Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.
Parashat Shemini contains one of the most striking short stories in all of Torah: the death of Nadab and Abihu.
Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Adonai. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what Adonai meant when He said: / Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, / And assert My authority before all the people.” / And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)
It’s a harrowing tale, particularly for those of us who favor the occasional liturgical innovation. Orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch famously drew an analogy between Nadab and Abihu and Reform and Conservative leaders who presume to make changes in Jewish tradition. It’s easy to read this as a parable of why Jewish religious practice needs to stay the same: because the Holy Blessed One smites those who dare to make changes in the determined order of things. Easy…but simplistic. And limited. And arguably incorrect.
It’s disingenuous to claim that there’s only one way to reach out to God in Judaism when even the most cursory glance at the tradition shows this isn’t so. Prayer, the “service of the heart,” long ago replaced the old sacrificial system as our primary mode of drawing-near to God. Change is possible, because change has come to pass. What’s more, change can be fruitful. There may have been only one correct way to offer sacrifices, but there are a great many valid and appropriate ways to pray.
Indeed, one could argue that prayer’s variability and flexibility are precisely what make it superior to sacrifice. Sacrifice required first the Mishkan (constructed, as we have seen, to meet elaborate specifications) and then the Temple in Jerusalem; prayer is portable. Sacrifice could happen only in a specific place and in a specific way; prayer connects us with God from anywhere and everywhere. Sacrifice was designed to be singular; prayer has been from the start a many-splendored thing.
Many of us pray in Hebrew, but many also pray in our own vernacular tongues. Many of us chant our prayer, but many also sing, or speak aloud, or pray silently. Many of us use the traditional nusach (melody-system) for weekday and Shabbat and festival prayer, but many also borrow melodies from secular culture. Many of us pray using the words of the traditional siddur, but many choose to improvise on set prayer-themes. Many of us pray communally, but many also pray alone. Most of us do all of these things at different times.
There’s variability not only in how we pray, but in what words we use when we do so. Our worship is broad enough, and flexible enough, to hold a range of divine names and metaphors simultaneously. To profit from the tension between the masculine language of baruch Atah, Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam ("Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the world") and the feminine resonances of brucha At, Shekhinah, ruach ha-olam ("Blessed are You, Divine Presence, breath of life") and even the non-gender-specific and non-anthropomorphic metaphor in n’varech et ayn ha-chayyim ("let us bless the source of life.") Jewish prayer is, to borrow Whitman’s words, "vast" and "containing multitudes."
Indeed, given the way some liberal Jews today privilege innovative and immersive davvening, it’s possible to take Nadab and Abihu as role models. Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan offers a midrashic retelling which posts these two sons of Aaron as proto-Reconstructionists, offering the well-intentioned worship of their hearts (merely, alas, before their time).
Nadab and Abihu’s story is not a simple cautionary tale designed to instruct us against liturgical innovation. We tinker with our liturgy all the time. We’ve been doing it for as long as we’ve had liturgies to revise and refine. That’s not a break from the accepted order of things; it is the order of things. At least, it’s the order of things in the centuries since the Temple fell and we began the new story of ourselves as a nation centered around study and prayer.
The sacrificial system was an old paradigm, in which connection with God needed to be strictly-circumscribed. The move from Biblical Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism was a paradigm shift; rabbis including Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Rami Shapiro have argued (in articles like this one) that we’re in the midst of another such shift, from Rabbinic Judaism to the new form of Judaism now slowly emerging.
Regardless of whether we see ourselves as inheritors of the rabbinic paradigm or midwives of a new turn in the spiral, I think we can read the story of Nadab and Abihu as a parable about the importance of understanding the paradigm we’re in. Aaron’s sons didn’t understand the boundaries of their paradigm, and that lack of wisdom had profound (and sizzly) repercussions. We owe it to ourselves as creations and reflections of the Eternal — we may owe it also to the memory of Abihu and Nadab and their ill-fated enterprise — to consider how we draw near to the Holy Blessed One. How has consciousness has evolved since sacrificial days? How do we pray… and how do we want to pray?
Now that taking risks in our prayer life doesn’t call forth fire from Adonai, what are we afraid of? Are we willing to risk looking sentimental, or needy, or foolish in asking for (or helping to create) the liturgies we need — when the rewards are as magnificent as a strengthened sense of ourselves as humans and as Jews, an enlivened spiritual life, and the possibility of deeper connection with God?