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Ki Tissa Sermon

Let me offer some words of Torah before turning to our concluding prayers... This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tissa. It contains the story of the golden calf, considered the greatest sin in the Torah, when the Israelites rebelled against the Torah’s laws, Moses’ leadership and of course God. Idolatry, its definitions and prohibitions, occupy many laws in the Torah. It is of course expressly forbidden and this is repeated quite often. Anything that even approaches an idol is not allowed. So for example we don’t have any images of people in our sanctuaries. The question still haunts us today. What is an idol?

There are those in the Jewish world who believe that anything which is foreign is an idol. If it is not written about or talked about in our tradition, if it is not mentioned in the Torah, Talmud or traditional literature then it must be rejected. Then it is forbidden and labeled an idol. It must even be destroyed. It has no place in the Jewish world.
I do not however believe the lines are so clear. Anything can be turned into an idol. Anything that is worshiped as an end unto itself can become an idol. Even our holy Torah can become objectified. If it is not about the values taught and pointed to in its words then it is an idol. If the mezuzah becomes not a reminder but a protective amulet it veers toward an idol.

On this Shabbat we have modern instruments accompanying our services. Some would say that such instruments and music steer people away from Judaism. I of course reject this view. They elevate and enhance our prayers. Instead they can pull us in and towards our traditions. They can help us reclaim and renew our Jewish lives.

There are those who believe in stark lines. Their world is black and white. There is only what they call holy. And everything else that is foreign is deemed an idol.

But the world is changing. In Israel there is a resurgence of Jewish music. Contemporary musicians are taking traditional prayers and poems and reclaiming them as their own; they are using the tools of modernity to enhance the tradition. But there are also the values of modernity with which we must contend. Not all is foreign and should be forbidden. This battle is being waged in Israel more than here. In fact the coalition talks are now stalled because of this very question.

It is possible that soon the ultra-Orthodox will be required to contribute to the state. For years they have treated the state as an idol. Its values, its institutions must be shunned, they argued. But Zionism is about fusing the modern with the ancient. Now the ultra Orthodox may in fact be conscripted into some form of national service. It is this very question that has impeded Netanyahu’s ability to build a coalition.

The stark, black and white lines of yesterday are fading. It is not religious or secular, foreign or mine, idol or holy but instead a fusion. There are no clear lines; they are all grey.

Here is a fascinating, recent development. Every new Member of Knesset gives a speech. Ruth Calderon, number 13 on Yesh Atid’s list, instead taught Talmud. Here is a secular Israeli, a PhD in Talmud, teaching Talmud to Israelis of every stripe, to rabbis and Israeli Arabs. She, by the way, is also a student of David Hartman.

Ruth Calderone concluded her speech with the words:
I am convinced that studying the great works of Hebrew and Jewish culture are crucial to construct a new Hebrew culture for Israel. It is impossible to stride toward the future without knowing where we came from and who we are, without knowing, intimately and in every particular, the sublime as well as the outrageous and the ridiculous. The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it as we create the realities of our lives. Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc. The time has come to reappropriate what is ours, to delight in the cultural riches that wait for us, for our eyes, our imaginations, our creativity.
I believe things are changing. The lines of what is an idol and what is not, of what is holy and what is profane, of what is religious and what is secular, are no longer so clear. In fact they never were. It is all grey. And that is good. And that is a blessing. And that is the greatest and most lasting lesson of the golden calf.