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Rabbi Ira F. Stone – On the occasion of his final Shabbat as Senior Rabbi

Parashat Hukkat 5775/ 27 June 2015

June 29, 2015

I’m not sure if anyone would choose Parashat Hukkat for a special occasion or for their final regular weekly D’var Torah after 27 years of preaching from this pulpit. However, like countless b’nai mitzvah students who I’ve had to guide through less than inviting parshiyot, I will persevere.

The truth is it won’t be difficult. This parsha contains more than enough material for a farewell sermon. I could speak about Jewish leadership and the fate of Jewish leaders. How they all seem to die in the wilderness. I could speak about the character of the Jewish people. How they are always complaining and are never satisfied. But these are not the things I want to focus on today.

The larger subject of the parsha is a central one in the Torah literature that later also becomes central to Rabbinic Judaism and, in fact, will be one of the chief distinguishing characteristics between Rabbinic Judaism and other sects that emerge just before and just after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem. It is the subject of Tumah and Tahara. These untranslatable terms can simply be understood as conditions which determine whether a person is fit to participate in cultic worship. Those conditions that render them unfit are various, beginning with the most comprehensive – anyone who comes into contact with or share the same enclosed space with a corpse. The majority of other causes of tumah are various bodily excretions and skin disorders. I have, and would again suggest a possible rationale for this system, but that is not where I want to focus. Rather, the more common problem of this parsha is the opening in which, anticipating all these types of tumah, it provides for a remedy. A cow, all of the color red and without blemish is to be entirely burned and its ashes, mixed with water, will be used to sprinkle over someone who is tameh and he or she will become tahor. So far nothing we wouldn’t expect given the general premises of the Torah on this subject. Then comes the mystery. The person who gathers the ashes of the red heifer – the ashes of purification – in doing so becomes tameh and must withdraw from the sacred precincts and await purification by these same ashes. This is called a “hok,” a statute that cannot be explained by recourse to reason. In fact, it is paradigmatic of all Hokkim. Rashi teaches, summarizing the various Rabbinic commentary on this opening verse: “This is the statue of the Torah that Adonai has commanded,” the term “Hok” denotes a law that the nations of the world will ridicule Israel for observing, for it defies conventional reason. Why should the same ashes that make everyone tahor make the one who collects them tamei? Furthermore, in light of this contradiction, is not the efficacy of the ashes to render the tamei tahor to begin with put into doubt?”

In other words, the primary purpose of this law is to demonstrate that the dependence on reason to justify the law is misguided.

For the Rabbis, following as best they could the strictures of these laws was important not because of some nostalgia for the olden days of the Temple. There was a more pressing philosophic or ideological reason. The accusation of the irrationalism of the Para Adamah could be expanded to include not only many other mitzvot, but also the most fundamental ideas in the Torah: Creation, Revelation and Redemption. The antagonism between faith and reason pre-dates the enlightenment by many centuries. It goes all the way back to Athens and the Greek discovery of philosophy and science. It came along with the conquering armies of Alexander the Great and engulfed Israelite thought as Hellenism, as it did most of the known world. Like most of you, I was raised in a culture that venerated reason and I certainly appreciate the material fruits that reason has bequeathed. I was raised in a Jewish community that was more firmly committed than any other group to the hegemony of reason for perceived self-defense. We believed that in a world conducted according to the tenants of reason, anti-Semitism, irrationalism at its worst, must disappear.

Believe me when I say that for many reasons I wish I had shared that veneration of rationalism. Life would have been much easier. I would certainly have fit in better and I would most likely have made a lot more money. For reasons which I do not claim to understand, two phenomena prevented it. The first was the fact that by the time I was ten years old, I was already writing poetry. Now let me hasten to explain that poetry, like any of the arts, is not first about skill. Some people are bad artists, some are good and some are great and proficiency of technical skill, some of which can be taught and mastered by practice is important, but first and foremost the artist in any medium endeavors through the materials available to him or her to pierce the curtain that separates the ordinary world from the world of truth that is inaccessible via ordinary materials, even language.

The second phenomenon was and is the Shoa. My life extends from the time when no one spoke about the Shoa through the period of tentative literary treatment to the explosion of scholarships, memorials and museums, but none of this has altered my first impression which was that in the shadow of the Shoa the veneration of the culture of reason was insane.

For me the insights of these two phenomena culminated in discovering in Jewish texts and Jewish practice an entry into living life as a poem, not writing alone, but counting time, eating, celebrating and grieving, could all be experienced as metaphors capable of peering through and behind that curtain that separates us from truth. At the same time, in the shadow of the Shoa and the rational philosophic tradition that gave birth to it, Jewish texts and practice would venerate not the rational, but the good – and call it holy. This is where I wanted to plant myself – and so I have. And I have tried to awaken in others a similar appreciation for the poetry and holiness available to them through Torah. And make no mistake; it is poetry and the good which adequately surpasses mere reason without rejecting reason’s usefulness.

To reject reason outright is an abandonment of the good that it is meant to serve and can result in the kind of mindless irrationality that in the last part of my career has successfully usurped the mantle of true religion and certainly authentic Judaism. 36 years ago I had to offer an alternative vision to those still convinced that reason was God. Now I find myself trying desperately to convince those who believe they have found God irrespective of reason that in doing so they are forsaking the good exactly as the rationalists ultimately did. While those who venerate reason and reject the poetry has hardly been diminished.

As always then, I return to the powerful source of both poetry and goodness – the Torah – Specifically this morning, the commandment of the Red Heifer. Each year we actually read this section twice: Once here in its place in the order of the yearly cycle and then again on Parshat Para, one of the four special Shabbatot leading up to Peach. Its importance is clear. It is the ritualization of Judaism’s commitment to the possibility of human transformation. The Torah names this potential Tahara. The state of ordinary consciousness littered with death and selfishness and the manifestations of our physicality is named Tumah. And the only way to get from Tumah to Tahara is via the mystery of poetry exemplified by the irrational contradiction of the Para Adamah.

I have tried to live in this poetry and I’ve tried to invite this congregation to join me there. Thank you to those who have supported me in this journey, joined me on this path. Thank you all for listening. I pray the Tahara of transformation will lift us, all Israel and all humanity.

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