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Vayyikra posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/26/04

Torah Portion: Vayyikra
Book of Leviticus (3rd book of the Torah)
March 27, 2004



Regardless of our "religiosity," or lack thereof, we ALL perform rituals. Before a sporting event can begin the national anthem must be sung and then there is the "7th inning stretch" where everyone stands and sings, "Take me out to the ball game." Ritual formalities can be encountered in public meetings or a wedding. At a prescribed time aboard every US Navy vessel for the past 200 years, an announcement over the loudspeaker proclaims, "The smoking lamp is now out," meaning it is time to "hit the sack" (for the uninitiated, "go to bed"). To forgo any of the above rituals would most certainly create a collective tension. Ritual is powerful!

This week the US Supreme Court heard arguments against including "under God" in the pledge of allegiance. The main opposition comes from those who feel this infringes upon the 1st Amendment's separation of church and state. One of the main arguments advanced for retaining the expression was that it has been said this way for over 50 years. . . this is how we do it, regardless of whether one is or isn't a believer! The continuous performance of ritual makes it that much more powerful!

The Book of Leviticus is a priestly handbook for ritual sacrifice. All religions of biblical time were based on sacrificial worship, and the Israelites could not conceive of religion without it. Discomfort with animal sacrifice is hardly a modern sensitivity. The Prophet Isaiah, in a portion that is read on Yom Kippur, criticizes the sacrificial cult as a ritual that has become devoid of meaning. The ancient rabbis (Pharisees) decried the corruption they saw among the priests who were responsible for the sacrificial cult. Yet, it continued on until the 2nd Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Even, then, sacrifice did not disappear from Jewish worship. The daily, Shabbat, and holiday services are modeled after the sacrificial cult and include language referring to the sacrifices.

Judaism survives and flourishes because we maintain this infamous "chain of tradition" with rituals whose origins can be traced back thousands of years. Their relevance today is the result of our being willing to reinterpret and re-understand their meaning for our time.

The late Rabbi Chaim Potok said it best when he wrote, "Something in the human soul responds to ritual. . . There is something comforting about the familiar, the recognizable, the predictable. There is something deeply moving about performing a rite that is older than we are, one that goes back beyond the time of our parents and grandparents. At crucial times, it is important for us to know that we are "doing it right." There is power in the knowledge that we are doing what generations of people before us have done in similar situations, something that other people in other places are doing at the same time and in the same way. And rituals, including prescribed prayers, tell us what to do and say at times when we cannot rely on our own powers of inspiration to know what to do or say."

I'd like to write more, but it is time to light the Shabbat candles!

Rabbi Howard Siegel


Shemini posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/16/04

The Case for Being Kosher
Torah Portion: Shemini




There is something special about standing out from the crowd; responding to the proverbial "beat of different drummer." To a great extent, and in today's world, this is what it means for a Jew to observe the dietary laws of Kashrut. Among non-Orthodox Jews, who count for 85% of the affiliated Jewish population, less than 20% keep Kosher. The question is not "why," but "why not?" This week's Torah portion introduces the underpinnings of Kashrut.

The commentators of the Eitz Hayim Chumash write, "An attentive reading of this [portion] clearly shows that the dietary laws are not based on considerations of health, neither in terms of the animals permitted or forbidden nor out of concern for meat spoiling in the desert heat. . . the overriding purpose of the dietary code is explicit: "You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am Holy" (Lev. 11:44). The dietary laws constitute a way of sanctifying the act of eating. . . . These laws elevate the act of eating to a level of sanctity by introducing categories of permitted and forbidden. For animals, eating is a matter of instinct; only human beings can choose on moral or religious grounds not to eat something otherwise available."

The ideal state for humankind is vegetarianism, as portrayed in the Garden of Eden where no animal life needed to be taken by humans. In pursuit of the ideal, it was still necessary to accommodate the desire for meat. First, the Torah forbid the eating of a limb from a live animal (a common practice among the ancients), then it required the removal of the blood from the meat (since the soul of the living creature was in its blood), and in the TTorah portion Shemini it limits the types of animals one may slaughter for food. Later Judaism instituted a system of slaughter requiring a specially trained slaughterer to kill the animal in the quickest and most painless manner.

The Midrash Tanhuma (teachings and legends on the Torah) quotes Rav, the great teacher of the 2nd century C.E., who said, "The Mitzvot (in this case Kashrut) were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to God. . . about ritual purity or impurity of the animals we eat? It is clear, then, that the Mitzvot (obligation of Jewish Life) were given solely for the purpose of training people." Rabbi Samuel Dresner continued this theme in our day by noting, "In eating a slice of bread, we can discover God, in drinking a cup of wine, we can sanctify the Shabbat, in preparing a piece of meat we can learn something of the reverence of life."

Contemporary writer and Jewish spokesman Dennis Prager underscores the essence of Kashrut when he writes, "Every time a Jew sits down to eat a kosher meal he or she is reminded that the animal being eaten is a creature of God, that the death of such a creature cannot be taken lightly, that hunting for sport is forbidden, that we cannot treat any living thing irresponsibly, and that we are responsible for what happens to other beings (human and animal) even if we did not come into contact with them."

Again, the question is not "why," but "why not?"

Rabbi Howard Siegel


Tazria/Metzora posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/23/04

Torah Portion:Tazria/Metzora
Book of Leviticus



The cynic reads a section of the Bible, like Leviticus Chap. 13 (dealing with the ritual purification from skin diseases) and dismisses all religion as a lot of "hocus pocus," superstition and taboo.

Chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus describe the role of the ancient Israelite priesthood in diagnosing and responding to people afflicted with tzara'at, or leprosy. It is highly unlikely that what the ancients called "leprosy" thousands of years ago was, in fact, what we today refer to as Hansen's disease. The word tzara'at probably referred to any number of skin ailments. The priest's job was to determine if the skin disease in question was contagious or not. If contagious, the person was removed from the rest of the population until the priest determined it was safe to readmit him. In Torah terms, a person was considered Ta'mai/ritually impure when diagnosed with the skin ailment and could not remain among the Children of Israel until he/she was Ta'hor/ritually pure.

The role of the priest extended beyond responsibility for the ancient sacrificial cult to include medical responsibilities, as well. A priest had to be both educated in theology and medicine. In a way, the Torah is describing the ideal prototype for the modern physician.

One of the greatest influences on Judaism was Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204 C.E.), known by the acronym, Rambam or Maimonides. Born in Spain, he became a rabbi, philospher/theologian, and a practicing physician. In addition to his writings, he taught an important lesson by example. Science and theology, the concrete and the transcendent, must exist together.

Poet/storyteller Danny Siegel tells the following true story of an encounter he had several years ago: "An eminent physician is taking his students on morning rounds. Here and there he explains to his entourage some fine point of the art of healing, adding to their store of insight and knowledge so that when they assume their positions as Healers, they, too, will demonstrate the requisite skill and wisdom needed to ease suffering and pain. The professor's expertise impresses the interns and residents.

As they go from room to room, the professor and students encounter an older woman recently arrived as a "social admission." She is not desperately ill, but her complex of ailments makes it impossible for her neighbors and friends to take care of her. The professor sees that she is depressed, withdrawn. She refuses to eat. There is nothing here to be revealed in the way of book-knowledge; no advanced scholarship is needed.

The professor stops, and for twenty minutes feeds the woman.

She is capable of feeding herself, but she refuses to do so. So, with deliberate and gentle care, the teacher teaches a lesson in kindness. He does not do it as a demonstration to the students. No. . . he spoonfeeds this old woman because that is what the demands of the hour are. If, as a result of this long delay, the students will have missed some detail of graduate training, some fact concerning prescriptions or diagnosis, it matters little to the professor.

Human beings must be served with a touch of humanity."

One becomes a physician to heal the sick; a lawyer to defend the innocent. A firm grounding in a system of morals and ethics is a prerequisite for whatever we choose to do in life.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston
Director


Aharei Mot/Kedoshim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/30/04

Torah Portion: Aharei Mot/Kedoshim
Book of Leviticus
April 30, 2004



Everyone who attended college in the late 60's and early 70's should be familiar with Erich Fromm and his book, The Art of Loving. The premise of Fromm's pop-psychology was that before one can enter into a healthy and loving relationship with another, one must first love him/herself. The foundation for nurturing a loving, caring society is self-love.

The Book of Ecclesiastes teaches, "There is nothing new under the sun." Erich Fromm's revolutionary discovery was already being taught for thousands of years in the Book of Leviticus where it is written, "Love Your Neighbor Like Yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). A prerequisite for "loving your neighbor," is first learning to love "Yourself."

The problems of humankind are not as complicated as we make them. If one strips away the layers of politics, prejudice, bigotry, and hatred, what remains is a lonely, sad individual lacking in self-esteem and sometimes loathing his/her very existence. The epidemic levels of depression, while in some cases a matter of genetics, in most cases are the result of a person's failure to find meaning and worth in everyday life. Inevitably, many of these people enter relationships with others in the hope of finding someone who will give them the love they can't discover within themselves. These relationships, where one party is dependent upon the other, are doomed from the outset.

Martin Buber offered the modern world a vision of God that can be discovered in what he termed an "I-Thou" relationship; a relationship where two people desire to share their personal love with each other. For Buber, God's presence is discovered in this sharing and loving moment. He also suggests that most relationships are based in the "I-It," that is, where two people are using each other for their own personal satisfaction. After completing a sale, when the check-out clerk says to the purchaser, "Have A Nice Day," they are not trying to share a moment of Godliness but hoping the person will continue doing business with them. A "one-night stand" is not a moment of sharing, or even giving, but the pursuit of personal gratification. Most of our lives are lived in the "I-It." It is our manner of relating to our surroundings. But life should always be about striving for those moments when we can share our own particularity with another, and they with us, and in doing so we discover the Divine.

The "I-Thou" cannot happen until we first confront the "I." We begin making this a better world by first believing in our "self." We are unique. Each of us was fashioned in the "image of God." Our measure as a human being is not how thin we are or how well we dress but how much we love this gift of life and how precious our very being is.

How often have you heard yourself respond to someone's insensitivity by saying, "You really hurt my feelings!" In truth, the only reason your feelings are hurt is because you allowed them to be. When we can learn to appreciate what a great person we are, the only hurt we feel is for the person who has the need to lash out in an insensitive manner.

There is an overwhelming need to embrace other people of different race, creed, or color, but we can't pursue that ideal until we first learn to embrace ourselves.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston
Director





Emor posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/07/04

Torah Portion: Emor
Book of Leviticus
May 7, 2004



I cannot recall a time in recent U.S. history when leadership-on every level-was under the microscope to the degree it is today. Recent political campaigns, including the current presidential campaign, have focused more time, effort, and money on the character of the candidate than the substance of the campaign.

We are led to believe that success or failure in Iraq will be less the result of current policy and strategy, and more likely the result of the President's questionable service record in the National Guard 30 years ago. On the other side, we are told that regardless of Kerry's decorated Vietnam war record, his ability to deal with tough issues is questionable in light of recent testimony from Vietnam vets who served with him 30 years ago.

Former President Clinton will be remembered not for the prosperity that occurred during his administration nor for the successful outcome of the war in Bosnia, but for his extramarital promiscuity.

What is true on the national level has found its way into almost every organization and business. Today it is the character of the leader, rather than the results of the leadership, that ultimately matters.

The Torah portion Emor is a codebook of behavior for the ancient priests. We are told that the priest can only attend funerals of immediate relatives, is forbidden to marry a divorcee, convert, or widow, and cannot serve in a priestly capacity if he has any physical defects. The Torah separates the priests from the other Israelites by means of symbolic obligations, restrictions, and abstentions in their lives.

A contemporary Torah commentator notes, "Every society needs a core of people who live by a more demanding code, to set an example for others of what is possible." By implication, the Torah teaches that the demonstration of personal character must precede the actual exercise of leadership if the leader is to followed.

People, then and now, want leadership that can provide a moral/ethical example to them and their families. Good character and solid leadership go hand-in-hand. A political campaign where character is the only issue is no less a disservice to the people than one where policy is the only concern. The ancient priests were expected to 1) exhibit the type of behavior that instills inspiration, and 2) provide the religious leadership that makes them worthy of their position.

In matters of leadership, character matters. We have the right to expect no less from our current leaders.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston
Director


Behar/Behukotai posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/14/04

Torah Portion: Behar/Behukotai
Book of Leviticus
May 14, 2004



The Torah portion Behukotai, the final portion in the Book of Leviticus, begins with a brief but eloquent promise of blessings to those who follow God's way, and an extensive, cruel list of punishments that will befall those who do not.

Leviticus 26:3-13 states, "If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. . . You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. . . . I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone. . . . I will look with favor upon you. . . I will establish my abode in your midst."

The rewards are followed by 31 verses (Lev. 26:14-45) of threats & punishments: "But if you do not obey me. . . . I will set my face against you. . . you shall be routed by your enemies. . . I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper. . . your land shall not yield its produce. . . I will loose wild beasts against you. . . I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate" and so on!

Contemporary Bible scholar Everett Fox characterizes this chapter of Leviticus as "the first great monotheistic response to catastrophe, built on the idea that human beings have the capacity to influence their fate by obeying or disobeying God." We can make a difference in this world if we are willing to embrace God's commandments. How so? If we are willing to live our lives according to a moral/ethical standard, if we are willing to recognize God's presence in our existence and see that same presence reflected in faces of all humankind. Then, we make possible the rewards listed at the beginning of Lev. 26. To reject an ethical standard and to refuse to accept all human beings as created "in God's image," will inevitably result in pain and suffering.

The overwhelming need for "Tikun Olam/Making a Better World," has to begin not with the secular community but the religious. The following headlines and stories appeared in the media this past week: Headline: Colorado Bishop Says No Communion For Pro-choice Voters. Headline: Ban on Indian Wigs Causes Commotion for Orthodox Jews-Several rabbis in Israel issued a ban on wigs made in India from human hair since the hair may have been used in Hindu religious ceremonies, which like other pantheistic practices are considered idolatrous in Orthodox teachings. Headline: Nicholas Berg is Beheaded By Muslim Terrorists in Iraq-With captive American Nicholas Berg kneeling, the Muslim terrorist read the following statement: "We will tell you the pride of all Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and other jails is worth blood and souls." These words were followed by the beheading of 26 year old Berg. One would not be mistaken by suggesting that, just maybe, religion is not the answer, but the problem.

Why are most wars fought, and terrorist actions carried out, in the name of God? Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that this is not "God's Way," but the mistaken path of self-righteousness. He writes, "Religion is for God's sake. The human side of religion, its creeds, rituals, and instructions is a way rather than the goal. The goal is "to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." When the human side of religion becomes the goal, injustice becomes the way."

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston
Director