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personal Jewish practice


Shabbat Bo 5778 | January 20, 2018
Here’s an unusual memory from the annals of American Jewish history. A unique story within the larger story of the Jewish people.
It was July 11, 1883 in Cincinnati, Ohio. 100 rabbinic and lay leaders, representing 76 congregations from across America came together to celebrate the first American rabbinic ordination ceremony. It was a rare moment of Jewish unity and diversity. After the ordination event, they gathered for a festive meal.
At the banquet, many non-kosher foods were served during the lavish nine-course meal. This was not the organizers’ plan. It was the result of careless oversight. The caterer was unaware that many of the guests did not eat shellfish. No one from the planning group checked the menu. The chairman, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, President of the Hebrew Union College who presided at the ordination event and celebration, knew the banquet, which came to be called the Trefa Banquet, was a mistake. Unfortunately, the damage was done.
The more traditional rabbis in attendance at the HUC ordination decided to establish a more religiously observant rabbinical seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, from which I was ordained a rabbi 100 years later (although this story has nothing to do with me.) In part, this is how the Conservative Judaism we practice here at Congregation Beth El came into being.
Why, you ask, on this lovely January Shabbat, do I recount this story? It’s a good question.
The other night it was my privilege to speak at our Women’s Connection Rosh Hodesh program. We learned about the origins and meanings of Jewish ritual garb, in particular kippah and tallit, and we discussed how women here at Beth El honor and use these symbols. I asked the women present to think about finding personal meaning in using ritual items and whether or not our communal practice reflects our egalitarian values.
During our discussion, I was asked an excellent question. How does someone decide, how does a synagogue community or religious movement decide, how to practice? What symbols to use or not? What observances to honor, disregard, or modify? How to choose? I myself asked this. How do we create communal norms and respect individual preferences?
Last week in San Francisco a group of rabbis and foodies, as they are described, gathered for a meal they called “Trefa Banquet 2.0.” Their menu included Peanut Butter Pie with Bacon and Pulled Pork Potato Kugel. Their purpose was to consciously and publicly tie their preference for non-kosher food to the Jewish historical experience, to say provocatively and derisively my choice not to observe is my personal chapter in the story of the Jewish people.
I have no beef with their personal choices. I am not arguing for observance, per se, although I do believe there is great ethical purpose and personal meaning in honoring Kashrut, our Kosher Dietary tradition. I believe we must all respect the significance each one of us finds, or does not find, in the customs, symbols, and expressions of our shared story as Jews.
I am unhappy when we mock each other’s decisions. I am unhappy when we disrespect the meanings others find in Jewish tradition even if we don’t. I am unhappy when we inaccurately portray the past and the origins of our sacred symbols. I may not practice being Jewish as you do. I may never mock how you do Jewish.
At this moment in time, in this current period of Jewish experience, the only thing that binds us together as a people is valuing our shared narrative and respecting each and every Jew’s opportunity to tell their unique chapter of our common story. I always want us to grow in our knowledge. I always want to encourage our celebration and engagement with Jewish rituals and values. I never want us to separate from one another because our individual or family backgrounds, temperaments, and circumstances lead us down different paths of Jewish commitment.
This morning we read the Jewish people’s master story. Anyone who feels in this story the power, drama and moral significance of our ancestor’s exodus from slavery to freedom discovers the purpose and meaning of being a Jew. Judaism is not rooted in ethnicity, race or personal origin. It is the religious and cultural heritage of all of us who tell this story as our own.
Our master story, the story of the Exodus, represents a new moment in time, a new consciousness in history. Freedom, equality and goodness are to be the promise of life’s opportunity. Memory of what was and a vision of what ought to be are our people’s purpose.
We remember the Exodus for the sake of the future, not the past. Memory trains morality. We remember the wrongs we suffered so that we may not inflict them on others. We Jews remember the story our past in order not to repeat it.
One of the most familiar Exodus symbols is God’s command to the Israelites to take the blood of a lamb and put it on the doorposts of their homes. “And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you; when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”
Interesting, marking the doorpost is not an announcement to God or others. It is a reminder for the people who do it. Some in tradition imagine the blood to have been placed inside of the slave’s homes, for only them to see. Others imagine the courage it must have taken the Israelites to defy the Egyptians and demonstrate pride in their unique identity. Still other voices suggest that by this act they showed themselves ready to respond to God and accept the responsibilities of their impending freedom.
Here’s how to determine your standard Jewish ritual observance. Seek a reminder of your values. Demonstrate pride in your identity. Respond to life and the goodness you seek. Learn what, why, and how about a particular ritual object or practice. Don’t assume what you think is accurate. Ask and explore. Open yourself up to a new experience. Try it on. See how it fits and feels. Determine if what you now understand and have done is meaningful to you.
But, personal meaning is an insufficient measure. Also ask about the community you belong to. Do others you respect and admire find this practice to be significant? Is it important to and in your community? Does it represent a value or ideal you honor or aspire to?
Like our ancient Israelite ancestors who chose to tie their individual destinies together and become a people, our behaviors can connect us in community and bind each of us to the story of the Jewish people we are telling with our lives and our choices.
There are many unusual and unique anecdotes and chapters in our people’s story. Let’s be careful to tell any and all of them in the spirit of affirmation and appreciation. Choose what you will. Connect as you choose. Respectfully. Tastefully. Joyously, and accurately.
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784