The only time I had parents in my office telling me their child was not going to read their bar or batmitzvah portion was when the parsha in question contained the fate of Nadav and Avihu. These two sons of Aaron made an offering of strange fire, and were consumed by God.
The parents’ argument was simply how, with a congregation of multi-faith friends and family, could their child read this from the Bimah?
I had more than some sympathy. As a Liberal Jew with a propensity for creative liturgy and ritual, this is hardly a favoured passage. Indeed Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch drew an analogy between Nadav and Avihu and the Progressive leaders who were presumptuous enough to make changes to Jewish tradition.
But does this passage really have to be read as God smiting those who make changes in the determined order? Unlike Rabbi Raphael’s Orthodox interpretation, I think not.
After all, Judaism has a tradition of reaching out to God in a multitude of ways that change throughout time. Liberal Judaism is just the latest expression of this progress.
In the simplest form, prayer of the heart replaced sacrifice. In more complex forms, diversity is present not only between synagogues but even within communities.
The spontaneity of Nadav and Avihu is attractive. Arguably so is their enthusiasm. Why then were their actions so troubling to God and worthy of such punishment?
It’s impossible to answer the latter question in this short space, but the former is perhaps a reminder that while innovation is essential, spontaneity equally has its place.
While we sometimes have to be ahead of our time, we also have to respect where the rest of the congregation is, and their boundaries.
Rabbi Charley Baginsky is Liberal Judaism’s director of strategy and partnerships