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april 30, 2024- 22 Nisan 5784

04/29/2024 04:22:05 PM


Concluding Pesach has a special quality. We lay aside the special rules and unleavened foods that have dominated discussion for several weeks—basically since the last hamantaschen were savored at Purim. The narrative that we launched on the Seder nights, of Divine protection and salvation in the process of redemption, however, remains unfinished.

One root of that is the ancient agricultural calendar that threads its way through the entire Jewish year. Once dependent upon a reliable cycle of rain and drought—a point commentators noted to the early verses of Deuteronomy, planting, growth, and harvest times depended upon lunar cycles, and clear seasonal differences. Grain was planted after Sukkoth, grew through the rainy winter, and was harvested beginning at the full moon of the month following the equinox of spring…in short, Pesach.

This context nurtures the successful concern with the removal of the stored grain—the yashan—to prevent premature damage to the new harvest. Near the end of the second Seder, the count of the seven weeks of Sefirat ha-Omer begins Ha-yom yom echad l’sefirat ha-Omer. It continues day by day, for seven weeks which totals 49 days, ending on the Jewish holiday known as Pentecost—Shavuoth. That period of frantic, life-sustaining activity in ancient Judea is memorialized in the Book of Ruth, where the agricultural and spiritual narratives are wed, as Midrash places the former slaves at the base of Mount Sinai, open and prepared for revelation. Let Torah into our lives!

Such is the genius of Jewish folk tradition merged into the sustaining tradition of Jewish Law—Halachah. For generations and centuries, it was law, enforceable by the B’tei Din—courts of law—under the more or less wise control of the scholarly meritocracy, the Rabbis of each generation. There was no criminal authority, and each court was autonomous. In the diaspora, Jews were subject to any laws, edicts or decrees the current government might find useful. That made life precarious for individuals and communities alike. With no guarantee of justice in secular courts, going to them was to be avoided. Such is the lot of oppressed groups.

The small stature of Napoleon Bonaparte aside, a singular, lasting effect of his war-torn tenure in France, expanded through military adventure until it was frozen outside the gates of Moscow—and finally in his defeat at Waterloo—is likely the granting of full civil rights to each Jew he ruled between 1799-1808. The basis was the French Revolution (1789) promise of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternity—civil rights for all French citizens. Implicit in this change is the reduced status of the system of Jewish Law, courts, and Rabbinic authority.

Why is that history so important? Until 1948, European (and American) Jews were subject only to secular law; religious identity dictated practice among the observant and continues as a choice some opt into. All the more remarkably, a large proportion of secularized American Jews maintain some Jewish practices: whether as expansive as Modern Orthodoxy (followers of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s dictate to be Mensch-Yisro’el—meaning a model citizen in public, a model Jew in private—) or secularized in all matters.[1] As well as every conceivable position between these on the spectrum of Jewish life, where practice can shift like the barometer measuring an approaching storm.

Reform Judaism was born through the decrees of Napoleon as spontaneous shifting occurred in nearly every corner of the Napoleonic Empire.[2] The formerly captive audience of Jewish communities (in German, Gemeinden) with official legal status and taxation authority, evolved rapidly into social associations. In today’s lingo, private not-for-profit clubs. In the infant United States of 1815 (endpoint of the Napoleonic chaos), governed by the Declaration of Independence (1776) and Constitution (1783), no official community had ever existed, Jews were few in number, and in the various colonies, restricted in multiple ways. (Of course, from the beginning, some high achievers brought great help to the Revolution, the new national economy—and to my personal disappointment—were active in the triangle trade involving tobacco, molasses and the human cargo that became the African American slaves. That ugliness is ours to acknowledge, despite most Jews reaching these shores decades after the trade and enslavement ended). 

As for the Counting of the Omer, a period customarily marked with great solemnity, during which celebrations are postponed or muted, one could see them as a metaphor for successive holders of the highest American office, the Presidency. Number 46 is presently in office, as four-year ‘bites at the apple’ continue, as successive hard-fought differences of opinion or party play out, as Jews continue to be represented among American leadership to a degree far larger than our small number in the growing population.

This counting, its solemnity, our role in it, and the recollection that through the first days after liberation from Egypt—rife with events hard to reduplicate for scientific verification—nonetheless points to the expectation that over time suffering can be ameliorated, rights can be maintained, and the life can be improved for all Americans.

You have to have faith!

On Tuesday evening, April 30, 2024, equivalent to the eve of 23 Nisan 5784, we count the 7th day of the Omer.

[1] Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters on Judaism (Neunzehn Briefe über Judenthum), published in 1836 under the pseudonym “Ben Uziel”, offered an intellectual presentation of Orthodox Judaism in classical German and a “fearless, uncompromising defense” of all its institutions and ordinances… It was written in the form of a fictional correspondence between a young rabbi/philosopher and a youthful intellectual. The first letter, the intellectual’s, outlines the challenges that emancipation created for modern Jews, and questions the continued relevance of Judaism. []

[2] The principal influence exercised by Napoleon as emperor on Jewish history was in the years 1806 to 1808 when he convened the Assembly of Jewish Notables and the (French) Sanhedrin, and established the Consistories. The programmatic documents formulated during this period and the institutions which then came into being embody the first practical expression of the demands made by a centralized modern state on the Jews who had become its citizens – “the separation of the political from the religious elements in Judaism.[]

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784