A couple of weeks back, I spoke about what it means to be authentic in today’s Jewish world, and how authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. There is a range of authentic approaches to Judaism, and what we do here at Beth Shalom represents a fairly traditional segment of those approaches.
Is there a limit to what we tolerate as authentic Judaism? How do we know when we have crossed this line?
Back at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in a class on teaching Jewish theology, I recall Rabbi Neil Gillman reflecting on the range of understandings of Judaism in today’s world. He remarked that the only thing that everybody can agree on is that the Messianic Jews, the Jews for Jesus, are not welcome at the Jewish communal table.
But within the spectrum of what has become normative Judaism in the last two centuries, there is considerable disagreement on theological issues. (A congregant reported to me last week that at a recent Shabbat dinner, a member of our wider community, but not this congregation, referred to me as a “so-called rabbi.”)
And while ideological, denominational lines are somewhat less clear than they used to be, there are still some among us who cling to the principles of ideological purity. That is, in fact, one expected outcome of modern Judaism.
However, since (a) rabbinic tradition has always thrived on disagreement, and (b) we have no pope, no one centralized authority to decide what is right or wrong, the range of Jewish practice is effectively up for negotiation. No matter what some in our world may believe, there is rarely a single acceptable Jewish position on anything. There is often a minority opinion. And that reality has played out extensively in how we understand what it means to be Jewish today.
The Reform movement decided in the 19th century to reject halakhah /Jewish law in favor of moral instruction. The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 stated the following:
“We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”
In reaction to this move, the Conservative movement emerged from the right flank of Reform, maintaining traditional halakhic practice, while acknowledging that times have changed considerably since, say, the Mishnah was compiled in the second century CE, and that we should account, conservatively of course, for these changes. The movement’s halakhic decisors rely on traditional halakhic literature in doing so. So we see, for example, egalitarianism as an acceptable halakhic innovation based not only on traditional sources but also contemporary sensibilities.
It’s unfair to paint Orthodoxy with one brush, since there are so many variants within it. But in general, Orthodoxy strives to maintain a strict halakhic practice with few of the leniencies and innovations upon which the Conservative movement has relied.
While the ideologically-committed members of each of these major movements feel very strongly that their way is the right one, I think it is fair to acknowledge that there are, within the wide range of Jewish ideology and practice, a number of legitimate paths through our tradition.
Nonetheless, I think there are limits to what we can say fits under the Jewish umbrella. And those limits exist at both ends of the Jewish ideological spectrum.
We read today at the beginning of Parashat Eqev:
וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.
And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers. (Deut. 7:12)
The question is, of course, what does it mean to “listen to” and “keep” and “do” the mitzvot? Does it mean that we must literally stone to death a disobedient son (Deut. 21:21)? Does it mean that we must literally avoid boiling a calf in its mother’s milk (Deut. 14:21)? In the case of the bad kid, the rabbis interpreted this law minimally to make it effectively inapplicable. In the kashrut case, the rabbis expanded it maximally.
And of course we have the whole range in-between: laws which continue to be observed more or less as they appear in the Torah (e.g. not kindling a fire on Shabbat, telling the story of the Exodus on the night following the 14th of Nisan), and laws which are not observed at all (e.g. everything to do with sacrifices).
And then there are laws which are not explicitly stated at all in the Torah, but become enshrined as mitzvot through rabbinic interpretation (relevant to today’s parashah, saying both birkat hamazon and hamotzi, blessings before and after meals).
Point is, Judaism today is not what’s described in the Torah; it’s what resulted from nearly two millennia of human development and interpretation. And that’s a messy and complicated process. We’re in a very different place today from where we were as a people in 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple.
So that’s why two particular items that appeared recently in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle caught my eye, two things which, I think, test the limits of what it means to be a Jew in today’s world.
The first comes from the more traditional quarters of our neighborhood. A group in town has purchased (at least from a halakhic perspective) a pregnant donkey, who has not yet given birth as far as I know, in hopes that her first offspring will be a male. (I don’t think that ultrasound technology has yet been designed for farm animals.) If the baby donkey is a male, it will be redeemed from a resident kohen with a lamb. (I don’t have time to explain the halakhic intricacies of all of this, but it is mentioned three times in the Torah, e.g. Ex. 13:13.)
The donkey was “purchased” for $1 from its owners on a farm in Ohio, where she still lives; after the completion of the ritual, the dollar will be returned. Members of the community have bought “shares” in the donkey for $36 each, so they can get “credit” for the mitzvah.
Now, the obvious question here is, “Why?” This is an ancient agricultural mitzvah that is not practiced today, frankly, because very few traditional Jews own donkeys. Furthermore, despite the contemporary practice of pidyon haben, the redemption of a first-born human boy from a kohen, my suspicion is that this ritual has not really been fulfilled by actual, agrarian Jews for two millennia.
My second question is, if you really want to perform a rare agricultural mitzvah, why not buy a few acres of corn and let poor people glean? That’s mentioned more times in the Torah than the donkey.
I think this is a fraught expression of Judaism. Yes, it’s in the Torah. But remember, we don’t practice the ancient Israelite religion of the Torah. We are rabbinic Jews. I’m not sure it passes my own personal test, which is, can we derive meaning from this that will benefit us individually and communally?
At the other end of the spectrum, a different article was about a sometimes-local woman who completed her training through the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. The Hebrew Priestesses are women who bring together Jewish and “earth-based” customs to create new rituals. From their own website:
“Kohenet celebrates the sacred in the body, the earth, and the cosmos, holding the world to be an embodiment of Shekhinah— divine presence. Kohenet reclaims the traditions of women, from the priestesses and prophetesses of biblical antiquity to healers, dreamers, and seekers throughout Jewish tradition.”
Although one of the Kohenet co-founders, Rabbi Jill Hammer, was trained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the current dean of the Rabbinical School, Rabbi Danny Nevins, has described Kohenet’s embracing of new, earth-centered ritual as “pagan.”
Now, we might be inclined to say that one of these articles discusses an actual mitzvah from the Torah, while the other is an interpolation that draws on some aspects of Jewish tradition but then diverges greatly.
However, I don’t think that either of these things will have wide appeal. Nonetheless, as with the contemporary movements, and arguably the entirety of rabbinic Judaism, only time will tell where the boundaries of authenticity lie.
To quote Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?” We are living in a time of great creativity in Jewish life, and the limits of Jewish authenticity will be stretched by these endeavors as we move forward.
To that end, I’d like to propose a kind of litmus test for innovation.
- Can we derive meaning from ritual that will benefit us individually and communally?
- Is there halakhic and/or historical precedent?
- If the answer to #2 is no, is this a new creative approach that can be justified within the broad outlines of our tradition?
Given that we have no pope, and that we acknowledge that change must be conservative, we as a community must decide what we can accept. And I am sure that we will.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/12/2017.)