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Reform Judaism is Traditional Judaism

Erev Rosh HaShanah – 5774

Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

“Hineni,” I am here.

I am present, in this moment, to celebrate the New Year, atone for the mistakes of the past year, and turn towards the future ready to do better. I am present to connect with my self, the people around me, and with our God.

“Hineinu”

We are present to begin our holy days together.

This sentiment of presence at this moment connects us to historical and traditional Judaism – the traditions of Jews for thousands of years.

Though we call ourselves Reformers much later, reform in Judaism has been with us from the beginning. The principles of reforming – individual choice, creativity, innovation in the face of change, the use of wisdom from all sources – all have been present in the Torah, and in Judaism, from the start.

We evolve, we think about the future and how to respond to it, we respect each other’s differences, we create priorities among values, so that some, like compassion and hospitality, come before others, like keeping kosher and laws of purity.

We follow very closely in the footsteps of our ancestors in the Torah, in the Talmud, in the Middle Ages. In this way we are like Jews have always been.

Most Jews coming to synagogue tonight will say or hear this word “Hineini”, “Here I am”.

These are the words of Abraham, the first Jew and the first Reform Jew. At the beginning of the Binding of Isaac God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham responds,

Hineini, “Here I am”.

We all know the story…

God tested Abraham.

We are left to figure out exactly what the test was. We say it was a test of faith and obedience. Will Abraham sacrifice the child promised to him, the child through whom Abraham’s reward from God – a great nation – will emerge?

Every year we return to Binding of Isaac and every year I try to find a new take on it. In this way, we are like Jews throughout history trying to figure this story out. This year, reading through some of the Hebrew commentaries on it, I found one small comment by a 12th and 13th century scholar, Rabbi David Kimchi. Rabbi Kimchi noted that if this had been about obedience alone, wouldn’t God would have told Abraham, “Do this now”? But no, God said:

Go to the land of Moriah…

Moriah was far away. God asked Abraham to take a three-day journey. Abraham was eager to obey. He got up early and went, avoiding Sarah, knowing that what he planned to do would upset her, to say the least.

Rabbi Kimchi said that God meant to send Abraham on a long walk, to allow him “l’hitbonen”, “to gain insight for himself”. Obedience was not the whole test. God also tested Abraham’s ability to think, reason, and learn. God intended Abraham to deliberate as much about the life of his son, as he did about the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, for whom he argued with God.

Then, along the way Isaac stopped and said:

Father!

And Abraham answered: Hineini/Here I am, my son.

First Abraham was present for God, and now Abraham was present for Isaac. Abraham showed us that we must be present for God AND for our families.

Isaac suspected something. He said: “Hey Dad, looks like we are going to go make a burnt offering – what’s on the menu?”

They had been on the road for a few days, Abraham pondered God’s demand, and had some doubts when Isaac asked this question. Obviously, he could not be upfront with his son about the idea of offering him up as a sacrifice, so Abraham decided to express trust in God – God would see to the offering.

At first Abraham was eager, and now, in the middle of the journey, perhaps less eager. Our classical rabbis didn’t like to imagine Abraham boldly lying to Isaac, so they note that Abraham knew that things would work out differently, since what he said, that God would see to the lamb for the offering, was pretty close to how the it ended up.

In no time we have Abraham holding the knife over Isaac. At this instant, God’s messenger, called out to Abraham from heaven, and Abraham again responded,

 “Hineini/Here I am”,

ready to hear you. And this moment of hesitation, brought on by Abraham’s doubts from the long walk to Mount Moriah, let Abraham lift up his eyes, and see the ram caught in the thicket, and then offer the ram instead of Isaac.

Abraham listened. He obeyed one command. And then Abraham didn’t say to God, “Hold on, I’m in the middle of doing your command.”

Instead, that still small voice of his conscience held his hand, gave him pause, and allowed him to lift up his eyes and see the ram that had been there from the start. Abraham’s openness to change, to an actual change what God wanted, and Abraham’s devotion to the value of all life, saved Isaac.

We do what Abraham did.

We look at our actions and think about them. We do not obey without question.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud were reformers of the most radical order – they created new traditions and institutions when Judaism faced the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. In fact, they had been crafting a new Judaism for over 200 years before the destruction of the Temple, and so were best prepared to propose something new that could survive the loss of our center.

The famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai lived long before the destruction of the Second Temple, and already they developed and debated home observances like Chanukah and Shabbat, and worship outside the Temple. Synagogues and Houses of Learning were built far from Jerusalem long before the Temple’s destruction. We don’t have to rely on our rabbis’ memories of these buildings, many of us here have visited the remains of ancient synagogues throughout Israel, including the synagogue at Masada, many of them dating to over 100 years before the common era.

In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, with some places of learning and practices already established, our ancient rabbis began centuries of conversations about how to live their new Judaism, and wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud. These rabbis wrote the first book of the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, the Chapters of the Ancestors, and explicitly connected the giving of Torah to Moses at Sinai in a line of transmission of scholars all the way down to the themselves. Our ancient rabbis wrote themselves into the Torah! What chutzpah!

 “Hineinu.” The rabbis were present.

They were present for to make the changes that helped Judaism survive.

Abraham became present and opened up to the change that a long walk might offer him. The rabbis who created our Judaism opened up all Jews to new ideas: the synagogue could evolve from the Temple, prayer could evolve from sacrifices, and books could contain our legacy of wisdom.

The rabbis of this early Rabbinic Period revitalized Passover, and made it into a home observance. They promoted the head of household into the master of ceremonies for the Passover Seder, which they created to celebrate one of our most central holidays. They took things out of the Temple court and made them part of our home lives.

When faced with a need to change and evolve, these early rabbis rose to the occasion and spent 500 years crafting a process for figuring out how to do Jewish – today we call the record of that work the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Not only did they create new Jewish rituals and institutions, the rabbis also knew that they couldn’t push it too far. At one point in the Talmud’s discussions of Shabbat they actually admit that they could derive more restrictions for Shabbat than they could convincingly ask Jews to observe. The rabbis knew that our opinions mattered too. Our Talmudic rabbis were present for the what Jews cared about.

 “Hineinu.” We are present to learn from everyone.

Like our reforming ancestors before us, Reform Jews today revere knowledge from all sources. We aim to incorporate any wisdom that seems to work.

Maimonides, one of the most important Jewish scholars in our history, wrote in the 12th century that should the popular understanding of the creation of the world ever differ from the one described in Genesis, then we Jews should read our story as a good story, not a description of reality. We have been a scientifically minded people for a long time, always attempting to find a path that includes our historical writings and the truths of the times we live in.

Maimonides was also an esteemed authority in secular learning – he was revered by non-Jews as a doctor, as an astronomer, and as a philosopher. Before Maimonides, the rabbis of antiquity incorporated Greek philosophy into the Talmud. After Maimonides Renaissance commentators on the Torah used the same psychological thinking that informed Shakespeare. We love to learn, and we love to learn from any source.

The Torah is the symbol of our wisdom, not the entirety of it.

We Reform Jews understand this, we have been present for it, and we follow along paths that were well-trod long before the founding of the Reform movement.

“Hineinu.” We are present to learn from any and all sources of wisdom.

Our modern Reform Judaism emerged when 19th Century German Jews needed an authentic Jewish experience that connected them to their pasts and also allowed them to say,

“Here we are,

in a synagogue with others who share our values.”

Jews with secular educations began to succeed and live well in German cities of the early 1800’s. The Judaism they found there reminded them of the little synagogues in the shtetls that their grandparents had left behind decades before. They no longer dressed, spoke, worked, or lived like people from the country, so the religion from the country no longer spoke to them either. They began with a few simple innovations: a prayer book written with German translations, a sermon given in German instead of Yiddish. Tthey followed the teachings of the Talmud, that emphasize that prayer must be said in a language that people understand.

These urban Jews spoke German and not Yiddish, and needed to understand the holy words of their prayers, and the sermons of their leaders.

These early Reformers met their new needs. With thought and deliberation, over time, they followed Abraham’s model of “l’hitbonen”, to build insights for themselves, and in turn to build a Reform Judaism out of the Judaism of the past, using historical values and principles and applying them to their new situation, exactly like the rabbis of the Talmud.

Reform Judaism is mainstream, traditional, and historical Judaism. When we innovate we respond in a traditional and evolutionary manner to changes in our situations.

The reaction against these innovations became Orthodoxy.

Yes, that’s right – Reform Judaism came first, and the reaction against it, Orthodoxy, second. And in perfect Jewish form, early Orthodox Jews felt Judaism was in crisis and created a new idea about Judaism, a rigid conservatism, a resistance to change that in and of itself was a new form of Judaism. Judaism reacts to the times, and we often come up with different reactions.

 “Hineinu – here we are!”

         We Reform Jews are heirs to a long line of Jews who took reforming seriously.

We are here and present to listen and learn from our ancient traditions, and see how best to apply them to our situations today.

We are here to learn from each other, from other Jews, and from the best that science and human thought has to offer.

We are here to be present for each other as Jews who care deeply about who we have always been, and who we may yet become.

We are here, and we stand between the rich history of the Jewish people, and the promise of a future that we will build together.

Hineinu – we are present.

         Like Abraham, the ancient rabbis, and all of our sages:

We are present for God, we are present for our families, we are present for our greater communities, and we are present to be Reform Jews.

L’shanah Tovah, a good year, a year of growth and reform, a year of authentic Judaism which is ours to make, a better and brighter 5774 for us all.

A Jewish Take on a Superstorm

The world is not fair – while Abraham seems to argue for fairness in the treatment of Sodom and Gemorrah, still Lot needs to flee the disaster with his family. Bad things happen. Storms happen, and people run from storms, stay hunkered down in storms. What separates the fortunate on the Upper West Side of Manhattan from the less fortunate in Staten Island, or in Cuba? As Jews we stand up and argue with the unfairness of the universe and then we put our hearts and souls into reaching out to those in need, those who suffer the worst of the storms. We hurl our anger at the sky, and then bend our minds and backs to the tasks at hand – rebuilding, repairing, and making anew.

We progressive Jews hesitate to use parts of our Torah that vex us, like these verses from Deuteronomy, part of the Sh’ma in other prayer books, and words that we have omitted from ours:
Deut. 11:13 Now it shall be if you hearken, yes, hearken to my commandments that I command you today, to love Adonai your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your being:
14 I will give forth the rain of your land in its due-time, shooting-rain and later-rain; you shall gather in your grain, your new-wine and your shining-oil;
16 Take-you-care, lest your heart be seduced, so that you turn-aside and serve other gods and prostrate yourselves to them,
17 and the anger of Adonai flare up against you so that he shuts up the heavens, and there is no rain, and the earth does not give forth its yield, and you perish quickly from off the good land that Adonai is giving you!

We don’t like these words because they equate good and bad behavior with good and bad natural events. We prefer the perspective from the Book of Job, that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and we can’t explain it at all.

And yet, is that really the case?

When we act as a community to prevent difficulties – to provide care for those who need it, and food for those who need it – we create a society in which there is less suffering. Our actions do shape our communities – actions and outcomes are connected.

When we work together to build sound foundations, to respect the ecology that provides our resources for food and shelter, we interact with a planet that treats us with some of the respect that we treat it.

We don’t have to look at God as responding to behavior when we recognize that we live in a society and on a planet in which all things are connected. Each of us plays a part in the whole, and we sink or swim together.

Realistic Theology

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:

Today we look at B’chukotai, Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34 – two chapters, almost, with the first focused on the outcomes of following or not following God’s commandments, and the second on the rules about vows, concluding with the last verse of Leviticus:

These are the commandments that Adonai commanded Moses for the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

As rationalists, we often bristle at the idea that following commandments would result in blessings and not following them would result in curses. Reward and punishment theology seems unrealistic at best, we even have a Biblical book arguing against it entirely – the Book of Job.

So how do we learn from these texts?

When we follow reasonable practices that help us get along with each other better, when we treat the planet better, we will likely find our lives turn out better. Following a social contract creates better society. Noticing that certain practices hurt the environment, and in turn our livelihoods and fates, and then changing our behavior, leads us to a better life for all.

Our theology should support demands for improved behavior, without threatening supernatural rewards and punishments.

Avoid idolatry and avoid materialism

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:

Today we look at B’har, Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2 – rules of economic fairness – forgiveness of debts; as well as rules about allowing land to rest on the seventh year. The text sums up the intent of these laws in the final lines which remind the Israelites that they serve God, who freed them from Egypt, and that they should make no idols and observe the Sabbath.

Materialism is a form of idolatry. When we claim to own a thing or a person or the land we allow the ownership to rule us. Giving up on that ownership, making rules about it that are fair, and reminding our selves on a regular basis that all belongs to the universe and not us, frees us from being bound to our possession of things.

Remembering that only the infinite is worthy of worship helps us focus on the values that create a better world. Observing pauses like Shabbat on a weekly basis, and the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, allows us to regain a sense of priorities greater than focus on what we have and don’t have.

Everyone Gets Equal Treatment

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day…it’s back, after the High Holy Day hiatus.

Today we look at Emor, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23 – rules about relationships, for priests, including an ostensibly offensive rule for the priesthood, quoted here:

Lev. 21:17 Speak to Aaron, saying: A man of your seed, throughout their generations, who has in him a defect is not to come-near to bring-near the food of his God.

This limits the participation of the Levites to those who are born with no defects whatsoever. A student from our synagogue who only has nine toes read this section for his Bar Mitzvah, and started out understandably outraged.

Reading on, we discovered a way, perhaps to rehabilitate the text, in a small way:

Lev. 21:22 The food-offerings of his God from the holiest holy-portions, or from the holy-portions, he may eat;

Allowing Levites who are prohibited from participating in Levitical work, namely the maintenance of the Temple and the sacrificial system, to nonetheless eat from the food that the Levites receive as their donation shows the inherent concern for fairness even in ancient Israelite society. After all, these disabled Levites were also barred from other employment in the community, just like any other Levite, and so they needed to receive sustenance from somewhere.

While physical limitations may make certain jobs unavailable, no one should be left out of the basic needs of social welfare.

Thank you to Benjamin Meyerson, the Bar Mitzvah student, who helped come up with this insight.

Celebrating Vulnerability on Sukkot

From Sukkot Worship on Monday, October 11, 2012 – 15 Tishrei 5772

Our pilgrimage festivals seem to follow a natural pattern:

Passover – celebrate freedom

Shavuot – celebrate the giving of Torah

Sukkot – if we were to complete the pattern, we should be celebrating the arrival in Israel, the completion of our journey.

Instead, we celebrate our vulnerability – we celebrate the sources of our sustenance – how the planet provides for us through harvest and shelter, and how fragile all of that is.

Seems strange, as the finale of a three-part series – freedom, wisdom, vulnerability – this is something of a let down.

Yet, this may be one of the central keys to Judaism.

When we arrive in the Promised Land, when we complete the journey, our history has just begun. We do not celebrate a final sense of redemption in this world. We are not a people who believe that our work will be, or has ever been, complete.

Instead, we choose, as the most celebratory of our three primary festivals, to take in the harvest, eat, drink, and be satisfied, for a moment, while still knowing that the seasons will yet change again, and there will be more work to be done.

We do not have a holy day that marks completion, instead we sit in our temporary structures on Sukkot, happy to have brought in a good harvest, and see how fragile it all is. We notice that our completion is momentary.

Sukkot sends us a fundamental message about the nature of life. As we have come through our seasons of inspiration, our celebration of the creation of the world on Rosh Hashanah, and our deep time of repentance on Yom Kippur, Sukkot gets us back to the everyday – our needs being met by the earth, and our need to reconnect with those physical needs. We live in the desert forever – we do not reach completion. We get through the desert with the blessing of the bounty of our harvest, when we are lucky to have enough, and through the blessings of our communities coming together to share that harvest and make sure we everyone shares in our bounty.

Fragility, vulnerability, life as wanderers – this is life. As Jews we recognize it and celebrate when we succeed at living with it, as well as the need to make sure we don’t ignore it.

May this year be one where we live well with our fragile world, and guard against the hazards it brings by coming together to bring each other blessings of sustenance.

Aim for holiness in the New Year

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at K’doshim, Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27 – the holiness code, a list of behaviors that Jews identify as fulfilling the verse that appears early in this reading:

Lev. 19:2 Speak to the entire community of the Israelites, and say to them: Holy are you to be, for holy am I, Adonai your God!

Jews tend to read this section as describing how God intends us to be holy – namely by adhering to these standards. The verse serves as an introduction to the behaviors and rituals that follow.

This says that holiness is not other-worldly, not some distant divine essence. Rather, to be holy is to be distinct – to separate ourselves by following paths of good actions. To be holy is to distinguish our behavior, just like creating holiness for a time or space is about setting aside that time and space as special and different from other events and locations.

On this Day of Repentance, that starts this evening, let us all try and find some way to distinguish ourselves. May we make this year one where our actions bring holiness into the world.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we all be well-inscribed for the New Year.

Leviticus Says Nothing About Homosexuality

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30 – the offerings required of Aaron, including the one for all of the sins of the Israelites on the Day of Atonement, prohibitions against hunting, and a host of laws about prohibited relationships.

After that long list comes this text, used frequently, usually by non-Jews, in current times:

Lev. 18:21 Your seed-offspring you are not to give-over for bringing-across to the Molech, that you not profane the name of your God, I am Adonai!
22 With a male you are not to lie (after the manner of) lying with a woman, it is an abomination!
23 With any animal you are not to give your emission of seed, becoming-impure through it; a woman is not to stand before an animal, mating with it, it is perversion!

Considering that verse 22, the often quoted anti-homosexual prohibition does not come in the area preceding it, about prohibited marriage relations, we can infer that the notion of two men or two women living together and building a family wasn’t seen as an option in ancient Israelite society. Furthermore, the placement of this practice in the area of religious and behavioral abominations also places it outside the norms of regular community life.

Since today we see that same-sex families are just as healthy as their heterosexual alternatives, and that supporting people in forming families is one of the main purposes of a religious society that advocates healthy partnered relationships over promiscuity, we can understand this text as prohibiting something else.

Some evidence points to this prohibiting a form of worship where the priest would dress as a woman and have sex with the worshiper. We can certainly see that such a cult of prostitution would be against the ethics of Ancient Israelite society, and would be a much more accurate fit to what this text might prohibit.

As reasonable religious people we should use our reflective time of year as an opportunity to reconcile the principles we aim to live by with how we read our texts as well. Fairness and compassion, as well as the promotion of healthy families, demand that we must be for total inclusion of the diversity of sexual and gender identities.

Bodies are sources of holiness too

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at M’tzorah, Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33 – ritual impurities around mysterious skin conditions (not leprosy, BTW), and ritual impurities around sexual relationships.

What’s the deal with the impurities? What kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo is this?

Let us depart from the judgmental attitude towards cleanliness in English. All of the impurities mentioned in this section, and the procedures around them, could happen to anyone, and do happen to almost everyone – they are normal results of human existence. Impurity is not a critique, but a rhythm to life, living, and the appreciation of our physicality.

How we cycle in and out of different moments in life is worth noting. When we come into contact with the sources of creation via intimacy we ought to take note in some way. Recognizing the sacredness in such acts by washing before and afterward and treating our actions as full of impact seems like a good corrective in a society where all too often sex and sexuality get easily demeaned by disrespectful access and treatment.

We find great meaning in the connection between our bodies and relationships. At this reflective time of year, let us aim for better and more respectful physicality.