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.