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Minhag, Morals, and Commitments

09/26/2020 01:02:53 PM


Tzom Tov, everyone. As always, I want to remind everyone that these next 24 hours or so are about spiritual purification, introspection, compassion, and true growth. Fasting may help us rid our bodies of physical or spiritual toxins, remove distractions from our prayer, and inspire empathy for those who go hungry daily. Fasting may also harm our bodies or our mental health, add the distraction of hunger, and close off our spirits. Please allow yourselves restrictions and discomfort on this day without truly harming yourself. Take your medications, and with some food if that is how they are meant to be taken. Drink water if you feel woozy. Do not allow this day to pull you off a path of recovery from disordered eating.

            I’m thinking a lot this year about this particular balance. How can we find spiritual fulfillment and seek to adhere to our traditions when everything in our current society feels so out of the norm? As Reform Jews, we have a bit more leeway in our view of halakha and how bound we may feel to observe these holidays as we have always done, but it’s still not easy. We want to find the comfort in our traditions, to feel we are doing the best we can to practice our Judaism on these holiest of days, as much as we want to feel safe and be responsible for our health and the health of our neighbors.

            In one of our recent Daf Yomi pages, Eruvin 14, the rabbis are discussing the proper size of beams that jut out from a residence into an alleyway to allow the extension of carrying certain objects on Shabbat and Chagim. Of course, there is a disagreement about how big it needs to be to count as an extension of the home and thus serve as an eruv into the alleyway. After some back and forth, Rava Bar Rav Hanan asked Abaye, “So what is the halakha on this?” and Abaye responded, “Go out and see what the people are doing.” While the Talmud is largely a collection of case law, and concerned with building upon the Torah to determine Jewish law that all Jews should be bound by, it is also primarily a record of our history, and so much of halakha was codified around what the people were already doing. Such was the case with our Tashlich ritual, which the early rabbis felt was too pagan. But it was such an attached part of the Jewish Folk Religion that they felt compelled to organize and codify it. Similarly, Kol Nidre (or something similar) first appeared in the early post-Talmudic era, recorded in our earliest prayer books written in the Gaonic era (ca. 6th-11th centuries). While the practice was clearly popular and sanctioned by rabbis, the rabbis also tried to tamp down on this ritual, lest it be misunderstood.

            The prayer that opens our Yom Kippur liturgy is all about annulling vows, which is something the Torah makes clear should not be done lightly. Vows are a very serious social contract in the ancient world, and failing to fulfil them could be seen as a grievous breech. It’s unclear exactly where the prayer came from, but it is understood to likely be a response to forced conversions or other forms of religious suppression. Although it predates the Spanish Inquisition but a few hundred years, it is often associated with Conversos. The Rabbis are very insistent that the prayer can only refer to vows one makes with God and that they must be annulled in front of a rabbi or a non-rabbinic beit din. Even with the rabbinic attempts to contextualize Kol Nidre to codify a folk tradition in a more palatable way, Kol Nidre was used in attacks by Karaites, Torah literalists who insisted vows cannot be annulled by rabbinic authority, and by anti-Semites who claimed it was evidence of the inherent untrustworthiness of Jews. Yet, any attempts to change the language of the declaration or take it back out of the Yom Kippur liturgy were basically ignored. The minhag had become halakha: the people need to hear Kol Nidre on Erev Yom Kippur, and they need to hear it in the traditional chanting melody that we’ve used for at least a thousand years.

            As we enter these hours of introspection, I invite you to think more about what else it is that you need, what customs should be understood as necessary for your life. What do you need to feel spiritually fulfilled? What do you need from God, your rabbi, or your community to help you achieve that? What do you need to stay physically safe? What do you need from your neighbors, your doctors, or your government to help you maintain that? What can you do to help others maintain their health and spirits? 

            We’ve chosen to do most of our programming online through the end of 2020, and any in-person activities will be outdoors, requiring physical space and masks. None of our rituals will look exactly like they did last year, and they may change forever following this experience. In a little over a week, we will be celebrating Sukkot, which is of course an outdoor festival by design. But we know that in years past, we’ve gotten pretty crowded in the Sukkah for our Shabbat service that falls during the week of Sukkot. This year, we may erect the Sukkah, but hold the service entirely outside of any structure and allow only one person into the Sukkah at a time to say the blessings and shake the lulav and etrog. We may not build a “kosher sukkah”, leaving at least one wall fully open for easier viewing for those spaced out around the parking lot. As our Shabbat prayer book says, “This is an hour of change,” and we must embrace the necessary adaptations.

            This year has felt like a lot of annulled vows and necessary adaptations: from humans to each other as we break plans and cancel programs for likely a full calendar year, from humans to God as we fall into despair and neglect our mitzvot, from God to humans as so much of what we expect and depend on falls apart. Part of the rabbinic caveat for Kol Nidre is that this annulment only applies to vows that were taken in good faith and earnestly attempted to hold up. Vows that were taken insincerely or were broken out of malice or laziness cannot be annulled, and the breaker of promises must face full consequences for such breeches of contract.

Obviously, the pandemic was unforeseen and not really anyone’s fault, and I am certain we all tried to meet the challenges that arose with good faith and sincerity. However, when we look at other frightening elements at 2020 that are exacerbated or made more visible by the pandemic (poverty, homelessness, unemployment, racial and social inequality, climate change, environmental racism, etc.)  can we truly say to ourselves that we did everything we could to uphold our mitzvot that command caring for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow? That teach caring for the Earth? That demand justice and equity for all people regardless of origins? Maybe we weren’t fully aware of our responsibilities in these matters. Maybe we weren’t fully aware of these matters until they were the only thing to look at in our quarantine, and by then it felt too late, too dangerous to join a movement, too beyond our capacity now. And maybe it is all those things. I know many people have had days these past six months where it feels like all we can do is try to keep up with the zoom meetings or other task right in front of us, and try to take each moment as it comes, lest the lost time of living in semi-quarantine will drive us mad. But someday, this will either be over, or we will have adapted enough to resume some new normal. When that happens, I am certain there will still problems in society and with the environment that the Torah compels us to address. Maybe we just cannot make any vows this year, even if means Kol Nidre becomes completely pointless next year, but when we find we are ready again to make any sort of commitments, these mitzvot should be the top of our lists.

So much of Judaism has historically been driven by the people’s behaviors, not by rules on high, and Reform Judaism has certainly taken a society-driven view of halakha to heart as we have chosen assimilation and science over many ritual commandments and laws. Yet, as Reform Jews, it has been our calling for the 200 years of our denomination to uphold the ethical mitzvot regardless of what society does. This is one manner in which the Torah, the ancient rabbis, the early Reformers, and the leaders of our movement today are all aligned: Do not go out and see what the people are doing to determine the halakha of moral behavior. We are always commanded to repair the world, regardless of what those around us may be doing. This is a task which may never be done but which we are not permitted to ignore. Repairing the world starts at home, to be sure. Stay safe and healthy, including mentally, as no one can care for others if they are not well themselves. Look after your families, your friends and neighbors, your community, and see to it the needs of the people you love are met. And when it is safe to go out and interact with the public again, advocate for justice, volunteer to feed the hungry, and extend your care to the wider world. In this way, may we set forth practices that may become halakha, driving all of society toward kindness, compassion, care, and cooperation. Amen and g’mar chatimah tova.

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781