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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.

Causing God to Dwell in Our Midst

This week, in parashat T’rumah, Exodus25:1-27:19, the Torah details the commands for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernace, or portable Temple. We can understand about the need to bring God into our presence, even today, when we imagine God to be beyond the ideas of a tent or an ark of the covenant that might actually contain God. After all, there are moments in our lives when we feel God much more powerfully, and there are places we go in order to experience God more fully too. Life cycle events, Shabbat services, holidays, family get-together’s – we often identify these times as filled with greater meaning, and even the presence of God. Synagogues, holy places, sites of tremendous natural beauty – these loom large in our mind as places where we might feel connected to God.

The Israelites in the desert, after the encounter with God at Sinai, where God visibly showed up in an impressive array of special effects, built a Mishkan, literally a dwelling place for God. Do we think that they really imagined that the entirety of God could fit in a little box inside a tent?

I don’t think our ancestors believed that, and I certainly don’t expect all of you to believe it either. Rather, I think that they understood what Abraham understood before them. Abraham knew that the presence of God entered into a place when we behaved in a certain way – in his case, when he welcomed strangers into his tent. The ethic of hospitality brings the presence of God into our midst. The Israelites understood that when they worked together to build something, when they came together for the improvement of the entire community, that God would dwell in their midst too.

In this way, we read the building of the Mishkan, the bringing together of many different items from many different people with many different skills and advantages, as a way of uniting to transform the Israelite community into something better. The actions of the people of Israel united behind a common cause and helped them overcome their difficulties from the past – like grumbling about being brought out of Egypt, and building the Golden Calf.

To bring God into our midst means acting in a way that transforms people from individuals with different desires and agendas into a community, united around projects and causes that bring benefits to everyone.

While we no longer build a Mishkan and all of its ornaments, including the ark of the covenant, we do reap the rewards of united actions. We come together to pray and to learn, to celebrate and to mourn, and to mark the end of the week and the beginning of Shabbat.

I wish that all of us take moments on this Shabbat to come together with each other, to find family and friends and do something that we couldn’t do on our own. Celebrating Shabbat in community transforms our time together, and brings God to dwell in our midst.

The use of omnipotence

How powerful is God and how does God use that power?

These questions arise in this week’s Torah reading, Bo, which includes the final plagues and the freeing of the Israelites from Egypt.

God commanded Moses in the opening of the parasha (Exodus Chapter 10, verses 1-2):
“…Come to Pharaoh! For I have made his heart and the heart of his servants heavy-with-stubbornness, in order that I may put these my signs among them
2 and in order that you may recount in the ears of your child and of your child’s child how I have been capricious with Egypt, and my signs, which I have placed upon them – that you may know that I am God.“

God’s explicit purpose made life difficult for the Egyptians so that the Israelites would understand the extent of God’s power. God’s power extends beyond physical miracles, God also controls Pharaoh’s heart and mind.

One of our Renaissance scholars from Italy, Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, suggests that God made Pharaoh more stubborn so that other Egyptians would have the opportunity to repent. This reading expands our understanding of God. God now cares for more than the Israelites – God cares for all of creation.

In Sforno’s reading we can bring our ideas of God into the central message of the Exodus, that all peoples deserve consideration, and that we should not oppress others because we were once oppressed.

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.

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.