Korach and a Rich Mess
I was at Crane Lake Camp yesterday explaining Reform Judaism to 25 Israelis. That is always an interesting experience since for most of them, this was their first chance to learn about Reform Judaism as opposed to being amused.
The first major issue I discussed was the lack of desire for a third Temple in Jerusalem and no interest in restarting animal sacrifice. Why I picked that I don’t know but it turned out to be a really great choice because while these Israelis were all over the place in terms of what they know about Jewish religious practice they all know about the charedim, the ultra orthodox going on and on about the third Temple. When they found out that Reform Judaism wants to be serious about Judaism without the third Temple, they were impressed; that was a huge eye opener for many of them. They really had new appreciation for what we do because they realized that while they still were suspicious of our crazy music and changing prayers, they had to respect that we were not crazy like those other guys. A whole new level of disrespect would have to be developed or, actually, perhaps, a whole new appreciation.
I had a conversation with a student this week who didn’t believe in God which really isn’t a big deal and here’s why. When I heard the description of God he didn’t believe in, I responded that I didn’t believe that either. We have so many of our people, children and adults, who received or created an image of a personal God wielding supernatural powers they just can’t accept. So many of us have some juvenile idea that doesn’t seem consistent with what really happens in the world today. So I tried to explain that the vision of God in the Torah has evolved, that lots of Jews believe in a more transcendent vision of God or a more mystical view of God; anything but the antiquated portrayal of God in the Torah. After all, in the Tanach itself, God’s portrayal changes quite a lot from being a personal character talking directly to being a sense found in a vision by the prophets to being noble ideas expressed in Proverbs to being absent in Esther. There is no reason to stick with just one vision of God. I’m hoping that my student develops new reasons to disrespect Jewish theology or perhaps develop a whole new appreciation.
I was going over the parashah today and noticed how God is portrayed as livid and quick to destroy all the Israelites. This is terribly rash and only the quick thinking of Moses gets God to decide to skip killing everyone in favor of killing the guilty. When it comes to knowing God, even God isn’t sure about how God acts. Moses knows that God isn’t just one thing, that God is not limited to one single definition. In this context, where God is a personal God, you can be angry at God and disrespect God but this characterization of God who listens and changes and is open to better thinking forces us to develop new reasons to disrespect God in the Torah or perhaps develop a deeper awareness and appreciation of just how God is portrayed.
I’ve been working with boys and girls who are slogging through their preparations to become adults in the Jewish community and whether they come with large amounts of attitude or so shy they barely squeak, you can’t help see their pride at having accomplished the goal. On the one hand, we certainly don’t need this semi-ancient ritual done in an organized way to acknowledge budding adulthood. A backyard barbecue could suffice. But on the other hand, seeing how the kids embrace their role and walk through the moments of this organized rite, how parents and family find meaning in their child doing what so many others have done, how embracing and celebrating the organized aspects of our people connects us to something beyond ourselves, we gain a deeper awareness and appreciation of what is happening before us.
I’ve been preparing to give blessings to people as they embark on a new experience, accomplish an 18 year goal, get ready for a new stage in their lives I wonder, why me? What blessings do I have to give? If Korach came to me I would have had half a mind to say, fine, you do the blessings. Who am I that I can channel a personal God since I find meaning in the more transcendent, mystical understandings anyway? But then, I remember that what is truly important is not just this blessing but the moment. The words are words of the personal God, but the moment is the moment of a transcendent God, where we gather in a special place for a special purpose with people going through a special time and we invoke the words as a mantra that lift us up and away from the words and out into the sense that these people are blessed not in some magical way but by being connected to all of us who have graduated high school, gone to Israel, stood under a chuppah. The words are formulaic on purpose. They are familiar to the point of fading away so that the experience takes precedence. Few of us remember the blessing we received under the chuppah but we remember the power of being there. We remember little the brave words spoken to us at our high school graduations and the solemn words of wisdom offered by this or that relative but we remember being connected with the ceremony and being offered those words of wisdom as though we had arrived to the point where we were worthy of such conversations.
The blessing is a ritual and the ritual connects us to the past and the future. It fulfills a promise to our ancestors and makes a promise to our descendents. It says as it was your time, now it is my time and one day it will be my child’s time. It says our values and ethics are good and we will continue to live by them and we will teach them to those who follow. It says that being part of a community means we are never alone and that our community exists wherever we go around the globe. Yes, you can do a back yard blessing and it will be nice enough but making the effort to come here, to this special place, for this special purpose, elevates it to a spiritual level as it connects us with something much larger than ourselves. And we affirm that, we agree with that, we second that as we say amen, and so let us all say, amen.
We are a people of a rich mess. What we say and what we do means more than what we say and what we do. Sometimes what we say and what we do is not believed on any literal level but leads to deeper understanding oh so meaningful to those in the know and at best curious and at worse nonsense to those who do not understand. We have multiple levels of understanding and meaning and value to the exact same practice or ritual. We hold deep feeling that is felt uniformly but experienced completely uniquely. We are a rich mess so complicated to understand and so powerful once you do. We are a complicated, sophisticated, intelligent, multilayered which takes thought and energy to truly understand and that’s pretty cool.