Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Communal and Interfaith Progress (Acharei-Mot 5/6/17)

Rabbi Neil SchumanJohnny, a fourth grader was having a terrible time with his math. His parents worked with him night after night but there was no progress.  His math marks were dismal. In desperation, his parents decided to transfer their son to a new school.

They checked around and the school that seemed to have the best academic reputation was the local Catholic school. Despite their reservations about parochial school, for they were atheists, they enrolled Johnny in the Catholic school.

Immediately the boy’s math marks soared. He went from failing grades to becoming an A student. His parents were surprised at the change and over dinner one night they asked Johnny about his improvement. “Is it due to better teaching?” they asked, but the boy said, “No, the teachers are about the same”. “Is it due to a different text book?” Again, Johnny replied, “No, it is the same text book.”

Finally they asked their son why he thought he had made such a dramatic improvement. Johnny then said, “The first day I went to school I knew they took their math seriously, and that I had better do well or else there would be consequences.” His parents asked what made him realize the school took math so seriously.

Johnny answered, “The first thing I saw when I went into the classroom was a statue of some guy nailed to a plus sign. I figured they meant business!”

Just like this joke, I’d like to address the topics of progress and Catholic-Jewish relations.

Our parsha, Acharei-Mot, details the Yom Kippur service during Temple times: Leviticus 16:7 “And he shall take the two goats, and set them before the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall offer the goat upon which the lot fell for the Lord as a sin-offering. 10 But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the Lord, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness.”

Our Bat mitzvah girls, Alyssa and Heather Sanborn, explained in the morning that Azazel is some kind of negative force: “One goat would be killed, the other would to be sent out to the wilderness to the strange Azazel. Azazel is the unrevealed. It is comprehended as a negative energy, but is still respected in the Torah.” At the conclusion of this practice, the goat with the sins of the Children of Israel would be pushed off a massive cliff. Thankfully, we don’t perform this cruel ritual anymore. We’ve come to understand that with the destruction of the Temple, we no longer need sacrifices to become close with God. The loss of the Temple led to progress in our worship.

Last week I was in Israel at a Christian Monastery called Domus Galilaeae on the Mountain of Beatitudes (see pictures at bottom), overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was four days of study and prayer with Rabbis, Cardinals, Bishops and Priests and members of the NeoCatechumenal Way.

This gathering marked progress in the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism, for these two religions used to be at odds with one another.

Catholics used to claim that they had replaced Israel as the Chosen People. At the conclusion of their prayers, they used to beseech God, “And please forgive the Jews, slayers of Jesus Christ …” This prayer inflamed Christian masses for centuries.

We Jews considered Catholics thieves and opponents to our religion and composed the prayer V’lamalshinim: “Let there be no hope for informers, and may all the heretics and all the wicked instantly perish; may all the enemies of Your people be speedily extirpated; and may You swiftly uproot, break, crush and subdue the reign of wickedness speedily in our days. Blessed are You Lord, who crushes enemies and subdues the wicked.”

Nearly all of the second millennium is stained with Christian-Jewish conflict and violence, with the Jews perennially being the victim.

“Vatican II” in 1963 changed the Church’s  stance towards  Judaism. This was done in collaboration with rabbis, most notably famed Conservative scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Catholics now believe that God has not abrogated the Covenant with the Jewish people, and they abolished the prayer stating that we are the slayers of Jesus.

Fifty years later we now celebrated this event in Israel, not just tolerating one another, but viewing each other as our partner in spreading Godliness and Tikkun Olam, fixing the world. At this gathering, we rabbis recognized Catholicism as a true and independent religion, playing a crucial role in elevating humanity.

Likewise on the topic of progress, last Sunday MHJC voted to improve our relationship with intermarried couples.

Recent statistics show that nearly seventy percent of non-Orthodox Jews that marry, are intermarrying. On the Israel trip, I befriended a colleague who serves in a synagogue near San Francisco. She told me that 85% of the new marriages in her Conservative synagogue are intermarriages!

The great theologian Mordechai Kaplan said, “Religion needs to serve the people and not vice versa.” We need to address the Jews as they are. Along these lines, in the beginning of March, the Conservative movement voted to give non-Jewish spouses full membership in the synagogue.

Thanks to efforts by concerned members of our synagogue, our vote on Sunday will allow intermarried families to be better served by welcoming the supportive non-Jewish spouse or parent to stand next to their Jewish spouse or child when the latter receives an Aliyah.

I recognize that this change in policy is uncomfortable to some members of our synagogue; it is not the form of Judaism that they grew up with. But this is the path of the Conservative movement, to balance radical change with our collective past. If we don’t make any changes then we ossify and become irrelevant; if we change too quickly we risk being reckless to our traditions. The Conservative movement allowed driving to synagogue on Shabbat, became egalitarian, and allowed musical instruments on Shabbat in order to serve the needs of the people, fulfilling Kaplan’s vision.

Progress is our personal, communal and worldwide goal. Over time, the world is getting better and more unified, even though we suffer considerable setbacks. Christian-Jewish relations were as bad as can be, but they have been rectified. Judaism has changed and improved dramatically from biblical times and is facing the multifaceted challenges of modernity. Hopefully our changes will also prove themselves to be progress in the long run.

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