Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Red Heifer, Emperor Julian, and Religious Meaning

Any Roman Emperor who wanted to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem is pretty okay in my book. Emperor Julian was one of the last Caesars to govern the whole empire before it was permanently divided in two, and the last who was a pagan (though we could argue about whether say the later Western Emperor Anthemius was also a pagan, but then we would not only not be giving a d'var torah anymore, we'd also guarantee that we were talking to ourself). And more than being merely a pagan, Julian was a sort of pagan-crusader, fighting against what he saw as the threat to civilization that Christianity had become after gaining official status. He sought to curb its excesses of power and its persecution of non-Christians by promoting a brand of religious tolerance for all forms of worship - hence his desire to see the Temple rebuilt. Julian's philosophy is beautifully captured in a quote about him. It speaks to a notion that I believe is very much true for the religious believer today: "The myths that shock the vulgar are noble allegories to the wise and reverent. Purge religion from dross, if you like; but remember that you do so at your peril. One false step, one self-confident rejection of a thing which is merely too high for you to grasp, and you are darkening the Sun, casting God out of the world.” I bring this up (it really is a d'var torah!) because our portion this week, Chukkat, contains the passage describing the offering of the Red Heifer. That such an animal had properties to render the impure pure after properly sacrificing it defines the term chok, from which we get the title for the portion. A chok is a law, but one for which there is no obvious, practical, reason, at least not in human eyes. Much of religion could fall into such a category, at least for many today. And certainly when we ask why the specifics of Jewish life must be thus and so, it is hard to avoid an answer that is of the "I told you so" chok, variety. But what Julian's view, and again it is the view of many religious people today, teaches to us, is that religion is more the palette of the artist than the toolkit of the mechanic. Religion colors our lives with more than just moral meaning. It should offer beauty, wonder, and mystery to us, and encourage us to love, debate, question and even doubt the details of this life we've been given. The Red Heifer teaches a valuable lesson to us. Not that religious people shouldn't question, but that that shouldn't be quick to throw out the symbols and stories that have guided so many merely because they don't seem to have the same appeal to us today. We should strive to embrace all the odds and ends and oddities that make up our religious tradition. Such a tradition is perfectly suited to living in the odd and irrational world in which we find ourselves. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson

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