By Rabbi Alan Londy, D.Min., Rabbi of the New Reform Temple, Member of the Rabbinic Circle of the WUPJ
Progressive Judaism is one of the key elements for the vitality and survival of the Jewish people. It arose from a group of serious Jews who were concerned by the challenges of the modern world, the new freedoms that the Jews were experiencing in Western and Eastern Europe, and a desire to make Judaism palatable to Jews who were involved in the greater society. The innovations that came forth reflected their reading of Jewish history. The school of the “Science of Judaism” affirmed the evolutionary nature of Jewish tradition. Unlike traditional Judaism which saw Jewish life as fixed in time, Progressive Judaism saw Jewish life as evolutionary in nature. Depending on the intellectual, cultural, and historical realities of the time, Progressive Jewish leaders introduced innovations into synagogue worship, revised standards of personal piety, and theological modernization. Moreover, these Progressives Jews saw the non-Jewish world as a place for positive engagement. The end result was a Judaism capable of surviving in a free, open society where Jews wanted to retain their Judaism but live naturally in the general society.
As Progressive Judaism has evolved over time, I have become concerned about the lack of balance that exists in our approach to Judaism. We must balance inner tensions: tradition vs change; stability vs innovation, continuity and discontinuity, past and present, and halacha and choice. There are no ends or simple resolutions to these dichotomies. How do we live within these tensions? How do we find guideposts to enable us to balance the conflicting pulls within Progressive Judaism?
Parasha Shimini’s mysterious tale of the Death of Nadav and Avihu can perhaps guide us. The story is simple. The Parasha begins as a great celebration. Our previous portions closes with a description of the ceremony with which Moses initiated Aaron and his sons into their duties as Kohanim. The induction involves not only Aaron but also his sons.
On the 8th day, Aaron and his sons began their regular duties. We read that the sacrifices were offered meticulously with Aaron and his sons, Nadav and Avihu, intimately involved in the event.
But, then within the framework of structure, law, and meticulous ritual, a radical break takes place. “Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they offered before the Lord ‘alien fire’ which God had not enjoyed upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.”
Our sages have never come up with a definitive explanation of what happened. Some claim it was arrogance on their part. They were just puffed up with their own self-importance. Their sin was egotism. Others suggest their sin was excessive piety. They wanted to do more than asked to achieve a closeness to God. We even have suggestions that they were inebriated.
But, I find one interpretation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to be highly provocative and relevant:
Closeness and nearness to God can be attained only by being disciplined to His will.… We may understand the death of the sons of Aaron on the eighth day of their consecration as a warning to future generations of priests to avoid personal and subjective predilections and ordinances of their own invention in their approach to the service in the sanctuary, which belongs to God and is governed by His law and not by any newfangled innovations introduced into the order of the service. Only by observance of the precepts of the Torah can the priest of Israel remain true to his principles. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
Hirsch was a founder of modern Orthodoxy and was defending against Reform innovation which he saw as a threat to the Jewish future. Nevertheless, I believe that his warning is relevant for Progressive Judaism worldwide. We are a movement of tradition and change. We have made innovations in terms of scholarship, liturgy, music, inclusiveness, Zionism and outreach. We have literally refined the idea of the Messianic redemption to be make it something real in our everyday lives
If we apply Hirsch’s insights to our own situation, perhaps the story of Nadav and Avihu is not a story of arrogance, or disrespect. But, just the opposite, they were committed Jews. They were the next generation, who had a robust enthusiasm to bring their unique contribution to Judaism. Their intentions were noble but they did it spontaneously and not within the context of the structure of a deliberate and defined Jewish life. We Progressive Jews must live within a tension: we must show our unabiding love and knowledge of our traditional heritage and be open to creativity and innovation that enriches Judaism.
For our survival and relevance, we must balance these opposite forces. I do not want a Progressive Judaism that is so innovative that it loses its core connection to traditional Judaism and the needs for Jewish unity. On the other hand, I do not want to see a Progressive Judaism that is fearful to make necessary changes and innovations. This balancing act is the challenge of our entire World Union for Progressive Judaism. Trying to discern the will of God in this world was never meant to be to be easy. But, let us go forth and do our best. Shabbat Shalom