This is a dvar I gave for Parsha Re’eh on August 16 2014
In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we read in Deuteronomy 15: “There shall be no needy among you…then in a few verses later it reads– If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kingsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. ….For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to the poor and the needy in your land.”
These statements contradict each other—how can the Torah say There shall be no needy among you and then say there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.
Even more importantly, we have God’s instructions on how we should relate to the needy and the poor in our society and what our obligations towards them are. We need to be reminded that it is only if we embrace our responsibility to keep the commandment to support the poor that there will cease to be needy people amongst us –And God will not take care of it for us.
One of my teachers Rabbi Jill Jacobs suggests that the overarching Jewish attitude toward the poor is best summoned up by a single word of the biblical text: אחיך “your brother.” With this word, the Torah insists on the dignity of the poor, and it commands us to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from ourselves.
By telling us that the poor person is our sibling, our brother, the Torah reminds us that, like us, a poor person is made in the image of God and should be treated as such. It also prevents us from separating ourselves from him or her, from seeing ourselves as somehow inherently different from the poor.
This Parsha reminds us of our duty towards the poor. The Poor are our siblings for whom we must care. We have an infinite responsibility for the Other.
Each of us alone might not be able to eradicate poverty but by embracing our responsibility as individuals, as part of a community, of society, we can bring our world closer to the vision of there shall be no needy. This parsha teaches us that together we will make a difference in this world if we take care of each other or take care of our brothers and sisters because this is God’s will —
This presentation, God, People, Sin, and Redemption focuses on the Rabbis of the Rabbinic Era, and their conceptions of human beings, sin, repentance and redemption. I made this presentation for my Rabbinic Core class and my intent of this presentation is to show in a very simple and visually appealing way how the Rabbis of the Rabbinic era viewed the relationship between humans and God regarding sin, repentance and redemption. The information contained in the presentation is based off the information in an article entitled Man, Sin and Redemption in Rabbinic Judaism by Steven T. Katz.
Today is the 49th day of Counting the Omer, seven weeks of counting, and today is the last day and tonight we celebrate Shavuot. Shavuot marks the arrival of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai Tonight, seven weeks after their exodus from Egypt and they arrive at Mt. Sinai and receive the Torah from God.
I hope we all take the time to give thanks. Give thanks for being you. Take the time to appreciate the gifts that you have, and the gifts that you bring to others and remember that God created a special person and that person is you.
This week we enter into the story of Noah. The story of Noah comes after the story of creation. We were told in last weeks portion that God created the world and declared טוֹב מְאֹד, it was very good. Then by the end of the portion, it seems as if,God has what a friend of mine called a bit of buyers remorse, and God says that people are evil and now God wants to wipe not only people but all living things off the planet. But…
The Torah says:
וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָֽה but Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord
Then the portion ends with a bit of a cliff hanger.
This week we are told:
נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים “Noah was in his generations a righteous and wholehearted dude and Noah walked with God.”
What does it mean to be a righteous dude in Noah’s time? Noah was around during a time when the world was crap and people were just not nice and treated each other like …well… you insert the rest.
Noah was righteous for his generation but how would he stand up next to people from other generations?
I would argue that Noah is righteous but not a leader. Noah doesn’t even speak in this weeks Torah portion. In an age, when all is corrupt, when the world is filled with violence, when even
וַיִּנָּחֶם יְהוָה, כִּי-עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ; וַיִּתְעַצֵּב, אֶל-לִבּוֹ God has “regretted that He made man on earth, and it pained Him at his heart”
Noah in God’s eyes justifies God’s faith in humanity, the faith that led God to create people. Noah is, after all, the man through whom God makes a covenant with all humanity, and as a queer person I can thank him for the rainbow. Noah is to humanity what Abraham is to the Jewish people. Noah was a good man in a bad time. Some would argue there are two types of righteous people. Some who do what they are supposed to do and nothing else and those who look around and try to do more. Noah was the type of guy who did what God told him to do, he built an ark and did not tell anyone or try and save anyone.
In Judaism, “chosenness” is the belief that the Jewish people were singularly chosen to enter into a covenant with God. The idea of Jews as the chosen people is a fundamental tenet in traditional Judaism. A tenet so fundamental that in 1945 the Union of Orthodox Rabbis voted to ban the newly published Reconstructionist Sabbath Prayer Book written by Mordecai Kaplan because the prayer book asserted that the Jews are not the chosen people, and the Torah is a human document and not supernaturally inspired. After the vote, the rabbis burned the book and proceeded to excommunicate Kaplan from Judaism. The fact that the book burning accord shortly after the Allies declared victory over Nazi Europe is not lost on historians
In the Future of the American Jew Kaplan explains that the belief of chosenness was derived from the Torah and the stories around the Patriarchs, their descendants in Egypt, Moses and the Israelites on Mt Sinai and the belief that these stories in the Torah represented factual truth. In the book Kaplan states that “people use to think that the earth was the center of the universe, and their homes were the center of the earth.” The concept of Jews as the chosen people also must fit into this line of thinking, which we must get rid of and is a “thought which we can no longer inhabit.” The stories in the Torah according to Kaplan are considered legends and cannot be considered factual and Jews cannot use them as proof that they are the chosen people. He believed that a modern people cannot continue to believe in a supernatural God that favors one group of people over the other and claims one group superior to the other in a society. One group of people cannot be the “all time elite elect of God” and the idea of any people calling themselves chosen is “guilty of self infatuation.” Kaplan equated chosenness with arrogance and believed that “No people can achieve salvation until all people do. This can happen only when it is understood that all people possess equal access to god. That each peoples experience and expression when directed toward the highest goals are equally valid.”
According to Rebecca Alpert, Kaplan’s argument against chosenness would have not been a controversy if it had remained a theory. Kaplan walked his talk and put his theory into action by changing prayers such as the Havdalah, Aleinu and the Kiddush, removing words that described chosenness and a supernatural deity.
As a person who came to Judaism as an adult and through the Reconstructionist movement, I had only known that Reconstructionism rejected the concept of chosenness I’m not even sure I understood how central the concept of chosenness was, until I started interacting with non-Reconstructionist Jews and visiting non-Reconstructionist synagogues.
The Reconstructionist of the early part of the 20th century “concluded that “chosenness” unlike other concepts cannot be reconstructed” and that chosenness implies a hierarchy and thus lends itself far too quickly to chauvinism and other anti-democratic behavior.” – Rabbi Deborah Waxman. The concept of chosenness was the central part of Reconstructionist thought that separated it from all other types of Judaism and maybe made it impossible to stay with the Conservative movement and be sort of a left leaning arm of the Conservative movement and thus the Recontructionist College was founded and a fourth movement of Judaism was created.
If you don’t believe in a traditional God why pray? What is the purpose of prayer?
As a kid the whole concept of prayer was foreign to me. This is what I understood: You get dressed for bed at night, then kneel by your bed and thank God for things in your life. I also understood that I could ask God for things and talk to God when I was in trouble. As a child I would often visit churches and I would see people deep in prayer and it seemed to me, that people strongly believed that if they have enough faith they could ask God for things and if your faith was strong enough God would deliver. But I didn’t get it
So what is the purpose of prayer? Abraham Joshual Heshel in an interview stated that people misunderstand the purpose of prayer and the primary purpose of prayer, at least in the Jewish tradition is “not to make requests. The primary purpose is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song.” In the Jewish tradition we pray in community with singing. Rabbi Jacob Staub wrote that “for many of us, group singing transports us beyond ourselves. I may be awash in gratitude for a life cycle passage, or for the blossoming of flowers in my yard, but without my minyan (quorum) where would I sing out?”
In Mordecai’s Kaplan’s book The Meaning of God, Kaplan lays out the purpose of praying in community. He explains that whenever we pray in a minyan the Shekinah is with us. God’s presence can be with us in a smaller group and God can even be with us as individuals but the more people that are gathered together to pray, to sing and to chant the more likely we will experience “a manifestation of the Shekinah.”
I have always liked praying in community. There is something very powerful about having a large group of people singing and chanting in rythmn from prayers in the siddur (prayer book). I also cannot help but think of slaves in the United States. Singing and chanting passages from the Torah allowed creative ways to escape slavery, both mentally and physically. I also think about the civil rights movement, and the singing of spirituals and protest songs. I cannot even imagine what the movement would have been like without the singing. Someone told me the other day that one reason we are so messed up today is because “We ain’t doing enough singing.” This is probably why chanting is so popular right now in Jewish communities. Hebrew is complicated and not everyone understands Hebrew or can read it fluently but if we just take a few lines from prayers and sing them as a group then we can “be transported beyond ourselves,” or as Kaplan says feel God’s presence.
Kaplan explains “to fully appreciate God’s presence, one must actually experience the influence of public worship…Praying in public makes one feel at home…The presence of others participating with us in articulating our common ideals assures us that we are not separate drops of water, but parts of the mighty current of human life.” Kaplan also explains that we are better off and better at surviving life’s challenges with others than we are alone. Praying in community “Liberates our personality from the confining walls of our individual ego,” in other words we brood, but praying in community breaks us free of this prison, lets in the light and we are able to enjoy life and life becomes more meaningful.
Belief in God, therefore, has to do… with human nature, with the way individual men and women act, with their attitudes, their ideas of what is good and what is bad, with their ideals… If we believe that life is worthwhile, that it is good, that, in spite of sickness and accidents, in spite of poverty and war, in spite of all the sad and difficult conditions in the world, that the world can still be made a better place, then we believe in God. When we believe in God, we cannot be discouraged because we believe that all the misery in the world is due, not to the fact that misery must be there, that it is a necessary part of life, but to the fact that we have not yet discovered how to do away with that misery.
Rabbi Ira Eisenstein (adapted), From the Shabbat Vehagim, the Reconstructionist Shabbat and Festival prayer book, Reconstructionist Press
I have always been challenged by my own concepts of God. As a rabbinical student I have wanted to understand not only what God means in a modern Jewish context but what God means to me. Mordecai Kaplan found the concept of a traditional “Supernatural God” problematic, he did not go so far as a Humanistic approach to Judaism and found the Humanistic approach limiting. He wrote in in his book The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion
“The fundamental error of humanism consist in assuming that there is only one conception of God, which must remain fixed and static, and that we either accept the traditional view of God as the author of specific laws and customs… or leave God entirely out of our reckoning.”
I have never considered myself an atheist or a humanistic Jew but when my friends would ask me about how I felt about God, my joking but serious response would be “I haven’t gotten to that chapter yet.” I have also met people along the way that believe that Reconstructionist do not believe in God. While that may be true for some, it is not part of the theology or philosophy of the movement. I can understand the confusion because before I read excerpts from the Meaning of God I wasn’t very sure about what the Reconstructionist Movement had to say on the concept of God, other than the fact that we don’t believe in a supernatural God who dispenses reward and punishment.
As a Jew in the twenty-first century I was still unsure of my own conception of God but Kaplan also wrote that
“Those who possess enthusiasm for living and strive for a better world are believers in God.” This is language that I can use for my own understanding of God. I entered rabbinical school to make the world a better place, without an understanding of how all of it fit into the concept of God.
One more quote that I liked
“When we break through our narrow and prejudiced conception of religion and begin to realize that it is inevitable for the conception of God to reflect one’s mental and ethical development, we will learn to identify as divine that Power in the world to make it what it should be. The name of God will stand for truth about reality, not in terms of a division between natural and supernatural but in terms of normal human experience”
I have created a new title for myself, Food Activist. I wish I could say that I coined the phrase, but I did not. I heard it this morning on NPR and the title was used to refer to Michael Pollan. With my ever growing interest in whole plant food and educating people about good wholesome unprocessed food. It has had me thinking about the Torah (Bible) and what the Torah says about food. Primarily in Genesis 1:29, where I believe that the initial intention was for us to be vegetarian:
“And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food.
Later permission was given for people to eat meat (Genesis 9:2-5). Why? No one really knows, maybe it’s as simple as this: the world was flooded and destroyed and there was no more vegetation left and the only food sources would have been the animals on the ark and whatever food Noah and his family brought on the ark.
But I have an even larger question, what does it mean for us as a society that we have become so consumed with meat and cheap meat at that, that we do not care about the treatment of animals, the labors, or how food gets to our plate?