Bo: The Karet and the Stick

[Given at Kehillat Moreshet Yisrael, Jerusalem, 12/31/2013 – 28 Tevet 5774]

Motzei Shabbat, I attended a lecture by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis in which he discussed some of the implications of the Pew Report.  Perhaps his most interesting point was to compare today’s American Jewish world with the Jewish world here in Israel after the destruction of the 2nd Temple.   

The Jewish world of 100 CE, he explained, was fragmented and in disarray.  Each group – the Sadducees, the Essenes, the “Proto-Christians,” and a small group of “rabbis” with radical ideas about how to transform Judaism without the Temple or sacrifices – believed that theirs was the only way to save the Jewish people.  

2,000 years later, we know that the rabbis “won” this contest; all of the main forms of surviving Judaism are derivations of their Rabbinic Judaism.  The Sadducees and Essenes died out, and the Proto-Christians become an entirely different religion.  (I would say, they became the first religion, because they were the first people united not by land, language, history, or ethnicity, but by belief).  But no group of Jews then knew how or whether Judaism would survive.

Today, Rabbi Gordis said, American Jewry is likewise threatened, splintered, fragmented – and undergoing rapid, radical transformation.  No one can predict what it will look like in 50 or, certainly, 500 years (other than that there will be some "Orthodox" (traditional) Jews).  And, for that reason, he said, we need to view Jews who don’t subscribe to our particular “brand” of Judaism as essential partners in our common goal of preserving non-Orthodox Judaism.  We need to build coalitions with other Jews, even if we disagree with their approachs to Judaism. 

In this week’s Parasha, Bo, Jews are commanded to eat unleavened bread at Pesach in eternal commemoration of the Exodus.  This is, of course, just one of the 613 mitzvot in Torah.  But, interestingly it is one of only a few (39 are listed in the Mishnah, Tractate Kerithoth 1:1) for which the punishment for violation is “karet:” being cut off from the Jewish people.  (The only other “positive” (required action) mitzvah carrying the punishment of “karet” is failure to circumcise.  Most of the “negative” mitzvot requiring “karet” involve forbidden sexual relations and sacrifices, although failure to keep Shabbat and eating/drinking on Yom Kippur are also included). 

One of the implications of the Pew Report is that we have a desperate need to encourage more interaction among American Jews.  As I said last week, this is so because we need more Jew; our overall population is rapidly declining.  This week, I add the reason that none of us knows which “version” (if any) of non-Orthodox Judaism will survive!  

And yet, it seems to me that we impose the punishment of Karet – cutting other Jews off from us, and ourselves from them – far more than is called for in Torah.  Moreover, we don’t forgive each other for these violations that, according to Tanach, should be forgiven:  2 Chronicles 30:17-20 reads as follows:

For there were many in the assembly who had not sanctified themselves; therefore the Levites had to kill the Passover lamb for every one who was not clean, to make it holy to the Lord.  For a multitude of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manesseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise as prescribed.  For Hezekiah had prayed for them, saying, “The good Lord pardon every one who sets his heart to seek G-d, the Lord the G-d of his fathers, even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.”  And the Lord heard Hezekiah, and healed the people.

The message is clear.  Cutting off contact with other Jews is seldom justified and, even when it is, transgressions should be forgiven and contact restored as soon as possible. 

Here in Jerusalem, as part of a Masorti (Conservative) congregation, I understand some of the reasons that we don’t reach out to other Jews.  Many of the Orthodox reject our Judaism as inauthentic.  The Government discriminates by supporting them and not us.  As for the Reform, we don’t share their non-binding approach to Halachah.  Hence, I’m not saying that there aren’t many reasons to feel rejected and to want to reject.  But now I’m addressing all of us collectively; we, Am Yisrael.  Rejecting other Jews is not in the interests of Jewish survival! 

As I mentioned last week, I previously heard three other experts speak about the Pew Report. Each in his/her own words made the same fundamental point as did Rabbi Gordis.  We each have our own strongly felt view of what is necessary to preserve Judaism.  We should not abandon those views – but neither can be afford to be self-righteous.  None of us knows whether we will be right!  It’s more important that there be more Jews, belonging to any synagogue or to no synagogue, than that we be right.

Since the majority of American non-Orthodox Jews – even those who do not self-identify with any denomination -- eat Matzah on Pesach and circumcise their sons, let’s not cut them off. Let’s embrace them—even if we disagree with them.  The fact is, we need them.  

What can we do to promote the survival of non-Orthodoxy? Here in Israel, we can look for ways to increase contacts with other Masorti and non-Masorti communities.   Why not initiate once-a-month visits to each other’s Shabbat services and, where they exist, morning minyanim?  Currently, we only team up in court to oppose Orthodox control of Jewish life in Israel; can’t me also meet outside of court? 

In America, one place to start is to encourage interaction with nearby Jewish congregations and communities of different movements.  Why shouldn’t men’s clubs and sisterhoods of different synagogues sponsor joint events? Why shouldn’t we attend each other’s services once a month?  Most importantly, why shouldn’t there be periodic joint school and youth event programming?  Maximizing contacts among Jewish youth and teens is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to preserve non-Orthodox Judaism.  Why aren’t we taking more action to get Jewish youth together?  Whatever the reasons, we can no longer abide them. 

This past year we lost Rabbi David Hartman, z”l.  In the frontispiece of his 1999 book, A Heart of Many Rooms, Rabbi Hartman quotes Tosefta, Sotah 7:12.  

A person might think, ‘Since the House of Shammai declare unclean and the House of Hillel clean, this one prohibits and that one permits, how, then, can I learn Torah?’  Scripture says, ‘Words…the words…These are the words…’  All the words have been given by a single Shepherd, one G-d created them, one Provider gave them, the Lord of all deeds, blessed be He, has spoken them.  So make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.

It’s our obligation and an urgent necessity to start building bridges with other Jews, rather than imposing and suffering Karet by excluding each other.   Perhaps that is the most important lesson for us in this or any other Parashah.  

Ken Y’hee Ratzon. 

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem. 

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  • Bo: The Karet and the Stick



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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3