Torah from around the world #27

By Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director of the

Anita Saltz International Education Center

, The World Union for Progressive Judaism, Jerusalem

So I just cannot let this go… this whole Chelsea Clinton Wedding thing… and I think this goes way beyond my obsession with the Clinton Dynasty (although I am still having a hard time letting go of the 90s). And even if my kids will tell you that I have a “man crush” on Bill Clinton, that may be true, but that is beside the point. Here I am in Jerusalem on

Rosh Hodesh Elul

, the first day of the Hebrew month of




is a great month that comes right after the last part of the Hebrew month known as

Menachem Av

, which means the comforting month of


. This is a time in the Hebrew calendar where people are on vacation and finally there are no more days when we need to remember the traumatic events of our past but can actually relax.

The Hebrew month of


is said to be the acronym for ”

ani le dodi veh dodi li

” “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine”, a beautiful time for Jewish brides and grooms to stand under the Chuppah (wedding canopy). But what can I tell you, as we leave the relaxing part of the Hebrew month of

Menachem Av

, this rabbi is not relaxed. Physically my body may be in Jerusalem but my soul is floating over Rhinebeck, NY, trying to get a handle on where the Jewish people are going.

Once again this week’s Torah portion


gives us some very particular rules and restrictions about how we Jews need to behave. Of course one of the most famous phrases is Chapter 16:20 “Justice, Justice shall you pursue…”  Reform Jews love this phrase as it reflects our own passion for social justice, and is one of the pillars of Reform Judaism. Of course we are less excited by the instructions given in Chapter 20 towards the end of this Torah portion. While discussing how to deal with our enemies we are told that when it comes to cities far away, our non-Jewish enemies are allowed to surrender. However when dealing with the non-Jews living within in the land of Israel – meaning the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and of course my favorite the Jebusites (because I live in Jerusalem) – we see that we are far from being a “kinder gentler nation.”

In chapter 20:16-17 we read, “You shall not let a soul remain alive, you must proscribe them.” Now the good news here is that we are a rabbinic religion and not a Biblical religion. We know that this type of murderous behavior is no longer an acceptable practice among our People (at least I hope not… don’t get me started). In his work

Sefer Ha’Mitzvot

, the 12th century rabbi, philosopher and physician Maimonides teaches us that this mitzvah (number 187) was fully completed by King David, who killed the remaining members of these nations besides for a few who scattered and were absorbed into other nations. So lucky for us there are no more Hittites, Amorites and or Canaanites (although I do often wonder about a number of my next door neighbors, but that is another story).

One thing that we Jews understand from reading the Hebrew Bible, the Mishneh, the Gemarah, Rabbinic Codes and the Midrash is that times change! This is one of the hallmarks of Reform Judaism. In our openness and flexibility we have accepted and figured out how to adapt to modernity. Our approach has always been the antithetical approach to the one taken by Rabbi Moses Sofer (the Chatam Sofer 1762–1869) the Hungarian rabbi who saw the Enlightenment coming, panicked and issued the famous decree, ”

Hadash asur min ha’Torah

,” “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah.” This is an approach that we are still paying for today. According to the Chatam Sofer the rules and tenets of Judaism never changed – and cannot ever change. But as we see from this week’s Torah portion, thank God, our people had an evolutionary experience with understanding what God wants from us. As we know 1000 BCE ethics are not necessarily 21st century ethics.

Reform Jews have always been intellectually honest enough to express when we see a contradiction between Biblical commandments and our own sense of ethics. We know with regard to Homosexuality that it says in Leviticus 18:22 “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is abhorrence”; however, we are in a very different place than our ancestors. Regardless of what this commandment says, we no longer see it as binding but rather as hurtful and therefore we feel commanded to openly embrace and support our Gay bothers and sisters. As I learned from my teacher Dr. Eugene Borowitz, we Jews were given Mitzvoth (commandments) not ethics; ethics are a Greek concept and unfortunately mitzvoth and ethics don’t always go together.  .

Even in my own family I see how over three generations our sense of that first line of the Amida prayer “

eloeihinu ve’ elohei avoteinu

”  “God and God of our fathers” has changed radically with each generation. From my Chassidic ancestors in Probuzhna (that’s Galitzia for all of you Litvaks) through my suburban Long Island parents to my family in Jerusalem, both Jewishly and theologically we have undergone transformation after transformation (although remarkably we are more or less still the same height). However lately it feels like things are starting to change faster than I can keep up with at this point.

I can remember when the 1990 Jewish Population survey from the United Jewish Communities came out and the panic that ensued. This was great for me as a Hillel director on the college campus because everyone started investing major funding in Hillel. Many invested with the hope that Hillel would ensure that young Jewish people would find each other, get married and create more Jewish people. But as we found out:  it doesn’t work like that. We also discovered that if our only agenda was to have Jews marry Jews, we were missing the mark completely. While working as a young Hillel rabbi on the university campus I always wondered how nervous parents actually expected me to foil their children from dating non-Jews. Was I supposed to kick in a dorm room and yell, “Drop that Irish Catholic girl, that’s right, I am a Hillel rabbi, come with me lassie.” What I learned from my teacher Michael Brooks is that the goal is not to get young people to make sure they married someone with a Jewish mother so we could continue to have halachically Jewish children. The goal is to build a culture that is so compelling and so irresistible that that there would never be a question of not wanting to be part of this people.

And this brings me back to Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. It seems that the message that the wedding sent was a very powerful American/liberal western one. You do not have to choose one culture over another. You can be both! The Chelsea Clinton wedding had a chuppah, a ketubah, the groom Marc Mezvinsky wore a kippah and a talis, and a Reform rabbi performed the wedding. However, the rabbi performed the wedding with a Protestant Minister, the bride wasn’t Jewish and it took place on Shabbat.

Many Jews outside of Israel live in open pluralistic societies that are not Jewish. Open pluralistic societies are a good thing as far as I know. And it seems that as long we Jews live in these societies and are a significant minority, we will continue to meet, fall in love and marry people who are not Jewish. I learned long ago that wringing our hands is a complete waste of time. The key is to teach great Torah and build communities of meaning. But this wedding threw me for a loop because the message here was why be “Jewish” when you can be “Jew-ish,” as in sort of Jewish. When I saw Rabbi Jim Ponet under that Chuppah, I wasn’t judging as much as I was feeling like Tevyeh the milkman from the Sholom Aleichem story, “how much can I bend, before I will break?”

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