When I have taken our post-Confirmation students on trips, one of the things we always try to do is visit a church on Sunday morning so we can learn more about our Christian neighbors. Even though I prepare them, when they walk towards the chapel for the service and the experience of the Roman Catholic mass, their curiosity is often sparked as they looked down at the kneeling bench and up and around at the stations of the cross and the other symbols in that unfamiliar setting. For several students, merely entering the chapel is enough to raise some concerns, and some have asked to stay behind in a nearby room. Perhaps they had anticipated that the iconography, the differences in God language, and the quiet, pious atmosphere would feel far from home and perhaps uncomfortable. I have them join me in the back so I can comfort and explain.
I realized that although I have visited many churches and witnessed several Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran masses, the large crucifix with Jesus hanging behind the priest, the golden chalice with wine, the rounded wafers held high and the priest himself in his vestments were reminders that however much we may share with our neighbors, their priesthood has ongoing spiritual and moral authority while our own Jewish priesthood has been defunct for nearly 2,000 years.
As we repeat this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30), we are reminded that in ancient times, our Israelite ancestors once relied on the priest for atonement, respecting him for his power before God. The Torah describes the rituals that involve the repeated sprinkling of blood and the ritual of sending a scapegoat out into the wilderness, “to Azazel”, to its death. The death of that goat provides expiation for the communal sins every year on Yom Kippur.
What a contrast to our world today, in which people may confess their sins to strangers on social media while keeping those same sins secret from their families. In today’s world, we don’t flock to a central tabernacle or Temple; our world is decentralized. While today’s rabbis may be the closest thing we have to the ancient priests, some rabbis might be as likely to seek, find and join their congregants at the gym or the grocery store as at the synagogue. The biblical sacrifices described in this week’s Torah reading have long since been replaced by prayer, study, acts of chesed (lovingkindness), and by breakfasts and guest speakers.
As active members of the Reform Movement, we are part of an emerging deliberately transformational synagogues and leaders who are encouraging a more inclusive, more color-blind, less binary Judaism. I see it in my students as well: they are exploring other aspects of Jewish identity. Instead of prayer, study and ritual practice, they want to encourage a pursuit of social justice and public acts of chesed, including stocking food banks, partnering with people with disabilities, promoting Jewish culture or learning, promoting community-building and engaging with others outside of the Jewish community.
Even though we have a tradition of commandments, I do teach that this means that people need to embrace life, to accept our own imperfection, and to recognize that we don’t want to feel choked by those laws. Survival may require us to follow a different path. If we live by God’s laws and not die a spiritual death, by them, then we can justify coming out of the closet or changing our prayer lives or taking a controversial position based on our conscience despite the implications of going against what we perceive as normative Jewish tradition.
This week’s Torah reading offers us an opportunity to ask about what drives us: Are we more in sync with the priests in Chapter 16, seeking the prestige and power and even perfection that the ancient vestments and rituals provided, including the power to designate and the power to forgive? Or are we more in sync with the audience for Chapter 18, who must decide how to embrace life despite our imperfections and live by God’s commandments, not to die by them? With Passover just behind us, may we all embrace life while savoring the blessings of freedom.