This week we begin our reading of the Book of Leviticus, much of which focuses on the ancient system of animal sacrifice. Within the context of the ancient world, this system was the primary modality of vicarious atonement for sins. The priests (Kohanim) would serve as divinely-appointed intermediaries. They would dash the blood of slaughtered animals upon the altar in the inner sanctum (Kodesh Kodashim – the “Holy of Holies”), and through this blood, the people would be cleansed of their sins. A bit gorey sounding, I admit, but in the ancient mindset, very serious business, which had to be carried out with utmost precision. Out in the desert wilderness described in the Torah, this took place in the Mishkan – the “tent” that was erected by the people. Eventually, according to the Biblical chronology at any rate, this of course was replaced by the magnificent Temple that stood in Jerusalem called the Beit HaMikdash – House of Holiness. In the outer courts the Levitical choirs would sing and the instruments would play, suggesting a grand spectacle of pomp and circumstance. The actual sacrificial act in the Kodesh Kodashim, however, would be carried out in complete silence.
Fortunately, once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish community was ready to move on from this system of vicarious atonement. Rabbis replaced the Kohanim as the leaders of the community, and prayer and mitzvot replaced animal sacrifice. But, just as the minutia of the sacrificial rites had to be observed absolutely according to prescription, lest we incur further guilt, so too subsequently did the words of our mouths have to be uttered with great precision. Otherwise, they would go unheard, or even worse, rejected. Prayer, then, is a serious business. And its evolution and development through the ages, particularly as our community and our reality has evolved and developed, has always been a very serious business.
This past Saturday we were blessed with a brilliant and fascinating presentation by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, our guest scholar for the Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus Memorial Lecture. Rabbi Kahn gave us an extraordinary glimpse into the development of three specific prayers of our liturgy, particularly concerned with the changing status of women, non-Jews of one description or another, and those with some sort of disability, in the eyes of those writing and/or funding the prayer books. As the adage goes, “history is written by the winners.” Well, that goes for prayer books as well! In his book, Rabbi Kahn identifies some of the “winners,” and what their various agendas really were. Rabbi Kahn’s book is: The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship and Identity in Jewish Liturgy. He offered to personally autograph copies at the reduced rate of $30 (the list price is $45) to any of our congregants and friends who would like one. If you would like to order a copy from Rabbi Kahn, please send me an email, along with whatever dedication you would like, and he will be delighted to send it to the temple for you.
This Shabbat before the celebration of Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance. As you know, this year Purim is Saturday night and Sunday, and our celebration at Union Temple will take place this Sunday, 12:30-2:30 PM. It will be an intergenerational celebration, with drinks, food, costumes, the Reading of the Megillah, groggers, prizes, games, music, and an opportunity for all of us to give ourselves two hours of joy. As Americans, we have very serious problems with which to concern ourselves at this troubling time. But, whatever generation you identify with, I hope you will come to the temple on Sunday, and take the opportunity that Judaism gives us to release some tension, even if only for two hours on a Sunday afternoon.
We associate Purim with costumes, hamantaschen, and lots of drinking – and I don’t mean just club soda, assuming we are of age! But perhaps the most recognizable custom is twirling our groggers to blot out the name of Haman, the evil Persian governor who had hatched the plan to annihilate the Jews of Persia. Haman represents not only himself, but in fact, all the evil power grabbers who have focused upon the Jewish people and directed venomous hatred toward us in one form or another throughout our history.
Swastikas on Jewish property, bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and institutions, gunshots through synagogue windows, skinheads and Neo-Nazi fervor. These and more are not merely remnants of days gone by, before America had matured beyond the anti-Semitism and bigotry that were undercurrents within our society. These are the new reality of today – right now – in America.
It is particularly ironic that one of the latest bomb scares came to the ADL in New York – the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL was founded in 1913 as an organization dedicated to stopping the defamation of the Jewish people, and securing justice and fair treatment for all people, and fighting against prejudice in all forms, for the benefit of all who would ever be subjected to it.
This year, we can look at all the noisemaking on Purim with an added significance. We can blot out the name of Haman, of course. But we can also symbolically blot out all hatred and bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, which are blights upon our nation, and which threaten our dream of freedom, democracy, security and respect for all people.
We took a congregational trip to Philadelphia a few years ago, to visit the National Museum of American Jewish History. The message of the museum is clear. Virtually from our arrival on these shores, Jews have been in the forefront of every movement of social, political, and cultural change in this country. America without the Jews, and Jews without America, are both unthinkable equations. This is our country, and will not let hate mongers and bigots take it away. On Purim this year, we will stand up, we will dance, we will shout, twirl our groggers, and eat as many hamantaschen as we can stand, in our ongoing defiance of hatred, and our ongoing quest for justice and right.
This coming Shabbat is “Shabbat Across America.” Every year the National Jewish Outreach Program assigns the first Shabbat in March as “Shabbat Across America.” The idea is to encourage all the Jews in our country to symbolically join hands and celebrate Shabbat together, at least on this one Shabbat during the year.
This year the notion of joining hands with our Jewish sisters and brothers seems particularly critical, in light of the recent upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in the country – something we thought we had long left behind. In recent weeks, Jewish community centers all across our country, including a number in New York and New Jersey, have received bomb threats, striking fear in the hearts of all those who have had to evacuate these centers at a moment’s notice. In addition, swastikas have been spray-painted on Jewish property and in Jewish neighborhoods, including Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and just this week, a fence in South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, NJ, in the neighborhood where Steve and I lived for several years when Steve was at B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. All this, of course, is in addition to the cowardly and hateful desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, just in the past week. And in Evansville, IN, my colleague Rabbi Gary Mazo discovered a bullet hole on Monday morning in the window of a classroom at his congregation, Temple Adath B’nai Israel.
I place the blame for this at the door of the White House. The rhetoric of intolerance and hate-mongering all year long has been outrageous and out of control, and those miscreants who would be inclined to carry out hateful acts of this nature have interpreted this rhetoric as a permission slip to act upon their evil inclinations. Mr. Trump and his surrogates have been spewing forth inflammatory hate speech all year long, and it took fully six weeks into his presidency for him to denounce it, finally, in his address to Congress on Tuesday night. But it was long overdue.
The rabbinic community of Brownstone Brooklyn is in the process of formulating a response of solidarity in the near future, against these, and all acts of bigotry and threats of violence. I will keep you apprised of our progress.
In our Torah portion for this Shabbat, God instructs Moses to direct the people: “Make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” In principle, America has stood as a sanctuary against the forces of hatred and violence that were unleashed upon Jews throughout the centuries, particularly across Europe, but elsewhere as well. While our country has not been immune from the scourge of anti-Semitism, as Americans we have tried to rise above it and purge it from our midst. Sadly, it would seem as though we still have work to do on this front. I applaud Governor Cuomo’s announcement this week of his authorization of $25 million for increased protection of religious schools and day care centers throughout New York. If indeed we are “one nation under God,” we cannot tolerate the re-emergence of such bigotry now, or ever again.
On this Shabbat Across America, we will join hands as Jewish Americans with pride, and in peace, as we reassert our American ideals and make a true sanctuary of our beloved country.