My 2016 /5777 Kol Nidre Sermon
A month or so ago, I received a very nicely worded invitation for TBC to participate in “The Mega Challah Bake Women’s Unity Event.” The poster that was attached to the email called for women and girls to unite and “learn the ancient art of challah baking.” The flyer and the event were created by a Jewish group that falls within the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, and we were invited because they wanted to include the larger Jewish community. I respect the fact that this kind of event fits squarely within the organizer’s understanding of the Jewish tradition, but I immediately declined on behalf of our congregation.
Here is what I sent as my response- and please note that I haven’t included anyone’s name because I am not sharing this anecdote with you in order to imply anything negative about the person or the organization. Their beliefs work for them, but those beliefs are not the same as ours.
This is what I sent back:
Dear so and so,
Thank you for your email. If the event was changed so that parents and children of all genders were invited, then I would be happy to share it, but, as it stands, I won't be able to.
All the best,
Now, some of you may wonder why I wouldn’t share what seems like a lovely opportunity for Jewish moms to spend time with their daughters. I understand that reaction, and I’d like to explain exactly why I believe this event and those like it are so much more and so much less than a potentially enjoyable afternoon.
Traditionally, baking and preparing challah is understood to be one of the commandments assigned to women. Other commandments given to women include lighting the Sabbath candles and observing the laws of family purity- which is a euphemistic way of saying that a woman is responsible for taking the necessary precautions so that she does not contaminate anyone else while she has her period and is therefore in a state of impurity. All of these commandments could and should be performed within what was traditionally understood to be a woman's domain, her household.
As a rabbi and as a woman standing on the bimah of her congregation and speaking to a diverse community of people on the eve of Yom Kippur, I passionately disagree with the idea of a woman’s Jewish identity being limited by the assumptions that underpin these three commandments. However, I also respect the fact that people should be able to choose their own religious expressions, as long as everyone is aware that there are other options and has the power to choose something else if they so wish.
My refusal to share this email or to promote this event is based solely on my conviction that the program was in direct conflict with our movement’s values. You see, one of the unspoken goals of “The Mega Challah Bake Women’s Unity Event” is to teach women and girls how to fulfill one of the traditionally “female” commandments, and I believe that the slogan of “women’s unity” is being used to help liberal Jewish women feel good about bringing their daughters. All too often, these kinds of events reinforce traditional gender roles under the guise of being “Girl Power” programs in order not to offend liberal Jewish women who would otherwise be very uncomfortable with the these ideas.
Here’s the thing - I love challah. I want everyone in the world who wants to know how to bake challah to learn. But, I also want every single one of our children regardless of their gender identities to have the ability to opt out of challah baking.
When someone asks me what the most important aspects of Reform Judaism are, I almost always respond by saying that Reform Judaism is a progressive movement that believes deeply in egalitarianism. These two modifiers- progressive and egalitarian- define almost every aspect of Reform Jewish communities and Reform Jewish life.
Often, when we hear “progressive” we equate it with “liberal,” but it actually refers to something much larger. In this case, the word progressive refers to our understanding of history and of the world.
The Reform Movement’s 1st platform, written in 1885, states, “We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men.”
In 1885, our movement’s founders and leaders looked at the Judaism that they had inherited and said: We have a religious obligation to take the wisdom that we have been given and use it to better ourselves and the world around us.
This idea was reaffirmed fifty-two years later, when the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted The Columbus Platform which states very clearly, “Reform Judaism recognizes the principle of progressive development in religion and consciously applies this principle to spiritual as well as cultural and social life… The new discoveries of science… do not conflict with the essential spirit of religion as manifested in the consecration of man’s will, heart and mind to the service of God and of humanity. ...Revelation is a continuous process, confined to no one group and to no one age… Each age has the obligation to adapt the teachings of the Torah to its basic needs in consonance with the genius of Judaism.”
This may seem logical or even obvious to most of us here tonight, but these ideas represent one of the most important innovations of Reform Judaism. The traditional view was that Sinai was the apex of human history and that each generation after that moment of revelation had less authority over the text and less ability to interpret the tradition for themselves.
Reform Judaism says no, the Torah is a product of a specific time and place in history, and each generation has the ability and even the responsibility to use both the inherited wisdom of our tradition and the advances that we have made in our understanding of the world to create meaningful religious lives.
Reform Judaism says that over the course of human history we have developed a more sophisticated conception of morality and that while these developments do not keep us from moral failings, we believe that progress has been made and should continue to be made.
As a progressive movement, Reform Judaism was founded on the idea that, in the last couple of millennia, the Jewish people and the world at large have grown, learned, and developed and that it is our responsibility to maintain that momentum for the generations who will come after us. Reform Judaism holds fast to the beauty of our tradition while steadfastly looking forward to the future.
This spiritual and ethical optimism goes hand in hand with our movement’s deep and abiding commitment to egalitarianism. Too often, we forget just how fundamental a shift this commitment to egalitarianism was in the history of Judaism. No longer would women be seated separately from men because we refuse to prioritize the prayer and the spirituality of any group of people who walk through the doors of the sanctuary. No longer would a Cohen or a Levi be given precedence in their access to the Torah.
Being an egalitarian movement means that our first priority in meeting a new person is to look for the spark of God in their eyes. It means that our moral obligation is one of empathy because we know that no person is better than any other. It means that when we are presented with the opportunity to respond with closed or open arms, we know that it is our religious obligation to throw our arms open.
It means that we have a religious obligation to see the humanity and the divinity in the stranger and to refuse to give into our fears or insecurity. It means that we stand for those whose voices are silenced and that we speak out against those whose voices spew hate.
Egalitarianism means that women, men, and people of all genders are worthy of our respect and love. It means that we teach our children- regardless of the pronouns that they choose for themselves- that their bodies are made in God’s image and that no one has the right to make them feel unsafe. It means that we know that sexism doesn’t just hurt women but men as well.
It means that we will speak out when we hear racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, bigoted, or hateful comments - whether they are made by our friends or our leaders. It means that we believe deeply that no one is born with more rights, more honor, or more privilege than anyone else and that we will work hard to make sure that the world reflects this belief.
It means that there are no religious expectations imposed on us as individuals of any gender. It means that all of us can bake challah and that all of us can study torah. It means that no one’s voice is ignored and that everyone’s life is respected
Being an egalitarian movement means that when we meet people who are different from us, we are not only obligated to TOLERATE them, we are obligated to HONOR, to CELEBRATE, and to PROTECT them.
In 1937, our rabbis made this obligation clear, when they wrote, “In Judaism, religion and morality blend into an indissoluble unity. Seeking God means to strive after holiness, righteousness and goodness. The love of God is incomplete without the love of one's fellowmen. Judaism emphasizes the kinship of the human race, the sanctity and worth of human life and personality and the right of the individual to freedom and to the pursuit of his chosen vocation. Justice to all, irrespective of race, sect or class, is the inalienable right and the inescapable obligation of all.”
Tonight, we come together as a Reform Jewish community, and we celebrate those qualities that define our movement. We rejoice in the knowledge that as a progressive movement, we believe that the future can be brighter, can be more just, can be better. We celebrate the fact that our movement honors the value, the divinity, and the beauty of every person’s soul, and we commit to living lives that reflect this ethical conviction.
We join together and say that we refuse to allow hatred, ignorance, bigotry, or fear to drag us down. We cry out that we will not cede any of the moral and ethical ground that the generations who have come before us have won.
We look to the future and promise the generations to come that we know that it is our ethical, moral, and religious responsibility to continue working toward a better world.
It will not be an easy task, but nothing of value is ever easy. I pray that we have the strength, vision, and integrity to meet this goal. Chazak. Chazak. V’nitchazek. Be strong. Be strong. And, let us strengthen one another. Amen.