By Nir Braudo, Deputy Director, BINA.
This year I am reading parashat “Tzav” (order or directive) far, far in the west, at the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, California. Here, together with valued partners from the Jewish and Jewish-Israeli community, we are building the first Secular Yeshiva in the United States, that will join our thriving network of Secular Yeshivas in Israel.
When I read this instruction manual given to Aaron and his sons, including specific directions on how they must conduct the different ritual sacrifices on the recently-constructed altar, I think about the section of the Mishna that describes the different sins for which we must conduct sacrifices: personal sins, sins of a leader against the public, sins committed willfully, and sins committed mistakenly.
This begs the question – why did the Mishna deal with laws of sacrifice with such devotion, when the Mishna was written in the period after the destruction of the Temple? Why deal with Temple sacrifice when Judaism was evolving so that its center was not in ritual sacrifice, but in learning, law and prayer that can take place in any location and at any time?
Like the sages of the Mishna that reinvigorated Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, the Judaism of the 20th century also needed to forge a new path after the great destruction in Europe and the massive waves of immigration that created two great centers of Judaism in Israel and in the United States.
In Israel, a vibrant, secular Jewish culture was created that was forged in the crucible of a nation-state that enabled Jews to lead a meaningful Jewish life without religious practice, primarily around the ideals of the Zionist movement. The Jewish community in the United States built a magnificent Jewish life with communal institutions at its center, religious schools and synagogues around three main religious streams – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
At the beginning of the 21st century, a new opportunity was created for these two centers, the Israeli and American – the secular Jews in Israel are not satisfied any longer with their national, Zionist identity, and they are searching for a deeper and more meaningful connection to their Jewish identity. At the same time, many Jews in the United States that live a predominantly secular lifestyle are searching for a connection to their Judaism that does not require membership in a synagogue or religious practice.
Here we have a fantastic opportunity to create a new form of meaningful Jewish life. The connection between a deeply-Israeli organization like BINA, and an established and experienced American communal organization like the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, that have banded together to create content and meaning for a meaningful Jewish life in the 21st century, symbolizes the opportunity to be found in bringing together the secular Jewish majority in Israel with the secular majority within the American Jewish community, for an authentic connection to create learning, community and social action.
The leadership of the large and active Israeli community here in Silicon Valley adds an additional layer to this connection, as they represent a bridge between the two communities and show that, just as in Israel, it is possible to create secular and meaningful Jewish life in the United States.
Similar to the sages of the Mishna that never ignored the rituals of sacrifice in parashat “Tzav,” but learned them in-depth, interpreted them and applied their principles in language and practice that fit the period in which they lived, so must we continue to learn and be inspired by the ancient Jewish literature that came before us, and with that inspiration, to continue to create vital and relevant Jewish life.
The Jewish people survived throughout history because we were blessed with the wisdom to find a balance between guarding our traditions and ancient texts, and renewing and interpreting them for our times, our language and our cultural context. And so, we read parashat “Tzav” this week once again, as in past generations, but not with the goal of renewing the practice of ritual sacrifice, but with the goal of being inspired to make the essential and important changes in our world.