D’var Torah, Sh’mini I: C’mon, Baby, Light My Fire!
by Billy Dreskin
A rabbi is invited to spend a weekend at a synagogue he’d served years earlier. Running into Goldberg, who’d been on the synagogue’s board of trustees back then, the rabbi was surprised to learn that his old friend wasn’t spending much time at temple anymore:
He asked, “Goldberg, what happened? You used to be there when the doors opened!”
“Ach! Years back, the temple went in a direction I didn’t like. Some of us got together and made a new synagogue,” Goldberg replied.
“Is that where you worship now?” asked the rabbi.
“I’m afraid not. A few years later, a small group of us began meeting in a hall we rented.”
“And has that proven satisfactory?”
“I’m sorry to say it hasn’t. My wife and I withdrew and we began worshipping at home by ourselves.”
“Then at last you’ve found inner peace,” the rabbi concluded.
“I’m afraid we haven’t,” said Goldberg. “Even my wife began to develop ideas I wasn’t comfortable with. So now she worships in the living room and I’m in the basement.”
There’s a revolution going on in the Reform Movement today. Some are bringing new melodies into our worship, others, interpretive dance. Still more are removing prayer books to make way for electronic screens. And there are even some who are davening with the traditional siddur as their great-grandfathers once did. I even know a rabbi who juggles etrogim on Simchat Torah!
A lid has been removed on our practices and, for some, the sky’s the limit as to what’s fair game in shul. Others, of course, would love to turn back the clock and return to the ways of their youth. As a result, some feel left behind with a growing need to find spiritual sustenance elsewhere, while many rejoice in this infusion of creativity and exuberance fostered by the worship revolution.
In this week’s parashah, Sh’mini, we read, “Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal alien fire (eish zarah), which had not been enjoined upon them” (Leviticus 10:1).
Dissatisfaction with a community’s ritual choices has been around since long before Reform Judaism came into existence. But when you use a synonym for “change” as part of your movement’s name, reform is inevitable and there are bound to be folks who aren’t ready for what comes knocking at the door. Even our new prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, created some controversy with its facing-pages layout and the presence of more traditional liturgy than ever.
For centuries, commentators have portrayed Nadab and Abihu as enemies of our sacred community; indeed, as enemies of God. Midrash has them awaiting the deaths of Moses and Aaron so they can take over and do what they want (Vayikra Rabbah 20:10). The brothers’ actions are seen as self-serving and evil, their deaths well-deserved.
One wonders if our own changes to liturgy and ritual are condemnable. Does God abhor our messing with tradition?
Regardless of how we feel about Nadab and Abihu, or about whomever last messed with the service we love, the question we face regarding our rituals is not so much how we do them, but why. And of course, to answer the question of why, we need also respond to the question of what.
Judaism has long entertained variant ideas about God. After all, ours is a tradition that believes God cannot be seen and, if we’re fans of Moses Maimonides, there’s nothing at all we can ever know about God, which makes praying to God a bit tricky (The Guide for the Perplexed 1:58).1 But Rabbi Chaim Stern, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, offers us some important guidance:
Through prayer, we struggle to experience the Presence of God. Let us be sure that the One we invoke is the Most High, not a god of battles, of state or status or “success”—but the Source of peace and mercy and goodness. For, truly: “The gods we worship write their names on our faces. And we will worship something—have no doubt of that either. We may think that our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of the heart—but it will out. That which dominates our imagination, and our thoughts, will determine our life and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we are worshiping, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” (Gates of Prayer [New York: CCAR, 1975], p. 240)
Ritual needs to point us toward God. An impossible task, of course, because we’ll never know where God is. So we can only point our intentions, our heart, toward what we think is God, and pray (!) that we’re not blowing it completely.
How can we know that we haven’t failed utterly in our quest? Well, we can use our tradition as a guide. We can look at what the generations before us thought and use that to inform our choices today. But if we only do that, there’s not much chance that visual t’filah or mural-painting during the Silent Prayer (Amidah) could ever be integrated into our worship. So perhaps we need to permit uncharted exploration as well—to welcome new ways to pray (dare we call it eish zarah, “alien fire”?) without entering too quickly into judgment, to give some time to let our hearts as well as our heads decide if these new paths are right for us.
Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, didn’t think that God executed Nadab and Abihu. Rather, referring to, “And fire came forth” (Leviticus 10:2), Rashbam writes, “The fire descended from heaven [...] to kindle the incense, but, meeting the sons of Aaron there, it burnt them first and then the sacrifice…”2
Our experimentation could indeed cause trouble, but that ought not be our first response. Instead let’s ask ourselves, “Does this new idea help further the questions of what and why we are worshiping? Is it worth exploring because it might be helpful to us?”
What constitutes appropriate prayer, and what would be eish zarah, time will tell. Not because we’ll know (which I don’t think is ever possible) but because, each time we try something new, our community can explore it for a while and then, together, decide whether or not it’s for us.
1. Moses Maimonides, M. Friedlander (transl., second edition, The Guide for the Perplexed 1:58 (New York: Dover Publications, 1904), p. 82
2. Dr. A. Cohen gen. ed., The Soncino Chumash (Brooklyn, NY: Soncino Press, 1983), p. 655
Billy Dreskin is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, New York. You can contact him at RabbiBillyDreskin@gmail.com.