Thursday, February 21, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: "Obedience" vs. Ritual

Someone said to me recently that while Reform Jews have eliminated Musaf, Conservative Jews have eliminated Shacharit. Reform Jewish prayerbooks have mostly eliminated Musaf, the “additional” service said on Shabbat and holiday mornings, because of its focus on the Temple and priestly rituals, which is considered no longer relevant. In most Conservative synagogues, meanwhile, many regular worshippers miss the first hour or so of services entirely and just come in time for the Torah reading, the sermon, and Musaf. I hasten to add that I have often told congregants that this is just fine with me -- better to come for part of the service than for none of the service!

My first couple of years after ordination I was a rabbi in the Israeli Reform movement, which is generally more traditional than North American Reform. Israeli Reform Jews of course use their own siddur, since among other things, how much Hebrew vs. how much English is not an issue in Israel. The Israeli Reform siddur does not have a Musaf service per se but they do have a “zecher la-Musaf,” a prayer which is recited in the place where Musaf would otherwise go. One of the key verses used in that prayer is I Samuel 15:22:
"Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As much as in obedience to the Lord's command?
Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice,
Compliance than the fat of rams.”

It is a beautiful, poetic verse, and it nicely conveys the Reform Jewish idea that obedience to the spirit of the law, acts of social justice and tikkun olam, are more important than following ritual commandments.

It was not until many years later that I realized that this verse was taken from the special Haftarah we read on Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat right before Purim. Saul, the first king of Israel, has been ordered by God to utterly destroy the Amalekites, including killing men, women, children, and even the cattle. But Saul has left the Amalekite king alive and some of the choicest cattle, which, he tells the prophet Samuel, he has saved to offer up to God as a burnt offering. It is upon hearing this that Samuel utters the statement about obedience to God being preferable to sacrifices.

In its context, then, this verse has nothing to do with social action or any other type of righteousness. It does not condemn prioritizing rituals over social justice. In fact, it condemns Saul’s failure to fulfill the mitzvah of genocide -- the commandment to wipe out not only every Amalekite human but even their cattle.

This ethically troubling mitzvah was eliminated by the sages in the Talmud (Berachot 28a) through the statement that the Assyrian king Senacherib “mixed up the nations” and that it is therefore impossible to perform this mitzvah since we don’t know who, if anyone, is actually an Amalekite. While we read the Torah verses commanding us to wipe out the Amalekites, and the associated Haftarah which condemns Saul’s failure to do so, the actual mitzvah has lapsed into oblivion.

The question I would like to pose, however, is this. Is it legitimate to take a Bible verse out of context and make it seem to say precisely the opposite of what it says in its original context? Why or why not? What’s your opinion?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Building A Sanctuary

You have no doubt heard me talk about the way American Jews often mistranslate the word "mitzvah" as "good deed" when in fact it really means "commandment." Traditional Judaism is a religion of obligation. The ten commandments are ten commandments not ten suggestions.  Whether we follow them or not is a different matter, but in general the Torah phrases itself in “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not,” not “if you feel like it.” 
The beginning of this week’s Parasha is most unusual in that regard. Last week we read the special Maftir for Shabbat Shekalim about the half-shekel temple tax which was due from every individual before Pesach. The reading was quite clear -- the rich were not to give more, nor the poor to give less. Every individual was to give precisely one half-shekel. But this week we read that the offerings for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, had to be voluntary. “You shall accept gifts from every person whose heart so moves him.” 
Then a little bit later the Torah says: “v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.” “They shall build me a tabernacle that I may dwell among them. “ If you know Hebrew, the phrase is a little bit odd. One would expect the text to say “ v'shachanti b’tocho” – "they shall build me a tabernacle that I may dwell in it.” 
The point is that God does not need a house. God dwells everywhere – the building of the Tabernacle is not necessary so that God can have someplace to live. The building of the Tabernacle is a concrete gesture of love for God so that God dwells among the people. This is why it has to be voluntary. 
Other ancient peoples really did believe that their god lived in the sanctuaries that they built for them. But our God dwells everywhere and has no need of a specific place to live -- although sometimes we might wish that God would just stay in the sanctuary and leave us free to run things elsewhere as we see fit.
What is the significance of the sanctuaries we build today? What role do they play in our lives, as individuals and as a community?