Shemini: Upgrade Judaism

Shemini: Upgrade Judaism

I was on a hike with a friend, Simon (not his real name), a few weeks ago. Simon, in his late twenties, is not someone whom you would call a “devout” Jew. He does not attend synagogue, let alone belong to one, nor is he shomer Shabbat (observe the sabbath) in a particularly halachic way, and to him, lobster is divine. As we hiked over the ridge in the Santa Monica mountains and got our first glimpse of the Pacific he told me how spiritual he feels when on the trail. “I connect to God when I feel the rustle under my feet,” he told me breathlessly. “It’s quiet and open, and I feel like I’m connecting to something so much greater than myself.” Looking out beyond the verdant chaparral and unto the expansive blue mass of the deep, he concluded, “I guess I’m spiritual but not religious.” Simon is not alone.  A recent Gallup poll has shown that affiliation amongst Americans has plummeted in the past year; however, in other Gallup research, belief in God and the importance of religion are still very high. 

I took a breath.  

As a rabbi, I reflexively jerk at the distinction between “spirituality” and “religion.” There are those religious leaders who want to fight against the notion of spirituality by saying that to be spiritual is to be a narcissist – undisciplined and disconnected from the responsibilities to a larger community. They point to a lack of affiliation because children are taking too long to “grow up” and form families. Alternatively, they blame their parents for not involving them enough in religious life. While there might be some truth to these arguments, they fall short of the inner life I find in most young people. There is no war between religion and spirituality, because it’s a false dichotomy between being religious and being spiritual. The divide in my mind is not about how an individual behaves, but how institutions support their behaviors. 

Take Simon, for example – he is religious. He spends his time regularly hiking on trails  He goes for his tiyul, Hebrew for trek, to get outside himself, develop a sense of gratitude, and see friends – all the same reasons why people go to synagogue. He spends his hard earned (and for younger people, harder to come by) earnings on gear that make his tiyulim, easier, more meaningful, and beautiful. Rather than being a narcissist, Simon dedicates himself to the search of something greater, and does not like doing it alone.  

I took another breath and through a smile I said, “You might not be religious in your mind, but you are hiking with your rabbi.” We both laughed at that. 

Religion is an operating system for meaning, purpose, and holiness. Where it goes wrong is when it forgets that it is there to help answer the questions of human living. What is the right thing to do? How shall I spend my time? How do I live my most vital life? Whom do I travel this road with? When we forget to answer the immortal questions, religion itself loses its power. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, Moses tries to finally answer the right questions with the right answers. Recall that back in the Book of Exodus, Moses was on Mt. Sinai for over a month communing with God; in a sense he was on his own tiyul. With Moses so far away, a spiritual vacuum formed among the people. They demanded that Aaron, Moses’ brother, make for them a golden calf – to fill the spiritual gap in their hearts. (Exodus 32:4) The Israelites tried to find God in the gold by gawking at the idol. The operating system behind idolatry abdicates your own personal responsibility for making life better. Your only job is to craft a golden god upon which you rest all your hopes and dreams.  

Instead, with the building of the mishkan, God changes the operating system of religious life. Seeing that the Israelites, like many of us, need a place to name their very real human concerns, God asks the Israelites to form a community founded on mutual  responsibility to each other. In this week’s Torah portion, that vision comes into fruition, with the very first sacrifices brought to God’s house. In a bold move, Moses asks Aaron to bring a calf to sacrifice as an initial offering upon the altar. (Leviticus 9:2) The rabbis point out that the sacrifice of the calf is a repudiation of the earlier idolatry. (Tanchuma Behar 5:1) Moses then says, “This is the thing that the LORD commanded you to do if you want to see the LORD’s Presence.” (Leviticus 9:6) That is, Moses upgrades the operating system of Judaism, making it better and more responsive to the needs of Jewish life. In that sense, Leviticus is an upgrade from Exodus. It replaces the idolatry of the calf with the community around the mishkan and centers the community around covenantal love. (Leviticus 19

The Levitical revolution kept Jews going for thousands of years until after the destruction of the Temple, when the very place where sacrifices were held, the power of Leviticus remained in the minds of the rabbis. On a hike outside Jerusalem, Rabbi Yehoshua, himself a descendant of the priests, was dismayed at seeing the ruins of the Temple. His friend, Rabbi Yochanan, said to him, “be not dismayed, for we have a form of atonement – act of loving kindness.” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5) By taking Judaism out of the Temple and into the street and into the home, Rabbi Yochanan is credited with saving Judaism for his generation, by giving the operating system another upgrade. Rabbi Yochanan took the logic of sacrifice and put it into the dispersed everyday living of the Jew. 

Simon’s words should be a wakeup call to all of us that Judaism itself might need another upgrade. One that moves beyond the walls of our temples and into the hearts of seekers like him. I think that Leviticus can continue to be a guide, perhaps more than any other book, because it was the first to recognize that God and human beings are bound together in love. It is the first book of the Bible that tried to use the ever-changing technology of human-divine interaction to answer life’s most immortal questions. If we take the Levitical mindset, we can overcome the false dichotomy of spirituality and religion by showing that they are, as they always have been, one and the same. 

Shabbat Shalom

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