On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Go Ahead, Be an Innovator - Parashat Sh'mini

Parashat Sh'mini tells of the deaths of two men who are though to have been punished for the sin was innovation - but today, don't we look at innovation as a positive thing? In this episode, originally released in March 2019, Rabbi Rick Jacobs says, "Innovators in Jewish life have always had serious pushback." Why? And what can we do about it? He encourages us to think about how we can continue to reboot and rekindle Jewish life.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less.

But for the first time in four years, this podcast is going to go on a little bit of a hiatus as we work on some new and exciting ideas for its future. But in the meantime, we are re-airing some of the best episodes of years past, our greatest hits if you will. This week, Rabbi Jacobs is going to teach us about Parashah Sh'mini, and he'll talk specifically about innovation.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week we focus our attention on Parashah Sh'mini from the book of Leviticus. And in chapter 10 of the book of Leviticus is the following narrative, which can never be read or heard without a reaction. So it's a story of Nadab and Abihu. Thes are two sons of Aaron the high priest.

What we've heard at the very opening of Sh'mini is that they're ordained in an elaborate celebration of their leadership as the first generation of priests who will officiate in the portable praying place that our ancestors built in the desert and carried with them. And this is the ritual that they performed.

So in the opening of chapter 10 it says, Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his sensor and put fire in it and put incense on it and offered an esh zara, a strange fire before the eternal, which God commanded them not. And there went out a fire from the eternal and devoured them and they died before the eternal.

Then Moses said to Aaron, this is what the eternal spoke saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near to me, and before all the people, I will be glorified. And Aaron was silent.

So we have this narrative. It's their first day on the sacred job of officiating in the ancient tabernacle. And on their first day, they do something that's so egregious, something so sinful, something so wrong that they are consumed in fire in the midst of their first day on the job.

Can I just, like, say something? When I was first ordained, I thought about this portion. I thought, "oh my gosh, what if I do something wrong? I read the wrong prayer or the wrong order on the wrong day". And it's not an easy message.

Or what do I say to the bar or bat mitzvah who has this portion? Hey, don't worry. If you make a little mistake, nothing terrible will happen. And they say, hey, Rabbi, did you read the portion?

Something terrible happens in the portion. But it actually is a profound teaching and one that needs some unpacking. So let's go to it.

So what is the actual sin, this strange fire, this esh zara. What is it? Now some of the commentators say, well, what probably happened is that Nadab and Abihu were drunk.

They got inebriated. That's what they did on their first day. Either they were so joyful for the celebration, or they were so nervous about this new role that they got drunk. And what they did was simply doing something that wasn't commanded because they were literally out of their mind with the alcohol.

It turns out that there are others who have said, no, that's too simplistic a reading. And remarkably, one of the great 19th century orthodox thinkers, Samson Raphael Hirsch, said their sin was not consulting their father, ultimately making themselves the highest authority in disregarding the tradition of their elders.

So this is an orthodox rabbi in the 19th century. What does he say that the sin of Nadab and Abihu was? That they were innovators. That they had the chutzpah, the gall, to change the tradition.

Even on the first day, they were commanded in one way and they did another. Well, Samson Rafael Hirsch actually, in another place, says that who were the Nadav and Abihus of their day? He actually called out the Reformed Jews, who in Germany who were busy changing the way Jews prayed, the way we did our holy work.

So I want to think out loud about innovation and Jewish life. That it's actually one of those things that has never been welcomed with joy. Innovators in Jewish life have always had serious pushback.

And I also would say that one of the great things about Nadav and Abihu is they were young. That part of their youth was their idealism and their sense of doing it differently. So I just want to think about some of the great innovations that have come into Jewish life and that they have never been simple.

Counting women in the minyan, how's that going? There still are times, as a reform rabbi, I would go into a house of mourning in a reformed family's home and they'd say, well, I guess we need 10 men. And I said, "we don't need 10 men. The person we're here to remember is a woman. The primary mourners are women. And our community is egalitarian. What about ordaining women? How did that innovation come?" Well, the world thought it was outrageous. The traditional world thought it was outrageous. It took even the non-orthodox world a time. In some ways, we're still working on that.

How about adding musical instruments to worship, something so natural and obvious to add more joy? There are places where that's thought of as a grave sin. Our reform movement has also changed liturgy. Things that we said are not meaningful, we need to expand. So the avot, the prayer of our patriarchs, we've added the imahot, the names of the matriarchs. Not just Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but Sarah, Becca, Leah, and Rachel. In many places that's still not accepted.

How about patrilineal descent? My predecessor, rabbi Alexander Schindler, blessed memory, said, "the bible has matrilineal and patrilineal descent." And he said, "what if we say it's your mother's line or your father, your mother's Jewish or your father's Jewish, and the most important thing is you choose and are educated to be Jewish?" He said,  that was legitimate. That's still an innovation that's being debated today.

What about another one of his outreach brilliant moves was to be more inclusive as a Jewish community, to include LGBTQ people within our, not just our congregations, but within our rabbinic and cantorial leadership.

What about the historical critical study of the Bible, what we're doing right here on this podcast? Well, people said, no, no, you can't use history and archeology. Now, all I'm trying to say is that every religious community and every Jewish community in history that's worth its salt had to innovate and there was always pushback.

Think about very recently at the Western Wall and Rosh Hodesh, adar bet second Rosh Hodesh of Adar, in Jerusalem on Friday morning. Here were these remarkable women, 30 years of showing up and leading a beautiful and spirited service in the women's section of the Western Wall. And the pushback was outrageous.

Bus loads of yeshiva students showed up to denigrate and frankly to desecrate that place with their hatred for the innovation of Jewish life. No, innovation has always been an essential part. Now, you say, Rabbi Jacobs, do you think that's really going on in Parashah Sh'mini?

Do you think that's really what Nadab and Abihu were all about? Well, friends, the text doesn't really tell us what it's all about. And all I do know is the history of our people, and I do know that those who've innovated have had to be very, very filled with a backbone to stand up and say, no, this change is important. This innovation is absolutely essential.

So maybe we have a lesson to learn from Parashah Sh'mini Please God, nobody should be incinerated in fire for an innovation or frankly for anything else. But the hatred and the fear that sometimes comes to those who innovate in Jewish life is not a surprise to us. I would argue today, on the podcast, it's biblical.

And it's for us not just to understand, but to find a way to not stop innovating. No, that's our job as leaders and as the leaders of this largest movement in Jewish life, this reform movement, and we love our conservative re-constructionists and all the other folks who are helping to innovate Jewish life. No, this is our job.

We're not going to shrink from it. We're not going to be apologetic. And we are going to make sure that Jewish life is always reinvented and rebooted and rekindled. And that it may feel like a strange fire. It may feel like something has never been done.

But much of what was never done was just never done until that moment. And let's continue to be the heirs of this great tradition. And the only way to harm the tradition, essentially, is to freeze it, to hold it, and to not let it grow and continue to evolve and change.

Leviticus is reminding us that the way we prayed in the time of the Bible is not the way we pray today. We've changed. We've innovated, everyone has. Let's continue that. And let's be inspired by the lives and maybe also the legacy of these two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu. Let's not be silent in our remembering.

Let's be courageous. Let's be innovative as we remember them.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand. Ten Minutes of Torah". If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us.

And you can visit reformjudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week l'hitroat.