Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“From the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” (Leviticus 23:15)
When my children were young, we used to watch Sesame Street together. It is a wonderful educational show for children. And one of our favorite characters was the Count, with the heavy Transylvanian accent patterned after Count Dracula. The Count loved to count. He taught the children about numbers. I wonder if the Count was Jewish.
Jewish tradition loves to count. For example, we do not have names for the days of the week. We have numbers. Sunday is the first day, Monday is the second day, so on, counting down towards the Sabbath. Although the months of the year have names, the Bible looks at the months by numbers. Passover falls on the fifteenth day of the first month, Rosh Hashana falls on the first day of the seventh month. We also count down our years. According to Jewish tradition, this year is 5784 since the creation of the world. (You do not need to take this number literally.) By the way, Jews who use the secular calendar do not say 2024 A.D. A.D. means Anno Domini which means “the year of our Lord.” It is a Christian count. Jews say C.E. (the common era) instead. Nor do they say B.C. which means Before Christ. We say B.C.E. (before the common era) instead.
This time of year in the Jewish calendar is the most important for those who like to count. It is the period known as the Counting of the Omer. It begins the night after the first day of Passover, the night of the second seder. (The Torah says the night after the Sabbath, but the Rabbis interpreted it to mean the night after Passover.) Every night we count both the days and weeks, until we read 49 days or 7 weeks. Then the next day, the fiftieth of the count, is the festival of Shavuot, the day of the giving of the Torah. The counting of the Omer links Passover (the festival of freedom) with Shavuot (the festival of revelation.) Freedom does not mean anarchy; it means moving towards something. The counting of the Omer gives us something to look forward to.
As I count the Omer and anticipate Shavuot, eating my wife’s delicious blintze souffle (a once-a-year treat), I realize that counting means anticipation. We count the days towards something. It makes us look forward to a future event. Our expectations grow as the day gets closer.
I think of the few times I have tried to buy concert tickets on-line. Imagine Taylor Swift is coming to your community, and you are counting down the days to get those precious tickets. You go on the website and see that tickets will go on sale in 5 days, 11 hours, 22 minutes, and 36 seconds. You count down the time. Of course, we know what will happen. The moment the website opens up, the tickets will totally sell out within 30 seconds. Most people will be locked out. If you want tickets, you will have to go on StubHub or some other secondary market at a jacked-up price. But that is a different issue. The ticket seller wants to build excitement by having you count down.
One of the first things we teach children is how to count. We play hide-and-seek and have them count to 10 while we hide. We feed them, pretending like the fork is an airplane, and count down until we move the fork towards their mouth. We watch spaceships take off and follow the count down. I doubt that any other animals know how to count. But counting is part of what makes us human.
There is a fascinating question philosophers ask. Did numbers exist before humans came on the earth, so that we humans discovered them? Or did humanity invent numbers once they evolved on this earth? It is a philosophical question beyond the scope of this brief essay. But meanwhile, let us celebrate the Count and the joy of numbers.

“From the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” (Leviticus 23:15)

I spent the weekend visiting my daughter, son-in-law, and grandson in Clover, SC, a small community near Charlotte, NC. Needless to say, a small town in South Carolina is quite different from where I live in South Florida. It is mostly very conservative and very Christian. There is a small scattering of Jewish families. I am thrilled that these families have formed a Reform congregation that meets in a local church. My daughter teaches Sunday school there while my grandson attends.
On Sunday I went to speak to the 30 or so children who attend the Sunday school. I began by telling how the night before I had counted 24 days which makes 3 weeks and 3 days. What was I doing? None of them knew. Then I said I was counting the Omer, as we are commanded in this week’s portion. We count 7 weeks of 7 days each, then after 49 we celebrate a Jewish festival. Did they know which festival? None of them knew. I finally told them Shavuot, the feast of weeks, the day we celebrate the giving of the Torah.
I explained the tradition of eating dairy, in particular cheese blintzes, on Shavuot. I then said tongue-in-cheek, I am sure every restaurant in South Carolina carries cheese blintzes. That solicited some smiles. One teacher said you can get a cheese quesadilla in many restaurants – close enough. And some of the local supermarkets carry frozen cheese blintzes. Maybe some of these students will try them. I then told them that we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot. Ruth tells the Biblical story of the woman who cast her lot with the Jewish people, becoming one of the first converts to Judaism. She became the great grandmother of King David. Several of the students volunteered how their mother or their father had converted to Judaism. We discussed the giving of the Torah, and I hope I brought a bit of Judaism to this out-of-the-way town.
Of all the major festivals on the Jewish calendar, Shavuot is the most ignored. Most of these students had heard the shofar blown on Rosh Hashana, lit Hanukkah candles, searched for the hidden matzah on Passover. Some had waved a lulav and etrog on Sukkot. But Shavuot, falling in the early summer, was unknown. But the daily counting, which I do every evening, contains an important lesson. It helps us build up anticipation towards something special.
If Passover is the festival of freedom, the counting of the Omer shows that freedom is not enough. It must be combined with moving in a direction, going towards something. Young people grow up, leave home, and celebrate their freedom. But then very quickly they become lost, not knowing what they want to do with their lives. They drift aimlessly, sometimes moving back in with their parents, sometimes falling into a depression, and too often suffering the ravages of addiction. Freedom alone is not enough. Freedom must be combined with moving towards something. That is the true meaning of the counting of the Omer.
Jewish mystics who developed kabbalah gave each day of the counting of the Omer a special mystical meaning. They took the lower seven Sefirot – the ten manifestations of God’s emanation – and put them together in every possible combination. The lower seven Sefirot are Hesed (kindness), Gevurah (restraint), Tiferet (beauty), Netzech (eternity), Hod (glory), Yesod (foundation), and Malkhut (majesty). The first day of the Omer is Hesed within Hesed, the second day is Gevurah within Hesed, etc. for seven weeks. The idea is to use the seven weeks as a period of spiritual transformation.
To the Jews who live in smaller communities in South Carolina and elsewhere, I invite you to invite your Christian neighbors over on the fiftieth day, Shavuot (this year Thursday evening May 25.) Tell them it is the Jewish source of Pentecost, which is a Christian festival. (50 days after Easter when the holy spirit descended on Jesus’s disciples.) Light candles, bless the wine, make cheese blintzes (frozen if necessary), and celebrate this joyous but oft-neglected Jewish festival.


“Take the blasphemer outside the camp and let all who are within hearing lay his hands upon his head, let the whole community stone him.”  (Leviticus 24:14)

The book of Leviticus is almost entirely legal in nature.  But occasionally a narrative can be found, including the end of this week’s portion.  A man, son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man, blasphemes the name of God.  Is it possible that because he came from mixed lineage, this man grew up with no respect for the religious traditions of either his mother or his father?   Moses turns to God for instructions and God says, as expected in Biblical sources, the man is to be stoned to death.  Death for blasphemy seems a bit extreme; later the Rabbis would outlaw the death penalty in almost all cases.  But blasphemy was taken seriously by the Torah and later Rabbinic sources.

The Rabbis came up with seven commandments which are incumbent on all human beings, both Jews and non-Jews.  One of the seven is a prohibition of blasphemy.  (The other six are prohibitions against murder, idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, stealing, eating the limb of a living animal – animal cruelty, and the requirement to set up courts of justice.)  These seven seem to cover some of the most fundamental ethical laws humans must observe.  But what is blasphemy?  The Talmud uses a euphemism“to bless God” rather than “to curse God;” even saying the words “curse God” is improper.  The Bible uses the same phrasing when Job’s wife tells him, “Curse God and die;” the Hebrew says, “bless God and die” (Job 2:9).  Such euphemisms prove the seriousness with which the Bible takes the sin of blasphemy.  But what is blasphemy?

Of course, blasphemy means insulting God.  But is God so “thin skinned” that God takes umbrage at human insults?  Perhaps the law against blasphemy has a wider meaning, particularly in our modern world of religious pluralism.  We live in a world of multiple religions, each choosing their own path to God.  Each religion claims to be true.  When I teach my college course in religion, I speak of the multiple truths of multiple religions.  I often use the metaphor of many paths up one mountain.  We humans have developed multiple ways to reach God or to answer ultimate spiritual questions.  Perhaps there is some truth in all of them.

Allow me to give a modern take on the meaning of blasphemy.  Perhaps blasphemy is insulting another’s religion.  Perhaps blasphemy is the belief that if my religion is true, your religion must be false.  It is the claim of having a monopoly on truth and using that to insult someone else’s cherished beliefs.  I think of how we humans often treat other religions, and I think of the old Tom Lehrer song Natonal Brotherhood Week, “Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics, and the Catholics hate the Protestants, and the Hindus hate the Muslims, and everybody hates the Jews.”  In the context of the song the lyrics are funny.  In real life they are sad.  How often do we disrespect or even insult our neighbor’s religion?

I am not only speaking about Christians insulting Muslims or Muslims insulting Christians.  Even within a particular faith, people insult the religious practices of others who practice the faith differently.  Let me turn to my own religion, Judaism.  I practice the branch known as Conservative Judaism.  How often do I hear Conservative Jews make fun of Orthodox Jews or Reform Jews?  Orthodox and Reform Jews are as quick to make fun of other branches of Judaism.  Even within any one branch, Hasidim insult Misnagdim and Misnagdim insult Hasidim (different branches of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.)  It is as if to say, if my religion is right, then everybody else’s religion is wrong.

Perhaps all religions contain some truth.  Perhaps the great second century sage Ben Zoma was correct when he taught, “Who is wise?  Someone who learns from all people” (Avot 4:1).  As a Jew I can learn much wisdom from Christianity and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism.  As a Conservative Jew, I can learn much wisdom from Reform and Orthodox Judaism.  Blasphemy is to insult our neighbor’s religion.  Wisdom is to learn from our neighbor’s religion.


“You shall count from the next day after the sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete.”  (Leviticus 23:15)

This portion contains a summary of the cycle of festivals of the Jewish year.  It lists these joyous occasions and their various laws – the Sabbath, Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Weeks), Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot (Tabernacles.)  It also mentions the law that one should count forty-nine days or seven full weeks from Pesach to Shavuot.  This is known as sefirat haomer, the counting of the Omer.  After the first day of Passover, the festival of freedom, each night after sundown, traditional Jews count the day.  When they reach forty-nine, they prepare for Shavuot, the festival that celebrates the giving of the Torah.

Most Jews, if they have any religious inclinations at all, celebrate Passover.  My parents were not the most religious, but as a child I brought sandwiches to school on matzah.  Only Jews who are somewhat traditional celebrate Shavuot.  Most do not even realize it is a festival.  I try as a rabbi to bring special observances to the day of the giving of the Torah, including a late- night Torah study session, Confirmation, and the Bounty of the Babies (honoring all babies born into our congregation in the past year.)  Shavuot has as special place in my heart.  Evelyn and I were engaged on Shavuot, and our daughter Aliza was born on Shavuot.  But Jews are far more apt to celebrate a festival of freedom like Pesach than a festival of commitment like Shavuot.

The Torah says one should begin the counting of the omer on “the next day after the Sabbath.”  The Rabbis who developed Judaism interpreted the verse differently.  They taught that the day after the Sabbath means not the literal Sabbath, but the day after Passover.  After all, Passover is also a day of rest.  This is what I frequently term “the chutzpah of the Rabbis,” the willingness to interpret the Torah text to meet their vision.  Why did the insist we start counting on Passover?  The answer seems to be that they wanted to link Passover, the festival of freedom, to Shavuot, the festival of our commitment to the Torah.  They wanted to demonstrate that freedom without commitment is meaningless.  To the Rabbis, freedom and commitment are two sides of the same coin.  You cannot have one without the other.

To demonstrate this point, imagine the day when your child grows up and leaves home.  Most of us are happy that their children finally have the freedom to live on their own.  (Let ua ignore the fact that many children move out and the move home, move out and then move home again, several times.)   Although our children are free, we expect them to make some commitments.  The commitments may be to an education, to a career, possibly to the military, to relationships, and to a responsible lifestyle.  Too often our children flounder, using their newfound freedom to make irresponsible and sometimes dangerous choices.  The Rabbis recognized that freedom must entail certain commitments.

In our country, we sing that we are “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  Certainly, freedom is a fundamental American value.  But along with that freedom comes certain commitments, from voting to jury duty and paying taxes to obeying the law.   Freedom without commitments quickly turns into anarchy.   That is why the rabbis built a link between the festival of freedom and the festival of giving the Torah.

I have been counting the omer each evening after dark.  As of this writing, I counted 31 last night.  In the kabbalah, each day of the omer takes on a different mystical meaning.  For me, I am anticipating celebrating the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, doing some learning on zoom and then eating my wife’s delicious dairy blintze casserole.   (We eat dairy on Shavuot).  Most important, I look forward to celebrating the commitment of receiving the Torah.  The Rabbis who developed Judaism linked freedom to commitment.  That is why we count forty-nine days.  As the book of Psalms says, “Teach us to number our days that we get a heart of wisdom.”  (Psalms 90:12)


“Neither shall he [the High Priest] go to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother.”  (Leviticus 21:11)

As the news gets more and more depressing, I think we need a bit of humor.  I think of the old Jack Benny routine where a man holds a gun to his head.  “Your money or your life?”  Benny pauses for a moment, then replies, “I’m thinking it over.”

Your money or your life?  That seems to be the choice between those demonstrating to reopen businesses and stop the shelter-at-home policies, and those who believe it is too early and too dangerous.  Those pushing to reopen are deeply concerned about the financial consequences of society remaining shut down.  Many have lost their jobs and many businesses have closed.  We seem to be on the way to another Great Depression.  What good is it to be safe if we cannot pay our bills?   On the other hand, those who want to delay claim that opening too fast will spread the corona virus, putting us all at risk, particularly the elderly and ill who are most vulnerable.  And thus we sit with the Sword of Damocles over our heads, damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Your money or your life?  This issue appears in Rashi’s commentary on the Sh’ma, the fundamental prayer Jews say twice daily.  It teaches, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).  Rashi comments that with all your soul means even if He takes your soul.  He continues, with all your might means all your money.  To quote Rashi, “There are some people whose money is dearer to them than their lives.”  I wonder if Jack Benny ever studied Rashi.

So, do we reopen?  At some point we will have to – slowly, carefully, wearing masks and maintaining distances.  Some will take advantage of the reopening and some will not.  As we reopen, there will be more cases of COVID-19. More illness, and certainly more deaths.  Probably we will open a little, and then close up a little, slowly but surely trying to find a balance.  It will take months or even longer

When will this finally end?  The virus will always be with us (as measles is always with us.)  But eventually we will hit a point called “herd immunity.”  (Let me thank Bruce Berkowitz for explaining this idea to me.)  Herd immunity is when a high enough percentage of people develop the antibodies to the virus, either through being infected or hopefully, though a vaccine, that the virus will no longer spread.  It will happen, like it happened with measles (except in those communities that chose not to be vaccinated, like certain insular Orthodox communities.)  Herd immunity will eventually happen with Corona.  Meanwhile, we must walk that fine line between opening and staying closed.   We each need to choose how we walk that line, whether we stay home or go out.

As I consider the line we must walk, a law that grows out of this week’s Torah reading comes to mind.  The Kohenim (the priests) in Judaism have to separate themselves from death.  A Kohen cannot go to a funeral or walk into a cemetery, except for an immediate relative.  The Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) had to follow even stricter laws.  He was in charge of the offerings in the ancient Temple.  To keep himself in a state of proper purity, he was forbidden from going to the funerals even of his father or his mother.  For the High Priest, the laws to stay away from death were absolute – almost.

There is an exception.  This is the case of a met mitzvah (a body with no one to care for it.)   The High Priest, even if he is on the way to offer the most holy offerings in the Temple, must stop what he is doing to take care of a body.  Caring for the dead overrules everything.  Applying that to our own times, those who care for the sick and dying, even at the risk of their own lives, are doing an important good dead.  They deserve all the accolades they have been given.

I suppose the lesson from this is there are no absolute right or wrong answers.  We all must walk lines in life.  The High Priest walked a line between bringing the offerings and caring for the dead.  Today we most all walk a line – going out or staying home.  Our money or our life.  I can only pray that during this difficult time we learn to make wise decisions.

“To the Israelite people speak thus, anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt.” (Leviticus 24:15)
This week’s portion ends with an unusual story. A certain man whose mother was Israelite and father was Egyptian is involved in a fight. In the midst of that fight, the man blasphemes the name of God. Moses places him in custody until the Lord can decide on the appropriate punishment. In the end, the Israelites take him outside the camp and stone him to death. It is a rather harsh punishment for blasphemy.
Later Jewish tradition would lay out seven laws which all humanity must follow. These are known as the seven laws of the children of Noah. The laws are prohibitions of murder, idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, stealing, cruelty to animals, and the requirement to establish courts of justice. The seventh law is the prohibition of blasphemy. What is blasphemy?
Blasphemy might be defined as saying impious things or cursing God. Some would include the misuse of God’s Holy Name, forbidden to be spoken except by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. Others would broaden the definition of blasphemy to include not only insulting God but insulting religious objects or beliefs. In my mind, this includes not simply religious objects of my faith, but religious objects or beliefs of any faith. To insult the Torah would be blasphemy, but so would insulting a Christian cross, the Islamic hajj, or statues of the Buddha. In 1987 artist Andres Serrano portrayed a picture of a cross suspended in bottle of urine. He called it “piss christ.” Many considered it art. I consider it blasphemy, and an insult to my Christian brothers and sisters.
That brings me to the Rabbinical Assembly Convention I attended last week in Montreal. The only item I could find on the news (at least the English news) was a huge debate of Quebec Bill 21, known as the secularism bill. The bill, if passed, would forbid government employees in positions of authority such as teachers, police, and some office workers, from wearing any kind of religious garb. There was huge anger from religious leaders who were not allowed to testify at the debates on the bill.
The bill is still being debated but if it does pass, a Moslem schoolteacher must remove her hijab, a Jewish policeman must remove his yarmulke, and a Sikh prison warden must remove his turban. If I taught ethics in a government university in Quebec as I do in Florida, I would be required to remove my yarmulke. It is a deliberate move to make Quebec more secular. In many ways it reminds me of the law passed in France several years ago forbidding Muslim women from wearing a burka on the beach. There are pictures of French police in Nice forcing a woman to remove a “burkini.”
America has had its share of laws forbidding the wearing of religious symbols. For example, in the past chaplains in the military could not wear beards. This prevented Chabad rabbis from ever being chaplains. Today chaplains can wear a short beard, and Chabad has found ways to roll up the beard to make it much shorter. But as a general rule, America has developed a greater respect for religious symbols.
At the convention, we invited a professor from Quebec who tried to explain the controversy to our group of mostly American rabbis. He said that there is a huge cultural difference between the English speaking and the French speaking world. In the English speaking world, the laws developed to protect religion from government intrusion. In the French speaking world the opposite is true, the laws were developed to protect the government from religious intrusion. It is almost as if religion is the enemy.
In my humble opinion, to insult someone’s religion including their religious clothing, is a form of blasphemy. Whether it is a Hasid with beard and payes, a priest with a cross and collar, or a Muslim with a hijab or even a full burka, people have the right to practice their religion. To insult someone’s religion is to insult God, and that is my definition of blasphemy.

“From the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” (Leviticus 23:15)
Do you remember the Count, the Dracula like figure on Sesame Street who loved to count? He would teach children their numbers and how to count. He would look for items to count. If the Count were Jewish, he would love this time of year. For we are in the middle of a period of counting, the counting of the Omer.
This week’s portion gives the laws of the counting of the Omer. From the night after the first day of Passover we count seven weeks, forty-nine days. The Torah actually says the day after the sabbath, but the Rabbis interpreted that Sabbath to be Passover. Each evening at nightfall, we say a blessing and then count: “today is ____ days, which is ____ weeks and ____ days of the Omer.” When we reach forty-nine days which is seven weeks, we prepare for the next evening, the festival of Shavuot. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. By counting, we link Passover, the festival of freedom, with Shavuot, the festival of revelation.
As we count, there are certain special days on the Jewish calendar. The twelfth day of the Omer is Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day. The twentieth day of the Omer is Yom Atzmaut – Israel Independence Day. These are modern commemorations. Far more ancient is the thirty-third day of the Omer, Lag B’Omer. Traditionally it is a day of celebration, a day for haircuts (little boys when they are three years old) and weddings. There is also a tradition of campfires, which one sees all over Israel on Lag B’Omer. Finally, Lag B’Omer is the anniversary of the death of one of the most fascinating sages of the Talmud – Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. In Israel, thousands of religious Jews ascend to the cave in Meron where he is buried.
Shimon bar Yochai is a fascinating character. A mystic, Jewish tradition teaches that he wrote the great work of Jewish mysticism known as the Zohar. (Today we follow the scholarly opinion that it was written by the thirteenth century Spanish mystic Moshe de Leon.) Tradition teaches that Shimon bar Yochai hid from the Romans in a cave for years, burying themselves in the sand so they would not wear out their clothes. They spent those years in mystical studies. Finally, when they learned that the Romans had ceased searching for them, they came out of the cave. They saw a man going to work, and became so angry that the man was not studying Torah, that their eyes caused everything to catch fire. So God sent them back to the cave. “Are you trying to destroy my world?” When they came out of the cave a second time, they saw a man preparing for the Sabbath and found peace. (Talmud Shabbat 33b – 34a)
I believe the point of this Talmudic story is to teach that mystical speculation in Judaism is not about disappearing from the world. Jews do not build monasteries or seek nirvana in the Himalayas. Jewish mysticism is used to prepare us to enter the real world. We leave the mystical state and reenter life, ready to transform the world. This makes me wonder, what would happen if Shimon bar Yochai left the cave and ran into the Count. (This is mere speculation; the rabbi lived long before Sesame Street.)
Shimon bar Yochai would teach the Count about Gematria. This is the Jewish art of counting. Every letter is also a number, and every Hebrew word has a count. By counting the numbers of each letter, we can learn insights about the universe. For example, the Hebrew word for life chai has a count of eighteen. That is why eighteen is such an important number in Judaism. God’s name has a count of twenty-six. When Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, the number went from 243 to 248. Where did the five come from? His wife Sari’s name was changed from 510 to 505, losing five. So the count stayed even.
The Count would love Gematria. Maybe he would even convert to Judaism. The idea that words have numerical meanings, meanings beyond their semantic meaning, is one of the most powerful ideas in Jewish mysticism.

“He shall not marry a woman defiled by harlotry, nor shall he marry a woman divorced from her husband, for he is holy to the Lord.” (Leviticus 21:7)
What should I do as a rabbi when I believe that our tradition did something wrong? Should I ignore a well-established Jewish law because of my own sense that his law is unethical? Since this is God’s law, could God be unethical? Or did the rabbis of our tradition go in the wrong direction when they interpreted this law?
Last week I was teaching the community conversion class, and we were talking about the tribal group kohenim – priesthood, descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron. Kohenim have a proud lineage. They have special privileges and special responsibilities by Jewish law. One woman seeking to convert to Judaism raised a question with me. “I am converting to Judaism and my fiancée is a kohen. I have been told that by Jewish law we are not permitted to marry. Is that true?” I responded that she should not ask a question to which she does not want to hear the answer. By traditional Jewish law, as practiced in the Orthodox community and in Israel, a kohen cannot marry a convert to Judaism.
This week’s portion mentions a number of special laws regarding the kohenim. For example, a kohen cannot visit a cemetery or be in the same room as a dead body, with the exception of the funeral (and only the funeral, not the unveiling) of an immediate relative. A kohen has restrictions on whom he may marry. He had to maintain the purity of his lineage. He may not marry a divorced woman. He may not marry the daughter of another kohen from a forbidden marriage. And relevant to our discussion, a kohen cannot marry a zonah. Who is a zonah?
The word zonah in modern Hebrew means a woman of the night, a prostitute. One can understand a law saying that the priest, the religious leader of the people, should not marry a woman who sells her body for sex. But the rabbis of the Talmud greatly expanded the meaning of the word zonah. In particular, they included any Jewish woman who had been involved in a relationship forbidden by Jewish law. If a Jewish woman was married to a non-Jew and they divorced or he died, she would be prohibited from marrying a kohen. The rabbis also forbid the marriage of a kohen to a convert, irrespective of the life she lived before she converted. Even a woman who was converted to Judaism as an infant may not marry a kohen, according to traditional Jewish law.
On a personal level, I find this law very troubling. Including a convert under the pejorative term zonah deeply offends may sense of ethics, particularly in a tradition that praises the role of converts. I will admit that I ignore the law. I have performed a number of wedding between a man who is a kohen and a woman who is a convert, and I have seen some blessed marriages come out of such unions. Off the record, I have even heard of Orthodox rabbis who ignore the law and perform such weddings, usually in a quiet way out of the limelight.
This entire issue raises a much deeper question. How do I react when I believe Judaism has gone down the wrong path, taught a law that I consider unethical? I could react as many traditionalists, with the attitude “God said it, who am I to argue?” However, I believe Jewish law is a human attempt to understand what God wants us to do. And humans sometimes get it wrong. That is why I am willing to sometimes ignore my own tradition and do what I think is right.
There is great beauty and wisdom in Jewish tradition. Most of it strikes me as quite wise and insightful. In fact, much of it strikes me as the will of God. But sometimes Jewish law gets it wrong. At such times, I am willing to allow my ethical sense overrule my commitment to Jewish law. I believe that my sense of ethics, my convictions about what is right and what is wrong, is also a gift from God.

“From the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” (Leviticus 23:15)
We are in the middle of the period on the Jewish calendar known as the counting of the Omer. When we first settled in the land, a farmer would lift up a sheaf of barley every day for forty-nine days, beginning with the second night of Passover. The fiftieth day was the festival of Shavuot (weeks). Today we count every night, a tradition that links the festivals of Passover and Shavuot. Passover of course is our festival of freedom; Shavuot is our festival of receiving the Torah. The daily counting of the Omer links freedom to the obligation of the Torah. Freedom alone is not the ultimate value, the ultimate value is freedom linked to commitments. That is the simple meaning of this observance.
Nonetheless, the teachers of Jewish mysticism and the teachers of Musar (Jewish ethical growth) gave this observance a far deeper meaning. The forty-nine day count was a forty-nine day commitment to self-consciousness and ethical growth. This growth was based on the various sefirot which are at the heart of Jewish mysticism. Jewish mystics teach that God is manifest in this world through ten sefirot, ten levels of being which carry God’s presence into the world. The lower seven of these sefirot are tied to various human qualities such as hesed (kindness), gevurah (self-restraint), and tiferet (beauty or balance). (I do not have room to give a full description of these seven sefirot here. There are numerous websites which describe them in great detail.)
As we count the Omer, we are to focus on these sefirot by twos in our own personality. The first day we look at the hesed which is in hesed, the second day the gevurah which is in hesed, the third day the tiferet which is in hesed. On the eighth day we focus on the hesed which is in gevurah, and so on through forty-nine days. The counting of the Omer becomes something much deeper; it is a process of self-evaluation and improvement. After forty-nine days we are different people than we were at the first day. By seeing this observance through the eyes of process, we deepen our understanding of ourselves.
One of the most profound changes in my own thinking about life has been to see the world not as something static but as something constantly in process. I believe that each of us is in process, but so is life itself. Our civilization is in process and so is our understanding of Torah. And to say something truly radical, an idea I explore in my dissertation, even God is in process. I was a mathematics major many years ago in college. Sometimes I wondered why I liked calculus so much more than algebra. Algebra studies static qualities, while calculus studies how things change over time. Calculus is about process.
We see this when we think about life on earth. When Charles Darwin first proposed his theory of evolution through natural selection, he was extremely reluctant to publish it. He knew that it would challenge certain fundamental religious beliefs. Most people believed (many still believe) that life is static, and that God made each animal species according to its own kind. The idea that species change and evolve, with some species disappearing and others appearing, seemed to undermine religious faith. And yet there was the fossil record. And there was the variety of animals on the Galapagos Islands (look up Darwin’s finches.) Everything seemed to point to life as a constantly changing process.
Darwin did not want to publish his findings and undermine religion. However, when Alfred Russell Wallace, a young admirer of Darwin, came up with the same idea, Darwin realized he had no choice. Darwin published his ideas, and humanity gained a new way of seeing the world. Life is not static but constantly changing. Life is a process.
Civilization is also a process. What was deemed ethical at one point in history is deemed unethical today. A hundred years ago people argued whether women could vote. Fifty years ago people argued whether schools should remain segregated. Today people argue whether gays should marry. One sees an ever expanding circle of ethical care. Ethics is a process which is constantly in flux. The key question is not “where are we?” but “where are we going?”
In so many areas of life, I find much that is persuasive about this process view of reality. Next week I will continue to explore this idea.

“From the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath- – you shall count off seven weeks.” (Leviticus 23:15)
The book of Psalms, traditionally attributed to King David, contains a beautiful, oft-quoted passage. “Teach us to number our days that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12) Days may pass one after another without us focusing on them. By numbering our days we deepen the experience of life. Often numbering our days means anticipating some future event. People post on Facebook “— days until our wedding.” The countdown begins. I saw an advertisement recently counting the days until the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. It still seems a long way off to me, but advertisers know that counting days raises the level of anticipation.
We are in the middle of a period in Jewish tradition where we number our days. This week’s portion teaches that we should count 49 days each evening after dark. We begin this process known as the counting of the Omer following the first day of Passover. When we finish, on the fiftieth day, we have reached the festival of Shavuot (weeks.) What is the meaning of linking these two festivals through such a daily count? Passover is our festival of freedom. Shavuot is our festival of receiving the Torah, making commitments to God. Counting the days teaches us that freedom must be tied to commitment.
The United States is a country that treasures freedom. Our American heritage is built on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, economic and political freedom. But such freedom also requires certain commitments. We cannot use our speech to slander people or to insult someone’s religion. We cannot use our economic freedom to exploit workers. We cannot use our political freedom to try to overthrow the government. Freedom must lead to some sort of obligations. Freedom without obligation will lead to chaos. Passover must be linked to the festival of receiving the Torah.
Numbering our days is more than simply anticipating a future event. Numbering our days means carefully looking at each and every day as an opportunity to better ourselves. Jewish mystics have a wonderful practice tied to the counting of the Omer. Kabbalah enumerates ten sefirot or manifestations of God’s presence in the universe. The lower seven of these ten sefirot are tied to human personality traits. The seven are hesed (kindness or love), gevurah (strength or restraint), teferet (beauty or balance), netzach (eternity), hod (glory), yesod (foundation or connection), and malchut (kingdom or reality closest to the physical world.)
The mystics teach that each of the seven weeks as we count the Omer we should focus on one of these personality traits. But they go further. Each of these seven leave a trace in all of the seven. That leaves 49 possibilities, 49 ways we can use the Omer to improve ourselves. For example, on the first day we focus on hesed within hesed, kindness within kindness. It is the day when we look at overwhelming, unrestrained kindness. Kindness is certainly a positive trait, but too much kindness can be destructive. Just ask any parent who has showered too many gifts upon their children. Their children never learn to fend for themselves. On the first day we should focus on where our kindness has gone too far. (Note – Simon Jacobson has written A Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer, going through each of these forty-nine days of soul-searching. It can be found on the Chabad website.)
Numbering our days has a double meaning. It means anticipating some future event and counting the days until it occurs. But it also means doing some soul searching each and every day, using each day for self improvement. The Psalmist said we should count our days in order to acquire a heart of wisdom. Perhaps a better way to put it is not simply to count our days, but to make sure that each and every day counts.

“When a bull, or a sheep, or a goat, is born, then it shall be seven days with its mother; and from the eighth day on it shall be accepted for an offering made by fire to the Lord. And whether it is a cow or an ewe, you shall not kill it and her young both in one day.” (Leviticus 22:27-28)

Last week I finally saw the movie Noah directed by Darren Aronofsky. Several of you have asked me about my thoughts on the movie. I will get to that in a moment. But first a word about this week’s portion. Much of this portion deals with the laws of the Priesthood (kohenim). Later, it gives the laws for the cycle of Jewish festivals. It ends with the punishment of a man who blasphemed the name of God. But in between are a few other verses about the treatment of animals.
How are we to treat animals, particularly in a world that permits animal sacrifice and the eating of animal flesh? (Eating flesh is a concession to human weakness that God gives after the Noah story.) This portion contains laws dealing with cruelty to animals. A baby animal cannot be taken from its mother for a full week after it is born. An animal and its offspring cannot be killed on the same day. The goal is to inculcate a sense of empathy towards the animals and find ways to minimize their suffering. There are many similar laws in the Torah. We call this entire body of law, the prohibition of tzar baalei hayim – “pain to animals.” This became a major concern of the Rabbis.
There are many today who want to go further. I listened to an interview on N.P.R. Monday of a lawyer bringing a lawsuit in federal court. He wants to give animals all the rights of personhood. It is an idea first suggested by the philosopher Peter Singer in his 1975 book Animal Liberation. According to Singer, if treating blacks differently than whites is racism and treating women differently from men is sexism, then treating animals different from humans is speciesism. And this brings us to the movie Noah.
Warning – there are spoilers in the next several paragraphs. Skip to the last paragraph if you are still planning to see the movie. Russell Crowe is a fine actor, but his Noah is far from the Noah of the Bible. He still goes on the ark as floodwaters cover the earth, together with his wife and three sons. But he is a deeply disturbed, often evil man. The key point is that he totally misunderstands God’s message.
Noah and his family are strict vegetarians. He believed that humanity turned violent after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and turned both on animals and on each other. Until then animals and humans had lived peacefully in the Garden of Eden. He saw his job as rescuing the animals so they can live in a recreated Garden of Eden. All humanity would be destroyed. The twist in the movie was that he wanted his own family also to be destroyed. That is where he turns fanatical and even violent.
Noah goes on the ark with his wife and three sons. His oldest son Shem has a girlfriend, soon to be wife. She is allowed on the ark because she is infertile. He prevents his second son Ham from taking the girl he loves on the ark, leaving her behind to die. In the movie, this explains the strange scene also in the Bible where Noah gets drunk, something unseemly happens with Ham, and Noah curses his middle son. The youngest son Japheth is too young and has no girlfriend.
There are two women on the ark; one is too old to have children and one is infertile. There will be no more humans born when these people die off. And that is how Noah understood God’s message. Animals would survive and flourish because humans would die. Then things took a turn for the worse. The young girl played by Emma Watson becomes pregnant. Noah says that if a boy is born, he will let it live. But if a girl is born, he will kill it. (This is the opposite of Pharaoh, who killed the boys and let the girls live.) There will be no humanity left if there are no females to get pregnant. Obviously humanity does survive and the story has a happy ending.
The movie may not have reflected the Bible, but it raises some radical ideas. These ideas have resonance today among some extreme environmental groups. They believe not only in animal rights, but that humanity is a blight upon the earth. Humanity is destroyed the Garden of Eden. Without humans the world would be better off. We studied these philosophical ideas in one of my graduate seminars. There is a thought question that came up. Suppose there was one human and one tree left on earth. The human knows that when he dies humanity will become extinct. Does he have the right to cut down that last tree before he dies?

“The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses – now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.” (Leviticus 24:11)
There are very few narratives among the long legal sections of Leviticus. This week’s portion ends with a brief, sad story – the punishment of a man for blasphemy. We do not even know the man’s name, although we do know that he came from the marriage of an Egyptian man and Israelite woman. Perhaps with this mixed background, he was not raised to respect any religious tradition. Strangely, we are told his mother’s name; women are rarely named in the Torah. And we are told his punishment for the crime of blasphemy – stoning.
What was his crime? The Torah is deliberately vague, although it probably involved disrespect to the divine name. We do know that the Rabbis of the Talmudic period took blasphemy very seriously. They made it one of the seven fundamental laws of Noah, binding not just on Jews but on all humanity. In Rabbinic times blasphemy meant cursing or insulting God. Today we often broaden the meaning to include insults to a religion or religious practice.
Is it wrong to insult someone’s religion? A local university, Florida Atlantic, where I am studying for my PhD, is in the midst of a controversy. A communications professor had students write Jesus’ name on a piece of paper and stomp on it. According to news reports, when one student refused, he was removed from the class. The controversy made national news. Because of “academic freedom” the university is limited in the action it can take. (This is the same university where another professor put on his blog that the Newtown and Boston massacres never took place. I still love FAU but I wonder if they have lost their priorities.)
It is nothing new to insult the majority Christian religion. Many of us remember the huge controversy about a photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix suspended in urine. It won a visual arts competition in the late 1980’s and was the subject of much controversy when it became public that the art was paid for with government money. Wherever it has been displayed, it has brought protests and vandalism. Personally I understand the anger of my Christian brothers and sisters.
I wonder what would have happened if a professor had students stomp on a picture of Muhammad or a copy of the Koran. There is a good chance that he would have to go into hiding. We recall the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard who survived an assassination attempt after drawing a cartoon showing Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. And of course there is the celebrated novelist Salman Rushdie who had to go into hiding following the publication of his book The Satanic Verses. It is a sad reality of contemporary life that the Moslem world treats blasphemy as a capital offence.
What about my own faith – Judaism? How do we look at insults to our religion? Part of the joy of being Jewish is that we often approach our own faith with a deep sense of humor. We Jews are willing to laugh at ourselves. (Example – A rabbi, cantor, and synagogue president were all captured by natives before the High Holidays. They were given the death penalty, but first each was granted one last wish. The rabbi said, “I have prepared a long, profound sermon on the meaning of Rosh Hashana. Let me deliver it.” The cantor said, “I have developed a new melodic interpretation of the prayer hineni, let me sing it.” Finally the president said, “Kill me first.” )
We Jews can laugh at ourselves. But as a Jew I would be deeply offended if an artist or a professor made fun of my faith. If I learned that a professor asked students to take a page from the Torah and stomp on it, I would be outraged. Religion is a deep part of the psyche of the vast majority of people in the world. To insult someone’s religion can be deeply hurtful. It goes against the Golden Rule, treating others as we wish to be treated. In my mind, blasphemy is still a sin.

“And the Lord said to Moses, Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, There shall be none defiled for the dead among his people” (Leviticus 21:1)
When I received the word that Osama bin Laden had been killed by American Special Forces, my reaction was the same as most other Americans. The verse from the Bible kept playing in my head, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it.” (Psalms 118:24) But my mood soon turned from joy to sadness. Another Biblical verse popped into my head, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.” (Proverbs 24:17) Bin Laden may be gone, but the thousands he killed are never coming back. And his terrorist agenda continues.
It is noteworthy that his death took place on Yom HaShoah, the day that Jewish communities throughout the world commemorate the holocaust. The events brought back memories of my childhood, when Adolph Eichmann, the mastermind of the holocaust was captured by Israeli forces. Like the United States, Israel also went into a foreign nation – Argentina – to capture its enemy. They flew Eichmann back to Israel, put him on trial, and executed him for crimes against the Jewish people. Hannah Arendt coined the famous phrase “the banality of evil” while writing about the Eichmann trial. She was trying to explain how people learn to accept horrible evils as ordinary events. Arendt’s words still ring true. Much of the world, particularly the Moslem world, has come to accept terrorism as part of the normal course of events.
Many Jews reacted to bin Laden’s death by quoting the famous passage in the Talmud regarding the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (traditionally the Red Sea.) The Israelites started to sing the song of the sea, and then the angels in heaven started to sing. God stopped them, “My children are drowning in the sea, and you sing songs to me.” (Megilah 10b) Even the enemies of Israel are God’s children.
The fascinating question is why did God stop the angels but not stop the children of Israel themselves from singing. Angels are supposed to be perfect. Humans are – how else can we say it – human. It is natural for humans to rejoice when their enemy falls. I absolutely understand the celebration that occurred when bin Laden fell. I understand the gathering in Washington and New York, the waving of flags and the singing of songs. And yet, I feel sadness. I feel sadness for his thousands of victims. And I feel sadness that one of God’s children could become so evil. Many newspapers have described bin Laden in hell. I prefer an image of bin Laden facing his Maker in the next world, and being sternly rebuked. “What did you do? Did I send you into the world to be a mass murderer?”
This brings me to our weekly Torah portion. We read about the priesthood (kohenim) who must totally separate themselves from death. In ancient Egypt the priests were preoccupied with the dead. (Think about the pyramids.) In Jewish tradition the kohenim cannot even attend a funeral or enter a cemetery. We are a people and a faith who reaffirm life, not one that celebrates death. Even the death of an evil man is not a time for celebration but rather a time for sober reflection and soul searching.
We live in a world where many have chosen a culture of death. We come from a tradition that teaches, “Therefore choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) As wrote in my Pesach message a few weeks ago, may we create a world where the forces of life overcome the forces of death. As we reflect on the death of bin Laden, we pray that the banality of evil be replaced by an outpouring of goodness.


“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of wave offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days.” (Leviticus 23:15-16)

This week’s portion includes the most detailed account of the cycle of festivals throughout the year. The various laws of Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot are laid out; the Bible believes that certain times of the year must be made holy. Included in this list is an observance called sefira (the counting of the Omer). Each day from the evening of the second Passover seder, the number of days and weeks are counted. When we reach 49 days or 7 weeks, the next day begins the festival of Shavuot.
Passover of course is our festival of freedom. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments and the other laws of the Torah. It is our festival of commitment. The Israelites left Egypt and seven weeks later received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. They travelled over that seven week period from freedom to commitment. Freedom is not about license; to be free does not mean to do whatever one chooses. Rather freedom is about commitment and responsibility. There is a link between going out into freedom and taking on rules for living. That is why the Torah linked these two festivals.
I think about this as I consider my adult children. Sunday I will be giving my first informal talk in a series called Real Issues, Jewish Answers. My topic for the first session will be: When Children Become Adults; What Do We Owe Them? My youngest child turned twenty-one a few weeks ago. By the law of every state, he can now legally buy alcohol. Three times I have gone through a parental rite of passage, watching a child become legal. And three times I have worried, if they drink, will they drink responsibly and wisely. So far my children have made me proud.
When children reach adulthood, they gain freedom. My children can eat and drink what they want, live where they want, work wherever they can get a job, and travel as they please. They can choose with whom to enter into a relationship. They can marry or not marry, have children or not have children, be in long term monogamous relationship or a series of short term casual “hook ups” (to use their term). They can practice the faith I raised them in, reject it and practice no faith, or even (I dread the thought) convert to some other faith. They are free. And as a responsible adult, I have to give them their freedom. (If you want to see a wonderful portrayal of a controlling parent who could not give her kids freedom, watch the Broadway musical Gypsy. It is out on dvd with Bette Midler.)
An essential part of adulthood is freedom. And an essential part of parenthood is letting go. The Torah commands children to honor their parents; it does not command them to obey their parents. We send our kids off into the world and with the right training and a lot of mazel (good luck), they will make wise choices.
Having said that, children also need to understand that freedom is not license. None of us are free to do whatever we choose; none of us should simply follow our appetites. As a wise rabbi once taught, “Who is strong? Whoever controls their appetite.” (Avot 4:1) Freedom is tied to commitment and responsibility. The freedom to drink means the commitment not to over indulge or to drive drunk. The freedom to choose relationships means the commitment to remain faithful in those relationships. The freedom to earn a living means the commitment to earn honestly and spend responsibly. The freedom to choose how to practice a religion means the commitment to honestly explore that religion and avoid fanaticism and intolerance.
The Torah commands us to formally count the days from Passover to Shavuot, from freedom to commitment. The sefira period is a reminder that the freedom of adulthood is filled with responsibility and commitment.



“These are the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.”
(Leviticus 23:2)
We are in the middle of the holiness code in the book of Leviticus. How do we step up from the profane to the sacred? One way is to set a calendar of sacred occasions through the year, days that are set apart and made special. How many such days are there in the Biblical Hebrew calendar? This portion lists them all. Not counting the Sabbath, here they are (these are all in Leviticus chapter 23):
1. “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a Passover offering to the Lord. … The first day shall be for you a sacred occasion, you shall not work at your occupations.” (verses 5 – 7) – the first day of Passover.
2. “The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion, you shall not work at your occupation,” (verse 8) – the seventh day of Passover.
3. After counting seven weeks, “on that same time you shall hold a celebration, it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations.” (verse 21) – Shavuot or the feast of Pentecost.
4. “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations.” (verses 24 – 25) – one day of Rosh Hashana.
5. “Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall practice self-denial, … you shall do no work throughout that day.” (verses 27 – 28) Yom Kippur
6. “On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the Lord, seven days. The first day shall be a sacred occasion, you shall not work at your occupations.” (verses 34 – 35) Sukkot or the feast of tabernacles.
7. “On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion … it is a solemn gathering, you shall not work at your occupations.” (verse 36) Shmini Atzeret or the eighth day of assembly.
These are the Biblical festivals where one is forbidden to do secular work – the first and seventh days of Passover, Shavuot, one day Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, the first day of Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret. Notice that there are seven holy days in the Bible (not counting the Sabbath.) Seven is a magical number in the Bible.
Further days of been added to that number, mostly due to confusion about the calendar. Both within and outside Israel a second day of Rosh Hashana is celebrated. This celebration is fairly universal although most Reform and some Conservative Jews do not observe the second day. In our own synagogue attendance on the second day almost falls in half.
Outside of Israel among Orthodox and Conservative Jews, an extra day is added to each of the other festivals except Yom Kippur. Reform Jews and most Israelis do not observe these extra days. So in the diaspora in our synagogue, we keep the first two and the last two days of Passover, two days of Shavuot, two days Rosh Hashana, one day Yom Kippur, the first two days of Sukkot, and the last two days (Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.) So how many holy days do fully observant Jews keep in the diaspora?
For Jews outside of Israel, there are thirteen holy days. It is a serious commitment that so many Jews will plan their personal calendar, take days off work, keep children out of school, and really observe each of these days as holy. Other Jews have called for a return to the Biblical calendar, taking off at least the seven Biblical holidays. However one chooses to observe them, keeping the cycle of holy days a fundamental part of the Jewish quest for holiness.



“The Lord said to Moses, speak to the priests the sons of Aaron, and say to them, none shall defile himself for any dead person among his kin, except for relatives that are closest to him.” (Leviticus 21:1-2)

A man spoke to me this week about a difficult dilemma. He is a kohen, a direct descendent of Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first priest of the ancient Israelites. According to Jewish law as spelled out in this week’s portion, a kohen cannot be in the same room as a dead body nor go onto the grounds of a cemetery. The only exception is for the funeral of an immediate family member such as a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or God forbid, a child. (Often at Jewish funerals you can see certain men standing outside or by the road, not coming near the deceased. Such men are not being rude; they are kohenim following an ancient tradition.)
The man who spoke with me was an observant Jew who took seriously these obligations of being a kohen. He had gone to the funeral of a grandparent. He planned to stand back by the roadway while the rest of his family said the mourners kaddish at the graveside. But his family was upset by this decision. To the family, it was important that everybody be together at graveside. They believed it would be an affront to the memory of the grandparent for a grandson to stand back by the roadway. The man tried to explain the traditional Jewish position to no avail. Tradition or no tradition, his family wanted him there shoveling earth on the casket with everybody else.
He was torn between his faith and his family. He made a decision and wanted my opinion as a rabbi; did he do the right thing? It is a decision that many people must make who are torn between their religious practices and their family commitments. Should a Jew who strictly observes the dietary laws of Passover go to a family seder that will not be kosher? Should a Jew who will not drive on the Sabbath make an exception to go to a niece’s bat mitzvah? When a Jew believes that intermarriage is wrong, should he or she attend such a wedding of a sibling? How do we decide between faith and family?
From a traditionalist point of view the answer is clear. Faith trumps family. Last week in the Torah reading we read one verse that taught a person should both revere their parents and keep the Sabbath. The Rabbis interpret this verse to mean that if your parents tell you to break the Sabbath, you do not listen. Observance is more important than family. Or as the Talmud teaches, “Moses said let the law pierce the mountain.” The law is the law and family needs to live with that law.
From a secular point of view as practiced by most Jews today, the answer is also clear. Family trumps faith. Religious observance is wonderful, but it is not of ultimate importance. Religion may add a certain spiritual dimension to life, but when it comes to matters of ultimate importance such as family, religion can be set aside.
On a personal level, I have struggled with this issue throughout my life. In my earlier career I would have sided with the traditionalists. If there is a contradiction between your Father in Heaven and your father on earth, you obey your Father in Heaven. But my ideas have evolved. More and more I am convinced that God has commanded us to make commitments to family. And there are times when I need to set aside even God’s laws to be with my family at key moments. When my son’s college graduation fell on a Friday night, and my attempts to get his college to change the date were ignored, I made a decision. I would go to the graduation, even if it meant some compromises in my Sabbath observances. I have no regrets (and I was not the only one wearing a yarmulke at the graduation.)
Going back to the man in my story, he was truly torn between religious and family commitments. He decided to break the traditional prohibitions regarding a kohen and stand by his family at graveside. Did he do the right thing? I believe so. I believe that God was smiling on him that day.



“Neither shall you profane my holy name; but I will be hallowed among the people of Israel; I am the Lord who hallows you.”
(Leviticus 22:32)

Forgive me if I wax philosophical this week. There is an issue that intrigues me so much that I have already written two papers for two different graduate philosophy courses on it. It may someday become my dissertation. I believe this issue has profound consequences for the future of Judaism.
The issue – is God totally outside nature, as the Torah teaches and as philosophers such as Maimonides made a central part of his Guide for the Perplexed? Or is God totally within nature, as the ancient pagans taught and as the Kabbalah continues to teach to this day? Is God utterly transcendent? Or is God utterly immanent? I wrote in my recent paper that the history of Jewish (and Christian) thought is a dialectic between these two ideas.
The beginning of this dialectic within Judaism goes back to the opening verses of the Bible. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) Creation takes place outside of God. Matter is mere material stuff which God created, presumably out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). The Biblical God is utterly transcendent. If God is outside nature, then paganism which sees God in every mountain and every tree must be rejected. The Prophets fight paganism with all the passion of their rhetoric.
Why does the Bible utterly reject paganism? Why does it envision a total separation between God and nature? The classical answer among rabbis is that the Bible is concerned with ethics, and we cannot learn ethics from nature. As Rabbi Mark Gafni wrote in his book The Mystery of Love, “If God were in nature and not beyond nature, then nature would be our source of ethics. … The law of nature is nearly always that the strong kill the weak. Certainly the helpless and the infirm have little chance of survival in the natural order other than as a dinner for a stronger adversary. If we were to transpose natural law into the human world, we would certainly live the law of the jungle. Social services, hospitals, and help for the disabled are all profoundly `unnatural,’ at least according to the law of nature in the nonhuman world.” We humans need a God beyond nature in order to build an ethics which allows us to rise above our own nature.
By seeing God as totally other, the Bible allowed ethics to develop. But by seeing God outside of nature, our Biblical faith also created many of our contemporary ecological problems. If nature is mere chemicals, material stuff which we can manipulate for human ends, then why not transform nature if we so desire? What stops us from using our technology to destroy the very planet God created for us to live? If nature is mere “stuff”, then we can understand the Talmudic teaching, “Rabbi Simon said, if one were walking by the way and is studying, and interrupts his study to say `how beautiful is this tree,’ `How beautiful is this field,’ Scripture regards him as if he were guilty against his own soul.” (Avot 3:7)
Today many are turning to a second view of God, more ancient than the Bible, which envisions God as imminent within nature. This view manifested itself in the paganism of Biblical times, in the natural magic of Talmudic times through the Renaissance, and in the growth of Kabbalah from the Middle Ages until our own time. It is a view that seems to reappear over and over throughout Jewish history. In this view, nature emanates out of God’s very being. God is everything and everything is God; to transform nature is to transform God. And to destroy the environment is to destroy God.
Why does the vision of God within nature arise over and over again in Jewish thought? According to the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah fulfills a deep psychology need which the classical view of God outside nature cannot fulfill. According to Scholem, mysticism began as an attempt to bridge the abyss between humanity and God. The Kabbalah attempted to re-introduce God’s presence into a world where humanity felt that God existed across an unbridgeable abyss.
This week’s portion speaks of sanctifying God’s name in this world, bringing God into nature. It is based on the idea that God is not within nature but needs us humans to bring God’s presence into the world. It is based on a God outside of nature. But what if God is already there as the kabbalists teach, and our job is merely to uncover God’s presence? How do you sanctify a world which is already sanctified?
Is God transcendent or is God imminent? In the dialectic between two great ideas, we will discover the reality of God.



“And you shall speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin.” (Leviticus 24:15)

This week’s portion ends with a very strange incident. A man identified as the son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father gets into a fight. The man curses God and commits the sin of blasphemy. God commands the Israelites to stone the man to death. So the man is put to death for the crime of blasphemy.
The Torah goes out of its way to explain that the perpetrator was the child of parents from two different nationalities and two different faiths. In fact, they even give the name of the mother of the man – Shelomit the daughter of Dibri. (The names of women are rarely mentioned in the Torah.) The Torah must be making a point – perhaps this man raised in two faiths, or in no particular faith, has therefore shown a disrespect for God. Perhaps a modern message is that even children from dual faith households need and deserve a religion, a connection with a higher spiritual purpose. I often hear parents in dual faith households tell me that they will not raise their children with either parents’ faith, they will let the children choose. I have always told such parents it is a mistake – children need the anchor and the spiritual grounding of a particular religion.
Nonetheless, should the death penalty be the punishment for blasphemy? It certainly seems unduly harsh. Later Jewish law teaches seven commandments giving to all humanity, called the “Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah.” One of these is the prohibition against blasphemy. To show disrespect for God is considered a fundamental law not just for Jews but for all humanity.
Today no one would advocate any kind of punishment for blasphemy. But asking people to respect God, or avoid publicly cursing God, is certainly a fundamental ethical expectation in our contemporary lives. Does this include a basic respect for the various faiths which speak in the name of God? Is insulting a particular religion blasphemy?
In 1988 Salman Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses. It was declared blasphemous by Moslem authorities and the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, a decree calling for Rushdie’s death. Rushdie’s fatwa was made permanent a few years later. Rushdie continues his writing career today but still lives with the knowledge that at any moment he may be assassinated in the name of God. The notion of death for blasphemy is still part of our contemporary life.
Christians today would not condemn someone to death for insulting their religion. But the term blasphemy still is thrown around by Christians. The novel The Da Vinci Code was a mega-best seller for its author Dan Brown. Now it is about to be released as a movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks. I am sure it will be a major success. Yet many Christians consider the book and the movie to be blasphemy. Its portrayal of Jesus as married and of the Catholic Church as keeping it secret has upset many Christians. Sandra Miesel contends that the book is “blasphemy delivered in a soft voice.”
Should Rushdie and Brown’s novels been censured because of the threat of blasphemy. We believe in free speech. On a personal level, I enjoyed Brown’s novel; I could not get through Rushdie’s. And yet I understand why religious people feel deeply offended when their faiths are trampled upon.
As a Jew, I remember my anger when Louis Farrakhan called Judaism “a gutter religion.” I have been deeply upset by how rich Jewish traditions from a circumcision to a wedding to a Passover seder have often been portrayed in the media. Fortunately, in Judaism there is a long tradition of humor, and the ability to laugh at our own foibles. Perhaps a little humor is a cure for blasphemy.
There are many people who would insult Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and all the other great faiths of the world. We can call such insults blasphemy. But there is a world of difference between insulting God and insulting a particular faith. Religion is not God. Religion is a human interpretation, a way a group of people reach towards God. Religions are precious and are worthy of respect. But there is a difference between a particular religion and God. It may be wrong to insult a religion. But it is not blasphemy.



“He [the High Priest] shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother.” (Leviticus 21:11)

Sometimes we learn as much from the exception as from the rule.
The rule – A kohen (priest) is not allowed to go to a cemetery or be present near a dead body. This symbolizes the Biblical view that life and death are to be totally separated.
In ancient Egypt, the priesthood was a cult of death. Mummies were made from sophisticated attempts to preserve the body as long as possible; pyramids were built as giant tombs for the rulers. The wealthy were buried with large amounts of possessions to be used in the next world. And the priests, the religious functionaries, were mostly concerned with the preparations of the dead.
When the Israelites fled from Egypt, their priesthood was commanded to stay away from death. The major concern was life – how to live in this world, not how to prepare the way for the next. A kohen (priest) could only go into a cemetery for an immediate relative, and then only for the burial. Priests were concerned with life, not death.
The laws were even stricter for the High Priest, the priest anointed to bring the various offerings in the ancient Temple. He could not be near a dead body or go to a cemetery, even for his own mother and father. As the chief religious functionary, he had to practice total separation from death. This was true at all times, with one powerful exception.
The exception – If the High Priest were going to the ancient Temple to perform the daily sacrifices and he encountered a dead body, with nobody around to handle the burial, he stopped what he was doing to deal with the body. (See Nazir 47b). As important as the public ritual was, the proper treatment of the dead was considered even more important. According to tradition, even God handled the burial of Moses. Burying the dead is considered hesed shel emet (“true kindness”), a kindness for which there can be no favor in return.
It is surprising to read that the High Priest delays or foregoes the public ritual of sacrifice to handle the private matter of burying the dead. Public religion gives way to private kindness. Perhaps the tradition is trying to teach that, if religion and public worship are important, private kindness is even more important.
A more modern example is a story told about the great Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Musar Movement, a movement in Judaism concerned with constant self-assessments about one’s ethical behavior. It is told that Rabbi Salanter had not arrived for the kol nidre service, the holiest service of the year which begins the fast of Yom Kippur. The congregation waited and waited, and then unable to wait any longer, they conducted services without the rabbi. Everybody was frightened; why would the rabbi disappear on the holiest of nights?
When services were over, members of the congregation finally found the rabbi. He was holding a young toddler, rocking her to sleep. He explained, “I was on my way to kol nidre services when I heard this child crying. Her mother must have left her alone to go to synagogue. I could not walk away and leave a child crying. So I sat here rocking her and comforting her until the services were over and her mother returned.” Services are important, but kindness is more important.
Religion is about public worship. But even more important, religion is about private acts of loving kindness. The great lesson of this week’s portion is that, given a choice between public worship and private kindness, the kindness takes priority. In a world where so many faiths compete for our attention, so many houses of worship want our attendance and our membership, how do we judge which is better? There is only one answer – which faith makes us kinder?



“The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say, No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God.”
(Leviticus 21:16-17)

Sometimes we learn from difficult, even painful laws. This week=s portion speaks of the kohenim, the descendants of Aaron, who served as priests and brought the offerings in the ancient Temple. No priest was allowed to bring an offering if he were disabled in any way. A priest who was blind or lame or with a misshapen limb, no man with a broken leg or arm, no hunchback or dwarf or anyone with a growth on his body, was forbidden from bringing the offerings. Just as the sacrifice had to be without blemish, so the person bringing the offering had to be without blemish.
This must be troubling to anyone with disabilities. It seems blatantly unfair to be a Priest and be disqualified from doing what priests do because of a disability that is beyond control. Why would the Torah teach such a law?
Perhaps the answer is that the sacrificial offerings were meant to inculcate in the people a sense of holiness, of God’s presence and God’s perfection. To watch a Priest with a disability bring the offering would have the opposite effect. People would say, “Look, the priest is blind,” or “Look, the priest is hunchback,” and never even sense God’s presence in the moment. Perhaps the disabilities would detract from a sense of God’s presence in the moment. The Torah knew a fundamental truth about human nature, we have difficulty seeing beyond the disability to actually see the real person.
What was true in ancient times is still true today. Too often we are distracted by the physical. People in wheelchairs have told me how, when they go into a restaurant, often the waiter or waitress does not speak to them. They will ask a companion, “What does he or she want to order?” The disabled person may speak up, “Because I am in a wheelchair does not mean I am incapable of speaking and ordering for myself.” Like the community that flocked to the ancient Temple, today we often cannot see past the wheelchair to the human being.
People who are blind or deaf, people who are in wheelchairs or have some other physical disability, people who have had a stroke or are battling cancer, are still people. People with a physical deformity are still human beings, created in the image of God. When Christopher Reeve wrote his book following his horse riding accident that left him a quadriplegic, he called it Still Me. He was still the same human being he had always been. Part of our challenge as humans is to look past the physical to see the real person who is there.
There is a blessing formulated by the rabbis upon seeing someone who looks different or unusual. “Praised art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who varies His creation.” The blessing indicates that God makes us in all shapes and sizes, with all kind of bodies, with all kinds of abilities and disabilities. I can testify after performing hundreds of weddings that people with all kinds of bodies are able to find and share true love. People of all shapes and sizes, including people with disabilities, can be sexually attractive.
The Talmud tells this story: A rabbi came across an extremely ugly man. The rabbi said, “Are all the people of your town as ugly as you?” The man answered, “Go tell the workman how ugly is the vessel he created.” Suddenly the rabbi felt terrible and begged the man for forgiveness (Taanit 20a-b).
We need to look past the physical to the spiritual, to the real human being created in the image of God. In ancient Temple times, people would look at a kohen with a disability and only see the disability. I believe we can do better today.



“From the day on which you bring the sheaf of wave offering, the day after the Sabbath [Passover according to Rabbinic tradition], you shall count off seven weeks, they must be complete.” (Leviticus 23:15)

Often our young people go off to the university treasuring their new found freedom. They are young adults with no parents around to tell them what to do. They have cars, they have a little money, and they have the ability to do what they want.
A short time passes and many of them move back home considerably sobered. They have dropped out, or they flunked out, or they realized they were not ready for the responsibility. Freedom is not enough. Obligations and responsibilities are also vital. To put it differently, freedom not linked to obligation quickly leads to anarchy.
This is the idea behind an important Biblical observance, the counting of the Omer. From the second night of Passover (Pesach) until the festival of Weeks (Shavuot), we count seven weeks of seven days, forty nine days altogether. Pesach is our festival of freedom. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments, our festival of responsibility and commitment. Seven weeks after leaving the slavery of Egypt, the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. The counting of the Omer links freedom to obligation.
Among the Biblical festivals, the most observed by the Jewish people is the festival of Pesach. Even Jews with a minimal commitment to Jewish living somehow find time to celebrate freedom, whether by attending a family seder, eating matza, or just avoiding bagels for the week.
Among the Biblical festivals, the least observed by the Jewish people is the festival of Shavuot. Unless one has made a commitment to Jewish observance, or one has a youngster celebrating confirmation (usually held on Shavuot), the festival passes unnoticed. In late May and early June, our minds are on graduations, weddings, summer plans, not on eating cheese blintzes and reading the book of Ruth (traditional Shavuot observances), and certainly not on obligations and commandments. It is a joy to celebrate freedom; it is far more difficult to celebrate commitment and responsibility.
Nonetheless, when the Israelites left the slavery of Egypt, they did not go off to party and celebrate. They marched to a mountain and heard the words of God’s commandments. Similarly, the young people who are most successful in college are those able to balance the joy of freedom with the responsibility of study.
We are in middle of the counting of the Omer. Shavuot is coming in a few weeks. We are deeply fortunate to live in freedom, open to world’s of opportunities. With that freedom comes commitment and obligation. The counting of the Omer symbolizes a march from freedom to obligation. This is the key to a successful life.



AThese are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.@ (Leviticus 23:2)

A Buddhist Temple opened next door to our synagogue. The monk came by on a courtesy visit and invited me to join them for their biggest annual celebration, Buddha=s birthday. Last Sunday I joined hundred=s of their members, including countless children and teens, for the festivities. Most were Chinese but some were American, and more than a few were Jewish by birth.
I watched people line up to bow down and pour water over small statues of Buddha as mysterious music played. I enjoyed some very talented teens perform the dragon dance. I watched the karate exhibition and lined up for the large vegetarian lunch. I did not understand the theology (although plenty of literature was out in both English and Chinese.) But the sense of celebration was universal.
The mood was the same one I see in my Syrian Moslem next-door-neighbors on Id-al-Fitr, which ends the month long fast of Ramadan. It is the mood I see among my Christian neighbors as they gather with families on Christmas. I see it among Americans of all faiths on the family celebration of Thanksgiving. And of course, I feel that mood of joy most directly on the cycle of Jewish festivals from Passover to Rosh Hashana.
This week=s portion contains the cycle of festivals. These include the three pilgrimage festivals – Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. It also includes the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Each of these festivals contains a powerful message in and of itself. What stands out is the very idea of festivals, times on the annual calendar for celebration, feasting, family togetherness, and worship.
There is something deeply human and universal about the need for festivals throughout the year. We humans need regular occasions for anticipation. In Florida, unfortunately, I perform too many funerals. The number of funerals seems to diminish immediately before the major Jewish festivals. It is as if people will themselves to survive through the holiday.
On the other hand, depression also seems to increase during the festivals. There is nothing harder than being alone, disconnected from loved ones on festivals. I meet people who live in our neighborhood and love our synagogue, who would love to worship with us on the High Holidays. Yet it is more important that they leave our synagogue to spend time with their families. I also meet people who have no families, or whose families are far away. It is important that we invite these people to join us when festivals arrive.
Every society and every culture has annual festivals. They add a rhythm to our lives and an excuse for joyous celebration. In ancient Egypt, when we were slaves, I imagine that every day was like every other, with no special days marking the calendar. Part of the joy of freedom is the opportunity to stop and celebrate.
There is a local restaurant near the synagogue that is very popular. (Unfortunately it is not kosher, but it does have wonderful salads.) The restaurant is closed twice a year – Christmas Eve and Superbowl Sunday. The former I understand, but why Superbowl Sunday? The manager told me that he could not find employees to work that evening. They wanted to be with their family.
Is a football game an excuse for a new American festival? Passover it is not. But it has become an excuse for people to gather together and celebrate. Such occasions meet a fundamental human need.



“The Lord said to Moses, Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, None shall defile himself for any dead person.”
(Leviticus 21:1)

Sometimes at a Jewish funeral, there are men who will stand outside the cemetery on the road. They will not enter the funeral parlor while the body is present, nor will they set foot in the cemetery. Such men are not being rude. On the contrary, they are kohanim (descendants of Aaron the High Priest) who are following one of the oldest Biblical laws. A priest cannot be in the presence of a dead body.
Why would the Torah include such a law and what relevance could it have today? We must remember that we were slaves in Egypt, a country whose religion was a cult of death. The pyramids which tourists flock to see were really ancient tombs. Egyptian priests concerned themselves with the needs of the dead.
The Torah was reacting to this cult of death. The new Israelite religion became obsessed with life. Those who were the religious leaders (the role of the priests) had to separate themselves from death. Religion was for the living. Afterall, as the Psalmist taught “The dead cannot praise God.” (Psalms 115:17) The dead can no longer keep God’s commandments. By keeping the priesthood away from a dead body or a cemetery, the Torah is trying to inculcate a separation of life and death.
There are two great forces at work in the universe, each having its source in God the Creator. First, there is the world of material things. According to the laws of entropy, all material things must eventually fall apart and die. Humans and animals, planets and stars, someday even the material universe itself must die. Death is an inevitable part of living in a material world. We have material bodies, and therefore must die.
The second great force in the universe is a spiritual force, the force of life. This is the force that caused life to emerge from dead matter. It is the force the Torah speaks of when it says that God “breathed into the man He made and made him into a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7) It is the force Ezekiel spoke of when he described his image of a valley of dry bones, with God’s wind bringing the bones to life. (Ezekiel chapter 37) It is the force that we Jews speak of on our High Holidays when we say “Remember us to life, O God of Life.”
There is to be a separation between death and life. When given a choice between a path leading to death and a path leading to life, the Torah says “therefore choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) The entire thrust of the tradition is to enhance life.
The ancient law of the priesthood demonstrates in a small symbolic way the separation of life and death. This separation underlies many other laws of Jewish living. For example, the Jewish dietary laws call for a separation of meat and milk. Observant Jews even keep two sets of dishes, one for meat and one for milk. Meat is the flesh of an animal; it represents death. Milk is the life nurturing fluid in an animal; it represents life. So the separation.
Life is a great mystery and a great miracle. Life is infinitely precious. Therefore, the Torah teaches us in many small and large ways, to separate between life and death. We are taught to choose life.