I begin with one of my favorite stories: A Reform and an Orthodox Rabbi are walking down the street, deeply engaged in an animated discussion (already you know this is a tale of some vintage given the theological\political realities of today). Appearing, seemingly out of nowhere, is an old, disheveled woman. She is laden with plastic bags and out of one of them, she pulls a chicken which looks just as timeworn and scruffy as does she. Turning to the Orthodox Rabbi who is garbed in full regalia – kaftan, kaputa, peyes, tzitzit (surely symbols of authority) – she asks. “Rabbi, is this chicken kosher?”
The Rabbi takes the fowl and begins a meticulous examination. First the skin, then the internal organs and finally the lungs (are they glatt – smooth?). After his thorough inspection, he says, “This chicken is not kosher.” Ah, but this is a Jewish story and so the old woman seeks a second opinion. She turns to the Reform Rabbi who is attired in a Men’s Warehouse suit (buy one, get one of equal or lesser value for free!) and asks “Is this chicken kosher?” I must digress for the time that it takes to tell you that in 40 years in the pulpit, no one has asked me that question. I don’t know what they teach at HUC-JIR today, but I am reasonably certain that certification as a mashgiakh is not in the curriculum. If someone brought a chicken to me, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I only buy “organic, free range, non-gmo chickens,” but I don’t believe they enjoy the hecksher of any Rabbis. The Laws of Kashrut, I know. The actual parameters and arcane details thereof, not so much.
My Reform colleague reluctantly (it’s really a mess) takes the bird and begins his utterly pointless evaluation. After a minute (which seems much longer to him), he hands the bird back and says, “I’m afraid I must disagree with my colleague; this chicken IS kosher.” Over joyed, she places the chicken in one of her plastic bags and continues on her way. Without being too facile, the moral of the story: the Orthodox Rabbi looked at the chicken; the Reform Rabbi looked at the woman.
Casting aside my own issues with regard to gender equality, pluralistic impulses and theological fanaticism, what does the above tale have to do with life, death and Yom Kippur – but hours away?
I once had a professor who averred that all religion was a response to human mortality; I think he used the word “finitude.” There is a ring of truth to this thesis. A great deal of space is afforded the issues of death, dying and what to expect afterwards in all faiths. Some give highly detailed, concretized answers. I may never have been asked, “Is this chicken kosher?” but countless are the times I have been asked, “What happens after we die?” I have always hedged with my answer: I have either said, “People who say with certitude that there is something else awaiting us after we close our eyes for the final time are saying more than they know. So, too, for those who say there is only oblivion. They also are saying more than they know. The worst case scenario: do you remember what it was like before you were born?” Granted, these are answers from someone who was suckled at the breast of rationalism. But, at its core, religion is not rational. I read just last week that if you see a bright red cardinal (the bird, not the prelate), it means that someone “from the other side” is looking down on you. It is next to impossible to determine where superstition ends and religion begins.
Case in point: in a couple of days we will observe a day that is meant to resemble death. We fast to the point of near collapse. We wear a kittel which is designed to resemble tachrichim, the shrouds in which we are buried. We confess and confess and confess in what is a much longer version of the vidui, the final confession (and I would gently point out that none of us is exempt from mouthing the words as we check our watches; we are champions of smoke and mirrors when the issue revolves around our own short-comings). We will intone the ancient words, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – who shall live and who shall die…but repentance, prayer and tzedaka will avert the decree.” Somewhere, on another continent, there’s a guy with a bone through his nose and a plate which is enveloped by his lower lip saying essentially the same thing – different language, same idea. And we are so much more than this.
When you are handed a messy, grimy, filthy chicken, don’t you dare avert your gaze. Compassion, integrity, decency, courage and generosity can render the trefe kosher, but you can’t accomplish that standing apart, speaking empty words, or looking away.
Tzom Kal – for an easy fast.