The Leviticus:8 Project
Aaron came forward to the altar and slaughtered his calf of sin offering. Leviticus 9:8
As many of you know, I had a long career as a pulpit rabbi – just about 35 years. That’s a long time in the adult life span, and when I look back on it from this perspective, I am surprised at something that should not surprise me – especially since I said it with some frequency. Incremental changes over a long period always create a major shift. It is true of my physical existence, it is true of my belief system and it is certainly true of my conduct as a rabbi (but not only as a rabbi).
When I retired from the congregation, I felt a sense of relief that I did not anticipate. The tightly defined schedule of duties that spoke for my days, and most especially my weekends, suddenly dissipated. It’s not that other expectations did not take their place, but the Jewish life I had cultivated as a younger man that led me to the rabbinate had incrementally slipped away from my control, and as my continuing evolution as a believer proceeded in one direction, my continuing evolution as a practitioner steadfastly remained defined for me by the schedule of services, the calendar of programs, the prescribed responses to others’ life cycle events and the demands of the institution for human and financial support.
As the tension between the two increased, I became more and more stretched between the two influences which can most simply be described as why I believed and how I believed. And I have no doubt that I might have found ways to experiment and change my public practices – the congregation was very accommodating – but my expectations of my own public role were the biggest obstacles to that change. It was not an indication of a lack of confidence as much as a sense of responsibility to my role as a conserver (after all, I am a Conservative rabbi) of the tradition.
I wonder if this is a modern problem that results from a world of choices that did not exist in ancient times. What sustained leaders like Aaron who, for years at a stretch, performed prescribed rituals with precision and without variation? Even if he had the thought that things might be more effective or efficient or engaging with a little variety or modification, he was obligated as High Priest to come forward to the altar and slaughter his calf, just as he was instructed.
There might have been a time earlier in my life when I believed that if Aaron had nicked the neck of the offering a little, or had sprinkled blood to the other side before the prescribed side, or had taken one too many or one too few steps that the ritual would have been ruined. I am not such a literalist – I merely appreciate the art of meaningful and tested choreography. Now, I am not so strict – so machmir, as the word is in Hebrew. There are some practices I still believe have veto power. (Though I made exceptions for married or engaged couples, two necessary halves of a whole, I still hold to the notion that only one person should be called to the Torah at a time rather than the “gang honors” that put the honorees above the singular voice of the reader of the sacred text.) But mostly I have come to understand that there are often different paths to the same destination, and that integrity can be measured more ways than by behavioral metrics.
The luxury of relinquishing my previous responsibilities allows me to say and do what current leaders must weigh more exquisitely. Leaders who embody deep respect and credibility (usually qualities bestowed by others and not presumed by self) can risk change without as much suspicion and resentment as those who are perceived as wrecking balls. The late former King of Jordan came to Israel to pay a condolence call when a disturbed Jordanian soldier killed Israeli Jewish schoolgirls at a peace monument, kneeling before the bereaved mothers in a very unkinglike gesture; the criticism was minor. The current Prince of Wales abandoned hopes of ascending to his mother’s throne when he married a divorcee for love.
Currently, the President of the United States is a man who is a disruptor. Setting aside agreement or disagreement with the value of the changes in policy and practice he has instituted, increasing numbers of Americans feel unmoored from the otherwise dependable conduct of the officeholder. Republican or Democrat, combat veteran or civilian, southerner or northerner, former Presidents seemed to adhere to certain conventions – call them rituals or unspoken expectations – that allowed transitions from Commander-in-Chief to Commander-in-Chief to proceed with confidence. Aaron would not be High Priest forever, but for as long as someone occupied the office, when the time came he would come forward to the altar and slaughter his calf of sin offering. Changes in the conventions of conduct were only as acceptable as the person making them and the case that could be made.
I don’t know whether I admire or object to the self-regard that enables some leaders to make changes that suit them without much concern for the people who feel the impact, practically or emotionally. But now that I am on the receiving end, I know I was right to exercise restraint when I was a leader, and right to step away when my enthusiasm for the status quo began to wane.