Friday, March 11, 2011

The Torah Portion of the Week: Leviticus

Parashat Vayikra: Momentous Decisions
March 11, 2011
There have been moments in Jewish history that defined the course of Judaism for centuries to come. One of those epic decisions occurred almost a thousand years ago when the Roman legions under the General and soon to be elected Emperor Vespasian entered Jerusalem and destroyed it including the Holy Temple.  Judaism was, therefore, at a crossroads for the rest of its history. How would Judaism survive when the central institution of Jewish identity and communal worship, the Temple, was obliterated from the face of the earth?
I chose this question tonight regarding the Temple and the sacrificial tradition because our Torah portion begins the book of Leviticus. It is the book that sets out the order of sacrificial rites, the purity laws, and the regimen of priestly duties that accompanies the sacrificial offerings. For us that world is long gone. No one, not even the mainstream Orthodox, actively plan to return to reinstate the Temple sacrificial cult. We have assigned this material to Talmudic study and to preserve the ideal of the Temple in our theology and more specifically in the traditional prayer  books, but, Judaism has moved forward to renew itself and proved that it could do so. Because of Rabbinic innovation and political skill our forbearers were able to substitute prayer and study as the means of expiation of sin.
The lesson for tonight is not about the value of sacrifices themselves but about how Judaism adapted itself to the most serious challenge to its existence. The sages reorganized the entire faith from a system of sacrificial offerings to relying upon prayer and study. That was the genius to our survival.  Furthermore, have we not been adapting to the challenges of history for two thousand years?  Yet, hearing the call of the Eternal One from the desert Tabernacle or the Western Wall at the Temple in Jerusalem and its sacrificial rites was a means to an end. It was always about the heart and soul of the people reaching out to God.
Let’s take a look back in history to the time after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. It is important to remember that synagogues were part of Jewish culture in the heartland of Palestine. There were prayers and worship services. The Jewish sages, Pharisees and rabbis taught Torah. But it was the Temple that was the center of the nation’s spiritual life. People traveled to Jerusalem for pilgrimage holidays like Passover, Purim and Shavuaot. The sacrificial system had been in place as the symbol of national identity and communal worship for a millennium and was also used by all the religions of the Middle East.
And then one day it was all over. It was not simply a political crisis. It left a void in the national spiritual identity. What would people do to continue to fulfill the sacrificial commandments that God commanded the children of Israel to perform from the beginning of our history? Quickly the rabbis negotiated with the Roman authorities to establish a center for learning and study in a small town called Yavneh. One rabbi in particular, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, becomes the leader negotiated with the Roman emperor a pathway towards a future amidst the rubble of  Roman conquest  in the year 70 CE.
It is an amazing story told in the Talmud that Rabban Yochanan had his disciples declare him dead and put him inside a casket to be taken out of the besieged city of Jerusalem. After his escape he made his way to the Roman general. Just after Vespasian had been informed that the Roman Senate had elected him Emperor and Yochanan ben Zakkai appeared before him. Vespasian respected Yochanan ben Zakkai. Vespasian informed him that he was about to leave his assignment to become the most powerful person in the ancient world at that time.
According to the Talmudic account,Vespasian said to Yochanan ben Zakkai, “I am now going away from here and will send someone else to take my place.  You may, however, make a request of me, and I will grant it.” Rabban Yochanan said, “Give me Yavneh and its sages, the dynasty of Rabban Gamaliel.” Think about that. Suppose, as some sages at the time advocated, he had convinced Vespasian to restore Jerusalem. How would Judaism have looked or survived if the Romans restored the Temple sacrificial tradition?
But it did not. In fact some would say it was a brilliant strategic decision that enabled Yochanan and his sages to operate under the Roman radar to reestablish the rabbinic presence in the ravaged and war torn Palestine of the first century of the Common Era. It was that decision that started the process of reconstituting Judaism without sacrifices. It was that decision that propelled the idea of prayer as the only way a Jew could find atonement from their sins. That was a revolutionary decision. And when Rabban Yochanan said, “Our prayers would take the place of our sacrifices to God,” Judaism was transformed.
It is not that our sages forgot sacrifices or did not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple. They did just that. But in the meantime they instituted a new approach raising the synagogues and their local prayer customs as well as the study of the Scripture as the main opportunities for Jews to find God and to receive God’s forgiveness. We take that for granted today but with the lens of history we can realize that what is amazing about our history is the ability of the spiritual leadership to reinvent itself in the midst of this existential crisis that put the future of the people and Judaism itself at risk. At the end of the day, that momentous decision to relocate the rabbinical center of learning at Yavneh changed the face of Judaism from a sacrificial based religion to strictly one of prayer, study and communal worship.
What we may not realize is how the sacrificial tradition influenced the way communal prayer, and, therefore, our current prayerbook would be structured for two millenniums. Most of the passages that directly referred to sacrifices were excised from the Reform prayerbook but the underlying influence is still there nevertheless.
How ironic it is that all of us who would never pray for the rebuilding of the Temple still aspire to stand at the Western Wall of that Temple. It is not about the sacrifices themselves. We stand at the Wall for our history. We hear an inner voice that calls from those stones. It is that calling that is the magic of the Western Wall. Similarly the first word of the Torah portion in Leviticus is, “And God called out to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.”  
Rabbi Eleazar said Prayer is more efficacious than sacrificial offerings. He also said, “Ever since the day the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer have been closed. But though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are not closed. ( Talmud: B BErachot 32b)
One more text from the Midrash:  We read from the Song of Songs (5:2) The congregation of Israel said to the Holy One, blessed be He:  Master of the Universe, I am numb as though asleep, for lack of the Temple, “nevertheless my heart wakes in house of payer and houses of study.”
We have learned that God’s calling us makes us hear the divine voice in different ways as individuals. We have also learned how we as communities reform our way of worship as a people too when it came to listening to the voice of God in the Torah.  What we give to God is our prayers, our deeds, our Tzedakah, our thoughts and questions. All of these bring us closer to the Eternal One.
Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, March 10, 2011

God wants us to ask questions.

God: Part Two
Jews have a hard time with God because many so- called progressive, Conservative and even secular Jews have other Jewish outlets to encounter the Jewish experience other than directly dealing with God. We have gastronomic Judaism where we can go to the deli and eat our favorite cultural delights and say, “That is my Judaism.”  Some will engage in cultural organizations that help the cause of Jewish survival. They say that is their Judaism. Others who aren’t sure what they are but have Jewish names or had Jewish ancestry are out there too. They have found other religions or no none at all. Yet they too retain that sense of identity despite the fact they don’t know what to do with it.
The problem is that we don’t have just one way to define ourselves. Even traditional Jews who practice the laws, the Halachah, can perform the functions of what God wanted from us but that does not automatically mean that they have a personal relationship with God, a way of communicating and believing that the creator sees into our hearts and souls!
I believe that Jews are the people of the commentary. We love to comment and to seek to understand something that we feel is deeper inside a text. Whether that text is the Torah, the Talmud, the Midrash or the Kabbalah, we possess that powerful sense of questioning about what we see inside the words. That has carried us into so many other realms of inquiry and is partly responsible why Jews have made so many contributions into the realms of the arts and sciences.
I am afraid that we have become too placid about searching for the eternal question of God inside our lives. Is it a passing thought or even a distant memory? I would really like to know what people are thinking about in relation to God. I am sure that one does not have to be Jewish to have an inquiring mind. Please! To the contrary, all I am saying is that there seems to be a general sense of serious questioning about God in our lives. Fundamentalist and Charismatics in all faiths have their place. People on the other end of the spectrum have their place as well. I am not talking about sitting in a communal worship setting and asking these kinds of questions. I am referring to the private life of a person who can sit down, take the time to read a book or write a thought and imagine a discussion with the Holy One like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Sounds crazy?
We are losing our spiritual edge if we become immersed only in the digital reality of technology. We must rescue the part of ourselves that in humility questioned our reason for existence and our mission or purpose for being here. It is not that we will necessarily answer that question but just to ask it and to know that God wants us to ask it even if there is not a direct response to our questions about “Why” is good enough. We must feed the spiritual mind with questions. The spiritual side of ourselves relishes the questions. Have we come to an age where we are starving the spirit and feeding the intellect? What do you think?
Finally, too much is at stake for the continuity of our people not to address this question. It is a global problem when religion runs rampant and leads to war. But this is a private matter, an individual issue, for each person to figure out where they are in this world. A secular world that stifles the spirit of questioning and imagining our connection the Eternal One is equally destructive. Do we need to re-establish a balance in our lives where the matters of the spirit can remind us that inside each of us is a poet, a theologian and philosopher all tied together? Yes, think it is so. It is the creative side of who we are. Let’s not forget that precious aspect of our humanity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Where are you God?

Jews have a hard time talking about God. I say to myself that I want to talk more about God but I  fear that on the pulpit if I do discuss God, that glassy eyed look will infect the entire congregation at Shabbat services. Yet I must explore first my own ambiguity not about God’s existence as the creator of the universe, but, I want so desperately to feel that God cares and knows we are here. I am searching myself, as if this is my life’s journey, to see if I can discover that presence just for me let alone for everyone else in my congregation.
I think we have lost the art of talking to god. I read the stories of how simple Jewish people could talk to god out of the depths of a shtetl and its poverty and danger too. Yet they carried on conversations with the Holy One. I am not so attracted to the great philosophers of Judaism even though I read their works and admire their determination to make Judaism relevant in the world they lived in during the Middle Ages and even through today. I cling to simple stories and prayers. I look for the poetry of God talk. I search not so much for the answer to God but for the question. I yearn to live in the question.
I see that the pathway between the Holy One and me branches out into many different directions. There are many roads traveled in this search for the questions. I can hear God calling me from the very pages of Genesis, “Ayecha,” Where are you?” (2:9) For me religion is all about a life of self discovery and rolling in the meadow of that question “Where are You?”
I do not see God as simply an inner voice or only an outstanding presence that “rolls darkness into light and light into darkness.” I can’t even define God or know what I am speaking about or to whom. Does that make me an unbeliever or just crazy? An agnostic? I relish the journey of discovering not only the essence of myself as I study, pray, teach torah, and write a poem. But all these sacred acts bring me closer to Eternal One. How do I know this is so? I don’t. But I would swear it to be true. I can live with these paradoxes. I can sustain this search with the creative tension I yearn for as I search for truth and for the question that opens the door to truth I have not yet grasped. This is the game of hide and seek with God that I have engaged in over the last twenty five years. I am hiding and I am seeking!
Not every act is an inquiry into the Godhead. Of course I can perform the rituals and savor them. I can read the prayers to myself and to my congregation with feeling and kavanah (inspiration). I once had a dream that I would text God.  I said, “Are you there?” Does a text message have a better chance of reaching God than a letter to God sent to the Post Office? I have more to say on this. What is your view of God?