D’var Torah at Judea Reform Congregation, April 1, 2016.
The Priests were our teachers and guides in the realms of both ritual and ethics, and we are currently in the middle of their book, Leviticus. This week’s portion, called shemini, includes among other things, rules regarding which animals were considered proper, or kosher, for consumption.
Much ink has been spilled in the worlds of traditional Jewish scholarship and also in the academy trying to understand just why animals are on the menu, or off. Some see allegorical lessons whereby we ingest only animals whose character traits we find appealing. For others, kashrut amounts to an ancient health code. Some believe the purpose was simply to create an idiosyncratic diet as a way of cultivating group cohesion (you aren’t going to mix with others if you can’t dine with them!). Some see it as a way of cultivating compassion, as if to say, “your appetites conflict with the very lives of other beings, and so your appetites need to be limited.” And for others, the whole point is that the list is arbitrary: it’s there to teach discipline.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that to live within these particular mitzvot requires a well-developed capacity for havdalah, or “discernment.” The verse near the end of Leviticus 11, the lengthy chapter describing the various species, says it this way: l’havdil bein hatame uvein hatahor — “to discern, or distinguish, between that which is improper and that which is proper.”
In his Commentary on Leviticus, Baruch Levine notes that “the purpose of the code of law promulgated in chapter 11 is to enable the Israelites to distinguish between the permitted and forbidden foodstuffs under priestly instruction.” He notes that the verb l’havdil plays a significant role elsewhere in Leviticus. As he writes (note to Lev 20:24), “the separateness of Israel, involving their duty to live differently from other nations, is the stated rationale for the requirement to observe the dietary laws.” Maybe that old advertising tagline about “answering to a higher authority” had it right, all along.
So I want to speak tonight about havdalah, discernment, but not in the area of diet. A fairly new rabbi would have to be rather foolish — an idiot, really! — to jump right into his new congregation and start talking about something so personal and, in our Reform movement, so weighed down by history and fraught with emotion. Not being that foolish rabbi, I’m going to give kashrut a wide berth…and instead, talk about politics.
Especially now, with the eyes of the nation fixed on our state capital, our universities, local businesses, and community leaders including clergy, it’s actually an important sermon to give. At its heart, it is a sermon about discernment, about knowing what is kosher and what is treif. To a degree it’s about some of the finer points of tax law, but mostly it’s about good judgment, good sense, and menschlichkheit.
H.B. 2, North Carolina’s newest law, flies in the face of much of our Reform Jewish agenda. We are an open and affirming religious movement, whose record calling for the fair and just treatment of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people goes back decades. It is right and proper — as kosher as it gets — for our congregational leadership to take a stand against HB2, and take a stand they did. In case you missed it on Facebook, in our e-notices, or on the website, here’s what it says:
Judea Reform Congregation, in keeping with the Jewish Tradition’s emphasis on the dignity of all human beings made in the divine image (b’tzelem elohim), and also with our Reform Movement’s recent resolution on the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people, regrets the passage of H.B. 2. We have been, and will remain, a congregation that welcomes transgender and gender non-conforming members and guests. Our prayers are with North Carolinians whose dignity and humanity is under attack. We stand with them, and against those who would strip them of their protections under the law.
As a tax-exempt non-profit organization, Judea Reform Congregation is forbidden from endorsing candidates for office, or opposing them. And you’ll note, our statement makes no reference to any candidates, or the November election. It makes no reference to any political party. It speaks to an issue of importance to us, drawing on our Jewish tradition in general and our Reform Jewish tradition in particular, to make its point.
“But Rabbi, aren’t you being a bit disingenuous? Is it really possible to separate this issue from partisan politics?” I would answer yes, and without any irony. Remember, in the House, at least, members of both major parties voted in favor of HB2. And there are voices from both political parties calling for its repeal.
I recall a Reform movement-sponsored phone conference about our legislative agenda, in which recently-retired Representative Barney Frank was among the speakers. He got into a pretty interesting discussion with Rabbi David Saperstein (those of you who know their respective speech patterns can imagine the pace, and the register) about David’s insistence that our movement strike a consistently non-partisan stance, even as issue after issue was breaking along almost strictly partisan lines. Our strength, Rabbi Saperstein argued, was in our ability to sit with reasonable people on both sides of the aisle and to advance our issues as part of broad coalitions. Are we occasionally caricatured as “The Democratic Party with Holidays?” Yes. Is it deserved? Actually, and without irony, no.
And so, you can expect your synagogue to be always public, but never partisan. That havdalah, that distinction, keeps us on the right side of the law…and more importantly, it keeps our tent open to people who hold a variety of opinions. That public discourse has reached the depths it has, with more liberal-leaning and more conservative people tending to opt out of being in any real relationship with each other, is a terrible thing. It shouldn’t be so easy to “deFriend” people who aren’t our ideological soulmates, but it is. Houses of worship must be places that push back against that tendency, not places that encourage it. Remember, it hasn’t always been this way in our society, and it need not be so forever. And so, whenever we stand as Judea Reform Congregation in the public square and say “we stand for this,” we will do so without a whiff of partisanship.
What can we do, then, as a congregation?
First…we can be deeply engaged with efforts to broaden the electorate. Again, here’s an issue that a cynic might say is in the service of one political party over another, but I say without irony, no. The same text that informed our congregational statement on H.B. 2 is instructive here. If we are all made b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image, then it follows that we all have a role to play in our participatory democracy. Making sure that everyone who’s entitled to cast a ballot is registered to do so, and advocating for an even more expansive understanding of who the electorate ought to be, is something we can do, and will do.
Beyond working to create the biggest and most inclusive electorate possible, we can continue to speak about and work on behalf of issues that are on our agenda as Reform Jews. Our movement is currently engaged in the battle for reform of our criminal justice system, and I’ll be in the offices of Senators Burr and Tillis on April 12 to thank them for their co-sponsorship of bipartisan legislation endorsed by our Religious Action Center. We are in favor of expanding the safety net by expanding Medicaid. We believe that the Second Amendment can be respected while reducing gun violence. As Judea Reform Congregation, we can speak to those issues, advocate for them, and act in their service.
So, is there a place for partisan politics? As Judea Reform Congregation, no. As the people who make up the congregation…absolutely. We can be deeply engaged in partisan, electoral politics…as individuals. Indeed, we are a stronger congregation when each of us takes a deep interest in the public good. Our congregation includes members who have put their names on the ballot, people who are raising money for candidates, and many members who are passionate about their candidates in the public arena. And we are a stronger congregation for their involvement. All of us ought to exercise our rights to speech, assembly, association, to favor and oppose candidates. All of us (including, by the way, the Rabbi, who doesn’t stop being a person with those same rights!) should feel good about being passionately involved in the electoral process.
I’ll never forget my friend Gene Finke of blessed memory, a Trustee of Temple Mount Sinai who also served over the years on the El Paso City Council and the El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees. Gene was a Yellow-Dog Democrat, and everyone knew it. He happened to be giving the announcements at synagogue one Friday night in October of a year divisible by four. He went off-script, and started talking about the upcoming election. I thought, “Uh oh,” and scanned the congregation for my more conservative members, watching their faces, anticipating the phone calls and emails, or for that matter the uncomfortable oneg conversations.
But I underestimated Gene. He spoke about reading the news, watching the debates, making an informed choice, contributing dollars on your candidate’s behalf. And then he said this:
And do one more thing before Election Day. Put up a yard sign. Yard signs are so important, because they remind you to vote, and they remind your friends to vote. And the best thing about them is, when your friends who disagree with your choice see your yard sign, it motivates them to get one for the candidate of their choice. And what our country needs, more than anything else, is more people voting for the candidates of their choice.
No one complained about Gene’s announcements; to the contrary, they appreciated the civility and civic-mindedness he modeled.
L’havdil bein hatame uvein hatahor — to distinguish between what is permitted and what is forbidden, between what ennobles us and what diminishes us. This is the charge set out by those teachers of old who gave us the book of Leviticus. May we be up to the task at hand, living out our values as individuals and as a synagogue, and never forgetting which activities belong on which side of the menu.