Friday, April 20, 2012

Where are your lines? - Shemini 5772

Two weeks ago, on the first night of Pesah, I did more or less what I do every year.  I went to the evening service here at Temple Israel at 6:30 and then went home to begin the seder with my family.  By 7:45 we were knee-deep in salt water and the rabbis of Benei Beraq.

At that time, about 18 miles away at Madison Square Garden, a seder was concluding, and the Exodus to the auditorium was about to begin.  You may have read about this in the New York Times: a family of Bruce Springsteen’s most loyal Jewish fans, unable to reconcile the inconvenient scheduling of Mr. Springsteen’s MSG show with nightfall on the 14th of Nissan, opted to hold a rock-and-roll themed seder at a restaurant above the Garden.  Thus they could fulfill their obligation to recall the departure from Egypt with matzah and maror and still worship at the altar of the hard-driving guitar  anthems of E Street.  And, in true Passover fashion, they did not delay the evening’s ritual, so that they could make it to their seats within the 18-minute margin.  You might say that they were “born to run.”

Now, I must confess two things: first, although I will always have a soft spot in my heart for rock & roll, and for big concerts, I have never been a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen.  Second, that this is not within what I understand to be an traditional celebration of the Festival of Freedom, for several reasons.  But while the family’s loyalty to Springsteen is indeed impressive, I must say that their loyalty to Pesah is even more notable.  Why?  They could have skipped the seder altogether.  My decade of experience as clergy has taught me that in the choices that modern Jews make, the secular activity almost always wins out over the Jewish one: youth sports trump Shabbat, work trumps minyan, the PTA meeting trumps an adult learning class.  

Had they not held the seder, there would be no story here.  But they chose to mark their liberation from slavery with the traditional meal and discussion, even inviting the band members to join them (one did: saxophonist Jake Clemons, nephew to the late, legendary Clarence; he read from their original, Springsteen-themed haggadah, which they had created for the occasion, stumbling over the word “haroset.”  By the way, in the wake of the story in the New York Times, the Museum of Jewish Heritage requested the haggadah for their collection of 20th/21st century Jewish artifacts.)

And all I can say is, “Kol ha-kavod.”  All glory is due to this family.  Even though I would not do it this way, even though others might say that they were mocking tradition, this family stuck to their principles and ate their Hillel sandwiches in the way that made sense to them.  They had their matzah and ate it too...

This is the nature of Judaism: we all make choices.  And while there are people in the Jewish world who claim to speak for God, and will say, “It must be done THIS way,” and will be quick to point out all the “rules” that this family broke, the reality is that we all in some sense make the rules, based on a complicated, subjective mix of text, tradition, communal expectation, and personal autonomy.  As the Talmud tells us (Bava Metzi’a 59b, quoting Deut. 30:12), “Lo bashamayim hi.”  The decision for what is kosher is not found in heaven.  


Our parashah this morning, Parashat Shemini, captured a range of ideas in a few short chapters, and there are two items to which I would like to call your attention.

1.  Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, are swallowed up in fire because they did something wrong in performing priestly rituals.  In the face of their sudden, violent deaths, the Torah goes out of its way to point out that their father Aaron, the High Priest, is silent, and his silence seems to speak volumes.

2.  Chapter 11 contains a long list of animals that are kosher and not kosher, what we can eat and what we cannot.  As many of you know, the mammals and the fish have particular features -- split hooves and a rumen, or fins and scales -- that make them acceptable, while the birds are not given blanket rules but are merely mentioned by name as being “pure” (tahor) or “impure” (tamei).

What both of these stories teach us is that our lives and behavior are shaped by God-given lines - some things are in and some are out.  Rashi’s theory about Nadav and Avihu is that they were drunk, and God schmeisted them for a serious transgression, which the Torah describes immediately after Aaron’s notable silence.  But that is only one theory; the Torah does not really tell us.

There has been much ink spilled over the kashrut rules (some of which appear elsewhere in the Torah): one possibility, promoted by Maimonides, the 12th-century physician, is that the “pure” animals are healthier to eat, and that’s what they told us in Hebrew school when I was growing up, although I’ve never bought that.  Noted sociologist Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger (1966), points to the Torah’s interest in clear categories.  We are allowed to eat what is easily defined, and animals that do not fit neatly into one category or another are forbidden (like the pig, which has a split hoof but no rumen, or the camel, which has a rumen but no split hoof).

So yes, the Torah gives us lines.  But there is also a good deal of human interpretation involved with where these lines fall.  The “why,” the reasoning and/or spiritual justification for various mitzvot, is virtually always up for debate.  The “what” is less so, but still the 2,000 years of rabbinic interpretation have yielded various positions, some of which contradict each other.  


All of which brings me back to the Springsteen seder.  Faced with the challenge of two seemingly conflicting loyalties, The Boss’ biggest Jewish fans created a ritual that straddled the line between honoring Jewish tradition and living in the modern, secular world.  The latter has virtually no boundaries; the former has many.

And as I have already pointed out, that is what we ALL do.  Particularly here, in the Conservative movement, where fealty to tradition is greater than in Reform, and immersion in the wider world is greater than in much of Orthodoxy.

But there is something even more here.  The Torah’s lines are as much about food as they are about the human spirit.  On some level, whether conscious of it or not, whether we heed our internal moral guideposts or not, each of us wants to be good, to be holy, to be pure.  The message that the Torah sends, regardless of what we eat, is as follows: you have within your hands the power to make the right choice.  Leviticus (and the other material of Priestly authorship elsewhere in the Torah) urges us to separate the positive from the negative, the light from the dark, the good from the bad.  

Some of you know that I have a good friend and colleague, Rabbi Antonio di Gesu, who is the rabbi of the Jewish community of Japan.  (There are actually three rabbis in Tokyo -- the other two are both Chabad rabbis, one of whom is a messianist and the other is not, and they don’t speak to each other, much less to my friend.)  Japan is a particularly irreligious place.  There are some Shinto traditions and some Buddhist, but these do not really give the average Japanese person the guides to life the way that Judaism does.  

So Rabbi Antonio, in addition to serving the Jewish community, mostly expat Americans and Israelis, also serves a good number of non-Jewish Japanese seekers, people who are looking for something that their tradition does not offer.  They come to services, they come to his office with questions, they try Judaism on for size for a while.  Some stick around.  Perhaps what draws these typically young Japanese adults to our tradition, so alien to them, is the lines that we have, the physical and spiritual lines that are our guides to making us better people.

You see, we have a rich tradition of story and song, of text and context, of law and custom.  It is so much more than eating matzah and singing Dayyenu once a year.  We have the Torah, the Mishnah, the Gemara, the midrashim, the commentators, philosophers, poets, payyetanim / liturgical poets, hazzanim, and on and on.  We draw inspiration from writings that span millennia.  

Part of that body of text is law, yes.  There are many parts of the Jewish world for whom halakhah, Jewish law, where those physical lines are drawn, is the ultimate expression of their relationship to God.  Some might look at this parashah and see only what you can eat and what you can’t.  But the goal of Judaism is higher than that.  Ramban, aka Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, aka Nachmanides, the 13th-century Spanish commentator, urges us to extrapolate from what is stated in the Torah to what is not:  
“In matters about which God did not command you,” says Ramban, set your eyes to “do what is right and good in the eyes of God” [Deut. 6:18]... It is impossible to mention in the Torah the entirety of human conduct with neighbors and friends, in all business activities and all the improvement of society and of the state.” (Ramban, comment to Deuteronomy 6:18)

And after listing many explicit mitzvot / commandments, he continues, the Torah tells us to make good choices about the unstated things, says Ramban.  It is up to us to determine what the laws of kashrut imply about the rest of our choices.

That is our stock in trade as Jews.  Not kashrut, per se, but the wisdom and discipline that come with boundaries.  Our tradition, through its many channels and historical currents, offers the lines that we need, physical and spiritual.  How we relate to others.  How we honor our parents.  How we treat our business partners, our clients, our patients, our vendors. How we respect ourselves and our loved ones.  These things are as much a part of being Jewish as what we eat.

As we sail into the openness of the future, of the growing secular wave of American society, I challenge each of us to draw on our tradition to help us navigate.  There will always be a tension between attending the concert or the seder, the Shabbat haMishpahah service or basketball practice.  Let’s hope that we all find ways to bring some holiness into our lives, balancing whatever we need to balance to make it work.  Let’s make Ramban proud, and make the choices that are “right and good in the eyes of God.”  Where are your lines?

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 4/21/2012.)

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