A sermon written for Shabbat Chukat, June 30, 2017.
I’ve been watching the TV show Genius on National Geographic. This ten-episode mini-series dramatically chronicles the life and times of one of the most famous Jewish scientists, Albert Einstein. One of its themes is the fact that Albert does not like to follow rules. From his childhood daydreaming through class, to setting out on a life path that his parents disapproved of, to questioning authority, Albert is unconventional. Driven by curiosity, he lets his imagination guide him. For Albert, just because something has always been a certain way, does not mean that he cannot approach it differently; rules just get in the way. While his family and teachers insist on living according to the way things are, Albert insists on studying the universe by seeing its potential, what it can be.
This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, contains a pretty nonsensical rule, even to someone who is not Einstein: the law about the parah adumah, the red heifer. The Torah says that in order to purify a person who has become ritually contaminated, the children of Israel must bring a cow that is red in color, that has never done any work, and engage in an elaborate process using its ashes. This rule has become a symbol of an instruction that makes absolutely no sense. It is cited as an example of a biblical law for which there is no apparent logic. Why a red, unblemished cow? Why this process? What does this all mean?
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz writes that laws that don’t seem to have any rational explanation, like the one about the red heifer, remind us that it is a big, mysterious world out there. We may be comfortable in our routines, following the rules in our lives, but then along comes a mysterious commandment about a colored cow to throw us off track. Just when we think we know what’s ahead, something completely unexpected appears and surprises us.
A contemporary nonsensical red heifer that continues to surface in our time are the rules surrounding the Kotel, the Western Wall. This holy place in Jerusalem has become a symbol of Judaism, yet many are divided on exactly how the space should be used. Following traditional rules stating that men and women should be segregated by gender when they pray, it has historically been divided to suit the needs of a specific Orthodox population. Women recently gained the right to wear kippot and tallitot in their section, and are still not free to read from the Torah. There is a small, egalitarian prayer space, but it is not directly accessible from the Kotel itself.
In January 2016, after three years of negotiations among parties from across the denominations, the Israeli government came to a compromise to create a larger, permanent and more accessible egalitarian section at the Wall. This would allow Jews from all backgrounds to pray together with their loved ones and communities, regardless of gender. However, just last week, after over a year of failing to implement this compromise, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced a suspension of this agreement. While many across the spectrum, especially American Jewish leaders, had hailed the compromise as a big step forward for the Jewish people, the ultra-Orthodox Haredi parties in power in Israel ultimately prevented it from moving forward.
The segregation of the Kotel seems like the ultimate red heifer, an ancient rule that makes very little sense to most people and continues to frustrate those who strive for Jewish unity and equality. At this point, though many Israeli and American leaders have written articles and made statements, it is unclear what will happen. Some have called for their constituents to distance themselves from Israel, others have demanded to put this issue before the Israeli Supreme Court, and most have asserted that this will cause further chasms between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.
This recent setback on the road to unity reminds us that just when we think we’ve made a compromise, and are prepared for what lies ahead, the world does not always work in a way that makes sense. As a female, a future Reform Rabbi, and a Zionist, I have worked to share my love of Israel with my classmates and peers, and advocate that every Jew in the Diaspora should have a strong relationship with it. The Kotel is symbolic. While the place is holy, the message behind the government’s recent actions is even more significant. By preventing the compromise, Israeli authorities are showing progressive Jews that we are not equals in our own homeland. They are telling us that the status quo is perfectly acceptable, that we do not deserve to be able to pray all together, and that our Judaism is not legitimate enough to deserve a place at a sacred site.
As Reform Jews, we are like Einstein. We appreciate what came before us, yet strive to live in our own ways in our own time. We see values in the rules of our tradition, yet do not feel bound by them. This means that we have the sacred and difficult task of figuring out which rules we should live by. Many of these rules are handed down to us by previous generations. We may not always know why we continue to attend High Holiday services, or use the special plates once a year at Passover, or recite certain prayers, but we continue to do so, because it gives us meaning.
Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, emphasized the idea that while tradition is informative, it does not have to be definitive. Kaplan wrote that “the past has a vote, not a veto. Innovation need not entail the destruction of tradition; on the contrary, change is an important part of keeping tradition alive, as it has been throughout Jewish history.” The founders of Reform Judaism, too, strived to be both contemporary citizens and carriers of tradition. They posed fundamental questions that we still ask today: what does it mean to be Jewish in the modern world? How do we move forward while preserving our tradition? What rules are we supposed to keep? As we move through life, we retain what brings comfort to us, do our best to find stability in our own time, and strive to maintain similar systems for future generations. The nonsensical red heifers that appear along the way continue to remind us of the grandeur and mystery of the world in which we live.
There are more traditional Jews, too who recognize that, as Mordechai Kaplan said, change is an essential part of keeping tradition alive. In response to the Kotel decision, a group of American Orthodox Rabbis published a “Call for a Truly Pluralistic Israel.” They wrote, “we stand fully as allies with our sisters and brothers throughout the entire Jewish community in support of pluralism in America and Israel. We were disheartened to read that the Israeli government has rescinded its commitment to create a space for alternative and liberal groups to pray at the Western Wall… Imposing one narrow version of Orthodox Judaism as the official standard for prayer in Israel harms the unity of the Jewish people and it harms support for Israel in America. We encourage all Modern Orthodox Jews to publicly support freedom for multiple religious approaches to Jewish life.”
In the midst of my despair about the Kotel compromise, this article reminded me to remember to be open to the wonder in the world. I thought that all Orthodox Jews would be happy with the traditional rules that were in place. This call from Rabbis at a different part of the denominational spectrum encouraged me to ponder not what I think I know about the world, but what can be. Failure to compromise is a serious setback, but despite the current reality, many denominations and Israeli political figures are now even more motivated to work together and demonstrate support for one another. It is more important now than ever to work towards the Israel that we want to see, by imagining what can be.
Our big mysterious world full of red heifers prompts us to keep an open mind- to use the familiar to give our lives meaning, but also to remember that rules can be broken. Albert Einstein’s curiosity and wonder prompted him to see that while the rules mattered, there was more to explore. Sometimes this got him into trouble, and sometimes it helped him to discover and create revolutionary science. Einstein was a genius because he constantly questioned the status quo. Instead of asking why things were the way they were, he asked “why not.” Why not continue to explore what we think we know, in order to find out more about the universe? Why not combine the rules of our past and the rules that we set for ourselves to inform our present and future in new ways?
Most of us don’t know too much about physics or the theory of relativity. But we can use our curiosity to aid us in navigating the rules, both the ones that make sense and the ones that don’t. Like Einstein, we can ask why not. Why not continue the traditions that have been passed down to us? Why not push ourselves to learn from different perspectives? Why not do our best to stay open to the red heifers that come our way, and try to learn from them, even if they aren’t completely logical? In the face of whatever comes our way, may we push ourselves to stay open to possibility, to use our curiosity, to learn from and then question the rules. Why not?