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Rules and Freedom

Rules and Freedom

Sermon, Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Congregation Beit Simcha of Tucson

February 1, 2019

The great 1960’s comedian, Alan Sherman, most famous for his song “Hello Muddah Hello Faddah”, once wrote a book about restrictions on human behavior. In it, he decided to invent a new religion, which would have only one commandment: Thou shalt not stuff 37 tennis balls down the toilet. In great excitement he went to a sign painter to create the tablet of this new covenant and asked him to make up a huge sign with that commandment on it. But the sign painter refused.

“Friend,” he said, “I’m going to do you a big favor. I’m not going to paint your sign. Because if I paint it, the day after the sign goes up, there will be a run on sporting goods stores. Tennis balls will sell like hotcakes, and plumbers will be working round the clock. The virtuous among us will only stuff 36 tennis balls down their toilets. Normal sinners will stuff 37 tennis balls down their toilets. And the truly wicked will stuff 38 tennis balls down their toilets. Friend, we human beings are many things; but we all of us are perverse.”

As we approach this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim, we do well to remember that. The last few weeks we have seen magnificent Torah portion after magnificent Torah portion. Now, after B'shalach's great song of freedom, after the majesty of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, after the greatest events in the history of the Jewish people, we thump down to earth with a Torah portion full of laws, restrictions, norms and standards. In short, rules; and we progressive American Jews just don't like rules.

We do like the unabridged freedom of the Exodus story. Americans believe in freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of choice, freedom of and in every particular of our decision-making. We choose our own course in life, and vigorously resist anyone who tries to curtail our liberties. Nobody tells us what to think, or how to act. This is the land of the free, after all! A universal covenantal code? Antique laws decreed by an ancient autocratic god? Al achat kama v'chama, how much less will we like those! We refuse to be tied up by rules, because they bind us in like the tefillin we don't wear. The idea that we are bound in leather straps to God, that we are supposed to say, as we wrap them around our arm and hand the prophet’s words, “I bind you to Me forever, I bind you to Me in justice and laws and kindness and mercy, I bind you to Me in faith so that you will know that I am God”—this is far too constricting for us.

And perhaps we have good reason to dislike rules. As contemporary Jews, we do not believe we are marionettes controlled by a heavenly puppeteer; we do believe that we are free actors in the magnificent improvisation of life. Religion can encourage social action, but it has no right to control social interactions.

So what do we make of Mishpatim? The first part of our portion is the famous “Book of the Covenant”, a listing of the laws that the people were supposed to observe. These are not chukim, religious laws describing our relationship with God, but person-to-person laws, mishpatlm, that affect our everyday, human interactions. According to some authorities these are so basic that they would exist even without the Torah. In short, what we have are a bunch of rules, and the bottom line is, most people don't like rules.

But, as Alan Sherman’s sign-painter didn't say, the fact is that whether or not we like rules, we seem to need rules none the less. In our own lives we abide by all kinds of rules. We drive our cars according to the Mishpatim of the motor vehicle department. We pay taxes at the command of the tax code. We use forks, spoons and knives at the behest of Emily Post. We listen to music from the Torah of Spotify or Apple Music, buy books and see movies according the rules of reviewers or the recommendations of Amazon, and have our social conduct governed by laws as intricate as any Jewish legal Halachic framework—send a thank-you note, call your mother or child, visit a friend who is ill, and don't wear jeans to services except on Rodeo Shabbat. Our cherished illusion of no norms, of unbounded freedom in our daily American lives, is really just that—an illusion.

Ah, but when it comes to religion it's a different matter. Or, rather, it's a different choice: you see, in our spiritual lives we are free, but it is the freedom to choose for ourselves whom we will serve and which laws, rules, and ideas are boundaries for our lives.

It's no accident that our sedra, the Torah portion of Mishpatim begins with the laws of servitude, the Hebrew indentured servant, the eved ivri. For the Israelites, "freedom" didn't mean the absence of control; it meant a free-will choice between serving god and serving pharaoh. In Bob Dylan’s immortal words, "you got to serve somebody”; we too, exist in a context. Our choice is whether to blindly accept society's norms, or choose our own, Jewish path. Do we adopt the cultural code of conduct, or do we engage our tradition actively—including those unattractive rules, these mishpatim?

There is an intriguing parallel here to game theory: you can't play a game if you don't accept that game's basic rules. You can't play baseball without foul lines; you can't play the Super Bowl without downs; you can't play chess if pawns can jump. As progressive Jews each of us has the personal power to decide what the rules are going to be for this crucial game of Judaism.

That is, we non-Orthodox Jews have the ability to decide what our own Judaism will be. So how exactly do we make decisions about our moral life? What mishpatim will we choose to observe, and why?

Orthodoxy has always held up a model from our very own Torah portion: na 'aseh v'nishma, we will do the commandments and then we will hear them. Reform Judaism in the past has said "nishma—we will hear; and then we’ll see." Some of us engage the tradition actively, with knowledge, insight, and the commitment of kabbalat ol malchut shama yim b'ahavah, receiving the yoke of the kingdom of heaven in love. But many of us think we are being good Jews when we choose lo nishma v'lo na'aseh, we will neither learn nor act, a sub-minimalist Judaism that jumps completely off the game board.

You will hear it said that being a good Jew means being a good person. This confuses a 3800-year-old tradition with the Boy Scouts of America; an outstanding organization, but not a religion. Judaism is a particular, magnificently moral religious tradition. Our own ability to engage it, to work at our Jewish identity, is what defines whether we will be Jews who make a difference, who carry on our faith for our children, or Jews who allow it to slip away.

My grandfather, Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon, was one of the great ideologues of classical Reform Judaism. The Foundation named for him and his wife will give an award next week to those who work for the good of the entire people of Israel, klal Yisrael. Over sixty-five years ago he wrote: "a religion that does not seek to lead and to correct, that asks for nothing, that is soft and yielding, that is all things to all people, is in reality nothing to anybody in particular and of doubtful value to mankind." To paraphrase Hillel, if we have no standards, what are we?

So where do we find those standards? The great ideas of the Ten Commandments alone are not enough, and the Torah sees this immediately. That's why we have these mishpatim, these norms. It's not sufficient to say, "you shall not steal"; we must also say "don't keep Your neighbor's ox." Today, we need to say, “you shall not engage in a Ponzi Scheme” and “you shall not do insider trading" and, "You shall not defraud a big company on a contract" and “You shall not cheat or stiff your subcontractors.” It's not enough to say, "You shall have no other Gods before Me"; we must say "if you wish to be Jewish, or for your children to be Jewish, you must make your house an active, religious Jewish home" and “You must support your synagogue materially so it can be a home and source for real Judaism.”

Progressive Judaism is flexible, but flexibility is not fluidity; to be flexible you must first have shape. It is our individual job to define that shape, and the way we use these mishpatim can guide us.

This has been a cold winter in Israel, with much snow in Jerusalem, and images of Jerusalem with snow always reminds me of an experience I had in Yerushalayim on New Year's Eve 1992, now over 25 years ago. That night the greatest snowfall in recorded history drifted gently but steadily down onto streets, roofs and treetops. Those magnificent Jerusalem pine trees, all those great trees in Israel that we paid the Jewish National Fund to plant through those blue and white pushkes—all those now magnificent pine trees had never been pruned, and they had grown and spread out over most of the city. As we watched from our mirpeset, our balcony, the soft snow accumulated, and then the pine branches began to snap loudly and collapse onto the power lines below, severing the lines. Within hours all electricity was gone, and a dark, frozen Jerusalem returned to the 19th century.

Those beautiful JNF trees, which bordered all of our paths, which gave us shade in the summer and shelter in the winter, which gave our lives beauty and fragrance and comfort—if only they had been pruned! Now they would be cut down and removed completely.

Halacha, Jewish law, is often compared to a living tree, an etz chayim, and over time it grew luxuriantly, even out of control. In the 19th and 20th centuries Reform Judaism pruned that tree back, so that we might have the light of modernity. We know that trees grow higher, straighter and truer when they are carefully pruned, and that the best fruit grows on the new branches. But to grow new branches, to nourish new shoots, we still need the roots of that tree. And those roots are in the mishpatim, the norms and rules of human interaction and religious commitment.

In Hebrew, the word for root is ikkar, which also means essence. Our job as Jews today is to find the ikkar, to see that the tree we nourish grows from essential Jewish tradition. Our inner lives flourish and grow only if we are firmly planted in the soil of that tradition, if we fertilize and weed and trim and care for the flowering of our own and our family's religion and morality. A regular, practical examination of what we do for our Judaism, how we incorporate it into our daily lives, how we choose to support it, a voluntary binding of our own lives to rules that have meaning and a basis in tradition—that is what will determine the ultimate quality of our existence, that is what will make our lives, and our Judaism, flourish.

We must begin to put together our own Jewish world, and we can only do it one practical little law, one mishpat at a time. Paradoxically, perhaps, that is where we will find our true freedom. To quote poet Adrienne Rich:

"These atoms filmed by ordinary dust

that common life…


It isn't once to walk out under the Milky Way,

feeling the rivers of light, the fields of dark—

freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine remembering.

Putting together, inch by inch

the starry worlds

from all the lost collections."

It is ultimately through these simple Mishpatim that we will come, freely, to reach God, and to know God; and to be bound to God in intimacy, forever. And then, inch-by-inch, this world may truly come to be a vision of justice, of peace, and of God's presence. So may it be, bimheira v'yameinu, speedily in our day; kein yehi ratson.

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