A Commentary on the Torah and The Passion (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

21 Jan
January 21, 2015

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan once taught that religious identity is based on the “three Bs” of believing, belonging, and behaving. Last week as I sat through two tortuous hours of Mel Gibson’s “Passion,” the bloodiest, most over-the-top violent movie I have ever seen, I was reminded like never before that Christianity is, at root, all about believing. It is based on a theology that teaches all human beings are born in sin and that only through the willingness of Jesus to suffer beyond all bounds of understanding for our sins, is humanity offered the possibility of redemption. It is quite simply, the theology of the redemptive power of suffering and it is as foreign to Judaism and how Judaism views human beings and God as any spiritual tradition could possibly be.

To watch “The Passion” as a believing Christian must be an incredibly powerful experience – to actually witness in all its bloody horror the extent to which Jesus was willing to be flayed alive with suffering for the sake of those who would believe in him. As a Jew watching this movie, it was horrifying. “The Jews” both priests and non-priests alike were pictured as evil, sinister, blood-thirsty, mean-spirited devils who forced the unwilling Pontius Pilate first to beat Jesus to a bloody pulp, and then when asked, “Isn’t this enough?” scream back hysterically, “Crucify him!” It was so compelling a portrayal, that by the time the movie was over, even I hated the Jews.

But even more insidious than portraying the Jews in league with the devil, and taking license with the story in the New Testament itself that made the Jews look even worse, while claiming to simply portray it literally, is the clear slap in the face that this movie represents to the last 40 years of interfaith, Jewish-Christian relations. Since Vatican II, the Catholic church has gone out of its way time and again to reverse centuries of anti-Semitism based on the false charge of Jewish deicide and the idea from the Gospel of John that Jews as a people are to be condemned in every succeeding generation for the crucifixion of Jesus. It is this teaching more than any other in history that has resulted in century after century of relentless inquisitions, crusades, pogroms and holocausts against the Jews. Do I think Mel Gibson’s film contributes to the very same anti-Jewish emotional passion that has led to so much pain and violence and suffering for Jews in the past? Absolutely.

The silver lining of all the controversy and conversation about this film is the renewed interest among Jews in understanding the differences between Judaism and Christianity, the Jewish attitudes toward Jesus and what Judaism teaches about messianism and “the messiah.” In the future we will offer Jewish Learning Institute classes on exactly those topics.

First I saw the movie last week, and then I read this week’s Torah portion and thought about Kaplan’s teachings about believing, behaving and belonging, and more clearly than ever I was reminded of one of the fundamental differences between us. Christianity is based on belief – in Jesus as the son of God, and the savior of human souls, on beliefs having to do with the nature of sin and salvation, and beliefs regarding heaven and hell. Based on those beliefs, to be a good Christian requires certain behaviors that are the natural expressions of those beliefs. As one continues to express those behaviors in a given church or community, one then develops a feeling of belonging to that specific church or community. Thus is one’s identity as a Christian generally formed.

Judaism and Jewish identity are exactly the opposite. What gives Jews their sense of identity is not primarily belief, but rather, belonging. It is the idea of “peoplehood,” the sense of belonging to the Jewish people that distinguishes Jewish identity from other religious traditions.

For Jews, belonging is the foundation of who they are – like being part of a large family. The Torah is seen fundamentally as the record of our family tree, a family history if you will, where our ancestors told their stories about how they made sense and found meaning in the world and distinguished the sacred, the extraordinary from the everyday and ordinary in life.

Since Judaism is based primarily on belonging, the main reason and benefit for doing Jewish rituals, customs, holidays and celebrations, is to reinforce our sense of belonging to the Jewish people. It’s as simple as, when you do Jewish you feel Jewish.

In Judaism, “belief” is almost never a focus, and hardly ever even an issue. We agree on few beliefs other than the idea of “ethical monotheism,” and that whatever we mean by God, whatever that power is that animates all life and is the holiness beyond end and being that permeates the universe – it is the same for everyone.

That Judaism and Jewish identity is primarily based on a personal sense of belonging to the Jewish people, is the reason why at any given moment in Los Angeles, 70% of the Jews in our community are not officially affiliated with any synagogue, and yet they virtually all feel a strong sense of Jewish identity. For most Jews, (unlike Christians for whom attendance at church is the primary expression of their faith), Jewish identity is simply a state of being, it is just who they are, and their loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people is a given, having little to do with the level of their religious observance.

This unusual source of religious identity, rooted in the deep and abiding sense of belonging to the Jewish people, is often confusing to non-Jews, especially those who have relationships with Jews whom they date or marry. So often I have sat with non-Jewish partners who simply can’t understand why their partners feel so strongly about Judaism “when they aren’t particularly religious” and have very little formal Jewish ritual or synagogue participation in their lives.

But to those of us who are Jews, it seems obvious. It’s who we are, it’s our family, it’s our community. Perhaps we can trace this idea back to the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion and the greatest Jewish organizer of all time – Moses. For our portion begins with these words, “And Moses assembled all of the community of the children of Israel.”

The rabbis point out that the word, vayakhel, “and Moses assembled,” can also be understood, “And Moses created a kehillah, a community.” They suggest that the real genius of Moses wasn’t merely that he was the “lawgiver,” that he brought down commandments from Mt. Sinai. Moses was the first CEO of the Jewish people, the first Director of Development (in this portion he raises so much money to build the sanctuary that he has to tell people to stop giving), the first rabbi/teacher, and perhaps above all, the first community organizer.

It is the genius of Moses that took a rag tag group of former slaves, a “mixed multitude” of Jews and non-Jews, descendants of Jacob and the disaffected poor of Egypt who voluntarily left with the Jews as they went forth from Egyptian bondage, and assembled them into a spiritual, sacred community.

Vayakhel Moshe, “and Moses created a community” in the desert that through his wisdom, inspiration, and sacred mitzvot, has lasted for three thousand years. We are the inheritors of that community, and if there is a ”passion” in Judaism, it is the challenge to figure out how to transform the values, ethics, and commitment to bringing holiness into the world that is the gift of Jewish civilization into a blessing for the every generation to come.

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