Walking Judaism Street – Rabbi Saks’s Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Walking Judaism Street[1]

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777

October 2, 2016 – 1 Tishrei 5777

Congregation Bet Ha’am

Rabbi Jared H. Saks


I used to have the same conversation with myself around the third day of Passover every year: I could really go for a spicy tuna roll. Or maybe some salmon nigiri. Or even a cup of miso soup. But each year, I had to ignore my sushi craving. The reason was twofold: rice and soybeans. According to Ashkenazi custom, both rice and soybeans are in a category called kitniyot, which puts them on the list of forbidden foods during Passover. But for Sephardim, Jews whose practice originated in Spain, neither are forbidden. Among the Ashkenazi rabbis, the concern is that when rice or beans are ground into flour, they can be mistaken for other flours that are forbidden during Passover – wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye. They could also be cross-contaminated by true chametz, these five grains. But the Sephardim have adhered to the notion that though ground rice or beans may look like flour, they are, in fact, not flour and are permitted. For many years I intended to make time to study the laws of Passover before Passover arrived so that I could make an educated decision about whether or not I would eat these foods that sit the fence, that the Sephardim eat but the Ashkenazim don’t. But for many years, because I hadn’t made the time to learn, I had to forego the sushi, make myself a matzah pizza, and promise that the next year would be different.

Reform Jewish practice affords me the privilege of making a decision, even though I am not a Sephardic Jew, of observing Sephardic custom. It is not a choice that can be made blindly, though. It must be an informed choice, an educated decision. It must be choice through knowledge.

Reform Judaism was born of the Enlightenment in eighteenth century Europe. The Enlightenment’s developments included the creation of a middle class that had previously not existed; the spread of French language, literature and philosophy throughout Europe; the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; and the freedom to think and choose one’s own form of government, which led to both the French and American revolutions. It also resulted in the Western Jew leaving the ghetto to join the larger society. The question before each Jew who chose to step outside the ghetto was: Could one continue to be a Jew and still enjoy the benefits of modern society?[2]

Most people believe that the first movement in Judaism, the original Judaism, was Orthodoxy. Most people would be mistaken. Prior to the Enlightenment, prior to the modern era, Judaism existed in isolated communities. Scholars and rabbis versed in Torah and rabbinic law guided their communities along similar lines, yet separate from other Jewish communities from the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 until the Enlightenment.

And then things changed. A group of German Jews had a notion of changing Judaism to fit the modern times, they sought to reform Judaism. The response to the changes they made eventually became Orthodox Judaism. “Orthodoxy and Reform are fraternal twins,” writes Martin Cohen, “to help Judaism cope with the dissolution of the organic Jewish community in the modern world.” Both rebelled against the Judaism that predated them. Orthodoxy said, “No more change,” while Reform insisted upon ongoing change.[3]

The early Reformers made two serious errors in the early stages of our movement. The first was that they made it appear as though nonobservance of the commandments was one of the requirements of Reform Judaism. In the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the founders of our movement wrote, “We accept as binding only [the] 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.”[4] Taking this stand, the early Reformers were no less rigid than those who required strict observance of all of the commandments. Their rigidity, however, demanded that certain ritual practices cease.

For Reform Judaism to be liberal, it must be up to the individual to decide what is binding. And this was where the early Reformers made their second mistake. By focusing only on the moral laws, the early Reformers failed to teach the other half of tradition from which we may make an informed choice. “We no longer believe, [though,] that the European Jew becomes a better European or the American Jew a better American by shedding his Jewish particularism.”[5] Bible and Talmud, midrash and philosophy, Kabbalah and the Jewish legal codes are the possession of all Jews and we are all commanded to engage in the study of Torah. As Jakob Petuchowski writes, “A true Reform Judaism, therefore, and one worthy of its name, would have to cultivate the study of the totality of our tradition, applying it to a set of criteria to guide the modern Jew in making his selections from it.”[6]

So, if everything is up for grabs, if we truly believe as Reform Jews in choice through knowledge, how do we know what God has commanded us? What is the value of Jewish law if any of it could end up on the cutting room floor?

It is said that we speak to God through prayer and God speaks to us through study.[7] “If we want our Reform religious culture to be an authentically Jewish one, we must become students of the halakhah, [Jewish law,] the literature that our people have produced in their ongoing effort to understand God’s will for their lives.”[8] It is possible that study may lead to nonobservance, but it would be nonobservance based upon careful evaluation, not ignorance.

Our tradition teaches us that there are 613 commandments. In the Talmud, Rabbi Simlai gives us this number,[9] but it isn’t until a half a millennium later that Maimonides gives us a definitive list of those mitzvot. Until then, a variety of comprehensive lists existed. No one observes all of the commandments. No one can observe all of the commandments. There are numerous commandments that are related to the Temple in Jerusalem that no longer stands or to the sacrificial system we no longer observe. Some are just for the priests and some are just for Jewish kings. “In other words, the 613 commandments—whatever they might be, and whatever enumeration of them we might choose to follow—were never meant to be observed by every individual Jew.”[10]

We often hear the claim that the Orthodox follow all of the commandments, while Reform Jews follow none. It is impossible for any Jew to follow all of the commandments. It is equally impossible for any Jew to reject them as a whole. If one loves his neighbor, he is observing a commandment. If he refrains from murder and theft, he is observing two more. If he pays his employees on time, returns lost items to their owners, honors his parents, three more. By leading an ethical and moral life, we will fulfill a great number of the commandments. Nonetheless, the Reform Jew maintains far fewer ritual and ceremonial observances than most Orthodox Jews.[11]

Unfortunately, many Reform Jews “regard Judaism as an elastically interpretable civil religion which permits just about anything short of the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.”[12] But there are bounds on the choices we can make. Our sacred tradition has always employed change, reform, in Jewish law as long as that change ensures that the values and ideals of Judaism’s revelation continue. Jewish law has always been supple, pliant, flexible. It allows us to apply Torah-values and Torah-perspectives to the changing demands of modern life.[13]

Dynamic change in Judaism is not only permissible, but demanded. In fact, change has always been a part of Jewish religious history. As Abraham Kohn writes, “If the institutions of Judaism are anything, they are not unchangeable, for they always kept pace with the civilization and the civil and social circumstances of the Jews.” Consider our worship. In Torah, we see a sacrificial system. By the time we get to the Psalms, King David has employed poetry and music. And it isn’t until King Solomon that there is even a fixed place, the Temple, for ritual observance. Judaism has always been reform.

But we must truly understand the commandments to know which ones we will follow, omit, or change. “Regular and intelligent observance of tradition and rite enriches the spiritual life of adults and children alike.” Our movement has adhered to the moral and ethical message of the prophets, but we need to embrace custom and ritual alongside the work of social action.[14] “The purpose of mitzvot is to dedicate a moment and an act to God, thereby transfiguring life. Any mitzvah, then, which has the power regularly or occasionally, thus to become a window on the divine, a meeting place with God, ought to be observed by the Jew who believes in … God.”[15]

We can only understand what God wants of us when we understand the relationship we have with God. The Covenant we have with God is a human relationship. There is give and take on both ends. We fulfill our end with actions that are appropriate for our relationship with God and it is God who is the measure by which we determine that appropriateness. It is also important to remember, as we learn about mitzvot and make determinations about our observance, that the Covenantal relationship we have is both historic and communal. Our decisions cannot be strictly personal and fleeting; tradition has to weigh in as well.[16]

One who wants to experience Israel’s Covenant with God will find more success in trying to live by the Covenant than in just thinking about it. Begin anywhere, one mitzvah at a time. Recite motzi before you eat or birkat ha-mazon after. Light the Sabbath candles in your home. Observe the yarzheit of a loved one. Say the Shehecheyanu at the first fallen leaves or the first snowflake. “When the inner embarrassment of doing a mitzvah as a mitzvah has been overcome, we can see what the reality of the covenanted existence might be and do one more.”[17]

So, how do we begin the process of determining which mitzvot we will try? Jakob Petuchowski outlines four criteria for modern Jewish observance. First: Determine the main message of Jewish tradition for the mitzvah you are contemplating. Second: Figure out how to make the traditional teaching regarding the mitzvah relevant in your own life and in the current situation in which you find yourself. Third: Listen to the voice of your own conscience on the matter. And fourth: Acknowledge your responsibility regarding the communal Covenant with God.

First: Determine the main message of tradition for the mitzvah you are contemplating. This level requires only investigation. There is no commitment yet. Consider the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. We might think it is a prohibition against heavy labor and that tasks that don’t require a great deal of effort would no longer be prohibited. So what if we go into the office and get a few things done? It won’t be labor intensive. But this isn’t the essence of the commandment prohibiting work on the Sabbath. Instead, it is intended to make us aware that all the creating we do over the course of the week pales in comparison to God’s work of Creation. Shabbat is about more than just relaxation and physical recuperation. It’s about acknowledging God’s presence in the world. Not stopping our ordinary activities to be aware of God’s presence doesn’t fulfill the main message of the tradition for not working on the Sabbath.

Second: Figure out how to make the traditional teaching regarding the mitzvah relevant in your own life and in the current situation in which you find yourself. This requires conscious application of Reform principle. Returning to the idea of Shabbat, Orthodox tradition prohibits driving a car on the Sabbath. But as a Reform Jew, in the modern context, does this make sense? Ask yourself: How can I best observe Shabbat, being aware of the distance between where I live and our congregation. Does the use of my car help me to make Shabbat meaningful? Yes! By driving to Bet Ha’am, I can be part of a larger community, rejoicing in the Sabbath, and acknowledging God’s presence in Creation.

Third: Listen to the voice of your own conscience on the matter. Leo Baeck said that the Reform Jew is characterized by the piety of the individual, not the piety of the environment. As individuals, we are free to participate in or refrain from any particular observance. It’s not enough to know why others observe a commandment, each of us must know why we, individually, want to observe or refrain. Ask yourself: why is making Shabbat a day distinguishable from the rest of the days of the week meaningful to me, personally?

Finally: Acknowledge your responsibility regarding the communal Covenant with God. “Everything that contributes to the survival and to the unity of the covenant community of Israel must be regarded as a religious commandment.” This means that the Reform Jew must observe some mitzvot. If his faith were only about himself, he wouldn’t observe, but because he is a member of a community, his observance is affected. Shabbat is Shabbat because it is the same for all Jews. We cannot choose to observe the Sabbath on another day of the week because it is more convenient. That would place us outside of the community of Israel and outside of the bounds of our covenant with God.

These four criteria, considering the purpose of the commandment, making the mitzvah relevant, listening to one’s conscience on the matter, and being aware of our place in a larger community, are the yardstick that the modern Jew must apply to his inherited tradition. But our religious faith and life require more than this measure of tradition. Intense Jewish education at all ages makes these criteria meaningful. And only an application of the criteria can make tradition itself come alive.[18]

Eventually, I applied this process to my Passover observance and the prospect of consuming kitniyot (rice and legumes) during the holiday. In chevruta (with a study partner), I studied the laws of Passover relating to kitniyot and discovered the vast array of positions on the issue. There were Talmudic argumetns that not only supported the consumption of rice, but actually required it during Passover. In the Babylonian Talmud, the Sages discuss the Passover meal. [19] In the Mishnah of one passage, the text tells us that the meal includes two cooked dishes. The Gemara, commenting on this Mishnah, addresses the two dishes. Rabbi Huna tells us that they are cooked beets and rice. Rava agrees with him. The Sages even go so far as to say that no one is concerned about the ruling of Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri, which teaches that rice is a species of grain and is prohibited on Passover.[20]

In the 13th century, Rabbi Samuel of Falaise supported the custom of not eating kitniyot; however, he taught that it came from a mistake and prohibits food that should have been permitted. Rabbenu Yerucham ben Meshullam in 14th century Provence indicated that following the custom of not eating kitniyot only makes observance and enjoyment of Passover more difficult. In modern times, efforts have been made within the progressive Jewish community to allow for kitniyot during Passover. Benjamin Mordecai Ben-Baruch argues that for the sake of k’lal Yisrael, for the sake of Jewish unity, the consumption kitniyot should be incorporated into Passover observance. With all of this in mind, after thoughtful study, I made an informed choice to follow Sephardic custom during Passover, which has been my practice for the majority of the past decade. I believe that it has only enhanced my observance of the holiday, helping me celebrate our people’s freedom and redemption.

One of the goals of Chabad is to get Jews to observe one more commandment. Just one more. The goal of the Reform rabbi is no different. Learn about one more commandment this year. Try to take on one more mitzvah or understand one that you’re already observing or avoiding. Make this year the year that you live up to the responsibility of being a Reform Jew and engaging in study so that you can make informed choices about your religious practice.

Whenever I find my observance faltering or seek guidance in understanding how to live our ancient tradition in a modern context, I return to the words of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, one of the great rabbis of the last century:

“My problem is that I cannot appropriate for myself all that God means, that I cannot comprehend it, that I sometimes cannot stand it, that I often cannot fulfill it.

“I try to walk the road of Judaism. Embedded in that road there are many jewels. One is marked ‘Sabbath’ and one ‘Civil Rights’ and one ‘Kashruth’ and one ‘Honor Your Parents’ and one ‘Study of Torah’ and one ‘You Shall Be Holy.’ There are at least 613 of them and they are of different sizes and shapes and weights. Some are light and easy for me to pick up and I pick them up. Some are too deeply embedded for me, so far at least, though I get a little stronger by trying to extricate the jewels as I walk the street. Some, perhaps, I shall never be able to pick up. I believe that God expects me to keep on walking Judaism Street and to carry away whatever I can of its commandments. I do not believe that He expects me to lift what I cannot, nor may I condemn my fellow Jew who may not be able to pick up even as much as I can.

“The various commandments look somewhat different to me. Some seem larger, some smaller, some important, some trivial. But there is no commandment that may not have its day, and no certainty that may not sometimes fall into doubt. I must not decide in advance what properly belongs on Judaism Street. Nor may I walk down the broad parkway only, but must follow the road even when it narrows and is no longer very easy to walk.

“Neither Orthodox nor liberal, I try to be a Jew.”[21]

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu – May you be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.

[1] Title inspired by Arnold Jacob Wolf’s article in The Condition of Jewish Belief, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966, pp. 267-74.

[2] W. Gunther Plaut, The Rise of Reform New York: World Union for Progressive Judaism, Ltd., 1963, p. xiv.

[3] Martin A. Cohen, When Is Reform Judaism? Brooklyn, NY: Temple Beth Emeth, 1987, p. 14.

[4] Central Conference of American Rabbis, “The Pittsburgh Platform” 1885.

[5] Jakob J. Petuchowski, “Some Criteria for Modern Jewish Observance,” Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader, ed., Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 294.

[6] Ibid, p. 295.

[7] Rabbi Louis Finkelstein.

[8] Mark Washofsky, “Solomon B. Freehof and Reform Halakhah,” The Chronicle, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 2007 Issue 69, p. 10.

[9] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Makkot 23b.

[10] Petuchowski, p. 292.

[11] Ibid, pp. 292-3.

[12] Cohen, p. 10.

[13] Ibid, pp. 12, 18.

[14] Bernard J. Bamberger, “Bernard J. Bamberger,” The Condition of Jewish Belief, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966, p. 21.

[15] Herman E. Schaalman, “Herman E. Schaalman,” The Condition of Jewish Belief, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966, p. 203.

[16] Eugene B. Borowitz, “Eugene B. Borowitz,” The Condition of Jewish Belief, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966, p. 37.

[17] Ibid, p. 38

[18] Petuchowski, pp. 295-8.

[19] BTPesachim 114a-b.

[20] BT Pesachim 35a.

[21] Arnold J. Wolf, “Arnold J. Wolf,” The Condition of Jewish Belief, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966, pp. 268-9.

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