Personal homiletics

Let me ask you a question: Who is in charge of your relationship and understanding of God? Is it you? Or is it me the Rabbi? Or is it the media? Or is it our tradition?

One day I was teaching a group of parents. I was curious why the parents belonged to the synagogue. I was curious what Judaism meant to them. So, I asked them why do you belong here? They proceeded to talk about their children as the reason they were there.  I found it interesting that I wasn't getting from them, that they wanted anything personal out of their Judaism. I was getting what they wanted for their kids out of Judaism, but not necessarily them as people, as individuals.

I believe that it is in our nature to hide what we think. We hide our thoughts because we want to protect ourselves from others. If we share what we believe or think, we make ourselves vulnerable to critique. Tonight, I want to extend an invitation to put yourself first.  I invite you to reflect on your relationship with God, your understanding of scripture, your idea of what makes Judaism.  I want to talk about what you believe.  You might get critiqued for your view, but this year I invite us not to be afraid to have one and to speak it aloud unapologetically.

Once there was a man who was critiqued for his view but was not afraid to have a point of view, despite the consequences.  This man was Baruch Spinoza.  Spinoza was a Jewish man who lived in the 17th century.  Spinoza was viewed by his community as a heretic. Spinoza had wildly unique views on the nature of the text, God, and Judaism that were antithetical to the community he was in. Therefore, the community put him in exile (cherem) for his beliefs. Today Spinoza’s thoughts might not seem so radical to us but in their day they were incredibly radical.

 Spinoza argued that the laws given in the Torah were written for a particular people in a particular time and that the laws of Judaism (Halacha) were no longer binding upon the Jewish people.  He was not saying not to be be Jewish.  He was saying, from his rationalist, logical point of view, that one did not need to obey the laws anymore to be Jewish.  Because of this he was exiled. 

Like Spinoza I want to us to take our tradition seriously enough to question it.  Tonight is an invitation to a conversation with yourself about beginning to articulate how you interpret our tradition.  And do not think that this conversation, or habit of articulating ones own personal way of understanding the text started a mere 500 years ago.  This exercise has been going on since the bible was first read aloud.

The Bible was probably written over the course of 1000 years from about 1200 BCE to about 200 BC. By the time it was handed down to the rabbis of the first few centuries of the common era it was a finished book. The rabbis of that time had issues with the Bible they had received. Issues that they couldn't resolve by merely accepting the book as it was.  There were issues in the text they simply could not ignore.  One issue was there were seeming contradictions in the text.  One place would say there were seven pairs of animals on Noah’s ark and another place said two.  Another issue was there were stories, words, and laws that were repeated multiple times and seemed redundant.  Also, there were people and a God that did not always seem to comport to how they felt they should act. 

The Rabbis came up with a solution.  In response to these issues the rabbis of the time came up with principles, their own set of criteria and rules for interpreting scripture.  This process of having principles with which to interpret the text is called homiletics. Some of these principles were: Because they believed the Torah was written by God and they felt that a redundancy in text was a human behavior they decided that every word in the Torah is significant and must have a different meaning.  Even if the words looked the same to us.  For the Rabbis there are no redundancies in the text. With this principle in place a problem like the three times the text says “to not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” is no longer an issue. The first mention is to teach us to not mix meat and milk, the second to teach us to have separate dishes for meat and milk, and the third is to wait between eating milk and meat. Other principles the rabbis used to understand the text include: if something is true in a less stringent case it will be true in a more stringent case, there is no before and after in the Bible so everything was revealed at once.  This means that history and historical perspective are irrelevant to understanding the text (now you can see why Spinoza’s words were considered so heretical).  These are just a few of the principles that the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud came up with in order for them to understand scripture in a way that was personally meaningful.

While these principles worked for a long time, they stopped working for many Jews like Spinoza.  Many Jews, myself included, hungered for a Judaism that was less dogmatic and more governed by reason and logic.  However, there at least two important lessons from the rabbis and their creation of their own homiletics.  First, is that scripture is a jumping off point, not a destination. Second, while I do not need their homiletics to understand scripture, I do need homiletics, even if they are my own, to read scripture and interact with Judaism.  

My personal homiletic rules include: God is a creative force not a destructive force. God is infinite.  History and historical context are crucial to a deeper, fuller understanding of what the scripture is saying.  The Bible was written by people not by God. The Bible is a Human attempt to grasp the holy and the divine, it is not the revelation of the divine. The Bible is a book of morals and messages and lessons and not a history or science book.  Lastly, one can learn aspects of the truth by studying but all studying, all learning, all explorations for the truth, have to be done with a partner.

These are my principles, they do not have to be yours.  As a matter of fact I do not want them to be yours. What I want us to start to do today is to figure out how do you go about creating your own set of principles? How do you create your own homiletics?

Here are five ways to begin the conversation:

  1. How do you envision God and God's powers?  What do you believe God cannot do?  OR put another way, what are the things about God that you have been taught that you do not believe or have trouble believing?
  2. What is the thing of which nothing greater can be conceived?  What can that thing do and not do?
  3. Do you think that the entire Torah is the word God? If not, what, in your opinion, are the other possibilities?
  4. Is God all knowing? Is God all powerful? Is God all loving?  If God is not these things, then what is God?
  5. What is the point of being Jewish from a spiritual perspective?  How about a social perspective? Is there a difference between being Jewish and practicing Judaism?
  6. What is a mitzvah?  Do you feel commanded?  Could you feel commanded? If so who is doing the commanding?

The last thing I would like to say is actually an invitation.  Think about these things.  Please discuss them and turn them over in your mind and with others. Then at some point in the future if you want give me a call and let’s talk about what you’re thinking.  Shana Tovah!