Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Tzav, Shabbat HaGadol: "The Open Curtain"

As a pulpit rabbi, I maintained that mine was the busiest profession. Eventually, I conceded that other professions were equally busy. But I continued to insist that the rabbi’s busy days are unique, for he is constantly faced with conflicting emotions.

The average rabbi may begin his day attending a happy event; a brit (circumcision). There, he shares in the special joy of welcoming a new child. There is a feeling of warmth between him and the parents of the newborn, and he glows with pride along with the grandparents. But he takes his leave before the ceremonial meal begins. He must be off to his next appointment.

Often he must shift from joy to grief. The next family he meets has just lost a loved one, perhaps under especially tragic circumstances. He must assist with the details of arranging the funeral and burial, but he dare not allow his preoccupation with those details to detract from the sensitive task of consoling the inconsolable and showing compassion to the bereaved.

The rabbi’s day alternates from one extreme emotion to another, from one set of demands to a contrasting set of responsibilities. Sometimes, he must deal with ideologies diametrically opposed to his own. Let me tell you about one such day in my own experience.

I had scheduled a meeting that I knew would be uncomfortable for me. I had often met with clergy of other faiths, although I have always been guided by the teachings of those of my mentors who discouraged interfaith dialogue on theological matters. But I have sought to work cooperatively with spiritual leaders of other faiths on matters of social welfare. I learned, though, that it is hard to draw a firm boundary between theological matters and social concerns.

That morning, during my prayers, I asked the Almighty to somehow spare me the trials of theological confrontations at the meeting. My "backup" prayer was that He help me tackle whatever theological discussions did arise with wisdom and tact.

My anxieties soon proved to be justified. The announced agenda was to plan to oppose municipal legislation that would permit gambling in our community. However, the conversation soon turned to the Bible. My discomfort increased when the focus narrowed to one specific biblical narrative: the story of the Binding of Isaac. I knew the differences between the manner in which Jewish tradition and Christian teachings each interpret the story. But the discussion was unavoidable, and I did my best to present the Jewish point of view.

Eventually, the conversation returned to the agenda, and we did commit to jointly oppose the proposed municipal legislation. But I left the meeting recommitted to my profound belief that Judaism and Christianity differ profoundly and fundamentally from each other.

After that morning’s discomfort, I looked forward to my afternoon, during which I planned to prepare the daily page of Talmud to teach a group of my constituents dedicated to a program known as Daf Yomi, which aims to complete the voluminous corpus of Jewish law, known as the Talmud, in seven-and-a-half years by unfailingly studying one folio page every day. Little did I know that the discussion stimulated by that day’s page would bear upon the differences between the Jewish faith and other religious perspectives.

That day we were to study page 55 in the tractate Zevachim. This tome deals with laws pertaining to the ritual sacrifices in the Holy Temple. The biblical basis of these laws is found in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36). There, we learn about a variety of voluntary sacrifices that individuals can offer: the olah, a burnt offering totally consumed by fire upon the altar; the mincha, a meal offering composed of flour and oil and frankincense; and the shelamim, in which some sections of the sacrificial animal are placed upon the altar, but other portions are distributed to the priests and to the donors of the sacrifice to be eaten by them.

We had already been studying this particular tractate for almost two months when we reached page 55. We were familiar with the many differences between the aforementioned sacrifices, including the fascinating fact that the olah and mincha could be offered by non-Jews, whereas the shelamim could not. Many reasons are offered for this distinction. I had shared with the class a reason that I personally favored, based upon the thinking of early 20th century rabbi and mystic, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

Rabbi Kook wrote, "The world's many cultures cannot comprehend how matters of the flesh can be considered sacred. They struggle with the concept that physical tasks can be intrinsically spiritual." Other cultures can readily accept that a sacrifice which is totally consumed upon the altar can be an act of worship. But that ordinary people, the donors of a particular sacrificial offering, can sit down to a festive meal, eat and enjoy the food, and in the process perform a sacred act of worship—that is totally alien and unacceptable to them. Only one who identifies with the teachings of the Jewish tradition, in which all physical activities, no matter how mundane, are infused with holiness, can appreciate that partaking in a delicious meal in the company of one's family and friends is sublimely spiritual.

Part of that day's lecture dealt with the requirement that the magnificent doors separating the area of the altar from the central Temple chamber, or heichal, must be opened before the shelamim sacrifice can commence. While preparing for that day's lecture, I encountered an interesting dispute between the two major commentators on the Talmudic page: Rashi and Tosafot. Rashi maintains that only for the shelamim must these doors remain open. They did not have to remain open for other sacrifices. Tosafot disagree and maintain that this requirement was true for all sacrifices. Interestingly, Maimonides sides with Rashi.

I suggested to the class that the approach of Rashi and Maimonides was consistent with Rabbi Kook's thinking. The open doors of the heichal were symbolic of the connection which exists in Judaism, and arguably only in Judaism, between that most sacred inner chamber of the Temple in which the Divine Presence was centered and the outer world in which ordinary humans share sacrificial flesh. The open doors symbolize the absence of barriers between the sacred and the profane.

When I began to deliver my lecture that afternoon, I was struck by the contrast between my early morning theological discussions with Catholic priests and my Talmudic musings later that day. But as I continued to teach, I realized that these two experiences were but two sides of the same coin. In the morning, and in the afternoon, I was actually making the same point, albeit to two very different audiences. I was doing my job as a rabbi, teaching that Judaism is unique in its understanding of biblical passages, and also unique in its insistence that one did not have to abstain from physical pleasure in order to reach spiritual heights.

The one lesson that distinguishes Judaism from other religions it is this: Holiness and daily affairs may occupy separate compartments, but the doors between them must remain open.