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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Shavuot

SHAVUOT
(5769)

WHAT IS TORAH?

“God spoke all these words, saying …” (Exodus 20:1)

Shavuot, the feast of weeks, celebrates God giving us the Torah. But what exactly is the Torah? On the simplest level of course, the Torah is the five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – carefully hand written on a scroll and publicly read during worship services. The Torah is kept in the ark and marched through the congregation with much fanfare and joy. Why is this so important?
The word “Torah” comes from the Hebrew root meaning “teaching.” On the most fundamental level, the Torah is God’s teachings to us. Jews believe God is a teacher both to the Jewish people and to all humanity, and those teachings are written in the Torah. But what precisely did God teach us?
There are two directions we can go to define God’s teachings, a broad one and a narrow one. Let us begin with the broad one. Jews traditionally have believed that God taught us word for word everything written in the five books of Moses. However, this is only the beginning of God’s teachings.
Along with this written law, there is an oral law. The section of Talmud called Avot begins with the fact that God gave the Torah to Moses, who gave it to Joshua, who gave it to the elders, who gave it to the prophets, who gave it to the men of the great assembly. In other words, there is an oral teaching that was passed down from teacher to student throughout the ages. Eventually these oral teachings were set down, first in the Mishna and then in the Talmud. But the oral Torah continues through all the various Rabbinic writings throughout the ages.
The scope of God’s teaching is even broader. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, “Everything a learned student will say before his teacher in the future was already given to Moses at Mount Sinai.” (Peah 2:6) Just as an entire oak tree is present in an acorn, all of the Rabbinic teachings are already present in the original Torah. That is why, whenever I sit with a group of students discussing some aspect of God’s teachings, this is God’s Torah. It is a broad definition.
There is also a narrow definition. Torah is what God actually said to the people Israel. The only teaching that explicitly came from the mouth of God is the Ten Commandments, which we read on Shavuot. However, even the Ten Commandments speaks of God in the third person, as if Moses rather than God was talking. Only the first two Commandments have God speaking in the first person. (“I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other God’s before me.”) Some say that God only explicitly gave these first two.
Others said that God only said the first word Anochee “I.” But perhaps this was too much for the people to take. According to Rabbi Menachim Mendel of Rymonov, God spoke only the first letter aleph; everything else was Moses’ teaching. And aleph is a silent letter. As Professor Arthur Green, our scholar in residence last year, wrote, “God speaks only the great silence; the Divine is a silent womb that contains all of language within it.”
So who is right? What is God’s Torah? What did God teach us? Is God’s Torah the five books of Moses as written on a scroll and kept in the ark? Is God’s Torah everything that a student will say in every generation? Or is God’s Torah only the initial silent aleph? Could it be that all three answers are correct? Perhaps this is the great mystery of a God Who is not simply a creator but also a teacher?

SHAVUOT
(5766)

BOUNTY OF THE BABIES

“Your children are excellent guarantors (for my Torah.)”
(Song of Songs Rabbah 1:23)

Each year on the first morning of Shavuot we hold a ceremony during services called The Bounty of the Babies. I wish it was my idea. I borrowed the idea from Rabbi Stephen Steindel who introduced it into my previous congregation Beth El in Pittsburgh. When I came to Beth Torah in Florida I introduced my own touches and made it part of our annual festival celebration. We call up all the babies born in the past year, place them on a blanket, and hold a large tallit over their heads. We bless them and sing a song or two, and give each a certificate for a donation made to a local Jewish agency that cares for foster children. It is a moment in synagogue where we sense that Judaism has a future.
The ceremony is based on an oft-quoted midrash (Rabbinic teaching) in Shir HaShirim Rabbah. God was ready at Mt. Sinai to give the Israelites the Torah but first wanted a guarantor, some kind of surety before giving away such a valuable possession. At first the Israelites offered their forefathers, then their prophets, but neither was acceptable. Finally, the Israelites offered their children as guarantors, and God accepted them saying, “These are an excellent guarantee.” Traditionally, Shavuot is the day we celebrate the giving of the Torah. It was given to us on account of our children.
What does it mean to say that our children are our guarantors? Perhaps it is worth delving a bit deeper into the idea behind this midrash, for it reflects a profound and worthy idea for consideration.
Many faiths deal with the idea of individual salvation. How does the individual find at-one-ness with God? How does the individual make it into heaven? Will the individual be saved? Such faiths begin with the image of the private person standing before God, doing whatever is necessary to become worthy in God’s eyes.
The Torah has a different notion of salvation. Salvation is something that happens to a community as a whole. It is something that happens over the course of generations. Perhaps it was the Christian thinker Reinhold Neibuhr who put it best when he wrote, “Nothing worth doing can be completed in our lifetime, therefore we are saved by hope.” That is why Rabbi Tarfon taught in a similar vein, “It is not our job to finish the task, nor are we free to avoid it altogether” (Avot 2:21). The Torah is passionate about perfecting this world over the course of many generations. Each generation does its part and then passes the torch to a new generation. Our Bible and our prayer book are obsessed with the idea l’dor vador “from generation to generation.”
A new generation is our guarantee that the job of perfecting the world will continue on into the future. That is why children are seen as a surety for the Torah. Our task as a community is to raise these babies in a way that inspires them to continue their mission in the world. That is why parenting is perhaps the world’s most difficult task.
What about the people who have no children? I have written an entire book on the pain of infertility. How do people who were never blessed with children feel about watching all these babies called up in front of the holy ark? My wife and I have suffered the pain of infertility and know what it feels like.
The answer is that raising a new generation of babies is not just for parents. It is a community endeavor. This is more profound then the cliché “it takes a village to raise a child.” There are many ways that individuals can participate in preparing the next generation. For some, it involves giving birth or adopting and raising children. Some may be involved in foster care or teaching or even providing for schools so others can teach. There are numerous roles anybody can play in raising a younger generation.
As I write these words, I am sitting in a hotel room in Boston following a family bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah boy is extremely lucky. Not only does he have wonderful parents, but he is blessed with a wonderful uncle who does not have children of his own. The uncle has made it part of his life’s mission to give his nephews learning experiences they would not have otherwise. He is proof that you do not need to be a parent to help parent children. Babies are a blessing to the whole community. On their account God gave us the Torah.

SHAVUOT
(5763)

THE BOOK OF RUTH

“Her neighbors gave it a name saying, there is a son born to Naomi, and they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:17)

On the festival of Shavuot we read the book of Ruth. It is a beautiful little book that touches on some powerful themes, the love and loyalty between a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, a woman=s conversion and commitment to the Jewish people, the rich helping the poor glean in their fields, and ultimately, a marriage that would lead to the birth of King David.
However, there is one theme that strikes me as central to the book, the very reason why the author wrote it. The book is a polemic against those who would classify people based on race and lineage. It is against those who would refuse to open the door to converts, or who would look at people and reject them because they are a “bad seed.” It is against those like Ezra of each generation, who forced men who married out of the faith to reject their wives and children, without any opening for conversion. It teaches that even an impoverished Moabite girl can marry an aristocratic Israelite and become the progenitor of the king of Israel, and eventually the Messiah.
The central message of Ruth is not to look at bloodlines, at nationality, or at race, but rather look at character and values. Ruth was a Moabite, a people hated by the Israelites. The Torah teaches that “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation shall even be admitted into the congregation of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:4) What irony that the ideal convert through the ages was a Moabite woman.
What was true in ancient Israel is equally true today. We still tend to judge people based on biology and lineage. I do a huge amount of adoption counseling. How often have I been asked by couples considering adoption or their families, “How can I adopt a child of that race, that lineage, that particular background?” “How can I adopt at all; what if the child is a bad seed?” “An apple does not fall far from the tree?” But a human being is not an apple; we are far more than our genetic background. We are created in the image of God and we need to look at human beings beyond mere biology.
This attitude begins with conversion. Judaism is not a race. On the contrary, the Jewish people come in all races and all nationalities. Judaism is open to any human being who is willing to say the words of Ruth,”Your people will be my people, your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:16) Adoption has also opened up the Jewish people to children of all colors. I have converted children to Judaism who are white and black, Asian and Hispanic, born in Eastern Europe, in India, in Latin America, and throughout the United States. To be a Jew is to be part of a people living in a covenant with God. This covenant is open to any human being who desires to join.
The message of Ruth is not just about conversion. It is also about judging other people. To quote Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Ruth was a Moabite, a people despised by the Israelites. Yet, through her kindness to her mother-in-law, she was able to enter the people Israel and eventually give birth to the grandfather of a king. We all need to look at character, not at lineage, when judging other people.
The author of the book of Ruth had an agenda, to change the attitude of the Israelite people. The Rabbis who established the sacred canon accepted this book, despite its controversy. Ruth came to teach us that we are more than mere genes, born of a particular father and mother. We are each uniquely valuable, created in the image of a loving God. We deserve to be judged by our actions, not by our lineage.

SHAVUOT
(5762)

SPIRITUALITY AND RELIGION – PART 2

“And the Lord said to Moses, I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after. Then Moses reported the people’s words to the Lord, and the Lord said to Moses, Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow.” (Exodus 19:9-10)

I have sent these weekly spiritual messages out for almost three years, but last week=s (bemidbar 5762) received the largest response yet. Obviously I touched a nerve in my comparison of religion and spirituality.
I wrote last week: “There is a dichotomy in our society between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is good; religion is bad. Spirituality is about a one-on-one encounter with God; religion is about institutions and rules. Spirituality is about spontaneity; religion is about conformity. Spirituality is free form; religion is set in its ways. People tell me that they can have a spiritual experience on the beach at sunrise or on a mountaintop at sunset. There are no rules, no dues, no building funds, no clergy, just a human being standing alone before God.”
Many of you agreed with me, and used my words to attack various religious institutions, particularly synagogues. Many of you said that we can make our religious institutions more spiritual. Some of you missed my point: that religion is not about the individual standing before God, but rather about the individual organizing a community to do the will of God.
On Shavuot, the festival where we celebrate the giving of the Ten Commandments, it is worthy to explore this idea further. We live in a material world – a world of matter and energy, space and time. This is the world scientists explore when they work in a laboratory. God is outside the material world, beyond space and time. Spirituality is about rising above this world, connecting to that which is timeless. In the spiritual moment we experience things that cannot be measured in a laboratory. In spiritual moments, whether through meditation, prayer, or other spiritual disciplines, we remove ourselves from this world.
Religion on the other hand is about bringing the spiritual into this world. If spirituality is about reaching up to heaven, religion is about creating heaven on earth. Religion takes place in the real world of human beings, with all of their idiosyncrasies and weaknesses. Religion deals with food, sex, business, money, family, all the real stuff of life. Unlike spirituality, religion sometimes gets messy.
According to the Talmud, when Moses received the Torah, the angels said to the Holy One, “How can you give something so precious to those who are mere flesh and blood? Give it to us.” The Holy One replied,”What is written in it? `Honor thy father and mother.- Do you have parents? `Do not commit adultery.= Do you have an evil inclination?” At this point the angels conceded the point to the Holy One. (Shabbat 88b-89a) The Torah was not given to angels but to real human beings.
Shavuot is called in Hebrew Zeman Matan Toratenu, the time of the giving of the Torah. It was a highly spiritual time; according to the midrash the world literally came to a stop when the Torah was given. ASaid Rabbi Abbahu in the name of Rabbi Johanan, When God gave the Torah no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox bellowed, none of the angels stirred, the Seraphim did not sing `Holy, Holy, the sea did not roar, the creatures spoke not, but the whole world was hushed into breathless silence, and the voice went forth, AI am the Lord your God.” (Exodus Rabbah 29:9).
Note that it is called the time of the giving of the Torah. The time of the receiving of the Torah is everyday. The world does not stand still when we receive the Torah. Religion is about business of taking the Torah, taking this unique spiritual moment, and applying to the day to day business of the real world.