From the Rabbi

RR April 2021

Rosh Chodesh Sameach! For the month of Tammuz, ask yourself this: what are the ways in which I have resisted doing teshuva because I’ve been afraid that it’s not possible?

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Naso – The Nazir and the Dangers of Moral Exceptionalism (5/21/21)

I have been struggling this week, to figure out what Torah has to say to me in this moment. Only a few days ago, we celebrated the receiving of Torah on Shavuot, and I learned so many beautiful teachings at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. One of the pillars of my personal faith, whatever else I might doubt, is that Torah always has something relevant to teach us.

But I have also been painfully aware of the ways in which attachment to the promises of Torah, and a general sense of religious exceptionalism on the part of a large faction of Israeli Jews, have exacerbated the violence that overtook Israel, the West Bank and Gaza these past two weeks. When I heard, for example, from Israelis on the ground, about busloads of Jewish Israelis coming to Israel’s mixed cities to participate in riots targeting Israeli Arabs, when I read about the graffiti of “mavet l’Aravim” spray painted in Arab neighborhoods, there was a part of me that wanted to recoil and say, “not my Torah.” “Not my Jewish people.” It is related, I assume, to the impulse that led many progressive Americans to use the slogan “not my president” during the previous administration.

But I never liked the slogan “not my president,” because I understand that in a democracy, our leaders implicate us all. And I cannot say, “not my Torah,” and God forbid I should ever say, “not my Jewish people.” Though it may be easier, by far, to feel kinship with the innocent Israeli children, shuddering in a bomb shelter, or innocent Gazan children killed or made homeless, I must own my kinship to the Israelis who roamed the streets, seeking innocents to assault (even if they do not feel much kinship to me). They are part of my Jewish people, and they are invoking my Torah, which I love so much, even though I condemn the violence.

So, I have been considering all week the nazir, referred to in English as the “Nazirite.”

Described in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, a Nazir is a person who takes a vow to abstain from certain activities that are otherwise permitted by Torah: during the duration of the vow , they do not drink wine or even consume any grape product (such as raisins or vinegar), they do not cut their hair, and they do not enter a cemetery or come into any contact with a dead body. As Rabbi Jonathan Sackx, Z’”l wrote, “Becoming a Nazarite was, it seems, a way of temporarily assuming the kind of set-apartness associated with the priesthood, a voluntary extra degree of holiness.”

Our sages of blessed memory were a little uncomfortable with the nazir. They note that once the term of the vow is completed, the nazir always has to bring a chatat, a sin offering. At multiple places in the Talmud[1], this comment appears: “R. Elazar HaKafar son of Rabbi said: What does the verse, And he will atone for him insofar as he sinned against the soul (BeMidbar 6:11), come to teach? Against which soul did he sin? Only in that he deprived himself. . .” The rabbinic opinion is that that it is sinful to become a nazir – that, in fact, disavowing completely that which is permitted (grape products), is a form a transgression. If we seek holiness by trying to set ourselves apart beyond what tradition requires, we transgress.

Dena Weiss of Hadar teaches, “[The nazir] decides that because wine can be an enabler of bad decisions, alcohol and wine have to be cut out entirely, “from the skins to the pits.” This is a sin against the self, not only—or even 6 primarily—because wine is pleasurable, but because when you cut yourself off from what is permissible, it makes it harder to resist what is truly forbidden. If everything is prohibited without exception and without regard for what is reasonable, then people will need to sin in order to survive. If what is permitted becomes forbidden, then what needs to be forbidden may end up becoming permitted.”

Dena Weiss says that the nazir errs in attempting to opt out the slippery slope of messy human behaviors altogether. Taken with Rabbi Sacks’ understanding of the nazir as a character who is seeking a higher level of holiness than that which has been assigned to them, we see a certain exceptionalism at play: whether for the sake of resisting temptation, or for the sake of spiritual elevation, the nazirim set themselves apart, and to do so is sinful. They do the Jewish people no good by performing gratuitous purity.

So how is the caution against the nazir in Torah a caution to me in this moment?

One of the ideological innovations of Reconstructionist Judaism for the hundred years of its existence is the rejection of the notion of Jews as “the Chosen People.” This is reflected in our unique liturgy – our versions of Aleinu, Kiddush and Torah blessings remove all references to God choosing Israel over other peoples. I haven’t ever particularly felt that strongly about the language; personally I am comfortable with the idea that the Israelite people are chosen for Torah just as other people are chosen for other experiences of Divine revelation. But I appreciate Reconstructionism’s commitment to dismantling a sense of moral hierarchy between Jews and the rest of the world.

But it’s easier intended than fulfilled: How many of us have ever thought, regarding some awful behavior, “Jews don’t do that!” How many of us have assumed that because we have suffered so much Jews must have higher moral sensibility? And how many, when we hear of Jews or the Jewish state committing violence, feel that we must either justify it as legitimate and utterly necessary OR loudly perform a ritual of purity – “those Jews are not representing Judaism!” We psychologically continue to enact and idea of Jewish exceptionalism that does not make room for the trauma, the greed, the violence that we would do better to admit exists even within our own community.

In this moment, just as the nazir’s gratuitous purity does the Jewish people no good, it does the Jewish people and the world no good to pretend that the violence and the trauma in Israel are not part of us. The trauma is our trauma. The violence is our violence. We are implicated. Whether it comes easy to you to defend Israel or you resent hearing about it in the news, as Jews in America, we are connected to Israel. To refuse that connection when we feel distaste or horror at what happens there is to perform gratuitous purity, and it does no one any good.

So, two days into the ceasefire, as Israelis warily leave bomb shelters, as Gazans urgently seek shelter, I encourage those of us who only engage with Israel at crisis times to make a commitment to continuing to engage now. Israeli society is not a monolith; Palestinian society is not a monolith, and even now, there are many amazing organizations on the ground their striving to build society together. One of my personal favorites is EcoPeace Middle East, whose founder, Gidon Bromberg, spoke here a year and a half ago, but please share other recommendations in the chat.

Let us remember that Torah itself is ever-evolving, a living document compiled of the conversation of all Jews throughout the ages, as long as we continue to opt in. So let us continue to transmit and receive Torah, with all its joy and pain.

[1] Bava Kamma 91b, Nedarim 10a, Nazir 19a and 22a, and more. . .

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Reopening and Jewish Values (May/June 2021)

Spring is moving towards summer, and with the increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccination, and increasing numbers of individuals vaccinated in our community, many of us are feeling hopeful about the ways we may reconnect in person after so much time spent physically distant from each other.

While I know that many of us are excited to re-engage in person, it is important that we take stock of the realities of our community.

It is my fervent hope that all of our members who are eligible for the vaccine will receive it. To participate in vaccination and building herd immunity is to fulfill the mitzvah of u’vacharta v’chayim: “choose life.”

Even if all our members who are eligible for vaccination were to receive it, however, the fact will remain that vaccination is not possible for everyone in our community. Many of the people I eagerly wish to see are children under the age of 16, for whom the vaccine is not yet available. We have committed and active members who have medical contraindications to receiving the COVID vaccine. Our community must balance our commitment to choosing life with other core Jewish values including avoiding halbanat panim, causing shame to another; and al tifrosh min hatzibur – not separating the community.

As we look forward to more in-person events, we are not currently planning to require people to provide proof of vaccination to join us. To do so would be to effectively reject children from our community, as well as to subject people with medical complications to scrutiny that may effectively communicate unwelcome. No one attending an in-person event should assume that everyone else in attendance is vaccinated.

This does mean that is upon all of us to maintain community safety, particularly masking and social distancing at our events. We know how to do this; we took great care in our in-person events last summer and throughout this year. We have not had any recorded COVID transmission at any of our events in the past year, baruch Hashem (thank God).

The process of reconnecting is not going to be a mirror of the process by which we moved our programming and community virtual in March and April of 2020. Then, we had to act quickly, for the sake of saving lives and maintaining community. As we reopen, we will have to be deliberate and cautious – again, for the sake of saving lives and maintaining community.

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In resistance of a two-tiered community

The Register-Guard (May 8, 2021)

Could vaccination please not become yet another issue that polarizes our discourse and our community?

In the past month, I have heard vaccinated people refer to unvaccinated people in terms that suggest that they are deliberately putting the public at risk, while I have heard unvaccinated people suggest that vaccinated people are little better than sheep, letting pharmaceutical companies do our thinking for us.

We are very used to letting every issue become a moral binary, but I hope we can step back from the brink on this one.

To do so, of course, will require some ideological and logistical concessions on everyone’s part.

I can go first: As a vaccinated person who believes that everyone who is eligible should get vaccinated, I acknowledge that there are plenty of reasons to be hesitant about a new medical fix. Many individuals have experienced trauma because of the medical establishment’s focus on interventions that corrected (or ignored) symptoms without pursuing holistic health. Many marginalized communities have long histories of injustice at the hands of the Western medical system. And pharmaceutical companies have given us reason to be suspicious.

I ask, however, that the vaccine-hesitant and -refusing among us acknowledge the historical wonder that none of us must fear smallpox, that parents let their children play in the U.S. without fear of polio, that a scrape on a rusty nail doesn’t mean death by tetanus. In short, vaccines have been a huge boon for humanity, and despite pharmaceutical companies being by law focused exclusively on profit, vaccines — including the COVID-19 vaccine — are a vast public good.

Logistical concessions may be harder than ideological concessions, but I don’t want a two-tiered community. So my congregation is trying not to require vaccination as a prerequisite to participation, and working to make most events accessible to everyone, with continued masking and distancing and remaining outdoors. I am willing to accept the awkwardness when, for example, I need to explain to two congregants who are vaccinated why, after we have carefully spaced out our chairs, they cannot move them around to sit together. When a beloved lay leader tells me that he intends to return to participate in outdoor worship “only when everyone else is also vaccinated,” I am willing to explain that he may be separating himself indefinitely.

On the other hand, I expect that those who choose to remain unvaccinated make the logistical concessions of continuing to behave as potential COVID-19 vectors and acknowledge that there are many who remain at risk. That means continuing to mask, distance, wash hands and avoid unnecessary prolonged time in indoor spaces with others, for the sake of the safety of the rest of us (particularly children and those with compromised immune systems).

This responsibility does not abate when those of us who are vaccinated begin to let our guard down. On the contrary, if invited to engage unmasked or at close quarters by someone who is vaccinated and is assuming that everyone else is, too, people who are unvaccinated have the responsibility of clarifying their status.

Let’s embrace the awkward conversations and extra precautions that it will take to reject the moral binary and keep our community healthy.

Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Eugene and writes a monthly column for The Register-Guard.

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