Whatever doesn't kill you - makes you stronger
What about what does kill you?!? Apparently it teaches those left alive exactly what boundaries not to cross.
In this week's Torah portion, "Shmini," the days of preparation and specialization of the priests are completed, and the real work begins. Immediately with the commencement of the sacrificial offerings in the Tabernacle, the priests learn the most important and severe lesson for their new profession they were just trained for (Leviticus 10:1-3):
"And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said unto Aaron: 'This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.' And Aaron held his peace."
That is how, in a short and to the point description that makes no attempt at making what really happened look better than it was, the Torah tells us how and why God killed the two sons of the high priest. The essence of the priestly profession is obedience and exactness. Will, creativity, and personal passion are for the priests a "strange fire" that result in the punishment of death.
Deep chasm separating sages, 'learned'
The culture of scholarly rabbinic learning is the antithesis of the priestly culture. The sage is both carnal and a creator for whom the essence of his honor is earned for his ability to change and innovate the words of the Torah, as well as the sages who preceded him. Therefore, it is not surprising to discover several revealed and hidden struggles, several bed chambers poisoned with disdain diluted anger, as the sages discard the priestly culture.
Every line in the Talmud teaches the revolutionary character of the sages, so much so that it seems extraneous to me to even have to bring examples of this. Whomever's soul does desire proof is invited to open at random any page of the Talmud and discover this for themselves. However, since I do not want to exempt myself completely – here is one of the examples that best illustrates the boldness of the sages.
Rabbi Akiva eavesdropping on his teachers
This is how, according to one tradition, Rabbi Akiva's career of learning began (Avot DeRabbi Natan A, chapter 6): "(Rabbi Akiva) went and sat before Rabbi Eliezer and before Rabbi Yehoshua. He said to them: 'My Masters open for me the taste of the Mishnah.' Once they told him one halacha, he went and sat by himself, pondering: 'Why was this (letter) Aleph written; why was this (letter) Bet written; why was this thing said?' He went back and asked them, and left them standing in silence.
"Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said, 'I will give a parable. To what is this matter similar? It is like a stonecutter who was chiseling away in the mountains. One time he took his pickaxe, sat upon a mountain, and began cutting away small pieces of stone. People came up to him and asked, 'What are you doing?' He replied, 'I am uprooting the mountain so I can throw it into the Jordan River.' They said, 'You will never be able to uproot the entire mountain.' The stonecutter continued until he came upon a large rock. He got underneath it, uprooted it and placed it in the Jordan. He said to the rock, 'Your place is not here (on the mountain), but here (in the river).' This is what Rabbi Akiva did to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua."
Rabbi Akiva uproots mountains
This aggadah shouts out "radical." Rabbi Akiva, as a serious sage, is not satisfied with what his great masters teach him. Since the very start as a student of the sages, after every lesson he punctiliously reviewed on his own the material taught, to raise every possible difficulty from his teachers words, to return to them and "leave them standing in silence."
And if we failed to understand the significance of the subversion, it is restated even more sharply in the parable of the stonecutter. There is, according to Rabbi Shimon, some strange stonecutter whose every goal is to uproot an entire mountain and throw it into the Jordan River. Why? Not because someone needs this, but because he is a stonecutter, and this is what stonecutter's do. With great effort and thorough work the stonecutter succeeds, (he is after all Rabbi Akiva) and throws the entire mountain into the River Jordan. And what does this "mountain" represent? His master's teachings. This is the scholarly mission - to uproot that which previous generations proposed and offer fresh, independent innovations. Is this process painful to the previous generations? Maybe. Does this disturb the confidence in the stability of the tradition? Apparently. But this is what scholars do.
Rabbinate has forgotten where it came from
I am afraid to think where it is going, and I have no idea before whom it gives a judgment and accounting. The rabbinic establishment in Israel has become confused, forgotten that it belongs to the legacy of rabbinic scholarship, and instead imitates the worst of the priests.
A few days ago we were informed that the official state rabbinate is stopping the conversion process of "Big Brother" star Alin Levy because she refuses to give up her acting career, and their "rabbinic" justification is that "acting is not a worthy profession for a Jew." It is hard to decide if the Rabbinate's announcement is more offensive or ignorant of the world and religion.
"O my country and my homeland is being ruined,
You broke my heart into tiny slivers,
We had a dream and now it is no more,
I am so sad that I could cry rivers."
(From Arik Einstein's song "Sitting in Front of the Paper")
I do not know why amongst all the injustices committed by the official Israeli Rabbinate, this specifically this one short announcement succeeded to be so angry, so sad, and make me cry. This apparently is also connected to the independent and creative Jewish communities that I recently encountered in the United States, to the good and committed Jews that I met there, and who were not permitted to move to Israel because the Israeli Rabbinate thinks they aren't Jewish, and may it is connected to the general feeling that "my country and my homeland are being ruined."
I'm responsible for this (and so are you)
It is important for me to say that responsibility for this awful and terrible situation of the relations of "state and religion" that Israel is mired in now, falls on me and you – the moderate majority living here now. We are responsible for the uglification and moral degeneration of Judaism. We are responsible for the corruption. We are responsible for the descent of Jewish law and culture to the sewer where they live today. We are responsible because we give power to the uncircumcised hearts of those in the Israeli Rabbinate to do with us as they please. We are responsible because we are able to stop this and for some reason don't.
We need to refuse to marry via the Israeli Rabbinate. We need to cease divorcing via the Israeli Rabbinate. The day, the second, in which we abandon the term "mamzer" (bastard), we will no longer need to divorce via the Israeli Rabbinate and we will resolve the greatest problems facing agunot, women chained to their husbands, and quite a few who are prevented from getting married (and only God knows why liberal Jews in the 21st century still honor such a racist classification).
We need to oppose the existence of only one, monopolized, supervisory mechanism over the conversion process. Every community can convert Jews according to their own standards. That is how it has always been and needs to continue to be.
We need to refuse to fear the threats of the Israeli Rabbinate that it will "prepare a black list" or that we will "become two nations." We are in fact already two nations and it is hard for me two to be concerned about the ultra-Orthodox refusing to marry my children. We are a nation of exile. A nation with a diverse Diasporas. We have never had only one, monopolized, supervisory mechanism over the conversion process. Why today are we agreeing to accept the tyrannical authority of this mechanism?
We need to demand of our politicians to act in an immediate fashion to have complete and total 'separation of church and state'. (And instead of being proud of a few Ultra-Orthodox Jews that may be drafted and serve in the Israeli army in 2017, it would be worthwhile for Yair Lapid to do some real work and "separate between state and religion").
For the sake of those who observe kashrut, it will be necessary to encourage an alternative kosher arrangement. One that is voluntary. One that does not require bathing certifications of kashrut in pools of public funds. The Orthodox amongst us need to establish for themselves (and those interested from the general public) alternative religious courts. It is forbidden for the liberal Orthodox rabbis to even try to be accepted to the office of chief rabbi. We need to cancel these awful positions. The power and the money corrupt even the most brilliant among men. Don't unnecessarily test yourself.
Miracles rabbinic establishment makes sure to forget
"Another tale of a certain non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him, 'Convert me, teaching me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.' Shammai drove him away with the builder's rod. The same non-Jew came before Hillel with the same question and he was converted. Hillel said to him, 'What is hateful to you do not do to others - This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.'" (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Shabbat 31A).
Hillel, who earned the praise of the Talmud, presents here the true scholarly model; crafty, brave, and innovatively breaks new ground by keeping the bigger picture in sight. Shammai represents the Priestly model; he checks reality with his builder's tool, he is exact, scrupulous, full of righteous anger, and does not enable the Jewish people to break new ground.
Hillel is always represented in the Talmud as a founder and movement leader of religious humanism. According to Hillel's world view, the fact that man was created in God's image, everything that is in man (including his body and his carnal desires) is an authentic expression of the Divine. In Hillel's world people aren't driven away. In Hillel's world the 'builder's rod' is not an appropriate tool for a religious leader. It seems the gentle digging tool employed by Rabbi Akiva is appropriate for Hillel's needs as well.
Hillel leads with love of humanity and gentleness. He does not ask the potential convert if he works in a "Jewish" profession. He does not check how serious his intentions are. He is even more liberal than Reform Rabbis as he does not send the interested non-Jew to a conversion institute. Rather he admits him on the spot. Immediately. Because that is the worthy thing to do for someone who wants to join the Jewish people. Who appointed us as judges?
With the status of the convert Hillel teaches us the most important lesson in life: "What is hateful to you, don't do onto others." All the rest of the wisdom, all the rest of the lessons, are commentary on this rule. And everything that seems to be commentary on this rule is not Torah!
The Priests teach in a cruel fashion how to use a 'builder's rod' and other exact measuring tools. Hillel teaches us softly and gently we just need to be good people. Hopefully we can succeed at that.
Dear Israeli Rabbinate, what is hateful to you – don't do onto others.
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas
Click here to read this article in Hebrew