Tuesday, February 2, 2016

On Being Commanded, and Our Values – Inquiry and Homage

Note:  Posting this for the response it received especially the bit that is now in bold and italics that is a reworking of the Ten Commandments in a more values based, general English than the specifics of the original, but, imho, still consistent with the original,,,

Musings for Parshat Yitro – January 29, 2016
Rabbi Steve Weisman, Temple Solel, Bowie MD

We have just heard the stirring sound of the “Ten Commandments.”  The words are still powerful and transformative some 3000 years later.  They still raise fascinating challenges for us tonight, even as we hear them rehearsed again – we may not all be able to recite them verbatim and in order, even with an assist from the windows of this sanctuary, but we certainly KNOW what they say to us as a whole.

Question number one – what do these words really give to us, as American Reform Jews of the early 21st century?  We, who do not believe in the compulsive nature of halachah – a comprehensive system of Jewish ritual and legal proscriptions that are binding upon our behavior.  So, what hold do these words REALLY have upon us?

Indeed, some have accused us, as a movement, of reducing these to the “Ten Commitments,” or “Ten Promises.”  After all, there is assuredly a difference between “I will try to observe Shabbat,” and “You shall observe Shabbat.”  And, if we are being honest, most of us, even those who have chosen to be here tonight, for whatever reason, and are therefore more aware of the reality of Shabbat in our lives in some way, are probably more comfortable with the former commitment than we are with the latter command.

For me, I choose to see these “Ten Words” (the literal translation of the Hebrew term for the words we read earlier – Aseret HaDibrot, and NOT the expected Aseret HaMitzvot) as the beginning and core of the basic values that Torah teaches us about what it means to be a “good” Jew.  To paraphrase them:  

...Think intentionally about God, and the role of the Divine in our lives.  
...Establish rituals for our lives, 
...and be careful in our use of words. 
...Set aside time to escape from the everyday world, recharge ourselves, and do things we don’t have time for during the rest of the week that allow us to remember and reconnect with God’s presence in our lives and the world.  
...Honor our parents, and all others who have been powerful (and positive, we hope) influences on us.  
...Value life, not just our own, but others'.  
...Value our relationships – of all kinds.  
...Respect what does not belong to us..., and those to whom it does belong.  
...Speak the truth and act upon it. 

Restated this way, these words can play a significant role in our lives, without forcing us to embrace a particular set of behaviors.  That is the beauty of values as opposed to commands – the latter demand obedience; the former require commitment to and investment in them.  Restated this way, they are more than theoretical, idealized goals – they instead become the foundation for all that we do as Jews,  even if we each interpret them differently and derive different paths of action from them.  Which hints at a question we need to return to in just a moment.

This reinterpretation leads to a second set of questions, that stem from this one – what does it mean for us, in this day and age, to be “commanded”?  This question requires us to confront our understanding of and relationship to and with our God.  Does God command us today?  If so, in what ways?  And how do we know?  And, for many of us, before we can get to those questions, we must confront even more basic questions about God – Do we believe in God?  If so, what do we believe about God?  How confident are we in these beliefs?  And, a question that seems to become more significant every day – how do we interact with God, and with those who have different understandings than we do about God?

Each of these is worthy of its own sermon and discussion.  For tonight, as Rabbi of this congregation, I am far less concerned with the specific details of our answers to each of these questions as I am that we have answers to them at all.  Because, without answers, we cannot approach the bigger questions that surround the idea of being commanded.  With them, even when we disagree, we at least have the beginnings of finding common ground, on which we can take the next few steps of our journey together.

This, too, hints at the same question we delayed raising earlier – How do our personal understandings about God, commandments, and being commanded impact our own words, behaviors, attitudes, our actions, our interactions and relationships with each other?  Our answers to this question are critical to how we live our lives, and are heavily influenced by our answers to all the previous questions we have raised tonight.

If we see the Commandments as requirements of a commanding God, then not only do we feel compelled to follow them, but to judge others – and ourselves - by how we perceive them succeeding or failing at following the Commandments as well.  Does anyone else recognize that reality in the headlines from our world today?  I sure do!

If we see them as Commandments, but are not sure of their Source or the process thru which we become commanded, how can we hope to succeed in acting as we are expected to act?  Here, too, I believe we can all recognize many truths about life today playing out in this reality.

If we see them as Suggestions, Commitments, or Promises, even if we have a high comfort level with God, and more so if we do not, what distinguishes these from other suggestions, commitments, or promises from other sources, at other levels of significance? What compels us to follow through on these, to act upon them better than in other cases?

BUT, if we see these words as the beginning and core of our system of values, then it is possible to embrace them with or without a solid sense of God’s place in our lives.  Indeed, these values can, and, one might contend, actually DO, lead us toward God.  And, even more, toward each other – whether we agree with their interpretations or not – BECAUSE WE ARE JOURNEYING, IF NOT ON THE SAME PATH AS THESE OTHERS, THEN ON PATHS THAT CAN BE EASILY SEEN AS BEING PARALLEL TO THEIRS, MERGING WITH THEIRS AT TIMES, or HEADING TO THE SAME PLACE AS THEIRS.

This understanding also allows us to balance better the twin pulls of modern liberal Judaism – accepting and embracing the tradition we have received from previous generations, even as we try to understand and reimagine what Judaism means for us today and tomorrow.

None of this can occur effectively in a haphazard manner.  This only works with personal commitment – to embrace tradition, to strive to develop our Judaism for our own realities, to reach out for God, to accept the values, and to reach beyond the self to journey with others. To live with integrity, consistency, and deliberate intention. 

Which is why, before God made these words known directly to ALL the Israelites gathered at the base of the mountain, God instructed Moses to have our ancestors prepare themselves for 3 days to receive what they would see and hear.  It is why God set physical limits around the base of the mountain, so that they had to maintain a respectful distance, in order to enjoy a sense of appropriate perspective.  And these preparations and precautions are a good lesson for us in our efforts to be intentional in our approach to the Commandments as well!

For these reasons and more, these words, these teachings, these values from this week’s Torah, are elevated above others in how I seek to live as a Jew.  In the words of Gates of Prayer – these words are equal to all the others of our tradition, because they lead to them all.  Without the values gleaned from this portion, from these three critical sets of questions raised by what we read tonight, it would be far more difficult, if not impossible, to live our lives in ways that allow us to connect effectively with each other, to walk together with and towards God in a Jewish way.  Btw, these 3 sets of questions align well with the elemental triangle of Judaism – our understanding of and relationship with God, Torah, and our fellow Jews - the basis of our Covenant with God!

Which is where my message should end.  However, I beg your indulgence for one more minute, as I acknowledge a deep debt.  I could not express this message, this essence of my understanding of Judaism today, were it not for having been privileged to learn from Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, quite possibly the leading Jewish thinker of the second half of the 20th Century, who raised these very questions, and led three generations of Reform Rabbis (and religious scholars of all stripes) to confront the answers for ourselves, and the Jewish people.

Gene left us last Friday, a few days short of his 92nd birthday.  My own relationship with Borowitz began long before I reached his class at HUC, when he encouraged me, as a teenager, to follow my interest in Judaism and the Rabbinate.  The encouragement he provided to me, the interest he showed to a young man who sat behind him in the pews at Community Synagogue in Port Washington (where he, too, was a member), were instrumental in my decision to become a Rabbi.  The example he provided as a teacher and Rabbi, and the intellectual integrity and rigor he demanded of me, and every student he learned from, is the same one I seek to provide today.  I hope and pray, and believe, that if he is capable of looking down upon us now, he may have been listening into these words tonight, no doubt with his green pen ready to make corrections, or raise unconsidered questions or inconsistencies in what I have spoken.  If he is, for the first time since I walked into his classroom, I hope and believe that he may find little reason to use that pen.  He was a blessing to me, and so many others, and with these words tonight, I hope I have been able to share that blessing.  May we embrace his challenge, and learn the lessons he sought to teach us all, and share them with future generations.

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