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The Powerful Question mark

Parashat K'doshim 5784

 

I have been paying attention to the calendar a lot lately. Every year after Passover, I find it is a mad dash through May and June, to Shavuot and the busyness of summer in the Berkshires. The seniors in this year's Confirmation Class are all sharing where they are heading to college next year. They are going to new student weekends, dressing up for prom, and sending graduation party invites. Tanglewood will soon have popular artists here. Traffic up and down Route 7 is picking up.


Then there is my transition, as we begin to say l'hitraot, and my family and I make my way to Cincinnati. Friends, for so many exciting and—yes—bittersweet reasons, this is a time to pay attention to the calendar.


Other than the farewell Shabbat service on June 28 between May and June, I have only three more opportunities to speak to you from this bima: tonight and the next two weeks. So, I am thinking of these next weeks as linked.


Over this Shabbat and the next two, I want to share three essential concepts I have tried to convey over the years. My teacher, Rabbi Lenny Kravitz, always said that we rabbis preach the same sermon repeatedly. I have not a single sermon, but instead, three ideas that, at this moment, seem core to how we—thoughtful, engaged Jews—might make sense of our spiritual lives, our communal lives, and our attachment to Jewish tradition and text.


In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we are taught that the world stands upon three things: Torah, Avodah, and G'milut Chasadim, which is the frame I want to use for tonight and the next two Shabbatot. Over the next three weeks, I want to explore how we live out Torah, Avodah, and G'milut Chasadim.


Let's start with Torah.


*** 


Earlier this week, Williams College students invited Liz and me to a special dinner at the Jewish Student Union. The meal was the capstone project for the student's independent study. These two students cooked a five-course meal that toured their guests through the cuisine of different diasporic Jewish communities.


The meal they cooked for their friends, family, and community members was fantastic. Their presentation was thoughtful and energetic. Liz and I left full, and we both said it was some of the most wholesome fun we have had in a long time. Moreover, it was something positive and easy that we could do to support Jewish college students in this fraught time.


During the students' dinner presentation, they mentioned the idea of "Rabbinic Judaism." Larry, you and I were seated at the same table, and you asked me what that term meant.

We sometimes refer to Rabbinic Judaism, in contrast with Biblical Judaism or other forms of Judaism that emerged in the Land of Israel and the Diaspora since the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. We do not practice the Judaism of the Bible. Otherwise, our Temple service would be filled with meal offerings, sacrifices, and priests. We practice an interpretation of Judaism handed down to us by the ancient Rabbis and Sages, whose teachings comprise the entirety of Talmudic literature, Midrashic literature, and other sources that date back to mid- and late-antiquity.


We are the inheritors of and practitioners of Rabbinic Judaism. The essential task we have in practicing Rabbinic Judaism is engaging in the study of Torah. "Talmud Torah k'neg kulam," the study of Torah is the greatest mitzvah we can observe, according to our tradition. And there is no more essential mode of studying Torah than engaging in sacred debate, represented by the ultimate punctuation mark: the Question Mark.


One of the most essential Jewish practices is being curious and asking good questions. That is what it means to practice Rabbinic Judaism today.


Doing so links our generation squarely along shalshelt ha-kabalah, our sacred chain of transmission that runs back to the pages of the Talmud and other books of Rabbinic Literature. If we want to understand the role of the question mark, a Talmudic tale explains why engaging in the grand Jewish debate is essential to how we practice Judaism today.


There is a story that we now refer to as the Oven of Aknai. We call it that because the story begins with a debate about this oven.


Picture this: rabbis gather in the beit midrash. They are debating the purity of an oven built in a way that is different from conventional methods.


"Are the items that come from that oven still pure?" they wonder.


Rabbi Eliezer—one of the great minds of the beit midrash—asserts one position in this particular debate.


The other rabbis gathered disagree.


A tremendous fight breaks out.


Rabbi Eliezer declares, "If the halakhah (Jewish law) is in accordance with me, let that carob tree uproot itself and replant itself over there," after which the tree does as the Rabbi instructed.


"Carob trees do not decide halakhah," the other rabbis respond.


Rabbi Eliezer declares again, "If the halakhah is in accordance with me, let the water flow in that stream in reverse direction," after which the water that was flowing down now begins to flow upstream.


"Streams do not decide halakhah," the other rabbis respond.


"If the halakhah is in accordance with me, let the walls of this beit midrash fall in!" After which, the walls began to lean.


"Walls do not decide halakhah," the other rabbis declared. The walls stopped falling and fixed themselves at an angle, like the diagonal tilt of the mezuzah.


"If the halakhah is in accordance with me, let the Heavens declare it!"


After which, a Divine Voice calls out for everyone in the beit midrash to hear, saying, "The halakhah is in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer!"


At this moment, after God has spoken to the rabbis, something extraordinary happens.


Rabbi Yehoshua, another elder equal in stature to Rabbi Eliezer, yells back at God! Quoting Deuteronomy, he declares, "Lo bashamayim hi! Torah is not in heaven!" In other words, this debate is for us. God, you have no standing here.


What a remarkable statement. Lo bashamayim hi! Torah is not in heaven. It is near for each of us to embrace, to speak, to make real in this world for one another. Halakhah, Jewish law and practice, is for us to figure out. We do not wait for a divine voice to tell us about purity, prayer, penitence, how to keep kosher, or how to be kind to our fellow human beings. Amid pages upon pages of religious thinking, Rabbi Yehoshua puts forward a surprisingly humanistic point of view.


The Talmudic tale continues: God has observed this whole debate. In response to Rabbi Yehoshua's assertion, God laughs and says, "My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!"


How satisfying it must be when the student surpasses the teacher. The message from this story is clear: Jewish practice and how to best do it is our job, not God's. God wants us to ask good questions, to respond to one another and our tradition with a critical mind, and to puzzle out for ourselves how to be in service to God. That is what it means to be engaged in halakhah, to be involved in the Jewish conversation, and to use the question mark. "Lo bashamayim hi, Torah is not in heaven." It is present, here and now, instead.

Yet, there is another aspect to this story that I want to highlight. Rabbi Eliezer and the others were engaged in a debate about proper Jewish practice. In that debate, Rabbi Eliezer performed miracles to assert his position.


As much as we ask one another good questions and debate the right, proper, and ethical thing to do in any given situation, we do not use miracles or magic to divine our answers. The other rabbis are right—carob trees, streams, and walls do not engage in Jewish debate. Rabbi Eliezer's use of magic makes the other rabbis uncomfortable. In the debate, God declares Rabbi Eliezer's correctness in how one ought to observe this particular Jewish practice. However, Rabbi Eliezer loses the argument because of how he makes his point.


Rabbi Eliezer does not ask questions or engage in meaningful debate. He bludgeons the other rabbis with miracles, attempting to bend them to his view. And they are saying that there are different ways by which we engage in Jewish tradition. We are to stay curious and engaged with one another, and that happens by asking good questions.


Bittersweetly, the performance of miracles and the confident understanding of God's will has no place in halakhic debate. The debate itself supersedes God's voice. Who among us can say with certainty what God wants of us? But perhaps that is also a blessing. I believe that is one of the essential messages of this story. We puzzle over Jewish practice, debate it, and wonder while using the question mark because we find meaning in it when we do. Something godly emerges from the process.

 

I have served Hevreh since July 2015. Over these nine years, one of the things I wish I had been able to do was hold an Introduction to Judaism class. I love teaching Intro to Judaism. We tried several times, in several iterations, to make a class like that work. But we never had the required number of students.

I taught several rounds of Intro in my prior congregation before coming to Hevreh. I love Intro because it is remarkable to see students light up at the notion that Judaism is one giant question. "We get to question?" students ask. It is not infrequent that I hear someone raised in a different tradition that instills a different sense of faith say, "I was asking all these questions about religion, and I was told to take it on faith."


Friends, faith is built by asking big spiritual questions and working through answers that, I pray, satisfy over time. Blind faith alone freezes one's spiritual walk. Jewish questioning is a spiritual practice that fuels a burning bush that cannot be consumed. To engage in Torah, you must use a question mark. If you want to be a part of the Jewish conversation, you must use a question mark. That is what it means to make Torah real in our lives now. That is what it means when we say Lo bashamayim hi.


It is not infrequent that I have been aware of God's presence when we studied together and when we asked and answered good Jewish questions for and with one another.

Rabbi Eliezer's behavior in the Oven of Aknai makes that story a cautionary tale: Be wary of magicians who say they know what God wants of all of us—instead, understanding what God wants and what works for us as far as Jewish practice requires us to engage in Torah with one another.


No one knew this better than my childhood rabbi, Rabbi Sam Karff. He held that the soul of the rabbi is based in Torah. In 1984, Rabbi Karff gave a talk at the CCAR annual conference titled "The Soul of the Rav." There, Rabbi Karff offered his understanding of the essence of someone who carries the title Rav b'Yisrael.


He said then, "Let us begin by defining the borders of [the rabbinic] calling. Our Beit Midrash, the place where we do our teaching, is portable. Have Torah, will travel. We teach in the classroom and the sanctuary; in our study and in our peoples' homes; in the intensive care unit and the family waiting room at the local hospital; sometimes even in the whirlpool of the JCC Health Club, when a Jew probes: 'Say, Rabbi, I've been meaning to ask you....'"


The soul of the Rabbi is driven by good Jewish conversation. The question mark feeds the Rabbi's soul.


Friends, thinking back on the many sermons, classes, and conversations, I hope that one message that has come through again and again is that we practice Judaism best when we think critically, especially when we think critically with others, that we feed one another, spiritually, when we engage in good Jewish conversation.


Engaging in Torah is a team sport; we are all players on the field, not spectators in the bleachers. If we want to understand what God desires of us, we must ask one another good questions, puzzling that out bit by bit.


I am so grateful to have served as your rabbi. I pray that I have been a good player and coach over the years. The Torah we uncovered together has fed me, and I pray it has done the same for you, too.


May we continue to engage in good Jewish debate, celebrating the role of the question mark, living out the assertion found in Pirkei Avot: When two people sit together engaging in Torah, it is there that the Shekhinah, God's loving presence, rests.

 

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