A False Dichotomy

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

A False Dichotomy?

We Reform Jews pride ourselves on our ethics; so much so, in fact, that one of the founding documents of the American Reform movement, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform stated:

We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

To sum up: the Classical Reform position has been – not without controversy – to dismiss ritual law over the centrality of ethical law. 

Reform Judaism calls us to constantly re-evaluate our relationship with our sacred sources and how we interpret and practice them.  Hence, it is little surprise that in practice, a great deal has changed between 1885 and 2017. Once upon a time, organs and responsive readings in the vernacular were commonplace and tallitot and kippot were frowned upon. Nowadays, under the sweep of so-called ‘neo-traditionalism’ – of which I confess to be a supporter – ritual is back. 
When I spent a few days at the Rabbinic Conference last week, this divide between the more classical approach and the more traditional approach became apparent during morning prayers: most of my more senior colleagues do not wear tefillin during weekday Shacharit; while us ‘young ones’ often do.

The discussion in Reform contexts between ‘ethics’ and ‘ritual’ doesn’t end here. Recently, I had a really good conversation with my Makpetzah students about keeping kosher. All of my students agreed that keeping kosher, to some degree, was important to them even though it was hard to pin down why. We reflected on it: did it makes us feel ‘more Jewish’? Did it encourage us to think about our food intake and the ethics of modern meat consumption? Did it cause us to relate differently to our bodies and ourselves? Answers ran the gamut but there was consensus on one thing: no matter how you practice, it somehow felt… important. One of the most salient questions that came up was exploring the reasons for the prohibition on mixing meat and dairy. What started off as noting an arcane and obscure commandment in the Torah (‘you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’, Exodus chapters 23 and 34, Deuteronomy chapter 14) became an incredibly meaningful conversation about life and death, about mothers feeding their babies and respecting the innate emotional bond between a parent and child, even of non-human mammals. It segued into concerns about eating meat, and animal rights. In short, a ritual law that seemed out-dated and superfluous gained new a new lease on life.

So, if we go back to the Pittsburgh Platform today, which asserts “…that all such… laws as regulate diet, priestly purity… fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness” – then what would our response be? To be sure, the Reformers’ instincts were right: pledging fealty to meaningless minutiae of incomprehensible rituals seems hollow at best and a denial of Judaism’s noble spirit at worst. But is that really how ritual works? 

The Book of Leviticus is not only concerned with ritual, contrary to popular belief. On the contrary: this week’s portion takes us deep into the heart of the Torah as we read the Holiness Code (chapter 19), Parashat Kedoshim. Chapter 19 contains a tapestry of Jewish concern: the ritual warp and the ethical weft. In this sense, I take issue with the early Reformers: setting up a dichotomy between the ritual and the ethical aspects of the Law is a false dichotomy. Judaism – even Reform Judaism – relies on us having an intelligent, critical and authentic relationship with both. 

However we define our relationship to Halakha (Jewish Law) and observance, both as a Progressive community and as individual members of that community, ritual has its place. This doesn’t necessarily mean we affirm Orthodox notions of obligation and taboo, of reward and punishment. I abide by the notion that an intelligent, thoughtful and committed Reform Jew can choose to jettison ritual for philosophically compelling reasons. 
But the reverse is also true: an intelligent, thoughtful and committed Reform Jew can also choose to embrace ritual. Ritual is about much more than cultic taboos and societal boundaries: it’s about discipline, comfort, history and community. It can be about those quietly, privately transformative moments where it provides us with a deep sense of peace and belonging that rationalism often eludes. 

We could delve into the many instances of this double Parashah looking at where the ritual and ethical intersect and reinforce each other, but the most compelling example is actually at the start of the portion. The Parashah is called ‘Acharei Mot’, ‘after the death’, because it deals with the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Torah tells us: 

Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe, acharei mot sh’nei b’nei Aharon, b’karbatam lifnei Adonai vayamutu… B’zot yavo Aharon el haKodesh: befar ben bakar lachatat v’ayil l’olah.  Ketonet bad kodesh yilbash…’ – ‘And the Eternal spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who drew close to the Eternal and died. And so Aaron will come into the Holy Place, with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen tunic…’ (Lev. 16:1-4)

What is evident from this passage is how ritual provides comfort, meaning and structure. Aaron is in deep mourning and we can imagine how desolate he must feel. 
Yet, like the mourner coming out of shivah, he is encouraged to resume his life and come to terms with his trauma. He is commanded to bring an offering and gird his loins literally in sacred, priestly garb. The laws that follow detail the Yom Kippur offering; undoubtedly the most emotionally-charged of all rituals for both the High Priest and the congregation. 

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim calls us to be holy. If anything, holiness is the fulcrum between the ethical and the ritual, a vocation to lead a measured, disciplined, meaningful and joyous life. However we relate to ritual – at our Shabbat table, through life-cycle transitions or the way we frame the intimate moments in our lives through personal ritual, the transformative power of these is not to be discounted, not even for a Reform Jew who seeks to meet the highest ethical standards of our tradition. 
“Ritual is a way of giving voice to ultimate values,” Ismar Schorsch, a well-known rabbinic scholar wrote, “Each of us needs a sense of holiness to navigate the relentless secularity of our lives.” May we find guidance and comfort therein for many years to come.

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