By Reverend Tom Capo
From the Babylonian Talmud, comes these words:
“In the hour when an individual is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, the person is asked: Did you conduct your [business] affairs honestly? Did you set aside regular time for Torah study? Did you work at having children? Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?”
Please note that “Did you believe in God?” and “Did you observe all the rituals?” are not considered as the first questions to be asked of a Jewish person when they are reunited with God, according to this Rabbinic text.
I titled this sermon Modern Judaism, but that is not an entirely accurate title. I am actually going to talk about Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism that all sects of the Jewish people recognize as their faith. What is Rabbinic Judaism? We will need to consider a little Jewish history to answer that question.
In the fourth year of his reign, around 833 BCE, the Jewish King Solomon found himself at peace with his neighbors and began the construction of the Temple, a place where the Jewish peoples could come to ground themselves in the practices and rituals of their faith. The site chosen by King David was the top of Mount Moriah, where Abraham had once proved his readiness to offer up his dearly beloved son in obedience to G d's command. The practices and rituals of the temple were led by Jewish priests. Now many of the Jewish people made regular pilgrimages to the Temple--the temple and the priests were in Jerusalem--but for most of the Jewish people that was a very long way to go. They needed people to teach the children Hebrew and to hold a recognition ceremony when a child became an adult, a Bar Mitzvah, and to help the Jewish people in the towns and villages remember, practice, and interpret the basic tenets of their faith, and those were the Rabbis. Rabbis were and are Jewish scholars, people trained in Jewish law, ritual, and tradition, discerning what is lawful in Judaism and performing Jewish ceremonies. It was during the first destruction of the Temple, when Israel was defeated and the Jewish people were exiled to Babylonia, that the role of the Rabbi increased in significance.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres on the willows in its midst. For there those who carried us away captive required of us a song; and those who tormented us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalms 137:1-6)
While the people of Israel grieved the loss of their country and their Temple, they still practiced their faith. The Rabbis, rather than the Temple or the priests, were called upon to ground the people in their faith. It is also believed by many scholars that during this exile the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, was written. This text contains commentaries and stories written by Rabbis to help the Jewish people interpret the Jewish Bible, its laws and traditions.
The story that Jo Linsley shared with us today is an allegoric Rabbinic story of the final sacking and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. The jewels are the tenets of the Jewish faith, G-d’s teachings. The Jewish people are the pigeons. The castle was the State of Israel or the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Tzvi Freeman writes of this story: “In our history, the pattern of destruction and exile has repeated itself many times. We began in exile, in the land of Egypt. Then there was the destruction of the first Holy Temple and exile to Babylonia, and then the second destruction and a very lengthy exile, which we still endure. There is no other nation that has been spread so far apart, yet retained identity as a single whole, always with hope to return. And all of it was part of G-d’s divine plan, to retrieve all the sparks of holiness. Which is what we did, because wherever we go, we use the materials, the foods, the music, the customs of that place in a Torah way.”
“But now has come the time for us to all return home” is how the story ends. This can mean the country of Israel; the spiritual home of the Jewish people has returned. Or it could mean that the Jewish people have created new homes for their faith wherever they live in community with one another. The latter meaning is closer to a Rabbinical vision of the Jewish faith. This tradition, with all its destructions and exiles, had to find a new home, a home wherever they were. The Jewish people carry their faith in their hearts and through their lives, not in a Temple or even in a country. Those externals are fragile and can be taken away. Only when a faith lives within the person and through the way they live their lives can it never be taken away.
Today, Rabbis are called by congregations to be their teachers, to teach Hebrew, to celebrate life’s transitions, to lead worship, to interpret the various holy books of their faith—the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible), the Talmud (Rabbinic writings from 200 CE and 500 CE), the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), the Mishneh Torah (Rabbi Maimonides’ understanding of the code of Jewish Law), the Zohar (a mystical Midrash—a Midrash is a book of homiletic stories told by Jewish rabbinic sages to explain passages in the Tanakh) and other prayer books and written theologies.
In many ways for the Jewish people, revelation is not sealed. With the Rabbinic tradition, the scholarly approach to their faith, a rational exploration of their faith, the Jewish people deeply examine the writings of their holy books, the foundation of which is the Torah—what we might know as the first five books of the Christian Holy Bible. Bereshit, which literally means "In the beginning", is known to Christians as “Genesis”; Shemot, which literally means "Names", is known to Christians “Exodus”; Vayikra, which literally "And He called", the book of Leviticus; Bəmidbar, which literally "In the desert [of]", the book of Numbers; and Devarim, which literally "Things" or "Words", is known to Christians as the book of Deuteronomy.
Remember the questions at the beginning of the sermon: Did you conduct your [business] affairs honestly? Did you set aside regular time for Torah study? Did you work at having children? Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?” According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, these questions “unequivocally assert that ethics is at Judaism’s core; god’s first concern is with a person’s decency…The second question concerns Torah study, for Judaism teaches that through studying the Torah, a person learns how to be fully moral, and how to be a part of the Jewish people…third comes having children…Rabbi Irving Greenberg notes that raising a family fulfills the “covenantal obligation to pass on the dream and work of perfecting the world for another generation.”…fourth is hoping for and working toward this very perfection…Jews are part of a people and a broader world, and Judaism imposes on the Jewish people the obligation to help bring about the repair (or perfection) of the world…Rabbi Tarfon teaches “It is not your obligation to complete the task [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist [from doing all you can]” When a Jewish child is born, this prayer is offered:
May the parents rear this child to adulthood imbued with love of Torah and the performance of good deeds, and may they escort him/her to the wedding canopy.
In the practice the Jewish faith, at least from my impressions and exposure, there is a strong emphasis on working for justice and equity in our society. I have spent time with Rabbis in Iowa and in Texas working for GLBT rights, Women’s reproductive rights, stopping the death penalty, and many other issues. My friend, Rabbi Todd Thalblum, who is serving Temple Judah in Cedar Rapids, spoke side by side with me before the media and other groups on marital equality; and Rabbi Aaron Sherman, worked tirelessly with myself and other interfaith leaders to create civil, respectful, healing dialogue with the Imams in Cedar Rapids, especially when there was escalation in the Middle East. It is written in the Tanakh book of Jeremiah:
Thus said the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory; In his earnest devotion to Me. For I the Lord act with kindness, justice and equity in the world; For in these I delight.
I have not met a Rabbi or a Jewish person who “glories” in their work to make this world a better, kinder, more just and equitable place. They do this work steadily and without need for acclaim or reward. And perhaps that is the best way to practice one’s faith: do good works without anyone knowing.
There is one more principle that you might not know about the Jewish people that I would like to share with you. This is from the Ethics of Fathers, is a treatise of the Mishna—one of the Jewish holy canonical scriptures-- that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships.
The world endures because of three activities: Torah study, worship of God, and deeds of loving kindness.
What has kept the Jewish religion vital, even with all its exiles, its diasporas? And I don’t mean to say that an exile is an entirely bad thing, it can be uncomfortable, even painful, but the reality is we all experience them, in one form or fashion, at one time or another, in our lives or another. These are times when we are separated from what we consider our normal, routine, when life changes in some significant way, or in a way that feels significant. These routines provide time for us to reflect, contemplate, consider direction, meaning, and purpose in our lives, for these will change as we grow and we learn and as we experience the world. And the Jewish people have not only lived these exiles in their history, they have ritualized them in their worship and traditions. This has helped their religion remain vital.
In addition, what has kept the Jewish people vital is their consistency in the practice of their faith. They are consistent in living an ethical lifestyle, consistent in using their heart and mind to deeply study their religion, and consistent in reflecting on and trying to improve the effect of their lives on the world. And since Unitarian Universalist roots are Judeo-Christian, we share this heritage of consistency in the practice of our faith. How we live Unitarian Universalism will be different from how the Jews live Judaism, but do we not also consistently affirm study, worship, and lovingkindness? Should we not also live these with consistency?
Judaism’s rational scholarly approach to faith, the Jewish people’s justice work are qualities that Unitarian Universalists not only relate to, but prize in their own lives and their own faith walk. If you have not attended a service at synagogue, I would encourage you to do so. If you have not attended one of our church’s Jewish Heritage events here, I would encourage you to do so. Let yourself experience another faith which shares some of our values, but walks them in a different way than we do.
One final story from 3rd century Rabbinic writing:
A mortal king…had two servants whom he loved with perfect love. To one he gave a measure of wheat, and to the other he gave a measure of wheat; to one he gave a bundle of flax, and to the other he gave a bundle of flax. What did the clever one of the two do? He took the wheat and made it into fine flour by sifting the grain and grinding it. Then he kneaded the dough and baked it, set the loaf of bread on the table, spread the napkin over the bread, and left it to wait the coming of the king. But the foolish one of the two did nothing at all. After a while the king came into his house and said to his two servants: my sons bring me what I gave you. One brought out the table with the loaf of bread baked of fine flour on it and with the napkin spread over the bread. The other brought out his wheat in a basket with a bundle of flax over the wheat grains. What a shame! So, too, when the Holy One gave the Torah to Israel, God gave it as wheat to be turned into fine flour and as flax to be turned into cloth for garments.
Many of the Jewish people, at least those I have met, work to turn what they have been given, their lives and their faith, into something of substance in this world. This is what they have been taught to do, yes, but it is what they have also chosen to do. We too, as Unitarian Universalists, have been given much, a rich history, our Principles and Purposes statement, our beloved communities of openness and exploration; these are our wheat and flax. What will we do with this wheat and flax we have been given? How will we consistently live out the faith in our heart of hearts in this world and in our community? How will we study our faith, history, religion? How will we internalize our faith, so that whatever happens in the world, our faith will be preserved? May these questions be on our hearts and in our minds, and may we seek and find the answers that will preserve our faith.