May 4, 2012

As we celebrated Yom Ha’Atzmaut last week, I noticed in my luach, which is the guide to every aspect of our daily, Shabbat, and holiday services, that the Torah selection for our Day of Independence is different inside and outside of Israel (for our Conservative Movement).  Synagogues that have daily minyanim have Torah readings, a haftarah, and Hallel.  While this is notable, the unexpected aspect that many are unaware of is that the Torah selections are markedly different forIsrael and the Diaspora.

Here in Americaand traditionally, we read from Parashat Ekev, which speaks to the military conquest and ethnic cleansing for the Israelites.  Conversely, in Israel, they read from Parashat Ki Tavo, which speaks of the farmer “lifting up” the fruit of the land.   The American selection for Yom Ha’Atzmaut makes a statement glorifying triumphal violence that may not sit well with many of us.  In Israel, the focus is to celebrate the goals of our nation at peace, not its triumph in war.  Many Conservative rabbis, including myself, recommend the reading from Ki Tavo even outside of Israel because of the need to focus on peace and our future, not thinking about our war like past.  It is a means of “moving on”.

The manner in which we proclaim our distinctive national identity, while forging positive relationships with our neighbors, is a compelling subtext of this week’s double parshaAcharei Mot-Kedoshim. The sexual codes at the center of each parsha are described in terms of differentiation from the Egyptians and Caananites.Israel is ordered to act differently, lest it share the Canaanite fate of expulsion.  Leaving aside our fraught relationship with these texts for other reasons for now, I am still concerned about the Holiness Code’s dependence on differentiation as the key to holiness.

Indeed, it is the very differentiation from others that is emphasized at the end of Kedoshim. As Rashi says in his famous comment to 20:26, “If you are distinct from them then you are Mine; if not, then you belong to Nebuchadnezzar and his cohorts.”

We all can understand the point of differentiation—absent distinctive practice it becomes difficult to maintain distinctive identity. Indeed this is the great challenge facing liberal movements—the less differentiation in daily routine, garb, and cuisine, the less durable is the resultant identity.

And yet, we also recognize an obnoxious and xenophobic quality to the passion for differentiation. It can easily lead to arrogance, hatred and even violence towards others. The contrast as we go the end of Kedoshim into the haftarah is marvelous. Amos 9 opens with the shocking words, “You are just like the Ethiopians…the Philistines...and the Arameans to me, declares the Lord.”

As Professor Michael Fishbane notes in his commentary on this week’s haftarah, Amos “denies Israel’s uniqueness.” This rebuke challenges Israel to reflect upon what its national purpose really is. “Then will it transform the triumphal assertion of uniqueness found in Kedoshim into a new awareness of distinction and duty.  Kept separate, Kedoshim and this haftarah’s lessons cancel each other’s truth concerning election; brought together, they revise one another reciprocally and suggest a more inward and humble theology of chosenness.”

During a time in our calendar of memory and celebration, of differentiation and neighborly engagement, it can sometimes seem too much to bridge the gap between our roles.Israelis called upon to be a signal to the world—a banner of redemptive possibility—while still maintaining its distinctiveness. I see this not as a contradiction but as a preparation. Only by being distinct can we hope to offer something of value to the broader world. But if we fetishize our distinctiveness, then it becomes an end unto itself, a holy bigotry, and dooms the very mission for which it was fashioned.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham