One reason religion gets a bad rap these days is that it can seem so ... well, so old sometimes.
I’m studying Torah with some members of my congregation. The passage at hand is about sacrifices — offerings of crops and animals once performed in Jerusalem’s ancient temple. The temple, I explained, was the only place where such sacrifices could be offered. When it was destroyed in the year 70, Jewish sacrifice came to a screeching halt, and thousands of goats throughout the land breathed sighs of relief.
What we are studying, in other words, is a group of rituals last practiced almost 2,000 years ago.
Several of my congregants roll their eyes. “Rabbi,” one of them asks, “Why do we have to study these crazy things? Not only are they weird and sometimes gory, but they’re also absolutely foreign to our own religious practice.”
“Yes,” adds another, “religion is about kindness and compassion. It’s about understanding the world and doing what’s right. What do priestly vestments and altars and slaughtering animals have to do with any of those things?”
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“And while we’re at it,” says a third congregant, “we study a lot of other biblical laws that are utterly irrelevant, as well. Do you think it really matters whether we wear combinations of wool and linen, or whether a guy with a limp can be a priest, or whether hoopoe is kosher. (What is hoopoe, anyway?)”
In a sense, they have a point. One reason religion gets a bad rap these days is that it can seem so … well, so old sometimes. Most major religions root themselves in scriptures written thousands of years ago — in times when fiber combinations, limping priests and the ritual permissibility of hoopoe were important.
Now that we have other worries — global warming, school violence, impending fiscal doom and more — why, really, should we worry about those now-irrelevant ancient laws?
The reason we should study them, I think, is because many of those old laws aren’t irrelevant at all. Of course, many of them don’t apply anymore. Of course, people these days might not heed them. Of course, today they might seem downright silly. But the old laws can still have value anyway.
For some, the notion God might care about how we clothe ourselves can transform the act of getting dressed into a sacred deed. The limping-priest prohibition reminds me that, long ago, priests were supposed to convey a sense of strength and potency, and this deepens my understanding of what it means to be a leader. And even if we don’t know what hoopoe is, the laws about eating it suggest our most mundane decisions can resound with eternal significance.
Think of it this way: There are many rules you break all the time. If you’re like most of us, you’ve occasionally disregarded traffic laws and driven 30 in a 25 mph zone, flouted consumer regulations and torn the tag off your mattress, and — c’mon, admit it — you’ve also inserted a cotton swab or two right into your ear canal.
But despite our wanton defiance, we have to admit the existence of these rules is probably a good thing. Without those annoying traffic laws, our streets would be more dangerous. We want our government to protect consumers, even if the laws do go overboard sometimes. And, alas, even though millions of Q-tips slide into millions of ear canals every day, the box-side prohibition of the brazen act does inspire caution and should probably remain.
In general, we moderns tend to dismiss old teachings far too quickly. Old words, even when they reflect historical circumstances different from our own, often hold great truths deep within them. Only when we explore the ancient texts can we hope find their hidden treasures.
Jewish tradition teaches that the ark of the covenant — the ornate box holding the tablets God gave Moses at Sinai — contained the first, broken set of tablets as well as the second unbroken ones. Broken words have value. Broken words can be holy. We must never throw them away.
“You want relevance?” I ask my congregants. “OK, I’ll give you relevance. Let’s open our Bibles and turn to the part about sacrifices.”
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org