Ethical or Ritual Commandments: The Greatest Mitzvah

Sermon given May 8, 1998, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Every now and then, Toni accuses me of “selective hearing.” I can hear her loudly and clearly, from the kitchen all the way to the bedroom, if she calls me to the telephone. However, I sometimes can not hear her, just from one side of the bed to the other, when she asks me to get up and go get her a glass of water.

Reform Judaism has also had a historic tendency to suffer from “selective hearing.” The founders of our movement heard God loudly and clearly, demanding that we care for the less fortunate, pursue justice and seek peace. Those early Reform rabbis, though, did not always hear God’s ritual commandments.

To illustrate this point, we need look no further than this week’s Torah portion. A section of this parashah is read in Reform Temples on Yom Kippur afternoon. We at Temple Beth-El are privileged that our past President, Mickey Roth, reads it each year. The selection is from kedoshim, the holiness code, in chapter 19 of Leviticus, verses 1 through 4, 9 through 18, and 32 through 37.

Usually, when we read from the Torah, we read consecutive verses. We don’t skip around. So what is it about those verses that causes us to skip right past them?

One of the passed-over sections includes laws regarding the shlamim, a certain kind of animal sacrifice. Another stipulates how men should and should not cut their hair and beards. In the minds of our Reform forebears, these practices were meaningless rituals. The ancients might have felt closer to God by practicing primitive rituals, but the modern spirit would not even be moved by hearing about them, much by less practicing them.

Tomorrow, Anna will read about another observance that we don’t practice today. By contrast, though, it is included among the verses we recite on Yom Kippur. The Torah admonishes us not to harvest the corners of our fields, or to pick up whatever drops to the ground during the reaping. Rather, we are to leave these for the poor, who may come and gather them from our fields. Today, these poor gatherers would be arrested for trespassing! Even farmers in Israel are not expected to follow the letter of these laws in our own times.

Nevertheless, these verses were not omitted, since leaving the corners of the fields has implications in the moral realm. That ancient practice has evolved into the modern-day mitzvah of feeding the poor through efforts like our Yom Kippur food collection and our Purim Hunger and Homeless campaign.

Now, we have a better idea of why some passages were read and others skipped. Ritual commandments are included only if they are still practiced. On the other hand, we hear and embrace all passages calling us to our ethical obligations, whether we still observe these particular mitzvot or not.

These inclusions and omissions come as no surprise, when we consider the hallmarks of early Reform Judaism. Our Reform forebears beckoned us to hear the clarion call of the prophets, inspiring us to repair the world. At the same time, they taught that many traditional Jewish rituals had become totally irrelevant. They scoffed at kosher dietary laws. Head coverings and prayer shawls were actually banned in some Temples, as was the Bar Mitzvah.

Reform Judaism grew and prospered as a religious Movement that spoke to the modern spirit and united Jews with their fellow human beings in common purpose. Our founders insisted that God’s mission for the Jewish people is, first and foremost, to bring peace and justice to all the world.

We can take pride in that noble Reform Jewish heritage. Reform Judaism was a brilliant response to centuries during which Jews had been persecuted and oppressed, and denied any meaningful connection to the larger world. For two terrible milennia, our people had been forced to concentrate only on their own needs. They understandably developed a religious life that was almost exclusively composed of ritual. Striving for justice and peace beyond their own Jewish community had not even been an option. Reform liberated Judaism from the straight jacket of the pre-modern world.

These days, none of us can help but notice the significant extent to which ritual observance has crept back into Reform Judaism. Many among us wear head coverings during worship. Our own Temple Sisterhood cookbook, in its most recent printing, contains no recipes including pork or shellfish. Many Reform congregations have added a second day of Rosh Hashanah.

When Rabbi Stahl and I travel to rabbinical conventions, we find the emphasis on ritual observance even more striking. At worship, ours are among a tiny minority of uncovered heads. At weekday morning services, a majority of our colleagues don prayer shawls, and a growing minority — among both men and women — wear tefillin, or phylacteries. In a few years, Rabbi Stahl and I may be regarded as Episcopalian interlopers at gatherings of our own rabbinical Conference.

These ritual innovations make many of us uncomfortable. We may be unsure that we fit into Reform Judaism these days. And yet, the increasing embrace of ritual does not come from a nefarious attempt to undermine Reform Judaism. The desire, instead, is to enrich.

Many young Reform Jews have offered an interesting critique of Reform Judaism’s founders. They acknowledge that early Reform made us better Americans, great citizens, and crusaders for the rights of others. On the other hand, as modern spirituality evolved, men and women sought God in their lives, and searched for traditional symbols to connect them to the Divine. Judaism offers these symbols, rituals with great potential meaning. Reform Judaism, though, had rejected them long ago.

Perhaps in its brilliant innovation, creating a modern Judaism, the pendulum of Reform did swing too far away from rituals. If certain ancient rituals move us today, we may well embrace them. In our own congregation, for example, the hakafah Torah procession is an ancient ritual, adapted to our Reform context, which brings new meaning to our Sanctuary service. If some Reform Jews are moved by wearing a yarmulke, a tallis and tefillin, who are we to object?

At the same time, we must be careful not to adopt ancient rituals that contradict our principles. For instance, we avoid the “traditional” Aleinu-Adoration, found on page 615 of our Gates of Prayer, because it paints a negative portrait of our non-Jewish neighbors.

Newly readopted rituals may connect us to God. They help a younger generation to feel more Jewish. They build bridges to our people’s past and to its future.

But let our new emphasis on rituals not lead us away from pursuit of the greatest mitzvah: God’s mission for our Jewish people. Rituals only have true meaning if they ultimately inspire us to be better people, to live better lives, to make the world a better place.

We conclude tonight with the words of Rabbi Eric Yoffe, President of our Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. He reminds us that ritual and ethical commandments are both the will of God, while calling us to commit ourselves to the purpose of the mitzvot.

“We are committed to social justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown. Yes, now more than ever, we embrace ritual and prayer and ceremony; but like the prophets, we never forget that God is concerned about the everyday, and that the blights of society take precedence over the mysteries of heaven. In these self-indulgent times, too many turn inward; but we know that there can be no Reform Judaism without moral indignation; and we know, too, that a Reform synagogue that does not alleviate the anguish of the suffering is a contradiction in terms.”

Amen.