Seeing Double: Variations on Two Themes from Parasha Re-eh

Food for Thought

I rarely get to the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, where I went to college, but I still remember the steam-table cafeteria on 53rd Street with the sign in the window proclaiming, See Your Food. This week’s Torah portion is called Re-eh, See, and among the ritual laws it presents are those concerning dietary practices: See, Your Food.

Fittingly for a sedrah in Devarim, the Book of Words, the authors anticipated the development of Microsoft Word, giving us a cut and paste rendition of the dietary laws presented in Leviticus, listing the creatures it is forbidden to eat, repeating the prohibition of consuming blood, and offering for the third time the law which has probably caused the most conversation over the millennia: Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk.

A Midrash tells us that when God first says, Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk, Moses turns to him and asks, “You mean no meat and dairy on the table at the same time?” God replies, Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk. Moses thinks for a minute, then inquires, “You mean we need two sets of dishes?” God thunders, Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk. Now Moses tries again, “You mean we have to wait six hours after eating meat until we can have dairy?” And God sighs, “All right, do it your way.”

Thinking about the way the Rabbis, over the centuries, built their dietary fences around the Torah, piling precaution upon precaution, I find it difficult to reconcile the Kashrut structure they built with another important verse in the sedrah: Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you; neither add to it nor take away from it.

As we know, the foundational document of American Reform Judaism, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, took away the dietary laws in their entirety. Would they have had to take away so much had their forebears not added so much?  

The defensive aphorism of the Classical Reformers over the years was, “We are more concerned with what comes out of your mouth than what goes into it.” Yet, over the 125 years since Pittsburgh, we have seen dietary sensitivity creeping back in various ways to Reform Jewish life. We saw it when we were boycotting grapes; we see it today in the vegetarian pot-lucks held in many of our congregations, and in the various forms of eco-Kashrut including a focus on healthy ingredients or on sustainable agriculture. We heard it from Rabbi Yoffie at the Toronto Biennial last November, when he urged us for a variety of reasons to eat less red meat. Even as Rabbi Yoffie stressed that ritual Kashrut is not our issue, he emphasized the Reform movement’s need to confront eating ethically. Thus the subtle approval of the Conservative movement’s Hechsher Tzedek, Righteous Kosher certification. As Reform Jews, we are not required to worry about how an animal was slaughtered but we are required to worry about how the employees of the packing plant were compensated and treated.

Fortunately we have gotten away from an attitude that was still common thirty years ago – that if you “kept Kosher,” you were not an authentic Reform Jew. There are Reform Jews that go the whole hog in maintaining Kashrut – how’s that for a problematic figure of speech? – and others who are strictly Kosher at home but relax those standards in various ways when they eat out. Anita Diamant, in her Living a Jewish Life (HarperCollins, 2007), suggests a variety of reasons for adopting Kashrut in whole or part, “as a way of hallowing the very mundane act of eating.”

As someone who makes no pretense of observing anything like the Orthodox laws of Kashrut, except at Passover, I nonetheless would welcome a Reform codification of Rules of the Table – going beyond the wishy-washy statement in the commentary on the Pittsburgh Principles of 1999 The word “Kosher” is heavily laden with political ramifications. It is too divisive to be acceptable in the Reform vocabulary, even if translated simply as fit, or proper. But the food service practice of many of our congregations may set an aspirational standard for members of those congregations – essentially no forbidden foods such as pork or shellfish, no overt mixing of milk and meat as in a sausage pizza, no foods tainted by unsavory or unethical treatment of animals or humans, along with a blessing before and a blessing after.

I’m prepared to be scolded for expressing a position of do as I say, not as I do. I expect to be chastised for hypocrisy, the shibboleth of those who call for an all-or-nothing approach to Kashrut (whether they are alls or nothings), although inconsistency or eclecticism would be more accurate descriptions But, having been stimulated by Re-eh to think again about ethical and ritual eating, and after writing everything above, I went back and re-read both Rabbi Yoffie’s sermon and the comments I and others made when it was first posted on this blog. My positions on Jewish eating in August 2010 seem consistent with my positions in November 2009. Where I have changed is that my belief is now stronger that the Movement has the responsibility to stimulate congregations to do a better job of “doing Jewish” and “teaching Jewish,” on this issue and others, thus role-modeling and leading the way for their communities. Will I follow? That remains to be seen, but certainly not if no one leads.
Wailing at the Wall

As a word person, I am particularly struck by the opening word of this week’s reading, which gives the parasha its name: Re-eh, See. We are accustomed to being told Shma, Listen, Obey. In this case, though, we begin with the visual rather than the auditory, See, not Hear. While Moses doesn’t directly develop the idea of seeing as compared to hearing, he talks about things that can be better comprehended with the eyes than with the ears: the pagan altars which are to be torn down, the pillars that are to be smashed, the faces that are not to be gashed. But the emphasis on seeing rather than hearing is more mine than actually inherent in the text.

The parasha opens with a brief reminder that the people have a choice between the blessing and the curse, each attributed to a different mountain which the people can see as Moses speaks. Moses assumes, out of a sense of cockeyed optimism, that they will be smart enough to choose the blessing, and then sets out to tell them what that entails. The laws that are recapped in this sedrah fall into two broad categories: religious or ritual laws on the one hand, and civic or social laws on the other. I focus here on God’s demand for a single place of worship after the people have entered the Land.

Obviously the single place idea was expunged from Judaism with the destruction of the Second Temple, and actually the synagogue had started to develop even prior to then. But taking the parasha as a contemporaneous report, Moses, as God’s press secretary, needs to give his conglomeration of tribes a common focus when they are settled in their allotted corners of the land they are about to enter. Scholars tell us the book of Deuteronomy was almost certainly written some six hundred years after that entry, with the people settled in an agrarian economy rather than nomadic wanderers. Knowing that gives special resonance to the authors still mandating support for the central institution, after it has become clear that going to Jerusalem three times a year is a strain for the tribes distant from the appointed place for sacrifice.

The authors of the Reform movement’s foundational document, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, forswore any hope or expectation of the restoration of a central Temple in Jerusalem, branding their congregations as temples to make that point clear. Yet the distancing from Jerusalem that was inherent in Classical Reform kept shrinking, and today we see our connectedness to Israel as a central factor in who we are as Reform Jews. But when we think Israel, what image do we see? Re-eh, Israel’s most potent visual symbol is the Kotel, the Western Wall of the very temple we had put behind us.

We saw this dramatized recently when the call at the Wall was Re-eh, See. A woman is carrying a Torah scroll in this sacred place! This sight was deemed so offensive that Anat Hoffman, whose day job is director of the Progressive Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center , was arrested. Anat is also the leader of Nashot HaKotel, Women of the Wall, which meets to pray there each rosh chodesh. Women of the Wall is not a Reform organization, it includes members from all streams, including Orthodox – and clearly what is important to these women is not the act of praying at the Wall, but establishing the right to pray at the Wall. And what is abhorrent to those who would deny them that right is that these women choose to exercise it visibly in a place the deniers have made into a visible symbol of misogynistic Jewish religiosity.

Re-eh, see us, the Women of the Wall are saying. See us in our tallitot and kipot, so the world can see you going berserk. Re-eh, see us in the act of prayer, even when you cannot hear us. See us play out this drama at the surviving Wall of a Temple we do not want to see rebuilt – and which, truth to tell, you don’t either, even though you utter prayers daily stating otherwise.

So even if today Jews can present ourselves to God wherever we may be, Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall, have focused on the Temple Wall to capitalize on the attention it commands, and to force people to see what they don’t want to hear. Re-eh, See, elements in the Jewish enterprise have not accepted women as full players, entitled to fill the same roles as men, wear the same worship garments, read from the same Torah scroll, and do it all where they can be seen. Nashot HaKotel have co-opted the Wall because one picture is worth a thousand words, and this picture makes their struggle visible rather than abstract, dramatizing the idea that all are equal in the Divine presence. This is a fight about the women, not about the Wall.

I must confess that I am turned off by the Kotel – which has more and more become a combination of a Charedi synagogue and a tourist trap. Although our parasha tells us to tear down the altars of false gods, we elevate this particular pile of stones into an altar to a God that some expect will read and heed scraps of paper stuck between those stones. That’s not my kind of God. I don’t pray for the restoration of a central place of worship, nor am I interested in seeing the Kotel’s restoration as a seventeenth century Galitzianer shtiebel. I am grateful that Jewish visitors have the access we were denied between 1948 and 1967, but our access is tainted by what we see there, and by what we don’t.

Re-eh, See. See what use is being made of the Wall today – as a theatrical stage set for tourists, as a throwback place of worship, and as an instrument of protest. Although we have rejected the name the Christians gave this place, the Wailing Wall, it seems functionally to have become a place of wailing. The Temple, which, in the time of Deuteronomy, functioned as a unifying force has become a divisive one. As my grandmother might have asked, is this good for the Jews? And I will slightly modify her question and ask, how can this be good for the Jews?


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