D’var Torah on Parshat Ki Tavo from Hungarian Reform Rabbi Ferenc Raj

This article was taken from WUPJ newsletter/website, original can be found here:

Rabbi Raj is founding rabbi of our sister community in Budapest, called Bet Orim.
For more about the history of Reform/Progressive movement in Hungary and specifically Sim Shalom’s role, please read our History page!


Torah from around the world #81

“A wandering Aramean was my father” / on Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)

by Rabbi Ferenc Raj, PhD, Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation Beth El, Berkeley, CA, USA, and founding Rabbi, Congregation Bet Orim, Budapest, Hungary

Perhaps the most recognized part of the Torah portion Ki Tavo is the long list of divine blessings and the even longer list of curses, or using the traditionally accepted term for them, tokh’chah, chastisement or warning. Conceivably, with this revolutionary reinterpretation, our rabbis of old wanted to indicate that since human beings possess free will, we have the capability of bringing blessings upon ourselves as well as curses. In addition, the ancient masters suspected that here also “dibrah Torah bi-l’shon b’ne adam”, the Torah speaks in the language of humans, who in general, in every experience, see more negative happenings than positive ones.

Ki Tavo starts with a lively description of the first fruits ceremony uttered by the individual farmer who brings the offering to the priest in charge at that time. The act of offering is accompanied by a set of liturgical declarations acknowledging God’s guidance of Israel’s history from its humble beginnings, freeing it from Egyptian slavery, and giving it the land. It was mandatory to include the phrase: “Arami oved avi – A wandering Aramean was my father.” (Deuteronomy 26:5)

As I read this phrase “Arami oved avi” today, I was reminded of Jewish history. How appropriate it is that Chaim Potok chose Wanderings for the title of his magnum opus that discusses Jewish history. Suddenly it occurred to me that not just individuals, but also ideas and ideologies might wander. Such is the case of Reform Judaism.

It is not widely known that the first truly learned rabbi who stood up for the fledgling Reform Jewish movement was Aaron Chorin (1766-1844) from the Hungarian town of Arad (today Oradea in Romania). In fact, he introduced many innovations to his congregation, which was demonstrated in an erudite paper, published in the collection of responsa “Nogah ha-Tsedek” (The Radiance of Justice). Rabbi Chorin advocates “the use of vernacular in prayer, the organ, the formation of a separate congregation, the abolition of the silent petitional prayer and the Sephardi pronunciation.” (Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity – A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism, New York 1988, p. 51)

Reform Jewish ideas became increasingly more popular in Hungary, and just a few years after Rabbi Chorin’s death, the first Hungarian Reform Jewish congregation, the Central Reform (Jewish) Association of the (City of) Pest, was formed. The organizers were mostly young progressive people, intellectuals and successful businessmen, all ardent supporters of the anti-Habsburg Hungarian revolution. On June 24, 1849 Bishop Mihály Horváth, the Minister of Cults and Education of the revolutionary government granted the Reform community the status of an independent and recognized Jewish congregation. The renowned historian Michael Silber remarked: “This was an unprecedented step not only in Hungary but Central Europe generally.” In addition Professor Silber pointed out that this new Reform congregation “became a separate community with the right to keep its own parish registers of births and marriages.” (Michael K. Silber, “The Social Composition of the Pest Radical Reform Society 1848-1852”, Jewish Social Studies, 1995 p. 101) After the defeat of the revolution, the anti-Magyar Habsburg authorities persecuted this brave Reform Jewish community and on October 20, 1852 the congregation was ultimately dissolved.

The congregation’s last rabbi was David Einhorn (1809-1879) who after a brief stay in Hungary left for America where he became an enthusiastic champion of Reform Judaism and an eloquent opponent of slavery.

Following the collapse of Communism in 1989, Reform Judaism, like the legendary mythological bird, the phoenix returned as a “wandering ideology” to Hungary where at present there are two Reform/Progressive congregations. I myself a wandering Jew, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Budapest, after spending most of my rabbinic career in America, was honored to become the Founding Rabbi of Congregation Bet Orim of Budapest, the community which is the spiritual heir of the Central Reform (Jewish) Association of the (City of) Pest.

Slowly but surely we are reaching more and more people who were pushed to the periphery of the Hungarian Jewish world due to their lack of knowledge or their halachically questionable Jewish lineage. Another group that gravitates towards us consists of liberal Jews who firmly believe in pluralism. Indeed, we have many blessings.

Unfortunately, Reform Judaism in Hungary is being challenged by curses that we did not bring upon ourselves. In an unexpected move, on July 12, 2011, Hungary’s Parliament passed a new law concerning religious “church” organizations. This strong measure limits the number of recognized churches to fourteen, leaving out well-known and established religious groups, such as the Methodists, the Buddhists and the Muslims. In consequence, dozens of worthy institutions that, in addition to their religious functions, support religious pluralism, help the needy, feed the hungry, guard human rights, and protect Hungary’s most neglected minority population, the Roma (Gypsies), might soon be closed and dissolved.

Sadly, Hungarian Reform Judaism, which champions the very same lofty ideas and ideals, has fallen victim to the newly enacted “church” law. I believe that our Torah portion offers us a poignant message that can guide our actions against such injustices as the Hungarian church law.

We read: “God will ordain blessings for you” (Deuteronomy 28:8). A Hassidic commentary points out that the keyword in this phrase is the Hebrew “itcha” which is translated as “for you.” However the real meaning is “with you.” The Torah indicates that blessings will be realized and fulfilled only “with you”, with your full participation and involvement.

In the spirit of our Torah Portion that also teaches: “You shall walk in God’s ways.” (Deuteronomy 28:9), let us join together as brothers and sisters and raise our voices in behalf of Hungarian Reform Jewry. Thus, may we bring blessings and eliminate the curses that others try to impose upon us.

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