Category Archives: gay rights

Looking for Kansas

You will remember the famous line from the Wizard of Oz, spoken by Dorothy to her dog Toto just after they arrive in a strange and magical land:  ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Over the years that phrase has entered the vernacular, generally used to indicate the moment when you realize you’ve entered unknown territory, that you’ve come to a place, whether physical or metaphysical, where you’ve never before been.

So where are we today?  With constant protests and regular ‘executive orders.’  With immigration bans and simmering anger.  With simple and straight forward facts being doubted and questioned and sometimes blatantly denied.  I actually had to step between two men in their 80s at our kiddish after services this past Shabbat.  I was afraid they were going to come to blows, one speaking out in support of the administration, one against.  Both of them, by the way, are immigrants.

Wherever we are, we are not in Kansas.  Of that I am sure.  I guess the question might be how do we get back?

Being honest, at this point I don’t know.  Perhaps the Wizard of Oz is instructive.  Dorothy had a long way to go before she found her way back home.  Challenges and even some dangers to overcome.  The Yellow Brick Road.  The Lion and Scarecrow and Tin Man.  Those weird looking flying monkey things.  The Emerald City, even the Wizard of Oz himself.  And of course the Wicked Witch!  Along the way she had moments of heartbreak, despair, and doubt.  And even at the end of that long road it was touch and go.  But she made it.  And when she arrived, boy did Kansas look good.

And all the way through she maintained the courage of her convictions.  Not  that she didn’t learn along the way, and change and grow.  She did!  But her innate sense of decency and fairness and the kindly inclination of her heart remained steady.

Maybe that is what is happening in America today.  People are realizing what really matters to them, and the country itself is rediscovering fundamental values like tolerance and kindness, caring for the marginalized, and welcoming the stranger, fairness and human dignity.  Sounds a lot like Kansas.  And people have been pulling their ruby red slippers out of their closets all over this land.

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Filed under America, civil rights, community, freewill, gay rights, LGBT, liminal moments, politics, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

The Upside Down

One of the most popular TV shows in the country over the last few months has been the Netflix sci-fi/mystery/retro (early 1980s!!)/buddy series called Stranger Things.  The show follows the adventures of a group of young teens as they try to save a friend who has been captured by a monster and taken to a parallel universe (sounds simple, right?).  Called the Upside Down, this strange place is eerily like our own world, but everything there is dark and twisted.  A clean pool of clear water is murky and filled with weeds in the Upside Down.  The beautiful forest of our world is filled with rotted trees entangled in lichen there.  Horrible monsters lurk behind every corner, and danger crouches at every doorstep.  It is our world, with everything gone wrong.

So perhaps it is no coincidence that so many Americans were watching Stranger Things during the last grinding and depressing months and weeks of election 2016.  The show seems like a fitting prelude to where we’ve arrived.  A real estate mogul turned reality TV celebrity with no previous governing experience and a bad Twitter habit is poised to enter the Oval Office.  He has installed a far right wing conspiracy theorist conjurer as his chief advisor.  The soon to be vice president’s mantra is “I am a Christian first!”  And reports surfaced just today that Rudy Giuliani, the erstwhile mayor of NYC and current channeler of hyperbole is actually being considered for the position of Secretary of State.  Of the United States of America, that is.  Have we somehow, without even knowing it, fallen into our own version of the Upside Down?  As crazy as that sounds, aren’t the other sentences in this paragraph even crazier?  And they are all true.

I can’t help but think of the moment when the Frankenstein monster rises from the table, violently infused with life by the power of lighting, an angry and lashing energy that appears seemingly from nowhere, destroying everything else it touches.  And surely more than anything else it was anger that brought this new administration to power, the disdain and hurt and boiling fury of millions of Americans who had simply had it with Washington and political gamesmanship.  How destructive that unharnessed energy and anger will ultimately be we won’t know for at least a little while.  But we are going to find out, and there is no going back.

In Bob Weir’s first public appearance since the election, sitting in with the Joe Russo led band JRAD, he passionately sang ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.’  I am guessing Weir chose the song particularly, as a musical response to the events of last week.  Penned by Bob Dylan and one of his early masterpieces, the lyrics of the song paint the picture of a dystopian world where everything has gone wrong.  The dark and disturbing imagery contrasts sharply with the song’s chorus, warning us all in a prophetic proclamation that there are consequences to these historical moments, and that they can be far reaching.  But the last stanza suggests that we cannot turn away, that in fact we have to walk into the darkness, enter the Upside Down, in order to have a chance to emerge whole.  Stranger Things indeed.  Here are the lyrics:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


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Dueling Bibles – the Importance of Defending and Supporting the LGBT Community

This a text version of my sermon from 6/18/16.  My thanks to Bob Weir for his comments at  the conclusion of the Dead and Co show from Bonnaroo .  Folks often ask where sermons come from, and this one in large part started with those comments.

Just a few hours after the horrific events in Orlando last Sunday morning the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, a man by the name of Dan Patrick, sent out a tweet on his official Twitter account that read ‘God cannot be mocked – a man reaps what he sows.’  It is a well known quote from the Christian Bible, Galatians chapter 7 verse 6, that is generally read as a warning to people to remember that their actions have consequences.  But in this context, with the posting of the tweet right after the shooting, and with Patrick’s history of hostility towards the LGBT community, the message was seen in a different light – namely, as his way of suggesting that people who are gay deserve to be punished because of who they are, the lifestyle the live, and the people they love.

As you may imagine the reaction to the tweet was swift and fierce.  It was widely condemned, and within a short time Mr. Patrick had deleted it from his account, once again demonstrating that politicians will stay strong in their views until they realize just how unpopular those views are.  But you almost can’t blame Mr. Patrick for what he did, in fact you might have expected it.  He comes from a religious community and religious background where such views are not only common, but also commonly accepted.  People in his community will often justify the homophobic positions they take by citing scripture, knowing that there are verses in the Hebrew Bible – what they would call the Old Testament – that on the surface seem to forbid homosexual behavior.

There are two things I would like to say about that this morning.  The first is this – if those folks want to read their scripture literally, then they should stick with it all the way, and not just pick and choose certain verses.  Because it also says in the Hebrew Bible that a child who insults his parents should be stoned to death at the city gate, and I don’t see these folks tweeting about that.  It also says, by the way, that pork is a forbidden food, but the last I checked the Great State of Texas was pretty well known for its BBQ pork ribs – not that that is something a rabbi knows much about – and I don’t see anyone in the Texas legislature trying to ban pork ribs or Dan Patrick tweeting about them.

And by the way, when thinking about how we should relate to the LGBT community there are many other biblical verses we might consider.  How about the one in Genesis chapter 1 where it says that human beings are created in God’s image.  All human beings – white, black, brown, gay, straight, man, woman.  All people, regardless of their background, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, are a reflection of God’s image on this earth – and therefore deserving of equal respect and dignity.  Maybe the Lieutenant Governor forgot about that verse when he sent his tweet.  What about the verse in Leviticus 19, perhaps the best known verse in the entire Bible – Love your neighbor as yourself.  Or the first half of that same verse, less frequently cited but worth mentioning today – לא תקום ולא תטור את בני עמיך – you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellow – that might have been a better one for Lieutenant Governor to send out after what happened in Orlando.

So that is thing number one.  If you want to talk scripture we can talk scripture all day long, and what you’ll see, if you are honest and looking at the big picture, is that the Bible is far more interested in protecting the fundamental rights and dignity of a person than it is in the person’s sexual identity.

Thing number two is this – the Bible should not be read literally anyway.  It is an ancient document that expresses a deep wisdom about the world, that defines values that we use to guide our lives even today, and that for Jews certainly lays out the history of our people and our covenant with God.  But it is also a reflection of what the world was like 2500 years ago, and so it expresses certain ideas and values that today we simply know are wrong.  That is why Judaism has never read the Bible in a fundamentalist way, in other words literally.  Instead, Judaism figured out a way to keep the Bible meaningful and central to faith and worship – after all, here we are this morning, still taking the Torah out of the ark and reading from it – but while keeping it central to introduce changes into the practices the Bible lays out, so the tradition over time can come to terms with new understandings we have of our world and ourselves.

These changes don’t happen all at once.  Sometimes they take years, sometimes even decades.  But they happen.  If they didn’t we wouldn’t be gathered today in a prayer service in a sanctuary, we would instead be offering animal sacrifices, as the Torah tells us to do on the Sabbath day.  If the tradition didn’t change over time there wouldn’t be Hanukkah, or a Passover seder, or the lighting of Shabbat candles, all of which are not mentioned in the Bible.  The changes in terms of how the tradition understands gay rights have been slow, but they have happened, in the Conservative Movement mostly over the last decade.  When I was in rabbinical school if you were gay you had to be in the closet, and if it was discovered you were gay you were asked to leave the seminary.  That was 20 years ago.

But today the Conservative Movement ordains openly gay rabbis.  That became official policy of the Movement, and the first openly gay rabbi was ordained in 2011, just 5 years ago.  The Movement has created a wedding ceremony for gay couples in the last couple of years.  And in response to the Orlando shootings, the Movement released an official statement that in part reads as follows:

“This shooting rampage targeted the LGBT community in the midst of Pride month, a time where the LGBT community comes together to publicly acknowledge and celebrate their identities, their common history, and their struggle for social recognition and equality. The RA has passed multiple resolutions calling on the community to ‘work for full and equal civil rights for gays and lesbians in our national life, deplore violence against gays and lesbians, encourage inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews in our congregations, and increase our awareness of issues facing gay and lesbian Jews.’ We know that we stand with people of good will of all faiths in continuing this work.”  And the statement concluded with this sentence:  “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the members of the LGBT community, their families, their friends, and their loved ones.”

That is the kind of statement that makes me proud to be a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi.

I am about ready to wrap up my remarks this morning, and I suspect you are about ready for me to wrap up my remarks, but if you’ll permit me there is one last verse I would like to point out from the Bible, actually from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse I feel the Lieutenant Governor of Texas should be more familiar with.  This from Numbers chapter 5, verses 6 and 7  – “When a person commits any wrong toward a fellow, thus breaking faith with God, that person shall confess the wrong he has done and make restitution for it.”

If he does know that verse, then the next tweet Dan Patrick sends out might just be an apology.  But while we wait for it, we’ll move forward, supporting the LGBT community in any and every way we can.

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Community, Healing, and Hope

This a text version of yesterday’s introduction to Yizkor (Shavuot 5776) –

Judaism has long understood that one essential component of coping with loss is community.  From the very moment that a family loses a loved one community is there.  Friends begin to gather at the home, to offer comfort, guidance, and help.  The funeral is a communal moment structured to honor and remember the life of the person who has died.  Shiva is a paradigmatic communal exercise – at least 10 people are required for each service held in the shiva home, the days of shiva are filled with visits by friends and family members, the mourners are guided from one conversation to the next, from one moment to the next, always surrounded by people who care about them.

And then there is the period of saying the kaddish, for some 30 days, for others who have lost a parent a full eleven months.  The minyan is again required because the kaddish is only fully valid when said in the presence of community.  The services, morning and night, bring the mourner out of the home, into the synagogue, into the service with its sense of communal life and connection.  I have watched many times as mourners have connected with our minyan, making new friends, finding a sense of purpose and resolve, finding in the community a reason to get out of bed and begin a new day.  People are waiting here for you, they call when you don’t come, they care, they understand where you are and how you feel, because they’ve been there and they’ve felt those things, and they somehow made it through.  And they will tell you that the community helped them do it.

We saw this in Orlando yesterday, that terrible, unimaginable, unthinkable tragedy that we will long wrestle with as a nation.  Immediately community came together.  People set aside political divides and racial differences and religious perspectives, and came together as one, came together as community to support and console the families of the victims and also one another.  There was a powerful sense of fundamental humanity – it didn’t matter if people were black or white, gay or straight, young or old, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, conservative or liberal.  There is a powerful picture on the front page of the Sun this morning, a black clergyman embracing a white man and a white woman, the three of them weeping together.

In community there is hope.  In community there is healing.  In community there is a sharing of difficult burdens, a sense that one does not have to walk alone on a path of sadness and loss, and perhaps sometimes even despair.  Not that there is a magic formula, not that there is a secret ritual that will wipe the grief away.  But there are people who will share the journey with you, and you are not alone.

The people in Orlando are not alone.  They are surrounded by the thoughts and prayers of an entire nation, 300 million strong, a nation that believes in equality, in peace and freedom, and in the common human dignity that unites us all.  In the months ahead they will come to see how this powerful sense of communal caring and sharing helped to ease the burden of their grief.  They will gradually rediscover how beautiful it is when the wind blows gently through the leaves of a tree on a warm summer day.  They will one day realize that they have begun to laugh again, to sometimes feel joy, to emerge from the darkness and the shadows to go back out into the world with purpose and courage and hope.  This is the journey from loss to life, from sadness to meaning, from darkness to light, and it is a life long journey.

In Judaism part of that journey is Yizkor.  A stopping point along the way that brings you back to community, to tradition, to the shul, to the minyan, that reminds you of the pain of loss but also, as time goes by, of the sacred power of life.  As we rise together for this last Yizkor service of the year, as we prepare to say our personal Yizkor prayers, we also pray for hope and healing and peace, in our own hearts, in our lives, in our communities, and in the world.

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Filed under America, Beth El Congregation, civil rights, clergy, community, gay rights, grief, Jewish life, loss, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, sermon, Uncategorized, Yizkor

Bruce Springsteen and Carolina’s ‘Bathroom Law’

This a text version of my sermon from 4/9/16

Bruce Springsteen is arguably the greatest rock and roll star of his generation, and he and his E Street band are currently touring the country, selling out arenas from coast to coast. In the course of his career Springsteen has not been shy about expressing his political views on a wide variety of issues, from which candidates he supports in elections to the way he believes union workers should be treated. So it really should have come as no surprise that yesterday he took a stand against legislation that was recently passed in North Carolina, deciding to cancel one of his concerts that was to be held there this Sunday. In a statement that Springsteen released to his fans he wrote this: “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.”

The legislation that has so troubled Bruce Springsteen is officially called the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. You may have heard it referred to as’ the bathroom law.’ It was passed just a couple of weeks ago, on March 23rd, and essentially contains two components. The first does have to do with bathrooms – it states that public bathroom use must be dictated by a person’s biological sex – that is, whether it says male or female on their birth certificate. And perhaps that sounds like nonsense to some of us, but gender equality is a big issue for young people today, in fact having just returned from a mini-college tour in the Boston area I can tell you every school we visited had just gone through the process of installing gender neutral bathrooms. And LGBT groups see this legislation as a direct attack on their civil rights.

Whatever you think about bathrooms and who should or should not be permitted to use them, in my mind it is the second half of the legislation that is more troubling. For all practical intents and purposes this section of the legislation takes away the right of minority groups to protect themselves with anti-discrimination laws. What exactly does that mean? In layman’s terms: it used to be in North Carolina that if you were a member of a minority group – handicapped, for example – and your employer fired you, and you thought it was because you were handicapped, you had a legal right, under anti-discrimination law, to bring a suit against that employer. But that is no longer the case. In North Carolina you can no longer protect yourself against that kind of discrimination – whether the discrimination comes from race, color, handicap, biological sex, national origin, or, by the way, religion. That means that potentially someone could be fired because they are a woman, or black, or handicapped, or gay, or Jewish – and they would have no legal recourse under the new law.

It is that last piece – the religious piece – that should especially raise the antennae in the Jewish community. We all know that anti-Semitism still exists, in fact we have been concerned over the last couple of years that it is actually on the rise. And in the Jewish community we do a good job of protecting ourselves, of raising awareness, of watching for anti-semitic rhetoric and action, and when we see it, of condemning it loudly. But what we sometimes forget in the Jewish community is this – where one minority group is discriminated against, other minority groups will often be included in that discrimination. It may be that the main target of the North Carolina legislation is the gay community, but the language of the bill throws in race and religious identification as well.

Unfortunately what we’ve seen in North Carolina is happening in other states in the union as well. In Tennessee right now there is a bill being considered that on the surface seems entirely innocuous. It has to do with official state symbols, something every state has. Lets actually do a quick quiz, our home state, Maryland – we’ll start with the easy ones – state bird? The Oriole! Crustacean? The blue crab of course. Flower? Black Eyed Susan. Fish? Rockfish. Reptile? A bit of a trick question – the Terrapin. So Tennessee, like every state, has its list. But sitting on the governor’s desk right now is a bill which would add an item to the list – somewhat unusual – and the item is? The Bible. They want to make the Bible an official symbol of the State of Tennessee. And I can tell you it is not the Jewish bible that bill is talking about.

Not that I have anything against the Christian Bible – it works terrifically well – for Christians. It is just that as a Jew it makes me uncomfortable when another faith’s sacred scripture becomes legally sanctioned as a symbol of a state. What does that say to me about my place in that state? What message does it give me about my own sacred scriptures? Or my own faith, for that matter?

It is a big day in shul today – as you saw, three Torahs, something that rarely happens. One of the extra Torahs and Hallel today was for Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of a new Hebrew month. The third Torah was for this special Shabbat, called HaHodesh, simply meaning THE month, the month of Nissan that Passover falls in. Two weeks from today it will be Passover. Those of us who are in shul will be slightly sleepy from late seders and 4 glasses of wine. But our minds will be filled with the themes of that great holiday, chief among them fundamental principles of equality, dignity, and freedom that should be extended to all people. To people of all races. Of all gender and sexual identities. Of all ages. Of all ethnicities. And of all faiths.

May those fundamental principles guide us, in our work and in our lives. And may they remind is that we all have a role to play in building a world where every person is treated with equal respect and dignity.

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Preaching Politics

At the heart of this issue is of course the question what constitutes ‘politics?’ On the one hand we might say the idea of preaching politics is specific, defined by the guidelines of what you legally cannot say from the pulpit without your synagogue or church losing its non-profit status. And that is, quite clearly, endorsing a candidate. Technically a rabbi (or for that manner any other member of the clergy) cannot stand in the pulpit and say ‘you must vote for such and such a candidate.’ Fair enough, and to the best of my knowledge most clergy folk avoid doing that, and it is something I have never done, nor would ever do. Vote for whomever you believe the best candidate to be. End of story.

But what about issues? Issues that are driven by ideology, that have moral and ethical implications, issues that faith traditions have studied, pondered, perhaps even formally taken stances on? And that is the problem, and perhaps the grey area. There are many issues that are distinctly religious issues that have become highly politicized today. The best example might be abortion. Gay marriage is another. Gun control possibly a third. Religious freedom, building a mosque in New York. The list could go on and on. These are some of the most important, and politically most highly charged issues of our day. Judaism has a great deal to say about all of them. The Conservative Movement has taken specific and public stances on gun control, abortion, and gay marriage. Doesn’t the rabbi have the responsibility of teaching his or her congregants what their tradition has to say about these issues? Don’t the congregants want to know, so that their faith tradition can help them to more deeply understand contemporary life?

I still believe the answer to the first question is yes. To paraphrase the sage Hillel, if the synagogue is not a place for engaging in contemporary life, then what is it? What good is the tradition if it has nothing to say to us about modernity, in all of its complexity? Isn’t that the whole point? Don’t we say to people you can find ‘meaning for modern life’ here? When we say that do we only mean ‘spiritual matters?’ Being a good person, God, treating others well, etc? Or do we also mean that Judaism has something to say about the moral and ethical debates that are at the heart of today’s political discourse?

Judaism has never been a compartmentalized tradition. Judaism doesn’t say follow your faith in this area or that area, but in other areas, don’t worry about it, don’t consider it. Instead, Judaism historically has been comprehensive. The Talmudic sages clearly believed that Judaism should address every area of life, that Judaism should have something to say about every issue, that Judaism should be able to guide Jews in modernity just as it did in ancient times. Not just in the synagogue, but in the public square as well. The Talmud discusses abortion, the Talmud has ‘what’ to say about the death penalty. Shouldn’t we, as Jews, take advantage of our tradition’s ancient wisdom?

Even when the tradition disagrees with us, I would think we might want to know what it says. Is that difficult sometimes? Yes, especially in today’s atmosphere of highly divisive political debate. But Judaism has never been interested in the easy path. The right path, however, is another matter entirely.


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this the text version of yesterday’s (8/1/15) Shabbat sermon –

The portion that we read this morning, called V’etchanan, is one of the richest in the entire Torah. It is marked first of all by the soaring language that is found throughout the entire book of Deuteronomy, some of the most beautiful language in all of the Bible, and I would argue in all of western literature. But it is not just style that makes the parsha so compelling, it is also the what the language is used for, the material that the portion contains. And within just a few passages you can go from the Aseret Ha’Dibrot, the 10 Commandments, to the Shema Yisrael and the v’ahavta paragraph that we are so familiar with from our services, by far the biblical passage that Jews know best.

But this morning I would like to think with you for a few minutes about a less well known verse from this portion. It is often over looked – with the 10 commandments appearing in the 5th chapter, and the Shema in the 6th, this verse is nestled in the 4th, before all of the fireworks begin. It is part of a theme that Moses returns to over and over again in Deuteronomy, namely that he is giving over to Israel the laws and instructions that he, Moses, received from God at Mt Sinai, and it will be Israel’s job to observe those laws. And the verse that I am interested in this morning adds a particular detail to how that process of transmission is supposed to work. It says this: לא תוסיפו על הדבר אשר אנוכי מצוה אתכם – you shall not add anything to what I command you – ולא תגרעו מימנו – nor shall you take anything away from it – BUT keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you.

The peshat – the plain meaning of the verse – is quite clear. You have these words that are contained in the Torah – these commandments that the Torah lays out for you to observe – these and non other! What it says you should do, and do exactly. What it doesn’t say, you should not create, you should not add something new that isn’t already there. In a way it lends a whole new meaning to the sense of a very well known verse, also in this portion, that we know from the Torah service – וזאת התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישראל – this is the Torah that Moses put before Israel – this exactly, no additions, no subtractions, this precisely.

I remember the very first time I came across this verse, reading through the Torah as an adult, in preparation for going to rabbinical school. It was immediately puzzling to me. The text was clearly saying don’t add anything to the tradition. But I know already that many things had been added to the Torah’s description of how we are to ‘do Jewish.’ Some of these things were relatively small – lighting Shabbat candles, for example, Some of them were quite big – having a Passover seder, for example, something that is never mentioned in the Torah, has become one of the most important rituals that Jews engage in today. The requirements of a prayer service would be another example. And it is not only rituals that we have added over time – think about Hanukkah, a holiday that is never mentioned in the Torah, or even in the entire Hebrew Bible, and yet in Talmudic times the rabbis added it in to our calendar. Or the second day of Rosh Hashanah, never mentioned in the Torah. Clearly we’ve added a tremendous amount over the years, and yet the verse from this morning’s portion says לא תוסיפו – do not add.

At the same time, it also says do not take away. And yet we absolutely have! The Torah, for example, says quite clearly that a disrespectful son should be taken out and stoned by the city gates. That one the rabbis got rid of. It also says in the Torah that the death penalty should be applied in certain cases. Says it plainly, with no equivocation. But the Talmudic rabbis didn’t like that idea, they didn’t believe in the death penalty, so they wrote it out of the tradition. There are many other examples – the laws of how an adulterous wife should be treated, the laws of the nazarite, the law of a woman whose husband dies and is supposed to marry his brother – all of these rules are clearly, plainly, stated in the Torah, and yet despite the fact that this morning’s verse says לא תגרעו – do not take anything away – over the centuries we have done exactly that.

The point of all of this is to show you that despite what the verse says, the fact of the matter is that the commandments have been changed over time, and in many cases dramatically so. Commandments have been added, commandments have been taken away. Sometimes this has been caused by circumstances – when the Temple was destroyed, the couldn’t fulfill the sacrificial commandments anymore. But sometimes the tradition was added to or subtracted from because the Jews of a particular generation thought that a commandment was not sufficient, or was no longer morally acceptable. And in fact it is really that process – adding to the tradition, taking away from the tradition, changing the tradition over time – it is that process that enables the tradition to stay meaningful and relevant not only for decades, or even centuries, but for millennia – for thousands of years.

And one of the keys to that process is that you cannot read the Bible literally. You cannot read the text as a fundamentalist reads the text, that every word in it is infallible, that every sentence is absolutely accurate. When you read the text that way, like a fundamentalist does, you can arrive at a situation where a man would take a knife to people walking in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem, as happened Thursday. That man – an ultra Orthodox Jew – stabbed Jews in the back in part because I imagine he is a very troubled soul. But he also did it because he reads the Bible as a fundamentalist reads the bible – that it can never change, and that every word of it is true.

But here is the irony of that. By reading the Bible that way – literally, as a fundamentalist – he was taken farther away from God and God’s will, and not closer. Reading the Torah literally made him forget that all people are created in God’s image, whether they are gay or straight, or Jewish or not Jewish for that matter. Reading the Torah literally made him forget that one of the central tenets of the Torah, one of its core values, that is in the 10 commandments of this morning’s portion, is לא תרצח – you shall not murder. Reading the Torah literally made him actually forget what it means to be a Jew.

So you simply cannot follow that verse from this morning’s portion about not adding or taking away. In fact you must sometimes add, and you must sometimes take away. You have to do that, I would argue, to be able to live a full, meaningful, committed Jewish life. Individuals have to do it. Communities have to do it, to put to bed old traditions that are no longer relevant, or to create new traditions that will help people in contemporary times access their Judaism. And in that process of change, of adding, of taking away, of creating new things and following new ideas, what we are actually doing is getting closer to God, and uncovering a deeper sense of what God expects from us and how we should live our lives.

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