Vayechi

1. Shabbat Shalom

2. When Jacob stretched out his hand to bless his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe, he blessed them saying, “In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.” (Gen. 48:16) Jacob is saying that through these two young men, the names of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be remembered forever.

3. The founder of Chabad Hasidim, the very first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Lyady, makes this great observation on Jacob’s blessing. Shneur Zalman says; “May God bless them as long as they call themselves by traditional biblical names. The most valuable legacy we can leave our children and grandchildren is bequeathing to them the faith that sustained us.” I don’t quote the Lubavitcher Rebbe very often but I thought that this was a remarkable insight. If our children and grandchildren will remain true to our faith, then they will find that the faith that sustains us, will sustain them as well.

4. So let me cut right to the chase here. There are Rabbis today, who don’t seem to understand that they should pass on to our children the faith of our ancestors; they instead preach and practice a faith that, instead of sustaining our children, will be a faith that will destroy them. I am not referring to Reform or Reconstructionist rabbis, not even to the New Age rabbis who don’t seem to connect their faith to much of anything traditional. I turn my attention today to the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis, both here and in Israel, who speak of a faith of fear rather than a faith of hope and who teach bigotry rather than peace. To these extremist rabbis on the far Right, no Jew is good enough. Jews have to be weighted down with every conceivable law to prevent them from going astray.

5. When I first went to college, and began my studies of history, I found historians who noted that the reason the Pilgrims and Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had so many laws that regulated their life was because they feared every moment was an opportunity to go astray. That is the way things are in any religion that seeks to control its members. But it is impossible to create a law for every possible action. We human beings are way too complex to be able to restrict in every fashion. Eventually there is rebellion and the pendulum swings back, away from the extreme, and back to the center.

6. For the past 30 years, from the time I first started Rabbinical School, I understood right away that the trend in Orthodoxy to shift to the Right would be a dead end street for them. I like to apply what I call “the Gunfighter Rule” to their understanding of Jewish Law. A gunfighter in the old west always knew that someday, he would meet another gunfighter who was quicker on the draw than he was. Probably it would be the last person he met. The problem with the Orthodox shift to the Right was that no matter how strict a person could be with Jewish Law in their life, it was inevitable that someday they would find someone else who was stricter than they were.

7. First you had to be Kosher. Then you had to be Glatt Kosher. Now even Glatt is not enough, and there are, in Israel, stricter rules for meat; and even the OU is not good enough for them anymore. Food not only needs to be supervised, but it needs to be supervised by someone who is stringent enough or else, even if he has been supervising for 80 years, his word is no longer good enough. It is not enough that there is a certificate of Kashrut in the window, it has to be the RIGHT certificate or it means nothing.

8. But if we are just arguing about food, then we just have a difference of opinion. However when it comes to personal status issues, then it involves people’s lives. Until about 50 years ago, it was assumed that a Yeshiva student would spend many years in school, even after he was married, but eventually, he would go into business and earn a living to support his family and provide for his retirement. Today, it is expected that the student will remain a student all of his life and his wife, or the parents, will provide him with money to allow him to study full time. If they cannot do this, in Israel this means that they will be subsidized by the State for their studies and live off the taxes of others.

9. Such students don’t serve in the Israeli Army. There are Yeshivot, called “Hesder” Yeshivot, where study is combined with military service. But to these Ultra-Orthodox Jews, such students who serve the State of Israel are not the kind of Jews they would allow their daughters to marry. There are also soldiers who serve in the Israeli Army and convert to Judaism as a result of their service to Israel. The rabbis of the Israel Defense Forces do these conversions all the time. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis refuse to accept their conversions. This week, in the Knesset, a bill passed its first reading that would force the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis to accept these conversions. Shas is now threatening to break out of the coalition. Israel Beiteinu, the party of Russian Jews, who are the ones most likely to be converted in the IDF, insists that they must be accepted.

10. And then, there were, among the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis, a petition, signed by 300 rabbis who are paid by the Chief Rabbanut as municipal rabbis for the different cities and communities in Israel, a petition that declared that it is forbidden to rent an apartment in Israel to a non-Jew. Anyone who rents his or her apartment to a non-Jew would be told that it is forbidden and if they rent it anyway, they would be shunned and refused permission to daven or have an aliyah in shul. I should add that this ruling is against the law in the United States and in Israel. Such a blatant form of bigotry is forbidden by the declaration of independence in Israel and now the Attorney General of Israel is considering charges against these municipal rabbis. Thousands of rabbis all over the world have decried this ruling. But the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis don’t care because they are their own law. They don’t follow Israeli law. They only follow God’s Law, as they interpret it.

11. This is what happens in every case where religious authorities are given political power. Such power eventually brought down the Hasmonean family, the descendants of the Maccabees, who became so corrupt that the Romans eventually came and took over the country from them. It was this kind of political power that brought down the Pope because of the Mortata affair, when he refused to release a child back to a Jewish family after the boy had been kidnapped and converted. Political power among Muslims has led some very wealthy countries to remain, for all purposes, stuck in a medieval mentality, unable to function in the modern world. These two issues in Israel, may finally lead to the end of the Chief Rabbanut in Israel, a governmental body that is so routinely ignored that Israelis don’t pay any attention to their Judaism at all anymore.

12. Religion is a path for each of us to find peace in our lives and peace in living with each other. It is not a contest to see which denomination is the best. Our only task is to see how well we live by the tenets of our faith. Just because someone is stricter in his or her observance, does not make them a better person. A mentch is someone, no matter how meticulous they may be in their observance, is kind, caring and considerate. I would love to see more Jews eat kosher. I would love to see more Jews observe Shabbat and come to pray three times a day. I would love it if every Jew took the time to have a Seder, build a Sukkah and study Torah for at least a few hours every day. But I would prefer that all Jews be mentchen. An observant Jew who is a bigot, racist or prejudiced performs a Hillul HaShem, he desecrates the Name of God. A Jew who cares more about what goes into his mouth than what comes out of his mouth, does a Hillul HaShem, he desecrates God’s name.

13. I started this with a quote from Shneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher rebbe. I have lots of issues with Chabad, but this is not one of them. They are dedicated to living in the real world. I am not an Orthodox Jew but I understand their position in Judaism and while I don’t share their stand, I know that every Jew has to find the way to God that works for them. If Orthodox Judaism works in their life, then that is fine. But when Ultra-Orthodox Jews define themselves as the only true Jews and all the rest of us are sinners, and not worthy of their time and attention, when they claim that their path is the only correct path, when they use political power to force everyone into compliance, they are not significantly different from the religious Right in this country who are constantly trying to write their religious positions into the law for everyone.

14. There must be a full separation of church and state, in this country, and full separation of synagogue and state in Israel. This will not damage the Jewish nature of Israel, in fact, it will strengthen it. When Israelis are finally able to practice Judaism in a way that meets their own spiritual needs, they will turn to Judaism as a place to find peace in their hearts, peace in their communities and peace in their corner of the world.

15. I don’t know if land for peace will really bring peace or not. I don’t know if Israel has a real partner for peace in the region or not. I don’t know what it will take to have secure borders under a two state solution. That is for the politicians to decide. For Jews, we should be preparing for that day, when we will live in peace with our enemies and thus pave the way for the Messianic age. That is the Judaism that I know. That is the Judaism I preach and that is the Judaism that I live every day of my life. I pray that our children attach themselves to this kind of Judaism, the Judaism of our ancestors, and not the kind of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism that brings dishonor to the memories of our Patriarchs.

A faith that would make us bigots and tyrants is no faith for me. I pray that we give up political power to free us so we may live by God’s law in a way that will bring love to our homes, peace to our communities and will bring God into our hearts. May this be our constant prayer.

AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM

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2 thoughts on “Vayechi

  1. My grandmother, the widow of a butcher, once told me never to buy my meat from someone who offered me glatt kosher chicken. "There's no such thing and they're overcharging you." Observance should not be a contest; observance should be acknowledgment of the law with room for discussion and debate. Even Hillel and Shammai debated. There's a name for it when the discussion and debate is removed: chilul ha'Shem.IMHO

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