Monday, November 17, 2014

From the Prescribed Details of our Sacrifices in Ancient Times to Multi-Faith Interaction Today

Here I am still plowing through the details of the Karbanot – the sacrifices – those aspects of the life of our ancestors that defined in so many ways our relationship to G-d and the essence of who we are as the people of Israel in Masechet Yoma of the Talmud. The details of the offerings, their order and specific elements is dizzying after a while, and I just have to get up and walk around and think about what I just read, knowing fully well that I only absorbed a small amount of the information conveyed. Elements are repeated continually and various Rabbinic strategies of studying the language of Torah are utilized to indicate the specific nature of each and every offering. One of the messages conveyed in this process is the unique nature of each element of the Karbanot/sacrifices and that one should not be confused for the other, no matter how similar they may appear (to the untrained eye perhaps?!?). There is an important lesson here, of course!

In my many involvements in inter-faith and multi-faith work, I often find that not only does this work build important and strong bridges so very needed in our fractured world, but I also confirm my own strength as an observant Jew. Yes, those very interactions that so many of my co-religionists will not partake in are so much a part of my life and the lives of our family. I often teach that at the end of the day, “more unites us than divides us” and we would all do well to remember that. This being said, let us not forget to focus a bit on what divides us, because these differences are as important as those elements we share. In fact, I believe that the only way that honest sharing and dialogue can occur is if we see, respect, acknowledge and honor these differences. To obliterate the specific beliefs and practices of those with whom we interact and to not acknowledge powerful differences does not accomplish the goal of understanding and interaction. We all must bring our honest game and selves to the table. Otherwise, I do not truly SEE the other and then any acceptance of the other is really not an acceptance of them but rather a superficial nod to what I feel is similar about them and myself. This is NOT interreligious dialogue and interfaith understanding.

Whenever I have taught about the sacrifices, I always pose the question about why there are so many clear details not only given, but as I continue in my study of Masechet Yoma, they are repeated again and again. Why is this? Sacrifices were the standard of observance in our ancient world much like prayer is in our world today. Everyone was doing it!

Recently I was at a gathering of our area’s multi-faith council. The Reform Rabbi of the congregation that housed the group began the meal by explaining the Motzei, the prayer we say over bread and the meal that comes with it, to the group of whom the vast majority were Christians of many different streams. It was really interesting to watch the group and to note the respect everyone showed towards each other. I quietly went out to wash my hands first and then joined the group with my lunch that I had brought from home so that I not compromise my standard of Kashrut and yet can sit among these wonderful people. It was truly a feeling of shared experience and acknowledging that we are distinct as well as part of an entity. One need not come at the expense of the other. When I completed eating, I quietly said the blessing after food, Birkat HaMazon, to myself.

During our conversations, many people around the table remarked how they felt they could be comfortable in many of the faith communities represented. Much of the talk was about the similarities that were expressed. In my mind, I was definitely registering differences as well that I am sure will continue to be explored as we continue to meet, and I suspect have been discussed at other times (note that I am new to the group but it has been meeting for many years; it is safe to say that there has never been an identified Orthodox Jew in the group, and this was confirmed). One way some of these differences came through was when people were asking questions of clarification of each other. This was wonderful and definitely brings about the types of inter-faith dialogue that is so valuable.

When our ancestors were offering their various sacrifices, it is so important to remember that they were not the only ones doing so. Sacrifice was an important element of the way that people worshipped in so many cultures. That is to say, that it is not the act of sacrifice that distinguished the Jewish people, but the specific details structuring their offering that did so. This is why the details are so important and bear repeating – so we do not confuse the elements of our practice with those of other peoples even though there are similarities.

Unfortunately too many people in our world today do not value religion as they have been worn down by the abuses and misuses we have witnessed in its name. This is, to me, definitely throwing the baby away with the bathwater. I think religion and faith is so critical to our well-being as members of our human family. I know that this sentiment is shared by the people with whom I sat at our multi-faith council last week! If we can all communicate to those around us this wonderful balance of sharing what unites us with the details that identify our specific type of worship and belief we will accomplish so much that our past gives us and hopefully use it to truly build meaningful and lasting bridges of understanding.

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