Kol Nidre 5776-2015: Empowerment

In order to mark the historic visit of Pope Francis to our area, the Washington Post had a special section in this past Sunday’s (Section H, Sept. 20, 2015) paper. In it not only was there a detailed itinerary of every activity in which he would participate and a detailed map of road closures, but there was also a fascinating 2-page spread illustrating and explaining some basic catholic church ritual objects. There were pictures of the incense holder, the baptism oil and the special stole that priests wear around their necks. Each of these objects have significant historical and religious meaning for Catholics and they serve to add deep spirituality to their religious services.
People are excited to see Pope Francis. Over the course of his papacy he has attempted to show that he is of the people. Shortly after his election he went to a jail in Rome and washed the feet of several of the prisoners. He has eschewed the fancier rooms reserved for the Pope in the Vatican and is living in a more humble apartment. Pope Francis has also made great strides in making the Church more accessible to all Catholics by making important changes to some practices to allow more Catholics to return to the Church. But there are significant elements of Catholicism that are meant to remain distant from the Catholic laity. The average Catholic parishioner is supposed to remain in awe and at a distance from the sacred trappings and holy objects of the service. Only priests can officiate at the service and only baptised Catholics can receive communion. By creating this distance between the clergy and the laity the Church attempts  to inspire great awe and reverence.
You may think it odd that I am discussing Church doctrine and the Papal visit to DC tonight, but I think there is much to learn especially today on Yom Kippur from this. By examining how another religion defines spirituality and how it seeks to inspire its adherents we can learn how we as Jews seek inspiration. Is our worship service distant or is participatory? Are there elements of Jewish practice that keep people away from the sacred or does Judaism always seek to include everyone? Is the knowledge of Jewish ritual practice guarded by a holy minority of rabbis or does everyone have access?
Though the answers may seem obvious, it actually is more complex. We just have to look to the elements of our service today and the Torah portion we read tomorrow to recognize that there are aspects of Judaism that are still distant and mysterious. Chapter 16 of the book of Leviticus details the rituals that occur on Yom Kippur. It describes how the kohen is to dress, immerse in a mikvah, sacrifice a goat and send another goat to the wilderness, recite a formula asking forgiveness for the sins of his family and the people of Israel, and most powerful of all, how the kohen gadol - the high priest - enters the holy of holies. All of these rituals are performed by the kohen gadol with help from other kohanim - priests - while the community of Israel watches from a distance. We relive this experience in the avodah service tomorrow afternoon where we learn even more details from rabbinic literature about the Yom Kippur rituals including the fact that the kohen gadol had to change clothing 5 times and that the entire crowd of onlookers would lie prostrate as the kohen gadol entered the קדש קדשים - the holy ark.
All these biblical Yom Kippur rituals were filled with pageantry and deep religious meaning. Every aspect of the day’s activities were thoroughly choreographed and all of the rituals focused on forgiveness and atonement. The people looked forward to this day every year and most of all they anticipated the disappearance of the kohen gadol into the holy ark and wondered whether he would emerge alive. The drama and intense majesty of the events created a sense of religious awe and reverence.
And there was also great distance. Only the kohanim could participate in the rituals themselves while the rest of Israel could only watch. We can only imagine then what could be going through the mind of the kohen gadol. Our liturgy clearly expresses the hope that the kohen gadol would approach the rituals with extreme caution and humility. By praying for himself, his family and the people of Israel the kohen should have understood that he was only a pawn in God’s plan for the community. The kohen should have even recognized how dangerous the task was for he had a rope tied around his ankle as he entered the holy ark in case he were to be struck down dead by God. If he were, he would have been dragged out by the other kohanim.
Yet the kohen gadol could also recognize the tremendous power he had that day. All the rituals depended on him. He sent the goat to the wilderness. He offered the sacrifice. He entered the ark. Without the kohen gadol there would be no ritual and that power that he held in his hands could have been very seductive indeed. In fact it’s not just on Yom Kippur that the kohen gadol and all the kohanim could feel attracted by the power. Every day of the year there were sacrifices offered that could only be performed by the kohanim. The daily morning and afternoon sacrifice, the holiday and shabbat sacrifices and other special offerings for sin and well being all had to be done by the kohanim. That meant they had the power of the ritual in their hands and no one else had the right or the authority to do what only they were commanded to do.
Not only did the kohanim have the power of the ritual in their hands they also had exclusive access to the mystery of God’s presence. The kohanim were the ones to assess, for example, whether an unusual skin rash was curable or not. It was the kohen who would determine what ritual procedures to undergo to rid oneself of such a frightening disfigurement. The kohanim dressed differently than everyone else and they also had to be financially supported by the community. The tribe of Levi - of which the kohanim were a subset - did not have a land holding in Israel. Therefore only the kohanim could eat of the sacrifices and the kohanim received an annual portion of all of Israel’s produce.
Great power and majesty was in the hands of the kohanim. They controlled the religious life of the community and they were seen to have access to God. Part of that control of the ritual is reflected in our service today. Howie Horowitz and I are dressed in white as we conduct the service for you. When we open the ark we see the Torah scrolls dressed in white and we are supposed to be in awe and draw a breath every time the ark is opened. The service today can be misunderstood by some rabbis as permission to maintain power over the community. Some rabbis could see the awe and majesty of the service as allowing them to maintain that sense of power over the community throughout the year. The more knowledge a rabbi has, the more halachic - legal authority - the rabbi has, may make some rabbis seem invincible.   
We can understand how in the wrong hands such power could be abused by rabbis over the centuries. Instead of humbly leading a community, some rabbis might seek opportunities to take advantage of the community. Such rabbis could take advantage of the trust the community placed in them and abuse that trust and in so doing continue to maintain the distance between the community and the sacred ritual.
Ten months ago a respected rabbi in the Washington Orthodox community Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested for such an abuse of power. We all know the sordid and tragic details of the case and I will not detail them now. Rabbi Freundel took advantage of his authority over conversions. He was granted the halachic authority to control conversions and with that power he tragically invaded the privacy of many women. It is important to recognize the extremes to which some rabbis, not just Freundel, can be tempted by the power of their position.
Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz - formerly of the Woodside Congregation - wrote an article that was published in the Orthodox Union magazine last June. In that lengthy article titled “When Leaders Fail: Healing From Rabbinic Scandal” he tackles this very issue of rabbinic abuse of power. Among the many points he makes in this lengthy essay, Breitowitz quotes an idea from Rabbi Saul Berman. Rabbi Berman saw the predisposition and tendency of rabbis to abuse the power and authority entrusted to them. He also saw the sacrificial system presented in the Torah and the halachic authority of the rabbis to be easily corrupted as it was throughout the centuries. Yet Rabbi Berman asks, if the Torah wanted to teach us that the kohanim had exclusive control over the ritual, why would the Torah detail and explain those very rituals to us? If God wanted the ritual to remain mysterious, why delineate all the aspects of the sacrificial system? Doesn’t that seem odd? Shouldn’t the kohanim have their own separate book - a kind of instruction manual - that only they would read? Why publish that manual as essentially the book of Leviticus for all to read?
Rabbi Berman answers counterintuitively. The sacrificial system and the role of the kohanim in it certainly seems one sided. All the power and the glory are in the hands of the kohanim and we get to watch. But the fact that we know what the details are, the fact that we know how they dress, what animals are offered, and everything they do means that the system is ours too. Though we didn’t get to perform the rituals, by knowing the details it’s as if the system is ours.
Other religious traditions at the time of the Bible ensured that religious rituals remained mysterious. People were to be in awe of the religious rites performed on their behalf and they were convinced to give of themselves - both literally and figuratively - in order to maintain that system. In fact in some cultures it was only the priestly caste that learned how to read and write in order to maintain that clear distinction between those who perform and those who watch. That’s how the mystery remained so powerful and awesome. We just need to walk into a cathedral to see this perspective clearly. Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is a perfect example of this attitude in action. The extremely high ceilings and the gruesome gargoyles are frightening and exhilarating at the same time. The Latin chanting and the stained glass windows are timeless and haunting. The statues of biblical and historical figures and scenes on the outer walls require tour guides and pamphlets to explain. Whether one is a devout Catholic (one who should know what all the symbolism means) or a Jew (an outsider), Notre Dame cathedral is meant to elicit awe and majesty. It’s meant to teach us that there are certain things that are simply beyond our reach.
But as Rabbi Berman teaches, that is not the case with Judaism. Though the ancient rituals were performed only by the priestly class, everyone knew what the kohanim were doing! It’s as if someone could call out from the crowd - “excuse me, isn’t the knife supposed to be held this way”! There isn’t supposed to be any mystery at all behind the ritual - all of us are to be equally inspired and moved.  
In fact that’s exactly how the rabbis transformed the ancient ritual from one of feeling disenfranchised by it to one of being empowered by it. The rabbis felt the distance between the kohanim and the people and they recognized that we all need to feel we have a role in the rituals in order to feel that Judaism belongs to us. To make that happen the rabbis said that knowledge was the most important tool. We need to study as much as we can for study leads to action. The more we learn about our tradition the more we appreciate it and the more we will be motivated to act. We say twice a day in the Shema, ושננתם לבניך - you must teach your children. The Torah - Hebrew for instruction - is meant to be studied and taught to one another and to the next generation.
Jewish education is mandated for everyone in the community. It’s not the purview of the wealthy or a particular segment of the population. Jewish education belongs to everyone. In fact as the book of Proverbs says (22:6), teach the children according to their ability which means that everyone must be empowered to feel that the Torah belongs to them.
Judaism is to be studied by everyone and can be accessed in any location. The ancient ritual was focused in the mishkan and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. One had to be in a state of ritual purity to offer a sacrifice and in some circumstances one had to be physically fit to do so. One had to make the trip to Jerusalem in order to worship God. All of that made Judaism accessible to the very few. The rabbis created the system to enable as many people as possible to have access to as much of the rituals as possible in almost any location possible. Many of us, for example, light shabbat candles at home to bring the spirit of shabbat directly into our midst. We all participate in a Passover seder and light Hanukah candles too as we bring those holidays home. Synagogues are built in every town so that we don’t have to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. With many rituals done at home or in the local synagogue, then, we are empowered by location too.
Knowledge and location make Judaism more accessible as well as the notion that we can participate in all the rituals ourselves. The ancient ritual involved sacrifices and we needed kohanim to do the rituals for us. We needed them to ask forgiveness or to thank God for the blessings in our lives. But as Rabbi Yochanan said to his student who was grieving over the destruction of the Temple, (as quoted in our Shabbat prayer book - Avot de Rabbi Natan 11a) “don’t be sad. Remember what the prophet Hosea said (6:6), ‘God prefers acts of compassion over sacrifices.’” With the loss of the Temple the rabbis agreed that our acts of loving kindness that we perform - giving to tzedakah, helping the poor and disadvantaged, etc. - are substitutes for the sacrifices themselves. Now the rabbis say we are truly empowered to perform the rituals ourselves. We don’t need kohanim to do them for us. In fact even better than the yearning for the ancient is the present day performance of acts of social justice. That is how we communicate with God today and that is our sacrifice.
The empowerment of the Jewish community could be arguably the greatest innovation the rabbis made. Faced with a crucial test by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem the rabbis quickly realized that their interpretation of Judaism needed to be adopted in order for Judaism to survive. But more than out of historical necessity, the rabbinic system transformed Judaism from a hands off religion to a very active, hands on religion. Instead of waiting till the harvest festival to visit the Temple, now Jews would go to synagogue every day. Instead of the kohanim telling us what to sacrifice and teaching the religious principles to us, now everyone learned Torah. Instead of watching shabbat happen in the Temple now everyone made shabbat at home.  Instead of the ritual being performed by a select minority, now everyone could perform them.
This transition from the ancient ritual to our full empowerment is perfectly illustrated by the juxtaposition of Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The next 24 hours as we pray for atonement and forgiveness we are reminded by the words of the machzor of our distance from God. We remember the kohen gadol performing the ritual and we picture God as sovereign sitting on the throne in judgment of us. We are made to feel humble and weak. Our life is in God’s hands. Yet as soon as the holiday is over we are to start building our sukkah. We start work on the next ritual and we take the ritual literally into our own hands. With hammer and nails or whatever other material we use we say life is in our hands. Judaism is ours. I’ve survived the fast day and now Judaism is mine to live and to enjoy. Judaism isn’t distant, to be handled by others - it’s ours to take into our hands and mold into our own.
We now know what we need to reflect upon this Yom Kippur day. We need to feel empowered by our Judaism. If Judaism feels distant to us, if it feels like something we pull out of the closet every once in awhile, we need to change that. Let’s think about at least one thing we can do this year to make Judaism our own. What will you add to your religious routine that can make you feel even more connected and strengthen your Jewish identity? Could you learn how to bake challah? Could grandparents teach their grandchildren how to make latkes? Could families decide together on a charity to adopt or a social action project to do together? Could your book club read a book with a Jewish theme? Could shabbat be technology free so you feel the beauty of rest on shabbat?  There is so much we could do - as individuals and as families - to feel more connected to our tradition. I challenge you to adopt a new religious practice in your life today.
Judaism should always be seen as our way of navigating life on earth. Life is filled with challenges and heartache and blessing and joy. Judaism adds deeper meaning and a more intense spirituality to the events that occur in our lives. We just have to be open to learn more. If we can accept more challenges and responsibility at work, if we encourage our children to do more extra curricular activities, if we fill our schedules with more programs why can’t Judaism be part of that? We need to feel empowered by our Jewish tradition and respond by figuring out today - this Yom Kippur - how we are going to incorporate more Jewishness into our lives.

The Pope’s visit to America this week highlights the fundamental difference in attitude to spirituality between our two faiths. Judaism teaches us that we should never be made to feel distant when we walk into synagogue. We should never feel overwhelmed or feel that we have to trust someone else to translate spirituality for us. We can never allow rabbis to be in a position to abuse their power. We must always remember that we are empowered by our tradition to make Judaism our own. As we turn inward and reflect upon our actions this Yom Kippur we must honestly ask ourselves how our religious, ethical and moral lives will be different this year. What are we going to do to feel more spiritually connected? What ritual practice will we adopt to add meaning and enrichment to our lives? How will we feel empowered? I pray that we work on that together so that 5776 will be one of blessing and joy for all of us. Amen.