okay. So send five!”

He dials another number. “Hello, please send five taxis to Zichron Moshe…”

Atah meshugah! You’re crazy! I only have four!

“Fine.  I’ll take them.”

Within twenty minutes, there is a line of nine taxicabs parked neatly outside the Shteiblach.

Adoni,” says one of the drivers, “Why do you need nine taxis? There’s no wedding here, no Bar Mitzvah, nothing.”

“I want you all to turn your meters on and come inside with me. We are going to pray together the evening prayer — arvit.  I will pay each of you just as if you’re giving me a lift.”

These taxi drivers are not observant Jews.  Some of them have not been inside a synagogue since their Bar Mitzvah.  Although they are fluent in Hebrew, they have no idea how to pray: what and when to answer; when to speak aloud and when to stay quiet.

It takes them quite a while. But the kaddish man, shows them exactly what do do.  At 3:30 am in Jerusalem that night, he is able to say kaddish for his mother.

Afterwards, they all go outside to the taxis; the meters in the cars are pushing upwards of 90 shekels per car.  The man pulls out his wallet and starts to count out the approximately 800 shekels it is going to cost him.  That is more than two hundred dollars

“How much do I owe you?” he asks the first taxi driver in the line.

Adoni, what do you take me for? Do you honestly believe I would take money from you. who just gave me such an opportunity to help my fellow Jew say kaddish?”

He moves down the line to the second driver, who gives him the same answer.  “Do you know how long it is since I prayed?”

And the third and the fourth, all the way down the line to the ninth…

Not one takes a shekel.

And so they embrace and drive off to a new morning in the holy city of Jerusalem!

 

The name of the prayer the man said, the Kaddish, comes from the word Kadosh, meaning holy.  It is an ancient prayer in which we publicly proclaim the sanctity, or holiness, of God’s name.  A leader recites the words, and the congregation responds in certain places with various interjections: Amen, B’rikh Hu, or Y’hei Sh’mei Rabba m’vorach l’alam ul’almei almayah – May God’s great name be blessed throughout Eternity.  The Rabbis of the Talmud think it is so important that they declare that a person who responds to the Kaddish with enthusiasm is assured of a place in the world to come.

There are other important prayers that are also connected to this word.  The Kedushah is the special set of verses that we recite during the reader’s repetition of the Amidah.  In it, we act as if we are Divine Beings, blessing God like the angels.

In order to be able to recite both the Kaddish and the Kedushah, we are required to have a minyan.  A person praying alone, or in a group of less than ten Jewish adults, must skip over those sections of the service.

Why is that?

Our Rabbis of the Talmud teach that “Any words of holiness may not be recited with less than ten.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 23b)  In order to sanctify God’s name, that is to say, declare God’s holiness in a particularly special way, we must have a minyan.

In addition to reciting the Kaddish and the Kedushah, the Talmud identifies other religious actions which also require ten.   Chanting the Torah in public, invoking God during the introduction to the Grace After Meals, and forming a line away from a funeral to comfort the mourners are several more examples.

In ancient times, only Jewish males over the age of Bar Mitzvah were included to make up a minyan.  In recent years in the Conservative movement, we have expanded our interpretation of Jewish law to include Jewish females over the age of Bat Mitzvah as well.

Our tradition has always placed great value on communal prayer.  In Judaism, our prayers are said to reach higher into the heavenly chambers when we are together in a minyan as compared to when we pray alone.  The Talmud teaches, “Whenever ten pray together, the Shechinah (God’s Presence) is with them.”  (BT, Berachot 6a)  It seems to be taken almost as a given that minyan equals ten.

But there must be a reason.  Why ten?

Whenever I pose the question, I tend to receive several responses.

The first, and perhaps most obvious: ten fingers.

The second is from the Book of Genesis, when Abraham argues with God over the fate of wicked inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He convinces God to save the cities if ten righteous individuals can be found.  Alas, ten cannot be found, and the cities are demolished.

But the reason that is offered by our ancient sources is different.

The Talmud identifies this morning’s Torah portion as the origin of the minyan.  It uses a particular kind of interpretational tool called a gezera shava.  A verbal analogy.  The way a gezera shava works is as follows.  We identify two completely separate biblical passages that have nothing to do with one another.  They do, however, share a word in common.  That word in common allows us to make an analogy between the two verses.  If something is true in one verse, it must also be true in the other verse.

The Tamud asks why is it the case that God’s name cannot be sanctified with less than a minyan of ten Jewish adults.  Now please bear with me for a minute.  This is kind of complicated.

Rabbenai, the brother of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, a Babylonian Sage from the third century, brings the answer, using a two step gezera shave.  (BT Berachot 21b)

Here is step one.  In this morning’s Torah portion, after the spies have given their report about the land of Israel and its inhabitants, sowing seeds of panic amongst the people, God becomes enraged.  Ad matai la-edah ha-ra’ah hazot asher hemah malinim alai – “How much longer shall that wicked community keep muttering against Me?”  (Numbers 14:27)  In next week’s portion, Moses and Aaron are facing a challenge from their cousin Korach and his followers.  Again, God becomes angry, and instruct Moses and Aaron to back off from the rebels so that God can cause the ground to swallow them alive.  Hibad’lu mitokh ha-edah ha-zot – “Separate yourselves from among this congregation!”  (Numbers 16:21)

Notice that the word edah, meaning “congregation,” appears in both passages.  In the first one, the story of the spies, we know exactly how many people are present.  There are twelve spies in total.  Joshua and Caleb bring a positive report.  That leaves ten remaining spies.  Therefore, we conclude, the word edah refers to a group of at least ten individuals.

Now for step two.  Back in Leviticus, God declares v’nikdashti b’tokh b’nei Yisrael – “And I will be sanctified among the children of Israel.”  (Leviticus 22:32)  Again we refer to the verse from next week’s Torah portion: hibad’lu mitokh ha-edah ha-zot – “Separate yourselves from among this congregation.”

Now we focus on the common word tokh – “among” – which appears in both passages.  If God is to be sanctified b’tokh – “among” – the children of Israel, exactly how many does that imply?  Well, since tokh and edah – “congregation” – appear together in the other verse, it must mean at least an edah‘s worth.  How many is an edah?  From the story of the spies, we know it is at least ten.

Therefore, to sanctify God’s name requires at least ten Jewish adults to come together.

Admittedly, this explanation seems convoluted, and perhaps a bit of a stretch.  It is quite possibly an after-the-fact justification of a long-accepted and widely-embraced tradition.  But there is a deeper message that goes beyond the linguistic gymnastics.

The whole concept of a minyan is quite positive.  It encourages community.  Jewish worship takes place not in a synagogue, but in any place where ten Jewish adults come together.  It is about the people, not the building.

For thousands of years, the idea of the minyan reinforced Jews’ motivation to live in close proximity to one another.  Jews needed to be able to pray together, support one another in times of loss, and celebrate holidays with community.  Even God is sanctified when Jews form a minyan. It is impossible to lead a complete Jewish existence by oneself.

But the origin of the number ten, we now learn, comes from what is perhaps the greatest sin committed by the Israelites in the entire Torah.  Believing the spies that they have no hope of defeating the Canaanites and conquering the Land of Israel is the sin that earns the Israelites forty years of wandering in the wilderness.  After all they have seen, the miracles in Egypt, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites lack the imagination and the faith to believe that God can deliver the land into their hands, as promised.

Rooting the minyan in this story of faithlessness is ironic.

Perhaps joining together in the same symbolic number gives us the opportunity to repent of our ancestors lack of faith.  Once upon a time, it was ten people who failed to sanctify God.  Now we come together as ten to sanctify God.

Perhaps another lesson is that things can go either way.  When we come together in community, things can go the way of the ten spies, in which one person’s fears spread to the entire group.  Or, we can inspire one another.  One person’s kavannah, spiritual focus, can help the other worshippers express what is in their hearts too.

In the story of the nine taxi drivers, one mourner’s kavannah to honor his mother by saying kaddish for a year inspired the rest of the minyan to connect to a ritual that they had not encountered for many years.  Surely, God’s Presence was among that edah, that holy congregation, at 3:30 am that morning in Jerusalem.

When we come together as a community, whether to worship here in the sanctuary on Shabbat, or to support someone during shiva, the week of mourning, our kavannah can be contagious.  We give each other strength: strength to connect with what is in our hearts, strength to express ourselves with honesty, strength to connect with each other, with our tradition, and with God.

In that way, God is truly sanctified amongst the People of Israel.

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.

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/