Rabbi Margaret Jacobi – 5th August 2020
Rabbi John Rayner, who was such an inspiration to our movement, considered the question asked by our Sidra was the most important question that we could ask: ‘And now, Israel, what does the Eternal One your God ask of you?’ It is not a question of theology or philosophy. It does not ask about God’s existence or nature, or our purpose on earth. Rather, it is a question of obligation. It takes for granted that we are here to do what God asks of us. The privilege of being alive brings with it the obligation to use our lives to serve God, the source of our lives. This is the ultimate reli-gious attitude – to acknowledge that God is the source of our lives and to ask how we best live our lives with that recognition.
The answer our Sidra gives is deceptively simple: ‘Is it not to fear the Eternal One your God, to fol-low in all God’s ways and to love and serve the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul; and to follow God’s commandments and statutes which I command you for your good?’ What does it mean, to fear God and follow God’s commandments? Does it mean to follow all the so-called 613 commandments unquestioningly, as some Orthodox people would have us believe? That, too, is not so simple – there is not even universal agreement about what the 613 command-ments are. And is it really as important to keep the commandment of shatnez, not mix-ing linen and wool in garments, as the commandment to love our neighbour? The rabbis of the Talmud claimed that every commandment was equally important. Yet at the same time, they at-tempted to condense the commandments into one single principle and in the end concluded that it was a universal ethical principle: Rabbi Akiva said that it was the principle ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ and Ben Azzai said, ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam.’ Ben Azzai’s principle is more cryptic, but unlike Akiva’s it is clear that it applies equally to all human beings, Jewish or non-Jewish. All human beings are descendants of Adam and Eve, made in the Divine Image. Ulti-mately, all the commandments have one purpose, to remind us that we must care for other people as we would wish them to care for us.
One of the defining differences between Orthodox and Progressive Judaism is in our response to the question, ‘What does God ask of us?’ Progressive Judaism emphasises the ethical principles that we should follow. They, for us, are more important than the details. We keep the shabbat as a day of rest and spiritual refreshment, not in order to abstain from 39 categories of work. On the other hand, in Orthodox thought it is in keeping the details that the principles of Judaism are put into practice. By having a structure of certain categories of work to avoid, the Shabbat can truly be a day of rest. In truth, neither approach should be taken to the extreme. If we, as Progressive Jews, aim to keep principles without a framework of action, we can end up doing little to follow the prin-ciples. Loving God and our fellow human beings is more than a vague, warm feeling. On the oth-er hand, it is equally easy for Orthodox Jews to get so caught up in the details that they forget the principles that underly the mitzvot, sacrificing kindness and compassion for strict observance. Or-thodox and Progressive Jews can learn from each other, so that although we may emphasise one way over another, we practice a Judaism that is both humane and observant.
In these strange times, when some people hardly see another human being in person from one day to the next and most of us meet most people on a screen, it is perhaps harder to remember the hu-manity of others. Yet all the more at these times, people are in need of support, care and love. Rabbi Rayner inspired us with his rational and scholarly thought, but he also inspired us by exam-ple, leading a life which lived up to Ben Azzai’s principle and caring for those near to him and those further afield, for Jews and non-Jews alike.
As we read this week’s Sidra, may we be inspired to respond to the question ‘what does the Eternal One your God ask of you?’ through the care and love we show for others, especially at this time of need.
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