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by Bennett Muraskin
WENT TO A FAMILY bar mitsve in Brooklyn at a well-known Conservative synagogue. The service lasted around three hours, and it might have been longer but the rabbi did not even deliver a sermon and the parents did not come up to the bima to talk about their son. Actually, a sermon is one thing I look forward to. Some rabbis have important things to say.
In this case the rabbi was a woman, assisted by a woman rabbinical student. They both stuck to the prescribed ritual like glue. Prayer after prayer were directed to a personal God that I am sure few people sitting there believe in. My cousin sitting next to me agreed that the services were too long. I quipped that they were three hours too long for my taste.
Although I am an apikoyris who only goes to synagogue when duty calls, it is not only the rabbi’s sermon that interests me. I am also eager to read the Torah portion and the associated haftarah portion.
On this shabbes morning, the Torah portion included the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It starts with Moses’ father-in-law Jethro bringing Zipporah, Moses’ wife and his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer to reunite with Moses. Moses warmly greets Jethro and tells him of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. He completely ignores his wife and children.
Not a peep from the woman rabbi.
Next Jethro advises Moses to appoint upright men to act as judges for minor disputes among the people which would leave Moses to decide the major cases. Excellent advice, and from a Midianite, no less. Elsewhere in the Torah, Midianites are depicted as mortal enemies of the Israelites. How did friendship turn to hatred? No comment from the rabbi or anyone else.
Then comes the most dramatic moment in the Torah. Amidst thunder, lightning, smoke, and the blast of the ram’s horn, God lays down the law. Plenty could be said on that subject. But nothing was.
The bar mitsve boy’s major responsibility is to chant the haftarah portion, which in this case came from Isaiah 6:1-7:6. In this passage, God declares that he will wipe out 90 percent of the people. No amount of repentance will change His mind. “But while a tenth part yet remains in it, it shall repent. It shall be ravaged like the terebinth and the oak, of which stumps are left even when they are felled: its stump shall be a holy seed.” The commentary in the footnotes of the Khumash made clear that this was a hideous act, but the rabbi did not even blink.
The bar mitsve boy’s dvar torah was fine. Wisely, he steered clear of the horrible words that had just passed his lips. Naturally everyone congratulated the boy for his reading. Somehow I doubt they were disturbed over its content. These are the same people, I am sure, who sign petitions for and give money to human rights organizations
I have often asked rabbis and synagogue makhers why more humanistic readings cannot be substituted for the most obnoxious traditional ones. They tell me that in principle they are not opposed to adding humanistic readings, but they are absolutely opposed to any substitutions. The Torah and haftarah readings are written in stone, and even the siddur appears immutable. Since the services are already lengthy, they won’t extend them.
So tell me, all you non-Orthodox rabbis and Jewish congregants, how do you reconcile synagogue services exalting an omnipotent and authoritarian God, punctuated by Torah and haftarah readings that denigrate women and preach violence and genocide, with your progressive principles?
My guess is that you are deliberately not paying attention to the words for the sake of communal feeling. If that is so, I would have to say that you are checking your critical faculties at the synagogue door. How sad.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer to our magazine, is author of Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore and The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, among other books.