Archive for March, 2014

            It was surreal; waiting with some pillars of the budding Moral Monday movement, inside the old Florida capital building.  The old capital was the staging area, with the speeches presented from its steps facing the new capital building.  The crowd gathered in the courtyard between the two capital buildings.  Waiting with me were Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina pastor from the NAACP, who has been a key mover in establishing the Moral Monday movement. He was in town to teach, to inspire, to help cobble together a coalition clergy who would embrace a range of issues affecting the poor and minorities; not on a partisan basis, but on a moral basis.  He would go on to give a thundering speech calling upon Floridians to dare to reach higher.  Along side Rev. Barber was the Rev. Russell Meyer, head of the Florida council of churches.  Rev. Meyer has been a prophetic voice on many moral issues in Florida.  I had most recently met him while lobbying against an Arizona style immigration bill about 3 years ago.  Rev. Barber and Rev. Meyer were only two of the many impressive prophetic voices to mount the steps that day.

Across from us was the current capital building.  Inside, staffers and legislators were preparing to open session – which officially started on Tuesday.  I have been part of that numerous times as well.  I know the ritual.  Prayer is given to invoke the presence of God.  There is a roll call and a welcoming by House and Senate leadership in a symbolic joint session.  Homage is paid to bi partisanship.  Everyone extols the virtues of Florida, democracy, the sacred privilege of serving the people.  By the next day the ritual will revert to business as usual; which means that the priests of state government will respond not to the people but professional lobbyists, work to consolidate their own power, vote on strict partisan lines, and entertain a host of bills that do little to further the prosperity of the state, often giving a platform to politicians hubristic preening – all preparing their path to a higher political office (a promotion in civil priesthood).  The form, i.e. the ritual of government is maintained.  The content seems empty.

That is how I have come to view our state politicians:  as the priests of the political system.  So here is the scene Monday.  On the steps of one capital is an array of clergy.  They are a prophetic voice, exhorting the moral necessity of proper education of our youth, the need for medical care extended to the poor, the preservation of voting rights for the disenfranchised, and the need to end the culture of violence that pervades our state.  Across from them in the other capital, are the priests of state government, who are neither connected to, nor caring about the message being delivered and cheered outside their office windows.

It is here I gain insight into Leviticus.  It sets the stage for the conflict between priest and prophet that will underscore the history of ancient Israel.  Leviticus, you see, presents the system as it SHOULD be.  It presents a system in its ideal.  The goal of the system is very clear.  In order to thrive, the Israelites believed everyone must participate in promoting the presence of God in the community.  Jacob Milgrom, in his commentary on Leviticus, explains this theology.  The Israelites believed there were only 2 acting agents in the world, God and humanity.  There were no demons, no demi-gods.  The wellbeing of the world depended on the interplay between God and humanity.  Humanity had the ability to promote or expel God’s presence in a number of ways.  There were impurities that could cause it to retreat, disease, uncontrolled blood flow, molds – a great number of things that are now easily explained and controlled.   But to the Israelites these were mysteries that repelled God’s presence.  After an appropriate treatment for the condition, a sacrifice was offered.  The pleasing odor sent up to God was a smoke signal, if you will, that humans had rectified the condition and done the appropriate ritual act to punctuate the remedy.

The same process applied to moral and ethical situations.  The chatat offering (misunderstood when translated as “sin” offering) was the ritual that signaled a moral transgression had been corrected.  If a person transgressed and caused harm to another person or to the community, they did the proper correction and offered a sacrifice to signal that fact.  Even if the transgression was not intentional, the Levitical system mandated that there was a responsibility to correct the wrong.  Lack of culpability did not absolve from the responsibility of the remedy.  Further, if someone experienced the blessing of good fortune, they offered a special sacrifice to signal their gratitude.   All of this (and much more) created a complex system in which individuals participated in the maintenance of God’s presence in the community.  Every Jew had a stake in this outcome.

The role of the priest was to facilitate the participation of the people.  When a sacrificial remedy needed to be offered, the person brought the animal to the priest, who received it on their behalf through a ceremony in which hands were laid on the animal to transfer the authority over it for sacrifice.  The individual might indeed do the slaughter (or the priest could as well), but Nachmanides teaches that only the priest could bring the blood necessary for the ritual from the animal into the altar area.  Unlike the Catholic priesthood of the past 2 millennia, Israelite priests were not God’s representatives to the people, but the people’s agents in dealing with God.

But we know that the system went awry.  The priesthood became too enamored with its own power, seeing the offerings as a collection of material for the maintenance of their power and not as part of their function as agents for the community in maintaining the presence of God.  This is a central message of the Hebrew prophets of the 8th and 7th centuries BCE.  This famous passage from Amos 5:22 – 24 typifies the message of the prophets:

“Though you offer me burnt offerings and meal offerings, I will not accept

them; nor will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts.

Take away from me the noise of your songs; for I will not listen to the

melody of your lutes.

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Repetitions of that message occur in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea.

The core of prophetic criticisms includes the following.  First, the ritual of sacrifice is NOT God’s central concern.  Rather, God wants us to care for the well being of ALL people in the community.  The Hebrew prophets emphasized enforcement of the moral laws of Leviticus (see Chapter 19 as a great example) over the ritual of the sacrificial system.  As a corollary, the priesthood is indicted as a power hungry, corrupt institution not serving the needs of the community.   This is emphasized by the Talmud in tractate Yoma by the criticisms leveled against the priesthood of the second Temple.

Thus we have the summary of a central battle in the history of the development of Judaism, indeed all religion.  Of what use is ritual, and the institutions and offices that support ritual, if it is devoid of a tie to moral purpose?  In other words, priest versus prophet.  Of what use is the form of religious observance without moral content?  Let me make this real and relevant to the now.

As we light our Shabbat candles, and celebrate services, there are layers of purpose, of meaning.  Yes, the music is beautiful, and there is joy and meaning in praying and singing together.  Yet, there is also a call to something deeper, something that should stir in the souls of all Jews.  Let me make this real by sharing the issues from Moral Monday:

1)   Medical coverage for the poor.  Allowing emergency rooms be the ad hoc medical providers for the uninsured costs the system money.  Far more efficient is to extend Medicaid to more people.  Florida is rejecting this money.  This not only makes no sense from a financial perspective, but more importantly from a moral perspective

2)   Florida has had a rash of violent incidents arising from angry people with easy access to guns.  Whether you believe the guns are to blame or the people are to blame, we must address this culture of violence.  Current Stand Your Ground laws might be partly to blame.

3)   Our educational system is failing too many students.  This feeds the school to prison pipeline.  It is a waste of human capital.  Education is a key to raising people out of poverty.

4)   If we are truly a democracy, then laws that encourage voting are a must.  Attempts to limit voter participation through the red herring of voter fraud is just immoral.

Do you see the same connection to the conflict between priest and prophet in the Hebrew Bible that I do?  We observe the rituals of government, but without a content that serves the people with the least.  We invoke the name of God to bless these rituals.  But do we really believe the presence of God is invited to our community when a representative declares, as I heard at a committee hearing last year, that he would be honored to be the person to execute a convicted criminal.  Is expressing glee over the prospect of killing someone, even a criminal really promoting the presence of God?

Leviticus teaches that there is a way to marry ritual and morality, institution and community ethic in ways that create a place for the Divine.  If we blissfully celebrate Shabbat without feeling a sense of the moral call of Jewish tradition, we are repeating the failings of our ancestors when they focused on the form of the sacrificial system instead of the motive behind it.  The ideal expressed in the opening chapters of Leviticus, that ritual can be married to ethic and that the divine presence is in the hands of everyone in the community from priest (leader) to citizen, is achievable; but only if we demand it to be so.

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