The Observant Life: Parashat Emor 2012

As many of you know, over the past week I had the great privilege and joy of attending the annual Rabbinical Assembly convention, which this year was held in Atlanta.  The Rabbinical Assembly, or the “RA” as it is known in some circles, is the international organization of about 1,700 Conservative Rabbis; and its yearly convention is an opportunity for a few hundred of those rabbis to come together, listen to important speakers, learn with incredible teachers, and discuss matters of significance to the Conservative movement and broader Jewish world.

I got to participate in profoundly important – and challenging – conversations about intermarriage, the Jewish status of individuals who have a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, and how we maintain our commitments to the Jewish legal tradition while also creating welcoming, inclusive communities in which everyone who wants to access God, Torah, and community has the opportunity to do so.

I had the opportunity to hear Yair Lapid, an Israeli nightly news anchor who recently formed his own political party, The “There is a Future” Party, talk about his vision of a more democratic, inclusive State of Israel, in which freedom and collective responsibility triumph over the religious demands of a small yet powerful fundamentalist minority.

I got to hear Representative John Lewis, a living hero of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, talk about the continued need for courageous leadership to combat injustice in our country and world, saying, to a standing ovation from a room full of rabbis, “I got arrested 40 times, and I’d get arrested again for what is fair, what is right and what is just.”

For me, this was time very well spent, and I want to publicly thank the leadership of Har Zion for helping me take part in the convention.  I am deeply grateful for your commitment to my continued rabbinic education, for you know that it not only benefits me but also you as well.  And, my dear friends, I want to tell you this morning that I left Atlanta feeling invigorated and inspired, optimistic about the future of the Conservative movement and American Judaism, more convinced than ever that the world needs what Conservative Judaism has to offer, and with more to teach and share than I have opportunities to teach and share.

One of the highlights of the convention was the celebration in honor of the movement’s newest publication, The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews.  In short, this volume is nothing short of extraordinary. The Observant Life explores what it means to be an observant Jew in the 21st century.  It brings together thirty of the greatest Conservative rabbis and scholars of our time, who each contribute chapters on every issue ranging from Shabbat, holidays, Kashrut, and prayer to sex and family life to business, medical, and environmental ethics.

I admit that I am not crazy about the title, and, at nearly 1,000 pages, it probably could have benefited from being released in two volumes instead of one.  Snappy names, clever marketing, and lean efficiency have never been strong suits of the Conservative movement.  But inside is the very best of Conservative Judaism: deep and broad scholarship of both Jewish and non-Jewish subject matter; loyalty to upholding the received Jewish legal tradition while incorporating change when it is necessary; a sense of the overarching values of the Jewish tradition like compassion, holiness, and justice; a willingness to allow those values to influence legal interpretation; and a commitment to egalitarianism and pluralism.

Many of us have been calling for, and have been waiting for, this book for a long time: the volume it seeks to replace, Rabbi Isaac Klein’s Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, is over 30 years old, and The Observant Life has been in the works for a decade now.  But it was worth the wait.  You see, for many years, Klein’s Guide was the primary reference book for Conservative Jews who wanted to know how to properly observe Judaism.  When I was first becoming observant during my high school years, and during rabbinical school, and still today, I would turn to Klein’s Guide all the time when I wanted to know how to kasher a pot, or how not to violate the laws of the Sabbath.  But therein was precisely the problem: Klein’s Guide primarily focused on ritual practice.  I could turn to it if I wanted to know how to properly observe things like Shabbat, the holidays, and Kashrut, but if I wanted direction on other areas of Jewish life – say, for example, how to determine the amount of charity Judaism expects I give, and what charities to choose – I had no definitive, authoritative guide.

That would be problematic enough if it weren’t for the fact that the book gave many readers the false impression that in order to be considered an observant Jew all one needed was to follow the directions for Jewish rituals outlined in the book!  After all, the book’s title is A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, which implies that all one needs to know in order to practice as a religious Jew is contained inside!  Without at all intending to – and I truly mean that – Klein’s Guide conveyed the message that being a religious Jew involved only those practices that are the most obvious outward expressions of Jewish observance; and many people who wanted to be religiously observant Jews end up substituting the parts for the whole.  It reinforced this insidious notion – prevalent in some corners of the Jewish world – that laying t’fillin or keeping kosher are markers of Jewish religious observance, whereas visiting the sick is not.  So, the people who prays three times daily while mistreating their employees get to call themselves “observant,” while the people who give generously to charity while eating ham and cheese don’t.  But here’s the truth: both pieces of the equation are necessary components of being a truly observant Jew.

Today’s Torah portion, Emor, speaks to this truth.  We are taught, “u’shemartem mitzvotai va’asitem otam, ani Adonai / You shall observe my commandments and perform them, I am the Holy One. / v’lo t’halelu et shem kodshi, v’nikdashti b’tokh b’nei Yisrael, ani Adonai m’kadishkhem / You shall not desecrate my holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel, I am the Holy One.”

This commandment is classically understood as the source of the value Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name.  According to Rabbi Brad Artson, another luminary I got to learn from at the RA convention, this commandment speaks to those realms of behavior that ritual law does not and cannot touch.  Much of the Jewish call for righteous living transcends rituals and rules.  In addition to our important and sacred obligations to follow the dictates of Jewish ritual behavior, we are also called upon to live in a way that testifies to God’s goodness, justice, and love.  When we afford our fellow human beings the full dignity they are due as images of the Divine, we bear witness to God’s generosity, goodness, and honor.  When we speak out against oppression and injustice, we affirm God as the righteous judge, as the One passionate about justice.  When we interpret and apply the Torah’s laws in ways that express God’s love and compassion, we grant God a reputation of being loving and compassionate.  Conversely, when we are greedy or selfish, when we are silent in the face of suffering, or when we allow religious law to harm others, we diminish God.  Jewish observance cannot be reduced to ritual patterns; rather, it explodes into all areas of our lives, for everything we do bears with it the possibility of sanctifying or of desecrating God’s name.

Additionally, the value of Kiddush Hashem means that our observance must be holistic. The former Chief Rabbi of France, Rabbi Samuel Jacob Rubinstein, comments that the dual commands to sanctify God’s name and also to not desecrate it means we are not allowed to sanctify God’s name and desecrate it at the same time.  In other words, our rituals may not be performed in ways that violate our ethical obligations; and our ethical responsibilities, except in certain circumstances, do not permit us to avoid our ritual obligations.  The fact that we are engaged in one good does not grant us a pass to get out of our other duties.  So, the shokhet, engaged in one mitzvah of kosher slaughter, is not exempt of the obligation to treat the animal with dignity and compassion.  And the charitable giver, engaged in the wonderful and important mitzvah of tzedakah, doesn’t have permission to write his check on Shabbat.

So finally, FINALLY, there is a book that helps us glorify God and Torah in every aspect of our lives.  Finally there is a book that reminds us that Judaism includes rituals along with acts of kindness and justice. Finally there is a book that reminds us that to be a religious Jew is to integrate our ethical commitments and our ritual obligations, and to infuse our ethical ideals with the rigors of ritual.  Finally.

I have already begun discussions with the Sisterhood leadership about replacing Klein’s Guide with this new and improved volume in the package of gifts we give to our B’nei Mitzvah.  And, in the year ahead, I will use The Observant Life as my sourcebook for many classes and teachings.  But most importantly, I encourage each of you to own a copy of The Observant Life.  In the coming days and weeks, I will work with the gift shop in having copies available for sale.  Make it a central part of your Jewish library.  Turn to it with your questions, and make it a companion in your journey to deepen your Judaism.

Two mornings after The Observant Life book launch, Vice President Biden spoke to the convention.  Most of his speech (which I thought was truly excellent) focused on strongly reiterating his and the President’s enduring commitment to the State of Israel.  But toward the end, he switched gears.  He powerfully argued that, alongside our support of Israel, we Jews ought to continue championing causes of human dignity, at home and abroad.  And, politics aside, I couldn’t help but think he hit the nail on its head.  To be an observant Jew is not about choosing either/or.  It’s about committing ourselves to both/and:  Ritual and ethics, justice and compassion, on the street and in the marketplace, in the synagogue and in the home; in every deed and in every place, we are tasked with sanctifying God’s presence in our midst.

Shabbat Shalom.

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