Archive for April, 2010

Emor: Spirituality in Community

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

Emor has three main themes: first, laws which apply to the priests and which distinguish between the the priests and other Israelites; second, the holiday calendar; third, laws pertaining to human life and capital punishment.

Hello friends- this week we’re reading the Torah portion Emor, which contains many of the foundational laws of the Jewish holiday calendar, but also a little hint as to another foundational practice of Jewish prayer. Right after a set of laws laying out which animals are appropriate for offerings, and which are not, the Torah offers a general principle:

“You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God . . . ” (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:32-33)

The second clause of this verse- “that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people”- is associated in the Talmud with the practice of reserving some prayers for times when we have gathered as a people. The key word is “in the midst,” or b’toch, which, through some associations with other verses, is understood to mean an assembly- a minyan of ten.  Rabbi Danny Nevins does a great job of explaining how b’toch is associated with a minyan of ten, but for now, let’s just take it at face value that to be “in the midst” does imply a spiritual value to prayer as a group.

The next obvious question is: why? Why does the Torah – or at least, the rabbinic tradition which interprets the Torah- value group prayer? We won’t exhaust this question today, but two thoughts bear repeating:

1) Judaism’s value of community prayer and liturgies does not mean that there is no room for spontaneous, individual,  private, secluded or contemplative prayer and meditation. On the contrary- these experiences are necessary aspects of a full spiritual life. I think it’s just the other way around: Judaism insists on the value of minyan precisely because without encouragement, we might not join with others nor engage with the liturgy of our ancestors, preferring instead the private contemplations and grateful prayers which can be made anywhere, anytime- without getting up early or driving to the synagogue or fumbling around with a prayerbook.

2) To me, verse 33 explains verse 32, but it’s hard to get in translation. In Hebrew, all the “you’s” are plural: “I the Holy One sanctified you [plural], and brought you [plural]  out of the Land of Egypt. . . ”

So another reason for communal spiritual practice is that we are rooted in a common history and a common destiny. It’s not so much an intellectual understanding of this common history that’s important, but the emotional experience of becoming deeply aware that one’s life is lived in the context of others, past and future. If spirituality can be understood- at least partially- as a broadened or deepened awareness of that which connects us to others and to God, then praying with others is a spiritual experience because it makes us aware that we are Jews, praying prayers which our ancestors prayed, being grateful at times and seasons that they were grateful (or sad, or repentant, etc.)

In other words- God is “made Holy”- that is, we have the opportunity for a deeper spiritual awareness- in communal prayer precisely because praying a liturgy with others helps push ego to the side, putting the self in the larger context of history, community, family and the turning of the generations.  If you’re praying with others, praying our people’s prayers, then by definition, at least at those moments- it’s not all about you, so to speak.

This is humility, which is the path to wisdom and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Achrei-Mot/Kedoshim: Imitation and Integrity

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Achrei-Mot/ Kedoshim

This week’s double portion has three distinct themes (and a few other laws mixed in): first, the laws of Yom Kippur. Second, laws of sex and family life. Third, ethical and social principles. The parsha ends by returning to the topic of sex and family life.

Greetings on a beautiful spring day!

The portion Kedoshim begins with the general injunction to be “holy,” or kadosh:

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy, , , ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:1)

This verse has mountains of commentary heaped upon it, which we’ll climb another time, but for now it’s enough to note that some see the idea of “holiness” as related to separation from sin and the practices of the nations that surrounded ancient Israel. This reading is supported by a passage towards the end of the next chapter:

“You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. . . . You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.” (Vayikra 20:23-26)

Verse 23, above, about not “following the practices” of other nations, was interpreted by the ancient rabbis as a general principle that Jews should not adopt or copy the cultural or religious practices of other nations. That’s why some groups of Jews adopt distinctive dress, for example- adopting modern styles might be seen as following a foreign culture.

Most of us- at least, the likely readers of this commentary- consciously choose to “live in two civilizations,” to quote Mordecai Kaplan, and we’re perfectly comfortable dressing, talking, working, singing and going about our daily lives as Americans, Canadians, etc. Yet it’s equally true that most committed Jews have a notion of Jewish authenticity, or at least a vague sense that not every Jewish practice is adaptable to changing cultural norms. A funny example from last December occurred when we somehow ended up with a few (kosher) Christmas cookies mixed in with the cakes at the Shabbat oneg [refreshments]. Even though they came from the bakery that I myself supervise, quite a few congregants had the emotional reaction that Christmas cookies (little stars with silver sprinkles) just can’t be kosher and don’t belong on a synagogue table.

Scholars and historians write books upon books discussing how Judaism adapts- or rejects- input from the general culture- it’s not a simple subject. Yet it’s worth considering that many of the practices most familiar to North American Jews- especially relating to clergy and synagogue services- are direct and conscious adoptions of non-Jewish customs. These include special robes for clergy; the leading role that rabbis play in worship; standing for the Shma; and choirs and instruments during religious services. I bring up these examples neither to advocate nor condemn, but merely to point out that what’s “traditional” to one congregation may be seen as distastefully inauthentic in another. Not every innovation works to further basic Jewish ideals, and Judaism has to be something that connects Jews to our history as well as Jews in other cultures- yet who among us objects to singing Adon Olam to the “traditional melody,” which was once a German beer-hall song?

I offer no simple resolution, but instead an opportunity to learn more; one cannot determine one’s own criteria for Jewish authenticity without information on the background and meaning of prayers and practices. A Judaism which is not somehow set apart is not Judaism; a Judaism which is only set apart has no ability to engage and raise up the culture around it. In between those extremes we try to discern a balance between tradition and change, which is not a Conservative slogan but the perpetual endeavor of our people.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- I started thinking about this issue a few weeks ago, during Pesach, when I adapted an old Southern folk melody to a piece of Hallel [the Psalms of praise sung during holidays]. If you want to hear Jerry Garcia sing The Sweet Sunny South, click the link; if you want to hear how I adapted it to pitchu li, sha’arey tzedek. . . (Ps. 118), you’ll have to come to our minyan on Rosh Hodesh or another holiday.

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Tazria-Metzora: Hidden Treasures

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Tazria-Metzora

The double portion Tazria-Metzora is one of the most difficult in the Torah. It begins with laws concerning bodily fluids and goes on to discuss manifestations of ritual impurity, both on people and houses.


Towards the end of this week’s double portion, we learn that tzara’at, or scaly outbreaks, can occur on buildings as well as people. Once that happens, the priest has to come look at the house, and if it’s really tzara’at, then it’s scraped off or the stones affected are removed. If it comes back- the house may have to be destroyed. (Cf. Vayikra 14:33-45)

Our friend Rashi notices a theological problem in the verse introducing this section of laws:

“When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place a lesion of tzara’ath upon a house in the land of your possession . . . . . ” (14:34)

Rashi notices that the verse implies that God will give or place the tzara’at on the houses, and answers the implicit question: why would God bring the Israelites to a good land and then put plagues upon their houses?

His answer (which is from an earlier midrash):

“This is good news for them that lesions of tzara’at will come upon them because the Amorites had hidden away treasures of gold inside the walls of their houses during the entire forty years that the Israelites were in the desert, and through the lesion, he will demolish the house and find them.”

With this midrash, Rashi turns our lesson inside out: instead of a set of ancient purity rules about plagues and punishments, our verse teaches us about looking for hidden treasure hidden under seemingly unpleasant things. What seems like a punishment might- if you remove the outer layers and demolish old structures – reveal gold. The image of walls coming down and treasure being revealed suggests to me that the real plague is not on the skin, but is our negativity, cynicism, resentment, or jealousy- which, when we tear them down, can often allow much more beautiful things to emerge.

This understanding also fits with the traditional interpretation that the metzora– the one afflicted with the outbreak- is afflicted because he spoke motzie shem ra, or slander about others. When that metaphor is a applied to a building, perhaps it suggests that when we tear down mental structures afflicted by cynicism and resentment, new and unexpected things will emerge, which we would never find without the decision to declare certain things impure and worthy of removal. Hidden treasures, tucked away behind yucky walls- what might we find upon close inspection of our houses, our communities, and ourselves?

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shemini: Separating Sacred from Ordinary

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Shemini, in which Aharon’s sons die a tragic deaths, laws are given for the comportment of the priests, and the idea of kashrut- sacred eating- is spelled out in detail.

Dear Friends:

We’re back after the Pesach break and reading to do some drashing around here!

In this week’s Torah portion, Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, die when bringing a “strange fire” to the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Afterwards, Moshe tells his brother that the priests must not drink any wine or other alcohol when entering the Tent of Meeting, for they must “distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” [Vayikra/ Leviticus 10:10]

This idea, of separating or distinguishing between holy and ordinary [ ul’havdil ben hakodesh u’vein hachol] finds its way into our prayers at the end of Shabbat, during the Havdalah prayer, marking the close of Shabbat and the beginning of the work week:

“Blessed are You, The Infinite One, Ruling Principle of the Universe, Who separates the holy from the mundane, light from darkness, Israel from the other peoples, the seventh day of rest from the six days of work. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who separates the holy from the mundane.”

This concluding blessing of Havdalah is not without controversy; the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow has critiqued this set of “separations” as setting up value hierarchies in which the “other peoples” are seen as “less than” the Jewish people. To me, locating the first part of the blessing- separation of holy from ordinary- in its original Biblical context is key to a more universal interpretation. In Shemini, Moshe tells his brother not to enter the Sanctuary when drunk, presumably because there are times and places where one must be absolutely clear in consciousness and intentionality. Rejoicing with wine is fine, under certain circumstances, but not for a priest about to make offerings in the Mishkan.

The Mishkan– a portable Sanctuary- was holy not because it was on intrinsically holy ground (it was portable!) but because it was set up with great care and reverence by the Levites, in the center of the camp. Similarly, Shabbat is a chosen “cathedral in time” (to quote Heschel), which is holy not because one minute is ontologically different than the next, but because we’ve chosen to create space in our lives for spiritual experience. The Jewish people are not better, nor worse, than any other; but we choose to share history and destiny with a community in time and space because that allows particular spiritual language and values to be expressed that would be lost were human cultures all mixed and undifferentiated.

Seen this way, kedushah- holiness- is a not an intrinsic quality, but related to our ability to choose and cultivate certain kinds of awareness or consciousness. Shabbat isn’t better, as such, than the work-week; without the six days of work, we’d be cold and hungry! Rather, Shabbat is a set-apart time for awareness of our place within creation, and a pulling back from busyness to make space for contemplation.

Thus, making distinctions or separations between kodesh and chol , or between Shabbat and the work-week, isn’t about hierarchies at all; it’s about the simple fact that we can’t be highly aware of everything all at once, and need times of focus and intention. We call those things holy which are worthy objects of special attention; it’s a choice to find kedushah in a fantastically distracted world, a choice to cultivate the consciousness of self and God that is foundational to Jewish practice.

Shabbat Shalom,


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