In the waning hours of 5780, America lost an icon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg left behind a tremendous legacy of the fight for equality, especially in the realm of women’s rights, and for a more comprehensive look at the life of the Supreme Court Justice, I recommend checking out Sergey Kadinsky’s piece from last week. The news of her death brought on an immediate debate about what to do with the vacant seat, and that was covered by Moshe Hill last week. I realize now that the Queens Jewish Link has talked a lot about RBG, but she has left an indelible mark on society, and that mark is the one I’d like to talk about this week.
When you turned on your phone after Rosh HaShanah, you may have been sent the video of Bloomfield, New Jersey’s Rabbi Marc Katz and Cantor Meredith Greenberg of Temple Ner Tamid reading a list of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s quotes in the traditional haftorah trup. They did this to “pay homage to a modern-day prophet,” a prophet who could be compared to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. This performance was not an addition to the services for Rosh HaShanah; it was a substitute for the haftorah. It was preceded by the brachah for the haftorah, and the video cuts at the end of the “haftorah” so we don’t get to see if they added the ending brachos as well. (As a side note, even when orthodox Jews read selections of Tanach that are just pieces of wisdom, they don’t make brachos. Tehilim, Kohelles, and Shir Hashirim all do not receive brachos. Brachos are reserved for the Torah and narratives.)
Now, this is not going to be some takedown of the perceived blasphemy here. If you are familiar with their teachings, you would know that Reform Judaism differs from Orthodox Judaism at its very core. According to reformjudaism.org, unlike traditional Jewish thought that believes in the concept of “Torah min Hashamayim,” Reform Judaism believes that “the Torah is a human creation – written by our ancestors and inspired by their understanding of themselves and the place of G-d in their lives – so ‘divine’ in one sense, but utterly human.” If the Torah is a human creation, there is no problem erasing or changing anything; humans can always correct other humans. The only reason Orthodox Jews don’t change the rulings of previous generations is that those generations were closer to the giving of the Torah and presumably have a better understanding of what G-d originally spoke. But if G-d was not the one who spoke the Torah, there is no worry about correcting previous generations.
This one difference is the basis for the undeniable fact that while we all consider ourselves “Jewish,” Orthodox and Reform Jews have essentially been practicing two different religions for the last 300 years. All this is to say that it’s not a surprise that this would happen in a Reform Temple, nor is it anything new when it comes to a Reform congregation doing something that an Orthodox Jew would consider to be blasphemous. That’s just not the story here.
The story here is what happens when we worship modern-day cultural icons to the point where they become a part of your religious services. Adding RBG to be a part of your prayers on one of the holiest days of the calendar shows just how much people are worshipped. And to be clear, this wasn’t an instance of a rabbi inserting some of the teachings or quotes of an individual into a sermon. This was a full replacement of the haftorah with the teachings of an individual. What we saw was the reverse of what the founding fathers intended by separating church and state. The goal there was to protect government from being swayed by religion. They never intended for this to be a warning against those who invited government in to influence their religion.
Unfortunately, this celebrity worship is not limited to one synagogue one time. This is ingrained in our lives - all day, every day. We tend to worship celebrity - maybe not to the point where we replace a section of prayer with their teachings, but definitely how it effects our thinking. Opinions of actors, athletes, and singers hold more weight, even if it’s not something they are particularly expert in. For instance, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson just gave his first ever political endorsement. I don’t care what he says on politics. I’ll listen when he tells me how to get in shape, but somehow his endorsement means something. At this time, I don’t see a congregation substituting Modim D’rabanan with “You’re Welcome” from Moana when Johnson dies, but would it shock me?
Celebrity worship in this country exists especially in the parts of the country that don’t have other things to call religion. The fact that Beyoncé can outdraw the Pope proves that. Based on their own definition of the religion, Reform Judaism doesn’t have as much of a deity to pray to as they think they do. It comes as no shock, then, that they can easily replace the words of the Prophets with the words of a justice.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.