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T’tzaveh 2022

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

Our Torah portion this week is T’tzaveh. I’m not so concerned about the contents right now – if you want to look into the specifics of what’s in the portion, join us for Torah study tomorrow morning on Zoom at 9:30. The link is in the email you should have received from the office yesterday.

Instead, tonight I am going to speak about the meaning of the word t’tzaveh. In our portion, it’s usually translated as “you shall instruct.” Yet, the root of the word is tzade-vav-hey, the same root for mitzvah. And so, a better translation of the name of the portion might be, “you shall command.” Yes, the meaning of mitzvah is commandment, not good deed.

I bring this up because as members and friends of a Reform synagogue, we often are accused of being – and even describe ourselves as – people who don’t follow Jewish law, halakhah, the commandments, the mitzvot.

I want to challenge that idea.

Let’s go back a bit. Prior to the 19th century, Judaism did not have denominations. We were all just Jews. Some Ashkenazi, some Sephardi, and some Mizrachi, but still just Jews. By the early 19th century, we lived mostly in Europe and the Middle East, with a small community in the U.S. Jews of the Middle East were for the most part, strictly observant of Jewish law. The Jews of Europe and the U.S. were a mixed bag – many very observant, many moderately observant, and a growing number less observant. And still they were just all Jews.

In the mid-19th century in Germany and Charleston, South Carolina (of all places?!?!?!) some of the less observant Jews began experimenting with changes to Jewish laws and customs. Early changes included using musical instruments during worship (it turned out there was no law against that; the prohibition came about out of a fear that a person would repair a damaged instrument on Shabbat or a holiday – and that does violate the law). Another early change was to allow men and women to sit together during services. Again, there is no prohibition against men and women sitting together during worship.

Rather, a rabbinic law (not one from the Torah) expresses concern if men are to hear women’s voices singing, men would become inappropriately aroused. Thus, the creation of a women’s section in traditional synagogues. A third change was the introduction of choral music, composed by contemporary musicians. There was nothing in Jewish law that prohibited choral music or modern compositions.

Some Jews were horrified by these changes, while others embraced them fully.

As these two communities continued to experiment with what were thought to be changes to the halakhot and mitzvot, they realized that they needed to define themselves differently than the rest of the Jews, and they proudly began to call themselves “Reform.” Yes, Reform Judaism was born in Germany and Charleston, South Carolina in the mid-19th century.

As Reform Judaism grew in this country – mostly because of the influx of about 300,000 German Jews to the U.S. by 1880 – so did the need for this new denomination to claim an identity beyond its name. Reform Jews began a seminary to train and ordain rabbis, a synagogue organization as more and more congregations came into being or shifted to join the reformers, and a rabbinic organization as the ranks of the ordained grew.

These rabbis wrestled with the mitzvot – to observe or not to observe? Initially, there were few changes they sought to make. They thought of themselves as creating an American Judaism, not necessarily one that broke radically with Jewish tradition. But in 1883, this changed.

The new seminary was about to ordain its first class. Jews from across the U.S. were invited to Cincinnati for the grand event. At the dinner served after the ceremony, the hotel catering company “upped” the menu from what had been agreed to. The organizers had ordered a meal that conformed to the laws of kashrut. The caterer substituted little neck clams and shrimp for two of the dishes, without the consent of the seminary and the dinner’s organizers. The traditional rabbis in attendance stormed out, rejected this new American Judaism, and forever dubbed the meal as the treifa banquet. This mistake truly led to the Reform movement’s development.

Two years later, Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh to issue a statement of principles for Reform Judaism. The Pittsburgh Platform as it is still called, emphasized the observance of ethical mitzvot by Reform Jews, lowering in importance the legal mitzvot. For this reason, Reform Jews for a very long time saw themselves as the inheritors of the traditions of our prophets, who chastised those around them for their ethical downfalls.

My dad, who grew up Orthodox and helped establish the Conservative synagogue we attended when I was a child, was invited to attend a bar mitzvah in the mid-1960s at Temple Emanu-el in New York City, one of the largest Reform synagogues in the U.S. He had a kippah, a yarmulke in his pocket. After he put it on his head, an usher walked over to him and asked him to remove it, “because we don’t allow those here.” Legal laws had no place.

And yet … even though we have come a long way from the 1880s and even the 1960s in our observance of non-ethical mitzvot, I think never really gave them up completely. Reform Judaism has always stood for informed choice – inform yourself about each mitzvah and take it on or not. But don’t NOT do it out of default or ignorance. Education is key.

We Reform Jews observe many, many non-ethical mitzvot, which might surprise you. How about shomer Shabbat – keeping Shabbat? You’re here at this service, aren’t you? Maybe you light candles most weeks, say the Kiddush over wine and the motzi over challah. Some of you observe some or most of the Jewish dietary laws. You eat matzah and maror at Pesach. You come to services and take off from work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You light your Chanukah menorah and add one new candle each night. You give tzedakahand/or volunteer your time. You are kind. You pay wages to your employees. You probably don’t believe in more than one God (if that many) or make idols. These are all mitzvot, mostly expressed in the Torah, though some through our ancient rabbis in the Talmud.

As Reform Jews, we are not “less than” any other Jews. We may be different from, but nonetheless, we are Jews and always have been. Don’t let anyone let you think otherwise.

Shabbat shalom.

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784