Thursday, 26 February 2015

Heroes Come in Many Different Guises - Reflections on the European Rabbinic Masorti Team Meeting in Jerusalem

 

It’s Purim this coming week.

I do look forward to celebrating with one and all.

I love the celebration, but always feel a twinge that the Festival deserves more serious attention. It’s really not a children’s story.

There are two extraordinary moments of courage in the Book of Ester. There is Mordechai, who refused to bow down, even before Haman, even knowing what might befall him and his people. And there is, of course, Ester, the pampered princess who finds the courage to go before the King, unbidden, to plead on behalf of her people – her status as a Jew being previously unknown to her husband.

 

I’ve been thinking about these acts of heroism in the context of the heroes I’ve met this week in Israel where I have been taking part in a meeting of the European Masorti Rabbinic team.

We go round the table sharing any news and Rabbi Reuven Stamov introduces himself, ‘Shalom, I’m Reuven, from the Ukraine, we are at war.’ He laughs, he has to.

Our colleagues from France are here. Rabbi Yeshaya Dalsace of the community just around the corner from the attacked supermarket in Paris showed my pictures of his Synagogue, being used by soldiers from the French special forces, sat in his Bet Midrash, weaponry spread out across the table. He laughed too, he has too.

One of our presenters was Rabbi Tamar Eldad-Applebaum, who spoke about being a Masorti Rabbi in Israel, ‘You need a lot of Emunah, - faith.’ Facing an Israeli society seemingly utterly polarised between the Daatiim – religious - and the devoutly Hilonim - secular she has founded a new community to practice what she calls Israeli-Judaism, neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, speaking to both Datiim and Hilonim. Hundreds are attracted. If you want to come, another of the Israeli rabbis leant over to me, you have to get there in plenty of time, otherwise you won’t get in.

Rabbi Joel Levy, now combining his work at Kol Nefesh Masorti with serving as Director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, is trying to transform Masorti Judaism worldwide by giving thousands of us the skills and the insights to grapple with the inner workings of the tradition ourselves.

The list goes on.

So what does it take to be a hero? A core belief that something is worth struggling for, and the perseverance to stand up for what is right, even if it is not easy. We are blessed to have many heroes in the Masorti movement. We are blessed to have, in the lead characters of the Purim narrative, great heroes to inspire all of us. So here’s a question – what do you believe in, and do you have the courage of your convictions to stand up for these core beliefs?

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

Friday, 20 February 2015

Copenhagen and the Lessons of Jewish History

Been thinking about the lessons of history,

In the aftermath of yet another attack.

And that looming warning of George Santayama that one who doesn’t remember history is doomed to repeat it.

 

Been thinking over a moment in the darkest years of our Jewish history – in the midst of the Holocaust.

 

In Hungary, last of the European countries to be occupied.

 

When Hungary invaded, immediate devastation.

Deported at a rate of 12,000 Jews a day – to Auschwitz.

Rudolf Kastner, a Zionist involved in a small, not partic powerful group known as the Vaada, put himself forward to negotiate with Adolf Eichman, one of the most significant architects of the Holocaust.

He succeeded in getting 1,685 Jews – men, women and children out of Hungary, to escape the gas chambers. He got them to Switzerland and most arrived in Israel. They survived.

Sounds like a good news story, right?

Here’s where it gets more complicated.

 

Kastner’s negotiations at the SS Headquarters in Bucharest didn’t go down well with everyone. What’s he doing wandering in and out of this place of evil? And then these 1600 souls, Eichmann didn’t just give Katzner these Jews. They were bought, at the cost of $1,000 a head – in 1944 prices – some $14,000 a head in today’s money. Katzner, knowing that most didn’t have these sums auctioned off the first 150 seats on the train to raise the funds to pay for the others.

Eventually the money was paid off, replete with leaders of the Hungarian community, a famous psychologist, an opera singer and a group of Polish orphans. How would you have allocated your notional 1600 tickets. What would you have done if told you needed to raise over $20,000,000 dollars to get 1600 of your fellow Jews out from under the shadow of the death camps?

 

Eventually a train left, the first 600 souls. Eichmann broke his word, sent the train to Bergen Belsen, but Katzner went back in to negotiate –members of his own family were on the train. Eventually Eichmann relented, the train left Bergen Belsen for Switzerland. The passengers survived. And another train followed.

 

Step forward 8 years, 1952, now living in Israel, Rudolf Katzner – now known as Israel Katzner – is working for the Labour Government as a spokesperson in the Dept of Trade when a article accusing him of cosying up to the Nazis was published. The Government sued, in Katzner’s defence, for libel. The trial became a cause celebre and the allegation of libel was defeated. In other words the attack on Katzner was allowed to stand.

The judge, held [and I quote]

The temptation was great. Kastner was given the actual possibility of rescuing, for the time being, 600 souls from the imminent holocaust, with some chance of somewhat increasing their numbers by payment or further negotiations. Not just any 600 souls, but those he considered, for any reason, most prominent and suitable for rescue...But timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts). By accepting this present Kastner had sold his soul to the devil.

Katzner sold his soul to the devil.

When the Israeli Labour government elected to appeal the ruling, the several right-wing parties brought a motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister Moshe Sharett’s government and Sharrett resigned. It took David Ben Gurion to bring stability back to a rocked country.

 

Eventually the appeal succeeded. In part. In 1958 Katzner was absolved of sleeping with the devil. But not of some other elements of his behaviour, most notably writing a reference for on of the SS Officers with whom he negotiated which helped the officer, Kurt Becher, escape prosecution for Crimes Against Humanity.

 

There is also a huge question over whether Zrazner and his colleagues would should have put their efforts not into saving a few individuals, but instead doing everything they could to make known what they knew – that the relocating of Jews was simply a front for their being sent to death-camps.

 

But by the time the Appeal was decided, Katzner was dead. He was assassinated, by a Lechi hit squad – a Jewish hit squad. In January of this year previously confidential documents were released by Shin Bet which confirmed that Israel’s secret service agency knew Katzner was being targeted.[1] The documents also reveal how a Shin Bet guard protecting Katzner was pulled off that duty days before the assassination, and have created even more confusion – was Shin Bet itself complicit in killing Katzner?

 

Is this getting difficult enough?

Let me do just one more layer of complexity.

On his train, arranged by a Zionist who bought the favours of senior Nazis was a Chasidic Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe – a man who opposed Zionism in the most brazen of terms. And a man who had only one message to the thousands of his Hungarian followers; don’t panic as the Nazis enter this country. Don’t lose faith and don’t believe anything the Zionists tell you. It’s just a test of faith and God will protect his people. Teitelbaum told thousands of his supporters to stay put. While he jumped on the train and was saved.

Sounds dodgy, but what would you do? Not even as question of the ethics of desertion, but also as a question of practicality. What would have happened if the Rebbe had terrified his followers with tales of an all-but inevitable death?

Can you, dare you judge?

 

Can you – of course you can’t – put yourself into the position of someone alive at that time.

Can you – of course you can’t – put yourself in the position of having only the knowledge that a person at that moment would have had. No 20/20 retrospective perfect vision.

 

I’m not entirely sure what has been bringing this story to mind, but I know when it came to mind. It came to mind when I heard the Israeli Prime Minister, evoking memories of the Holocaust to call on all Jews to move to Israel. ‘Yet again,’ PM Netanyahu noted this week, ‘Jews have been murdered on European soil just because they were Jews.’

 

When I do that most dangerous thing of turning to think about the Holocaust and the challenges experienced then, and then I think about what happened in Copenhagen, and Paris, and even those awful acts of antisemitism that occur in this country I just get struck by the absolute gulf between them. It’s not just that it was worse then and there than here and now. It’s that the issues are completely opposite. In Nazi occupied Europe the problem was institutional and state led. In England today the problem is the odd lunatic and the cancer of antisemitism is opposed in speech after speech and show of support after show of support at every level of government, the police and I could go on.

 

And as I struggle with this question – when do you leave, when do you hold fast to being part of a diasporah community and when do you flee in search of such safety as the one Jewish homeland can offer, I’ve been struck by this, well known, Talmudic story.

 

It’s a story about the failure of retreating behind a wall in a purely Jewish space. It’s a story about the importance of getting out among the nations. It’s the story of the destruction of the Second Temple. The Jews are besieged, surrounded by enemy forces. The Rabbis wanted to make peace with the Romans, but the zealots were so convinced that they must stand and fight; that they burnt their own food stores. It didn’t help. Jerusalem was plunged into famine. The leader of the Rabbis went to plead with the leader of the zealots – get me out of here so I can negotiate with the Romans. The Zealot leader felt he couldn’t back down in the face of his people.

 

Eventually the leader of the Rabbis is smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin. He negotiates for a future life for Judaism beyond the walls of Jerusalem. And as Jerusalem is destroyed a remnant survives and a Jewish life grows anew in Yavneh – the town Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai persuaded the Emperor Vespasian to give the Jews as the Second Israelite Commonwealth was destroyed and we were sent into exile.

 

What should I say about this story and its contemporary valence. Should I suggest that ‘yet again’ Israelite intransigence behind the walls is ratcheting up the tension between Israel and her neighbours to levels that threaten the survival of the Third Israelite Commonwealth? Should I say that Jews need to get beyond the walls to make peace even with their enemies before the walls of the Third Israelite Commonwealth are destroyed because of our own belligerence?

No, that would be an abuse of history. It would be a massive oversimplication of the relationship between then and there and here and now.

 

That phrase, from George Santayama, one who does not remember history is doomed to repeat  it, it’s woefully inadequate. It’s not enough just to remember. To tell stories of the past where something has gone wrong for one reason or another.

You’ve got to go more carefully.

You’ve got to understand the ways that then and there is different from here and now.

You can’t evoke historical narratives, no matter how traumatic, and brandish them in a contemporary milieu and expect to be taken seriously.

 

The moral of the story is that there is no simple clear cut moral.

And a better slogan than Santayama’s is that of

HL Mencken, ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.’

 

The truth is that sometimes we have had to go.

Sometimes we have gone, and sometimes we have gone too late.

The truth is that Israel is a wonderful home for the Jewish people – but fear of the world outside isn’t the best reason to go and live there – it may even be a counterproductive reason.

There’s plenty to do, to learn from the lessons of history.

And the way in which we do, terrifyingly slip into repeating the past is terrible.

But oversimplification is not the answer.

 

Shabbat shalom



[1] http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.636130

Thursday, 19 February 2015

On Copenhagen, Freedom of Speech and Other Possibly Even More Important Things

Another week, another attack, another death. Jews again are being attacked. Islamicists again are attacking. Oy, again.

 

In my sermon this Shabbat I will be looking at the notion of repeated attacks on Jews, and the images of a Europe full of Jew hated; images conjured up by the Israeli Prime Minister. I’ll be taking a longer view, and more rabbinic view, of the decisions to ‘stay’ or ‘go’ faced by our people across different lands over time.

 

In this reflection, however, I want to say something about Freedom of Speech. Nothing I share, of course, should be construed to pardon in any way the unjustifiable murders that took place in Copenhagen. But I share this engagement in the debate so horrifically brought to a pause in the Krudtt√łnden cultural centre as an act of resistance.

 

As a Jew the entire notion of a rights-based discourse leaves me slightly cold. Judaism is made up of responsibilities – the responsibility to speak carefully, the responsibility not to wound others with my words, to use language modestly and sensitively. The idea that using speech deliberately to bust taboos and inflame others is somehow heroic is one I do not accept.

 

More important than an ever mightier commitment to freedom of speech is the notion of ‘getting difference.’ As a human race we have to accept not one of us has a unique claim on truth – it’s a theological proposition, among other things. If God is the source of truth and exists beyond human grasp, then truth must exist beyond human grasp. We need more existential humility. Not just so that we stop killing those who disagree with us (though that’s a start), but so we come to take delight in difference and debate. The greatest vibrancy encountered in the Talmud is its complete acceptance of plural claims on truth – both left to rub up against one another on the pages of our most sacred Rabbinic text. It’s not co-incidence that the Talmud is traditionally studied ‘in Chavruta’ – by two students arguing it out. In difference, in debate, we come to higher understandings – understandings in the plural. We understand that difference is more than a pain to be tolerated, but a source of vitality in its plurality. It’s good to be challenged and provoked. It’s good to be exposed to that with which we disagree. That, for me, is of greater importance than insisting each of us has rights behind which we can retreat into whatever homogeneous ghettos save us from having to encounter otherness.

 

Shabbat shalom, may it indeed, come in peace,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Wrestling With God & Man

Leviticus 18:2
With a man you shall not lie as with the lyings of a woman; it is an abomination...

Ibn Ezra, Lev 18:2, referring to Sanhedrin 54a
Lyings – this is in the plural, and it is not appropriate to explain further.

Shulhan Arukh, Even haEzer 20:1:
Whoever copulates with one of the forbidden relations non-genitally [derekh ibarim], or hugged and kissed [them] or enjoyed skin-to-skin contact -- such a person is lashed, and is suspected of forbidden intercourse [arayot].

Rambam MT Hil Isurei Biyah 21:2
Such a person is lashed according to the Torah [lokei min hatorah], for it says (Lev. 18:30): “not to engage in any of the abhorrent practices...” and it says (Lev. 18:6): “None of you shall come near... to uncover nakedness,” that is to say: Do not approach those things that lead to prohibited sexual relations.

Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 76a
Rav Huna says: Women who rub against one another are forbidden from marrying Cohanim.
This is so even according to Rabbi Elazar, who said, ‘An unmarried man who comes upon an unmarried woman without the purpose of making her his wife makes her a zona – a licentious woman. This refers to a man, but when a woman [comes upon another woman] this is general flirtatiousness.’

Rabbi Joel Roth, Homosexuality Revisited 2006 (13 in favour, 8 against, 4 abstaining)
The fact that a decision causes pain does not mean that the decision is immoral. A moral law can have a negative consequence on the lives of people, but we make the judgment that the reasonableness and morality of the law outweigh the hurt done to the individual in such cases. That is the case here.

Roth, Homosexuality 1992 (14, 7, 3)
We may be able to understand when one cannot fulfill the mandate the law imposes, but that does not lead us to the conclusion that the mandate was itself immoral. We have asked whether a moral God could prohibit homosexual behavior even in the hardest of cases. We have answered that He could and that He did.

From Dorff, Nevins & Reisner, CJLS Teshuvah 2006 (13 in favour, 12 against)
People who are not Torah observant have no particular need for a traditional halakhic responsum. But people who are observant and are also gay or lesbian are caught in a terrible dilemma, with no halakhic guidance about the integration of their Jewish identity and their sexual orientation. Our core conviction is that dignity for gay and lesbian Jews – as for heterosexual Jews – results neither from blanket permission nor from blanket prohibition of all sexual activity, but rather from situating it within the matrix of issur vheter, permission and prohibition, which permeates all of Jewish life. Contemporary Jewish law is based upon the legal and moral texts found in the Written and Oral Torah. The Written Torah famously pronounces that “God created humanity in His image” (Genesis 1:27; 9:6), that “It is not good for man to live alone” (Genesis 2:18), that you must “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and that “God is good to all; His mercies apply to all creatures” (Psalms 145:9). The Oral Torah (Talmud, Midrash and Codes) draws upon these and many other biblical passages to create a system of law that sanctifies the daily lives of those who serve God in truth.

While some readers might conclude from … texts reviewed above that Jewish law imposes a universal and undifferentiated ban on all homosexual intimacy, we must emphasize the nuances found in this literature. The dominant voice of rabbinic interpretation follows Maimonides regarding lesbian intimacy and male homosexual acts other than anal sex as all assur d’oraita, banned by the Bible, albeit indirectly. Yet Nachmanides is convincing in his assertion that this ruling is an asmakhta, a later rabbinic interpolation, for the Bible itself never mentions or prohibits any of these acts.

The halakhic status quo is deeply degrading to gay and lesbian Jews. Quite apart from social and literary trends that have taught contempt for homosexuals, legal norms that either ignore them or cruelly demand the absolute suppression of their libido create an environment of humiliation. At this point it is impossible for responsible poskim to ignore this dynamic.
True, liability for humiliation is generally limited in halakhah to cases where it is intentional, yet given the social ferment surrounding gay rights in recent years, it is difficult to dismiss accusations of intentional indifference to the plight of homosexuals by many religious leaders. This dilemma is a matter of human dignity, and as such it evokes the principle stated dramatically and repeatedly in the Talmud: ‘So great is human dignity that it supersedes a negative commandment of the Torah.’ 

Talmud Brachot 19b
‘Great is human dignity, since it overrides a negative precept of the Torah’. Why should it? Let us apply the rule, ‘There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the Lord? — Rav ben Shaba explained it before Rav Kahana to refer to the negative [Rabbinic] precepts.

They have buried a body and are returning. There are two ways open to them, one pure the other impure. If he goes by the pure, go with him. If he goes by the impure, go with him. Why? Let us say [‘dignity’]. Rav Abba said this is only regarding a field that there is doubt about whether it is impure, for this is declared impure only by the Rabbis.

C20 Orthodox Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 6:10:3
It is difficult to imagine the magnitude of the embarrassment and unpleasantness caused [to a person of restricted hearing] when he comes among people, in the synagogue, and he is isolated, unable to hear what is going on, unable to respond to those who ask him a question. This produces a concern about kevod ha-beriyot [human dignity]… to which must be added his distress at forgoing public worship and being unable to hear the Torah reading and the responses to Kaddish and Kedusha, etc. This negates the performance of a batch of mitzvot, of lesser and greater importance, and therefore it is preferable to permit the carrying of forbidden items on Shabbat in order to respect kevod ha-beriyot and therefore to permit the deaf person to carry his hearing aid on Shabbat.

From Dorff, Nevins & Reisner, CJLS Teshuvah 2006
We are concerned for the dignity of gay and lesbian Jews not only because we are sympathetic to their dilemma, but also because their humiliation is our humiliation. We wish to welcome them, but we do so in such a forbidding fashion that they are repeatedly humiliated.
It is difficult to imagine a group of Jews whose dignity is more undermined than that of homosexuals, who have to date been told to hide and suppress their sexual orientation, and whose desire to establish a long-term relationship with a beloved friend have been lightly dismissed by Jewish and general society. They have, in effect, been told to walk alone, while the great majority of Jews are expected to walk in pairs and as families. In such a context, where is the dignity of homosexual Jews?

We are aware that the continued biblical ban on anal sex may be extremely difficult for some gay men to observe, and that this ban is in some ways more challenging than the ban on menstrual intimacy for heterosexual couples for 7-14 days per month. However, this responsum provides gay men with other options for sexual intimacy, with full social acceptance in the observant Jewish community, and with a feasible path to a life of Torah observance.

Roth 2006 p. 34
A) In accordance with resolutions of the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue, we affirm that gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps and schools.
B) Homosexuals will not be denied any honors within worship and regarding lay leadership positions.
C) Members of the Rabbinical Assembly and the Cantors Assembly will not perform commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians.
D) The Rabbinical and Cantorial schools will not knowingly admit sexually active homosexual students, nor will they be admitted to either the Rabbinical Assembly or the Cantors Assembly. No witch hunts will be instigated against those who are already students or members.
E) Whether sexually active homosexuals may function as teachers and youth leaders in our congregations and schools will be left to the rabbi authorized to make halakhic decisions for a given institution within the Conservative Movement.

Dorff Nevins Reisner 2006 p. 19
1. The explicit biblical ban on anal sex between men remains in effect. Gay men are instructed to refrain from anal sex.
2. Heterosexual marriage between two Jews remains the halakhic ideal. For homosexuals who are incapable of maintaining a heterosexual relationship, the rabbinic prohibitions that have been associated with other gay and lesbian intimate acts are superseded based upon the Talmudic principle of kvod habriot, our obligation to preserve the human dignity of all people.
3. This ruling effectively normalizes the status of gay and lesbian Jews in the Jewish community. Extending the 1992 CJLS consensus statement, gay and lesbian Jews are to be welcomed into our synagogues and other institutions as full members with no restrictions. Furthermore, gay or lesbian Jews who demonstrate the depth of Jewish commitment, knowledge, faith and desire to serve as rabbis, cantors and educators shall be welcomed to apply to our professional schools and associations.118
4. We are not prepared at this juncture to rule upon the halakhic status of gay and lesbian relationships. To do so would require establishing an entirely new institution in Jewish law that treats not only the ceremonies and legal instruments appropriate for creating homosexual unions but also the norms for the dissolution of such unions. This responsum does not provide kiddushin for same-sex couples. Nonetheless, we consider stable, committed, Jewish relationships to be as necessary and beneficial for homosexuals and their families as they are for heterosexuals. Promiscuity is not acceptable for either homosexual or heterosexual relationships. The celebration of such a union is appropriate.








Friday, 6 February 2015

On Revelation - With Help from Robert Frost

Revelation by Robert Frost

We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
 

I think we are done, don’t you, with the question of whether this is, or is not, the letter by letter, word, by word record of some divine dictation.

Long done.

 

There’s a lovely passage comment in the Talmud Yerushalmi that imagines Moses taking dictation from God on top of Sinai, writing away in black fire on a scroll of white fire, when, sweating from the heat of the fiery letters he mops his brow on his sleeve and some of the fiery ink rubs off on his forehead – and that is why the Torah speaks of Moses having horns of light – carnei or.

The sort of thing pictured by ... well everyone.

This is Jose de Rivera’s image

But this tale of the fiery quill isn’t meant to be taken literally.

It’s a poetic image.

And revelation is always going to come down to a matter of poetry

 

Light words that tease and flout ...

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire

 

The greatest problem I have with the notion that this, all this, represents some letter by letter record of Divine dictation is not based on Biblical archaeology or Ancient Semitic philology or Higher or Lower literary Biblical criticism or fossil records or astral physics or anything like that.

The greatest problem I have with the notion that all this represents some letter by letter record of Divine dictation is theological. If the will of god, revealed to humanity, ultimately boils down to a bunch of letters placed in order, then the will of God ceases to be something infinite, touching the heavens, beyond human ken, and becomes instead something ultimately two-dimensional and all too simple for a true encapsulation of what is willed for our existence.

 

It’s more than the sort of theological problem that should be filed with the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. People die because other people think that the will of God is really encapsulated in a series of letters so that they can claim some kind of monopoly on an understanding of God’s will. They think they can know what God wants and it’s at that point that other people start getting excluded from being important in God’s eyes. Other people end up getting hurt, excluded, killed even.

 

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

‘Tis pity indeed if we make the mistake of thinking that God’s will is capable of being trapped by printing presses, ink scrawls of pixellated imagery. Revelation is poetic, not literal speech.

 

I know the letters, in the order in which they fall, are capable of revealing the most extraordinary truths about the nature of human existence. I love the stories; I live my life by these stories, and the commands and all of it. But that’s not because of the precise letter by letter nature of how these verses appear in the good book. It’s because of the way the letters open up something that is beyond the letters themselves. It’s not that the letters are the product of revelation, they are the symbol pointing to the reality of revelation; a reality that can never be pinned down, like a lepidopterist’s butterfly.

 

This is Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘ The nature of revelation is something words cannot spell, which human language will never be able to portray. In speaking about revelation, the more descriptive the term, the less adequate the description.’[1]

 

In other words if you make a point about something being literally revelatory, you fail to understand what revelation actually is – it’s beyond.

So therefore we are all, seeking after that which is beyond all letters. And the role of the letters becomes not encapsulating the will of God, but pointing instead at that which is beyond all letters.

 

To put it another way, in the words of the very Sidra we read today.

Vchol ha’am roim et hakalot – ‘All the people saw the thunder’

That’s impossible, of course, or rather it requires a blending, a bending, of sensory perceptions.

It becomes poetically possible as it is literally impossible.

 

Is this a little highfalutin, I’m sorry. But this is important. This is who we are, as a faithful, non-fundamentalist community.

Maimonides[2] puts it like this.

 

We believe that the Torah has reached Moses from God in a manner which is described in Torah figuratively by the term ‘word’, but nobody has ever known how that took place except Moses to whom that word reached.

 

Those words – the words that were heard on Sinai are not the same kinds of words I’m using today. That revelation is quite unlike anything I can articulate.

 

Or another Midrash. There is a tale of the way in which the letters of the Ten Commandments were carved into the Shnei Luchot – the two tablets Moses brought down from the mountain.

Rabbis hold that the carving went right through the stones and that it didn’t matter whether you looked one way on or the other way on at the letters

They still read the same way.

In other words they were nothing like the largely non-symmetircal letters we now know.

In other words it wasn’t written in the sort of letters we would consider letters.

 

One last example, my favourite.

From the  C19 Hasidic Rebbe, Naftali Tzvi Horotvitz of Rophshitz.[3]

What was heard on Sinai? Asks the Rophshitzer, ‘The sound of the first letter of the first of the Ten Commandments.’ Now that’s terrific. The first letter of the Ten Commandments is an Aleph. It doesn’t have a sound.

 

Or rather, maybe, it is the sound of a letter before there is noise, the sound that encapsulates all possibility of future sound, it’s the aural equivalent of a microdot in which contains all possible written information.

 

I’m trying to articulate an ambivalence, in the strict sense of the word – a simultaneous tug in two different directions – or valences.

On the one hand every revelatory text, every purported experience of revelation has to be tugged back down to its proper earthly station. By the time we, humans, are speaking about revelation it’s already gone.

On the other hand every text, every experience that point beyond itself towards something unknowable has to be cherished. These texts serve as pointers, a roadmap towards that which is beyond.

And the more these texts become used in this way, the more carefully and more profoundly their spiritual core is unpacked and used, in turn to point ever higher, the more important they become. They serve like spiritual ladders pointing away into the heavens. You climb them not to get to the top, but to be one who climbs, one who seeks out the heavens.

 

From the perspective of the heavens revelation works in the opposite way.

There is, somehow, some need of the Divine to disclose, to reach down, to share with us puny humans.

But as the information arrives it is whisked away, less we should find ourselves carrying too great a burden for our fragile human minds.

Those who claim to understand too precisely the will of God are dangerous, to themselves and others.

Frost again,

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
 

Are you still with me?

I know you don’t believe in the literal letter by letter version of revelation.

 

My hope, in giving this sermon is that you are with me in making two other claims.

I hope you don’t believe that what I’ve been trying to articulate is less profound, a sort of ortho-lite pseudo-faith. It’s not. It’s stronger and more holy than fundamentalism. It’s the very nature of what Jews, the most spiritually refined of Jews in any event, have felt about revelation and the letter by letter nature of this book.

 

I hope, equally, that you can feel, even if only on those fleeting moments, that there is something which is beyond, there is something all these letters and words point towards; not graspable, not capable of being turned into a plaything for humans to do their worse, but rather an invitation to turn towards the heavens and gaze on at the animating power of the Universe and the will for our existence.

 

Because a true Jewish sense of revelation exists in the middle of these two claims.

 

We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
 

Shabbat shalom

 



[1] God in Search of Man 184-5

[2] Perek Helek Principle 8

[3] Zera Kodesh Shavuot

Monday, 26 January 2015

A Young Person's Guide to the Cairo Geniza

I’ve always loved the story of the Cairo Geniza (and so wholeheartedly recommend the wonderful book on the subject, Sacred Trash), but never really taught about it.

I was substitute teaching for the 9/10 year olds on Sunday and produced a guide to the Geniza that tore into bits and dipped in coffee to ‘age’ and had the students piece together their own guide to the Geniza (as well as some other ‘aged’ ‘original documents’ like the letter from Maimonides etc.) and some photos (yes, that very famous one)

It was a lot of fun.

 

So a young person’s guide to the Geniza (which fit on an A4)

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A Geniza, from the Hebrew root Gimmel Nun Zion – meaning hidden or put away - is a place where Jews are supposed to put holy writings that can no longer be used; for example worn out Torah scrolls, Mezuzah parchment or prayer books. Jewish law says anything with God’s name written on it can’t be just thrown away, or even recycled, it needs to be ‘put away’ in a Geniza (or buried in a Jewish cemetery).

One of the problems with Genizot (plural of Genizah) is that people tend to put all kinds of things in them. There is a Geniza at New London. It lives by the side of the photocopier and all kinds of things, like colouring pages for the Cheder, end up in there.

 

One day in 1895 two Scottish adventurers (back in the day when you had to be an adventurer to travel such a long way) Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, were in the market in Cairo when someone offered them some scraps of paper with Hebrew writing on. They bought the scraps and took them back to Britain where they showed them to the Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University, Solomon Schechter (a man with a tremendous beard). Schechter thought that he might have found the original Hebrew of a very ancient book called Ben Sira, a book that was originally written in Hebrew, but only survived in Greek. He got on the next boat to Cairo and bough the whole Geniza, some 300,000 fragments of texts.

 

It turned out to be the discovery of the century. There were lots of very old versions of all sorts of works Jewish scholars knew about already, like Pirkei Avot, but often reworded in really interesting ways. Imagine a thousand year old maths problem which everyone knew the answer to, and all you had to do was prove how the problem came to that answer. The problem is that you just can’t solve the problem. Then, out of the Geniza came a different version of the problem; say with a ‘plus’ mark where we originally thought there should be a ‘minus,’ and the problem suddenly becomes obvious.

 

Another thing that was found was an early version of one of the most famous prayers of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, called the Unataneh Tokef. People had once thought that this prayer had been written many hundreds of years later in Germany. A much much older version turned up in the Geniza.

 

And this was a huge stroke of luck. This Synagogue, where so much stuff had been preserved so perfectly, happened to be the Synagogue where possibly most important Rabbi for a thousand years happened to be based. Rabbi Moses, son of Maimon, was also known as Rambam or Maimonides wrote the Mishneh Torah, which changed the way Jews understood and wrote about Jewish law for ever, and Moreh Nevuchim – or the Guide for the Perplexed – which changed the way Jews thought about belief. Early versions of both these texts are found in the Geniza, and letters from Rambam on all sorts of subject as well. Rambam, like everyone else in Cairo, spoke Arabic and when he wrote letters or Moreh Nevuchim, he wrote in Arabic – but using Hebrew letters. So if you want to understand the Genizah, you have to read Hebrew as Arabic.

 

And then there were the things that really should never have been put in the Geniza in the first place, receipts for the special tax that Jews had to pay the Islamic rulers in Cairo at the time – yup Jews had to pay a special tax just for being Jews. It was expensive and some people couldn’t afford it, and there are also letters in the Geniza talking  about how to raise the money, and how to help people who couldn’t afford it. There are receipts for the candles – so now we know how much candles cost at that time in Egypt. In fact there is more information about normal life in Cairo, over the 1,000 years of the Geniza, than we have from any other source. So if you want to know about Cairo a 1,000 years ago – you go to the Geniza.

 

Some of the texts in the Geniza are easy to read, but others have been scrunched up, they are torn, sometimes different bits of the same text have ended up in different libraries half way around the world. It’s the biggest, most jumbled, jigsaw puzzle - treasure trove in the world.

 

 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Parshat Bo - Reading the Slaughter of the Firstborn

Tanhuma Yashan Shmot 5

Everything the Egyptians thought to do to Israel, the Holy Blessed One brought onto them. They thought to kill them, the Holy Blessed One killed their firstborn.

 

Exodus 11:5

And all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even unto the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle.

Rashi

Why are the slaves included [actually not in this verse, but another one]? So they wouldn’t say that their god had had claimed points for the humiliation imposed on the Egyptians.

Why are the maid-servants included? Because they treated the Israelites as slaves and rejoiced in their misery.

 

Tanhuma Yashan

All the first born gathered at their fathers’ homes and said to them, ‘everything which Moses has said has happened to us, don’t you want to let them go? Come, send out these slaves from among us, for if we don’t we will die.’ They replied to them, ‘even if all of Egypt dies, we won’t let them leave this place.’

What did they do? All the first born came together and went to Pharaoh and said to him, ‘We plead with you, get rid of this people, for because of them this evil has befallen us, and you.’

He said to them, ‘Smash the shins of these slaves.’

What did the first born do? Immediately they took swords and each of them killed their own father [The Midrash works a verse Ps 136:10 to suggest that ‘the plague of the first born’ suggests that the first born enacted the plague.

 

Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 7

If a person sins [fine], but how can cattle sin? Rather the Egyptians would worship spotted sheep and goats, and so they wouldn’t say, ‘that which we revere brought this punishment upon us.’

 

Exodus 11:6

And there was a great cry in all of the land of Egypt.

Midrash HaGadol

They say that at the time Moses said there would be a great cry in all the land of Egypt a zekinah went out to meet him. She said to him, ‘You are a deceitful prophet. A zekinah who has no father, no mother, no brother, no sister, no son, no daughter – what’s she going to cry for. He said to her, ‘avodah brings your cry to theirs. They said, she had a son once who died. He made a lifelike portrait in the image of her son. And every day after she had eaten and drank, she would go and dance before it. On that night the dogs came and ripped it up. And she wailed and wept and cried – to fulfil that which is written ‘And there was a great cry in all of the land of Egypt.’

 

Exodus 12:29

And it was at the half-way point of the night that God struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh on the throne to the firstborn of the slave in the dungeon.

Tanhuma Yashan Bo 17

Rabbi Eliezer Ben Padat said, that every time a verse has the phrase ‘and it was’ it means to include God’s court. God would sit with them in justice and the heavenly court decreed that the firstborn of Egypt should be struck, thus the verse states ‘and it was at the half-way point of the night.’

 

Rashi

But wasn’t Pharaoh himself a firstborn? But he was left from among the firstborn.

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