Naso (5772) — The Ins and Outs of Pluralism — Walking on the Faith Staircase

03/06/2012 at 16:52 Leave a comment

“Walking On the Faith Staircase”

 

Parashat Naso

Neil F. Blumofe

2 June 2012

 

In Israel, Orthodox religious leaders and institutions are funded by the state – an allocation of $450 million that all citizens pay in taxes each year. In this past week, the Attorney General in Israel decided to recognize non-Orthodox rabbis as community leaders and in turn, to help fund their salaries under certain limited conditions – these conditions include that these rabbis will not have authority over religious and halachic matters and all funding will be directed to rabbis who serve in regional councils and in farming communities – any rabbis who serve in cities will not be funded.  Further, this new funding will not come from the budget of the Religious Services Ministry, rather it is now a line item within the Culture and Sports Ministry.

While you and I may discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this budget system, the principle of separation of religion and state matters in Israel is not an immediately achievable one, and one must navigate this imperfect process of state funding of religion with a practical and unwearied eye.  To this end, reaction from leaders in the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel has been hopeful – acknowledging that even this small step is a breakthrough in advancing freedom of religion in Israel and will begin to address the deep discrimination of non-Orthodox streams in Israel while opening up new possibilities and pathways within Judaism for those in the Jewish state.

In the spirit of incrementalism, the decision this week may be compared to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 – which was the first civil rights legislation enacted by Congress since Reconstruction, following the Civil War.  In content this Civil Rights Act was limited and difficult to enforce, however its passage, even as limited as it was, established Civil Rights as an issue of importance – one not to be buried or disregarded – and made Civil Rights a matter of activism going forward.

Perhaps this recent decision in Israel will begin to empower people to change their perceptions about the viability and legitimacy of honoring other streams of Judaism.  Perhaps advertisers, media producers, and other arbiters of culture will help to steer Israeli society safely towards an expanded conception of what is genuinely Jewish – without the pain of recrimination, isolation, demonstration, or other protests.

Critics of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel very often compare its practices to something counterfeit – even going so far as to say that Masorti and Reform Judaism are different religions than Judaism, itself.  In thinking this through, it is striking that also this week, the Conservative Movement – Committee of Jewish Law and Standards passed an appendix to its 2006 paper entitled, “Homosexuality, Human Dignity, and Halakhah:  A Combined Responsum for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which asked, among other questions, the question of “what kind of guidance does Jewish law offer to Jews who are homosexual?”  This current text just passed offers rituals and documents of marriage and divorce for same sex couples which strives to utilize the form and the content of existing liturgy for weddings and divorces, while creating something honorable and new.  This guidance and depth of thought is invaluable as a foundation as rabbis and others continue to build on this untilled landscape and while exciting for many of us, these useful approaches to same sex marriage and divorce will not strengthen the concept of achdut, (Jewish unity) or a common thread of identification among denominations, if that holds any importance for us.

What are our traditions?  What do we hold dear and inviolate as each of us practices what we know and looks to continue to learn more?  What is recognizable to us and what do we consider to be off the reservation – too far gone to qualify to be traditional, binding, or vaild?  How much can Judaism be renewed and freshly considered?  And as others may say, how far can Judaism be twisted, before it breaks?

I think that we are living in a stirring and exhilarating time where we can recover the great Talmudic spirit of give and take within Judaism – where Judaism was once a proud gathering of a multiplicity of voices – and the differences, the commitment to learning the view of your neighbor while perhaps disagreeing with it was paramount and sacred.  Too often it does seem that we are fighting the battles of ownership and relevance, which characterized the founding of rabbinic Judaism in the 3rd and 4th centuries – when Rabbanism (as it was then called) was one of many different systems – and rabbis were competing for influence and hegemony against others – including Sadducees, Essenes , Zadokites, Zealots, and Christians. We are too quick to cast out or to cast judgment on others whose practices don’t adhere to our own.  We are too quick to exchange our inheritance of forbearance for a pot of red lentil self-righteousness.

Since the Holocaust, many believe that we are living in a post-rabbinic age – where the authority and the impact of interpreters of Jewish law is diminished in the face of genocide.  According to this opinion, rabbis are of limiting influence at best – and that the world has moved on, and at the same time, Judaism is crying out for something new – something more relevant and compelling to lead and inspire in this uncharted time.  Perhaps now is the beginning of an old/new time – a neo-Talmudic age, where the nuances of argument and the passion of a question is what keeps us together as a people and demonstrates the timeless nature of establishing a lovingly critical dialogue with God.

Perhaps we can learn from the Israeli Attorney General that despite the strong opposition and threat of violence and rupture from those who oppose the funding and the small recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis, that those dedicated to the principles of freedom and openness help all of us find the richest veins within Judaism and inspire us to be resolute and determined in new learning and new possibilities.  Indeed the opening sugya of the Talmud asks at what time we pray the Shema – and then quickly begins the answer that nothing is black and white and that we pray and study and live amid the ever-changing rainbow colors of the dusk and dawn sky.  It is a revolutionary act to show up.  It is a radical act to have something matter.

Acknowledging each of these events – the funding of non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel and the new liturgy for same sex marriage and divorces diversifies the normative idea of holiness.  Rather than threaten, each decision provides us with an opportunity to analyze our own behaviors and our own positions and to stand directly before God, most fully with all of our hopes, anxieties, and uncertainties.  Knowing what is written in our Torah and who is included in it – can lessen our own skepticism and disenchantment and can help others who are dissatisfied by the limitations of expression within Judaism.  In turn, our security in lighting up the unknown can spark a renaissance of Jewish creativity, invention, and vitality that will continue to challenge us and inspire us.  Let us hear each other, even though what we may hear may unsettle us, and not turn away.  Let us listen to each other and open our hands even though our hand may tremble, as we walk on path yet unrevealed, to chart a course together.

As Martin Luther King said, “whatever affect one directly, affects all indirectly.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the interrelated structure of reality.”  And as we find ourselves with new opportunities, let us acknowledge that God’s word is real, with real repercussions raining down and real lives effected, as we move together to humbly interpret it to serve the pursuit of holiness, halacha, and happiness.

Shabbat Shalom.

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