I offer these thoughts in hopes of engaging in a real dialogue with Boulder’s Jews. Please feel free to comment – I am ready to hear other points of view.
Havdallah is a beautiful ceremony that we do at the end of Shabbat. It is very sensory – we smell, we drink, we gaze at the braided candle, we drink. Beyond the beauty of the ceremony is one of two essential Jewish acts: le’vadil. To distinguish. The other essential Jewish act is to unify – Hear, Israel, G-d is One. Two opposite movements – recognizing unity and making distinction. How do they fit together? How do we know which to do at which time?
The truth is, they are not opposite. We can do both at the same time. We can acknowledge difference and a common source at the same time. Take, for example, the laws of keeping kosher. Pig is not kosher, but pigs are a part of the larger picture just the same (or else, where would we get footballs from?). So we distinguish between kosher and not kosher, and we simultaneously acknowledge that there is a larger picture that contains both.
When we start to blur the lines between these two foundational Jewish gestures, we get in trouble. When we confuse co-existence with sameness, when we can no longer identify different roles for different creatures and creations within a unified, larger picture, then trouble starts to brew. The unkosher kind.
The havdallah blessing lays out some important distinctions that have to be made, starting with the distinction between holy and not-holy. It is essential to note that not-holy is not bad; just that it is… not holy. So what’s holy? Well, Shabbat is holy.
The difference between Shabbat and not-Shabbat is dramatic. On Shabbat, we see that the world is not ours to manipulate (this is the definition of work on Shabbat). And withholding ourselves from work gives us the opportunity to see the gifts we already have, and to express gratitude. It is a time to turn off distractions and get present. It is a time to take a break.
So why would we look for ways to make Shabbat like not-Shabbat? Why, for example, would we look for ways to permit use of more and more electronic devices? To make our lives easier? That may seem to be true in the short term, but what it does is make Shabbat less special, less holy. On Thursday I listen to my iPod, on Saturday I listen to my iPod. On Thursday I answer my phone. On Shabbat I answer my phone. Slowly, the distinction vanishes, and Shabbat becomes like every other day day. What a loss!
How about the distinction between human and animal? The most insulting component of evolution – and I do not reject the theory entirely, but I look at it critically – is that there isn’t really that much difference between humans and monkeys, humans and dolphins, etc. And then we treat dogs like people – (Bark Mitzvah!!!! Really?!???!?!?) – which often leads to treating other people like dogs. Along these lines, we have a guest speaker coming to Boulder to present on his new book, “Crossing the Threshold: God’s Image in the More-than-Human World.” Another essential distinction crumbles., In my opinion, when we have perfected seeing people in the Divine Image, we can move on to animals. Meanwhile, we have a lot of human work to do.
How about the distinction between Jews and not-Jews? Is it special to be a Jew? Not talking about better or worse – I’m talking special. Is it special to be a Jew? Why would we work toward dissolving that distinction? What does it serve – will it make our lives easier? Why must we change liturgy to “who chose us im-with all other nations and gave us the Torah” instead of “who chose us mi-from amongst all other nations and gave us the Torah.” Yes, the issue of chosen-ness needs to be understood. But tossing it out because it is misunderstood and therefore uncomfortable is not the way to go about it. All this does is once again blur the lines.
Here’s another lost distinction: The line between rabbis and not-rabbis is crumbling, too. We are so comfortable saying “I saw Josh/Marc/Gavriel/Tirzah/Nadya/Victor/Jamie at the library the other day.” This dangerous trend is not just about names. It is about attitude. “This person, who spent five or ten years toiling in Torah to refine his/her character and understanding of the world is just like me. S/he has opinions, and so do I. We’re buddies. We disagree.” When the Talmud says “Let your awe of your rabbi be like the awe of heaven,” it wasn’t about a nice parking spot in front of the synagogue. It was about participating in a sacred relationship that can be a conduit for Divine Blessing and insight.
The tikkun olam line has been blurred as well. It used to imply visiting the sick, tending to the needy, spending time with the elderly. Now it’s about recycling and digging wells in Ghana. What happened? What about our elderly?
How about the 3,500+ year distinction of kohanim – our priests, the models of loving kindness in the tradition of Aharon the Kohen? ”The CJLS accepted a responsum concluding that synagogues are not required to call a Kohen to the first aliyah.” In and of itself, it is not such a big deal. But seen as part of a trend of burying distinctions? Problematic. “Unlike the Klein responsum, which like the Orthodox view regarded kohanim in and offspring of prohibited marriages as disqualified from performing priestly functions or receiving priestly honors and benefits, the Takkanah held that they are to be regarded as Kohanim in good standing.” Kohanim used to be—and feel—special, charged with a higher level of conduct. Now, they are just like everyone else.
It is an honor to be a Jew. It is an honor to be in Shabbat. It is an honor to be a kohen. It is an honor to be human. It is an honor to participate in the distinctly Jewish brand of tikkun olam. Why are we so quick to throw these distinctions away?