Tuesday, January 27, 2009


This week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha, has a great deal of beautiful imagery based on the Menorah and on light, but Rachell is going to talk about those tomorrow and so you’ll have to come back if you want to hear about that part.

There are two parts of the Torah portion and Haftarah I do want to mention, though, and they are particularly apt, I think for the weekend of a Bat Mitzvah. Much of the Torah portion is concerned with the dedication of the Levites to service to God, a theme that is repeated in the Haftarah the Prophet Zechariah has a vision of Joshua being invested by God as the High Priest.

We could read both of these as the establishment of a religious hierarchy – Priests and Levites to serve God on behalf of the Jewish people, and indeed for much of our history it has been read that way. During Temple times there were services and ceremonies that only the Priests and Levites could perform and places in the Holy Temple where only they could go. To this day Orthodox and some Conservative congregations reserve the first two Aliyot – being called up to the Torah – for Kohanim, priests, and Levi’im, Levites. Reform and other modern forms of Judaism have done away with this hierarchy.

I prefer to see it as an investiture of the entire Jewish people with holiness. As we read a few weeks ago, God’s commandment to Israel is to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy people,” and for me that places the Kohanim and Levi’im in a different light – they are no holier than anyone else, but rather were designated by God as the exemplars of holiness and administrators (ministers) of the procedures, e.g., sacrifices, cleansings, etc., that God provided as means and signs of holiness.

I think a Bat Mitzvah serves a similar purpose. People have recognized since ancient times that children cannot be held fully responsible for their actions –self-control, a sense of morality, and the ability to think about matters such as right and wrong as abstractions rather than concrete or inflexible rules develop gradually, and don’t begin to come into their full complexity until the age of 12 give or take a few years, so most cultures developed rituals to acknowledge this coming to an age of responsibility. Sometimes, by reason of coincidence, we think of these as related to sexual maturity, but I think they are much more closely related to emotional and intellectual maturation. A Bat Mitzvah is such a rite of passage into adult responsibilities, if not adult privileges. It is a ceremony much like those in this week’s Parshah, that invests the young person with the mantle of and the responsibility for the commandment “you shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy.”
But what does that responsibility mean? Sometimes we think of it as responsibility as obligation – from now on Rachell will be obligated to follow God’s commandments, to put on Tefillin (though there is no prohibition on a younger person doing so, they are not required to). With this view of responsibility, holiness takes on what the late Fritz Perls used to call a “shouldistic framework” – a life constrained and restricted by rules and prohibitions. Like most liberal thinkers I’m not much called to that interpretation.

Rather, I think responsibility means what it says – response ability – the ability to respond and to respond maturely and intelligently. As I’ve studied the Torah every week for these services, I’ve been struck by how many paragraphs and chapters begin as this week’s does with the words “Vayidaber Adonai” – and God spoke. You really get the impression that in Torah times God was pretty chatty – but why? Oftentimes when someone repeats themselves or talks a lot it’s because the person they are talking to hasn’t given them any indication that they’ve heard and understood. In other words, the response they’re getting, if any, isn’t adequate, so I wonder of the point of a Bat Mitzvah is not to underscore for Rachell and for the community that she is now able to respond when God calls, and that if she chooses not to respond, that is also a choice for which she can be fully accountable. In other words, she is responsible for herself, and is free to make her own choices (though her parents may not wholly agree, that is the Jewish position, at least on religious matters).

When I was young, that kind of freedom sounded like a pretty good deal. After my Bar Mitzvah it meant no more religious school – I’d see the Rabbi when I wanted to and on my own terms. When I went off to college that meant freedom from my parents’ oversight and sounded even better.

Funny thing, though. At Cornell, where I went to college in the early ’60’s, it wasn’t long before I encountered a phrase that was pretty much a mantra for people dealing with us cocky freshmen – the phrase was “freedom with responsibility.” I found out that the good news was that I could make up my own mind; the bad news was that whatever I made up my mind to do, the consequences of that decision were also mine. In some cases those consequences were very clear – I chose to sleep through many an 8 am calculus class, and my grades at the end of the semester reflected the knowledge I didn’t have as a result.

In other cases it wasn’t so clear-cut. Passover came in the Spring of my Freshman year, and it was all up to me. At home my mother cleaned the house and stocked it with Passover foods, she cooked meals that were kosher for Passover, and my father made the Seder. I was expected to stay home from school on the first, second, and seventh day and to go to services. To go to school or not to go to services would cause that most dreaded of imaginary events: a shande fur die goyim!! A shame in front of the Gentiles. After all, would they go to school on Christmas?
Now it was, as I said, up to me. I could eat ham sandwiches three meals a day all through Passover and no one would notice. Classes went on, and if I didn’t go, there would be no more allowance made for my non-attendance than there was when I slept through 8 o’clock calculus. There was a Seder at Hillel that I could go to or not, and if I didn’t, no one in that free-thinking community would have given it a second though.

The problem was that, unlike cutting classes, there was no clear effect of my choice either way. It was, essentially, between me and God, and God is notoriously hard to read in these internal theological debates. And if you’re wondering, in my four years at Cornell sometimes I chose one way, sometimes the other.

So I think the responsibility we’re talking about here is different from the responsibility for going to class or listening to one’s parents. I think it’s a responsibility of spirit. I’ve been wrestling with being ordained as a Rabbi, and I notice that in Judaism we don’t have as clear an idea of a “calling” that my friends who are Christian clergy have. In the Tanach I find instances of God calling people to service – Abraham, Moses, Samson, and later Jonah and Daniel and others – but not to ministry. When the Rabbis address ministry they address it as everyone’s job. Indeed, the idea of an ordained clergy is relatively recent in Judaism and serves as an indication that a person is qualified to interpret and rule on issues of law and custom. One publication I have that deals with Jewish law and ritual practice notes that issues in this area are rife with local customs and that the question of what is acceptable under halachah should be brought to the Rabbi who “as mara d’atra the local decisor, has the authority to determine such issues.” The same publication states very clearly that in the case of the shaliach tzibur, the person leading community prayer, “the rabbi may function as a guide; however a rabbi is not necessary fro the conduct of public worship.” This is very different from what you would find in liturgical manuals for many other faiths.

In the absence of any notion in Judaism of a “calling” or a specific inspiration from God, to what does the “response able” person respond? When Eliyahu Hanavi, the Prophet Elijah, fled from Jerusalem because the Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, was out to kill him, he hides in a cave until God asks him “what are you doing here?” that is, why is he not preaching as God told him to. He is told to go outside the cave and "stand before the Lord." A terrible wind passes, but God is not in the wind. A great earthquake shakes the mountain, but God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire passes the mountain, but God is not in the fire. Then a "still small voice" comes to Elijah and asks again, "What doest thou here, Elijah?"

I think it is to that “still small voice” that the response-able person must respond. We have to quiet all the clamor outside and inside us to hear that voice, and that quieting is what we mean by faith. Faith is not loudly proclaiming our goodness or condemning others’ wrongdoing, it is becoming quite enough in ourselves to hear what God wants for us. As Zechariah says in this week’s Haftarah, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the LORD of hosts,” and that spirit is what we hear when we listen and what we respond to when we are able.

1 comment:

josh said...

Actually, many Rabbis and Poskim say that today the Kohanim and Leviem have become lost and mixed due to our long exile. see www.kohen.co.uk