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Judaism, the Questioning Faith

One of the greatest gifts our community has given us over the millennia of Jewish thought is the esteem of the question mark. Surely the foundation of the Jewish tradition is the question mark. Laid on top of that, brick-by-brick, we have built a tradition of debate, which serves as the structure around which we live our Jewish lives.

When we look at the nature of those Jewish debates, we can see two factors at play: the subject matter itself and the underlying principles, which help to define the different perspectives on that matter. In the great debates of our tradition, going back to Biblical times, many have to do with calculations of our Hebrew calendar. Simultaneously in these arguments, our Sages take sides on the root principles at play.

Consider, for example, the opening passage of Mishnah B’rachot, where the Rabbis ask, “At what time can one say the Sh’ma in the evening?” The subject matter itself is about when one should say his evening prayers. Underneath that, though, the rabbis are debating a philosophy on the calendar. By what measure should we consider a day? Some measure time by the natural cycle of day. One can say the evening Sh’ma until twilight. Others measure the time by a ritual schedule, by marking the priests’ activities at the Temple. While about counting, this was also a debate about authority. The essential question is this: Where and with whom does the authority around our ritual schedule lie? Is it to be defined by the natural order of day and night, or does a society have the authority to create its own signifiers of time?

The Jewish community continued to contend over the calendar into the early 10th Century. Rabbi Aaron ben Meir was the head of the leading yeshiva in the Land of Israel. He saw the Land of Israel as the seat of authority for all scheduling matters. He declared that the Hebrew months of Heshvan and Kislev in the Hebrew year 4682 (921 C.E. by secular counting) should only have 29 days, thereby postponing Rosh Hashanah and Passover for a variety of reasons. Rav Saadia Gaon, who headed one of the great yeshivot of Babylonia, contended with ben Meir. Saadia argued that these two months should be counted a full 30 days. They contended over the subject matter, but what was at stake was bigger than the calendar itself. Ben Meir and Saadia were debating over the principle of authority. Who could influence Jewish time—the schools in the Land of Israel or in Babylonia?

Fast forward to today, and similar debates continue. Last year, a discussion took place among Reform rabbis. Last year leap year on the Hebrew calendar, and with the reform observance of only on day of chag, we would find ourselves out of sync with the rest of the Jewish community in our cycle of Torah reading. What should we do? Should we maintain the principle of Klal Yisrael and adjust our Torah readings to remain in sync with the rest of the Jewish community, or should we stay in our flow? At Hevreh, we remained in sync with the broader community. The principle of Klal Yisrael outweighed other factors, showing the way on that particular subject matter.

In the Jewish tradition, how we calculate the calendar continues to matter, and it remains a platform for debates on principles and values. In these immediate months, from Passover to Shavuot, we count days, known as the Counting of the Omer. We are instructed in Leviticus to “count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days” (23:15–16). Matching the agricultural cycle in the Land of Israel, this counting corresponds to the time in which the first sheaf of the barley harvest was brought to the priest. That is one principle at play as to why we count the Omer, to correspond to the harvest season. Spiritually, this period of the Omer has meaning as well. “The mitzvah can be seen as a means of linking Pesach, the season of our liberation, to its ultimate fulfillment in Shavuot, the season of the giving of Torah. There is no ‘freedom’, in other words, without Torah, without a system of meaning to be found in Jewish life and existence,” writes Rabbi Mark Washofsky in his book Jewish Living.

These spiritual principles of liberation and law can be seen in a different debate that has emerged over the the last several months in our own nation. American policies toward the immigrant and the refugee, and the debates around those policies, call us to consider the relationship between the value of freedom and the value of law in our society. Counting the Omer from Passover to Shavuot is an invitation to consider those concepts spiritually; namely, what does it mean to both celebrate our personal liberties while recognizing the importance of upholding laws required in a just and civil society?

Reflecting on this question is not just a matter of civic value, this is a spiritual matter, too. In the Jewish tradition, from generation to generation, we have debated how to count, when to count, where to count, and who can count. And the meaning of the counting points to larger significance for how to live Jewishly and mindfully. Like all the other great debates in the Jewish tradition, we can put our finger on a heart-beating pulse of greater meaning. And by placing it beside other debates that take place in our civic life, the Counting of the Omer invites the consideration, spiritually, of the dynamic flow between liberty and law.

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