About two weeks ago, there was a news report in New York that a man in his 60’s was bitten by a poisonous snake in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. He was taken to Jacobi Hospital, and then was well enough to be released. So, how does a poisonous snake come to an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen? Apparently, this man had been keeping it there as a pet. I think there may be an eviction notice in his future. . . Perhaps he would do well with some psychotherapy as well!
As it happens, poisonous snakes are among the topics in our Torah portion this very week. Virtually all through our reading of the Book of Numbers we hear nothing but bitter complaining from our ancestors in the Wilderness. They have no faith in God’s power to save them, and rebel against the leadership of Moses, as God’s appointee. To punish them, here in Parashat Chukat, God sends poisonous serpents to bite them, and many of them die. But then, Moses offers them a lifeline: not a real serpent (nachash), but a serpent made of copper (n’choshet). Moses was to mount this copper serpent (nachash han’choshet) on a pole, and raise it above the people. If those who had been bitten raised their eyes and looked upon it, they would be cured and they would live.
Really? Looking at a piece of copper on pole—a cure for snake bite? Sounds just about as ridiculous as keeping a poisonous snake as a pet in an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in New York! But according to our sidra, it worked, and the people were cured.
Of course, the whole thing smacks of idolatry, forbidden to the People of Israel. Yet snake-like figures were found throughout Israel at what had been idolatrous Canaanite shrines, and also, early Israelite shrines. There was even a god-like figure called N’chushtan, taking the idolatry of the copper serpent to its logical, though idolatrous conclusion. King Hezekiah campaigned against these figures, and did his best to abolish them from Israelite practice.
The Rabbis understood the problem here, and, as always, tried to put a more favorable spin on this strange story in the Torah. An interpretation in the Talmud posits that the people actually looked past the nachash han’choshet, and upward toward God: “When the Jewish people turned their eyes upward, and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; but if not, they rotted from their snakebites.” (Rosh Hashanah 29a)
In its beginnings, Reform Judaism bent over backwards not to assign magical powers to objects and amulets, or to make ritual items in our tradition objects of idolatry. A perfect example is the Torah Scroll. As you know, it is customary before our Reading of the Torah, to march through the congregation holding the Torah—a ritual known as the hakafah—and for people to extend a tallit, a book, or simply their hand, and kiss the Torah. The early Reformers eschewed this ritual, because, in their eyes, it smacked of idolatry, and risked making our sacred Scripture an object of magical power. Nevertheless, during the past generation or so, the Reform Movement has taken back the ritual of the hakafah. It has proven to evoke an emotional connection between the people and our sacred Scripture, particularly as we reach out to kiss the scroll. The hope is that through making an emotional connection during this ritual, we will be inspired to study the contents of the Torah, and perform the mitzvot—the commandments—that will help us to live out and practice the values of Jewish tradition.
As thoughtful, modern Jews, we are constantly re-thinking and re-evaluating our relationship with and practice of the array of rituals within our tradition. The aim is to promote our knowledge and practice of the values of our tradition, as the rituals enhance our affective experience of Jewish life.
I wrote the D’var Torah above before we left for Israel on Monday. But as we sat in Kennedy Airport waiting for our flight, we tried to absorb the impact of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to abrogate the agreement regarding the Egalitarian Platform at the Kotel, the Western Wall. After some five years in the making, the agreement was finally reached, or so we thought, in February of 2016, with plans underway for the construction of a beautiful area designated for egalitarian, pluralistic prayer. One of the primary brokers of this deal was Natan Scharansky, head of the Jewish Agency. Now, in an obvious move to kowtow to the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu has double-crossed Mr. Scharansky, and non-Orthodox Jews all over Israel and all over the world, in nullifying this agreement.
From the moment our feet hit the ground on Tuesday, our e-mail server was bombarded with statements of protest from virtually every fair-minded person and organization we know, protesting this cowardly move on the part of the Prime Minister. I would encourage you to access the statements of ARZA, the WUPJ, Women of the Wall, and Natan Scharansky. But since we are preparing to begin our studies next week at the Shalom Hartman Institute, I will insert this particular link for responses by Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute, and Hartman faculty member and journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi.
Our Torah portion focuses on Korach, a member of the tribe of Levi. In fact the portion itself bears his name. Korach foments rebellion among the people, because he resents Moses’s leadership, which of course, was assigned by God. Korach is the paradigmatic troublemaker, because he deliberately tries to break the unity of the Children of Israel. His reward, along with the 250 who joined him in his rebellion, is to be swallowed up within the earth, and die in ignominy.
As the Jewish People has evolved throughout history, we have come to understand that unity does not mean uniformity. History has taught us that our people can maintain our ties with one another, even across continents, while at the same time, tolerating and even embracing our differences with one another. This holds true with regard to theological perspectives, ethnic expressions, political positions, and diversity of all kinds. The modern description for this embrace of difference is pluralism: one people, different approaches.
This coming Monday, Steve and I are heading to Israel for our regular study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Last year was a highlight for us, as I became a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Institute. After the intensity of the three-year program, I will rejoin the wider Rabbinic gathering for a shorter, but still quite intense program. For two weeks every summer, some 170 rabbis of all denominations gather in the Beit Midrash – the study hall – of the Hartman Institute, literally elbow-to-elbow, to study from morning to night with the finest scholars in Israel, and with each other as well. The Hartman Institute is devoted to promoting pluralism within unity as the ideal for the Jewish State, and indeed, for the Jewish People around the world.
We at Union Temple have studied with some of the Hartman scholars through the iEngage series. We also have met and heard from a few of them in person at the Brownstone Brooklyn synagogues, including our own. Those of us who traveled together to Israel in 2015 visited the Hartman Institute and spent a remarkable hour with Tal Becker, one of the luminaries of the Hartman faculty. Learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Before any trip we make to Israel, I remember the beautiful poetry of Psalm 122 as it resounds in my mind and in my heart. It is a prayer for those going up to Jerusalem, and for the city of Jerusalem itself. So, as we prepare for our journey this summer, I offer the words of Psalm 122 – “A Song of Ascents.”
א שִׁיר הַֽמַּֽעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד שׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהֹוָה נֵלֵֽךְ: ב עֹמְדוֹת הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ יְרֽוּשָׁלָֽם: ג יְרֽוּשָׁלַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּהּ יַחְדָּֽו: ד שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים שִׁבְטֵי־יָהּ עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לְהֹדוֹת לְשֵׁם יְהֹוָֽה: ה כִּי שָׁמָּה ׀ יָשְׁבוּ כִסְאוֹת לְמִשְׁפָּט כִּסְאוֹת לְבֵית דָּוִֽד: ו שַֽׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרֽוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹֽהֲבָֽיִךְ: ז יְהִֽי־שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ שַׁלְוָה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ: ח לְמַֽעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּֽךְ: ט לְמַעַן בֵּֽית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָֽךְ:
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
I rejoiced when they said to me, “We are going to the House of the LORD.” Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built up, a city knit together, to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of the LORD, as was enjoined upon Israel – to praise the name of the LORD. There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.” For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good.
Our Torah portion this week contains the commandment concerning the wearing of tzitzit—fringes.
Numbers Chapter 15:
37) The Eternal said to Moses, as follows: 38) Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 39) That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. 40) Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and be holy to your God. 41) I the Eternal am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Eternal your God.
These verses are included in the traditional recitation of the Shema at services. (In the Reform Prayer Book we omit verses 37-39.) The tzitzit are the fringes on the bottom of a tallit, and practically speaking, the tallit is the very garment that enables the wearing of the tzitzit. The purpose of the tzitzit is to remind us of the mitzvot—commandments—when we look upon them. For this reason, the tallit is generally only worn at morning synagogue services because the light of the morning enables us to see them. The exception is Kol Nidre, when it is customary to wear a tallit even though it is at night. However, it is also customary for the rabbi, cantor, or leader of prayer to wear a tallit at all services to distinguish him/herself as the Sheliach/Shelichat Tzibbur, the Leader of Prayer. That is why you see the cantor and myself wearing tallitot at all services that we are conducting, both morning and evening.
Virtually from its inception, and then for many years to come, the Reform Movement rejected the wearing of the tallit. Aside from a dismissal of the custom as “fetishism,” the early Reformers believed that one should not need outward reminders of spirituality and one’s loyalty to Jewish teaching. But within the past 40 years or so, the wearing of the tallit, though still optional in most Reform congregations, nevertheless has become fairly standard across the Movement.
And perhaps more significant even than the wearing of tallitot by Reform Jewish men, is the adoption of this custom by Reform Jewish women, and subsequently, Conservative and Reconstructionist women as well. Initially the mitzvah of wearing the fringes was restricted to men. But in the expansion of the tradition, and the equalization of roles within the liberal movements of Judaism, the tallit became standard for women as well. The same holds true for tefillin—phylacteries—though this is far less common within the Reform Movement.
My family belonged to a Modern Orthodox shul across the street from Stuyvesant Town, where I grew up. One of the things I wished in my heart all the time I was growing up was to be able to wear a tallit, and extend it to kiss the Torah as it came around. I could not do either of those, of course, because women and girls had to sit upstairs, and played no part in the service at all, except to sit and talk to each other; and occasionally, to pray as well. Thankfully, halfway through college, I found my way to the Reform Movement, which by that time had embraced women’s equality head on. Nevertheless, when I first entered Rabbinic School, and went through the year in Israel with my class, I was reticent about putting on a tallit. It wasn’t particularly about being a woman, but more that I was conflicted about taking on some of the traditionalism I had intentionally left behind when I became a Reform Jew. I felt as though I had progressed too far, and putting on a tallit just didn’t feel right. In fact during my entire five years of study at HUC, I was one of the few “holdouts” in my class who never wore a tallit. Only on the day of my ordination did I wear an atarah—a tapered tallit—over my ordination robe. My mom had bought it for me, and I still wear it from time to time when I wear a robe. In fact I wore it just last week at an interfaith Pride service at a local church. All the time I have been at Union Temple, however, I have been completely comfortable with wrapping myself in the fringes, and by extension, in Jewish tradition. As my connection with Jewish women around the world, particularly in Israel, has broadened, I have come to love it. And as you probably have noticed, I am lucky enough to have built up an array of tallitot, all different, but all beautiful and meaningful in their own ways.
This of course brings us to what we might call the politics of the tallit. As you know, I am a member of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall—women of all denominations, feminists of all backgrounds, who assemble each month on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month, to pray together at the Kotel—the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Aside from women’s voices raised in prayer and in the reading of the Torah, perhaps the most identifying marker of Nashot Hakotel is the tallit. Women’s tallitot are generally smaller, and shaped a bit differently from men’s—for obvious reasons. And, they have taken on the broad array of colors of the spectrum, just as women can celebrate being different from one another, even as we come together in unity. There are several “official” tallitot of Nashot Hakotel, two of which I own and wear frequently during services.
In this spirit, I would remind the women of our congregation—and men as well—that the wearing of a tallit is a privilege for which we have had to fight for a very long time. I would never try to force it on anyone. Remember, as I said, I went all through Rabbinic School without one, even as most of my classmates donned them. But if you are at morning services at temple, every so often, try one on. It is a symbol of the embrace of our tradition. I have grown to love it. Perhaps you will as well.
Israeli artist Michal Gavrieli made this for me last summer in Israel. (See photo.) It was a gift from Steve upon my graduation as a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.