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Re-visioning the Jewish Ritual: Thoughts on Chukat (5771)

Jewish rituals comfort and support us during times of anxiety and joy. They mark time, space, events and experiences. When I light Shabbat candles, I take a deep breath and allow Shabbat peace to enter my hectic life. When I light the Chanukah menorah, I claim my seat at the table of Jewish history.

As Jews, we should be embracing Jewish ritual for many reasons. They provide religious and spiritual nourishment. They acknowledge our dependency on our Jewish community – which means that our practice strengthens the Jewish community and provides communal memory and history.

But for many liberal Jews, performing Jewish rituals – as a concept and a viable, living practice – has become things, “other Jews do.” We look at Jews who perform Jewish rituals throughout their daily lives as suspect, odd or “Orthodox.” A few weeks ago, Rabbi Gellman taught us that we Jews have ceded some of the things that made us unique – such as a loving God providing one law for everyone or the hope of a world to come – to other religious faiths and that he, for one, wanted them back. I want to take that one step further: If we and our rituals are to survive a liberal Jewish lifestyle, we have to make rituals our own, adapting them and allowing them to support us in our own ways. We have to get away from the spiritually damning belief that Jewish rituals are the purview of the Orthodox and the Chassidim. And inversely, we have to spiritually move away from the misguided belief that adapting Jewish rituals to a modern sensibility and lifestyle is somehow watering down Judaism to a “Judaism Light.” That is stuff and nonsense.

At the very beginning of Chukat, we learn that the ritual law of the red heifer is “2 … the ritual law that the Lord has commanded.” Without going into detail, the bottom line is that ashes of the red heifer were to be used to purify those who came into contact with a corpse.

There is a basic contradiction: purifying something that is impure automatically and inherently contaminates the one who is doing the purifying. On the surface, this law makes no sense. And for those Jews for whom ritual as presented over the centuries is paramount, that is the basic lesson: Thus, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai explained this paradox to his students: God said, ‘I made a decree (hukkah) and you are not allowed to transgress my order.’” (Tanhuma)” For people of this mindset, rituals are static, unchanging, meant to be performed for their own sake in the belief that performing them will eventually yield spiritual nourishment.

All well and good, but for many Jews, this is simply unacceptable and so they do nothing. There is a middle way: we have to embrace Jewish rituals and adapt them so that we find meaning in them. If we don’t, we will lose them forever because our communal memory will eventually fade from disuse.

Eli Valley, the Editor of “Contact,” a newsletter on Jewish affairs, writes: “Whether inspired by historical events, communal circumstance or spiritual osmosis from surrounding cultures, Jewish rituals have emerged and evolved as a means to connect with history, with community or with notions of the Divine. For this reason, new rituals are a barometer of both the vibrancy of Jewish life and the particular dynamics of the community at the time in which they emerge.”

Mikvah, once observed by Jewish men and women on a regular basis, is now a relic associated only with unappealing facilities reserved for Orthodox women or converts. We must reclaim the use of water as a spiritual tool. It started with us, we want it back.

Shiva and shloshim, the brilliant devices ordained by our Sages as the emotional marking of time after a death, has been shortened to three days for many Jews – one for way too many. We must reclaim shiva in its healing power, letting go of the many perfections of the ritual and adapting it so that we can be healed by it.

When Moses stood at Sinai, he watched God tying crowns onto the letters of the Torah. He asked, "Why are you doing this?" God said, "One day there will be a man so great that he will be able to interpret even the crowns of the letters." Moses said, "I want to see this man."

Immediately, Moses is transported to the study house of Rabbi Akiba, where he finds himself in the back row. He listens for a while to the debate and finds that he understands nothing of what is being said. He becomes so distressed he grows faint.

Finally, a student asks Rabbi Akiba, "Master, where did you learn this?" Akiba answers, "It is a law given to Moses at Sinai." Moses is comforted. (Talmud Bavli, Menachot 29b)

If no less a teacher than Moshe Rabbeinu could recognize the Judaism in new ways to approach Judaism, clearly so can we.


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