Yom Shishi, 3 Shevat 5778
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Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Health Dose of Torah--Miketz

So much news! So many distractions! So few opportunities to engage! I did not make it to the URJ Biennial, but watched the plenary speeches live-streamed, and my colleagues who were there have shared a wealth of conversation on all that happened. First, congratulations to my colleague Rabbi Rick Jacobs and the entire URJ (of which he is President) for an event that was, by all acclaim, a wonderful and wonderfully spirited gathering. Our lay leadership that went came back excited, teeming with ideas, contacts, and enthusiasm. Second, as I posted last week, Reverend William Barber is an amazing champion for justice. He was only one of several brilliant and thought-provoking speakers.So much news! So many distractions! So few opportunities to engage! I did not make it to the URJ Biennial, but watched the plenary speeches live-streamed, and my colleagues who were there have shared a wealth of conversation on all that happened. First, congratulations to my colleague Rabbi Rick Jacobs and the entire URJ (of which he is President) for an event that was, by all acclaim, a wonderful and wonderfully spirited gathering. Our lay leadership that went came back excited, teeming with ideas, contacts, and enthusiasm. Second, as I posted last week, Reverend William Barber is an amazing champion for justice. He was only one of several brilliant and thought-provoking speakers.

 

Perhaps overshadowing my first two points, though is a realization that, while I knew was true, I really did not want to admit or address. It is now impossible to ignore. Reform Judaism is, in my core belief, the purest descendant of our 2000 year rabbinic tradition. When I read our ancient texts, I do not see sages debating ritual for the sake of ritual. I see the debates (especially over the stuff we call minutiae) as calls for us to pay attention. Every ritual in our tradition has a pragmatic corollary in our behavioral patterns. There are no “rules” set in stone, as the sages repeatedly provide us with perceptual ideas and then a bevy of exceptions to them. One cannot work on Shabbat, unless it is to save the life of a person or animal or to take care of an obligation to the community, or … The scripture and Halakhah is the beginning of our conversation, and never the final answer. This mandate for diversity of thought was the cornerstone of Reform Judaism and the bane of ultra-orthodoxy (where the “rebbe” has the final say for any given community).


As Reform Jews, we devoted our faith to fulfilling the messages and dreams of the Prophets. From the Mosaic command to pursue Justice to Amos' command to let justice flow like the mighty waters; from Ezekiel's call to resurrect the dead and lost spirit, to the Zohar's command to Tikkun Olam (healing the world), each of us saw that the act of caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger was not a matter of economics or politics, it was the command from God. From Deuteronomy Rabbah, “Justice is the ultimate value in Jewish life and pillar of the world.” The call to heal the world is as central to the Jewish mission as is the mandate of atonement. The most seminal Jewish text comes from the Mishnah, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what good am I? If not now, when?” Further Talmud teaches that if one has the opportunity to heal an injustice, it is as if that person perpetrates it.


So, my problem is simple, Reform Jews still do a lot of good work, but where is the “Jewish” in the act? These are good people who would show up to do good things even if they were not Jewish, but the severity of the commitment is at stake. Justice is more than feeding hungry people or keeping homeless people company over night. Justice demands change, and it was our study of our religious tradition that commanded and demanded our efforts. Without the faith piece in the equation, many of the matters which the prophets scream need attention, devolve to matters of political fodder for debate. Sadly, this is not just a problem in Judaism, all normative religion in America suffers thusly. A fundamentalism rooted in opportunism (the ministry of prosperity and centralized power) has hijacked the word “religion.” People run from the word, but even more, from the core study that helps define who we are and what is really required of us. The people who go to “Bible Studies” are stereotyped so that too many believe that text study is irrelevant to being “normal. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We need to get back to studying. I cannot have a conversation with a congregant about what Judaism says or demands when he/she spends no time in “Jewish” education. Yes, we are social together, but are we Jewish together?

This is Hanukkah. It is a time to rededicate ourselves to owning our tradition, no differently than we remember the Maccabees rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem. This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Joseph who rises from the obscurity of prison to a place of trust in Egypt. His meteoric rise came because of his commitment to paying attention. The sages teach us that Joseph studied God. He did not simply say prayers, he paid attention (studied) and through his study, figured out how to save the world. Pharaoh’s priests were the ChaBaD leaders, Joel Osteens, Joyce Meyers, and Creflo Dollars of their day; living high dollar lives while selling God. Joseph first brought God to Pharaoh and in doing so, saved hundreds of thousands from starvation. Let’s get back to basics. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah.