Rules and regulations have never been something that I like – especially when imposed from outside of myself. My friends and family might find this amusing – as I spend much of my free time serving as Parliamentarian within the food addiction fellowship of which I am a member as well as planning to take the certification exam for Registered Parliamentarian later this year.
However, our initial reading of our Torah portion left me cold. The rules are certainly out of date and mostly inapplicable in our modern world. What makes someone ‘unclean?’
Lately, however, the world has been turned a bit upside-down. The presidential election left me feeling very disconnected with reality. I knew so few people who supported Mr. Trump that when the outcome was announced it was as if the rug was pulled from under my feet. For the next two and a half months I walked around in an emotional daze. I work a program of recovery from compulsive eating that is based in Twelve Spiritual principles – the second of which is that I have come to believe that there is a Power Greater than myself that can restore my life to a manageable state. How could that Power exist when my world was made so unmanageable by the Electoral College? I was in a quandary with this.
I have had more discussions about spirituality and what it meant to be spiritual since the election than I have had in the past ten years. I’m still not happy about the results, but if the result of all of this is a deeper appreciation for the need for spiritual awareness, it’s not such a bad thing.
So what does this have to do with the Torah portion? I think that the election rules are out of date and need to be changed. I believe the Electoral College has outlived its usefulness. However, as a historical document, I wouldn’t excise the fact that the process we have today is how we wound up in this state. Taking the Torah as a historical document rather than a set of never-changing dogma means that when the document was written, perhaps it was necessary to set down these rather pejorative rules. I don’t know – I wasn’t there.
However, rules change. I can recall having to hold a burial ceremony for my first husband early in the morning because it was his wish to be cremated and the Hebrew Cemetery was uncomfortable allowing us to bury the ashes (which was also his choice). I had to sign an affidavit to the effect that this was his dying wish and that this was not a decision that was imposed upon him. A painful memory. However, after the Holocaust it was something that I could understand.
It’s similar to my reaction to Jewish youth who choose to have themselves tattooed. It’s now “body art.” Some of it is breathtakingly beautiful. However, having grown up with folks around me who had numbers incised on their arms, it’s not something I would ever do (Jeffrey is laughing because he knows how much I hate needles – it’s as much that fear as my adverse response to the concept of tattoos). It’s a “rule.” It’s no longer an absolute – it’s changing.
That’s why we chose to affiliate with a Reconstructionist Synagogue. Things change. It doesn’t make our forebears wrong or stupid – it just means that what was right then isn’t right today.
Ronald L. Benton-Klein
I am very excited to be here today with my fellow b’nei mitzvah students as we complete this journey together. It has helped me understand what my kids will go through while preparing for their own bar/bat mitzvah. In addition, this process seems to help me feel like I have completed my conversion (becoming Jewish) which I did 13 years ago right here at Oseh Shalom with Rabbi Gary Fink. I’m excited to be a part of the first group to read from our newly restored Torah. I want to thank Rabbi Doug for helping me with this journey and answering all my questions. I also want to thank my wife, Kelly, and kids, Aaron, Elijah and Samantha, for everything they do. I also want to thank Rabbi Sultan for helping me with my Torah chanting. And always thank you to my family and friends and to my Oseh family.
Rima Faber Wolff
I am very spiritual, but I have never connected with organized religion. I prefer disorganized religion. My only Jewish training was chicken soup, guilt, and finding a bargain. I was never taught a traditional viewpoint from my parents. It doesn’t make them bad people or me a bad person, although it perhaps inflicts me with a cultural case of Asperger’s.
I realize that in the 5777 years of the Jewish calendar, there is not much more I could say about Leviticus that has not already been said by people far smarter and wiser than myself. I do not have the hubris to believe my thoughts are original. Yet in this present moment of extreme politics I find myself in conflict with, not just particular proclamations of said laws, but with the notion of an unchanging universal stricture. Frankly, I am glad I am before a Reconstructionist congregation or I might be stoned as Torah dictates of the rebellious.
Perhaps a Bat Mitzvah is not the time to dissent, but ….
There’s the standard joke, “If you have two Jews you have an argument.” I take this one step further. If you have one Jew there is an argument. In Judaism we are taught to question? We therefore argue internally, and eternally, within ourselves. This may be why there are so many Jewish lawyers. It’s ingrained in our education. Bene Yisrael means children of those who struggle with G-d.
So, I have real problems with Leviticus and my Parsha. It’s not an issue about taking Leviticus at face value in contrast to today’s values? Reformed and especially Reconstructionist Judaism struggled with this question, and most of you have wrestled with similar issues both spiritually and practically. It’s that Leviticus boils Judaism into a potful of social controls. Religions, in my view, serve to explain the unexplainable questions of existence: What is an infinite and eternal eternity? Why do we exist? What does it mean for us to live together as humans? Religions seek universal understandings. I resent strictures that serve to thrive in the present fervor of fundamentalist extremists. I shun proclamations that divide people and are being used to turn people against one another. It counters what I love about Judaism, which is its undefinable vast universe and questioning of eternity as well as its eternal questioning.
Therefore, I question whether I should be up here in front of you. I question whether I should utter words I don’t believe at the Bima. I can’t excuse them as “then, not now.” But although I question so many aspects of the words I am expected to accept from G-d, I never question my privilege to question.
Parshat Emor deals mostly with requirements for the high priests, or kohane, who lead the Jewish people and bring offerings to G-d. There are a number of very strict requirements of the kohane, including not approaching the dead in a house of morning, not shaving smooth any part of their heads, not cutting their flesh or garments when in mourning, and not marrying a woman who is a prostitute or who has had an extra-marital relationship. The priests are commanded to marry only a virgin who is Jewish (of their own kin). Finally, the priests may not have a “defect,” such as blindness, broken or deformed arms and legs, or various visual and facial anomalies. All of these proclamations seem completely inappropriate, given contemporary society’s values of inclusion and acceptance of others. Nevertheless, I have thought about how the list of requirements for the high priests could be viewed by today’s standards, in order to teach us a lesson for the times we live in.
I believe this parsha is conveying the message that our leaders, religious or political, should be held to a high standard of integrity. Having leaders who live their lives in an honest and honorable way gives us, the constituents or congregants, confidence that our leaders approach their myriad of tasks with high ethical standards. The net result will be better, more enriched lives, for us all. What constitutes integrity in our contemporary society? The Cambridge English dictionary defines integrity as, “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” It also means doing the right thing (being a “mensh”), fulfilling promises, and being ethical. So – is this true? If we choose leaders who demonstrate integrity, do they lead us in a positive way and move our country (or our synagogue) forward? I think there are many excellent examples in our history – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and others. However, our leaders are human beings, too, and human beings are notoriously imperfect. I don’t know if the kohane comported themselves consistently to the strict requirements specified in Parshat Emor, but our religion also teaches us that there is an opportunity for atonement and forgiveness for our sins. That’s what Yom Kippur is all about. Still, on balance, selecting leaders whose overall demeanor and life story clearly show characteristics of compassion, honesty, and an ethical compass seem to be those who accomplish more positive outcomes for the good of our people. Let us hope that when choosing our leaders in the future, whether they be President of the U.S. or Rabbi of Congregation Oseh Shalom, we consider the lessons of Parshat Emor.
Mariyan Kolev (Menahem)
Parshat Emor “lives up to the book’s alternative Hebrew title “Torat Kohanim”, the priests’ manual. It focuses on special regulations of the Kohanim and then on the ritual aspects of the sacred calendar(Potok, 717) Several of the chapters in it are devoted, specifically, to the priestly class. By giving attention to them, above all the rest, their importance for the Jewish Community is emphasized and exalted in a way that creates admiration for their role as “instruments of holiness”(Potok, 718). Even though not very interesting and relevant for the present day reader, at first glance, this Parashah includes as important set of laws as the ones concerning the festivals of the Jewish year. The regulations concerning the sacredness of time are described and “set apart” in this chapter as well as is “blasphemy and other serious crimes”(Potok, 732) Marking and setting apart the Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Day of Atonement and Sukkot from the rest of the days dictates the whole lifestyle of the Jew throughout the year.
But what does a Torah portion(and, overall, the book of Leviticus) have to do with the modern Jew or person of any religion in the 21st Century? Clearly, the times today are different. We live in an age of technology and scientific revolutions. Where is the application of this ancient text today? Is there any, besides the sacredness of time, which of course is not a small issue? Is Parshat Emor the Eternal Clock by which we synchronize ourselves with the Divine? Is there anything besides it? Why Emor addresses, specifically, the priests and not every Jew? Lester Grabbe, a biblical archeologist, views the whole text differently. He expounds that overall “The book of Leviticus is not a handbook for priests as some have suggested. The priestly knowledge was most likely passed down by word of mouth and apprenticeship training without committed formally to writing(until at least very late). (Grabbe, 160). This Torah portion teaches humanity one very important democratic principle- transparency and accountability. Doubts and unclear mystical actions divide the society and lead to their destruction. Overall, People of all backrounds want to know everything that happens around them. This was known by the biblical authors and they emphasized this rule of Transparency everywhere for the betterment of society, a way to Tikkun Olam. Not by mere chance is the fact that one of the oldest languages is the Hebrew.The biblical scribes used it and recorded(in the Eternal Archives of the Tanakh) all regulations, laws and procedures from the smallest detail to the most important thing that they came up with so that any confusion is eliminated regarding matters of legal aspect, legislation and rulership. Of course, the system is not perfect, but it is something that speaks to whoever has questions. By enforcing Transparency and accountability, in search to repair the world,both writers and redactors of the Bible, with the advance of time, created a long lasting egalitarian society embedded in harmony and equality. The laws of purity and punishment for different offenses, as well as different offerings, were clearly spelled in a contract between the people themselves; the people and the priests; and the people and God. It was all there in this document that people asked questions and received answers- from the rules regarding manners towards strangers to ways of dealing with lepers and strangers. Parshat Emor instructs the modern reader to question the Tanakh as a personal message from God that speaks, eternally, to humanity and the individual.
Potok, Chaim. “Etz Hayim. Torah and Commentary.” The Rabbinical Assembly. New York. New York.1990. Print.
Grabbe, Lester. “Ancient Israel”. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. New York. 2012. Print