Maimonides’s writes that the Torah contains terms that contain equivocal meaning; that is to say a figurative definition that points to something other than the way such a term is to be used. It is often used in connection with some type of description of activity related to God (e.g. G-d spoke or G-d heard). Maimonides devotes considerable efforts, far more than what we have time here this evening, to showing that the actual meaning is the equivocal reference, and not the way the word is commonly understood.
Yesterday, Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, in his talk on Conservative Judaism urged all of us to study, to learn, and to apply the teachings of our sacred texts from this perspective; to see what lies underneath to derive universal and particular ethics from this vantage point. This is what can lead to new principles, not originally found in the Torah, but derived therefrom, such as כבוד הבריות – respect for the dignity of each human being. This concept, he taught, was then used as basis to give acceptance and sanction, from a Conservative Jewish perspective, to same gender unions, human sexuality in all its varied expressions. This contrasts sharply, and traditionalists might say override specifically Leviticus 18:23 that states לא תשכב איש משכבי אשיה תועבה הוא – a man should not lie with a man as he would lie with a woman; it is an abomination. The idea that a general principle could override a specific prohibition in the Torah is a significant line in the sand between traditional Judaism and all other branches.
A different problem, yet the same challenge is presented in this week’s portion “Terumah”. It has two meanings; one is simply an offering that each individual was to bring to the Tabernacle. The other represents a portion that was later to be brought to the Cohanim by the Israelites as part of their giving thanks to God for their produce (wheat). This became known as the “heave-offering.” No “heave-offering” or for that matter any such sacrifices or temple worship has been practiced since 70 c.e. when the 2nd Temple was destroyed.
Yet, this same term Terumah finds expression in the Mishnah, the edited, redacted version of the תורה שבעל פה the Oral Law – by Rabbi Judah HaNasi and his colleagues at Usha in or around 200 c.e. In 1st Mishnah of Berachot, the question is asked, “From what time may we recite the Shema in the Evening.” The starting time is from when the Cohanim would enter the Temple to eat their Terumah. This is what we refer to as the סתם משנהmeaning that this portion of the Mishnah is undisputed. Rashi clarifies that the Cohanim would enter the Temple proper after going to the Mikveh at בין השמשוש – that is twilight; the 18 minutes between candle-lighting and actual sunset. At its conclusion, they would enter and eat the Terumah (the appearance of the 3 stars).
A question immediately arises. Why, 130 years later, would the editors of the Mishnah link the recitation of the Shema to an institution that has been destroyed instead of simply stating at sundown? There are several possibilities.
One is the actual preservation of this practice in the hopes that the Temple would one day be rebuilt and the practice reinstated. Another is that this too came from Sinai, the commandment of the Terumah, came from Sinai, and thus is Divine and must be preserved even if, in 200 c.e., it would never be reinstated.
Finally, if we are to apply a Conservative Judaism approach, we might ask, “What is the significance their linking the recitation of the Shema to a state of ritual purity.” Let us take the “Torah scroll” and role it back a few parshiyot to Yitro, where the 10 commandments are given. There, the “raison de’tre, the mission statement of the Jewish people is to indeed be a ממלכת כוהנים וגוי קדוש – a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; which Rashi understands to mean that everyone is to be a priest; not just a particular group of male individuals.
Hence, what the Mishnah could be saying (note the word “could” and all the ambiguity that goes with it) is that we are to be in a state of purity when we recite the Shema in the evening. The eating of the Terumah by the Priests is associated with purity and with the recitation of the Shema. Hence, one could envision the Rabbis at Usha preserving the sacred history of the Temple worship, but also bringing forward the idea that the recitation of the Shema in the evening ought be recited/read in such an existential state of being; that is one of purity.
The purity that occurs after one immerses in the Mikveh is not something that is practical for any of us here this evening; the polar bear swim
notwithstanding. How might one achieve, in the absence of such a locus, such a state of purity as the religious state of consciousness envisioned by the Mishnah?
There is, in Judaism, the concept of preparation as a means to holiness. Granted, there is the debate within our tradition, that Sabbath is, whether anyone elects to keep it or not, holy. Yet, if we are to experience this holiness, it requires preparation. Our living spaces need to be cleaned. We take showers and perhaps ought to dress differently. We light candles and prepare our food. It this preparation that becomes the Mikveh to the Terumah of today, which is the Shema, the holy food of what we are to be, “A Kingdom of Priests.”
For us to be in a state of holiness, akin to the Cohanim, we must prepare ourselves in ways that we do here each Friday evening. The cooking of the meal, the discussions as to what kind of service we are doing, the setting aside a portion of our food for the poor, and the lighting of candles are just a few of the ways that we create a state of ritual purity. Before we recite the Shema this evening, let us engage in Jewish “mindfulness” of what it is that Shema is actually teaching us.
It begins with call to understand the unity, the essential uniqueness of G-d. This is why we close our eyes during its recitation; to bear inner-witness to the incorporeality and God’s unity both inside and outside of our minds; God is the unchangeable force – the only One – where there is no difference between what is understood and what is.
The second piece leads from this recognition. The verbs are the key to understanding the Shema’s. Love, teaching through our actions and words at all times, that is when we are walking, when we are sitting, when we are lying down, and when we arise. Binding them to the works of our hands and that they should be “ever-present” in our eyes. We are to write them in all of our entrances where we live.
As you can see from this sermon, we have gone far from the idea of the Terumah as envisioned by the Torah and even that of the Mishnah that are simple, concise statements of laws and timing that have no practical relevance to our lives today.
We learned from Rabbi Savettt’s lecture on “What is Conservative Judaism and is it relevant today?” something quite important. If we engage in this approach to study, it is possible that we can bring these teachings forward and create new meaning through which these rituals may then speak to us. These are approaches to a state of purity, holiness, and offering through our words and through our deeds; those things that give expression to our deepest commitments to God and to כבוד הבריות – human dignity. Shabbat Shalom.