A Strange Fire | Congregation Beth Am

A Strange Fire

By Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit on
March 29, 2019

As March comes to an end - a brief reflection as its been quite a month in the Jewish world.  Most prominently here  at our festival of Purim - which seems like a 10 day extravaganza - where we delighting in the heroism of Esther and Mordechai, sing songs, deliver gifts, give tzedakah and drink booze to celebrate the saving of the Jews of Shushan. 

And, earlier this week was the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC.  The annual gathering of America's pro-Israel community.  Which included  the demonstrations of groundbreaking Israeli innovations, keynote speeches by Israeli leaders, and a bipartisan collection of over 18,000 pro-Israel advocates - including Rabbi Marder and others from Beth Am.

Of course, there is never a quiet month in Israel and just in this month alone, we found renewed tensions and escalations on the Israel/Gaza border, the recognition by President Trump of the Golan Heights as part of Israel and active campaigning just weeks before Israel’s national election.

Certainly, and this will not surprise any of you.  Opening day - one of our traditions most beloved yontifs and an occasion for hope and joy in support of, like the Jews, one of the most beloved underdogs - the New York Mets.

 Here’s two more that may have slipped under your radar:

March 8th, 2019 -- Thousands of Yeshiva students, most of them young women and girls descended on the Western Wall, summoned by their rabbis, to protest the progressive group Women of the Wall.  Women of the Wall, who each Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of a new moon and new month, were attempting to read Torah in the women’s section of the Kotel.  This month, Adar Bet in the hebrew calendar, was to be a special service honoring the organization’s 30th anniversary.  It was a tribute to remarkable women celebrating a generation of showing up with spirited and moving services at Judaism’s holiest site.  

However, because of violent harassment from some of the ultra-orthodox protesters, the Women of the Wall were unable to finish services at main section of the Kotel.   Anat Hoffman, leader of the Israeli Religious Action Center,  who has spoken at Beth Am, called for an independent commission to look at the incident at the Kotel: “We would like this commission of inquiry to look at who exempted these kids from school, who decided that 6:45 A.M. was the right time for them to arrive at the Western Wall knowing that our celebration was set to begin at 7, and who paid for 200 buses at 2,000 shekels [$550] a bus. We think it’s important to ask who benefited politically from this show of force against Women of the Wall 34 days before the election.”  (https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-women-of-the-wall-demands-government-inquiry-into-violent-attacks-at-western-wall-1.7003709

March 26th 2019 -  Hundreds of people shout Mazel Tov, as three Israeli couples recite vows, exchange rings, and stomp glasses, at a large wedding at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Northwest DC.  Each couple said they would have rather been married in Israel, but because  The Israeli government has granted authority over marriage only to the Orthodox rabbinate, not Reform or other liberal denominations - there marriage would have not been recognized in Israel.  Therefore, these amazing partners, chose to honor their tradition by being married under a chuppah at one of our movements largest synagogues. 

Why did they have to marry in the United States.  You see, one couple is a same-sex couple.  Another, Anat and Shmuel Carmel are not able to marry in Israel, Because Shmuel Carmel’s mother is deaf, her conversion from Christianity to Judaism is not recognized.  A third, simply didn’t want to be married in a traditional ceremony. 

Rabbi Bruce Lustig one of the officiants and the senior rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation said: “We love Israel and we want people to be able to love in Israel, "The same issues we struggle with here today — issues of inequality, issues of injustice — they resonate equally deeply for us wherever they take place in the world. Certainly in a place you want to call your homeland.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/03/27/six-brides-grooms-marry-washington-israel-it-would-be-illegal/?utm_term=.6275fc24bdac

Tomorrow morning Alison will read from parashat shmini, from the book of leviticus.   The portion begins with the first sacrificial offerings after an elaborate priestly ordination ceremony.   Shmini - eighth in english - describes the ritual on the day after the ordination ceremony. Aaron the leader of the priestly class and the individual responsible for offering the sacrifices begins his priestly work and the offerings on the mishkan, the tabernacle, commence.  It’s the first day of work!   

But something terrible happens on that first day on the job!  The scene of joy transforms into a scene of heartbreak.   Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu do not follow the rules of the offering and according to the text offer an “eish zara” - a strange fire that was not commanded by God.  This strange fire is so egregious, so profane, that the fire devours them and they die at hands of God.  Aaron is devastated and remains silent.   It’s a tragic story. 

Blu Greenberg, author and leading feminist thinker, writes:  “What could have happened?  We struggle to understand.  Was this a punishment from God, or a random accident?  What crime could they have committed that was heinous as to warrant death by flash fire?  Perhaps they were acting out of enthusiasm and desire to serve.  Perhaps they were overcome simply by the pure joy of being in the presence of god - and wished only to increase awe in the hearts of the people.   And even if they were guilty of not following God’s word to the last, did not their father Aaron have credit in the storehouse of good deeds?  Was there not some milder punishment that could have been meted our on the scale such as that meted out to the other miscreants in the Torah?”

As you can imagine our sages have spent great time and ink trying to figure out what exactly happened to Nadav and Avihu.  The text doesn’t expand on why this strange fire, consumed Aaron’s sons.  Some posit that they were drunk and did the offering in an inebriated state. Others say that they entered the holy of holies without being commanded to do so.  Some say that they had the audacity to offering a legal ruling in front of Moses.  Others say that there death was a result of excessive arrogance.  

There are others who extrapolate from these short verses, that the greatest sin of Nadav and Avihu was innovation.  One of the 19th Centuries greatest Orthodox thinkers Samson Raphael Hirsch, considered by many to be the father of Modern Orthodoxy,  says that the sin of of Nadav and Avihu was not consulting their father, there by making themselves the highest authority and disregarding the tradition.  

To Hirsh, the Nadav and Avihu of his day were Reform Jews.  Hirsh wrote:  “Closeness and nearness to God can be attained only by being disciplined to His will.… We may understand the death of the sons of Aaron on the eighth day of their consecration as a warning to future generations of priests to avoid personal and subjective predilections and ordinances of their own invention in their approach to the service in the sanctuary, which belongs to God and is governed by His law and not by any newfangled innovations introduced into the order of the service. Only by observance of the precepts of the Torah can the priest of Israel remain true to his principles. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, who I’m pretty certain would disagree vehemently with Hirsch’s provocative, yet relevant, interpretation, says  “Innovation has never been welcomed with joy, Innovators has always had serious pushback.  One of the great things about Nadav and Avihu is that they were young and part of their youth was there idealism and the sense of doing it differently. Innovations that have come into jewish life has never been simple .. every Jewish community in history that’s worth its salt had to innovated and there was always pushback.” 

And while, I certainly don’t want anyone to be incinerated for it -- I agree with Rabbi Jacobs, we are the descendants of Nadav and Avihu. Within the framework of structure, law, ritual and history, we possess a willingness for radical breaks to takes place.   Our community has made countless innovations with regard to music, liturgy, theology, inclusiveness, zionism, and  outreach.  As demonstrated this month, we continue to push the boundaries of who and wear we can worship and who and wear we can marry.  

This continues to be pertinent for our movement and our synagogue.   Beth Am has always been a leader in responding to the realities of the Jewish world we live in, taking risks to respond to the challenges of the day.  We’ve never been content with our community as it is and are willing to break things - even beloved ones - as we move forward.  As Rabbi Jacobs notes: “The only way to harm the tradition is to freeze it, not let it grown and continue to evolve and change.”   Let us never be silent in our quest to try to new things.  Let us never be silent in responding to the excitement and desires of our children as they try to create the Judaism that is relevant to their lives. 

The torah doesn’t tell us what the story from parashat shmini is about. The text is remarkably short - just two verses in total.  The gaps are there for future generations to fill.  So on this Shabbat, perhaps the story of Nadav and Avihu is not a story of arrogance or disrespect but the opposite.  It’s the story of a future generation of committed Jews who had the enthusiasm and drive and audacity to move forward and see change as an essential.   It may at time feel like a strange fire - shocking, uncomfortable or downright heretical, but it’s essential and it’s our future.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, - http://reformjudaism.libsyn.com/the-dangers-and-the-neccessity-of-innovation#hVEZvlMefgr5w7Uz.99)




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