Category Archives: Torah

When We Disagree With Torah

MARCH 23, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


I’m so excited, Spring officially arrived on Tuesday, the azaleas are blooming, the grass is growing, and buds are on the trees. Before you know it, we will be back to 90 degrees and 90% humidity! O.K. I can wait longer for that to arrive.

But then, even more exciting is the fact that in our weekly Torah reading cycle we just completed the Book of Exodus with its tales of redemption from Egypt and the inspiring legislation, which continues to this day as the basis of modern morality. And now, we begin with the Book of Leviticus- the rules of sacrifice, telling me what I can and cannot eat, leprosy and priestly purity. Yuch!

In the yeshiva world, Leviticus was customarily the first book of the Torah which a young student might study. Perhaps the thinking was if you start with Leviticus, there is no place to go, but up! If only we could leisurely just pick and choose what to follow and what to ignore, it would be so simple. The problem is that this is Torah, the basic document of what it means to be a Jew, the Constitution of the Jewish people. Tradition attributes the words, all the words to God, passed on to Moses as he lovingly transcribed it all. You just cannot cavalierly disregard Torah, or can we?

When asked the difference between Reform Judaism and Orthodoxy, most focus on levels of ritual observance, the amount of Hebrew in the service, separation of men and women in worship or perhaps observance of the dietary laws. While these are all areas where we differ, the major divergence has to do with how we intellectually approach Torah, both the five books and the oral interpretations. All else is secondary.

In 1885 a group of leading Reform rabbis staked out a series of positions to differentiate Reform Judaism from all other expressions. In the document they created, known as the Pittsburgh Platform, the word “modern” was repeated numerous times. Their goal was to fashion a Judaism that spoke to their time. In regard to Torah and particularly this delightful book of Leviticus, they wrote:

“We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

For the reformers of the 19th century, keeping kosher, wearing kippot, talesim and tsitsit, the division of the community among priests, Levites and everyone else may have been appropriate in days gone by, but was no longer. They were willing to reject the Torah teachings in these areas referred to as “Mosaic laws”, along with all of the Talmudic expansions of Torah in this area, which they refer to as “rabbinical laws.” They were not discarding the entire Torah, but making a major break from tradition in the realm of ritual. So called “moral laws” continued to be considered critical for living a Jewish life. Thus it is not surprising that generations of Reform Jews appropriately understood being a good Jew to simply mean leading a good moral life. As we will see shortly, they followed in the footsteps of giants.

However, since 1885 Reform leaders have been uncomfortable with the wholesale discarding of Jewish legislation. Subsequent platforms and statements sought to reclaim that which had been summarily cast aside. The most recent statement was formulated by the CCAR, our Reform rabbinical body in 1999. Regarding this subject of how we approach Torah, my colleagues wrote:

“We affirm that Torah is the foundation of Jewish life.

We cherish the truths revealed in Torah, God’s ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God.

We affirm that Torah is a manifestation of (ahavat olam), God’s eternal love for the Jewish people and for all humanity.”

In other words, we cannot lightly discard those teachings of Torah with which we might be uncomfortable or for that matter those requirements, which are not convenient. Torah may not have been dictated to Moses on Sinai, but it remains as the document reflecting our relationship with God. Throughout the centuries, men and women have plumbed its depths in search of meaning. There are live guiding truths to be found. It is up to us to discover them.

Still we have Leviticus. What are we going to do with all of this material which is seemingly either uncomfortable for us, irrelevant to our modern lives or even worse, repugnant to our modern understandings? Let’s start with sacrifices, perhaps the easiest of the challenges.

Leviticus describes a system of relating to God, just as other nations/tribes of that era connected to that which was transcendent. In our system of worship, the people brought a variety of offerings, depending upon their means. There were the daily offerings, which simply suggested to God that we are aware of the Divine continual presence. Some of those offerings were totally consumed by fire, but most were a token for the deity and dinner for the priests. I’m not suggesting corruption, simply a compensation system for their service. In addition to the daily offerings came the theme offerings: guilt, sin, thanksgiving, vows and other messages for the Almighty. People needed to relate to God. That reality has not abated over time. All of these offerings first were brought to the Mishkan- The Tabernacle of the wilderness. Later, small bamot, sacrificial alters were established throughout the land of Israel and finally the Temple of Jerusalem became the one and only address for the sacrifices.

Yet even during the Biblical period, there were those who questioned whether this ritual was what God really desired. The Prophets railed against mindless sacrifice without complimentary moral behavior. The Prophet Micah 6:6-9 said it quite dramatically:

“With what shall I approach the Lord, do homage to God on high? Shall I approach God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my sins?..It has been told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The Reformers embraced this text. Forget about ritual, just act morally. But that is not what Micah was saying. He called for worship in a ritual sense and a moral sense. Then came the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and exile in Babylonia. During that time, sacrifices ceased with prayer and study taking their place. Upon return to Jerusalem, the urge and need for sacrifice resurfaced and the Second Temple was built.

By the time the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE my sense is that the efficacy of sacrifice as a means to relate to God had diminished. While scripturally we continued to be tied to the concept of sacrifice, practically it was discarded. The rabbis and priests had precedent to establish temporary sites for sacrifice, but chose not to do so. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai among others taught, “we have a means of atonement that is equal to sacrifice the performance of mitzvot.” Another of the early rabbis (Yitzchak- Midrash Samuel 1:7) declared that prayer took precedence over sacrifice.

Clearly, with our modern sensibilities, few if any wish to see the sacrifices reestablished as a part of Jewish life. But, it is there in the Torah. How are we to deal with the text? Very simply, using the thinking of our 1999 Statement, we see in the sacrificial laws the record of the ongoing relationship of our people with God. In the past they expressed themselves in one fashion, which has now evolved into a different process. There are two Hebrew words for sacrifice: Korban and Avodah. Korban is related to the word “to draw near.” Avodah is the term for sacrifice, but also connects with prayer and labor. In 2007 animal sacrifice is not how we draw near to God; prayer, study and deeds is our path. We respect the past, but embrace our tradition for our times.

On this Shabbat of all Shabbatot I am compelled to confront another section of Leviticus. In Leviticus 21:16-23 we read that no man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to bring the Eternal’s offering. Having a physical defect such as being blind, lame, hunchback, deaf, being pock marked or short limbed, an abnormal growth on the eye and I could go on… any of these disqualified one from priestly service.

How are we to deal with this text, which certainly goes against the Americans with Disabilities Act, not to mention our basic sensibilities? I picture my colleague, Rabbi Jack Stern, past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as brilliant and gentle a soul as God has created. He has also been crippled by polio throughout his life. Are we saying that such a giant should be excluded from priestly service? I certainly am not about to say that.

I do understand that when bringing sacrifices, one was not allowed to bring animals with defects. Your offerings were intended to be the best you have to offer, not the lamb that was damaged goods, one that was of lesser value on the open market. Extrapolating from this, the priest who brought the offerings should be physically whole. But what of these two beautiful young people who led us to bring our offering to God through prayer in such an inspiring fashion this evening? Should they be excluded?

Let’s start with Hillary. If you had not noticed, she is a young woman. Our text only speaks of men and rabbinic tradition made it very clear that all the worship responsibilities were the domain of men. In my mind the text from Leviticus is trumped by one of the first verses in Genesis. Zachar u’nekevah, bara otam- male and female God created them. God created men and women at the same time. That equality is basic to our society, our sensitivities and our understanding of God’s creation. As Reform Jews we will break with tradition and part of Torah if need be to maintain that ideal.

And then there is Ben. In ancient days our ancestors had no idea what autism was all about or how to deal with autistic men and women. Ancient days? How about until a few years ago? Researchers are just beginning to understand the mystery of autism and we pray they will continue to discover the keys which will unlock the doors to assist these boys and girls, men and women to lead meaningful lives. This day we are witness to the miracle of research. Ten years ago we never could have imagined what we have all experienced this evening. The soul and brilliance of this beautiful child was barely visible, locked away. Modern technology, dedicated teachers and family have helped to create a new reality at which we marvel.

I am not about to allow Leviticus to tell me that he is not fit to lead us in prayer, to walk in the footsteps of the priests. Once again, I turn to Genesis to trump Leviticus. In the first chapter of Torah we learn that each of us is created in the image of God. Just as God is multi-faceted, so too is God’s image! Is God’s image limited to me, a middle aged, bald man or perhaps Tory, an attractive woman with two bad feet? I certainly hope not. Each of us is created in God’s image, male and female, short and tall, autistic or not. And we offer our thanks for the diversity of God’s creation.

On this Shabbat we embrace God’s Torah, the basis of what it means to be a Jew, even as we struggle with hidden meanings. May we possess the insight to learn and the commitment to search!