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Emor 5782   May 14, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     We hear about all kinds of denominations in Judaism. There is Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, Hasidic, Lubavitcher, several distinct types of Sephardic Judaism, and Spiritual Judaism. Each group practicing Judaism in their own way. But when I was in Rabbinical School, quite a while ago, we were taught that there were only two kinds of Judaism; there were the Fundamentalists and the Non-Fundamentalists. There was a clear line between them centered around Mt. Sinai. If you read the Torah and you believe that what the Torah says happened on Mt. Sinai is exactly what happened on that day so long ago, that made you a fundamentalist. If you do not know exactly what happened that day, if you think that the people tried to express what they experienced and tried to put into words what was beyond expression; if you think the Torah is not literally true, then you are a non-fundamentalist.

     Just like every other faith, there is always a bright line between the fundamentalists and the non-fundamentalists. To a fundamentalist, there is only one right way to do every mitzvah. To a non-fundamentalist, actions are not as important as intentions. I bring all of this up because of a verse in our Parsha this week, “The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin . . .”

      This sets up a strict standard for the Kohen. Due to the need to adhere to strict purity laws, a Kohen is not permitted to become impure and attend the funeral of any relative except ones that are very close immediate family. To this day there are Kohanim who do not go to funerals and do not go to cemeteries lest they become impure through proximity to a corpse.

     One of the graduating students from the undergraduate class at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Alan Imar, wrote in the JTS Torah commentary this week:

     “As the co-chair of the egalitarian minyan at Columbia University, I was surprised to hear that an Orthodox student leader at Hillel was confused why some of our community members wanted to have joint Shabbat meals with Orthodox students. If students cooked food and ate it together, the “stricter” kashrut standards of Orthodox students might conflict with the “more lenient” practices of students in my community, the student objected. The comment struck me because there seemed to me better ways to mitigate any kashrut concern than to outright reject a communal meal with other Jewish students—students who, by the way, may not necessarily be less observant or “strict” than their Orthodox peers. The episode raised a question: To what extent should we be flexible in our adherence to religious precepts, and to what extent can we remain steadfast in our commitment to certain principles, even if they exclude others?” 

     What Mr. Imar is asking is, does the commandment to stay away from the dead except those of close family, apply all the time or are there situations where this law does not apply? Mr. Imar notes that the Talmud records this interesting ruling: “Come and hear that which Rabbi Elazar son of Zadok said: We would skip over coffins to greet the kings of Israel. And they did not say this only regarding the kings of Israel, but even gentile kings…  Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 19b

     So now we have a problem. Can a priest like Rabbi Elazar attend a funeral for someone who is not a relative or does this exception to the rules about purity and impurity only apply when going to meet a king, one who is either gentile or Jewish? What we have come across is a rule in Judaism called “Kavod HaBriot” or “human dignity.”  The rules of purity are important, even critically important to a Kohen, but when it comes to someone’s honor, we put it all aside so that we do not dishonor another human being, of any faith.

     Mr. Imar then asks the critically important question: “In approaching these texts, I cannot help but think of how the question of priests and defilement is emblematic of a larger, still-relevant question modern Jews face: How do we navigate competing values that may require us to be lenient or make exceptions in certain situations?”

    This is the crux of the question that we all face as non-fundamentalist Jews. What happens when the Jewish values we care so much about are in conflict with one another? Must an Orthodox student refuse to eat with other non-Orthodox students because their kashrut may not be as kosher as his? Should we only worry about our own observance and not be concerned with others who may not understand or know anything about what or why one ritual or another is important?

     Is there only one way, the right way, to do things or are there choices that Judaism gives us in different circumstances? The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig understood that the mitzvot were a destination, not a blind ritual. It takes time to learn and adopt mitzvot and to find the meaning in the mitzvot that inspire our attention to the action. A person new to kosher observance does not keep kosher by doing all the laws all at once. We begin with some separation and slowly find our way to having a kosher kitchen. When Rosenzweig was asked if he kept all of the mitzvot, he would reply, “Not yet.” How much leniency do we have to allow so everyone can find their way into a Jewish life, or at least to understand what our faith is all about?

     Of course, there is another side to this issue. If we allow people to take the lenient approach, will they ever come to fully understand the mitzvot? Our Orthodox student may wonder, if he is lenient in his kashrut so others may eat with him, will he lose his attachment to kashrut? There is a famous story in Judaism, of a prince who believed he was a chicken. He sat naked under the table and pecked at corn thrown on the floor. The king called in all the doctors in the kingdom, but no one could cure the prince. A rabbi looked at the prince on the floor and promptly took off all his own clothing and sat on the floor next to the prince and started pecking at the corn on the floor.

      “What are you doing?” asked the prince who thought he was a chicken. “I am also a chicken,” said the rabbi. And so, they both sat on the floor and pecked at the corn. After a while, the rabbi got up and put his pants back on. “I thought you were a chicken.” Said the prince, “chickens don’t wear pants.” The rabbi replied, “Does it make me any less a chicken if I wear pants?” “No.” said the prince, and he put his own pants back on. And they went back to pecking at the corn. After a while, the rabbi put on his shirt. “Chickens don’t wear shirts.” said the prince, “Am I any less a chicken if I wear a shirt?” asked the rabbi. “No” said the prince, so he put his own shirt on, and they both went back to pecking at the corn. Soon the rabbi and the prince had put on their socks and shoes. Still, they both pecked at the corn. Finally, the rabbi stood up and sat at the table to eat. “What are you doing? Said the prince, “Chickens don’t eat at the table.” “Why not?” asked the rabbi. “Why can’t they eat at the table with a fork and spoon?” The prince thought about this and so he came out from under the table and began to eat with a fork and spoon. The rabbi got up and whispered in the prince’s ear, “being a chicken will be our secret, don’t tell anyone.”

     The point of the story is that sometimes we have to start at the place people are at and slowly encourage them to lift themselves up. Some fundamentalists do not understand this. They need everyone to do everything their way all at once. They often insist that everyone act as they act. Some believe that “we are right and everyone else is wrong.”

     What the Rabbis of the Talmud understood was that there is no obligation that does not have exceptions. Living a real life means sometimes being a bit more flexible to encourage others to follow along. Moses Maimonides codified this in his Mishna Torah when he encourages everyone to follow what he called “the golden mean” the path that is not too strict nor too lenient; to find a place where we take our ritual seriously but make room for alternatives and exceptions. Sometimes we have to go a little backwards before we can go forward.

     We should be able to hold fast to our traditions even as we understand that there are exceptions. We have to make sure we properly give honor to those who are around us, letting them know we value them and their opinions.

     Having a balanced look at life does not make us weak or wishy-washy. It shows that we are thoughtful and considerate. It shows that we can understand where people are coming from and so perhaps, we can help them come to a more complete understanding. Life is not about being “me against the world.” It is about being a part of the world, sharing our knowledge with others and finding what they have to teach us. It is about knowing we are not always right and that others are not always wrong. It is about the middle path, were everyone is growing and learning together.

     This is not about only acting in a Jewish manner when it is convenient. It is about caring enough for others to bring us all together in friendship and peace. May we all grow together in our understanding of our faith, and may our Judaism always direct us to find the place where all people are welcomed with honor and dignity. May God show us how-to walk-in God’s ways together as we say….   Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784