Fear… or Awe!

“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal One your G-d demand of you? Only this: to revere/ fear (yirah) the Eternal One, your G-d, to walk only in G-d’s paths, to love G-d, and to serve the Eternal One, your G-d, with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12). With this week’s parashah, Eikev, we are commanded to fear, or revere, or be in awe of G-d.  The Hebrew term, yirah, is a problematic one.  The two potential emotions that it suggests have very different connotations and suggest contradictory types of relationships with the Divine.

Fear:  Fear is one of our most basic, primal emotions.  We feel it from earliest childhood.  Fear is not a gentle and loving state.  It brings forth adrenaline, a fight or flight response, the need to be rescued or to escape.  We cannot be comforted by those things that frighten us.

Fear is not always bad, however.  The other side of fear is that it can keep us from engaging in dangerous behaviors.  It can inspire us to behave well, as a way to avoid punishment.  Still, the motivation of fear is self-centered and somewhat child-like.  It is couched in negativity.

Awe is a very different kind of emotion – a higher, more adult way of understanding the things around us.  Awe is about inspiration, beauty, the recognition that there are things in this world that are beyond human reach and understanding.  In some sense awe and fear are opposite sides of a coin.  Both are about the unknown, but one requires a greater depth of thought.  In order to feel awe, we have to appreciate and accept that we understand little.  Through that acceptance, we can avoid fear and embrace awe.

The High Holiday liturgy and music deal extensively with the concept of yirah, both as awe and as fear.  I am troubled by the liturgies and melodies that seek to convey and express fear.  To me, it is like those television shows that sell only sex.  Those pieces are calling out to our most primitive mind in the effort to reach out to our souls.  It’s easy.  It’s a cop out, and yet I am sure that the liturgists felt that the absolute necessity to touch people on the High Holy days makes that kind of (perhaps) cheap trick necessary.

The best example of this that I can think of is the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which includes the B’rosh Hashanah prayer.  The prayer begins by describing G-d as “nora v’ayom” – “awesome and full of dread.” The Brosh Hashanah prayer describes the great tragedies that can befall people.   In it, we consider who, in the coming year, will die by fire, hunger, thirst, flood, or devastation.  The prayer makes us ponder our mortality and by suggesting that we can “temper the severe decree” through acts of prayer, charity, and repentence, it invokes a sense of fear that we will not do enough, and that G-d will punish us.

If the text wasn’t frightening enough, the music certainly compounds the sense of dread.  Clearly the writers of this liturgy believed that this is what it took to keep the people from anarchy, murder and mayhem.  This is not a theology that most of us subscribe to and yet, I know that when I sing those words, I suddenly do believe them.  I cold chill goes through me almost every time.  The text and music have their desired affect on  me: yirah, but in the most negative sense of the word.

Do we really believe that G-d is the destructive force in the fire, the flood, the tragedy?  Isn’t G-d the Oseh Hashalom– the MAKER of piece?  Our liturgy says, “Baruch Omeir v’Oseh” – “Blessed is the One who speaks and it comes to be.”  G-d is a creative force.  G-d is in the firefighters, the relief workers, the people who run to donate blood, time, and money.  G-d is the spark in all of us that inspires us to help one another through difficult times.  Evil is the absence or denial of that spark.  Evil is in destruction, not creation.

The other side of the yirah coin is awe, that sense of wonder in the contemplation of that aspect of G-d that is beyond knowing, the ein sof. When we ponder how small humans are compared to the Earth, how small the earth is compared to the sun, how small the sun compared to the solar system, the galaxy, the universe.  We are a tiny, insignificant speck.  The psalmist writes, “what are we, that you are mindful of us?”   This is awe.  Awe is in the realization that even in being so minuscule, G-d is indeed “mindful” of us.

The music of the High holy days expresses this aspect of yirah as well.  We hear it in the Mah Tovu with which we open our Rosh Hashanah services at Temple Beth Torah- the setting by Lewandowski.  “How good it is,” we sing with wonder as G-d’s presence fills us with awe through this glorious melody.

Yirah as awe is such a wonderful way to experience the Divine.  We feel it in a beautiful sunrise and a baby’s smile.  Awe is full of positive feelings, but it is much harder to access than fear.  This is part of what makes it such a treat when it happens.

The mystics teach us that there are many aspects to G-d’s presence.  They illustrate this in a structure that looks like a ladder or tree.  At the top is the unknowable ein sof, also called the keter, or crown.  Ein sof means without end.  This is the most mysterious aspect of the Divine.  At the bottom of the ladder is shechinah, the feminine aspect of G-d.  This is essentially G-d as we experience G-d on earth.  What a gift that is.  G-d is at the same time a completely esoteric being beyond all understanding, AND a presence that we can feel and relate to in our everyday life.

Thank G-d for that!  There is yirah, as awe or (hopefully not as) fear – those glimpses of the Ein Sof that take our breath away.  And then there is a more accessible experience of the Shechinah.

“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal One, your G-d demand of you? Only this: to have yirah for the Eternal your G-d, to walk only in G-d’s paths, to love G-d, and to serve the Eternal One your G-d with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

You Must… Love?

“You shall love the Eternal One, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”  These strange words, made familiar by sheer repetition in the V’ahavtah, appear in this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan.  A commandment to love?  It doesn’t make any sense.  Even in reference to our parents, where it is easy, the Torah only tells us to honor.  How can a person love on command?  Why would G-d give us a decree that is nearly impossible to follow?  I can honor G-d, obey G-d, feel grateful to G-d, but to love is not something that humans can simply do on demand.

Sometimes it seems easy.  When I look at a baby’s smile, a sunset, my family my gratitude overflows.  But other times, I see a child with cancer, I remember the holocaust, I see poverty.  How can G-d allow this to happen?  It is in those moments that doubt and fear can overwhelm love, can even crush every rational explanation that I hold dear.

Let’s look a little further into the V’ahavtah.  “Take these words which I command you this day… Teach them faithfully to your children.  Speak of them in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up.  Bind them as a sign upon your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.  Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

When I teach the V’ahavtah to my students, I ask them what it takes to make a new friend.  Sometimes I meet someone and right in that first moment when I meet them, I think, this person could be a great friend.  In order to build that friendship, I mustn’t simply ignore the person.  I need to call them, invite them over, and spend time with them.  This is how humans build and maintain relationship.

It is the same thing with G-d, although we often forget it.  G-d seems like a mighty and unknowable being.  This is discouraging and so, sometimes we forget to seek G-d out.  This week’s Torah portion tells us, “…if you search there for the Eternal One your G-d, you will find G-d, if only you seek G-d with all your heart and soul.”  (Deut 4:29).  Just as when you build a relationship with any human person you need to seek them out and spend time with them, so it is the same way with G-d.

How do you seek out and spend time with G-d?  Prayer is the obvious, but not the only way.  Teaching your children about G-d makes G-d a presence in your home.  Talking about G-d at home and out insures that G-d will become a part of your life.  Binding G-d’s words on your hands and between your eyes, whether literally with the tefillin and mezuzah or symbolically by your actions and thoughts, will attach G-d’s intentions to your physical self and your actions.  And what will happen if you do all these things?  You will develop a relationship with G-d and, in time, you will love G-d.

So, I ask my students.  Is this prayer a commandment, or a prediction?  I believe that it is both.  G-d wants us to be in relationship with G-d, so this is a commandment and an instruction manual on how to begin and maintain that relationship.  Faith ebbs and flows, depending on life’s circumstances, but these instructions help preserve that connection with G-d throughout life.  Through this relationship we will grow to love G-d: “with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our might.”

No. You Can’t Take That Away From Me.

This coming Tuesday we will mark the Jewish observance of Tisha B’av.  Tisha B’av, or the 9th day of the month of Av, is a national day of mourning for the Jewish people.  According to tradition, a large number of disasters befell our people on this day.  The most significant of these were the destruction of the First and Second Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively.  However, our tradition tells us that the date also marked other tragedies: from the decree that the Jews would wander in the wilderness for 40 years all the way to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and even beyond.

The central observances of Tisha B’av resemble those of Yom Kippur:  fasting, abstention from bathing and sex, and the avoidance of perfume, body ointments, and the wearing of leather.  We chant the sad melodies of the book of Lamentations and other dirges.  In addition, we observe mourning customs on the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av by avoiding public celebrations such as weddings, and by not shaving.

Reform synagogues observe Tisha B’Av intermittently.  My last congregation had a major observance of the holiday.  At my current one, we have not chosen to emphasize the day.  As far as my personal observance in concerned, I have been ambivalent about it for a number of years.

In ancient times, when the spiritual life of the Jewish people was in its infancy, our people were united behind one sacrificial cult.  Time and again we, in the Torah, showed how badly we needed concrete signs of religion, almost an idolatrous way of worshiping.  We needed a golden calf, a visibly grand and holy Temple, and adorned leaders.

Gradually our faith developed and changed until, with the destruction of the second Temple, and the beginning of Diaspora Jewry, we were forced to become decentralized and de-cultified.  The religion of sacrifice could no longer be followed, so the Rabbis taught us to substitute avodah – worship, for avodah – sacrifice.  Rabbinic Judaism was born and with it Talmud, discussion, dissention, debate, the fruits of everything that we love and value about Judaism today.

Some years, as Tisha B’Av approaches, I dare to think that we should almost celebrate the day when the sacrificial cult died and Rabbinic Judaism was born.  But of course, we should never exult in a tragedy, a battle where people suffered and died.  Nevertheless, this very dark cloud had a very bright lining and we should rejoice in the Judaism that we experience today, just as we mark that terrible day that caused the change.

This year in particular, I am feeling very glad for the decentralized Judaism of our time.  I am so grateful that there are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Humanist, and Cultural Jews.  I love the debate that our difference enables.  We are now, as we were when we came out of Egypt, a mixed multitude.  This diversity means that we each have an important responsibility to insure that our singular voices remain a part of the collective Jewish community.  Today especially, we need to make sure that liberal Judaism does not become marginalized and separated.

Once there were Jews.  There were more and less observant Jews, but if you were born Jewish, you were… Jewish.  Then Reform Judaism was born and as a reaction against it, Orthodox Judaism came into being.  Neither one is traditional.  Neither one is authentic.  The only truly authentic Judaism that ever was died on that fateful Tisha B’Av when the second Temple was destroyed.

In ancient times, worship was centered around the holy Temple.  The only remnant of that sacred place is the Kotel – the western part of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple mount.  Since the destruction of the Temple, Jews have returned to this holy site, thought to be so close to G-d.  We have pushed our written prayers into its crevices and cried our tears onto its cold stones.  The wall is a strange place.  Its stones are strangely smooth, rubbed by countless hands in tearful prayer.  It has a smell that exists nowhere else on earth.  It has an aura.  After you pray and touch its holy stones, you walk backwards away from it, never turning your face from its beautiful countenance.  Strange that though I would actively pray that we never return to the Temple worship, I find this place so holy, so compelling.  I guess it is because it has been the center of the Jewish universe for so many thousands of years.  It is, more than any other place on earth, the homestead of every Jew on earth.  Not the Temple mount, not Jerusalem itself, not any other place is really ours as much as this tiny wall in this tiny country.

But this wall is not fully mine.  The wall is set up as an orthodox synagogue, run by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.  There is a mechitza (divider) separating the large men’s section from the smaller women’s one.  I am okay with this because I can respect that some people are not comfortable praying with those of the opposite gender.  As long as there is also a place for me, it’s okay.  But the Kotel is not run like a mainstream Orthodox synagogue.

Orthodox synagogues run the gamut in observance.  Some are as strict as or even more so than the one at the kotel, not having a mechitza down the middle, but rather one that divides front to back, or worse yet, relegates the women to an entirely different room.  But many Orthodox synagogues have found ways to welcome women even within the confines of Orthodoxy.  There are women’s “minyanim” where the Torah is taken out and read.  They respect the history of women like Beruriah, who was known to be a great scholar, and who also donned tefillin.  The women pray, study, and sing together.  At the Kotel, however, the most stringent rules are applied: women are not allowed to wear tallit and tefillin or read from the Torah, and any loud singing or prayer will be met with criticism.

When a group called, Women of the Wall, meets, they are often greeted with violent and abusive behavior from ultra-orthodox men.  The men have been known to throw chairs, bottles, feces, and even punches at these women.  Strange that they cannot shake their hands in friendship due to the prohibition against touching a woman who is not your wife, but they can raise their fists in violence?

The Women of the Wall have been fighting for their right to pray.  Their struggle ultimately led to two Israeli Supreme Court decisions.  On May 22, 2002, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for the Women of the Wall to hold prayer groups and even to read Torah in the women’s section of the main Kotel plaza. The ultra Orthodox did not like this decision and within four days were not only attempting to overthrow it, but presented a bill that would have made it a criminal offense for women to pray in “non-traditional ways” at the western wall, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Although the bill did not pass, the Israeli Supreme Court reconsidered its earlier decision, ruling once again that women could not pray at the Kotel in the manner of their choosing. Why?  Because such continued meetings represented a threat to public safety and order.  They certainly did not!  It was the protests that lead to the threat!  The Court required the government to find an alternate site, which they did: Robinson’s Arch.

Since then, the police have been increasingly visible against the Women of the Wall.  In 2009, Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a tallit… under her coat.  Just this past week, Anat Hoffman was arrested for holding a Torah scroll.  She was carrying the Torah scroll from the women’s section of the Kotel for services at the Robinson’s Arch, where should would be permitted to read from it, when she was arrested.  The video of her arrest made me want to cry.

Anat Hoffman was fined 5,000 shekels and was given a restraining order according to which she is not allowed to approach the Wall for 30 days.  It’s a sort of funny punishment in the sense that her prayer group meets at the Kotel monthly and so 30 days is exactly the next time she would appear there.  Nevertheless, it seems terribly wrong to sentence a Jew by telling her that she is barred from our most holy place.  Would they EVER punish any man in such a way?  For ANY crime, let alone for wanting to carry a Torah?

So, as we approach Tisha B’Av, I am renewed in my feeling of gladness that we no longer sacrifice animals as part of our worship, with joy that our faith continues to evolve and grow, and with fear that we should ever return to a truly centralized religion.

I leave you with this thought.  A few weeks ago, we celebrated American Independence Day.  Our Constitution’s First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  Our country is NOT a theocracy, and we oppose them wherever they exist because they do not tend to lead to good government.  Israel is possibly an exception to that rule.  They are a democracy, but as a Jewish state, they also dance on the border of being a theocracy.  The Rabbinate determines rules about marriage and divorce, and would love to decide many other things.  Can the Jewish state be Jewish without being a theocracy?  Can a theocracy exist without impinging on the human rights of its people?  Can we, as American Jews make a difference in defining what Israel will become?  Do we have a right to try?

I am a Jew.  I am as much a Jew as those Orthodox men are.  I want my Torah and my wall and I want to chant and pray loudly and with pride.  I want to hear their voices too on the other side of the mechitza blending and melding with mine.  Bayom hahu and on that day…  There will be peace.

Kein Y’hi Ratzon.

The above was the sermon that I delivered at Temple Beth Torah this past Friday evening.

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