As my teacher Rabbi Art Green tells the story, two rabbis were having an argument some nineteen hundred years ago. The topic: What is Judaism's most important teaching? Rabbi Akiva, perhaps most famously, had a ready answer which just so happens to have come from this week's parsha: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) is the basic rule of Torah. This teaching is at the core of what our tradition describes as the Holiness Code, which is read this week and again on Yom Kippur afternoon in my many synagogues.
Not surprisingly, his friend Simeon ben Azzai lovingly disagreed. "I know a more basic rule than that and he quoted from the book of Genesis, "This is the book of human generations: On the day that the Holy One created humans, they were created in the image of the Divine (b'tzelem elohim)..." (Gen. 5:1).
This debate is both ancient and ever relevant. And in truth it didn't begin with Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai. Almost two hundred years earlier Hillel famously taught, when asked to summarize Judaism on one foot for a potential convert, "Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary; now go and learn" (B.T. Shabbat 31a). Akiva transforms Hillel's wisdom into the affirmative and roots it in biblical language.
I don't need to split hairs and choose the more righteous essence of Judaism. It is however worth noting that Ben Azzai has two worthwhile concerns. The first is about love. How can I be commanded to love someone? In these political times it does not take much imagination to conjure a person we consider so hateful that we cannot authentically muster love for them. Is that a violation of the essence of Judaism? To which Ben Azzai responds, no, love is not required as the most basic rule of Torah. But remember that they are still human beings, created in the image of God. That they are worthy of compassion and dignity. Treat them that way.
His second problem with Akiva's teaching hinges on the word "neighbor." Who does that include? Is that people with whom we live in proximity? Is that people like us? Is that only Jews? Or only Jews like us? Does Judaism not call us to extend our circles of concern to nishmat kol hai, the breath of all of creation?
Rabbi Green concludes, "The faith that every human being is created in God's image is the part of Judaism that has taken the deepest root in what may be culturally characterized as the 'Jewish soul.' Ironically it continues to exist even in Jews who are not sure if they can still use the word God or soul in any other part of their vocabulary. But they still affirm the lesson of tzelem elohim, the truth that every human life is sacred. It calls us to boundless respect for each human life, a valuing of human difference and individuality, and a commitment to fair and decent treatment for each person" (Judaisms 10 Best Ideas, p. 15).
Personally the question is still alive in my mind, what is the essence of Judaism? And I hope it always is.
Wishing you all a shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
There are weeks when it takes effort to knit our lives to the Torah portion. And there are weeks like this one, when the ancient words feel as though they were written for this very moment. This week's parsha, Acharei Mot, literally "After death," requires no introduction. We find ourselves in both real time and mythic time in the space that follows death. In the Torah's case, after the death of Aaron's two sons. And in our case, after the death of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, z”l in Poway, California. Who was in synagogue to recite Yizkor prayers on the eighth day of Passover.
In four places the Torah mentions the death of Aaron's sons. And in each of those places it mentions the supposed cause of their death. Aaron's children died attempting to reach God. Much like Lori, they were trying to draw close to the Divine. How can we reconcile the possibility of death as a possible consequence of Jewish practice or Shabbat observance? Is that not at odds with our core understanding of Jewish tradition? As we sing on Shabbat morning, "It is a tree of life to those who draw near to it" (Proverbs 3:17).
It is a tree of life. It is meant to be sustaining and nurturing. Which is affirmed a few chapters later in this week's parsha when the text teaches that a person is meant to observe Jewish teachings וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם "and live by them." For which the Talmud clarifies, "live by them, and not die by them" וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם (B.T. Avodah Zara 27b).
It is because of this core value that the rabbis explain that one is permitted to violate a mitzvah (i.e., Shabbat) in order to save a life. It is this core value that undermines for me the homophobic reading of Leviticus 18:21, which appears only a few verses later. Because Torah and mitzvot in their essence, should be life giving. Jewish practices should animate us; give our lives meaning; renew our life-force. Judaism is meant to make us feel more alive. Any interpretation of Torah that suggests otherwise, say the rabbis, has strayed too far. Because we should live by them and not die by them.
This Shabbat embodies our resistance and our resilience. It is profound to affirm life in this moment and welcome three little ones into community and covenant. May our commitment to our traditions and our community be strengthened. And may we experience the joy, calm, and peace that Shabbat offers us. "For it is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it, all who uphold it may be be counted as fortunate. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace."
Rabbi Ari Lev
Last Friday night, amidst the charades, spilled grape juice, and joyful chaos that is seder with toddlers, the group of us gathered managed to have one relatively grown up conversation. It was, rather ironically, about the Four Children. The Haggadah reads: "The Torah alludes to Four Children: One wise, One wicked, One simple and One who doesn't know how to ask." At our seder, we were each prompted to reflect on the roles we play in our families of origin relative to the archetypal children presented in the Haggadah.
On some level we all resisted categorization until the resident psychologist at the table led us through a conversation about internal family systems. Then we took a closer look at text of the Haggadah and saw with renewed clarity that in fact the wise child and the wicked child ask essentially the same question: What does this ritual (and its rules and laws) mean to you? One question ends with lachem/לכם and the other etchem/אתכם. In both questions the child is asking their grown up what this means to them. The distinction really comes in the parental response, which supposes a difference of tone or intention. The wise one is heard as precocious and curious, and the parent wants to teach them. And the wicked one is heard as judgmental or alienated, and the parent is shaming.
In different moments in my life, I find myself feeling more or less like both the wicked and the wise child. Sometimes it is about how I approach a situation and sometimes it is about what is projected on to me. Sometimes I want to be one or the other, and sometimes I feel stuck in a bad pattern. Because we know for sure that these paradigms are not value-neutral. To be the wise one is to be identified with the rabbis of old, the sages of Jewish tradition, the authors of the Haggadah itself. To be the wise one is to be seen as a source of authority. But then again, as we learn in Pirkei Avot,
"Who is wise? One who learns from everyone."
As we enter the final day(s) of Passover, may we linger in the seder's teachings. May we be inspired to extend kindness and compassion to the many children in our lives and to ourselves for the genuinely curious, imperfect questions we ask.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
In just one week, many of us will find ourselves sitting around a seder table reading from our respective haggadot. In one way or another, we will all be fulfilling our obligation to telling the Passover story. At the very beginning of a traditional Haggadah we are told "All that extend the Exodus story are praiseworthy--Harei zeh meshubach." Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch (15th c. law code) tells us that we should speak about it all night – "until sleep overtakes us" (OC 481:2). I don't know about you, but there is no way for it to take me all night to read through my haggadah. So what is really intended by this instruction?
I think the answer comes later in the haggadah, when we say, "In every generation each of us must see ourselves as if we have personally gone out of Egypt." We are called to extend the story to our time, to our lives. We are not separate from this retelling. The Sefat Emet explains that when the Torah says, "You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day (be'etsem hayom) I brought you out of mitzrayim," what it really means is be'atsmo (from within yourself) you came out of a narrow place. What story is uniquely yours to tell this year, be'atsmo, from your own experience?
In truth, the Haggadah is, was, and will be a still life, an imperfect prompt for our own searching. And the rabbis knew this to be true. Take for example the fact that in the Torah women are central to the Exodus story. From the midwives who save the Hebrew babies to the prophet Miriam and her wandering well. And yet women are absent from the Haggadah. We learn in the Talmud, Rav Avira teaches, "In the merit of righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt." While women may be absent from the pages of our haggadah, here is Rav Avira giving full credit to women for the redemption of the entire Jewish people of that generation. What was it that they did that merited God's saving hand in Egypt?
Get a load of this midrash, as retold by Rabbi Avi Strausberg. "Rav Avira explains in the continuation of that passage that at that time, the men, backs broken from oppressive labor, would come home defeated and tired. One can imagine that in situations of such desperation, the focus would be on surviving in the now rather than looking to producing future generations. But, the women were able to look toward the future. They'd go to the river and come away with pots filled with water and fish. They'd bathe their husbands, rub them with oils, feed them the fish and ultimately through their loving, rejuvenating actions, these couples would come to have sex, and the women would become pregnant. Once pregnant, these strong women would continue to take matters into their own hands. When it came time to give birth, they would give birth under the apple tree, and the Holy One would join them, sending a midwife to care for the newborn. These babies were resilient like their parents. When the Egyptians would come for them, a miracle would occur, the earth would absorb them, holding them safe until the threat had passed. They would then emerge from the ground, like grass of the field. As they grew, they would return home, like flocks of sheep, healthy, numerous and whole.”
Wow, now that’s a story! While the editors of the haggadah may not have seen fit to include these stories of feminist resilience, it is on us to give these women, and ourselves, the proper place in the Passover story. To tell the story of our going out from a narrow place all night, until sleep overtakes us.
As you prepare for Passover, may you search out not only your chametz, but also your personal Exodus story, which is praiseworthy to tell.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, marking the new moon of Nissan and announcing the Passover is approaching. Tomorrow morning Jews around the world, including us right here in West Philly, will be singing a bonus set of songs known as Hallel. Hallel, comprising Psalms 113-118, is a collection of psalms of celebration, recited on joyous occasions including Rosh Hodesh, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Hanukkah. It is also included in the Passover seder, where it is divided into two parts that surround the meal. Notably for tomorrow, on Rosh Hodesh and the last six days of Passover, a partial "Hatzi Hallel" is recited omitting the first half of psalm 115 and psalm 116.
The connection between Hallel and Passover is not incidental. For starters, we recite Hallel on Passover and at Seder. And Psalm 114 begins by declaring, "B'zeit yisrael...When Israel went out from Egypt." But it goes deeper than that. The psalms of Hallel draw on the theme of exodus as a metaphor for celebratory moments, both moments of leaving behind oppression and also moments of overcoming personal or communal struggle. And verses from these psalms, like Ozi v'Zimrat Yah, also appear liturgically in key moments like the Song at the Sea. Through spirited song, Hallel invites us to imagine a world of freedom and renewal.
In just two weeks we will read in the Haggadah that each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we personally went out from a narrow place. This is not just a story we remember, but a sacred practice we embody. And tomorrow is our warm up.
Tomorrow when we recite Hallel, I will invite everyone to rise in body or spirit. And while this may seem incidental, it speaks to how the rabbis understood the power of these psalms.
"The Sages taught: Who initially recited Hallel?
Rabbi Eliezer says: Moses and the Jewish people recited it when they stood by the sea...
Rabbi Yehuda says: Joshua and the Jewish people recited it when they defeated the kings of Canaan who stood against them...
Rabbi Yosi HaGelili says: Mordecai and Esther recited it when the wicked Haman stood against them..." (B.T. Pesachim 117a)
The list goes on and on.
As I have learned from my preschooler, according to the rabbis, Hallel is about being an upstander. The Talmud continues, "And the Rabbis say that Hallel was not established for any specific event, but the Prophets among them instituted that the Jewish people should recite it on every appropriate occasion, and for every trouble, may it not come upon them. When they are redeemed, they recite it over their redemption."
Hallel is both an affirmation of the world as it is and the world as it could be. It calls us to remember the moments when our people took a stand. And it invites us to do the same in our time. Hallel is an extra boost of faith and joy that propels us to believe that the renewal of the new moon ushers in the renewal in our own lives.
כן יהי רצון
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week, the week our community buried the Rabbi Emet Tauber, z"l, is also the week when Aaron learns of the death of his sons Nadav and Avihu. The words that follow have been taught to me as the most important words in all of Torah. "Vayidom Aharon, And Aaron was silent/stilled" (Lev 10:3). These words echoed for me all week. In the moments after Emet died, I was sitting with his mom and sister. Naomi, his mom, said "I just feel silence and absence." Vayidom Naomi. And Naomi was silent. Our initial responses to grief and loss are infinitely varied. And yet, our tradition records, that in the case of tragic loss, there is an ineffable void.
What followed in the hours and days that followed was utterly stunning. Out of that void, there was so much life. And I found myself thanking Emet, for he once again reminded me that God is trans. I'm not quite a full believer in the capital R, Reconstructionist school of Mordechai Kaplan, God as the force that makes for salvation. But I do believe that there is a presence, a force, an experience beyond language. I believe in the God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush, and when pushed to identify, says: "אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה / I will be what I will be, I will become what I will become." God is force of transformation in our lives. I believe in the God of transcendence who hovered over the waters during the first days of creation, as it says: "Ve-ru'ach elohim merachefet al pnei ha-mayim – ורוּחַ אֱלוֹהִים מרחפת על פני המים. And the Divine Spirit hovered above the waters" (Gen 1:2). And I believe in the God of transition, the God who appeared to Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites as they crossed the sea on dry land. As we sing in Mi chamocha, "Zeh eli, That is my God" (Ex 15:11).
At his funeral I shared that Emet was Queer with a capital Q. He was also Trans with a capital T. Over the past four months he taught so many of us about how to face the greatest transition of all, with courage, honesty, and love, as he crossed over from this world to the beyond. For those who were not able to be at the funeral, here are some of the words that were shared in his honor.
I will be in New York for Shabbat leading services at a convening for trans Jews, carrying the glittery sparks of Emet's Torah forward.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
As we emerge from the frenzy and fun of Purim, we find ourselves back in the world of Leviticus. I have often joked that the book of Leviticus is a story of blood and guts by way of animal sacrifice. Thanks to Aimee Ando's recent dvar Torah at a KT board meeting, I now want to retitle the book "SALT FAT ACID HEAT", an ode to food writer and celebrity chef Samin Nosrat.
This week's parsha, Tzav, begins with a full description of the different kinds of offerings. By way of review, we have the burnt offering, the grain offering, the purification offering, the guilt offering, the well-being offering, the gratitude offering, the votive, and the freewill offering. Each offering with its own procedures and specifications. Each with its own unique combination of salt, fat, acid, and heat. I can almost hear Samin Nosrat's instructions that each vegetable needs to be roasted on its own. Her attention to the quality and coarseness of the salt and the oil. Echoed by the words of Torah, detailing handfuls of choice flour and oil.
Aimee wrote, "My gut reaction (no pun intended) to Leviticus is typically distant. What do these ancient instructions have to do with modern times? However, this week I found myself leaning into the words as a multi-sensory experience, nearly feeling the heat from the fire, nostrils full of the smoke of the burnt offering and 'the pleasing odor to the Lord.'"
Michael Pollan writes about this 'רֵ֧יחַ נִיחֹ֛חַ pleasing odor' in his book Cooked, "The fragrant column of smoke, symbolizing the link between heaven and earth, is only the conceivable medium of conveyance, and also communication, between humans and their gods. So to say this aroma is divine is more than an empty expression" (39).
I'm not sure if the rabbis were also foodies, but I do know that they understood that this holy barbecue was not unique to temple practice. They too preached the Torah of SALT FAT ACID HEAT.
We learn in the Talmud, "When the Temple is standing, the altar atones for a person; now it is a person's table that atones for them" (B.T. Hagigah 27a).
About this, Aimee concludes, "There is much commentary that relates to all of these manners of sacrifice as pleasing to God primarily because God set forth a series of commandments and God's people carried out God's will. My read may be off, but I wonder if it is something more. I cannot help but wonder if those who spent time in those ancient, figurative open-air kitchens - often the women - up until now, carefully attending to every detail of preparation no matter the labor or time needed, interpreted the opening of Leviticus as I did this week - as a cry from God to offer our earthly ingredients as if preparing and sending up the finest meal possible with love, intention, and integrity. God knows the transformative and healing experience of sharing food."
Wherever you find yourself this Shabbat, at your table or someone else's, may you know that the meals you share on shabbat are in and of themselves a sacred offering, drawing us closer to each other and to Holiness in our lives.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Purim is by nature destabilizing. Costumes and coming out and the idea that nothing is as it seems. But add to it the commandment to drink and that just feels outright dangerous. In practically every chapter of the Megillah, someone is imbibing heavily at a drinking party. And the scroll concludes with Mordecai's instruction to the entire Jewish people to celebrate these days as "yemei mishteh v'simchah, days of drinking and rejoicing" (Esther 9:22).
So let's start with the question, how drunk is one really supposed to get?
We learn in the Talmud:
"Rava said: It is one's duty levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'arur Haman' (cursed be Haman) and 'barukh Mordekhai' (blessed be Mordecai)" (Megillah 7b).
But what degree of drunkenness is meant by this? The word levasumei is from the same root as besamim (fragrant spices, like those that are smelled during Havdalah). Minimally, one should "be fragrant" - drink enough that others can smell it on your breath. And maximally, one should get sloshed, so to speak.
And if this makes you at all uncomfortable, you are in good company.
The rabbis are nervous too and tell this tale of caution:
Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got together for a Purim Seudah (the feast on the afternoon of Purim). They got very drunk, and Rabbah got up and cut R. Zeira's throat (literally, Rabbah butchered him). The next day, Rabbah prayed on R. Zeira's behalf and brought him back to life. A year later, Rabbah asked, "Would you like to have a Purim Seudah with me again this year?" R. Zeira replied, "One cannot count on a miracle every time" (Megillah 7b).
Purim is dangerous, and the rabbis knew it. Getting dressed up, getting drunk, turning things upside down, insisting that nothing is as it seems, blurring boundaries - these are all best done with care and caution. Not only because of the threat of physical injury or death, but also emotional and spiritual safety. I have been to many Purim parties where I felt uncomfortable. Humor is funny until it's not.
If Yom Kippur - is Yom K'Purim - the day that is like Purim, then Purim is also somehow like Yom Kippur. It is its calendrical corollary, its spiritual underbelly. Much like fasting on Yom Kippur, the purpose is not the consumption of alcohol in and of itself. So if you are sober or on medication, pregnant or nursing, or for any other reason do not drink, please know drinking is only one medium for attaining a spiritual state of looseness where we can see the ironic, sometimes painful, and true interconnectedness of all things.
Purim is dangerous, but it is a portal into magical realism. And drinking is only one of the four mitzvot of Purim. The full verse quoted above from the Megillah reads, "They are to observe these as days of feasting and gladness, and for sending delicacies to one another, and giving gifts to the poor" (Esther 9:22).
Accordingly, we are instructed to hear the Megillah, give goodie bags to our friends and give tzedakah. Whether or not you plan to attend the Purim Party Fundraiser tomorrow night, I want to personally invite you to participate in the Purim mitzvah of matanot l'evyonim/giving gifts to those in need - to give as generously as you are able to La Familia Centeno-Delgado. We have raised $43,000. We need to raise $8,000 more by Purim.
This Purim, may we hearken to the wisdom of both Rava and Rabbah. May we have the courage to soften and sparkle, to let our hidden light shine. And may we have the wisdom to do so in such a way that does no harm to ourselves or others.
Rabbi Ari Lev
There is a folk legend that King Solomon once posed the following riddle: "What can you say to a happy person to make them sad, that will also make a sad person happy?"
King Solomon took a gold ring from his pocket upon which were engraved three Hebrew letters: גז"י – Gimel, Zayin, Yod. They stand for 'גם זה יעבור gam zeh ya'avor,' this too, shall pass.
The primary themes of Purim are a corollary to King Solomon's teaching: ונהפוך הוא / V'nahafoch hu. What is true in one moment can turn upside down. The Megillah is replete with examples. Queen Esther, who first appears as a closeted Jew, ends up saving the Jewish people by standing up to King Ahashverosh. Haman's evil plot to wipe out all the Jews of Shushan leads to his own demise. And the Jews of Shushan, once powerless subjects, become powerful actors, able to control their own destiny.
And so we will read in Esther 9:1:
"...When the king's command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened [v’nahafoch hu], and the Jews got their enemies in their power."
With a heaping helping of heavy handedness (and an overindulgence in revenge), the Megillah reminds us just how topsy-turvy the world can be. In the words of my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe, all stories ultimately and inevitably crash. V'nahafoch hu. Purim is a celebration of subversion, inversion, and transformation.
So much so, that the rabbis of the Mishnah took the time to warn against thinking v'nahafoch hu applies to reading the Megillah backwards, a practice they ruled does not fulfill one's obligation on Purim (Megillah 2:1). In classic Hasidic fashion, the Ba'al Shem Tov turned the Sages' caution inward by adding, "one who reads the Megillah backwards" is a person who only reads it in retrospect and neglects to pay attention to how its spirit is alive in their own day.
As the seasons change and the days grow longer, we seek out levity and instability, allowing the brittle interface of reality to loosen its grip on our souls. To remind ourselves that anything is possible, in our selves and in our world. On this Rosh Hodesh Adar II, may the promises of the rabbis come true and may the sliver of this new moon increase joy in your life.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Every year as we read of the building of the mishkan in all its ornate details, I think to myself, Beztalel (the artist of the Torah) must really have been a flaming gay man. Who else would have such attention to color, fabric, and gemstone?! As someone who does not feel gifted with interior design skills, I am in awe of the Torah's artistry. This week, I am feeling so grateful to be part of a community where I can openly share this totally ridiculous queer reading of Torah.
It is my sense that what binds Kol Tzedek together as a community is the desire for each of us to be wholly ourselves. This is why I start every service with what has become somewhat of a creed, that you are welcome here just as you are. While this seems obvious on so many levels, it is hardly the normative experience of religious spaces and religious movements.
I am grateful that for so many of us, Kol Tzedek is a refuge; a place to reimagine family; a place to truly be our full selves; a place to connect to something beyond ourselves. We are healing from the Judaism of our childhood or the religion of our childhood. In particular, we are healing from homophobic and transphobic sentiments of our childhood denominations.
For all of these reasons and more, it was painful to witness this week when the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted against LGBTQ inclusion, maintaining that "Homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity." This vote was the culmination of years of exclusion and hurt, and decades of organizing momentum trying to make the church's insides match its outsides.
I have spoke with Pastor John and members of Calvary United Methodist. They are heartbroken and grieving. The future of the denomination, the building, and the community is uncertain. This is a very tender moment for our neighbors and spiritual housemates.
Certainly this vote did not happen in isolation. It is part of the right-wing backlash that is emboldened by our current administration. It is also helpful to understand that the Methodist church is a global denomination with more than 12 million members. So this is not necessarily a barometer of US sentiments. Having said that, it is painful to even be adjacent to the indignity of religious voices. I can't imagine what it feels like to be inside of it. And I can imagine that for some of you and your family members, this touches you personally.
As the United Methodist Church integrates this new reality, I have had many instincts and responses. I share this article to encourage us to be helpful and not harmful allies to Calvary United Methodist. Knowing that there is not unanimous queer support in all Jewish communities and denominations, I invite us to send love to them and ourselves. To know that we are all called to build sanctuaries full of flamboyant beauty, justice, and love.
In the words of Adrienne Rich,
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.