Torah from around the world #102

by Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Senior Rabbi,

Temple Emanu-El

of Tucson, Arizona, USA, and host, “The Too Jewish Radio Show with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends”

The great 60’s comedian, Alan Sherman wrote a book about restrictions on human behavior. He decided to invent a new religion, which would have only one commandment: “Thou shalt not stuff 37 tennis balls down the toilet.” In great excitement he went to a sign painter to create the tablet of this new covenant, and asked him to make up a huge sign with it. But the sign painter refused.

“Friend,” he said, “I’m going to do you a big favor. I’m


going to paint your sign. Because if I paint it, the day after the sign goes up, there will be a run on sporting goods stores. Tennis balls will sell like hotcakes, and plumbers will work round the clock. The virtuous will only stuff 36 tennis balls down their toilets. Normal sinners will stuff 37 tennis balls. And the truly wicked will stuff 38 tennis balls. Friend, we human beings are many things; but we all of us are perverse.”

As we approach the Torah portion of Mishpatim, we do well to remember that. The last few weeks we have seen magnificent Torah portions. But after B’shalach’s great song of freedom, after the majesty of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, after the greatest events in the history of our people, we thump down to earth with a Torah portion full of laws, restrictions, norms and standards. In short – rules; and we just don’t like rules.



like unabridged freedom. We Progressive Jews believe in freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of choice, freedom of and in every particular of our decision-making. We choose our own course in life, and vigorously resist anyone who tries to curtail our liberties. Nobody tells us what to think, or how to act.  A universal covenant code? Antique laws of an ancient autocratic god?

Al achat kama v’chama

, how much less will we like those! We refuse to be tied up by rules, because they bind us in like the


we don’t wear.

And we have good reason to dislike rules. As Progressive Jews, we are not marionettes controlled by a heavenly puppeteer; we are free actors in the magnificent improvisation of life. Religion can encourage social action, but it has no right to control social



So what to make of Mishpatim? The first part is the famous book of the covenant, a listing of the laws that the people were supposed to observe. These are person-to-person laws,


, that affect our everyday, human interactions. According to some authorities these are so basic they would exist even without the Torah.

A bunch of rules, and, again, most Progressive Jews – indeed, most people –

don’t like rules


But the fact is that whether or not we


rules, we seem to


rules. In our daily lives we abide by all kinds of rules. We drive our cars according to the


of the motor vehicle department. We pay taxes at the command of the tax code. We use forks, spoons and knives

al pi

Emily Post. We listen to music from the Torah of itunes, and have our social conduct governed by laws as intricate as any Halachic framework—send a thank-you note, call your mother, reply to emails, text back, don’t wear jeans to services. Our cherished illusion of unbounded freedom in our daily lives is really just that: an illusion.

But when it comes to religion it’s a different matter. We are truly free, right?

Well, not really.  It’s actually just a different choice. We have the freedom to choose for ourselves


we will serve and which laws, rules, and ideas will be the boundaries for our lives.

It’s no accident that our


begins with the laws of servitude, the Hebrew indentured servant, the eved


. For the Israelites, “freedom” didn’t mean the absence of control; it meant a free-will choice between serving God and serving Pharaoh. In Bob Dylan’s immortal words, “you got to serve somebody.”  We too, exist in a context. Our choice is whether to blindly accept society’s norms, or choose our own, Jewish path. Do we adopt the cultural code of cool conduct, or do we engage our tradition actively – including all of those


rules, those



There is an intriguing parallel to game theory: you can’t play a game if you don’t accept that game’s basic rules. You can’t play soccer without goals; you can’t play American football without downs; you can’t play chess if pawns can jump. As Progressive Jews – Reform, Liberal, and so on – each of us has the personal power to decide what the rules are going to be for this crucial game of Judaism.

So how exactly do we make these decisions about our religious life? What


do we choose to observe, and why?

Orthodoxy has always held up a model from our very own Torah portion:

na ‘aseh v’nishma

, we will do the commandments and then we will hear them. Reform Judaism in the past has said, ”


— we will hear; and


we’ll see.”  Some of us engage the tradition actively, with knowledge, insight, and the commitment of

kabbalat ol malchut shamayim b’ahavah

, receiving the yoke of the kingdom of heaven with love. But many of us think we are being good Progressive Jews when we choose

lo nishma v’lo na’aseh

, and neither learn nor act, a sub-minimalist Judaism that jumps completely off the game board.

You will hear it said that being a good Jew means being a good person. This confuses a 3500-year old tradition with the Boy Scouts. Judaism is a particular, magnificently moral religious tradition. Our own ability to engage it, to work at our Jewish identity, is what defines whether we will be Jews who make a difference, who carry on our faith for our children, or Jews who allow it to slip away.

My grandfather, Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon, was one of the great ideologues of classical Reform Judaism. Over fifty years ago he said: “a religion that does not seek to lead and to correct, that asks for nothing, that is soft and yielding, that is all things to all people, is in reality nothing to anybody in particular and of doubtful value to mankind.” To paraphrase Hillel, if we have no standards, what



Flexibility is not fluidity; to be flexible you must first have shape. It is our individual job to define that shape, and the way we use these


can guide us.

If we wish to be truly Progressive, for our commitments to stand for something meaningful, then we must begin to put together our own ethical world, and we can only do it one practical little


at a time. Paradoxically, perhaps, that is where we will find our true freedom. To quote poet Adrienne Rich:

“Freedom. It isn’t once to walk out

under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers

of light, the fields of dark –

freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine

remembering. Putting together, inch by inch

the starry worlds, from all the lost collections.”

It is ultimately through recovering these


that we will come, inch by inch, to make this world a practical reflection of God’s desire for justice, peace, and holiness.

Recent Issues

More About: