Acharei Mot-K’doshim 2017

Posted on May 08, 2017

My family came to the USA from Europe to escape religious persecution. This is a familiar story in the Jewish narrative. On countless occasions we have been mistreated and denied rights because of our religion. Our collective memory finds secret meetings for worship because simply uttering the sacred words of prayer of our tradition was deemed illegal. What is more, we can recount secret hiding places, relied upon to save us from certain death—our very existence having been proclaimed less than human, a stain on society. And let me be clear, while I am looking at this from our Jewish perspective, we are not alone. Sadly, religion has served as a dividing point of humanity for the span of history.

I am compelled this morning to talk about religious freedom. On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order protecting religious liberty. There has been speculation surrounding the potential content of this order since Trump’s election. In the end it was not as far-reaching as many feared it would be, offering, perhaps, a sense of relief for many, including the ACLU which found that the order presented no discernible outcome.

But that fact that this national conversation is happening concerns me.

As an American I cherish religious freedom, the right to observe as my tradition guides me and the privilege to live alongside those who come from different faith traditions. Religious freedom is at the hallmark of the American experiment. The first amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

And so I am worried because, while not in the final text of the draft, previous versions popular with some segments of the American population allowed for discrimination against the LGBTQ community by those purporting it was an element of their religion.

As a person of faith, I was one of hundreds of clergy who signed a petition earlier in the week which included the statement: “Freedom of religion guarantees us the right to hold any belief we choose and to act on our religious beliefs, but it does not allow us to harm others in the name of those beliefs.” Thursday’s executive order calls this sentiment to question, specifically encouraging relevant arms of government to, “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.”

I am angry because the order reiterates that your interpretation of religious tradition can dictate my access to healthcare. Access to safe and effective contraception is crucial for the health of women. I would never suggest that women must use contraception based on my criteria, but adherence to a religious belief that prohibits contraception should not be imposed upon one’s employees.

As Jews, our foundational religious text is, of course, the Torah. But Torah can only be understood in context of time and place. A centuries old document cannot be the sole legal code or ethical guide for our living religion.

Within the lines of this morning’s double parsha we read among the most painful of Biblical injunctions, the prohibition against homosexuality. A decade ago the committee on Jewish law and standards of the Conservative movement approved legal positions that opened the door to same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays and lesbians as rabbis. The preparation and presentation of these legal responsa was a necessary exercise in protecting the perpetual evolution of Judaism. The Torah presents the wisdom of its day. The religious instructions that we receive from the Torah imagined a united Jewish people worshipping through public sacrifice in a centralized Temple in Jerusalem. That is not the world that we have inherited these many generations later, and thus our execution of practice must be different. Our world has evolved. Our values have evolved. And Judaism has evolved.

It is amazing to me that, on the same morning that we read the disturbing prohibition against same sex-relations we encounter the most cherished of Biblical statements. V’ahavta L’reyekha k’mokha, love your neighbor as yourself. This statement stands both literally and figuratively at the center of our tradition. Literally, it is the middle of the Torah—we are at the halfway point of our annual cycle of reading. More importantly, “love your neighbor as yourself” is at the center of Jewish life. In a story so famous that it almost feels trite, the great sage Hillel is challenged by a non-Jew to teach him all of Judaism while standing on one foot. And so, standing on one foot Hillel states “what is hateful to you, do not do to your kin,” a rephrasing of the Biblical text, yes, but it covers the essence.

Hillel taught at the inception of rabbinic Judaism, 2000 years ago. Even thousands of years ago our ancestors understood that the teachings of the Torah could not function without interpretation, as it could not address the myriad challenges and realities that would face future generations. In delineating which element of the Torah could stand the test of time, Hillel wisely chose “love your neighbor as yourself.” And then he said, “the rest is commentary, go and learn.”

Judaism asks me to keep kosher, to engage with community in the sacred prayers of our tradition, to observe the Sabbath beginning at sundown on Friday. Religious Freedom means that I have the right to do so. “Freedom of religion guarantees us the right to hold any belief we choose and to act on our religious beliefs, but it does not allow us to harm others in the name of those beliefs.”

A story is told: A rabbi and an astronomer sat next to each other on a plane. The astronomer said to the rabbi: “I don’t know much about Judaism, but wouldn’t you say that the essence of Judaism is ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself?’” To which the rabbi responded: “I don’t know much about astronomy, but wouldn’t you say that the essence of astronomy is ‘twinkle, twinkle little star?’”

V’ahavta L’reyekha K’mokha is not the whole of Judaism. To reduce our religion to three words undermines its eternal richness and complexities. It is, however, a good place to start. Go and learn.