Yom Shlishi, 25 AdarI 5781
Tuesday, 9 March 2021
Parashat Behukkotai 2013

Rabbi Sandra Kviat

3 May 2013

Questioning change

What is the difference between a promise and a blessing? Between a curse and a threat? (Pause)

A blessing is according to the Oxford dictionary: God's favour and protection or a prayer asking for such favour and protection.·
A promise is defined as a declaration or assurance that one will do a particular thing or that guarantees that a particular thing will happen.

Today’s parasha is called the ‘great catalogue of blessing and curses’ in the Holiness Code but there are no actual blessings in sight, no asking for God’s favour or protection. What we have instead is a list of promises that if we do A we will receive B, but if we do not do A, not only will we not receive B, we will also have misery wreaked upon us. Promises and threats yes, but curses and blessings they are not. This causal and direct relationship between our behaviour and God’s actions makes many people uncomfortable as it portrays God as either mechanistic –if you push button A you will get product A, or as a form of Santa Claus – if you are nice the all knowing toymaker in the sky will give you a present. Furthermore, good things does not necessarily happen to good people, good things seem to happen to bad people and questionable or non-ethical behaviour does not seem to carry any consequences for the person doing them. Because of these concerns Jews have for millennia been uncomfortable with the idea of direct reward and retribution. This has meant that certain paragraphs which are very like today’s parasha has been questioned and in some cases removed. For those used to either an Orthodox or the new Reform siddur would have noticed that the 2ndand 3rd paragraph of the Shema was not part of what we read today. The 2nd paragraph which thematically is almost identical to today’s sedra was removed in the first Liberal siddurim in the early 1900s because of the unacceptability of the theology of reward and punishment, and because it repeats in the second half parts that were already said in the first paragraph. The rejection of this reward/punishment theology became even more poignant after the Shoah because how could those murdered have deserved/earned it? The 3rd paragraph about tzitzit was also removed early on because of the rejection of ritual clothes and symbols. But as you would have noticed there are people among us today wearing tallitot and kippot, even women! As with the tallit so also the shema – some people have begun to argue that we should consider reinstating the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs, the 2nd one because it signifies a change in our understanding of the theology. If we mistreat, abuse, or overwork nature then nature cannot give back. If we change or misuse our environment without trying to understand and curb how this might affect the whole ecosystem then we reap the consequences of those actions. In this view the 2nd paragraph then tells us about our responsibilities towards nature and the consequences of our actions, not about a Santa-like God measuring our good and bad deeds against each other and then acting accordingly.

You might now say – why do we as Liberals even bother to change something when we will change it back 100 years later?

The primary answer for us is, not to maintain tradition, but to maintain life; not because Jewish services continue the past, but because they can exert a living influence on the present (Israel Mattuck, Liberal Jewish Prayer Book, Vol. 1, p. X, 1939).

Maintaining life and exerting an influence on the present is what motivates us. By questioning and changing liturgy and rituals we ask ourselves hard questions about what they mean to us, and if the answer is ‘nothing’ or ‘very little’ we have to, as responsible Jews, reconsider their merit. Liturgy and rituals have a history – they did not spring into being, rather as the Torah they developed over time and under the influence of those creating them and the environment they lived in. And therefore we have to question our understanding of them today, and what meaning we extract from them.

What then about the 3rd paragraph and tzitzit? Should we reintroduce it because we have a different view of religious symbols today? Or to ask the question differently – what has changed in our view of the tallit from the early 1900s till now? One of the most striking examples is the fact that I can stand here today, on the bimah, weeks away from being ordained as a rabbi, wearing not only a tallit but also a kippah, both something I do regularly – and the roof has not fallen in! According the same rights and responsibilities to all Jews whether male or female, gay, straight or something else, pale or coloured, has changed the lives of Jews because we questioned the status quo, the texts we took for granted and the rituals and prayers that seemed as ancient as the Torah. But what we haven’t done and will not do is to tell people what they should think, how they should understand something, or what they should wear. I would encourage any Jew, men and women alike, to try and wear a tallit and a kippah and see whether it can enhance their prayer experience. For some regularly wearing a tallit might help concentrate one’s mind, for others, like me they will have to make their own, bind their own tzitzit in order to create a living connection with an old custom. For others, religious garb will never fit with their way of praying and that is as valuable an insight as wearing one might become. But gender should not be the reason why we stop questioning ourselves and our tradition. As Dr. Israel Abrahams wrote in 1895:

The formulation of the highest truth needs constant revision, and even more surely do the forms in which that truth is clothed. When dogma takes the place of love, religion is dead. And a liturgy that cannot expand, that cannot dare to sing unto the Lord new songs, such liturgy is a printed page, it is not a prayer fresh from the suppliant’s heart. (Israel Abrahams, Aspects of Judaism, 2nd edition, p. 46, 1895).

May we always dare to question, to change, and to reinstate so that our prayers do not stay as printed words on a page but instead become a true and holy conversation.

Potential quotes:
Change, like sunshine, can be a friend or a foe, a blessing or a curse, a dawn or a dusk. 
William Arthur Ward

I really feel like the gift is also the curse. It's always half-and-half. Whatever brings you the most joy will also probably bring you the most pain. Always a price to pay. 
Alice Hoffman