Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ethnocentrism vs. Striving for Holiness: Lessons from Parashat Emor

   Are we better than everyone else?  So often in Jewish contexts, we refer to ourselves as “chosen,” “a light unto the nations,” or “a holy people, set apart.”  But often, as English speakers or as folks not listening carefully enough, we miss important nuances in our Hebrew texts.  We are now in the middle of Leviticus, the book of the Bible that most intensely focuses on holiness.  In last week’s portion,
parashat Kedoshim we are told, “you shall be a holy people.”  In this week’s portion, parashat Emor, we are given on instructions on how the priestly class should attain the holiness needed for their work.  We learn in the following in Leviticus 21:6, and in Rashi’s commentary:

21:6. They [the priests] shall be holy to their God, and they shall not desecrate their God's Name, for they offer up the fire offerings of the Lord, the food offering of their God, so they shall be holy.
ו. קְדשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם כִּי אֶת אִשֵּׁי יְהֹוָה לֶחֶם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֵם מַקְרִיבִם וְהָיוּ קֹדֶשׁ:
RASHI: They shall be holy: [Since Scripture does not state “They are holy,” but rather “They shall be holy,” it means that if kohanim wish to defile themselves over the dead and thereby desecrate their holiness]-against their will, the court must [prevent them from doing so, and thereby] sanctify them in this respect. — [Mizrachi; Torath Kohanim 21:13]
קדשים יהיו: על כרחם יקדישום בית דין בכך:
Taken from chabad.org

The Children of Israel and our priestly leaders are not inherently holy -- we are commanded to act in accordance with Law in order to attain holiness and illumine the world.  Holiness, specialness, luminescence are not gifts of birth; they are hard won attributes gained through a life of mitzvot.  We all have the choice to live a life of integrity and purity or to choose a path of defilement and shame.  Our choices not only affect our lives, but the entire moral identity of our people.  It is for that reason that Rashi teaches us that the (non-priestly) rabbinical courts are responsible for guiding the priests toward a life in accordance with the Divine Will and ritual purity.

It is not a coincidence that last week’s Torah portion is paired with a very strongly worded hafatarah from the Book of Amos.  In Amos 9:7-8, God has strong words for a Jewish community that believed it was inherently special and beyond rebuke:

ז  הֲלוֹא כִבְנֵי כֻשִׁיִּים אַתֶּם לִי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, נְאֻם-יְהוָה:  הֲלוֹא אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, הֶעֱלֵיתִי מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וּפְלִשְׁתִּיִּים מִכַּפְתּוֹר, וַאֲרָם מִקִּיר.
7 Are you not like the Ethiopians, O children of Israel? said the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?
ח  הִנֵּה עֵינֵי אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, בַּמַּמְלָכָה הַחַטָּאָה, וְהִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֹתָהּ, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:  אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא הַשְׁמֵיד אַשְׁמִיד אֶת-בֵּית יַעֲקֹב--נְאֻם-יְהוָה.
8 Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from off the face of the earth; saving that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, saith the LORD.

Many peoples, God says, I have redeemed from slavery.  They are all my children, and they have all had their exoduses.  If you sin, you shall be punished.  If you correct your ways, you will be taken back in love.  This is the human journey, and in my Divine Court, you do not stand on any pedestal.

As Jews, we are a people drawn together by a common mission to achieve holiness, not a people connected by the foolish belief that we are beyond frailty.  When we fall into the trap of ethnocentrism, we not only sin against our fellow human beings, but we also instantly betray our foundational mission.  We must always remember our responsibility to imitate God’s ways -- and to remind ourselves constantly -- we are not yet there.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Jewish Theology Class tomorrow (April 24th)! Thai Bistro at 6 pm - 7 pm

We will be discussing one of the best theologians in the history of the Conservative movement tomorrow.  Please see the attached text from Abraham Joshua Heschel's God in Search of Man.   We will not discuss all of what is attached, but selections from it.  

Please print in advance of our discussion -- looking forward to a great class!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maine Conference for Jewish Life: June 3-5, 2014 in Waterville, Maine



The Maine Conference for Jewish Life will be held June 3-5, 2014! This three-day conference will bring together Jews from across the region to celebrate Jewish culture, learning and history. If you are interested in attending, you can register online at http://web.colby.edu/mainejewishlifeconference/registration-and-cost/ and you can like us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MaineJewishLife

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Blessing the Maine State Senate

 I was honored today to bestow blessing upon the Maine State Senate.  I also was honored by the State Senate for my recognition in the Jewish Daily Forward.  Thank you Senator Lachowicz for the official sentiment.

 Here was the text of my invocation:

Thank you for the great honor of bestowing blessing upon you today.  May the wisdom of our past and the noble aspirations for our future guide your actions today.  May the great responsibility that you all share guide you in making decisions that strengthen the weak, satiate the needy, educate those thirsting for knowledge, and heal all those who are ill.  May you use the power with which you have been entrusted to create a society that not only fulfills its basic obligations, but also inspires us to be deeply proud and thankful of the space we share -- a space that makes manifest our most cherished values: equality, justice, and compassion.

May we all heed the warning of Prophet Isaiah:

"Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice, and to rob the poor of my people of their right." (Is. 10:1-3)

And instead fulfill the words laid out in the Book of Amos,

“Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate (Amos 5:14-15)

As we approach the festivals of Passover and Easter, let us remember that justice and redemption can be achieved, and that we must be partners in freeing those bound by hunger, illness, and desperation.  

May God bless you and keep you, May God shine the Divine Countenance Upon you, and may you be blessed with peace.  May this day, a day created for our sake, be worthy of celebration.  And let us say, “Amen.”