Shabbat and May Day

So, for a while, I’ve stopped eating strictly kosher food.  I’m angry, I suppose.  The whole incident happened on Shabbat, and part of the problem was that people may have been trying to enforce upon me a more orthodox view of religion.  I generally honor Shabbat by attending services.  Sometimes, it is a complete day off for me. Other times, I split the day with some activities – sometimes work-related.  I’m not dogmatic.  One is supposed to make an effort to remain peaceful on this day.  That said, I have perceived for a while now, that people make a particularly strong effort to provoke me on this day.

I’ve always been somewhat annoyed at the way religious people have to define themselves by which day they take off for the Sabbath.  It is used as a way of contrasting groups –  a religious division that people exploit to try to schedule all sorts of competing events to promote their own religion, and weaken the other side’s religious participation.  For me, as far as I know, there is just one God. If your understanding of that God involves creating unhappiness and discomfort in others, or promoting one group of people at the expense of another, it isn’t my understanding.

Why have different religions, then?  I’ll elaborate on this a bit later.  Suffice it to say at this point, that among other differences, religions differ in their concept of how to improve an individual.  So there is a choice in your ethical system, and it is important to choose one that will help you to improve as a person.  Christianity in many ways evolved as a radical reaction to, among other social influences, orthodox Judaism.  I think it is interesting to reflect on the religious differences between Christianity and reform Judaism.  Reform Judaism evolved as a more moderate reaction to orthodoxy.  What problems does Christianity solve that reform Judaism does not and vice versa?  I pose this as a challenge.

Would Christianity have evolved differently if other nonreligious social forces had been different?

The adherence to the Sabbath has always seemed to me to be a human limitation to some extent:  the human need for rest.  The strict observance of it possibly linked more closely to strikers in solidarity refusing to labor continuously during the Egyptian time of slavery, than any need on God’s part.  Articulated in the 4th commandment, it is the only commandment that is stated differently in the 10 commandments in the course of their two articulations in the Torah (Bible Exodus 20, and Deutoronomy 5).   What is true is that traditionally, tribal adherence to the observance of the Sabbath has been enforced by threat of stoning, sometimes the threat of being shunned by one’s people.  Being a strike-breaker is/was coupled in the first articulation of the commandments with being unGodlike.  God rested.  We should to.

Jesus apparently had problems with the rabbis over this question, so one can make the argument that Christianity weakens this commandment.  Reform Judaism, which seemingly evolved in the context of  the French revolution, has a very strong allegiance to social reform values, and particularly the issue of worker’s rights and solidarity.  The Sabbath is pretty holy to the traditional practicing reform Jew.  Many reform Jews teeter on the edge of practicing and non-practicing.  Partly it is intellectual distancing and critical thought.  Sometimes it is a harsh and yet valid grappling with the reality of coming to terms with a God that allowed the Holocaust and years of Jewish persecution to happen. 

On another level, it may simply be the nature of reform Judaism – the tribe that defines itself as Israel – wrestling with God, sitting down in front of the Torah on a weekly basis to discuss if not argue about the various implications of the different lines.  Some reform Jews can argue, discuss and defend their traditions, while yet falling short of personal prayer.  I accept that God has placed them in this position through an evolution of life-events, and I respect them.  I believe that God also cares and respects their right not to enter into a more orthodox relationship with their faith.

So, last week was a particularly difficult Torah portion: Leviticus 21.  We discussed it in light of another text discussing a movie “Cohen’s Wife” that addresses the conflict experienced by a couple due to the ancient prohibition of a husband from touching his wife if she had been raped by another man.   In the movie, the husband and wife secretly collaborate to not tell the rabbinic council about the rape so that they could remain together.

On the one hand, in Leviticus what is being reflected is a very fundamental concept in Judaism – that of striving to be perfect, and that which only allows closeness to God in the context of perfection.  In the orthodox position, imperfection derives as punishment from God, and must therefore be accepted as a deserved punishment.  The distance from God is to be accepted as just, much as an Indian accepts his caste position, only in traditional Judaism (if not Christianity), there is presumably no hope of reincarnation.  One can pray and sacrifices may be offered on one’s behalf, but one is resigned to accept one’s position until one is cured.  And yet, through a contemporary lens, this is cruel.  The Torah group, a doctor among us, struggled with this question.  The reform rabbi who led the Torah discussion did not accept the idea that human imperfection derives from God.

In a Christian context, the Bible looks to Jesus as the healer, the one who can make the imperfect perfect, and Jesus, when asked the question of responsibility for the sin that made the handicapped person  handicapped, suggests that it was not a question of sin, but rather that God might be glorified.  Through a contemporary lens, I also find this position offensive: the idea that God would allow a person to suffer or be born into suffering for God’s glorification.  God is God.  God is above bullying.

I’m reminded of the rabbi in the congregation where I was previously.  He recently won an award for being one of the 36 most inspiring rabbis in contemporary Judaism.  The congregation is unaffiliated.  He teaches from a Torah that was restored from a synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis.  There’s a section missing from this Torah .  It was, I guess, deliberately left incomplete.  I’ve never asked which section it was.  Somehow though, in a very profound way, I feel it to be no accident that this Rabbi, who won this leadership award, is willing to teach from a Torah that is missing a page.

Although I see a blemish in this particular portion of the Torah, I yet “kiss The Torah” as the Rabbi carries it down the aisle.  It has endured for millenia, and has provided a foundation for much of the transition from tribal war to legal war.  Later in the service, as the Haftorah section is read relating the blasphemer, the space next to me, previously empty, fills with  more conservative Jews who “knew their prayers” bowing to the left, right, and forward during the Amidah in a distinctly “unreform” character.   I felt their company.  It was as if they were saying, “if you stone her, then stone me too.”  

Yeah – it’s a revolution.

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