Sunday, May 11, 2008

Interested in role playing--in shul?

The congregation I belong to, Temple B'nai Brith in Somerville, Mass., is proudly egalitarian. Men and women participate equally in leadership. "Participate" is a key word. We don't have a rabbi. Phil Weiss, a philosophy professor at Wheelock College, has the honorary title darshan,
"the one who interprets." Most often, he speaks about the Torah portion on Saturdays, but sometimes someone else pinch-hits. Phil leads some parts of the service, but he takes pride in seeing how many members of the congregation can step up and do the leading. Our Board comprises men and women, young and old, gay and straight, single and coupled.

In a modern synagogue, in a liberal democratic society, what can we possibly learn from studying the rules for hereditary priests?

The Torah portion we read yesterday, Emor, is filled with the do's and don'ts that the cohanim, the priests descended from Moses' brother, Aaron, had to follow because of their sacred office. The cohanim were the only ones to offer the temple sacrifices. The cohanim and the temple attendants (all their cousins in the tribe of Levi) were the only ones who could eat food that had been dedicated to God. On the flip side, the cohanim were not allowed to come into contact with dead bodies--even those of their closest kin. They could not marry divorced women. Even today, in Orthodox communities, men who trace their line back to the cohanim fall under these restrictions. But what meaning do they hold for an egalitarian community? Should we regard them as simply archaeological fragments of the Jewish past, or is there still something to learn from them?

I think we have to regard parshat Emor as part of a story that the book of Leviticus is telling: the story of how to take parts of our communal life and dedicate them to higher purposes.
  • We dedicate time when we set apart the Sabbath, with its do's and don'ts: do rest, do pray and study, don't do any of the things that are categorized as work.
  • We dedicate space when we set apart the sanctuary, with its own set of do's and don'ts. In the Torah: don't offer "strange fire," sacrifices not in accordance with God's commands (ans in the story of Nadav and Abihu). Today: don't distract others from prayer. Do wear the appropriate garments, stand up and sit down at the appropriate points in the service, and create an atmosphere where meditation, prayer, study, and celebration can go on.
  • And in parshat Emor, we learn about how to dedicate people to serve higher purposes. The priests in biblical days were set apart in all these ways to remind the community of its ultimate values. I believe it was my friend Ellen Stone who conjectured that the priests were forbidden to engage with dead bodies because somebody in the community had to stand for the principle that even in times of immense loss, life goes on.
This interpretation, I think, makes the rules about the priests less arcane and more instructive. We always need techniques for calling our community's attention to its transcendent values. If we don't have cohanim and Levites any more, perhaps we can still learn something from them about the way that assigning roles to people can serve the community.

In our community, Saul Zidel was always the one to read in English this passage, as we were getting ready to put the Torah scroll back in the ark:
Precious teaching do I give you:
Never forsake My Torah.
It is a tree of life for those who grasp it,
and all who uphold it are blessed.
Its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
Help us turn to You, and we shall return.
Renew our lives as in days of old.
Saul's quavery voice and his native Somerville accent became part of the ritual. I am not sure that I yet understand all the ways that having that reading be Saul's assigned role served our community.When he died in 2002, however, it was a physical shock to hear someone else read the passage. It was a sign that something had really changed. The depth of our reactions to Saul's absence teaches me that we can dedicate certain people to create holiness for the community. The questions are how, and who.

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