Raising and Lowering Barriers – A Pre-Shavuot Thought

The three days before the upcoming holiday of Shavuot are known as sheloshet yemei hagbala, three days of boundary. According to Shemot / Exodus 19, three days before the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the people Israel were to put boundaries that restricted their sexual behavior, commanded rites of purification and even erect barriers to keep anyone from approaching the mountain. Only on the third day were the people permitted to approach the base of the mountain.

Throughout Judaism and Jewish history, there are forces that restrict and forces that permit. The Torah itself includes mitzvot aseh, commandments that inform us of positive actions we are to take, and mitzvot lo ta’aseh, commandments that restrict our behavior. Likewise, membership in the Jewish community seems to go through periods in which we raise barriers to entry (such as the rabbinic injunction against actively seeking converts) and those in which we encourage new members (Abraham and Sara, the Purim story, Hasmonean era, and, in some circles, contemporary Jewish life).

Today, the Jewish community is simultaneously raising and lowering barriers. Segments of Orthodoxy, in Israel and in America, have set standards for conversion to Judaism that are far beyond anything previously mandated by traditional Jewish practice. At the same time, elements of the modern Orthodox community in Israel and America, have urged that Judaism take lenient approaches within halacha to meet the needs of today’s world.

Liberal Judaism, likewise, has struggled with how to lower barriers for conversion, and at the same time, has brought the traditional conversion practice of mikva back into general acceptance.

There are other issues besides conversion in which we wrestle with whether to raise or lower barriers. In our Jewish world, we see forces that raise barriers in order to safeguard the integrity of particular beliefs or practices, while others work to lower barriers and create a “big tent” for the Jewish people, to respond to how our world has changed and to shape a Jewish future that is embracing.

Last week, I spent two days at the conference of the Jewish Outreach Institute. There we learned and discussed what it might mean to be a fully embracing and welcoming community. We spoke about and with Jews of color (not a new issue; Moses was married to a “Kushite” woman), LGBT (also not a new issue, but only fully recognized in this generation), interfaith families (again, not a new issue; see the biblical books and Ezra and Nehemiah) and so many other sub-groups and challenges. And I left feeling very optimistic that the young, up-and-coming generation will be able to continue to address these issues and create a wonderful Jewish future.

Like in the story of the revelation that we commemorate in a week, there is a time for erecting barriers and a time to take the barriers down. When the day arrived for the people to accept the Torah, the barriers that had been erected just three days before, came down to allow all to access God’s voice. We need to lower the barriers and bring everyone to the foot of Mt. Sinai again in our time.

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