Rabbi Nathan Godleman, 22 March 2019
I think it would be fair to say that Liberal Jews do not like to be commanded. This week’s parashah begins, after the familiar formulation – ‘The Eternal One said unto Moses, saying’ – with the word tzav / command. Here, on God’s behalf, Moses is to command his brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons to do with sacrifices. According to Rashi, whenever the imperative is used, it applies to the present and the future. In other words, we were commanded and remain so. As a movement, we reject any notion that ritual law is binding. Indeed, if we stray outside of the carefully selected passages in the LJ lectionary, we may want to distance ourselves from what is described as happening in the past, too. This week, for example, I will be reading Leviticus chapter 8, verses one to thirteen. Read on, to see why we stop at that point! Orthodox Jews feel commanded to read the ganze megillah. We do not.
Sitting in the room of prayer this Tuesday morning at the Leo Baeck College, I was not the only one to be struck by the diversity of people and practice. Some of it was within traditional bounds: the design of prayer shawls and kippot, the laying of tefillin, and so on. Of the score of people there, which included applicants to the college this week, not all wore religious apparel at all, nor moved in the traditionally prescribed manner. What was once done, has been undone and re-done. Generally, we hold this to be a good thing and, in a conversation after the service, a colleague and I agreed on how amazing it was to be in a room with people praying together – certainly together, yet so differently.
There is a lesson here for our communities, and for me as a new rabbi. Effectively, rabbis are, along with rites and practices committees, in the command position when it comes to services: who can be called up onto the bimah; what they can do there; how they are to be attired. Arguably, there has to be a set of rules, so that we form a coherent community. ‘The freedom of the individual must not be carried to extremes,’ as Rev. Vivian Simmons rightly says in The Path of Life – A Study of the Background, Faith and Practice of Liberal Judaism (London,1961). Nevertheless, perhaps we could loosen the rules a little and let go of some of them altogether. How much do we want to command in this area? Are we motivated by coherence or control? In matters of practice, what might a more liberal approach bring to our services and to our synagogues?
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