Welcome to my Blog!

Follow this Blog by registering and you can earn mitzvah points.
(Mitzvah points cannot be redeemed at the moment but may be redeemable in the World to Come - check with your provider).

Friday, 23 April 2021

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 2021 – Encounter at the Boundary of Pardes

 In our double-portion of Acharei Mot – Kedoshim this week, God says to Moses (Lev. 16:2) “Speak to your brother Aaron, that he should not come at all times into the Holy within the dividing curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he should not die, for I appear over the ark cover in a cloud.” God places a limit on access to the Divine. This isn’t the first time that God has done so – back in Exodus 19, God warned Moses to erect a boundary around Mount Sinai so that the people do not touch it and die. As I spoke about last week, this is very much because of the danger of closeness with God. That danger is not just expressed in Torah but even in Rabbinic literature (Tosefta Hagigah 2:2, Bavli Hagigah 14b, Yerushalmi Hagigah 9:1), such as the following short story about pardes – Paradise:

Four entered pardes — Ben AzzaiBen ZomaElisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; Elisha ben Abuyah looked and apostatized; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.

This isn’t a story of four untrained Jews – these are four Rabbis who seem to peer into the unknown, who apparently try to peel back the mystical coverings protecting us from Divine danger. Of the four, three of them suffer – one dies, one goes mad and one becomes a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva is untouched. It’s a terrifying narrative. It seems to be saying that the closer one draws to Divinity, the more likely one is to be harmed.
So, what does that mean for the rest of us, for those of us who are not Akivas?  Do we not get the Premium Divinity service – do we only get access to God-lite? And why are they even trying to plumb the Divine depths when God is very clear in Exodus (33:18) that “no one may see Me and live”?
At first glance, it may seem that this story is merely trying to elevate Akiva to the level of Moses, or perhaps even above it, thereby justifying Rabbinic interpretation of the Revelation originally given to Moses. Indeed, this isn’t the only text to do so – in Tractate Menachot (29b) in Talmud, for example, Moses asks God why letters in Torah need crowns and God explains that Akiva will arise in the future to explain laws upon laws just on those ornaments alone. Akiva can teach more from the law than Moses himself! Moses dares not look at the fullness of God, whereas Akiva has a different experience. Moses’ experience is far more passive – he hides in a cleft in a rock and God’s glory passes by, whereas Akiva enters and departs Paradise. Of course, God and Paradise are not the same thing, and it would be problematic were we to conflate the two. However, Rashi says specifically that Ben Azzai dies in this story because he gazes at the Presence of God, which Moses was warned not to do. So, Pardes is a place where one might experience the fullness of God, meaning that Akiva’s entry into it is extraordinary.
What is Pardes? It’s a Persian loan-word meaning “orchard,” and is generally taken to mean Paradise. Rabbinic literature also plays on it as an acrostic, though, to represent the four differing ways of reading a text – P’shat (literally), Remez (allegorically), Drash (metaphorically), Sod (mystically). Pardes is all of Jewish interpretation. To truly see Pardes, one sees how to interpret everything. No wonder Ben Zoma goes mad! That’s too much knowledge for one person. And no wonder Elisha ben Abuya becomes an apostate, because the more one learns, the more one single misinterpretation can cascade down into a totally skewed mindset.
With all this in mind, we need to reread our story to realize an important difference between the three Rabbis who suffer and Akiva….
Four entered pardes — Ben AzzaiBen ZomaElisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; Elisha ben Abuyah looked and apostatized; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.
Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuya all look but Akiva enters and departs - Akiva does something different to the other three. If Pardes is taken as all of Jewish learning, three Rabbis learn objectively from a distance, whereas one learns subjectively from their own lived experience. If Pardes is taken as a place of being, as a place of encountering the Divine, the three Rabbis lift the veil to look beyond, whereas Akiva actually crosses from the realm of the finite to the realm of the Infinite and back again. Three Rabbis are limited by the boundary, whereas Akiva encounters and crosses the boundary. He doesn’t stare objectively from a distance, he doesn’t study what is beyond - he lives it. He knows he cannot live it fully for that is not his realm, so he enters and then he leaves. We, therefore, can be either like the Rabbis or like Akiva in this tale. To quote Buber’s I-Thou, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuya all relate to Pardes on an I-It level, on the level of distant objectivity. That is the level that is actually dangerous, because it separates us from real experience. Akiva, on the other hand, crosses over and experiences - just as the High Priest in the Tabernacle is allowed to cross the boundary - albeit only at certain times and in certain ways. The boundary between the human and the Divine, between the finite and the Infinite, keeps us safe, but it is not intended to keep us out forever, but merely to guide us safely into the realm beyond and, importantly, to guide us back home. It serves as a warning to those who are not ready to enter, and also as an invitation to enter only for those who are prepared. The boundary is not a prohibition, it is a place of reflection and potential encounter, a place to ask ourselves if we are truly ready to cross over. For we have to cross over, we cannot gawp from afar dispassionately and objectively, for to do so would not be a genuine experience of the Divine.
So, we prepare ourselves as the High Priest does before entering the Holy of Holies. In every moment of our lives we face the boundary between the finite and the infinite. At every moment, we are asked the question Ayyeka – Where are you? (Gen. 3:9) – are you now ready to cross over the boundary and truly experience Me?  At that moment of crossing over, perhaps only then can we truly fulfil one mitzvah expressed in this week’s Torah portion – k’doshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem – Be holy, be distinct, be separate [from this limited existence] for I, the Eternal your God am holy, am distinct, am separate [from this limited existence] (Lev. 19:2).
This Shabbat, then, may we take tentative steps toward the boundary of existence by reflecting on ourselves and by preparing ourselves spiritually. May we not participate in Jewish ritual and study from afar but up close, with all our heart and all our soul and all our might. May we prepare ourselves to enter the inner chamber (Avot 4:16), so that may God delight in our steps (Ps. 37:23), and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 16 April 2021

Tazria-Metzorah Sermon 2021 – How To Return from Impurity


This week’s Torah portion hits me on a rather emotional level. At first glance, it’s a double portion focused on impurity – from that of childbirth or from a peculiar disease known as tzara’at, which is a scaly affliction that affects both people and inanimate objects, even houses. On a superficial level, this reading is about exclusion, about determining who has to be quarantined away from the rest of the camp. Today, though, as we’re starting to discuss how we might return to physical activities like services and educational sessions in the Temple, it reads very differently.

Yes, I appreciate that in order to relate this week’s reading to our current predicament that I have to rather gloss over the concept of impurity from childbirth. To do so is not to ignore that part of Torah, which I believe demonstrates once again Torah’s concern about uncontrolled blood loss. The difference between the blood impurity of childbirth and the impurity of the carrier of tzara’at, though, is important – the mother can only transfer impurity where the carrier of tzara’at can transfer the disease itself. It is almost as if Torah is talking about levels of risk of transference, and my focus this evening is on that second level.

Last year, when I spoke on Tazria-Metzorah, I spoke of the loneliness of enforced isolation, an isolation that we were all still somewhat in shock about at the time. I spoke of the fact that Torah doesn’t inform us what to do while in isolation, it just tells us when to isolate and when one can come out of isolation. Torah’s interest is not on individual people but on the entire people, on the camp, so what a person does in that time of isolation is essentially up to them. Last year, I spoke of the three stages of isolation – shock, acceptance, and return. Shock is what we experienced in March of 2020 when we suddenly had to all isolate, acceptance is what happened in the months after, and now, as more and more members of our community are vaccinated, we start to consider return.

I recently read someone asking why God chose to use just one group of people – the Levites – are priests… why create an exclusive club and thus a hierarchy between the people? Many people, including early Reform Jews, abhor the concept of priesthood for its notion of intermediaries between God and the people, for the idea that some people could be more elevated for special service than others. I don’t see that. To understand why the priests were needed, we have to go back to preparations for the Revelation at Sinai, in Exodus 19. There, God informs Moses to put up a boundary around the mountain so that people do not touch it and die. In the following chapter, the people are so terrified of God’s awesomeness that they ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf, saying, “Do not have God speak with us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19). Later in Torah, in the portion of Shemini that we read only recently, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer an improper fire and are immediately killed. Since God is beyond the human realm, the closer one comes to God, the closer one comes to danger on a human level, in other words, closeness to God risks human death. A rather trite comparison might be electricity – it is awesome, powerful, it illuminates our lives, but if we touch it, we risk death. God’s realm is not the human realm, so to draw close to God means to risk losing contact with the human realm. So, the priests are not there for control, they are the safety specialists – they’re the people whose specific task it is to allow the people to draw as close as possible to God without getting dangerously close.

I understand, of course, that Rabbis aren’t priests, especially now there is no Tabernacle or Temple to which people might regularly bring sacrifices. Nonetheless, as our community starts to explore how we might slowly return to activities in the same physical space, I find much sympathy with the priests in this week’s reading, especially when it comes not to blood impurity but to disease impurity. The priest is responsible for balancing sacred concerns with physical concerns. They want to bring the person back into the camp but they have to be absolutely certain that there is no risk of contamination of the larger community. This is not an issue of control or hierarchy, it’s an issue of public safety. The priest, who normally protects the individual from sacred danger by drawing too close to God, suddenly finds themselves protecting the entire community from physical danger. Their sphere of responsibility has widened enormously, in a similar way to how the High Priest atones on behalf of the entire people on Yom Kippur. I wonder – and I realize I may very well be projecting onto the text here – if the priest is afraid of the harm that might come from their decision if their assessment is wrong in any way? Perhaps that’s why the text goes into so much detail as to how to make the observation – so that the priest is guided through that awesome and terrifying process. In a similar way, I guess, that’s why Temple Beth Shalom has a Reopening Committee that is addressing how we all might return physically – so that the responsibility does not fall on one person.

The reality is, though, that I am afraid. I’m afraid of us coming back together and people not being able to sing in services or hug one another for a long time, resulting in them being really excited to return and then actually really disappointed at how services feel for a while. I’m afraid that we’ll take precautions but still become a source for someone in our community getting sick, or worse. And at the same time, I’m afraid for something that Torah does not concern itself with – with the feelings of extended isolation and loneliness of members of our community. What the priests have in this week’s reading, and what I feel at the moment, is a sense of awesome responsibility, in terms of awe being that reverential feeling of fear and wonderment.

That feeling of awesome responsibility cannot limit action, though. At some point, the priest has to make the call as to whether or not the person must stay physically away from others or whether they can return. That is where I believe this week’s reading is incredibly sensitive, because after the assessment and the decision to let someone return, Tazria-Metzorah provides a ritual for returning to the community. I’ve started to wonder about this. When we return to Shabbat services, what will our ritual be? It needs to be more than a Shehecheyanu. We’ve become so used to ritualizing behavior around the wearing of masks or social distancing that we need to be sure that that’s not our only rituals around prayer. In this week’s reading, (specifically Lev. 14), the person returning brings two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson wool  and some hyssop. An extraordinary ritual follows that includes presentation of a guilt offering and a sin offering on behalf of the person returning to communal life. Torah specifically then says, “vichiper alav hakohen v’taheir – “thus shall the priest atone for him and he shall be clean” (Lev. 14:20). Would we, as we consider returning to the community, need to bring a guilt offering, a sin offering? Do we need atonement?

Maybe there is a place for a guilt offering and a sin offering, for the times when we did not socially distance, for tolerating a society so unequal that when the pandemic raged through this country it was devastating for certain communities and not those we lived in. Maybe we would need something in place of a guilt offering and a sin offering for the times when we secretly did not keep best practice, did not stay socially distanced, either for us individually or, as on Yom Kippur, on behalf of all those in our community who erred in this way. And what would it mean for atonement to be made for us? The root of the Hebrew word atonement is return, return to the right way, return to connecting with God, return away from previous modes of behavior. A ritual of return is surely necessary. Perhaps it would include washing of hands as we walked into the Sanctuary, a ritual of cleanliness but also a ritual of washing off the past. I have yet to create the ritual, but our Torah reading this week definitely demonstrates what I profoundly feel at the moment - the importance of some kind of ritual of return.

Once again, during the pandemic, the Book of Leviticus has revealed itself not to be a dry list of hierarchical responsibilities and arcana rituals but, rather, a text that is extremely sensitive to balancing the physical and spiritual needs of the community in the face of contamination and even death. What it shows us is that the return to the physical community must be done very carefully, in measured ways, and accompanied by some kind of ritual of return that allows us to express physically what we are feeling as we slowly transition from isolation to community.

The first phase is isolation – shock – was sudden and we were unprepared. The second stage – isolation – was extended and difficult. Now we slowly and carefully approach the third stage – return. So, may our return to physical community be loving, be deliberate, may it acknowledge and help work through our differing fears, and may it ultimately help us return to God



Friday, 9 April 2021

Shemini Sermon 2021 - Judaism as a Religion

How do we define the word “religion?” The ancient Israelites couldn’t define religion – there was no such thing to them and hence in the Bible there is no word for religion. That doesn’t mean the ancient Israelites weren’t religious – of course they were – but they did not understand religion as a separate concept. For them, Judaism was a way of life, something which is often nowadays called a “cultural system.”  But a cultural system could be entirely secular, so we need to include some sense of the Divine in order to define religion.


According to one modern definition, a religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.


Let’s unpack that. A religion starts with a set of beliefs regarding the cause, nature and purpose of the universe. Most religions have a creation narrative and many have visions of the end of the universe as well, Judaism being no exception to this. Interestingly, though, while the Torah’s creation narrative is perhaps the most famous of all, it has no eschatology – no reference to final days. The rest of the Bible does, in the prophets and the writings, but not Torah.  So, even though Reform Jews often focus more on Torah than on the rest of the Bible or on subsequent Rabbinic commentary, our religion has traditionally had a set of beliefs regarding the nature and purpose of the universe, and that becomes rather difficult for us because Reform Jews don’t believe the original beliefs. An ultra-Orthodox Jew can rest comfortably in the belief that the world was created less than 6000 years ago by a deity who created the whole world in six days, but there are very few Reform Jews who believe the same. We take the findings of science, we see that the Earth is millions of years old and that the universe is billions of years old, and we take the biblical narrative figuratively, not historically. What this means is that as Reform Jews we actually struggle to understand the nature and purpose of the universe because we have no textual guide as a literalist does mean that we have to come to understand the nature and purpose of the universe in differing ways. I say literalist because we can never know the true intention of the Biblical text – whether it is intended to be understood more literally or metaphorically. When God speaks the universe into being, for example, is there any way to understand that other than metaphorically? If the Bible is metaphor, though, then the original beliefs regarding the nature and purpose of the universe are also metaphors, which means that they are wildly open to interpretation. That, indeed, is surely one of the strengths of Judaism – it’s constant and expansive interpretive method. The challenge for a traditional with expansive interpretation, though, is that it’s difficult to demarcate boundaries of what is and what isn’t authentically Jewish. The risk of falling outside acceptable boundaries is exactly seen in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini, in which Nadav and Avihu offer strange fire to God and are immediately killed. Traditional interpretation says that they erred because they were drunk, which is why immediately following their deaths, Torah warns the priests not to drink while on duty. But that’s just an interpretation of the text. What if they merely understood the fire differently and brought something that was merely outside the norm? Despite Torah telling us later (e.g. Deut. 28:14) not to turn to the right or the left, the essence of interpretation is looking in differing directions and exploring their consequences. So, if anything, while we might say that Judaism says that God is the cause of the universe, the nature and purpose of the universe is open to interpretation even in Jewish tradition, even if it’s guided by at least a formative text, which is the Bible.


But what do we mean when we talk about God? Are we talking about a supernatural agent, as the original definition suggested? Looking further at the Biblical text, reference to God as a supernatural agent make sense but, once again, that’s not necessarily how many Jews have always seen God. A supernatural agency is that which exists totally outside nature but which can interact within nature in order to transform elements within nature. Kabbalists went beyond the literal reading of the text, though, to try to uncover the mystical pathways to connect with that which is, essentially, only crudely described in the Bible using words to guide us towards the indescribable. Many Jews today also see God as more of a transnatural agency – a Deity both outside nature and within nature, perhaps expressed through nature but not only of nature. So, once again, many Jews today find themselves with no strict textual guidance on matters of theology.


According to our definition, a religion also has a set of devotional or ritual observances, but that also leads to interesting questions for Reform Jews. Even up to only a few hundred years ago, it was standard devotional practice for only men and not women to wear certain prayer garments or to lead communal prayer. There were exceptions to those norms, of course, like Hannah Rochl, the Maiden of Ludmir, but the exceptions often proved the rule. Today, however, these restrictions no longer apply, in differing ways depending on Reform, Conservative and even some Orthodox communities. There is no uniformity in Jewish ritual practice… indeed, there definitely never has been. Even in Torah, we see variant practice, just like with Nadav and Avihu. There may have been serious consequences for expressing variant practice, of course, but to speak of one set of devotional or ritual observances is challenging. It’s easier in the orthodox community because a person is defined as an Orthodox Jew if they follow the rulings of the code of law known as the Shulchan Aruch. However, Orthodoxy is not the normative or default position of Jewish ritual observance. So, then, what does it mean for Judaism to have a set of devotional or ritual observances? A set is a collection of things that are not necessarily the same. Therefore, we could say that we have a set of rituals around prayer or a set of rituals around festival observance, or a set of rituals around food such as the laws of kashrut which are expounded upon in our Torah portion. While one Jew may take from each of those sets according to one interpretation, another Jew may take differing observances from those sets according to their interpretation. There are limits on those sets, though, and the limit usually involves symbols or rituals from other faith traditions. That, indeed, may be where Nadav and Avihu come undone – in offering fire that is “strange” in the sense of “more akin to the fire of other communities around them.”


The final part of our definition of a religion is that there is a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Interestingly, this is where I think Reform Judaism has a strength in that we are often just as interested in our ethical conduct in this world as we are our ritual observances. Judaism is not a monotheistic religion, despite what many people say. Judaism is Ethical Monotheism, which means that belief in God – however one understands God – must be accompanied not only by appropriate ritual conduct, as I just mentioned, but also by appropriate ethical conduct.


I appreciate that this was only one of countless definitions of religion, but I find this a particularly interesting one to consider during this week’s reading of the Torah portion of Shemini because of the behavior of Nadav and Avihu which challenged what was at that time considered to be “normative” Jewish “religious” practice. Reviewing this definition, especially in light of this Torah portion, reminds us that Judaism is, and has always been, far more flexible in interpretation of what constitutes normative religious thought and behavior than we might think.  Some Jews today might baulk at the idea and insist that there is normative behavior with only specific small variance, but even the presence of widely differing Ashkenazi and Sephardi custom shows that to be untrue. How we eat, what we believe, how we act, how we mourn, how we celebrate…. these are all diverse, wondrous sets of practices from which differing Jews can find comfort at differing times of their lives. With that in mind, then, perhaps we shouldn’t busy ourselves worrying necessarily about defining “What is Judaism?” but rather saying “What is my Judaism?” or, perhaps even better considering the essence of Judaism is in community, “What is our Judaism?”


I believe that our Judaism is a shared and multifaceted response to the varying expressions of Judaism of the past and of the present. More than that, I believe our Judaism speaks in many voices - sometimes answers, sometimes questions. As we read the Torah portion of Shemini this week, then, and as we explore what it means for us to journey through the Omer from slavery in Egypt to full expression of Jewish self at Sinai, let us explore that core question, “What is our Judaism?” for in that exploration, I believe we draw many steps further along that path to religious freedom. May our steps on that journey be guided with strength, and let us say, Amen.