Category Archives: religious fundamentalism

Make America Gilead Again

A wonderful turn of phrase I discovered in this morning’s NY Times.  It appeared in James Poniewozik’s review of the new Hulu series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Reviews of the series have been exceptional across the board, citing the quality of the acting, production, directing, etc, etc – evidently, it is top notch all the way through.  But what all the reviews make special note of is how ‘chillingly’ relevant the story line is to today’s world.  In Atwood’s dystopian near future women are treated like objects, fundamentalist religion reigns supreme, and the government has been overrun in a military coup.  It all reads (or views) a little too close for comfort.

Which is precisely what Poniewozik’s phrase so perfectly captures.  Gilead is the name of Atwood’s twisted future ‘republic.’  And as I suspect you remember, ‘make America great again’ was the current president’s campaign slogan.  How ironic that the end of Trump’s first 100 days comes in the very same week when The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation airs its initial episodes.  As ever, great art enables us to raise a mirror to our current reality, a mirror in which we see things as they are, but with a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, and context.  As the old saying goes, when you read the newspaper you find out what happened yesterday.  When you read great literature you find out what always happens.

Atwood begins her novel with a quote from Genesis 30, describing Rachel’s infertility and her decision to use Bilhah, a ‘handmaid,’ to conceive in her stead.  The reference fits with the narrative’s understanding of religion as a dangerous and destructive force, one that by nature subjugates women.  And it is true, if you pick and choose the right verses you can read the Bible that way.  And perhaps that is the way some fundamentalists would read the text, and certain politicians as well.

But the Bible is a long book, and there are many ways to read it, and many ideals and values expressed in it.  Some of them are radically progressive, even for our day and age.  The great Hebrew prophets of old, Isaiah the greatest of them all, stood on the streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed the word of God.  Their message was one of tolerance and dignity, of hope and faith, of God’s ultimate goodness and the responsibility of the people to create a just society.  They cried out at injustice directed against the poor and the marginalized.  They spoke in God’s voice for those who had no voice of their own.

Word on the street is that the new Handmaid’s Tale TV series will  take the story beyond the end of Atwood’s novel.  Perhaps in a future episode there will be an Isaiah like character, dressed in robes, eyes flashing, speaking with unmatched eloquence about a world gone wrong.  No question the Republic of Gilead needs that prophetic message.  What we are coming to understand is that we need it too, in our world, in our republic, in our own time.

“No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the core of the yoke;  to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;  when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”  (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

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Baseless Hatred

The Hebrew term is שנאת חנם.  Hatred out of spite, groundless, with no reason, generated by the darkness that all too often lies hidden in the human heart.  It is understood in the rabbinic tradition as particularly applying to Jew on Jew hostility.  There is a well known passage in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) which blames the destruction of the Temple on this kind of baseless hatred.  When it appears it is ugly and irrational, and a desecration to God’s name.

And so I was saddened to hear from a congregant the following anecdote:  The family held the unveiling for their beloved father and grandfather this past Sunday.  It happened to be Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the Temples and which also is a fast day in traditional Jewish circles.  It is not a day that is high on the radar screen for most Jews in the liberal Jewish community, and very few Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist Jews observe the fast.  A few days before the unveiling the family called a local kosher bagel shop to reserve a dozen and a half bagels for a post unveiling brunch.  That morning a family member went to pick up the order, and found the shop closed.

Returning home with bagels from another shop, a call was placed about the original order. Someone happened to answer the phone in the kosher shop.  ‘What happened, we placed an order and no one was there when we came to pick it up?’  The response from the worker:  ‘Are you Jewish?’  ‘Yes I am,’ my congregant responded.  ‘Shame on you,’ said the worker, and hung up the phone.

Really?  Forget about the fact that no person has the right to impose his or her religious views on another person.  We have the right to make our own choices, and to ‘do Jewish’ in the best and most meaningful way we can for ourselves and our families.  It is not the worker’s business, or anyone else’s for that matter, whether a fellow Jew chooses to fast or not to fast on Tisha B’Av.

But what about the idea of keiruv, of finding ways to bring Jews into the community, to help Jews deeepen their connection to the tradition and God, of opening doors and making the community a welcoming place for all Jews, regardless of level of observance?  Imagine the difference had the worker said ‘Ma’am I am so sorry, the person who took your order must have forgotten that today is traditionally a fast day and we are closed.  We’ll make it up to you by filling the order for free another time.  Meanwhile try down the street, they’ll be open today.’  Instead of raising a wall, opening a door.  Instead of spite and hostility, helping a fellow Jew on a difficult day.

I don’t presume to know what God ‘thinks’ but I wonder this.  Would God be more concerned about someone observing a ritual fast, or about one Jew treating another with respect, decency, and dignity?  The High Holy Days are seven weeks away.  Remember these stinging words from the prophet Isaiah, read on Yom Kippur morning:  “No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the chords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free;  to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched into your home;  when you see the naked, to cloth him, and not to ignore your own kin.”

I am guessing the worker at that shop was in shul last Yom Kippur.  Perhaps he fell asleep during the chanting of that great haftara.  Or perhaps he was awake and heard the words, but for some reason chooses to ignore them.  That, it seems to me, is where the true shame lies.

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Filed under American Jewry, Bible, community, Jewish life, religious fundamentalism, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

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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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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Star Crossed Lovers

this a text version of my sermon from Shabbat morning services on 2/13/16

It is a story that has been around probably almost as long as people have been telling stories. At its heart, it is a boy meets girl story, but it is boy meets girl complicated by the fact that the boy and girl come from different worlds. They might come from warring houses, great families that disdain one another and wish each other harm – think Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They might come from different ethnic backgrounds or gangs, or classes, like Tony and Maria of West Side Story, or Catherine and the dark skinned Heathcliff from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, or Lancelot and Guinevere from the King Arthur legends. These are the couples we have come to call ‘star crossed lovers’, from the phrase in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet – “a pair of star crossed lovers.”

The classic pattern of the story seems to suggest that love does triumph, but only for a time. Remember that Romeo and Juliet are both dead at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights are not together until the end of the novel when Heathcliff dies and is buried next to the woman he has loved throughout his life. And in exploring the tensions that ultimately keep these couples from ‘living happily ever after,’ these stories challenge the conceptions we have not only about romantic relationships, but also about the way different groups in our society can and do relate to one another. When are people permitted to marry, when are they not? What boundaries are too great to cross in terms of a relationship? Is a religious boundary too great? An ethnic boundary? A gender boundary? A socio-economic boundary? Underneath the love story there is an exploration of class differences and ethnic tensions, of the stereotyping that commonly goes on when one group thinks about another group, of the fear and distrust that often exist between people of different backgrounds and different communities.

I would argue that it is necessary to confront these questions and to wrestle with them, to put them out on the table and to talk about them. It is part of the process of understanding who we are, both internally, our own group, what defines us particularly – but also on a larger scale – in an open society, where are the boundaries, what are people comfortable with, and what makes people uncomfortable, and why? Is that right or wrong, is it something that needs to be talked about, something that the society needs to come to terms with? And what art does – whether Shakespeare’s play, or Bronte’s novel- is enable us to wrestle with these issues in a safe way – to process them, think about them, and understand them more deeply. Think of it like this – if you can’t wrestle with a difficult issue in a novel, how are you ever going to be able to wrestle with it in real life?

And so it was disturbing to me to hear that just a few weeks ago Israel’s Ministry of Education asked schools across the country to remove a novel called Borderlife from high school reading lists. The novel, written by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan, is essentially a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. It is the story of a young Israeli woman and a young Palestinian man who meet in New York City, fall in love, and then struggle to maintain their relationship once they return to the Middle East. It has all of the classic elements of the star crossed lover narrative – the boy and girl come from different worlds, their communities don’t understand each other, their families will not accept the relationship between them, and what is more, their culture, their society, will not accept that relationship either. You would think that the Ministry of Education should protect values like academic inquiry, and freedom of speech. But instead they have decided to close a conversation for their students before it even got started.

One of the arguments we make all the time in the Jewish community about the Palestinians is that the curriculum they teach in their schools contains an inherent anti-Israel bias. And I wonder in my own mind if in Israel you start telling your teachers and students that some books are permitted while others are not, and if the books that are not permitted are those that present Palestinians in a positive light – are we not falling into the same trap that has swallowed up the Palestinians? Isaac Herzog, who is the leader of the opposition in the Keneset, worth this on his FB page: “Tell me, are the People of the Book afraid of books?”

Are we afraid of books? Are we afraid of thinking that a Palestinian and an Israeli might fall in love? Are we afraid of a story that portrays a Palestinian as a full human being, with thoughts and feelings, with bad qualities and good qualities? If we are afraid of those things I would argue we’ve come to a place that first of all isn’t a Jewish place, and second of all isn’t a human place. And I don’t mean to suggest that Israelis and Palestinians should suddenly start marrying one another. But I do mean to suggest that denying the common humanity on both sides of a painful and difficult situation doesn’t do anyone any good.

If you were in services last night you know that the Torah portion we read this week, Trumah, describes the ancient tabernacle that the Israelites wandered with in the wilderness. Virtually all of the items from that tabernacle are symbolized in our modern sanctuaries. The table is the altar that the sacrifices were offered on. The ark is a symbol of the ancient ark that carried the tablets with the 10 commandments, the eternal light reflects the light they kept lit in ancient times, and the list goes on and on. One thing we looked at last night was the ark, and you’ll remember that the ark in the Gorn is supposed to look very much like the ancient ark. Anyone remember how? Poles to carry, and also the sweeping top, one arc (arc with a ‘c’) going in one direction, one arc going in the other direction, is supposed to symbolize what is described in the Torah on the top of the ancient ark, which was a sculpted image of two angel like figures with their wings outstretched over their heads.

And the Torah is very detailed in its description of these angels, to include the following: ופניהם איש אל אחיו – literally what that means is that the face of one must be against the other. I like the translation in our Humash, which says the figures must confront each other. Confront. There is a tension contained in that word, almost as if one figure is facing off against the other, standing its ground.

And I would say it is the same thing with the problems and difficulties and challenges in our lives and in our world. They have to be confronted. If you hide your head in the sand, and pretend they don’t exist, and wait for a while, they will still be there when you look out again. Removing a book from a reading list is not going to make a problem go away. If anything, it will sell more books. But by taking it away, you also take away the opportunity to confront the problem, to wrestle with it and think about it and struggle with it. And hopefully come to a deeper sense of wisdom about it.

It seems to me that is also what the Ministry of Education in Israel needs – a little bit of wisdom, and also faith – faith in its students and teachers. Is the subject difficult, is the book hard, will it take its readers out of a comfort zone? Absolutely. But perhaps what that means is that it is all the more worthwhile to read it and teach it, to talk about it, and wrestle with the challenges it presents to all of us.

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Sharing Truth

There will be anger and outrage from certain segments of the community about the Israeli government’s decision to create a pluralistic area of the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. Israel’s government should not stand for only one stream of Judaism, and it should not enforce a single religious ideology. Israel is the “Jewish state,” and if so, all of Judaism’s expressions should feel welcome and respected. I look forward to being in that pluralistic area some day soon and experiencing the kind of Judaism I live every day, where women participate fully, where all types of Jews are welcome and all viewpoints respected. Can you imagine minyanim at the Kotel with men and women participating together and equally? With women reading from the Torah and leading the prayers without being heckled or attacked? With Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist groups visiting from the States and being able to enjoy their style of service without constantly looking over their shoulders? Can you imagine that? Soon you won’t have to, it will simply be reality.

In the meantime, when bitter arguments arise, let us remember that at the end of the day no one holds the sure truth in their hands. No one knows with absolute surety what God wants, how God wants us to act, who God prefers. It is all just a best guess, and often even less. And in guessing we should be humble, we should remember we might be wrong. Are there great issues at stake? Perhaps. But we should remember that even if that is the case the tradition is clear that God wants us to resolve these issues together. Didn’t Rabbi Joshua walk to Rabban Gamaliel’s home on the day he, Joshua, thought was Yom Kippur? (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, 2:8-9)

Yes it is easier to claim the truth and stand by that claim. To believe that what you do is what God wants, to think that with every action properly taken you are in some way fulfilling God’s will. But I choose to live in a more difficult space, where doubt often trumps surety. Where someone else might be right when I am wrong. Or perhaps better expressed, where someone else might be right while I am also right. The challenge is simply this: to look across the way and say: your truth is real, and valid, even if it is not mine. And then to maintain hope that one day another will look back and say the same to me.

You might ask, what kind of place is it where there are multiple truths, where two ideas that are different can be equally true and valid and meaningful expressions of God’s will? And I would say in response – that is God’s place.

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Literally?!

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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