Friday, May 24, 2013

Don't ever change. But, what, exactly?

In this week's Torah portion, the priests are given instructions as to how to light the menorah (the lamp) in the Tent of Meeting. Then, we are told that, "Aaron did it thusly." (Numbers 8:3). Rashi, the great medieval commentator, teaches that the Torah includes these words as a praise of Aaron — praise, because he didn't make any changes to the instructions.

The Hasidic teacher Sha'arit Menachem teaches that this is great praise, indeed, for a priest. Or, for that matter, for a teacher or a leader. Their job, he teaches, is to not change what their teachers taught them. That way, their students will know that they can trust what they're learning — after all, this teaching goes back a long way, so it must be good!

I'll admit, it's not a teaching I love. I mean, I have plenty of respect for my teachers, but I don't particularly hold to a slavish devotion to their exact words. And, in a larger sense, I certainly don't believe in a lack of change — Reform Jews proudly accept the right to change teachings, and laws, from the past. The past has a power, of course. The past must be respected, and we must learn from it. But, "never change?" I can't buy into that.

Neither, it seems, could another great Hasidic teacher — Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, also known as the Kotzker Rebbe. His reaction to that line from Numbers, and to Rashi's teaching, is quite different. The Kotzker teaches that Aaron's great merit had nothing to do with externals — nothing to do with the procedure by which he lit the lamp. Instead, it was about not changing the fundamentals — what was happening within, in his heart. Everything great and worthy, he teaches, is hidden deep within the heart. It can't be seen on the outside.

I needed that teaching right now, so I'm glad I happened upon it. Because, just before I read it, I was reading an article in The Forward. You see, a rabbi recently wrote another article expressing the belief that the Reform rabbinical school should admit intermarried people into the rabbinical program, and should ordain intermarried rabbis. There's been a lot of these arguments and articles going around, and it's a complicated issue, so I'll stay away from it, at least for the moment.

But, the article I was reading was a reaction to that article, arguing that it was a slippery slope leading, unavoidably, to the ordination of non-Jewish rabbis. Or, at the very least, that was the logical conclusion of this kind of policy change, even if it would never happen in pratice. Non Jewish Rabbis or hypocracy, more or less. Whatever you, or I, think about the idea of intermarried rabbis, I'd argue that this slippery slope argument is pretty weak.

But, what really got to me were the comments*. Buried among the few rational arguments, the rambling, the ad hominem attacks and such were the predictable anti-Reform screeds. Reform Judaism isn't real. Reform Jews don't care. And so on.

* Really. You think I'd know better. Nothing good happens in the comment section.

It's probably good that I don't have much time right now, so I have to finish up this posting as soon as possible. I can ramble on this topic for quite a while at the moment, given the opportunity. But, let me just say this -- it never ceases to amaze me how much people think they can infer about someone's religiosity based on their external's. Or, on their willingness to change those externals.

You can see if, and how, I choose to keep kosher. You can see whether I wear a kippah and a tallit. You can see a lot of things about how I practice my religion.

You can't see a single thing that really matters.

No comments: