On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Sh'mini: The Dangers and the Neccessity of Innovation

In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Sh'mini, we learn about the sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aaron the High Priest. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote that their sin was innovation. But innovation is also a key part of Jewish life and renewal over the centuries. Rabbi Jacobs 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: 10 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 weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Sh'mini and asks about change, when it is dangerous and when it is necessary.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we focus our attention on Parashat 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 Nadav and Avihu. These 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, “And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censor and put fire in it, and put incense on it. And offered an esh zarah, 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 sanctify-- 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? You know, I read the wrong prayer in the wrong order on the wrong day. And, you know, it's not an easy message. Or, what do I say to the bar or bat mitzvah who has this portion? You know, “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 zarah? What is it?

Now, some of the commentators say, well, what probably happened is that Nadav and Avihu 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[s] 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, Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, said their sin was not consulting their father, ultimately making themselves the highest authority and disregarding the tradition of their elders. So, this is an Orthodox rabbi in the 19th century. And what does he say that the sin of Nadav and Avihu 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 Raphael Hirsch actually in another place says that who were the Nadav and Avihu's of their day? He actually called out the Reform Jews 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 push back.

And I also would say that one of the great things about Nadav and Avihu 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 I, as a Reform rabbi, would go into house of mourning in a Reform family's home and they'd say, “Oh, I guess we need 10 men.” 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 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 prayer, 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, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. In many places that's still not accepted.

How about patrilineal descent? My predecessor, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, of 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.” No, what 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 push back. Think about very recently at the Western Wall and Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet, second Rosh Chodesh of Adar in Jerusalem on a 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 Parashat Sh'mini? Do you think that's really what Nadav and Avihu 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 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 Parashat Sh'mini. And 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 and Reconstructionist, 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 that's 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, Nadav and Avihu. 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: 10 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 Apple Podcasts, 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: 10 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’hitraot!