Sermon: Shabbat Ki Tissa

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 7 March 2021

Many years ago Pelican Books – aka ‘Penguin Books for intellectuals) issued a series called “Objections to…” each with essays on the theme. There was Objections to Humanism, to Psychoanalysis, to Christianity and so on. The series piqued my interest because I expected them to be punchy critiques of the system in the title. They were – though not quite as I expected. Every essay was, indeed, a critique of that system, but written by a practitioner of that system. In other words, written by an ‘insider’ looking around, not by an outsider looking in. Because if the insider is prepared to be honest, they are usually a much sharper critic of their system: they know it better, they have deeper knowledge of it and speak out of greater experience. Those essays taught me some important lessons about criticism and self-criticism. There wasn’t an “Objections to Judaism” but I always wondered what would be in it, who would write the essays?

One of the main areas of difference between Orthodox and Progressive Judaism is the emphasis we put on personal autonomy: the freedom of choice we believe each Jew has to decide on the sort of Jewish life they lead. For Orthodoxy, that is, of course, one of their main criticisms of Reform: “you make Judaism into ‘do what you want.’”

For our part, we would argue that Orthodoxy allows for little, if any, personal autonomy and choice. We see it as saying: “Keep the mitzvot, do what the Law tells you to do. What you feel personally is hardly important.” We might also add that putting so much emphasis on the correct performance of the mitzvot risks making that an end in itself rather than a pathway to something beyond.

The reality of course is that most Jews exercise their personal choice in the way they want, irrespective of which synagogue they belong to.

But in the end I can’t write “Objections to Orthodox Judaism”: that’s for my colleagues down the road at Kinloss and Norrice Lea to do. I feel more confident about writing “Objections to Reform.”

One of those essays might be about the problematic of personal autonomy. It’s at the heart of who and what we are as Reform Jews. But it’s not a free-for-all. Some of you might have all sorts of things in your fridge: a couple of rashers of bacon, the odd prawn maybe. Obviously you won’t find those things in the synagogue fridge. But nor would you – and this is the crucial bit – hear a sermon from the Alyth pulpit telling you it’s wrong; or, leastwise, I trust that you wouldn’t. You might hear a sermon raising the issue of what we eat and don’t eat; you might hear one of us speaking about eco-kashrut or inviting you to study some aspect of kashrut and Jewish law. But whatever you might hear, it wouldn’t, I’m pretty sure, be in a censorious, judgemental sort of way, telling you what you must – or must not – do.

So the problematic of personal autonomy is that it can get elevated into some absolute religious principle. And when that happens we have strayed from real religion into idolatry.

Some years ago, a number of Reform and Liberal synagogues in this part of London set up a loose grouping for joint activities called ‘Intersyn.’ Before you get too excited about what happened, the ‘syn’ part is spelled s-y-n not s-i-n! I remember one year we had a weekend away. At the Shabbat morning service I was sitting next to one of my Liberal colleagues. The Reform rabbi conducting the service, opened the ark and bowed deeply to the Torah. My Liberal colleague, in a loud stage whisper, muttered “idolatry!” I knew he ascribed as much importance to the Torah as I did, but I was surprised because he was suggesting that, however important the Torah was, bowing to it was a step too far for him, too close to idolatrous practice.

I asked my colleagues yesterday what ‘idolatry’ meant for them. “Worshipping that which is not worthy of worship” said one; “ascribing more importance to the material than to the spiritual” said another, adding something about “pop idols and celebrity”; “deifying that which is not be deified” said another. While there might be a sort of base-level meaning of ‘idolatry’ each generation has its own particular idolatries.

Of course we know that the second of the Ten Commandments speaks about not making images and worshipping them. But how that has been interpreted and understood in different times and places has varied.

On March 21 we’ll be filling in our Census forms. Our sidra begins with a census: God tells Moses to do it by collecting a silver half-shekel from everybody over the age of 20. The practice continued into 2nd Temple times, helping with the Temple upkeep. Those half-shekels were produced in the city of Tyre, which seems to have been the Mint city in ancient Israel. But on the coin was the head of Melgarth, the local equivalent of Hercules. So the Temple was to be sustained with coins with a pagan god on them, though obviously nobody worshipped them.

In another Talmudic discussion, Rabban Gamliel is asked why he goes to a bathhouse where there is a statue of Aphrodite. Why not? he responds (and the Talmudic phrase is lovely) ein omrim na’aseh merchatz noy la’aphrodite elah omer na’aseh aphrodite noy la’merchatz “We don’t say ‘let’s build a beautiful bathhouse in honour of Aphrodite’; but we do say ‘let’s have a statue of Aphrodite to beautify the bathhouse.’” (Avodah Zarah 44b)

And the particular section of the Torah we heard this morning speaks about 2 covenants. The one that God makes with the Israelites, to do great things for them (Exodus 34:10) – basically it’s a reaffirmation of the covenant with the Patriarchs. Then in the next breath: you must not make a covenant with the people of the land you are going to enter… tear down their altars, destroy their holy places (Exodus 34:12-13) In other words: wipe out their idolatrous practices. But that’s not how we understand ‘idolatry’ in our time.

The argument here is that idolatry seduces us away from the ability to make the proper moral and religious choices. We recognise that in our own lives. If our idol is, say, material wealth, beyond which nothing else matters. then getting more becomes paramount and we can end up sacrificing family, friends, our own integrity in the process. Maybe you’ve seen that in people you know. Sadly rabbis see it all too often.

In the 1930s, dictators took on idolatrous form where there was no value was higher than the State and obedience to its leader. It was an ideology which gave a hechsher, a seal of approval, to enable people to do the most appalling things.

As one of my colleagues said, we have the contemporary idolatry of media celebrity: ‘Hello’ magazine, Kim Kardashian, the Real Housewives of…..Marriage at First Sight, even those interviews with Harry and Meghan. All represent the elevation of the ordinary into the extraordinary.

In Hebrew the word for ‘work’ avodah is also the word for ‘service,’ ‘worship.’ Avodah is seen as liberating because its focus is something beyond us, something making a claim on us for correct moral and ethical behaviour. Interestingly, that same word is also in the Hebrew for idolatry: avodah zarah – that same word avodah, ‘service’ but linked now with zarah meaning ‘strange.’ Maybe the fact that the same word is used for ‘worship’ and ‘idolatry’ suggests that the boundary between them is very fine, not always clear and easy to cross from one side of the divide to the other. The purpose of the religious life, then, according to one rabbinic teaching, is to purify us, to refine our emotions, our behaviour.. The word used for ‘purify,’ l’tsareif, is also used for smelting metals. For what smelting does is to remove impurities from the base metal, to produce something purer, more refined.

The juxtaposition of the 2 covenants at the beginning of our reading put the stark choice before us. There can’t be a middle path. It really is either/or. “The decision for or against God,” wrote Leo Baeck, “is the primary decision of life. If we do not decide for God, quite inevitably we decide for some idol. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” he concludes.

So – objections to Judaism? Sure. I think one of them would be the danger of making my particular interpretation of, understanding of Judaism into a value beyond criticism, beyond which, above which there is nothing. In the context of our Torah reading, that would be a form of idolatry.

I’m mindful of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s statement: “I don’t mind which branch of Judaism you identify with as long as there’s something in it about which you are embarassed or ashamed.” In other words, never think that your part of the Jewish world, your particular expression of Judaism is correct, while all the others are flawed and imperfect.