on Tuesday, 27 September 2016.
In his book Arpelei Tohar (roughly, “mists of purity”), Abraham Isaac Kook* wrote:
“There are times when there is a need to violate the words of the Torah since there is no one in the
generation who can show the way [to do it permissibly]...”
Rav Kook was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory British Palestine. He was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, identified with the combination of observant Judaism and Zionism that came to be known as “Religious Zionism.” Rav Kook cared deeply about all Jews - even the growing secular population in the land of Israel - and the need for Jewish unity.
It would be much better if such [violations of the law] came about as unintentional transgressions, as the saying goes, "Better they be accidental sinners rather than intentional sinners." However, only when a prophetic spirit rests on the people of Israel is it possible to fix such matters legally by a decree of the sages.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that Rav Kook was a proponent of halakhic leniency. However, he recognized that in the development of Jewish Law, sometimes radical change has to begin outside of the legal institutions that had come to define the Jewish community. These ideas were so provocative in the early 1900s that the book was canceled in the middle of its production, and these texts were censored thereafter by his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, and later rabbinic authorities. In every corner of the Jewish community today, especially in North America, “change” is the inescapable topic of all serious discussions of the Jewish people and our future. The early generations of Reformers can be described as Rav Kook’s brand of “violators,” who prophetically brought change to Judaism with their innovations that were considered transgressions by Jewish authority up to that point. Today, Reform Judaism itself faces radical challenges to normative customs from the outside. At the same time, our internal leadership mechanisms guide us along the pathways informed by the ever-present changes within as well.
This year, we are blessed to have generous donors who provided the resources to purchase Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform machzor (High Holy Day prayer book), that follows the innovations and style of our current siddur for Shabbat, weekdays, and festivals. A few generations ago, the poetic readings and in-line transliterations would have seemed jarring, perhaps even heretical, to the Jews who were
asked to pray along with its pages. Today, the flow of a new book can be challenging to understand, but the concept of alternatives in liturgy is not really considered “change” any more. In fact, we have come to expect this accessible dialogue with our traditional texts, and feel the void painfully when it is not offered.
In the Yerushalmi we read:
Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar: [The meaning is] one should not recite prayers as if one were reading a letter. Rabbi Aha said in the name of Rabbi Yose: [The meaning is] one must add something new each day. —Jerusalem Talmud B’rachot 4:4
This High Holy Day season, please join us in our eternal conversation with God as we seek inspiration, comfort, and purpose with our prayers for the New Year. Each page offers a new door to spiritual reflection couched in a personal invitation to each and every one of us. We bring the meaning; our community and the words we recite together give our understanding form.
Let us enter the Days of Awe together with timeless words of our people on the search for return and renewal.
Shanah Tovah U’Metukah - my family and I wish you a sweet new year.
-- Rabbi Debra Dressler
*As quoted in: Steven Greenberg. Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition