Well, this is a conundrum. Just when you think, at the very least, we’re all on the same page, when it comes to week after week Torah portions….well, we’re not.
Depending on where you live, depending on what “branch” of Judaism you belong to, we’ll all be reading different Torah portions this Shabbat. It happens every once in a while, and it all boils down to whether or not you think Passover ends on Saturday (Traditional/Diaspora calendar) or Friday (Progressive/Israeli calendar). If Passover ends Friday, then the Torah reading goes back into the Leviticus cycle, and Shemini is read. If Passover ends Saturday, then the Torah reading is from Deuteronomy , which is a restatement of rules about kosher eating, tithing, releasing debts, first-born sons and animals, and the Passover story. A cohesive narrative if ever there was one, don’t you think?
Historically, we have two days of certain holidays, or two holy-days at the beginning and at the end (like Passover and Sukkot) because of the uncertainty of sighting when that small sliver of a new moon can be observed. Rather than not know when the new moon appeared, heralding the day of celebration, better to observe two days, and not get caught. That’s fine, and it worked for a long time….until we got really good at knowing when new moons appeared. You would think there would be no need to have an extra day anymore, just to accommodate a new moon sighting. But, (and this is an understatement) tradition dies hard in the Jewish community, so we still have extra days, even in Israel, where we didn’t need the extra day in the first place. Except for Rosh Hashanah. But I digress.
Agreeing on a calendar is a pretty basic prerequisite for living together as a community. And for a faith community, it helps to agree on other things as well, like God. Not Jews. I recently attended a symposium on the State of American Jewish Beliefs at Spertus Institute in Chicago. It was a six-hour examination of the state of Jewish theology. To say that this is a fragmented concept within the Jewish community is putting it lightly. At one point, Rabbi Arthur Green (Radical Judaism and many other writings) suggested that we are heading towards multiple Jewish theologies – orthodoxy (which is not only getting increasingly fragmented, but the lines of distinction are hardening) and heterodoxy; he wonders if the Jewish people (another disputed concept) can survive multiple ideas of God. That question, of course, doesn’t even include those within the Jewish community who rely on a secularist expression of their Jewish lives , and don’t have God in the equation altogether.
Then there’s our food. Jews are big on food, because we have this whole Biblical concept of what we can/cannot eat, if you follow that sort of thing. Not just regional preferences, but the food itself, agreeing which foods are kosher and which aren’t. We all know people who won’t shop at this butcher or that one, because one person won’t accept the hechsher (kosher certification) that someone else will. And those little symbols on a food label? They indicate someone’s idea of kosher, but not everyone accepts it. Some of us remember the great Skittles controversy at Solomon Schechter Day School a few years back, when they appeared at a Bar Mitzvah celebration and a great hoo-hah ensued. Is gelatin kosher? Does it still retain its gelatin-ous source? What if they’ve removed gelatin as an ingredient? What does Conservative Judaism say? Does that exclude others? On and on….
As long as it’s still Passover (at least today!) and we’re still on the topic of food, let’s also mention kitniot (certain legumes) that are eaten during Passover by the Sephardic/Mizrahi community but not the Ashkenazic community. It’s not just a taste preference; it’s literally kosher/non-kosher, depending on where you come from. It’s so complicated!
So, if we don’t agree on our God, Torah readings, the calendar, food, and let’s not even get into what constitutes a relationship with Israel, what Israel is doing, what Israel actually is, and where it begins and ends, what exactly do we agree on? And is that enough to make a cohesive group exist over time?
The strangest thing is, no matter how small the area of agreement is or how much it is overshadowed by the disagreements, the answer is yes. Partly because, this time of year, we still gather around some kind of table, with some kind of special food on it, and tell the sort of the same story, with mostly the same conclusions as to relevance. Go figure. And Happy Pesach….for another day (or two)!