Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Kosher Person

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/30 –

When we think about ‘kashrut’ – the question of whether something is kosher or not kosher – the first thought that probably jumps into our minds is food.  But in Judaism the idea of ‘kosher’ applies to other things as well, not only to food.  Can anyone give another example?  One is the Sefer Torah – a Torah that is usable – that we are permitted to read from – is actually called a kosher Torah.  Which of course begs a question – what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher?  With food we have a pretty strong sense of how that question is answered – certain foods are by definition not kosher – pork the most obvious example.  And certain foods can’t be mixed – like dairy and meat.  If they are mixed, the food is no longer kosher.  But what about a Torah?  What makes a Torah kosher, and what might make it not kosher?

Let us first think for a minute about what makes a Torah kosher.  First of all, the materials used to make the Torah have stringent requirements.  The ink that is used to write the letters must be made in a certain way, and it absolutely must be black – any other color and the Torah is not considered kosher.  The parchment, called in Hebrew ‘klaf’ must come from a kosher animal, usually a cow or a goat, sometimes even a deer.  the letters must be written using a special quill, usually one made from the feather of a kosher bird like a turkey.  When sections are sewn together the thread is made from the sinew of a kosher animal.  And if any of these things are not right – if the quill is not proper, or the parchment is not from a kosher animal, or even the thread, the Torah is not kosher, it is not usable.

But it isn’t only the materials that make the Torah kosher.  It also has to do with how the letters themselves are written.  No letter in the Torah can touch any other letter – if two letters are touching, the Torah is not kosher.  Certain letters have to be written larger than other letters – the best example is verse 4 in Deuteronomy chapter 6, the Shema Israel line, where the ‘shin’ of Shema and the ‘daled’ of echad must be written larger than the other letters.  At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion there is another example – the word Shalom appears in the third verse of this morning’s portion – how do you spell that word in Hebrew?  Shim, lamed, mem, vav, mem-sofit.  And how do you write a ‘vav’ in Hebrew?  One straight down line.  Believe me, there are a lot of ‘vavs’ in the Torah.  And all of them have to be written with a straight, uninterrupted line – except this vav in our word Shalom from this week’s portion.  It has to be written with an interruption in the line – a space – and if that space isn’t there, once again, the entire Torah is not kosher and may not be used.  That gives you just a little bit of an idea of what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher.

What about applying the same idea to a human being?  What makes a person kosher, or not kosher?  It might sound strange in our ears to phrase it that way, again because we so commonly associate that idea with food – but there is a talmudic concept of the ‘adam kasher’ – the kosher person.  In the Talmud this is a person who is deserving of the ultimate respect, so much so that the Talmud says when an ‘adam kasher’ – a kosher person – dies – everyone in community is obligated to make a tear in their clothing, something normally only immediate mourners do.  And everyone in the community is responsible for mourning this person’s loss.  That is the level of respect and love that an ‘adam kasher’ engenders in the course of his or her life.

Now it might seem to you like the High Holy Days are still very far away, after all we sit here at the end of July, and Rosh Hashanah isn’t until the beginning of October!  But the truth is in our liturgical cycle we are already pointing towards the fall holidays.  We read today the first in a series of 10 haftara texts that try to build up our spirits so that we can stand before God with clean hearts and souls at the beginning of the new year.  10 weeks from Sunday night is RH.  I don’t know about you – I tend to be a bit of a procrastinator – but the time is set aside for us, and I think the reason we are given so much time is that sometimes it can actually take quite a while to figure out how to be a kosher person.  It isn’t as black and white as the laws of what makes food kosher or not, or a Torah scroll kosher or not.  And wouldn’t it be nice if the tradition gave us some guidance as we went through this process.  What is it that makes a kosher person?

It is an old tradition during the summer months to spend some time studying Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers.  Probably more than any other text in Judaism, Pirke Avot lays out for us the tradition’s idea of what makes a person kosher.  It deals with ethics and morals, with how a person should act towards his or her fellow, with what kind of responsibility one has in terms of being part of a community.  The material is fairly wide ranging, but there are a few themes that come up again and again, ideals that the rabbis of old clearly believed defined what a kosher person should be.

A number of the ideals are things you might expect.  Be a kind and compassionate person.  Treat others with respect and dignity.  Live with a sense of God’s presence in your life.  All important qualities of the kosher person.  But there are three particular ideals that the text identifies, ideals that are at the core of being an ‘adam kasher’ – that might not normally come to our minds.

The first of them is humility.  The text reminds us that we are no more important that any other person, and that when we begin to feel more important than others – something we all seem to do at one time or another – we have wandered onto the wrong path and need to find our way back.

The next quality of a kosher person is communal engagement and commitment, a sense of communal responsiblity.  In today’s world we tend to emphasize the individual over the community and the individuals needs and rights over the community’s needs.  But in Judaism it is exactly the opposite.  When an individual’s need conflicts with a communal need, it is the community’s need that takes precedence.  As Jews we have an obligation not only to be connected to Jewish community, but to make sure that because of our presence the community becomes a better place for all.

The last thing is to be a learning Jew, to constantly strive to grow through the study of Judaism, Jewish thought, Jewish life, Jewish text, Jewish history.  Tradition understands that we nourish our bodies with food and drink, but that we must always make sure to nourish our souls and spirits, and one powerful way to do that is through the study of Torah – not only the scroll we take out of the ark, but Torah writ large, our ancient tradition with all of its wisdom.

So as we begin our slow but steady walk towards the High Holy Days, and begin to weigh in our minds who we are and who we want to be, we can perhaps keep in mind the wisdom our our sages and an ideal they at least believed we should all strive for – not necessarily to keep kosher, all though that wouldn’t be so bad – but to actually, in the way we live our lives and the quality of our own characters, to BE kosher –

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Will the Real Bible Please Stand Up

“A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage State legislatures to offer the Bible as literature curriculum in America’s high schools.”  – from the 2016 GOP platform document

Leave aside for now the strange phrasing of this statement, perhaps an attempt to call to mind the Second Amendment and its layered meaning in conservative circles.  What concerns me is not the stilted language, but rather a crucial question that lies at the heart of this passage from the 2016 GOP platform, namely:  which Bible?

After all, ‘Bible’ is a pretty broad term.  It can in my mind refer to a number of things.  One of them certainly is my Bible, the Jewish Bible, called in Hebrew the TaNaKh (this an acronym for the Hebrew Bible’s three parts – T = Torah, N = Nevi’im, or Prophets in English, and K = Ketuvim, or Writings).  Of course when most folks hear ‘Bible’ they probably think of the Christian scriptures, which include the Hebrew Bible and add in other material, most notably the Gospels that relate the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. You could also make the argument that the Koran is the Bible for Muslims, and some would say that the Book of Mormon serves that role for the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS – love that acronym – very confusing for an old Deadhead!).

My guess would be those who made sure the Bible reference was included in the GOP platform were thinking about some form of the Christian Bible (there actually are different versions used by different denominations).  As a Jew this idea makes me a bit uncomfortable – why their Bible and not mine?  Why should their version of events be chosen, thereby giving it (intentionally or not) an imprimatur of authenticity not bestowed upon other Bibles?

Now if we are going to say teaching Bible as literature means we’ll teach selected texts from multiple bibles, some from the Christian version, some from the Jewish version, some from the Koran, some from the Book of Mormon, and maybe a few more as well, then I am all for it.  Part of that course would have to remind the students that all of these bibles – all of them – have equal authenticity for the groups they represent.  That is to say, the Christian Bible is authentic for Christians, just as the Jewish Bible is for Jews, or the Koran is for Muslims.  Teaching the Bible as literature, in my mind, would also require exploring the human authorship of these works.  Because, after all, literature is something that is created by human beings, not by God.

A course like that might be helpful in increasing understanding among various faith groups.  It might give students a deeper appreciation for other cultures and faiths.  It might, in a small way, help to create a more open, accepting, and tolerant world.  But the passage in the platform, as written, is just a little bit too vague for me.  If the intent is to use the word ‘bible’ narrowly, as code for a particular Bible, then it is wrong and a clear violation of the separation of church and state.  If the intent is to use the word broadly, as a term of inclusion of various faiths and perspectives, then it sounds pretty good in my ears.  So some clarification please.  Will the real Bible please stand up!?

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Peeking Into Days of Future Past

Working my way through my summer reading list I’ve taken a detour.  It happens every summer, some previously unexpected, off the radar novel comes to my attention, grabs my interest, I track it down, and the reading begins (or continues).  This summer that book seems to be three books, a trilogy, written by Ben H. Winters, entitled The Last Policeman.   Classic dystopian literature.  A dark and disturbing world, intimately familiar, exists under the threat of extinction.  People go about their normal lives, work, converse, eat, fall in and out of love.  Everything is the same, but everything is different.  When you know the world is about to end, who can blame you for acting a bit strangely?

The genre of dystopian fiction is more popular than it has ever been.  We all remember Orwell’s 1984, having read it in high school.  The protagonist Winston Smith is on a fool’s errand, a quest for independence and freedom, thinking his own thoughts, straying from the prescribed program, leaving the party, and with it Big Brother, behind.  It is a quest that can only end badly.  Deception, capture, and torture; the inexorable power of the State bending Smith’s will and twisting his psyche, robbing him of every free thought and feeling.  1984  paints the portrait of a world that on the surface functions at least semi-normally, but where just under the surface – just – everything is wrong.

Something draws us to these stories.  Think of the success of the Hunger Games series, or Lois Lowry’s The Giver, required reading in virtually every middle school today.  But the list goes on and on.  Surely Huxley paved the way with Brave New World.  Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 explored the darkness of a world without books.  More recently Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake have delved into a near future where the average man or woman is boxed into a life totally controlled by invisible, shadowy forces.  These narratives are marked by a sense of ominous presence, of someone or something always watching, of inevitable violence and decay and the destruction of the human spirit.

Can there be anything better to read in this summer of our discontent?  With bizarre political processes playing out before our very eyes, with violence in the streets, citizens and police being shot, guns everywhere.  With the menace of terrorist attacks, where every bag can hold a bomb and every truck can suddenly become a terrible weapon of destruction and death.  As distrust and division grows deeper, what can be done?

Perhaps the first step is simply naming it all, looking unflinchingly at what is happening and acknowledging how troubled these times truly are, and how far we have to go, how much work there is to be done to change this tide.  That is precisely where art comes in, where music and literature and painting can help us step outside of our world for a time so that when we return, when we walk back through the door, we have context, a deeper understanding of what we see and feel, of what our world is and should be.


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The Grass May Be Greener, but Be Careful What You Wish For

The aphorism is a tried and tested literary and language device.  The idea is you create a pithy phrase, generally short and easily remembered, and you use it to convey some central truth.  The most successful aphorisms are very commonly known – so much so that many people know them by heart, and probably use them on a regular basis.  Here are just a few well known examples:

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! – in other words, when something is working well, don’t mess around with it!  Winston Churchill was a great aphorist, and there are countless aphorisms attributed to him, including ‘everyone has his day, but some days last longer than others.’  Yogi Berra was a great modern creator of aphorisms, including ‘it gets late early out here,’ and probably his most famous statement of all, ‘it ain’t over until its – over!’  And there are many aphorisms we use that are unattributed, probably the most popular of them today being ‘it is what it is.’

This morning I would like to think with you about two aphorisms, both of them very familiar, that seem to me to connect into this morning’s Torah portion, and also perhaps to the so called ‘Brexit’ vote that just took place in Great Britain a little more than a week ago.  I’ll give you the first half of the statement, lets see if you can give me the second half:  the grass is always greener…on the other side of the fence.  And the second statement:  Be careful…what you wish for.

It might be worthwhile for a moment or two thinking about how we commonly understand these statements.  Lets begin with the grass is always greener.  If you’ve ever been responsible for mowing and maintaining a lawn, you have experienced this sensation many times.  Boy your neighbor’s lawn, over there on the other side of the fence, looks good!  It is so green, there are no weeds, its just been cut while yours is long and has dry patches and too many dandelions.  But of course the truth is your neighbor’s lawn also has its own issues.  It might look so good because your neighbor has put hours of work into it, or because she has it professionally mowed, or if you went over and stood in her lawn and looked around, you might realize it actually doesn’t look that great up close.  But your perception of it is that it is green – in other words, it is certainly better than your lawn!

And then the second statement, be careful what you wish for.  You may be familiar with the great Sondheim musical Into the Woods.  It weaves together the threads of multiple fairy tales, to include Cinderella, Jack and the Bean Stalk, and Rapunzel.  Each of the major characters wishes for something they don’t have – the baker and his wife for a child, the witch for youth, Cinderella for a prince, Jack and his mother for wealth.  At the end of the first act each wish has been fulfilled and everything seems to have ended “happily ever after.”

But the musical doesn’t end there.  There is a second act, and in that act everything begins to unravel, for each of the characters, and in each case the cause of the character’s problems is the very thing they wished for and found.  Be careful what you wish for.  How often is it that we believe if we could only have – whatever it might be – then our lives would be perfect, and we would come to a sense of completion.  But the truth is, so often in life, when you find that thing you’ve been searching for, it comes with its own set of problems, not the least of which, by the way, is that once you get that thing it doesn’t give you the satisfaction you thought it would.

In this morning’s Torah portion we find the famous story of the spies – the m’raglim.  A group of 12, they are sent into the land by Moses to spy it out, so the Israelites will know what they’ll find there.  You’ll remember the story – the spies go in, and they see a series of daunting challenges – the people seem to be strong and difficult to defeat, the cities are fortified, even the geography seems intimidating.  When they return to Moses and the people they give a terrible report that scares the Israelites to the point where they refuse to go up into the land that God has promised them.  In the Torah the spies are condemned as sinners, the people panic, and ultimately God decides that not a single one of those Israelites will ever enter the Promised Land.

Lets first think of the grass is always greener.  The spies had two things in their minds that they were comparing – what was before them – the new land – and what was behind them, Egypt.  And when they held those two things up and examined them, despite the fact that they had been slaves in Egypt, despite the taste of the bitterness of that experience that was still in their mouths, when they looked back they saw Egypt as the better of the two scenarios.  They saw what they were about to possess on one side of the fence – a land with admittedly significant challenges, but also a land flowing with milk and honey – and they saw what was on the other side of that fence – Egypt and slavery.  And in their eyes, standing with one foot in the Promised Land, just about to enter, looking back, the grass looked greener in Egypt.

Which in a sense led the people directly into aphorism number 2, be careful what you wish for.  It is an odd thing to think about, but the truth is the spies got exactly what they wanted.  They believed the people didn’t stand a chance of successfully entering the land and defeating its inhabitants – לא נוכל לעלות אל העם כי חזק הוא ממנו – we cannot attack that people, it is stronger than we are!  And the Israelites followed their advice, believing they had no chance.  It was exactly the outcome the spies were hoping for.

But be careful what you wish for.  The people panicked.  God becomes so angry with them that God makes the decision none of them will enter the new land.  The wandering in the wilderness will continue until the entire generation has died off.  So in the end, by achieving their short term goal, the spies – and by extension the people – lost out on the greatest possible blessing the could have found – living as free people in their own land.

Maybe it is not so different for all of those folks in England who voted to leave the European Union.  They were poised between a past that was familiar, England unattached to the EU, and a future with a growing sense of integration and cooperation, that to them felt unfamiliar and scary and  threatening.  And in their eyes the grass looked greener in the past than it did on the path to the future they saw ahead of them.

Well they got what they wanted.  I guess the question at this point is will it be a case of be careful what you wish for.  In an increasingly global economy will England figure out a way to mostly go it alone, or will it struggle and watch the rest of the world move forward as it is left behind?   And when they get to wherever they are going, arriving there alone, what will the grass look like?  My guess is it won’t look quite as green as what is on the other side of the fence.

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