My congregation, Ramat Shalom, was founded 46 years ago as a Reconstructionist synagogue. Lots of people are unfamiliar with the Reconstructionist Movement, the theology it embraces and the fact that it falls somewhere between the Reform and Conservative movements. This being said, most everyone knows what a bat mitzvah is. And the bat mitzvah is a product of Reconstructionism.
This month, the bat mitzvah turns 100! Most of us consider a bat mitzvah a mainstream Jewish ritual. But, 100 years ago, it was radical, an innovative process developed by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan whose beliefs lie at the foundation of Reconstructionism.
Not just because of the bat mitzvah, Rabbi Kaplan was a pioneer, a boundary pusher, an innovator. Some would say he was a troublemaker – even a heretic. Kaplan was actually excommunicated by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis. Wanting to empower his daughter, Judith, Rabbi Kaplan created the bat mitzvah. As a result, Judaism, at least the Jewish world outside of the more traditional Jewish community of the 1920’s, became a little bit more egalitarian. I should point out that Rabbi Kaplan, Judith, and her husband, Rabbi Eisenstein, were no strangers to our founding families here at Ramat Shalom.
The bat mitzvah is just one of many rituals we embrace today that our grandparents and great-grandparents would have had trouble wrapping their heads around. While we embrace traditional aspects of Judaism, like Jewish communities across the world, Ramat Shalom incorporates many practices that reflect our people’s openness to innovation and change. Rabbi Kaplan believed that this openness, which he argued has always been a part of our tradition, is why we have survived as a people. At the foundation of Reconstructionist Judaism is the idea that Judaism is an evolving civilization. By evolving we have not just survived, we have thrived.
Now, there are many in our larger Jewish community who turn up their noses to the idea that Judaism changes over time. The bat mitzvah, women reading Torah and becoming rabbis, men and women praying together, embracing modern technology on Shabbat, incorporating instruments into Shabbat services, changing and creating new prayers, the list goes on and on. To many of our Jewish brothers and sisters who see things differently than we do, these things are disgraceful. For them, Judaism is defined by codified laws and rituals that have been passed down from generation to generation. While we might see this rigidity as limiting and, in turn, turn up our noses to their practices, there is something beautiful about the way they do Jewish. It is what makes Tevye sing about “Tradition!”
This week’s Torah portion reminds us that the desire to hold on to tradition and stop rebels like us from introducing innovative ideas into the Jewish world is nothing new. We read about Moses’ nephews, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, leading a religious service before God in the desert sanctuary, the Tabernacle. In doing so, Nadav and Avihu change the ritual a bit. They offer fire that is described as “alien” fire that was not part of the ritual embraced by the mainstream community. Nadav and Avihu, in essence, tried something new. They changed the ritual. They tinkered with the rules. Because of this, some considered them to be sinners, rebels, heretics. But, we have no reason to believe that they weren’t passionate about God and their community. We have no reason to believe that their actions were designed to undermine the rituals that were part of ancient Israelite culture. On the contrary, we have every reason to believe that Nadav and Avihu were committed members of the priestly clan, doing their job with good intentions. They were innovators, adapting the rituals slightly – perhaps unintentionally, perhaps adding their own creative twist – just as we do today at Ramat Shalom and in synagogues across the world.
So many of us are like Nadav and Avihu – finding personal ways to connect to our tradition, ways that might not speak to every Jew, but ways that add meaning to our Judaism. We are innovators. This week’s Torah reading reminds us that those who were in control of ancient Israelite culture, they had no patience for innovation. It undermined the community. It threatened God’s command. This is why Torah teaches us that Nadav and Avihu, once they offered the alien fire, were consumed by the fire, killed instantly by God. A powerful lesson was sent. There’s no room for innovation.
As we read these words, 100 years after the bat mitzvah was created, as we support a synagogue that embraces the innovation that Rabbi Kaplan reminded us was essential to our very existence, what are we to think about the story of Nadav and Avihu?
In the Talmud, dating back to around 500 CE, we read about Rav Yosef who is referred to as “Sinai,” a mountain, someone who is extremely smart and follows the rules as they are written. We also read about Rabba, another rabbi, who is referred to as oker harim, one who uproots mountains, who moves Sinai, who is not afraid to think outside of the box and innovate.
The Talmud asks, whose way is right? Rav Yosef, the traditionalist, the mountain or Rabba, the mountain mover, the innovator.
What do you think the Talmud says?
This week’s Torah portion detailing the deaths of Nadav and Avihu would lead us to believe that the Talmud would teach us that Rav Yosef, the mountain, is right, don’t you think?
Talmud teaches us that some say Rav Yosef the traditionalist was right. BUT, some say Rabba, the innovator was right. And that is how it is left. No definitive answer is offered and Rav Yosef, the traditionalist, respects Rabba, the innovator.
This Talmudic story stands in stark contrast to this week’s story about Nadav and Avihu. It creates a clear pathway for those who choose to embrace traditions that have been passed down, unchanged, from one generation to the next. At the same time, it gives a clear pathway to those of us who choose to move mountains, not with a desire to undermine the many gifts of Judaism, but to enhance the traditions that have been given to us.
May those of who follow in the footsteps of Rabba and those who follow in the footsteps of Rav Yosef learn to respect each other just like these two great teachers did centuries ago.