This week’s double portion Acharey-Mot Kedoshim (Lev 16-20) contains two central texts of Progressive Judaism since its beginnings: the most debated one and the most adored one.
The founders of Progressive Judaism in the 19th century despised the antique Yom Kippur ritual with its goats and bulls and blood and priestly rituals as depicted in Acharey-Mot. It was regarded as meaningless for today and most progressive congregations thus changed the traditional avodah service on Yom Kippur praising these goats- and bulls-rituals into something that would express modern thinking, something about God’s presence in the universe from creation to redemption, or something similar. Leviticus 16 – and animal sacrifice in general – became a litmus test for progressive Jews worldwide.
Classical Progressive Judaism also changed the torah readings on Yom Kippur: Why read Leviticus 16 (“Achare Mot”) when it has become meaningless? Instead of this text the most beautiful passage just a few chapters behind became THE prominent text in Progressive Judaism, read in many congregations since the 19th century on Yom Kippur morning and quoted a lot during the rest of the year: Leviticus 19: Kedoshim. This passage, containing verses as “Love your neighbour as yourself” was seen as the best summary of the ethical values of the Torah, dealing mainly with social justice, expressing brilliantly the ethical values of Progressive Judaism.
The relationship between rituals and ethics was one of the regular themes of the late Rabbi John Rayner z”l. In a sermon he once said: “The truth of the matter is that there are in Judaism, as in every other tradition, both religious and secular, rituals which, not to mince words, are silly, either because they symbolize an idea that makes no sense or because there is no intelligible connection between the symbol and the idea it is supposed to symbolize. … But that leaves plenty of rituals which are not susceptible to either of these objections. The Sefer Torah, the Sabbath candles, the Kiddush wine, the Matzah and Maror, the Shofar, the Sukkah, the Chanukkah Menorah – these and scores more are acceptable rituals because we can understand and approve what they symbolize and because we can understand and approve the way in which they symbolize it. But granted that they are acceptable, we still have to ask: How important are they?” 1 According to Rabbi Rayner a ritual only has its right, if it would make you “spiritually fit as a person to act rightly towards other persons. … If it becomes an end in itself, then it is a selfish enterprise, as selfish as taking drugs.” Rituals themselves are “as important to the religious person as finger exercises are to the pianist … ritual is not the practice of religion. To practise religion is to lead the good life and to work for the good society.”
Transferred to this week’s double parashah it would mean that its first part, Acharey Mot, would be just the warm up for Kedoshim (if not an obsolete ritual anyway). Should there not be enough time for a warm up, one must move to the main activity, it’s not to be recommended but it is possible. A good pianist can usually produce at least some music without finger exercises in advance!
I disagree with John Rayner on his subordination of rituals. (I dare to, as we had good similar discussions during his lifetime and he loved my questioning.) In my opinion ritual and ethics are as inseparable as the portions Acharey-Mot and Kedoshim this week, because it is only the ritual side of Judaism that makes our social action Jewish. If compared with a pianist, then Acharey Mot would be the first part of the piece he plays, which sets the tone, Kedoshim the second. Therefore, in my view, for a Jewish life – not just in its orthodox interpretation but generally – the mitzvah of laying tefillin is indeed as important as the mitzvah of loving your neighbour as yourself, because as we have a responsibility for our world, we also have a responsibility for our spiritual Jewish heritage. The common rituals create both community across boundaries and personalized Jewish identity.
We learn something important in the ritualistic first half of this week’s portion, Acharey Mot, that is missing in its ethical second half, Kedoshim: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at all times into the holy place.” (Lev 16:2). There are people who have certain ritual functions. For them there is a time for closeness to God and there is a time for not coming into God’s presence. And this is not because of cultic uncleanness – as we learned so much about in last week’s parashah – but because even somebody who is holy ex officio must not enter God’s presence except when ritually authorized and in a special ritual way, with incense to create enough fog and mist to not to see the Ark itself, the place under God’s presence. Till today most rituals are time bound and their performance defined. This is how they become special and how they make a certain moment exceptional.
Israel knew that God’s presence rested above the tabernacle constantly and that God’s presence was among the people of Israel the whole time – we can trust that God is there -, but obviously God’s holiness is not something to be approached at any time, something difficult to understand in these times and days, where anything has to be available immediately 24/7. We need to be reachable constantly, we twitter our feelings or just gained knowledge of the world on the go, information has to be resourced immediately from anywhere with our phones or ipads. We would expect that one can enter into God’s presence at any time from anywhere, wouldn’t we? But the ritual side of Judaism teaches us, that this is not possible. Encountering God means periods of waiting, of distance, of profane or less holy activities outside of the darkness of the holy of holies. The more easy we get access to something, the greater the loss of its value and specialness. God’s liturgical presence however, is most special. It is connected with fixed ritual times and fixed ritual manners. Holiness is beyond our availability and power and spontaneous needs.
Coming from this ritual understanding of holiness, the second half of this week’s parashah, originally so easily understood as the ethical essence of Progressive Judaism, now becomes difficult. Israel is told: “You shall strive to become holy, because I am holy, says your God” (19:2). If God’s holiness means that God is the ultimate in separateness and inapproachability, what does it mean, that we should ourselves strive to become holy like God? Suddenly this beautiful chapter may suddenly even question Progressive Judaism’s universalism. But maybe “you shall strive to be holy” is not the headline of the mitzvot that follow – as it is often understand but just one single mitzvah on its own? Or is Nachmanides right when he said: “God is saying: Just as I keep Myself separate, you too must keep yourselves separate.” But then again, when reading chapter 19: what would it be that would make us special? Are not most of these noble predictions just common-sense, humanist rules for good social behaviour in general? What is this “holiness” that God has and that he asks us, his people, to imitate?
Something for us to think about this coming shabbat!
Dr Annette M Boeckler
Lecturer for liturgy at Leo Baeck College
1 Sermon Nr 623, 20.3.1976 Shabbat Tzav, LJS. (copy held in Leo Baeck College Library) All following quotes are taken from this sermon.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.