Thursday, April 5, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Shabbat 22 Nissan 5778 - OTD: On and Off the Derekh?

This is one of those weird situations one encounters in the world of liberal Judaism. In the traditional world (and for most Conservative and even Reconstructing Jews) it’s not an issue at all. Observing 8 days of Pesakh is the norm. Therefore, on this Shabbat, they will use the Torah and Haftarah readings for Pesakh Day 8 when it falls on Shabbat.  Unless, of course, they are in Israel, where only 7 days are observed. So, for the next 6 Shabbatot, the Diaspora and Israel will be out of sync for the parashat hashavua – the weekly Torah reading. Traditionalists holding to an 8th day of Pesakh will be a week behind Israel, and will “fix” the problem by combining the last two parashiyot of Leviticus, Behar and B’khukotai, as is also done during other years of the 19-year soli-lunar Jewish calendar when necessary. So on May 19th, Israel and the Diaspora will be back in synchronization again as far as weekly Torah readings.

Reform Judaism, not wishing to make things too confusing, gives a nod to tradition and strives to stay in synchronization with the Diaspora cycle – and does so with the somewhat strange adaptation of dividing parashat Sh’mini into two parts – this week, Lev 9:1-10:11 and next week 10:12-11:47. Similarly, they divide the Haftarah up, the first week II Samuel 6:1-23 and the next week II Samuel 7:1-17. It should be noted that not all Reform congregations follow this custom.

So the question becomes “about what do I write this week?”  The 8th day of Pesakh reading with chunked up sections of Deuteronomy chapters 14-16 with an added maftir reading from Numbers 28, the hafatarah for Pesakh 8 from Isaiah Chapter 10, or the first half texts for parashat Sh’mini and the haftarah from II Samuel?

I could choose, I suppose, based on my custom of observance. Aye, but here’s the rub. I revel in my inconsistency, and go back and forth from time to time and even year to year between observing 7 or 8 days of Pesakh. Adding further to the ironic nature of my inconsistency is how often I have challenged, in these musings and elsewhere, the now somewhat ridiculous practice of continuing to observe second-day yom tovim where modern science has clearly eliminated all uncertainties. (The second day yom tovim having been added at a time when distant communities could not be certain of the exact times in Israel, so an extra day was added to play it safe.)

An additional rub – here it is just before the eve of the 7th day of Pesakh, and I am as yet undecided if I will observe the dietary restrictions for 7 or 8 days. It should be any easy decision, given my position about the obviation of the need for second-day yom tovim. However, I always strive to make such decisions with full intent and with comfort as to my choices. It would be much easier for me if I simply followed orthodox/traditional practice consistently, or Reform practice consistently. Actually, I suspect following traditional practice would ultimately be easier. While I’ll be the first to admit that a large percentage of people who consider themselves Reform Jews do not make conscious theological decisions on such things, and simply default to the simpler and easier option of 7 days without much thought, I am not one of them, and I am not alone. (I also believe the same hold true for many Conservative and Reconstructing Jews.) (Hey, don’t blame me, I’m not the one who changed the name from reconstructionist to reconstructing. I’m just trying to respect that choice, as much as I struggle with it.) Were I an adherent  to orthodox practice, there would not be a choice to make. The halakhah is clear. I do not mean to imply that living an orthodox life is easy. It is filled with many challenges. I do not mean to imply that orthodox Jews do not discuss and debate aspects of the halakhah – they do frequently. There are certainly small areas of difference in orthodox practice between different groups that fall under the orthodox umbrella (which is why even defining orthodoxy as simply adherence to Halakhah is problematic.) By and large, however, on the macro-scale of things, most orthodox Jews agree on accepted halakhic practices.

The Reform Judaism of the 50, 60s, 70s, and 80s was of a kind – and it developed its own set of customs, practices, and default preferences. From the 80s and on into the 90s, 00, 10s, and soon the 20s Reform has seen  significant change – though not all of it consistently towards one common understanding. It started with Jews of my stripe – who were convinced that Reform had indeed thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and yearned for reincorporation of some of the practices and liturgy that had been thrown aside. The new siddur, Mishkan T’fila, was largely a reflection of that yearning. It gave us back the choice to say m’khayeh hameitim in the G’vurot, recognizing that those words need not necessarily represent a desire for the clearly unscientific idea of a physical resurrection of the dead (though is anything – even the unscientific – truly impossible for G”d?) It provided the text for those who wished to do all the paragraphs of the Sh’ma. I’ve only scratched the surface of what the new siddur did. It also seems to have had some unintended consequences. WARNING – really long run-on sentence – try to follow. Though I am thrilled to see it include the full set of prayers in both the weekday and Shabbat amidah, coincident with the adoption of Mishkan T’filah the practice of reading the avot/g’vurot/kedusha followed by silent prayer until the end of the amidah – a harkening back to a more traditional practice in which the entire amidah is silent (the first time through – as it is repeated in a traditional service by the chazzan or leader of the service, with some communal responses) – has sadly deprived us of many brilliant and inspiring musical settings of the remaining prayers of the amidah.

One encounters many variations in practice when visiting Reform congregations around the country. While this might be a good thing, it becomes an even greater challenge for we Jewish educators who work in Reform settings, who, as part of our goals, have always wanted to enable our students to feel comfortable attending worship in other congregations. It’s difficult enough to prepare them for the differences they will encounter in Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructing, Chabad, Sephardi, and other settings – yet it is also an educational opportunity to teach them the theological underpinnings of the choices made by the various movements and how that impacts the liturgy. Trying to explain to students the not always small and subtle differences they might encounter from one Reform congregation to another can be really challenging. (I should also note at this point that one can certainly observe the same phenomena in Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructing, and other Jewish settings. Though they often lack enough background to understand the differences, I still find it a worthwhile practice to help students to note and try to understand these differences even among the supposedly homogenous Orthodox Judaism. As an adult Jew, I would find myself very lacking were I not able to understand such things. This is why I study Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh, the writings of the great sages and commentators, the writings of modern orthodox scholars, and participate actively in Facebook groups with Jews of all stripes – even ones where the liberal Jews are a clear minority. (Yes, sadly there are some groups where liberal Jews or traditional Jews would be unwelcome.) Even if I were not holding myself to the standard of informed choice that underlies Reform practice I would want to understand the parts of my Judaism which I do not practice – out of simple curiosity if nothing more.

Even writing all this out loud, I’m no closer to deciding if I’ll observe 7 or 8 days of Pesakh this year. As I’ve said – I revel in my inconsistency. I’ve kept Kosher at times in my life. I’ve also eaten foods which are not kosher at times. There are some things I do consistently. Though I do inconsistently observe 7 or 8 days of Pesakh, for all of those 7 or 8 days I do not eat food that is considered not Kosher for Pesakh. (As to kitniyot-a word meaning legumes, but expanded to include grains and seeds such as rice, corn, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, soybeans, peas, and lentils-which Ashkenazi Jews generally do not eat on Pesakh but Sephardim do - I’ve gone both ways. Nowadays, it seems even many orthodox Ashkenazim suddenly become Sephardi during Pesakh so they can consume kitniyot.  Same for gebrokts, I gone both ways - though that one was just to difficult to do with any consistency and I only tried it one year. Give up matzah balls and matzah brei? Pesadike cakes? Never! (Gebrokts, literally meaning “broken” is a term for matzah that has absorbed some moisture. It’s really a modern practice, only going back a few hundred years. Both the Talmud and Rashi seem to approve of the practice of mixing matzah and water, as long as the matzah was properly prepared within the 18 minute limit, it cannot again be made chametz by combining with water, hold most poskim (deciders.) But in the spirit of “my Judaic practice is more stringent than your Judaic practice” which seems to maintain its  annoyingly fervent grip upon the Orthodox world, not eating gebrokts and/or kitniyot has become a point of pride among many Ashkenazi sects.)

Seem what I mean? The idea that following Orthodox practice is any easier is silly on its face. Yes, the basic understanding of modern Orthodox practice is, when unsure, ask your LOR (local Orthodox rabbi.) Orthodoxy has, over the centuries, really thought about how to keep the commandments, even as the world changes. There’s a reason there’s an Institute for Science and Halakhah. I, and other liberal Jews may not find the halakha binding, but I think we deceive ourselves when we assume the Reform ideal of informed choice is necessarily the more difficult path than the orthodox one. It is true that, for the most part, the Orthodox have a path, a derekh to follow, and that could, possibly, make the destination easier to reach. The liberal Jew must contend with many possible paths, and, along each path. many, many choices. Now, if you’re the kind of liberal Jew who just says “chuck it all, I ain’t doing that, I’m Reform” – well, good luck to you. You may very well find your path rather easy to navigate. Me, and other liberal Jews who try to abide by the idea of informed choice, it is just as possible for us to go, as the Orthodox say, OTD – off the derekh. It’s a harder condition to ascertain, for sure, since they are so many paths, so many choices and options available to us. It would be easy for me and other liberal Jews who follow the informed choice route to simply write off the “we don’t do that, we’re Reform” crowd as being OTD in Reform terms. But who are any of us to make that judgment of another?

For some, the path, the derekh, is found in the words of the oral Torah, the Talmud, the Shulkhan Aruch and other commentaries and writings. For others, the path is found by examining the ideas found in all those texts and working to find a modern understanding that works with the world as we know it. For yet others, it is a constant process of finding a path, losing it, finding another (or the same path, without regard to ancient writings in which we place no stock other than a grudging respect for their centuries of tradition. It seems to me that whatever path we choose, even if it changes from moment to moment, it remains possible to fall off that path, to be OTD.

If I choose to observe only 7 days this year, will I feel like, on the 8th day, that I might have gone OTD? Or is it possible, if I observe 8 days, that, on the 8th day, I feel like I’ve gone OTD?

If, as we are taught, the gates of t’shuva – return/repentance – are always open, then going OTD need not be something to be feared. If we can find our way back to our path (or to a new path that fits us better) it will be as if we had returned. We should always allow ourselves that latitude, and not be so hard on ourselves if we find ourselves off the path. I remain unconvinced that having a well-worn, well-trod path, such as one encounters in traditional Judaism, makes t’shuvah, returning to the path, any harder or easier than for those whose Judaism allows them to experience a multitude of paths. Both are hard. Both take effort. Both take courage. Both are Jewishly meaningful. Both can also be paths of least resistance. Both can be the easy way out. Both can be abrogating your individual responsibilities.

Besides, which, and you knew this was coming. Ultimately, who cares about the path so much? It’s not the destination that really matters. It’s the journey.

Journey down your road, dear friends.

Shabbat Shalom (and Chag Kasher v’Pesakh Sameiakh to you 8-dayers,)

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5777 - Valley of The Donald
April 11, 2015 - Cop Out
Pesakh 5775 - Day Off (Literally)
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5773 - The Whole House of Israel
Pesach 5772 - Don't Believe This
Pesach 8th Day 5772 - The Bread of Freedom
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5771-Admat Yisrael
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5769 - Valley of the Dry Economy
Pesach VII 5768 - Department of Redundant Anamnesis Department
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5767-Not Empty
Intermediate Shabbat of Passover 5766-A Lily Among Thorns
Pesach VII 5761 (Revised 5765)
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5764-Dem Bones & Have We Left Gd behind? (5578-60)
Hol Hamoed Pesach 5763-No Empty Gestures (Redux 5762)
5761-Pesach VII-Redundant Anamnesis

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