וידבר יהוה אל משה אחרי מות שני בני אהרן בקרבתם לפני יהוה וימתו
The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord (Lev. 16:1)
What do you think of when you first here this verse? More sacrifices, blood and obscure rituals to come? Where we are in the calendar and all the Pesach cleaning you still have to do? Or just maybe you are reminded of Yom Kippur when we also read this parasha. The instructions issued here are not only for cleansing the tabernacle of its impurities but also the people of their sins.
Ismar Schorsch, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, states that the ‘interlocking of synagogue and scripture, of liturgy and Bible is pervasive in Judaism and attests to the manner in which verbal form of worship unfolded to fill the vacuum created by the abrupt end of the temple sacrificial system in 70 CE’.1
As liturgy has evolved replacing sacrificial worship with verbal worship we have seen how our Siddurim have become filled with blessings, biblical passages, Talmudic extracts, meditations and philosophical writings, but our liturgy and our prayer remain both public and private. So how do we make sense of Aharei Mot? Perhaps by stepping outside our normal way of literal thinking – not always easy to do – and try and ask ourselves ‘What is it God wants of us?’.
We are habitually bound to ritual and tradition. It provides a sense of security, familiarity and a sense that what we are doing is what God wants. But is it? Within the Leo Baeck College Room of Prayer and in many synagogues, we have diverse beliefs and practices, many opinions on which rituals are correct: Some people do not wish to read from the scroll unless there is a minyan present and would prefer to read from a Chumash, others find this absurd and feel it goes against what Progressive Judaism is about. Some feel it improper not to face the ark during the Amidah, others object. So what do we do? How do we resolve these issues of ritual that go to our very core? If these rituals are supposed to act as a sign of our relationship with God, community and as individuals – just as we see in Leviticus 16 – should we not be mindful of making God inaccessible? I cannot put it more succinctly than Ismar Schorsch who states, ‘Nothing is more disconcerting than to see how a pre-occupation with ritual can subvert morality.’
It is not as if this concern is anything fundamentally new. We have midrashim and Talmudic tales that attest to this. One such Talmudic tale recounts a ritual in which the daily Temple duties were regularly assigned to priests in advance, through a form of lottery. One task was to collect the ashes from the altar on which the daily sacrifice for all the community was offered:
Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two kohanim were equal as they ran to mount the ramp and when one of them came first within four cubits of the Altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. R. Zadok stood on the steps of the Hall and said: ‘Our brethren of the House of Israel, hear ye! Behold it says: If one be found slain in the land . . . then thy elders and judges shall come forth. . .” (Deut. 21:1–2). On whose behalf shall we offer the heifer whose neck is to be broken, on behalf of the city or on behalf of the Temple Courts?’ All the people burst out weeping. The father of the young man came and found him still in convulsions. He said: ‘May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions and the knife has not become unclean.’ [His remark] comes to teach you that the cleanness of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood.2
Why have I recounted this tale? Because it dramatically emphasises how religious customs can dominate in dangerous ways. We have the ability to right the wrongs. It shows us how we can protest at things we see as unjust, speak up for those who cannot voice their own opinions. We need to continually reflect and act on this, not ignore it. Religious ritual and morality do have a relationship but perhaps we have a tendency to minimise the importance of morality in our understanding of ritual.
The most compelling aspects of Progressive Judaism are its inclusivity and its willingness to evolve, change and adapt. This is something which is at times challenging and perhaps uncomfortable for us to do. It distinguishes us – particularly at times of political turmoil – yet it does not need to result in a loss of identity or tradition. We are all proud of being Progressive Jews. However, as Rabbis and rabbinical students we should be mindful of the value of both ritual and ethical behaviour. Sometimes we should be flexible enough to adhere to more orthodox traditions, for example, at times of bereavement and grief, tailoring services to the needs of mourners. It is this ability to recognise the place of ritual but not let ourselves hide behind it that challenges us all.
For me it is Abraham Joshua Heschel who most aptly sums up the problem of rigidity in think and practice when he says ‘When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit, when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendour of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.’ 3
The rituals described in Aharei Mot show the maintaining of certain behaviours amongst a sacrificial system thus setting group boundaries through ritual. Just in the same way, we can incorporate ritual into our lives in a meaningful way so that both informs and steadies us in our turbulent world.
1 Ismar Schorsch, Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim, May 1, 2004, JTSA New York.
2 BT Yoma 23a
3 Abraham Joshua Heschel I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology (New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company 2006), p. 63.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.