Thursday, April 25, 2013

Emor: Joking about Blasphemy

One of the best movies about theology and religion is Monty Python's "Life of Brian." It's basically the story of a guy who is born at the same time as Jesus, and the film shows us a very turbulent time in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and the Roman Empire through
his eyes. It's possibly one of the funniest movies you'll ever see, full of fabulous satire and crazy dialogue. At one point in the movie, a crowd of devoted drones hang on Brian's every word. "You're all individuals," he shouts out to them from his window. "We're all individuals," they call back in unison. And as you're taking in the hilarity of that moment alone, a single, pathetic voice pipes up, "I'm not," and he's promptly silenced by the people around him. 

You may already be imagining where I'm going with this blog post; Life of Brian offers us another poignant critique of something found in this week's Torah portion. Leviticus, chapter 24, verses 10-16, tells the story of a man who blasphemes
God. In the midst of a fight with another man, the Torah tells us he 'pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and was brought to Moses... and placed in custody until the decision of Adonai was made clear to them.' And what follows in the text is the legal precedent for not taking the Name of God in vain, and the punishments for transgressing this law. However, what is so difficult about this story is that we don't really know WHAT the guy did. What was his crime specifically, so that we can all learn from his mistakes? Was it just pronouncing God's Name? Was the problem that he did so in a non-ritual context? Or did he specifically curse God in the heat of the moment?

Life of Brian highlights this confusion for us in a fabulous scene where a man is being tried for blasphemy. In self defense, the man declares, "All I said to my wife was, 'That piece of halibut was good enough for
Jehovah.'" The crowd gasps in horror, as the man blasphemed once again in telling his story. The 'judge' in this case, standing as they all are by the side of the road, proclaims the man's offense, but in reading aloud the details of the case, he too uses the name 'Jehovah,' and someone throws a rock at the judge. An argument ensues, the judge tries to defend himself, uses 'Jehovah' one more time, and is swiftly stoned by the crowd. 

Is it a crazy scene? Sure. But it's a poignant critique because we do this to ourselves. We obsess over the minutia of religion and chastise one another for supposed offenses, always eager to judge another for their wrong-doings while
ignoring our own. Even the Torah itself seems to be challenging our assumptions about legal systems - stating in verse 16 that the community should stone the blasphemer to death... and then in verse 17 (the VERY NEXT line) tells us that no one should ever kill anyone else. Huh? Blasphemy, in my opinion, is really a red herring; it's not the REAL issue we need to worry about (is it blasphemous to say that?). God isn't offended or hurt by blasphemy. God can take it, I promise you. But we can hurt ourselves, and we can hurt each other. We swear 'by God,' and then we lie. We insist we'll be honest, faithful, and reliable 'as God is my witness,' and then we betray, deceive, and injure. 

Satire is indeed comedy, but it comes with a mirror. Sometimes it isn't obvious what we're meant to see in the reflection, but it isn't just the pronouncing of God's name, and it sure ain't halibut either. Maybe all of us - as individuals - need to figure out what we see. Whatever it is, let's not miss the opportunity when it's given to us. The lesson is too good, and funny, to be wasted.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of James Cridland on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of exfordy on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of tt2times on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of LaurelRusswurm on Flickr

Friday, April 19, 2013

Kedoshim: Responding First With Holiness

What does it mean to be holy? It seems like such a simple little question, but it doesn't really have a simple answer; if it has any answer at all. Even the Torah avoids offering a straight-forward solution! We are told in this
week's parashah, "You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Leviticus, 19:2). Ok, great. But what does THAT mean?? We aren't given an explanation of the word 'holy,' and we aren't told what it is about God that is holy, or what aspects of that holiness we could and should emulate. Once again, that is the brilliance of the Torah. No easy answers; just invitations to search for meaning in each of our own lives. Yet in light of the vicious attack on the finish line of the Boston Marathon, this question is more important to us than ever.

It's easy to get bogged down and distracted by the Temple-related topics of our Torah portion. You might be tempted to say that holiness is (limited to) sacrifice, cleanliness, adherence to ritual laws and customs, mitzvot, and all manner of ancient verbiage that we
associate with the Bible. But we're kind of letting ourselves off the hook then, aren't we? If 'holiness' is an outdated term, then I don't have to worry about things like holy behavior, holy speech, and holy relationships; when, in fact, they are perhaps more current now than ever before. We NEED to answer the question, 'what does it mean to be holy?', because it can reshape how we live our lives. The Book of Leviticus offers us this quandary, having to interpret holiness, and the Book of Deuteronomy does this to us as well. There, we are told to walk in God's ways, but again, what does that mean? Rabbi Shai Held, in an incredibly beautiful article in Tablet Magazine, offers us an answer.

Rabbi Held says: "If you want to really serve God, and not just go through the motions, then learn to care for people in moments of profound pain." Walking in God's ways, and engaging in holy behavior, they are both about accepting the discomforts in life, and actually leaning into the pain. Especially the pain of others. Life isn't all about joy and happy endings, and we need to challenge ourselves to stay in those moments of tension, and provide empathy, support, and love to the people around us. 
And in the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, we saw this with the first responders who ran TOWARDS the injured and the dead, not away from them. Now, not everyone can do that, at least not with regards to a terrifying explosion. However, again, let us not be distracted by the specifics of this scenario - as we were with the sacrifices and impurities of our Torah portion - and let's instead focus on the lesson we must learn. Rabbi Held gives it to us straight: "Faced with a situation that makes us stare the depth and extent of out vulnerability in the face, most of us want to flee. Here, then, is Judaism’s message: You want to serve God? Run towards the very people and places you most want to run away from. You want to be religious? Learn to be present for other people when they are in pain. All the rest is commentary."

We can all be first responders. Maybe not in the midst of a terror attack - God forbid - but in everyday life. Lean into the discomfort.
Don't run away from people in pain or in the midst of a life crisis. Don't try to talk about the weather or baseball or the Senate. Be present for one another and seek out opportunities to walk in God's ways with incredible holiness and meaning. The tragedy in Boston has left us all devastated and searching for answers. But at least there is one lesson we can learn from this. We can learn to be first responders to life, and to thereby live with greater holiness each and every day.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of soniasu_ on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Elaron on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of The Israel Project on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of HarshLight on Flickr

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tazria-Metzora: When the 'Lepers' Speak Up

Earlier today, I was looking back at some of my previous blog posts on this week's Torah portion, mainly to make sure I don't repeat myself, but also to see what kinds of things I was writing about last year, the year before, and the year before that (I've been doing this whole
blogging thing for a while now!). I found myself focusing especially on a post from two years ago, which I entitled 'An Appeal to My Fellow Lepers.' It mainly talked about the dominance of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel, and how we cannot let ourselves be bullied around by them any longer. Well, on the one hand, it's still a big problem. On the other, change IS coming to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The question is, will it lead to any new policies or practices? I'd like to share with you a few thoughts about religion in Israel today, and how it still very much relates to this week's Torah portion about cleanliness and purity laws.

We tend to let ourselves be easily distracted. Our parasha this week is an infamously 'icky' one, about leprosy, skin disease, and mold. But that's not REALLY what it's
about at all; we just have a hard time getting past the symptoms mentioned in this part of the Torah. Nevertheless, they are indeed symptoms of a larger problem: the question of who's IN and who's OUT. Who is part of the Establishment? What does it mean to be relegated to the margins of society, and how do we treat the people who inevitably live their entire lives there? In some ways, it's actually much easier to just think of this Torah portion as talking about gross skin diseases, because we can dismiss it as irrelevant and unpleasant. But what if the REAL source of discomfort for us is how current this topic actually is?

Right now in Israel, we are on the verge of a religious shift. It's not quite on the level of choosing a new Pope for Catholics, but it's significant. The Chief Rabbis in Israel (there are two of them) serve ten year terms, and they are both ending in 2013. So there's a big debate right now in Israel over who should be the next Chief Rabbi, and how this person will address the growing rifts in Israel. 
Because it's an enormous problem. The status quo today leaves hundreds of thousands of Israelis on the margin, just because they're secular, gay, or simply not religious enough to meet the chief rabbinate's standards. In a recent article on Ynet, Yizhar Hess, the Executive Director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, writes compellingly about this concern. He specifically focuses on a rabbinic organization called Tzohar, who have put forth a candidate for Chief Rabbi. Hess addresses the 'nice guy-ism' of the Tzohar rabbis, but how ultimately they STILL don't accept the validity of any non-Orthodox group. He laments, "Tzohar rabbis are good people who can speak the secular lingo fluently; however, they are miles away from embodying the solution for the problematic relationship between the state and religion in Israel."

We like to think of Israel as 'our' country. We want to believe that we belong there, and that we, as Conservative Jews, would be accepted by the Israeli establishment. But the sad reality is that we would not. None of us. And the divide between Orthodoxy and everyone else is growing all the time. Yet we are not the lepers of this week's Torah
portion. We shouldn't be treated as outsiders, at the mercy of those in charge, and grateful for any act of kindness they show us. Are there easy solutions to this (or seemingly any other Israeli) problem? No. But we can't avoid talking about it either, simply because it's uncomfortable, unpleasant, or complicated. We love Israel, and we all have just as much stake in the past, present, and future of the country as do the Orthodox. We just need to stay informed and up-to-date, and keep emphasizing our rights within the Jewish State. Otherwise, we're going to keep being treated as lepers. I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of it.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Miss Blackflag on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of rbrwr on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Minamie's Photo on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of zeevveez on Flickr

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Shemini: The Lessons of an Alien Fire

This upcoming Sunday night, April 7th, begins Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Ha-Shoah. What are we supposed to remember on that day? We know WHO we are meant to recall, and in fact, our Jewish community of Delaware County is going to join together at Temple Sholom in Broomall to spend 24 hours reading aloud the names of victims of
the Holocaust. Please join us, and if you'd specifically like to read some of those names, you can sign up here for a 15-minute slot. Yes, we certainly must recall all the innocent victims who perished in the Shoah, but is there not also another message to keep in our hearts and minds on Holocaust Remembrance Day? I think that Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, remind us of a very crucial lesson in this week's Torah portion.

Both of them die tragically. While serving as priests along with their father, Avihu and Nadav take it upon themselves to offer 'alien fire' - 'eish zarah' - on the altar. In chapter 10, verse 2, we are told that
'a fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.' What a horrific story! And how could this possibly relate to the Holocaust in any way??? I'll admit that the link isn't obvious, but I think it's an important one nonetheless. To me, it's all about fire. In fact, this whole Torah portion, Shemini, deals heavily with the subject of fire. The fire that consumes sanctioned sacrifices, the 'alien fire' (whatever that means) of these two young men, or the fiery passion of religious zealotry. 

Fire can be an incredible tool. It's one of the first skills mastered that separated us out from among the animals, thousands of years ago. It's a symbol of civilization, innovation, industrialization, and progress. And as such, as with the permitted sacrifices on the ancient altar, it can be used for good. It can
symbolize the spreading of light and warmth. But it doesn't take much for it to turn into 'alien fire.' The very same flame that creates civilizations can also enable the most cultured society to invent crematoria and genocidal concentration camps. But both the story of Aaron's sons and the nightmare of the Second World War and the Nazis teach us that we must remain vigilant. We can't expect the forces of destruction to announce themselves and wear signs that identify them as 'evil incarnate.'

We must all recognize the potential for 'alien fire' that exists in each of us. Nadav and Avihu became the victims of their own misdeeds, but they've given us the gift of learning from their mistakes. Rather than
frivolously calling anything we don't like a 'Nazi,' or using the Holocaust as justification for Middle East policy, we need to examine ourselves, and remain vigilant to forces around us in the world that advocate destruction or oppression. Passion and zeal can be powerful and even positive. However, it doesn't take much for them to turn, or for the fire that we utilize for good to become toxic and harmful. Let us spend this Yom Ha-Shoah thinking BOTH about the victims of other people's devastating fires, but also about how to improve our communities and our world, through the spreading of warmth and light using a very different sort of fiery passion.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of Holocaust Memorial Sculpture in Berlin courtesy of Umschauen on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Artnow314 on Flickr
3. CC image from Sachsenhausen, Germany courtesy of quinet on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of cyOFdevelin fame on Flickr