Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Written by Danny Newman



“To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words. The essence, the tangent to the curve of human experience, lies beyond the limits of language”

– Abraham Joshua Heschel

It must have been almost exactly 30 years ago that I first became concerned about this week’s parashah, called Emor. I had recently celebrated my 12th birthday and the time had come for me to meet with my barmitzvah teacher and to start learning to leyn (chant aloud) my barmitzvah portion, parashat Emor. Sitting here 30 years later, it is interesting and revealing to reflect on the differences between how I experienced my encounter with those Hebrew words 30 years ago and my encounter with them right now.

Growing up in a family that was very involved in a traditional orthodox community, it was just assumed that I would leyn the entire parashah and the haphtarah. This meant that I needed to learn how to read and sing from the Torah scroll (without vowels and notes) a huge chunk of Torah. To be more precise, a full 4 chapters of Torah (Vayikra 20-24).

As a young boy, the words of parashat Emor staring out at me from the pages of the tikkun (a book that contains the Hebrew text of the Torah in two columns, one with and one without the vowels and cantillation marks) were, in many ways, a means to an end. I do not recall spending much time engaging with the meaning of the text or reflecting on how it might be relevant to my life. But, terrifyingly, it was made very clear to me that in under a year I would have to stand up at the front of the shul in front of hundreds of people and leyn from the Torah with as few errors as possible so as not to embarrass myself and my parents and upset God.

As I read the parashah now, I linger over the words, I reflect on ideas and concepts encapsulated in the words of the text and wonder in what ways this text, written thousands of years ago, is relevant to me, my community, the House of Israel and the existential issues facing all human beings today?

I have discovered that parashat Emor contains 63 mitzvot, 24 positive commandments and 39 negative commandments or prohibitions, which makes it the second most litigious parashah in the entire Torah. The contents of Emor consist almost entirely of laws relating to special types of food, special people and special days. The special foods are what we call in English “sacrifices” or “offerings”, the special people are the priests, including the high priest, and the special days are Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Our Torah’s obsession with the minutiae of the sacrifices has always disturbed me (and, if I’m honest, often bored me). Fortunately, we no longer engage in these practices. Following the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE and the ending of the sacrificial cult, the Rabbis, in a revolutionary act of profound spiritual transformation, creatively renewed the form of Jewish devotional practice so that the Jewish people could maintain their sense of connection and ability to remain in covenant with their deity. Instead of the offering of prescribed sacrifices in precision form they introduced the idea of fixed prayer and liturgy, a precise form of words for people to say at precise times of the day.

Perhaps we are now at a junction in Jewish history where we need a similarly profound spiritual and philosophical revolution of Jewish devotional and spiritual practice? And I think the Rambam (Maimonides (1136-1204)), probably the most influential Jewish thinker since the time of the Talmud, might agree. He argued that the sacrifices commanded in the Torah were, in fact, a concession to the newly freed Israelite nation as they lived in a culture in which sacrifices were the way people worshipped their deities.

As the Rambam writes in his magnum opus the Guide for the Perplexed (3:32):

 …at that time the way of life generally accepted and customary in the whole world…consisted in offering various species of living beings in the temples in which images were set up, in worshipping the latter, and in burning incense before them…God’s wisdom and His gracious ruse, which is manifest in regard to all His creatures, did not require that He give us a Law prescribing the rejection, abandonment, and abolition of all these kinds of worship. For the Israelites could not then conceive the acceptance of (such a Law), considering the nature of man, which always likes that to which it is accustomed.

It makes no sense to offer sacrifices to the concept of God as understood by the Rambam. However, he recognises that our ancient ancestors lived in a culture where deities were worshipped through sacrifices and that they would not have been able to conceive of an alternative.

With the destruction of the second temple and the spiritual maturation of the Jewish people, the rabbis prescribed precision words as the substitute for sacrifices. I wonder if, perhaps, in our postmodern world, we have now attained a new level of spiritual development and sophistication? Is it time for the next step in the evolution of Jewish devotional and spiritual practice and to introduce what the Rambam was only able to say implicitly and by way of metaphor in the 12th century? In explaining the divine ruse that allowed for the Torah to mandate primitive sacrifices to a single deity, he further writes in the Guide for the Perplexed (3:32):  …

at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times, who, calling upon the people to worship God, would say: “God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.

The Rambam, I think, is trying to say that the most powerful, the most transformational and the highest form of devotional practice, “consists solely of meditation without any works at all”.

Might it be the case that, in our day, our fixed liturgy consisting of words, is actually a distraction from the purpose of prayer? Might those words in fact distance us from connection with the divine, from universal consciousness, from our Higher Power and the mystery that, in English, is called ‘God’? If the best metaphor we now have to speak about divinity is that of a depth of spirit within us, rather than a Being that exists outside us, perhaps we should consider a more contemplative mode of prayer? Perhaps we should side with the Psalmist and reflect on the deeper meaning of his words in Psalm 65, “To you, Eternal One, silence is praise”?

Danny Newman LBC rabbinic student