Monday, April 29, 2013

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5755: The Kosher Pig

First Day Rosh Hashanah: The Kosher Pig
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
I'd like to entitle this sermon, "The Kosher Pig."
I didn't invent the term. Rabbi Richard Israel, the Jewish chaplain at Brandeis, recently published a book with that title. It all stems from a story he tells, about a pious Jew who was told by his doctor that he had a rare disease, one that could only be cured by eating pork. Now Jewish law states that in order to save a life any of its provisions can, in fact must be broken. But that wasn't enough for this man. Although he was allowed to eat pork, he determined that the pig had to be slaughtered in the kosher way, painlessly, before he ate it. So he brought the pig to the local shochet -- the shochet got a special knife that would never be used on a Kosher animal, he fumfed around a little bit because he had never slaughtered a pig before, then he slaughtered the pig, in accordance with halacha. Then, as is customary, he examined the pig's lungs, to look for blemishes -- so it could be glatt/ smooth/ and that's all that glatt means. He had no idea what he was looking at, but he finally concluded that the pig had no serious blemishes. "So, nu," the man asked, "Rabbi, is this pig kosher?" "The rabbi examined the lungs for some time and the declared, "It may be Kosher, but it's still a pig."
Kosher pigs. Modern Jewish life is filled with Kosher pigs. Utter inconsistencies that we sometimes hardly notice, but they are there, and they are enlightening.
Last Passover, you might recall, began on a Saturday night. For weeks leading up to that date, I received numerous inquiries from congregants as to when one should stop eating bread: on Friday morning, or Saturday morning. The traditional answer, I told people without hesitation, was that the house should be virtually hametz-free on Friday, before Shabbat. Now why is that? Because one is not supposed to clean a house on Shabbat, or do the kinds of things we do to get rid of hametz: burn it, sell it, etc. The kinds of things most Jews do every week -- on Shabbat. To be "consistent" with his normal practice, the non-Shabbat observer should simply have ignored my advice and eaten bread until Saturday morning. That week, however, many people had their houses ready for Passover by Friday afternoon because they wanted to do Passover "right", when in fact they were rushing their preparations in order to keep a Shabbat rule they don't normally keep. Another inconsistency. It's kind of like the guy who drives to shul on Yom Kippur but tells the policeman writing him a ticket that he can't put money in the meter on yomtov.
Richard Israel loves this kind of Kosher Pig situation. A few other examples he gives: "Rabbi, I am marrying an Episcopalian woman. Can I get married during the week after Passover?"
"Rabbi, we are going to dinner at the home of a woman whom we know uses lard in her cooking. We're kosher, but we don't want to embarrass her. After dessert, may we put milk in our coffee?"
And another: "An Orthodox rabbi has just made a serious pass at me. Do you think he will want me to go to Mikva before I have an affair with him?"
One commercial fisherman in California called his rabbi to see if it was kosher to use pieces of squid as bait when he goes fishing. An interesting question, because squid has no fins and scales and is unkosher; but does it affect the Kashrut of the fish caught? A fascinating question, except that he called the rabbi on Saturday morning to ask it. Does placing a call on Shabbat morning disqualify someone from asking a question of Jewish law? Does answering that call disqualify the rabbi from answering a question of Jewish law?
Harold Kushner tells of another beaut. He was at a clergy meeting, and everyone brown bagged their lunches. The local Reform rabbi brought a ham and cheese sandwich, and before he began to eat it, he paused and recited the motzi. His Orthodox colleague said to him, "Aren't you being a hypocrite, saying that prayer over blatantly non-Kosher food?" He replied, "Not at all. The Jewish dietary laws don't impress me as religiously valuable; but the habit of thanking God for having food to eat impresses me very much." Kushner's reaction is interesting. He disagrees with that rabbi's evaluation of the dietary laws, as do I, but he appreciates the seriousness of the response. A good Jew, he concludes, cannot be measured by checking someone's dietary habits or counting how often someone prays. A good Jew is someone who is constantly striving to become a better Jew.
My friends, all of these people are, to some degree, serious Jews, and for that alone we must commend them. We might laugh at the inconsistency, we might even call it hypocrisy, but if they are hypocrites, we should all only be so hypocritical.
Websters defines hypocrisy as being from the Greek for acting a part, pretending to be what one is not. And we know a hypocrite when we see one: As Adlai Stevenson once said of Richard Nixon, "He's the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree and then mount the stump to make a speech for conservation." That's hypocrisy, but we all must learn the difference between hypocrisy and inconsistency, between pretending and striving, between going half way in earnest, and throwing it all away without giving it half a chance.
And you know, a little hypocrisy isn't so bad at times. It's not the worst sin to pretend a little, to play out what we may not fully believe. Sometimes -- often-- when I pray, I don't feel it, I certainly don't agree with every word. But I utter the words, over and over again, and I help others to pray, and somehow, just because I've remained open to the prayers, a time does come when the words reveal worlds to me, and it all comes together. It happens. It really does. But for the person who says all or nothing, who refuses to pray, because he thinks it means nothing to him and he doesn't want to be a hypocrite, the gates of wonder remain closed.
And to be a hypocrite often means that at least you've set high, virtuous goals for yourself, even if you don't always live up to them. I'd rather do that, and fall short, then set no high standards at all. That's why religious leaders and politicians are so often called hypocrites while John Gotti never is. Religious leaders have to ask us to aim high, while some people are forever stooping to reach their ideals. Most of us are so afraid of being called hypocrites that we take the easy road. If we expect little of ourselves -- we usually deliver.
This year, let's resolve to use the "H" word a little less. Yes, hypocrisy can be very destructive at times, no question about it, especially when someone famous lets us down. But there are far worse sins. The word is overused, so my first pledge of the new year is that you'll hear no more of it from me today.
Inconsistency is a better word, especially regarding Jewish ritual, those commandments between human beings and God, Ben Adam L'Makom as they are called. When it comes to the other kind of commandment, between human beings and their neighbors Ben Adam L'Havero, we should aim for moral perfection, even if we don't achieve it. And we don't. We never will. But in questions of Jewish ritual, we have to try to be serious about it, we should also aim high, but we shouldn't be so quick to condemn those who are inconsistent. Let's be Kosher Pigs. Let's be inconsistent...consistently. And let's not cop an all or nothing plea and then cop out. The stakes are too high.
We have a new Kosher butcher in town. So let's see rabbi, the questioner begins, I don't keep a Kosher home; wouldn't it be hypocri..hypo..hyaaachooo for me to support it?
Absolutely not, because:
A) Without non-Orthodox support, the butcher will not survive and the whole Jewish community will suffer greatly.
B) The store sells Israeli products. Do you support Israel?
C) You can meet your friends there and talk about the rabbi's sermon. A Jewish food market is a place where Jewish communal life is lived, with Jewish smells and Jewish sounds and Jewish words, not to mention Jewish food. I spent an hour there with my kids last week, before I even got to the food. This is how it was where I grew up. And all this can now be yours. It's here. And you don't need to keep a completely kosher home to make this culture part of your life.
But most of all, here's how the kosher pig would look at it. Go part way! Buy kosher chicken and take it home and cook it in a non-kosher pot. The chicken won't tell. And with each bite you'll be making a small statement about the sanctity of life, kindness to animals and the unity of the Jewish people. Go part way! Go out to a non-kosher restaurant and eat dairy, or simply avoid pork or shellfish. Or if that's difficult, avoid it once a month. And at that time think about why you're avoiding it, because for Jews eating is a sacred act, it grants dignity to life, and holiness comes from making distinctions, by exercising self control. Try it. It is still a mitzvah to abstain from shellfish, even while continuing to eat cheeseburgers. Moment magazine calls this Judaism a la Carte. In a recent article, Jack Wortheimer shows some valid concerns about the consequences of this kind of relaxation of standards. What will happen to the next generation, he asks, will they know what Judaism truly stands for? My question is: do they know now?
The crisis in Jewish continuity is an emergency and calls upon all of us to sell Judaism as it has never been sold before. Study after study has shown that the age of ethnicity in American culture is over. If there are to be Jews here in a century, it will be because of the religious component. People with the choice to opt out of Jewish life will do so unless they are convinced of the power of the Jewish idea. And if Jews are willing to reintroduce themselves to idea, we in the clergy have got to meet them half way.
Even the Orthodox are inconsistent. Dennis Prager points out how Orthodox Judaism condones inconsistency, but in just the area where we have stated it should least be condoned -- the mitzvot between people. Tradition states that all Jews should give 10% of their income to tzedakkah. That's what it says. But if a person gives 8%, do we say that he or she has not given tzedakkah? Of course not. Yet, when it comes to observance of laws between humans and God, the ritual laws, the attitude shifts to all-or-nothing. A shomer (observer) of Shabbat is defined as one who does not violate a single one of the 39 Shabbat prohibitions, and their hundreds of derivatives. Violate just one and you are m'chalel Shabbat, a violator of Shabbat.
As Prager concludes, one of the terrible consequences of this attitude is that a small number of Jews observe every detail of Jewish law, while the vast majority of Jews completely ignore Jewish law, here and in Israel.
It's time to value partial observance of ritual the way we value the 8% tzedakkah donation. It's still tzedakkah. And the kosher chicken in the unkosher home is still kosher. And the person who bought it is a Jew who keeps kosher. The ancient rabbis understood the value of the Kosher Pig. After all, didn't they go around encouraging Jews to greet each other every Yom Tov by saying, "Hog Sameach?"
The Jew who lights candles on Friday but then goes to the movies, still, to some extent, keeps Shabbat. A person who takes his or her child to a little league game and then comes here afterward for the last ten minutes of services, in uniform, and the kiddush or lunch, is Shomer Shabbat that week, because the sanctity of Shabbat has been recognized, if only a little bit.
To be a Jew means to struggle, (the word Israel literally means one who struggles with God); We've got to struggle, even if it means making difficult compromises. Our lives are filled with tough Jewish decisions. So compromise, compromise to the hilt, only never let it appear that Judaism comes second to anything else. The Jewish tradition can compromise -- but it must never be allowed to lose.
For Judaism to grow it must speak to our real lives. The Rabbinical Assembly recently created quite a stir by releasing the report of its commission on human sexuality. It affirmed what our tradition has always said, that sexuality is a gift as sacred as any, not evil in any sense, unless it is abused. Godliness is expressed through loving relationships between people. The great controversy arose in that the report pointed toward the potential for holiness in some non-marital relationships without necessarily condoning them. It created in effect a sliding scale of holiness, with marriage at one end, as the ideal state, and non-consensual relationships at the other extreme, where there is no holiness, only exploitation. Many who objected were afraid that this sliding scale is really a slippery slope, making a mockery of all traditional standards. I see it otherwise. A sliding scale is the perfect model for observance in our times. We recognize the ideal, but we also validate the striving.
This letter takes a large step toward meeting people where they are. Engaged couples living together, and that's about two thirds of the ones I interview; senior citizens sharing a deep friendship, in what is being called the Florida syndrome; singles well into their thirties and forties, or beyond, who want nothing more than the warmth of human companionship. Judaism does speak to them too. God is present wherever there is love between human beings. The letter discusses what goes into a loving, holy relationship, marital or otherwise, beginning with honesty, trust, commitment, sensitivity and patience. These are things I want to talk to couples about, but I can only do it if I can meet them where they are at.
Franz Rosenzveig, the philosopher, was once asked if he wore tefillin. His answer, given half a century ago, resounds now more than ever before: He replied, "Not yet." And being a Kosher pig means saying "not yet" to things, all the while working toward the "yet." The danger of "not yet" alone is that it creates inertia. We give up too easily rather than going even part way. Most Jews aren't philosophically opposed to being more Jewishly committed or involved. We are just set in our ways. We do things the way we've always done them. And inertia cannot be overcome gradually. As Yitzhak Rabin said last year after his stunning accord with the PLO was reached: "You don't leap over a chasm in two steps."
That's why a Conservative Rabbi in Massachusetts initiated a campaign last year to get his congregants to buy lulav and etrog sets for Sukkot. To shake us out of our inertia, Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum got over a hundred of his congregant families to shake a lulav, many for the first time. And this year, we at Beth El and Conservative Jews all over the country are all learning how to make a lulav shake. It's a little thing. One small, easy mitzvah. But it's a beginning. And, like the wave at a football game, the waving of a room full of lulavim can create an energy that can lift us all over that chasm in one leap. The lulav is for everyone, of all ages; it is hands on, literally, it has its own beautiful fragrance and colorful pageantry. It summons us to answer to the cycles of nature as we listen to the early winds of autumn through the rustling of its leaves. The lulav begs us to respect all different kinds of people, and to love all different kinds of Jews. And the lulav and etrog, representing all parts of the body, call upon our hearts and mouths to speak as one, to aim for consistency in thought and deed, even if we fall short. The new campaign is just beginning to shake us from our inertia; Beth El's modest goal is 50; we're on our way to reaching it. And you get a free t-shirt if you order.
Rabbi Rosenbaum's campaign is another example of how our movement is breaking away from the old all-or-nothing approach to bring people closer to Judaism, not out of guilt, but by exploring each mitzvah individually, and finding new meanings to old ways. This year, he's chosen another campaign for his shul: to have more people wear non-leather shoes or canvas sneakers on Yom Kippur. "The campaign is called "Sneak into Shul this Yom Kippur." Not to look more pious, but to express, in a concrete way, our desire to walk in kindness and simplicity, to refrain from association with the taking of life on that one day, and to avoid luxury, which dulls the edges of our conscience. The ritual gets us back to basics, to those durable gym shoes of childhood, which cover our nakedness rather than flouting our accomplishments. And it has a pragmatic purpose: it reminds us, every time we look down at our feet, that Yom Kippur is different, that being Jewish means daring to be different, even to look a little foolish at times, and that repentance is hard work. You gotta roll up the sleeves, put on the old high tops and get down and do it. Jewish educator Joel Grishaver calls it "sweeping the streets of God's chambers." He says, "I think God finds joy in my yellow Converse sneakers. Even if God doesn't, I smile and find an inner joy which empowers my sweeping." Ladies and gentlemen: It's the shoes. They even have a theme song: "Walk like a Jew: Walk like a Jew, Walk like a Jew this Yom Kippur; and this is how, don't wear dead cow, when you come to shul this year."
I urge you to consider both of these easy, simple, yet powerful rituals. They're very inexpensive. No one's suggesting that you change your life or give up something tasty here. The big test of this sermon's effectiveness, however will be not in whether we go out and buy a lulav or wear non-leather footware next week. I hope more people will overcome the inertia and give it a try. If many do, things could get very interesting here. And lots of fun. What a surprise it would be. But leave that aside: the big test will be in how we react when we see someone else doing it for the first time. When we see the person next us wearing a pair of Keds, and we know that he's no holier than we are, what will we think? And let's just say that a cold snap hits and that person is also wearing a leather jacket? Will we overcome the temptation to use the "H" word? Even to think it? Can we do it? What will we call that person?
Call us what you like: Striving Jews, Serious Jews, Not Yet Jews or Kosher Pigs, but just don't use the "H" word. Whatever you call us, Judaism is sunk without us. The battle for Jewish continuity will be won, one mitzvah at a time. It begins by changing perception. And we've already gotten off to a good start here, folks, even before Yom Kippur sneakers and Sukkot lulavim, there was the miracle of the daily minyan. Once upon a time, the perception was that we rarely if ever get a minyan, except during peak times of the year. It was defeatist. This summer, the call went out and you answered. And we have had a minyan every morning in this building, more than ten, every morning for 42 consecutive days. The last time we missed was July 25, and on that day we had 8. The landscape is changing before our eyes. Shabbat morning is exciting, every week, even during the summer. One mitzvah at a time. We'll win the battle for continuity.
When I was in Israel this summer, I purchased a beautiful new tefillin bag, a blue satin satchel with a star of David embroidered on it. This bag was not purchased from one of the shlock shops on Ben Yehudah Street. It was not mass produced. It was hand made by an elderly person at Yad L'Kashsish, Lifeline for the Old. At this unique workshop in Jerusalem, senior citizens and the handicapped create gift items sold in their shop, and these are labors of love. When I open my tefillin bag each morning, all I can think of is the person who made it, and how much love flowed through those hands holding the needle and thread.
Let Judaism be your art form. Let it color your inner life, as you weave your own tapestry, sing your own song. Yours will be different from mine, and from your parents; it will be yours. And 35 centuries of dust and dreams and bloodshed and hopes and exultant joy, of burning candles and crumbling matzahs, all will be recreated as if brand new, within each of us. The shofar will startle you, our morning minyan will awaken your spirit, the kosher chicken will sensitize you, you'll leap across that chasm in your Keds, and the lulav will shake you up as the love flows from your hands to the waving branches of the world around us. There is indeed an H word for each of us to take home today. Holiness. Let us embrace it, let's embrace it all -- even if only half way.

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