As you may have read in the Providence Journal this week, the debate over the place of guns in Rhode Island intensified at our State House on Tuesday afternoon.
Members of our Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island joined me as part of the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island. We stood with members of other non-violence and gun control organizations (including an eloquent contingent from the Ne explaining that the passage of specific legislation would contribute to making Rhode Island a safer place to live.
The bills we stood in support of would:
Passage of these laws would also make us more reliable neighbors to Massachusetts and Connecticut which have already passed such legislation.
Not everyone has the privilege I had of speaking directly to our legislators (at the House Judiciary Committee) . . . but our legislators do read Rhode Island's newspaper of record, The Providence Journal. If you live in Rhode Island, you can send a direct message to our legislators by participating in a very simple, one question survey: "So you support stricter gun control?" Your "yes" will help the members of the Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate appreciate the desire of the residents of Rhode Island to make our state a safer place for everyone, of every ethnic background, of every economic level, of every neighborhood.
Click this link and you will be able to read a Providence Journal article about the gun legislation debate and you will also find the one-question survey. I hope that everyone reading this blog will agree that the pending legislation will bring us a little bit closer to a violence-free Rhode Island . . . a vision which those who legally own and safely store and use guns can certainly embrace as well.
Here is my testimony delivered to the House Judiciary Committee of the Rhode Island General Assembly:
I am Rabbi Amy Levin, President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island and rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.
Our Board of Rabbis, twenty-six colleagues from a comprehensive spectrum of denominations of Judaism, unanimously moved to become early and active partners in the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island.
That's quite a vision, isn't it . . . A violence-free Rhode Island.
Our Religious Coalition's vision of a "violence-free Rhode Island" may seem like the pie in the sky day-dreaming of a bunch of clergy . . . for whom utopian envisioning is an occupational hazard . . . but I am here to tell you that we clergy don't work in ivory towers, we conduct the funerals of the men, women and children who lose their lives to violence, we sit at the hospital beds of those who suffer maiming physical and psychological wounds inflicted through violence. Were you to be present with us at the cemeteries and hospitals and houses of mourning you would share our sense of urgency about working towards a violence-free Rhode Island.
Were we to dedicate the time, and gather together many of the people in this room for a wider-ranging discussion, we would find that violence is a complex phenomenon and that firearms represent only one element in the chaotic morass that is violence. Indeed, our General Assembly legislators took a significant step on another violence-related front last year when you passed legislation funding educational efforts directed at domestic violence through marriage license fees.
But the pending legislation we are discussing today all focus on firearms. In the context of our acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of those who legally and safely own firearms for hunting and target practice and personal security are responsible and well-motivated individuals who also embrace the concept of a violence-free Rhode Island, we do urge you to vote on behalf of all the residents of our state.
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island turns to you: You have the capacity to save lives:
We urge you to prevent individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning firearms.
We urge you to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines from Rhode Island.
We urge you to ban firearms from school grounds.
We urge you to take these concrete steps bringing us that much closer to a violence-free Rhode Island.
Along with many members of the Conservative Movement and Conservative rabbis this week, I received a letter from the leadership of our sister Israeli movement, the Masorti Movement, explaining the latest developments in the inexplicably complex effort to gain access to the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount for prayer by non-Orthodox groups of Jews.
This length of retaining wall is as close to the site of the great Temple as we Jews can get. The Temple was the focal point of the Jewish world from the time of Solomon (10th century BCE) to its final destruction at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. For close to two thousand years, the western wall has served as the prime pilgrimage destination for Jews.
I remember my first visit to the western wall quite vividly: it was 1973 and the approach to the section of the wall reserved for prayer was much simpler than it is today: no gates. It was a quiet place for contemplation and prayer. There was a very low, moveable metal barrier separating the men's section from the women's section. I was overcome by the confluence of physical reality and the mythic power of biblical narrative before my eyes. I was in that place.
I'll admit I was young and in love and in Israel for the first time in my life . . . but with all that being said, I am sure that it was not the stars in my eyes that blinded me to political and religious tensions around the site. It is that over the decades, this site has accrued layer over murky layer of political and religious, politically religious and religiously political conflict. The tensions and confrontations that now muffle the spiritual significance of the kotel were just not there before the intifada, and before the non-orthodox movements began to establish Israel-rooted congregations, youth movements, seminaries and organizational structures.
Except for one day a year, on the fast of the 9th of Av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, I am not moved to pray at the western wall. That's my choice, for my own reasons. The centrality of this site in Jewish history, Jewish practice, Jewish spirituality is absolute and it should not be acceptable that Jews wishing to pray in proximity to this retaining wall should be booed and assaulted and physically removed . . . or even have to ask special permission and special access when other Jews have free access any time at all.
The leaders of the Masorti Movement in Israel are eloquent, determined people of vision and understanding. Understanding that there is a wide spectrum of Jewish identity and Jewish practice and Jewish community in the world, and it all converges on Israel. How ironic it is that in the only sovereign Jewish state in the world, Jews are discriminated against for their Jewish commitments. Trained and ordained in Israel, the only place in the world in which the marriage or the conversion I conducted is not recognized by the government of the country in which I was trained and ordained.
We are not understanding each other well, we diverse Jews. The principle of כלל ישראל / klal yisrael / the collective concern for the collective of the Jewish people is atrophying from disuse.
I pray that we will, none of us, receive such letters from Jerusalem again.
This week, the Jewish world marked the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Iyyar. The beginning of each Hebrew month is observed as a semi-holiday called "Rosh Hodesh," the "head" of the month. The synchronicity of the lunar month and the female biological monthly cycle has led to a long-standing special relationship between women and Rosh Hodesh.
There are many ways in which Jewish women have celebrated Rosh Hodesh: refraining from cooking or sewing, gathering a group of women together for study or discussion . . . and for more than two decades, a group of women have gathered together every Rosh Hodesh to conduct a prayer service together at the Western Wall in Jerusalem . . . actually the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount.
What began, in the 1980s, as an informal group of women seeking to deepen their spiritual engagement in Rosh Hodesh by gathering at this unique, historic site has become, over the years, an official organization with a director and a president. Women of the Wall have supporters . . . and detractors . . . all over the world. As women's prayer groups go, Women of the Wall is pretty tame. They are guided by liberal Orthodox halachah (Jewish law) meaning that there are passages of prayer they will not recite as a group of women in the absence of a minyan (prayer quorum) of Jewish men. They are on the left edge of the liberal Orthodox Jewish world because it is quite accepted practice for these women to wear tallitot (prayer shawls) and they do read Torah together (although they have been forced to move their Torah reading away from the Western Wall for several years now).
The photograph above documents this month's new outrage: Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, was arrested with four other women, on the charge of "disturbing the peace" by attempting to pray, early in the morning, modestly, as has been their practice for decades while wearing tallitot and holding a Torah scroll.
This is actually not the first time this has happened . . . but this month's arrest led to an unprecedented judicial decision. The website thejewishpress.com reported:
After examining the evidence, Judge Sharon Larry Bavly stated that there was no cause for arresting the women, WOW Director of Public Relations Shira Pruce reported.
In a groundbreaking decision, the judge declared that Women of the Wall are not disturbing the public order with their prayers. She said that the disturbance is created by those publicly opposing the women’s prayer, and Women of the Wall should not be blamed for the behavior of others. The women were released immediately, with no conditions.
This decision is long overdue . . . the travesty of arresting and harassing and allowing others to abuse women who are simply trying to pray has been an ongoing source of shame. Personally, I've never participated in a Women of the Wall service, even when I've been in Jerusalem on Rosh Hodesh . . . largely because I find perseverating about a retaining wall politicizes and distracts from prayer. On the other hand, I cannot accept the legitimacy of any authority that seeks to prosecute women who seek to pray . . . in a public space . . . respectfully . . . knowledgeably . . . and I am deeply relieved that Justice Bavly has put the weight of her office behind the obvious: "...Women of the Wall should not be blamed for the behavior of others."
There is a bit of irony that this arrest took place during the week that we read the Torah portion Tazria-Metzora. The parashah (Torah portion) opens with a controversial passage defining the protocol a woman was to follow to restore her ritual purity after childbirth. One aspect of this passage which is often overlooked as people deal with the apparent inequities of the system is that it is absolutely clear that the assumption was that a woman was responsible for her own state of ritual purity or impurity, that no one was authorized to act on her behalf to rectify a state of ritual impurity, but rather that she was expected, with the means at her disposal, to bring her own olah offering on her own behalf, placing her offering directly into the hands of the kohein/priest herself.
How odd and how sad that 2000 years after the women of Jerusalem were freely entering the precincts of this outer courtyard bounded by the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, purchasing animals for their own sacrifices, that their 21st century counterparts should be frog-marched off of that same piece of real estate for exercising that very seem spiritual responsibility established in the Torah.
Justice Bavly has inched us back towards the right direction. Natan Sharansky is addressing this issue through other avenues at the Prime Minister's request. We are not finished discussing the issue of women praying at the Western Wall . . . but I sure hope we're done with women getting arrested at the Western Wall.
This week, our Torah portion contains the opening chapters of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus. In Leviticus, we will generally be taking a hiatus from the engaging narratives of Genesis / Breishit and Exodus / Sh'mot . . . and we will take up the narrative again in a few months when we embark on the book of Numbers / Bamidbar.
In the meantime, we will immerse ourselves in a book of the Torah that is refered to in our traditional sources as "Torat Kohanim" . . . basically an instruction manual for Aaron and his descendants, the Israelite priests / kohanim. What kind of sacrifices need to be brought to the Mishkan / the Tabernacle? Who shall bring those sacrifices? When?
The Kohanim function with the absolute authority of God behind them and their role in the community is established by birth: Aaron, his sons, their sons for all generations constitute the priests, the kohanim of Israel.
Rabbis, as you see from my photograph above and the photographs of my three immediate predecessors at Torat Yisrael, come in all shapes and genders. We have no garments which embody the sanctity of the tasks we perform. We wear kippot and tallitot as do the members of our congregations because our role is not established by birth, we are not the descendents of anyone chosen by God.
In fact, the roots of the rabbinate can be found in something of a populist revolution beginning in the last century or so before the Common Era. Through the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, the priestly caste had evolved into a sort of Israelite aristocracy . . . a closed circle with an essential power base, the Temple and its sacrificial cult. To be a priest, a kohein, your father had to be be a kohein. That was the only way in.
In houses of study around the Land of Israel, scholars were gathering to study the Torah and ask existential questions about the nature of Jewish practice in an economy and a cultural setting that was fundamentally different than life in the wilderness during forty years of wandering. These sages began to ask a question that we are still striving to answer today? "What is our 'best practice' as Jews in this time and this place?"
Unlike the kohanim, the only thing you needed to become a rabbi, one of these sages, was a good head on your shoulders, the willingness to study Torah with an open mind and a profound commitment to the survival of the brit, the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
These are the roots of the rabbinate which I share with Rabbi Parness, Rabbi Bloom and Rabbi Rosen . . . it has nothing to do with who our fathers were, it has nothing to do with being invested with esoteric divine powers like a priest . . . or a pope . . . it is about dedicating our lives to keep alive the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. And that, my friends, is a privilege.
"If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him--sojourner or resident--and he will live with you." (Leviticus 25:35)
This past Wednesday, I attended the fourth annual Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty Conference. Each year at this conference, we receive the most up-to-date statistics available on Rhode Island's poor: adults and children. We also are given the opportunity to learn from experts in the field of fighting poverty in order to make more effective our own state-wide efforts.
This year's topice was: Why Are People Poor? The Systemic Nature of Poverty in Rhode Island. A panel of three leaders in the fight against poverty on the national level spoke: Reverend Peg Chemberlin, Immediate Past President of the National Council of Churches, Rabbi Steve Gutow, President and CEO of The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Imam Mohamed Magid, President of the Islamic Society of North America. Reverend Chemberlin's presentation included encouragement to act despite the prevalence and the momentum poverty has gained: "Pick something and do it. Don't be overwhelmed. Have a work plan."
I learned Torah from Imam Magid: He taught a midrash from the Muslim tradition in which a poor man comes to Abraham. Abraham asks the man, "Do you believe in God?" And the man responds, "no." "In that case," answers Abraham, "I cannot feed you." The man turns away and God says to Abraham: "I've fed that man for forty years even though he does not believe in Me. I send him to you for one meal and you turn him away?" Abraham ran after the man, apologized and invited him to a meal. The poor man turns to Abraham: "You say God sent you to run after me to apologize to me and to feed me? That is a good God. I will believe in such a God." Imam Magid challenges us: "If you want to say you believe in God, show me what you have done to take care of God's creation!"
Rabbi Gutow shared with us the shocking trend that poverty is decreasing in the developing world and increasing in the developed world. In other words, it is in the societies with the greatest resources that the numbers of those living in poverty is increasing. Rabbi Gutow concluded: "The world will be a better place if we do this work. The world will be a worse place if we don't do this work."
I am sickened by the realities of poverty right under our noses here in Rhode Island: In 2010, there were 142,000 Rhode Islanders (14% of the population) living in poverty. The poverty level is defined as around $11,000 of income per year for a single individual and approximately $18,000 dollars of income per year for a single parent and two children. Of those living in poverty, 43% were living in extreme poverty . . . which means people living on an income less than half of the poverty level figures above. In 2010, there were 42,221 children in Rhode Island (19% of our State's children) living in poverty.
This week's Torah reading, all the force of our tradition, God's expectations of us, all compel us to do more than read about the poor. We cannot click our tongues and make compassionate noises. We must all act. I invite you to contact me if you are ready to move beyond heartfelt compassion to action.
In the meantime, here are two opportunities for involvement:
Join the Interfaith Advocacy Project and become a Legislative Ambassador. You will be trained to be an effective advocate, you will learn about Rhode Island's legislative and budget processes and about poverty-related issues being considered in the current legislative session. Contact Reverend Donald Anderson, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches if you have the time and the communication skills to take on this kind of role.
Sign a petition. The federal government is seriously considering cutting funding for SNAP, the newest food stamp program for families. This is happening at a time when more and more vulnerable citizens are losing their food security (literally not knowing where there next meal is coming from). A third grader recently told her teacher that she did not have breakfast one schoolday morning because "it wasn't my turn." Please follow this link and add your name to mine: www.bread.org/snapworks.
This week's parashah/Torah reading concludes with a review of the liturgical calendar as determined by God and conveyed to the Israelites through Moses. Shabbat and the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are described. God declares: אלה הם מועדי / eileh heim mo'aday / there are My festivals.
Today, we mark the beginning of each of God's festivals with a blessing over wine. This blessing is called "kiddush" / קידוש which is based on the Hebrew root קדש which is the basis of every form of the word holy. As we raise the kiddush cup and recite the kiddush blessing for the festival, what are we saying?
In the course of this blessing, we praise God for sanctifying us through God's mitzvot (v'kidshanu b'mitzvotav / וקדשנו במצותיו). Holiness is added to our lives as we fulfill the mitzvot, the commandments that are part of our brit, our covenant with God. Holiness is great . . . but it's a little obscure. What does it mean to be holy, to seek to integrate holiness into our lives? A great subject for a future blog!
What are these festivals of God for? Why has God invited us to God's festivals? Our kiddush blessing goes on: Lovingly have You given us the gift of Festivals for joy and holy days for happiness... Here, embodied in the most ancient, enduring holidays of our tradition we are, in essence, invited to party with God! There are My festivals, says God . . . and I want you to come! We stand with wine in our hands and acknowledge that these holy days are given to us as days of joy and happiness to share with God.
Remembering the exodus from Egypt at Passover, reliving the revelation of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot, revisiting the experience of wandering through the wilderness at Sukkot . . . the kiddush blessing shared by all these festivals reminds us that, as theologically significant as these moments are, these moments are meant to be joyous. Like anniversaries and birthdays, the festivals give us the opportunity to gather together in community and relive great moments with God: "remember when?" Remember how relieved and grateful we were when You released us from slavery behind? Remember how awed we were to stand together and commit to Your Torah at Sinai? Remember how You got us through forty years of wandering even when we complained? Those were the days! Those days are our heritage!
It's not a festival, a party, a celebration of great moments for God if we're not there to celebrate, too. Even God can't party alone. Our recitation of the festival kiddush is our acceptance of the invitation to rejoice with God. Amen!
Our next opportunity for celebrate a festival with God is Shavuot, beginning at sundown on Saturday, May 26th. If you'd like to practice singing the festival kiddush with it's special melody, click here for a special online lesson on our TY website!
In this week's double parasha/Torah reading, we begin with the aftermath of a tragedy . . ."aharei-mot"; after the death of Aaron's sons . . .
The tragedy is recounted, not in the immediately preceding parasha, Metzora, nor in the parasha before that, Tazria, but in the third parsha preceding this week's reading, Shemini. It is there that we read a perplexing event: Aaron sacrificed the animals, then lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. Then Aaron and Moses went inside the Tent of Appointed Meeting. When they came out again, they blessed the people, and the glory of God revealed itself to all the people. Fire went forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted for joy, and fell on their faces.Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire into it and placed incense upon it. Then they brought before God strange fire that God had not enjoined upon them. Then fire went forth from before God and consumed them and they died before God.
Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God said, 'I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire peoples.'” Aaron was silent.
How can we possibly understand and integrate into our understanding of Judaism a God that kills two young men who display spontaneous love and devotion to God?
It is in this moment that we confront an essential difference between the Israelite religion described in the Torah and the rabbinic Judaism our people have practiced for 2000 years: The Israelite religion of the Torah was cult of sacrifice led by an oligarchy, a dynasty of priests. From Aaron to his sons, to their sons . . . . until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, Israelite service to God was channeled through a series of sacrifices of various categories mediated by and facilitated by the kohanim, the dynastic priesthood. For all the information provided in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus about the conduct of the sacrificial system, there was esoteric knowledge that was shared only with successive generations of kohanim. This was a hierarchical system structured in a society that shared certain assumptions about the service of God and the relationship between the people, the priesthood and God.
Nadab and Abihu broke those esoteric rules and it may well be that the story of their death was meant to be a cautionary tale to subsequent generations of kohanim who might seek to create their own traditions beyond the bounds of priestly disciplines.
The rabbinic Judaism we practice today is the result of a revolution: the Judaism that has evolved and grown and reflected the real-life commitments and passions of Jews around the world for 2000 years was born of discussions by scholars in houses of study 2000 years ago. Around those tables were Jews of all backgrounds, rich and poor; Jews of all categories, kohanim, levi'im and plain Israelites; tradesmen and merchants and men (yes, men) of independent means. The only path to advancement was your learning, not who your father was, not how much money you had. The learning was guided by a number of principles: all opinons brought in humility and faith are equally important and worth preserving; we respect and name those who have contributed insight and learning to our tradition; learning is accessible to all who seek it.
In the world of rabbinic Judaism there is no punishment for spontaneity in devotion, there is no rejection of creativity and honest exploration of our tradition. It is the rise of rabbinic Judaism, born in the discussions of the Mishna, Tosefta, Midrash and Talmud that is responsible for the fact that Judaism is alive, well, thriving and evolving to this day. We look back at the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu with compassion and self-differentiation . . . their actions today would have brought them closer to a God who has grown with us instead of condemning them to death.
This week's parashah/Torah portion establishes one of the cornerstones of Jewish tradition: there are two categories of animals, those that may be consumed and those that shall not be consumed by those who consider themselves to be part of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
Not that long ago, "keeping kosher" was normative practice among Jews in the United States. Jews who today do not maintain kosher kitchens in their homes most probably recall the kosher homes of their parents or grandparents. Living in a state in which there are no kosher butchers (although Trader Joe's always carries fresh kosher meat and poultry!) and one kosher coffeeshop/bakery (Wildflour Bakery in Pawtucket, yum!), it is clear that a minority of Rhode Island Jews follow kosher guidelines when making decisions about food.
Last night I had occasion to write in an e-mail to a Torat Yisrael member that it is often the case in the Torah that a mitzvah / commandment is given and no reason is provided. Thus, Passover, according to the Torah, lasts seven days. and although we might come up with engaging and inspirational reasons for this number, the bottom line remains that Pesah lasts seven days for the simple reason that God said so.
Keeping kosher is largely about religious discipline. It is a statement: all the food God created is healthy, delicious, nourishing . . . but as an expression of the centrality of my Jewishness in my life, I am going to avoid eating pigs and lobsters and veal parmesan. Here is a place where we might very well expect "God said so" to be the only available reason in the Torah.
But Parashat Shemini not only provides criteria for kosher creatures (mammals with cloven hooves that chew their cuds, water creatures with both fins and scales) but we get a reason, too. Toward the end of the parasha we read:
(vayikra/leviticus 11:44-45) For I am the Lord your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am holy, and you shall not defile yourselves through any creeping creature that crawls on the ground. For i am the Lord Who brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be your God. Thus you shall be holy because I am holy.
Here we are given to understand that accepting the discipline of kashrut endows us with holiness. i find this to be an astounding and energizing concept: holiness is not exclusively a divine state, it is an attainable goal for human beings as well.
In traditional parlance, a Jewish congregation is referred to as a kehillah k'doshah, as a holy congregation. I believe that our Torat Yisrael community, on the verge of leaving our 60 year old building in Cranston and preparing to settle in East Greenwich is very much a kehillah k'doshah, a holy community. We express this in innumerable ways: we support the hungry in our state through our partnership with the Edgewood Food Pantry in the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street and our support of the Chester Kosher Food Closet; we support the homeless in our state through our annual Kosher Christmas Dinner for the Rhode Island Family Shelter; we are committed to the perpetuation of the covenant between God and Israel through our outstanding Torat Tots, Yeladon and Cohen Religious School; we deepen the Jewish spiritual and intellectual journeys of our members through our services and Torah study. We declare our commitment to striving for that exalted k'dushah / holiness that God offers us through our adherence to the system of Kashrut.
The insights of this week's parashah are a gift: by the simple, accessible means of choosing eggplant parmesan over veal parmesan we can take a step towards human holiness: a gift of an eternally accessible opportunity to us as individuals and to us as a kehillah k'doshah, a holy congregation.
Parashat B'har Torah Reading: Leviticus 25:1-26:2 As we approach the end of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus, we read a thought-provoking verse:
"I am Adonay Your God. It is I who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to give you the Land of Canaan to be your God." (25:38)
We are not often given a glimpse into God's intent. We are invited to ponder the motivation behind God's act of creation in the first place; we can only guess at the reason God reached out to Avram to seal the first covenant/brit; and the questions only multiply as we witness the stories of the Genesis/B'reishit families and ultimately the saga of Israelite slavery in Egypt.
There are other verses that offer similar insights into God's intent. Perhaps the most familiar is the verse we read twice a day in the liturgical unit of biblical excerpts of the Sh'ma and the following paragraphs: "I am Adonay your God. It is I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. I am Adonay your God."
But it is in this Leviticus verse that God includes the gift of the Land of Canaan to the Israelites in this statement of motivation. These verses indicate that God redeemed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery in order to "be" the God of the Israelites and their descendents (us!).
What does this mean? For centuries, since God first tapped Avram on the shoulder and instructed him to leave home, God has been "the God of the Israelites.? Right?
Well, yes and no. Avram, who would be transformed into Avraham . . . the father of a multitude . . . would ultimately serve as the patriarch for Jews, Christians and Muslims. So the God to whom Avraham was devoted was the God of several faiths.
During the centuries of Israelite slavery (that is the servitude of the descents of Israel/Jacob) it seems as though God was not "shochein" not dwelling among the people. It is through God's messenger, Moses, that God will, in effect, reintroduce the relationship with the Israelites.
As Israel leaves Egypt they are lead by the God who had seemingly abandoned them for generations, but then crossed all borders and broke all conventions to redeem them from slavery.
And the first major event of their journey back to their geographic home in Canaan is the only collective revelation of the Torah at Sinai. It is there that the unique relationship between God and Israel is forged. It is at Sinai that Adonay becomes the God of Israel irrevocably. "It is I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God."
And in Leviticus, in the verse we read in this week's parashah, we learn that God also wanted to bring together the people of Adonay and the land of Adonay: the land of Israel and the people of Israel. It is with this statement that we learn how central this love triangle of God, people and land is to the core identity of our people.
In the past week, we celebrated Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Israel Independence Day, and we will soon be celebrating Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day (celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem after the 6 Day War). This is a propitious time for each of us to address the issue of Land and People and God for ourselves. Some of us, of course, visit Israel. Some of us make "aliyah" and choose to settle in Israel. Some of us don't feel drawn to make that "pilgrimage" visit. Some of us are knowledgeable about Israel and some of us don't know much more than what we absorb through our usual news sources.
This week's Torah reading challenges us to try to complete the sentence: "As a Jew, Israel means ______________________________ to me."
I'd love to hear what you come up with!
Parashat Kedoshim Torah Reading: Leviticus 19:1-20:27 This week's Torah portion is called "Kedoshim" a word taken from the opening verses of the reading. Every portion is named through this same technique of pulling one significant word from it's first or second verse. Many times that word has no real connection to the content of the entire parasha, sometimes it does. In this case, "Kedoshim", "holy" in the third person plural, very much sums up the verses that follow.
That verse reads:
דַּבֵּר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: You shall be holy because I, Adonay, your God, am holy.
The Israeli Torah commentator, Benyamin Lau, in his brilliant work Etnachta, introduced his discussion of this week's Torah reading with the thought-provoking title: Holy Community not Holy Person.
Rabbi Lau's title highlights an element of the verse which is literally lost in translation . . . and that is that the "You shall be holy" is written in the plural, not the singular. The mitzvah conveyed in the verse is a challenge to be a holy community, not a holy individual.
We don't have saints in Judaism. We don't elevate those who close themselves off from the world: we have no nuns or monks.
Our tradition honors scholars of Jewish texts, laws, theology and values. Our tradition honors people who bring holiness into the world through their integrity, their compassion. Our tradition honors people engaged in bringing the teachings of our faith into the real world.
Rabbi Lau's insight is that we cannot be holy as a collection of individuals. Even as a collection of individuals who study Torah and who do good deeds. We can only fulfill the challenge of this verse if we engage in a community that studies Torah, worships and does good deeds together.
In Hebrew, a synagogue community is referred to as a "Kehillah Kedoshah" as a Holy Congregation. I find this to be a much more engaging and challenging appellation for a Jewish community than "Temple." The Temple was a building. It was the site of the sacrificial cult and it was run by an oligarchy of Kohanim/Priests. In my eyes, our verse in this week's Torah reading lays out a challenge to be not a Temple, but a Kehillah Kedoshah . . . a Holy Community of people coming together for the ultimate Jewish experience: bringing the sacred into the world through our commitment, our learning, our actions, and our joy and pride in our Judaism.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.