Being a People, creating community, bringing light and warmth into our world: Rosh Hashanah Sermon Lev Chadash 2022

Rosh Hashanah 2022 Sermon Lev Chadash

L’italiano segue l’inglese

Once there was a small mountain village where a small Jewish community lived.There was no electricity and each home had a wood burning stove to give warmth and small candle lamps to give light, and any time the Jewish community wanted to meet, they did so in each other’s homes. One day, the people decided to build a synagogue, so that they could observe Shabbat and holidays together,  celebrate b’nai mitzvah and baby namings and weddings together, and be together to pray, because small as the community was they were too big for anyone’s home. They  though hard about what they wanted and they told the rabbi:

“It must have enough room for everyone in the village to dance the hora, without stepping on anyone’s feet.”

“But it must be small enough that no one ever has to feel like they are sitting off in a corner, alone.”

 “It must have a very big wooden stove, so that we can keep warm in the long winter months.”

“But it must have huge windows, so we can air it out in the summer months.”

But soon, they ran up against a problem. The lights. There was no simple way to light the new synagogue. There was no electricity in this village, and so there was no easy way to light the whole room. Because the synagogue had to be big enough for everyone to dance the hora without stepping on each other’s toes, if they put a lamp in the middle of the room, the corners would be dark, and if they put a lamp in the corners of the room the middle of the room would be dark. And there wasn’t enough money left in the budget to do both. Not to mention, how would they pay someone to keep all of the lamps lit all the time?

At long last the synagogue was ready and the people came a Shabbat evening dinner and service, so everyone arrived at the new building just before sunset. They waited and whispered outside in the snow, holding their lamps that would light their way home in the dark.

“I hope it’s big enough for a hora.” One villager said.

“I hope it’s small enough so that no one feels alone in the corner.” Another responded.

“I hope there’s a stove.” Said one.

“I hope there are windows.” Said another.

And there were a lot of people who said, “I wonder how they are going to keep it lit up through the night.”

Finally, the doors opened and all of the people poured in to have a look around. It was big enough for a hora, small enough for an oneg, with a big wood burning stove in the centre and huge windows on the side. But one thing was missing. As the sun started to dip lower in the sky, signalling that Shabbat would be here soon and along with it another long, dark night, they realized that there were no lights in the building at all.

The people gasped, “What are we going to do with a synagogue with no lights?”

“Did we run out of money?” Asked one.

“How am I supposed to see my prayerbook in the dark?” Asked another.

“How are we supposed to serve food in the dark?” Asked one.

“Are we just going to have all of our services in the daytime?” Asked another.

They looked around for the lights. And then they noticed – all along the four walls of the synagogue were brackets, big enough to hold the lamps they used to light their own homes . There were dozens of them, one for every person in the village.

The rabbi took her own lamp she had brought from home and put it in one of the brackets on the wall. “This is how we will light the synagogue. Each of you will bring your own lamp from home. When you are all here, this room will be full of light for us to eat and pray and dance by. And when you are not here, we will see that the room is darker, and we will miss you. And when you are at home, wondering whether or not to set out in the cold, dark night, you will remember that, without you, our synagogue will be that much darker.”

I found this story in a collection of folk tales and wanted to share it with you today. The whole period leading up to the Yamim Noraim began some weeks ago. After the month of Elul when we are expected to reflect on our lives, on our priorities and our actions, to repair what we can of our inevitable mistakes and to try to live more closely We are in a time of reflection and of self-judgment, of separating ourselves from bad habits and attempting to habituate ourselves to good ones. It is a time of renewal of our selves and of the way we live our lives, a time where we consider what is to be repeated and what is to be changed.

In many ways this is always going to be a highly personal and individual process. Like prayer it is an action we do both for and by ourselves. We stand in the presence of God but no one else can see or hear our inner monologue.  And yet –

– And yet this is a process that is enhanced by community. We stand amongst everyone else who is praying or reflecting or confessing or pleading or denying or avoiding the work of this season. Others walk alongside us just  as others have walked these paths before and yet others will walk them long after our own time.  This highly personal and individual process of tefillah and teshuvah is reliant for its success on the support of the community around us. The nudge to reflect that is incorporated in our liturgy and our calendar is amplified by the actions of the community. The words we can say out loud together – each of us confessing to everything so that those of us who need to say those words can do so in the safety of the collective confession. The pull of family or community – asking us what we are doing for the festivals, sharing their insights or reading suggestions or meals or even tasks to make us ready for the Yamim Noraim. We help each other along this path, often without even being aware of our contribution to the general good.

Asher Tzvi Hirsch Ginsberg, better known as the essayist “Achad Ha’Am” (literally meaning “one of the people” (1856-1927) was a founder of what became known as cultural Zionism who argued with the theories of political Zionists such as Herzl, and instead worked for Eretz Yisrael to become a spiritual exemplar for Jews in the Diaspora, something that would bring Jews across the world together as one people with shared values and spirituality, rather than fragmented communities – he wanted  what he called  “A Jewish State, and not just a State for Jews”.

He wrote: Judaism did not turn heavenward and create in heaven an eternal habitation of souls. It found ‘eternal life’ on earth, by strengthening the social feeling in the individual by making them regard  themselves not as isolated beings with an existence bounded by birth and death, but as part of a larger whole. As a limb of the social body…I live for the sake of the member. I die to make room for new individuals who will mould the community afresh and not allow it to stagnate and remain forever in one position. When the individual thus values the community as their own life, and strives after its happiness as though it were their individual wellbeing, they find satisfaction and no longer feel so keenly the bitterness of their individual existence, because they see the end for which they live and suffer. (Achad Ha’Am Asher Hirsch Ginsberg 1856-1927)

For Achad Ha’Am being part of the community gives meaning to our lives. Although he himself was secular, he is speaking from the foundational texts of Judaism – we are first and foremost “Am Yisrael” – a People [called] Israel

The word   Am עם is found hundreds if not thousands of times in the Hebrew bible. It is used to mean a nation or a group of people, though it has a secondary meaning of “a relation/relative”. Both the Hebrew root and its Arabic cognate appear to have had an original meaning of “father” or “father’s family” which is later expanded to kinsman or clan, and eventually to “nation”. The root  עמם from which it derives also means  “to join, to connect”, from where we also get the word im עם meaning “with”.

We learn in Mishnah Avot 2:5 that Hillel taught “do not separate yourself from the community” – both in its celebrations and in its difficulties we are part of this group. This  is also the reason we pray together, traditionally some of our liturgy demands we form a community before we can pray it – because the rabbis taught that “ For when one prays by himself, he might ask for things that are detrimental to some. But the community only prays for things which are of benefit to everybody. A reed on its own is easily broken but a bundle of reeds standing together cannot be broken even by the strongest winds.”

Community lies at the heart of Judaism. Jewish peoplehood is our overarching identity – whether we see ourselves as religious or secular, Ashkenazi, Sefardi or Italki, believers in God or sceptics, Orthodox Reform or Masorti – it is Jewish peoplehood that binds us, Jewish community that is the structure that we exist in symbiosis with, that we create wherever we go and that sustains us in return.

I think all of us know the slogan – or is it a prayer? – “Am Yisrael Chai”.  While it is unclear where this phrase originated, a recording of the liberated Jews in Bergen Belson concentration camp singing “Hatikvah” in April 1945 also contains the voice of Rabbi Leslie Hardman, the first Jewish Chaplain to the British Army to enter that camp two days after it was liberated,  calling out “Am Yisrael Chai” into the silence that followed the Hatikvah. It was a challenge, a prayer, a statement of intent rolled into three short words. Leslie Hardman supervised the burial of over 20 thousand victims in the camp, trying to give them the dignity in death that had been so lacking in life and saying kaddish over the mass graves. He circumcised babies who had been born in the camp, he even conducted a wedding of a survivor to a British soldier – he was determined in the face of so much death and horror, that Am Yisrael Chai – the people Israel would continue to live. He went on to minister to Jewish communities and made a lasting impression on many who knew him. Even today I occasionally meet people who toward the end of their lives want to reconnect with their Jewishness and who say to me “Leslie Hardman did my barmitzvah”!

The power of community, and the power of the people who believe in community is immense.

Everywhere we look in Judaism we see the imperative to community. In a few short weeks we will be celebrating Sukkot, and using the arba’a minim, the Four Species, in our services. There is a famous midrash on this ritual object  – together these different plants represent the fullness and diversity of every Jewish community. – “As the etrog has taste and fragrance, the palm taste  but no fragrance, the myrtle fragrance but no taste, and the willow neither taste nor fragrance, so some Jews have learning and good deeds, some learning but no deeds, some deeds but no learning, and some neither learning nor deeds.  Said the Holy One ‘let them all be tied together and they will atone one for the other (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah)

All together we can help each other to atone, but not only that – together we help each other to grow, to live, to thrive. At the centre of our torah is the injunction to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. As Israel Salanter (1810 – 1883) writes:  – “The Torah demands that we seek what is best for our fellow human beings: not by repressing our hatred or rejection of them, nor by loving them out of a sense of duty, for this is no genuine love.  We should simply love our neighbour as we love ourselves.  We do not love ourselves because we are human beings, but our self-love comes to us naturally without any calculations or limits or aims.  It would never occur to someone to say ‘I have already fulfilled my obligation towards myself!’ The same way we should love our fellow human beings naturally and spontaneously, with joy and pleasure, without limits or purposes or rationalisations”

In the folk tale I began with, the picture is painted of the contribution each and every one of us makes to making our community brighter and happier, supportive and challenging, warmer and kinder.

Today we might have electricity to light our synagogue but we still count on each and every one of you to bring your own light in a different way. When you come to be part of the community at prayer or in study, come to share simchas and sorrows, when you join in with the singing or the prayer, when you reach out and enfold each other under the tallit for the blessing of nesiat kapayim, then our synagogue is full of light and warmth. And when you are gone, everything feels a little darker because you are not here. The same is true in every community you take part in.

And so we pray, as this new year begins, that our lights will shine brightly and we will bring them to share with each other, and  everyone we join with in community – even if only for a short time -will be blessed by our light and warmth.

 And we pray too that like those long ago villagers, we will bring our lights with us wherever we go, and that we will find the places to fix our lights and let them shine out an warm our community.

In the words of the blessing of nesiat kapayim –“ ya’er Adonai panav elecha “– may the face of God shine on you; And in the vernacular of the Jewish community, may we each represent the face of God to each other, join with our communities and offer ourselves to brighten each other’s lives whenever and however we can.

Rosh Hashanà 2022: Sermone per Lev Chadash

di Rav Sylvia Rothschild

            C’era una volta un piccolo villaggio di montagna dove viveva una piccola comunità ebraica. Non c’era elettricità e ogni casa aveva una stufa a legna per riscaldare e piccole candele per illuminare, e ogni volta che la comunità ebraica voleva incontrarsi, lo faceva nella casa di qualcuno.

            Un giorno le persone decisero di costruire una sinagoga, così da poter osservare insieme lo Shabbat e le festività, celebrare insieme b’nai mitzvà e dare il nome ai bambini, fare i matrimoni e stare insieme per pregare, perché, per quanto piccola fosse la comunità, era troppo grande per la casa di chiunque.

            Pensarono molto a quello che volevano e dissero al rabbino:

            “Deve avere abbastanza spazio perché tutti nel villaggio possano ballare la hora, senza calpestare i piedi di nessuno”.

            “Ma deve essere sufficientemente piccola, che nessuno debba mai sentirsi come se fosse seduto in un angolo, da solo”.

            “Deve avere una stufa a legna molto grande, in modo da poterci riscaldare nei lunghi mesi invernali”.

            “Ma deve avere finestre enormi, in modo da poter arieggiare nei mesi estivi”.

            Ma presto si imbatterono in un problema. Le luci. Non c’era un modo semplice per illuminare la nuova sinagoga. Non c’era elettricità in questo villaggio, quindi non c’era un modo semplice per illuminare l’intera stanza. Poiché la sinagoga doveva essere abbastanza grande da permettere a tutti di ballare la hora senza pestarsi i piedi, se avessero messo una lampada in mezzo alla stanza gli angoli sarebbero stati bui, e se avessero messo una lampada negli angoli della stanza il centro sarebbe stato buio. E non c’erano abbastanza soldi nel budget per fare entrambe le cose. Per non parlare del fatto di come avrebbero pagato qualcuno per tenere tutte le lampade accese tutto il tempo.

            Alla fine la sinagoga fu pronta e le persone vennero per la cena e il servizio serale dello Shabbat, quindi tutti arrivarono al nuovo edificio poco prima del tramonto. Aspettarono e sussurrarono fuori nella neve, tenendo in mano le loro lampade che avrebbero illuminato la strada verso casa nell’oscurità.

            “Spero che sia abbastanza grande per danzare la hora”, disse un abitante del villaggio.

            “Spero che sia abbastanza piccola in modo che nessuno si senta solo nell’angolo”, rispose un altro.

            “Spero che ci sia una stufa”, disse uno.

            “Spero che ci siano finestre”, disse un altro.

            E ci furono molte persone che dissero: “Mi chiedo come faranno a tenere acceso per tutta la notte”.

            Alla fine le porte si aprirono e tutte le persone si riversarono all’interno per dare un’occhiata in giro. Era abbastanza grande per una hora, abbastanza piccola per l’oneg, con una grande stufa a legna al centro ed enormi finestre sui lati. Ma mancava una cosa. Quando il sole iniziò a calare nel cielo, segnalando che lo Shabbat sarebbe arrivato presto e con esso un’altra lunga notte buia, si resero conto che nell’edificio non c’erano affatto luci.

            La gente sussultò: “Cosa faremo con una sinagoga senza luci?” “Abbiamo finito i soldi?” chiese uno. “Come faccio a vedere il mio libro di preghiere al buio?” chiese un altro. “Come dovremmo servire il cibo al buio?” chiese uno. “Avremo tutti i nostri servizi durante il giorno?” chiese un altro.

            Si guardarono intorno in cerca delle luci. E poi si accorsero che lungo le quattro pareti della sinagoga c’erano delle mensole, abbastanza grandi da contenere le lampade che usavano per illuminare le proprie case. Ce n’erano a dozzine, una per ogni persona del villaggio.

            Il rabbino prese la sua lampada che aveva portato da casa e la mise in una delle mensole del muro. “Così illumineremo la sinagoga. Ognuno di voi porterà la propria lampada da casa. Quando sarete tutti qui, questa stanza sarà piena di luce per mangiare, pregare e ballare. E quando non ci sarete vedremo che la stanza è più buia e ci mancherete. E quando sarete a casa, chiedendovi se partire o meno nella notte fredda e buia, vi ricorderete che, senza di voi, la nostra sinagoga sarà molto più buia”.

            Ho trovato questa storia in una raccolta di racconti popolari e volevo condividerla con voi oggi. L’intero periodo che ha preceduto gli Yamim Noraim, i Giorni Solenni, è iniziato alcune settimane fa. Dopo il mese di Elul, in cui ci si aspetta che riflettiamo sulle nostre vite, sulle nostre priorità e sulle nostre azioni, per riparare ciò che possiamo dei nostri inevitabili errori e per cercare di vivere più da vicino, siamo in un tempo di riflessione e di auto-giudizio, in cui ci separiamo dalle cattive abitudini e tentiamo di abituarci a quelle buone. È un momento di rinnovamento di noi stessi e del modo in cui viviamo la nostra vita, un tempo in cui consideriamo cosa ripetere e cosa cambiare.

            In molti modi questo sarà sempre un processo altamente personale e individuale. Come la preghiera, è un’azione che facciamo sia per noi stessi che da soli. Siamo alla presenza di Dio ma nessun altro può vedere o ascoltare il nostro monologo interiore.

Eppure questo è un processo che viene potenziato dalla comunità. Siamo tutti tra coloro che stanno pregando o riflettendo o confessando o implorando o negando o evitando il lavoro di questa stagione. Altri camminano al nostro fianco proprio come altri hanno già percorso questi sentieri e altri ancora li percorreranno molto dopo il nostro tempo. Questo processo altamente personale e individuale di tefillà e teshuvà dipende per il suo successo dal sostegno della comunità che ci circonda. La spinta alla riflessione che è incorporata nella nostra liturgia e nel nostro calendario è amplificata dalle azioni della comunità. Le parole che possiamo dire ad alta voce insieme: ognuno di noi confessa tutto, in modo tale che quelli tra noi che hanno bisogno di dire quelle parole possano farlo nella sicurezza della confessione collettiva. L’attrazione della famiglia o della comunità: chiederci cosa stiamo facendo per le solennità, condividere intuizioni o pasti o persino compiti, leggere suggerimenti per prepararci per gli Yamim Noraim. Ci aiutiamo a vicenda in questo cammino, spesso senza nemmeno essere consapevoli del nostro contributo al bene generale.

            Asher Tzvi Hirsch Ginsberg, meglio conosciuto come il saggista “Achad Ha’Am” (che letteralmente significa “uno del popolo”), fu uno dei fondatori di quello che divenne noto come il sionismo culturale, che confrontò con le teorie dei sionisti politici come Herzl. Lavorò invece per Eretz Yisrael, affinché diventasse un esempio spirituale per gli ebrei nella diaspora, qualcosa che avrebbe riunito gli ebrei di tutto il mondo come un unico popolo con valori e spiritualità condivisi, piuttosto che comunità frammentate: voleva quello che ha chiamò “Un Stato ebraico, e non solo uno Stato per gli ebrei”.

            Scrisse: “L’ebraismo non si è rivolto al cielo e non ha creato in cielo una dimora eterna di anime. Ha trovato la ‘vita eterna’ sulla terra, rafforzando il sentimento sociale nell’individuo, facendogli considerare se stesso non come essere isolato con un’esistenza delimitata dalla nascita e dalla morte, ma come parte di un tutto più ampio. Come membro del corpo sociale… Vivo per il bene dei membri. Muoio per fare spazio a nuovi individui che plasmeranno di nuovo la comunità e non le permetteranno di ristagnare e rimanere per sempre in una posizione. Quando l’individuo valuta così la comunità come propria vita, e aspira alla sua felicità come se fosse il proprio benessere individuale, trova soddisfazione e non sente più così intensamente l’amarezza della propria esistenza individuale, perché vede il fine per cui vivere e soffrire”.

(Achad Ha’Am Asher Hirsch Ginsberg 1856-1927)

            Per Achad Ha’Am far parte della comunità dà un senso alle nostre vite. Sebbene lui stesso fosse laico, parla dai testi fondamentali dell’ebraismo: siamo prima di tutto “Am Yisrael”, un popolo [chiamato] Israele.

            La parola Am עם si trova centinaia se non migliaia di volte nella Bibbia ebraica. È usata per indicare una nazione o un gruppo di persone, sebbene abbia un significato secondario di “relazione/parente”. Sia la radice ebraica che il suo affine arabo sembrano aver avuto un significato originale di “padre” o “famiglia del padre”, poi successivamente esteso a “parente” o “clan” e infine a “nazione”. La radice עמם da cui deriva significa anche “unire, connettere”, da essa proviene anche la parola im עם che significa “con”.

            Impariamo in Mishnah Avot 2:5 che Hillel ha insegnato “non separarti dalla comunità”: sia nelle sue celebrazioni che nelle sue difficoltà siamo parte di questo gruppo. Questo è anche il motivo per cui preghiamo insieme, tradizionalmente alcune delle nostre liturgie richiedono di formare una comunità prima di poter pregare perché i rabbini insegnavano che “perché quando uno prega da solo, può chiedere cose che sono dannose per alcuni. Ma la comunità prega solo per cose che giovano a tutti. Una canna da sola si spezza facilmente, ma un fascio di canne che stanno insieme non può essere spezzato nemmeno dai venti più forti”.

            La comunità è al centro dell’ebraismo. Il popolo ebraico è la nostra identità generale: che ci consideriamo religiosi o laici, ashkenaziti, sefarditi o Italki, credenti in Dio o scettici, riformati, ortodossi o masortì, è il popolo ebraico che ci lega, la comunità ebraica è la struttura con cui esistiamo in simbiosi, che creiamo ovunque andiamo e che in cambio ci sostiene.

            Penso che tutti noi conosciamo lo slogan (o è una preghiera?) “Am Yisrael Chai”. Sebbene non sia chiaro da dove abbia avuto origine questa frase, una registrazione degli ebrei liberati dal campo di concentramento di Bergen Belsen che cantavano “Hatikvà” nell’aprile 1945 contiene anche la voce del rabbino Leslie Hardman, primo cappellano ebreo dell’esercito britannico ad entrare in quel campo due giorni dopo la liberazione, che grida “Am Yisrael Chai” nel silenzio che segue l’Hatikvà. Era una sfida, una preghiera, una dichiarazione di intenti racchiusa in tre brevi parole. Leslie Hardman ha supervisionato la sepoltura di oltre ventimila vittime nel campo, cercando di dare loro la dignità nella morte che era stata così mancante nella vita e dicendo il kaddish sulle fosse comuni. Ha circonciso i bambini che erano nati nel campo, ha persino organizzato il matrimonio di una sopravvissuta con un soldato britannico: era determinato, di fronte a tanta morte e orrore, a far sì che Am Yisrael Chai, il popolo di Israele, continuasse a vivere. Ha continuato a servire le comunità ebraiche e ha lasciato un’impressione duratura su molti che lo conoscevano. Persino oggi incontro occasionalmente persone che verso la fine della loro vita vogliono riconnettersi con la loro ebraicità e che mi dicono “ho fatto il bar mitzvà con Leslie Hardman!”

            Il potere della comunità e il potere delle persone che credono nella comunità è immenso.

            Ovunque guardiamo nell’ebraismo vediamo l’imperativo della comunità. Tra poche settimane celebreremo Sukkot e utilizzeremo le arba’a minim, le Quattro Specie, nei nostri servizi. C’è un famoso midrash su questo oggetto rituale: insieme queste diverse piante rappresentano la pienezza e la diversità di ogni comunità ebraica. “Come l’etrog ha gusto e fragranza, la palma ha sapore ma non fragranza, il mirto ha fragranza ma non ha sapore e il salice non ha né sapore né fragranza, così alcuni ebrei hanno istruzione e buone azioni, alcuni sono dotti ma non compiono atti, alcuni compiono atti ma senza nessun apprendimento, e per alcuni non vi sono né apprendimento né azioni”. Dice l’Eterno: “Siano legati tutti insieme ed espieranno l’uno per l’altro” (Midrash Levitico Rabbà)

            Tutti insieme possiamo aiutarci a vicenda per espiare, ma non solo: insieme ci aiutiamo a vicenda a crescere, a vivere, a prosperare. Al centro della nostra Torà c’è l’ingiunzione di amare il nostro prossimo come amiamo noi stessi. Come scrive Israel Salanter (1810 – 1883): “La Torà esige che cerchiamo ciò che è meglio per i nostri simili: non reprimendo il nostro odio o rifiuto nei loro confronti, né amandoli per senso del dovere, perché questo non è un vero amore. Dovremmo semplicemente amare il nostro prossimo come amiamo noi stessi. Non ci amiamo perché siamo esseri umani, ma il nostro amor proprio ci viene naturale senza calcoli, limiti o obiettivi. A qualcuno non verrebbe mai in mente di dire ‘Ho già adempiuto al mio obbligo verso me stesso!’ Allo stesso modo dovremmo amare i nostri simili in modo naturale e spontaneo, con gioia e piacere, senza limiti, scopi o razionalizzazioni”.

            Nel racconto popolare con cui ho iniziato, c’è l’immagine figurata del contributo che ognuno di noi dà per rendere la nostra comunità più luminosa e felice, solidale e stimolante, più calorosa e gentile.

            Oggi potremmo avere l’elettricità per illuminare la nostra sinagoga, ma contiamo ancora su ognuno di voi per portare la propria luce in un modo diverso. Quando venite a far parte della comunità in preghiera o in studio, venite a condividere simchà e dolori, quando vi unite al canto o alla preghiera, quando vi proteggete e vi avvolgete l’un l’altro sotto il tallit per la benedizione di nesiat kapayim, allora la nostra sinagoga è piena di luce e di calore. E quando ve ne siete andati, tutto sembra un po’ più oscuro perché non siete qui. Lo stesso vale in ogni comunità a cui prendete parte.

            E quindi preghiamo, all’inizio di questo nuovo anno, che le nostre luci splendano brillanti, così le porteremo a condividerle tra tutti, e coloro con cui ci uniamo in comunità, anche se solo per un breve periodo, saranno benedetti dalla nostra luce e calore.

            E preghiamo anche che, come quegli abitanti del villaggio di tanto tempo fa, porteremo le nostre luci con noi ovunque andremo, e che troveremo i posti dove fissare le nostre luci e farle risplendere e riscaldare la nostra comunità.

            Nelle parole della benedizione di Nesiat Kapayim: “ya’er Adonai panav elecha” –  

”possa il volto di Dio risplendere su di te”; E, nel vernacolo della comunità ebraica: possa ognuno di noi rappresentare il volto di Dio l’uno per l’altro, uniamoci alle nostre comunità e offriamo noi stessi per illuminare la vita gli uni degli altri quando e come possiamo.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Renewal, Reform, the Chatam Sofer and Me – a Rosh Hashanah Reflection

L’italiano segue l’inglese

I imagine we all wonder occasionally just how we got to be here – all the random coincidences and statistical improbabilities that caused our ancestors meet each other and produce children; all the wars and migrations and social upheavals that could so easily have changed our own histories. In even the most recent history of my family, had my mother’s parents not fled the oppression of the Russian Empire and my father not been sent as a young teenager to escape Hitler’s Germany – both ending up accidentally in the same ordinary northern town, I would never have been born.

And when I go back further, I find my family tree has some characters who fought hard against the Judaism that gives me my identity and my passion – Reform Judaism – My great-great-great grandfather Levi Yehudah Spanier, the president of the (orthodox)synagogue Beth El in Albany, New York, was in the beginning very good friends with its rabbi -Dr Isaac Mayer Wise, but ended up in a series of fiery and violent disputes over Dr Wise’s reformist tendencies – to the point where he ultimately dismissed Dr Wise from his post of rabbi to the community effective on 6th September 1850 – the shabbat the day before Rosh Hashanah. Dr Wise refused to accept the dismissal –  turning up at the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. This is his description of what happened next

“Everything was as quiet as a grave, Finally, the choir sings Sulzer’s great Ein Kamocha. At the conclusion of the song, I step before the ark in order to take out the scrolls of the law as usual, and to offer prayer. Spanier steps in my way and, without saying a word, smites me with his fist so that my cap falls from my head. This was the terrible signal for an uproar the like of which I had never experienced. The people acted like furies. It was as though the synagogue had suddenly burst forth into a flaming conflagration.”

The fracas was so pronounced that the Sheriff was called; the Sheriff cleared the synagogue, locked the doors, and took the keys. This was the end of Wise’s position at Temple Beth-El and the beginning of the Reform Movement in the USA -its many synagogues, the Rabbinical College HUC, the Central Conference of Progressive Rabbis, and Reform Judaism becoming established as the majority Jewish expression in the USA.

So my three-times-great-grandfather in his desire to close down Reform Judaism, instead accelerated its growth, and periodically I wonder what he would have made of his descendants’ choices to become Reform Rabbis.

Then there is Moshe Sofer-Schreiber, my seventh cousin seven times removed. More usually known as the Chatam Sofer, he is sometimes described as the father of Orthodoxy and the scourge of Reform Judaism. Born in Frankfurt in 1762 he was an outstanding scholar at several prestigious yeshivot. However he was not always so acceptable to the Jewish world. In his youth he was deeply attached to Natan Adler, a kabbalist whose followers practised the exceedingly new form of Judaism known as Chasidut. The group were known for their revolutionary religious tendences – praying Sefardi liturgy even though they were Ashkenazim, wearing their tefillin according to the custom of Rabbenu Tam[i] They formed and prayed in separate and independent minyanim, generally following Chassidic customs nobody had heard of previously. The Ashkenazi Jewish world they belonged to was not happy to see such changes in customs and traditions, and began to persecute Rabbi Adler and his followers. Indeed some prominent rabbis wrote attacking the “new sect” who, they said  “with great haughtiness in their hearts did not attend to the customs of the Jewish people, a Torah fixed from antiquity  according to our ancestors z”l and changed them by the crudeness of their spirits”. They were identified by the established Jewish community as being a dangerous phenomenon akin to Sabbateanism.[ii]

In a pamphlet entitled “An Act of Trickery” published in Frankfurt in 1789, Rabbi Nathan Adler and his acolytes were accused of intending to “destroy the foundations of our customs, to cut off the roots of our received tradition, to build new manners […] and in their galling daring, they mocked our holy fathers, and deny those bearing the received tradition, and the wise men who founded our good customs were as grasshoppers to them.”

 This conservative fury led to Rabbi Adler’s excommunication. He was expelled from Frankfurt (1782) and wandered through German communities while suffering repeated attacks. He remained excommunicated until two weeks before his death. In his wanderings, he was accompanied by his young student, Moshe Schreiber who would become known as the Chatam Sofer.

What was happening in the Jewish world – among both the Mitnagdim [iii]and the Chassidim, personified by the towering figures of the Vilna Gaon and of the Baal Shem Tov, was that they simply had no respect for the view that “we do it this way because it was always done this way”. They were ready to change the practise of Judaism, initiate new customs, read the text in different more modern ways, correct the unthinking habits and mistaken ideas that had taken root among the ordinary Jews.

It would be to go too far to say that the groundwork for Reform Judaism was laid by such figures, but the context in which Reform Judaism developed is important. Once the genie of challenging “always doing what was always done” and of not allowing innovation was out of the bottle, it was impossible to return it. My cousin Moshe Schreiber discovered this as he grew in stature as an halakhist, and effectively joined the “establishment” and it seems that as he grew older the growth of desire for modernity in Judaism which was leading to a thirst for Reform Judaism alarmed him. Challenging the fixed and the habitual seems to have been acceptable when done by Rabbi Adler, but  when the newer generation chose to challenge harder and more widely, looking for rational explanations and for a less burdensome set of behaviours, he apparently repudiated his earlier expressions of Judaism.

His most well-known innovation was to insist upon the primacy of the custom of a community to outweigh halachic arguments.   He argued that the custom of a community took the same importance in halacha as a vow – and in Torah the prohibition against breaking a vow is absolute.  He knew exactly what he was doing with this extraordinary step: Responding to a halachic question from a student he wrote “I have spoken about this at length because, as a result of our many sins, the lawless in our nation have now grown in number. They present a false vision, ridiculing the second day of Yom Tov, that it is merely a custom. They do not wish to follow in the footsteps of the Sages of Israel; they speak against their own lives; they know not, nor do they understand; they walk on in darkness.” (Responsa Chatam Sofer I, OC, no. 145)

In the pre-modern period, custom was seen as a competitor to written halacha; it was an “external source” which sometimes contradicted halacha outright. So the Chatam Sofer’s “hiddush” – new teaching -was a turning point in the history of halacha. Identifying custom as the ultimate rival of modernity and rational debate, he deliberately increased its importance, turning it into a potent weapon against Haskalah – the Enlightenment, which was based on reason. He not only reinvented  the status of custom but utterly changed the process of halacha because now halacha was to follow custom rather than the other way around.

While there were other rabbis who elevated the status of community custom, (E.g. Yitzchak Alfasi, Asher ben Yechiel) but they did so based on the idea that the oral teachings of a community were to be respected as coming from an earlier age of halacha. The Chatam Sofer did not do that – instead he based his view on an entirely new link he himself had forged between local customs and biblical vows.  

The Chatam Sofer created what can only be called a conservative revolution. Why? It was because he could not accept the nascent Reform Judaism that was taking hold around him in  Enlightenment Europe. Reform Judaism that was challenging burdensome customs such as two days of festivals in diaspora and demanding rationales be given for halachic dicta, beyond the emotional imperative that “our ancestors did this” or of maintaining the status quo. Reform Judaism, grew not so much from the Mitnagdik or the Chasidic challenges to “normative Judaism” but from a desire to bring Enlightenment thinking into Judaism – what today we might call “informed choice”, to base our practises on reason and on thought rather than historical precedent or the words of earlier sages. And so he brought in his own “reform” or “renewal”, ironically to try to prevent any other reform or renewal taking place.  

The Chatam Sofer’s principle as a halakhist is summed up in his statement “He’Chadash assur min HaTorah” – literally meaning “The new is forbidden by the Torah”. He was punning from a biblical verse which forbade the eating of the new grain (Chadash) until the Omer offering had been given on the second day of Pesach. With that one phrase of word-play the stage was set for what would later be termed “orthodoxy”.  

For generations Judaism had managed to retain its dynamism and adaptability to the circumstances and context it found itself in.  Only with the emergence of modernist Judaism influenced by enlightenment philosophy and scientific thought, did the traditionalists feel so threatened they did something utterly radical, and tried to close this dynamism down. Yet paradoxically the Chatam Sofer relied on innovation. In his battle against Spinoza who argued that bible should be studied as a human document, Sofer wrote that to do so would be to deny all the “hiddushim” – new understandings – that could be created if it were studied as a divine document, multi layered and with concealed meanings. He was not against new insights – indeed his name proclaims their importance –  While the name Sofer is a direct translation of his name “Schreiber”, “Chatam” is an acronym for “Hiddushei Torat Moshe” – “New insights of the Torah of Moses” (though he may also be referencing a particularly opaque part of the last prophecy in the book of Daniel (Shut up the words and seal the book” (Stom ha’devarim va’chatom ha’sefer) Daniel 12:4.

When I think of my illustrious ancestors and their stringent desire to protect a traditionalist Judaism that meant doing things as they had always been done, I have some sympathy. In a world of great flux and change, the temptation to appeal to tradition for stability and certainty and to unify behind agreed norms is equally great. Yet I am grateful that they did not carry the argument, that instead the modernisers of Judaism have thrived alongside the traditionalists. Because classically Judaism has always operated along that dynamic – the old being honoured and cherished and at the same time being renewed.

We say in the yotzer prayer וּבְטוּבוֹ מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית  That God in divine goodness renews every day the works of creation. Our liturgy speaks of continual renewal  – God is described as the one who “in mercy gives light to the earth and to those who dwell on it” – the very first creative act repeated every morning through God’s mercy and God’s goodness. Creation is perpetually renewed, so we – as part of creation – can also be renewed. This is because of God’s goodness and God’s mercy to us. We do not have to be stuck in behaviours that are not beneficial to us or are simply habitual and without meaning – we can – indeed we must – renew not only ourselves but our also our world. 

The Hebrew word for year is “Shanah” and every Rosh Hashanah, every beginning of a year, is a prompt and an opportunity for our renewal. The root of the word Shanah means both to repeat (as in the number two) and also to change. Which will we do this year? Repeat what we have always done, or will we change and make ourselves and our lives renewed and refreshed? The reality is likely to be somewhere in between, as we hold the tension between comfortable “business as usual” and a fearful desire to make changes in aspects of ourselves and our lives.  

We live our lives repeating many of our habits and making small incremental changes. Jewish time is not circular but spiral – we find ourselves back at Rosh Hashanah, but we are not the same person we were last year. If all goes well, slowly we find ourselves changed – not drastically different but a renewed version of ourselves. We have a Lev Chadash, a new direction and a new heart within the person we have always been. This is the beauty of the Jewish year and of the tradition of renewal within it.

Rav Kook wrote the “The old shall be renewed, and the new shall be made holy”. It is part of his exploration about observing the Shmitta year in the Land of Israel but it is true of every aspect of Judaism.

So this is the challenge asked of us today – and every day. We are asked to renew ourselves and make ourselves holy. We are reminded that God renews creation every day from divine mercy and goodness – that we can take accept that mercy and renew our own being too – repeating and changing, step by step, evolving our Jewish selves as we find our own hiddushei torat Moshe – new meanings in the ancient never changing text.  

The prophet Ezekiel reminds us of God’s promise to give us a new heart and a new spirit… and you will be My people and I will be your God.

וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב חָדָשׁ, וְרוּחַ חֲדָשָׁה אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם

וִהְיִיתֶם לִי, לְעָם, וְאָנֹכִי, אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים…………

Now is the time for renewal, for return, and for making the changes that will enable us to fulfil  this promise. For as Hillel said, If not now, When?


[i] Rashi and Rabbenu Tam disagreed on the order in which the sections of text are written on the parchment. Early authorities state that one should not wear Rabbenu Tam Tefillin unless he is generally known to be pious and careful in all his actions. Otherwise, doing so would be considered a pompous display of piety.

[ii] Sabbateanism—a messianic movement of unprecedented duration and scope—was centred on the charismatic personality of Shabtai Zevi, a seventeenth-century Jew from the Ottoman port-town of Smyrna who, even after his conversion to Islam in the summer of 1666—a discreditable act which was paradoxically explained in kabbalistic terms as the most challenging part of his mission—was believed by many to be the ultimate redeemer and an incarnate aspect of the kabbalistic godhead. The messianic frenzy he created spread rapidly throughout the Jewish world to become a mass movement, but it subsided gradually following his conversion and evident failure to accomplish his mission by the time of his death in 1676.

[iii] lit. “opponents”), a designation for the opponents of the Hasidim. The name originally arose from the bitter opposition to the rise, way of life, and leadership of the Hasidic movement. By the second half of the 19th century the hostility began to subside. One of the causes of the cessation of hostilities was the common front which both formed against the Haskalah (Enlightenment) from which Reform Judaism grew.

(https://iyun.org.il/en/article/challenge-of-change/edmund-burke-and-the-chatam-sofer/)

https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Sofer_Mosheh

RINNOVAMENTO

23/09/2022 04:14:45 PM

di rav Sylvia Rothschild

Immagino che di tanto in tanto tutti noi ci chiediamo come siamo arrivati qui: tutte le coincidenze casuali e le improbabilità statistiche che hanno fatto sì che i nostri antenati si incontrassero e generassero figli; tutte le guerre, le migrazioni e gli sconvolgimenti sociali che avrebbero potuto cambiare così facilmente le nostre storie. Anche nella storia più recente della mia famiglia, se i genitori di mia madre non fossero fuggiti dall’oppressione dell’Impero russo e se mio padre non fosse stato mandato da giovane adolescente a fuggire dalla Germania di Hitler – finendo entrambi casualmente nella stessa città del nord – io non sarei mai nata. 

E se vado più indietro nel tempo, scopro che nel mio albero genealogico ci sono personaggi che hanno combattuto duramente contro l’ebraismo che mi dà la mia identità e la mia passione – l’ebraismo riformato -. Il mio trisavolo Levi Yehudah Spanier, presidente della sinagoga (ortodossa) Beth El di Albany, New York, all’inizio era molto amico del suo rabbino, il dottor Isaac Mayer Wise, ma finì in una serie di accese e violente dispute sulle tendenze riformate del dottor Wise, al punto che alla fine licenziò il dottor Wise dal suo incarico di rabbino della comunità con effetto dal 6 settembre 1850, lo shabbat del giorno precedente Rosh Hashanah. Il dottor Wise rifiutò di accettare il licenziamento e si presentò in sinagoga il giorno di Rosh Hashanah. Ecco la sua descrizione di ciò che accadde in seguito:

“Tutto era silenzioso come una tomba, Infine, il coro intona il grande Ein Kamochadi Sulzer. Al termine del canto, mi avvicino all’arca per estrarre, come di consueto, i rotoli della legge e per offrire la preghiera. Spanier si mette sulla mia strada e, senza dire una parola, mi colpisce con un pugno che mi fa cadere il cappello dalla testa. Questo fu il terribile segnale di un tumulto che non avevo mai sperimentato. I presenti si comportarono come una furia. Era come se la sinagoga fosse improvvisamente esplosa in una fiammeggiante conflagrazione”. 

La rissa fu così forte che fu chiamato lo sceriffo, il quale fece sgomberare la sinagoga, chiuse le porte e prese le chiavi. Questa fu la fine della posizione di Wise al Tempio Beth-El e l’inizio del Movimento di Riforma negli Stati Uniti, con le sue numerose sinagoghe, il Collegio Rabbinico HUC, la Conferenza Centrale dei Rabbini Progressisti e l’affermazione dell’Ebraismo Riformato come espressione ebraica maggioritaria negli Stati Uniti.

Così il mio trisavolo, nel suo desiderio di far finire l’ebraismo riformato, ne ha invece accelerato la crescita, e periodicamente mi chiedo cosa avrebbe pensato delle scelte dei suoi discendenti di diventare rabbini riformati.
Poi c’è Moshe Sofer-Schreiber, mio lontano cugino. Più conosciuto come Chatam Sofer, è talvolta descritto come il padre dell’Ortodossia e il flagello dell’Ebraismo Riformato. Nato a Francoforte nel 1762, fu uno studioso di spicco in diverse prestigiose yeshivot. Tuttavia, il suo pensiero non fu sempre così accettabile per il mondo ebraico. In gioventù fu profondamente legato a Natan Adler, un cabalista i cui seguaci praticavano la nuovissima forma di ebraismo nota come Chasidut. Il gruppo era noto per le sue tendenze religiose rivoluzionarie: pregavano la liturgia sefardita pur essendo ashkenaziti, indossavano i tefillin secondo l’usanza di Rabbenu Tam, formavano e pregavano in minyanim separati e indipendenti, seguendo generalmente usanze chassidiche di cui nessuno aveva mai sentito parlare prima. Il mondo ebraico ashkenazita, a cui appartenevano, non era contento di vedere tali cambiamenti nei costumi e nelle tradizioni e iniziò a perseguitare Rabbi Adler e i suoi seguaci. Alcuni rabbini di spicco scrissero infatti attaccando la “nuova setta” che, a loro dire, “con grande superbia nel cuore non si è curata delle usanze del popolo ebraico, di una Torah fissata dall’antichità secondo i nostri antenati z “l e le ha cambiate con la crudezza dei loro spiriti”. L’establishment ebraico li identificò come un fenomeno pericoloso, simile al sabbateismo.
In un pamphlet intitolato ‘Un atto di inganno’, pubblicato a Francoforte nel 1789, il rabbino Nathan Adler e i suoi accoliti vennero accusati di voler “distruggere le fondamenta dei nostri costumi, tagliare le radici della nostra tradizione ricevuta, costruire nuove maniere […] e nella loro audacia gallica, si sono fatti beffe dei nostri santi padri, e rinnegano coloro che portano la tradizione ricevuta, e i saggi che hanno fondato i nostri buoni costumi sono per loro come cavallette “.
Questa furia conservatrice portò alla scomunica del rabbino Adler. Espulso da Francoforte (1782), vagò per le comunità tedesche subendo ripetuti attacchi. Rimase scomunicato fino a due settimane prima della sua morte. Nelle sue peregrinazioni era accompagnato dal suo giovane studente, Moshe Schreiber, che sarebbe diventato noto come il Chatam Sofer.
Quello che stava accadendo nel mondo ebraico – sia tra i Mitnagdim che tra i Chassidim, con le figure imponenti del Gaon di Vilna e del Baal Shem Tov – erano considerate semplicemente posizioni che non avevano rispetto per l’opinione prevalente per cui “facciamo così perché è sempre stato fatto così”. Erano pronti a cambiare la pratica dell’ebraismo, a introdurre nuove usanze, a leggere il testo in modi diversi e più moderni, a correggere le abitudini e le idee sbagliate che si erano radicate tra gli ebrei comuni.
Sarebbe esagerato dire che le basi della riforma ebraica siano state gettate da queste figure, ma il contesto in cui l’ebraismo di riforma si è sviluppato è importante. Una volta che il genio che sfidava il “fare sempre quello che si è sempre fatto” e a non permettere l’innovazione era uscito dalla bottiglia, era impossibile farlo rientrare. Mio cugino Moshe Schreiber lo scoprì mentre cresceva la sua autorevolezza come halakhista e si univa di fatto all’establishment e sembra che, con l’avanzare dell’età, la crescita del desiderio di modernità nell’ebraismo, che stava portando all’interno dell’ebraismo a un desiderio di riforma, lo abbia allarmato. Sembra che sfidare l’immobilismo e l’abitudine poteva essere accettabile se fatto dal rabbino Adler, ma quando la nuova generazione scelse di spingersi più duramente e più ampiamente, alla ricerca di spiegazioni razionali e di un insieme di comportamenti meno gravosi, egli apparentemente ripudiò le sue precedenti espressioni dell’ebraismo.
La sua innovazione più nota fu quella di insistere sul primato della consuetudine di una comunità rispetto alle argomentazioni halachiche. Sosteneva che la consuetudine di una comunità avesse la stessa importanza nella halacha di una promessa, di un impegno – e nella Torah il divieto di infrangere un voto è assoluto. Sapeva esattamente cosa stava facendo con questo passo straordinario. Rispondendo a una domanda halachica di uno studente, scrisse: “Ho parlato a lungo di questo perché, come risultato dei nostri molti peccati, i senza legge nella nostra nazione sono ora cresciuti di numero. Essi presentano una visione falsa, ridicolizzando il secondo giorno di Yom Tov, che è solo un’usanza. Non vogliono seguire le orme dei Saggi di Israele; parlano contro la loro stessa vita; non sanno e non capiscono; camminano nelle tenebre”. (Responsa Chatam Sofer I, OC, n. 145)

Nel periodo pre-moderno, la consuetudine era vista come un concorrente della halacha scritta; era una ‘fonte esterna’ che a volte contraddiceva apertamente la halacha. L’’hiddush’ (nuovo insegnamento) del Chatam Sofer fu quindi un punto di svolta nella storia della halacha. Identificando la consuetudine come l’ultimo rivale della modernità e del dibattito razionale, egli ne accrebbe deliberatamente l’importanza, trasformandola in una potente arma contro la Haskalah – l’Illuminismo, che si basava sulla ragione. Non solo reinventò lo status della consuetudine, ma cambiò completamente il processo della halacha, perché ora la halacha seguiva la consuetudine anziché il contrario.
Ci sono stati altri rabbini che hanno elevato lo status della consuetudine comunitaria (ad esempio Yitzchak Alfasi, Asher ben Yechiel), ma lo hanno fatto sulla base dell’idea che gli insegnamenti orali di una comunità dovevano essere rispettati in quanto provenienti da un’epoca precedente della halacha. Il Chatam Sofer non fece così, ma basò il suo punto di vista su un legame del tutto nuovo che egli stesso aveva creato tra le usanze locali e i voti biblici.
Il Sofer Chatam creò quella che può essere definita una ‘rivoluzione conservatrice’. Perché? Perché non poteva accettare il nascente ebraismo riformato che si stava affermando intorno a lui nell’Europa illuminista. Un ebraismo di riforma che metteva in discussione usanze gravose come i due giorni di festa in diaspora e che chiedeva di dare una motivazione che andasse oltre l’imperativo emotivo del “i nostri antenati facevano così” o del mantenimento dello status quo. L’ebraismo riformato non nacque tanto dalle sfide mitnagdik o chasidiche all'”ebraismo normativo”, quanto dal desiderio di portare il pensiero illuminista nell’ebraismo – ciò che oggi potremmo chiamare “scelta informata”, per basare le nostre pratiche sulla ragione e sul pensiero piuttosto che sui precedenti storici o sulle parole dei saggi precedenti. E così introdusse la sua “riforma” o “rinnovamento”, ironicamente per cercare di impedire che si realizzasse qualsiasi altra riforma o rinnovamento.
Il principio del Chatam Sofer come halakhista è riassunto nella sua affermazione “He’Chadash assur min HaTorah”, che letteralmente significa “Il nuovo è proibito dalla Torah”. Si trattava di un gioco di parole che prendeva spunto da un versetto biblico che proibiva di mangiare il grano nuovo (Chadash) fino a quando l’offerta dell’Omer non fosse stata fatta il secondo giorno di Pesach. Con questo gioco di parole si è posto il punto di partenza per quella che in seguito sarebbe stata definita “ortodossia”.
Per generazioni l’ebraismo era riuscito a mantenere il suo dinamismo e la sua adattabilità alle circostanze e al contesto in cui si trovava. Solo con l’emergere dell’ebraismo modernista, influenzato dalla filosofia illuminista e dal pensiero scientifico, i tradizionalisti si sentirono così minacciati da fare qualcosa di assolutamente radicale, cercando di chiudere questo dinamismo. Eppure, paradossalmente, il Chatam Sofer puntava sull’innovazione. Nella sua battaglia contro Spinoza, che sosteneva che la Bibbia dovesse essere studiata come un documento umano, Sofer scrisse che così facendo avrebbe negato tutti gli “hiddushim” – nuove comprensioni – che si sarebbero potuti creare se fosse stata studiata come un documento divino, a più strati e con significati nascosti. Mentre il nome Sofer è la traduzione diretta del suo nome “Schreiber”, “Chatam” è l’acronimo di “Hiddushei Torat Moshe” – “Nuove intuizioni della Torah di Mosè” (anche se potrebbe anche riferirsi a una parte particolarmente opaca dell’ultima profezia nel libro di Daniele (Taci le parole e sigilla il libro” (Stom ha’devarim va’chatom ha’sefer) Daniele 12:4).
Quando penso ai miei illustri antenati e al loro rigoroso desiderio di proteggere un ebraismo tradizionalista che significava fare le cose come erano sempre state fatte, provo una certa simpatia. In un mondo di grandi cambiamenti, la tentazione di appellarsi alla tradizione per avere stabilità e certezza e di unificarsi dietro norme condivise è altrettanto grande. Tuttavia, sono grata che non abbiano portato avanti l’argomento e che invece i modernizzatori dell’ebraismo abbiano prosperato accanto ai tradizionalisti. Perché l’ebraismo classico ha sempre operato secondo questa dinamica: l’antico viene onorato e custodito e allo stesso tempo rinnovato.

Noi diciamo in yotzer  וּבְטוּבוֹ מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית Che Dio nella bontà divina rinnova ogni giorno le opere della creazione. La nostra liturgia parla di un continuo rinnovamento – Dio è descritto come colui che “per misericordia dà luce alla terra e a coloro che la abitano” – il primo atto creativo che si ripete ogni mattina grazie alla misericordia e alla bontà di Dio. La creazione si rinnova continuamente, quindi anche noi, in quanto parte della creazione, possiamo rinnovarci. Questo grazie alla bontà e alla misericordia di Dio nei nostri confronti. Non dobbiamo rimanere bloccati in comportamenti che non ci giovano o che sono semplicemente abitudinari e privi di significato: possiamo, anzi dobbiamo, rinnovare non solo noi stessi, ma anche il nostro mondo.
La parola ebraica che indica l’anno è “Shanah” e ogni Rosh HaShanah, ogni inizio d’anno, è un invito e un’opportunità per il nostro rinnovamento. La radice della parola Shanah significa sia ripetere (come il numero due) sia cambiare. Cosa faremo quest’anno? Ripetere quello che abbiamo sempre fatto o cambiare e rinnovare noi stessi e la nostra vita? La realtà è probabilmente una via di mezzo, in quanto siamo in tensione tra il comodo “business as usual” e il timoroso desiderio di cambiare alcuni aspetti di noi stessi e della nostra vita.
Viviamo la nostra vita ripetendo molte delle nostre abitudini e apportando piccoli cambiamenti incrementali. Il tempo ebraico non è circolare ma a spirale: ci ritroviamo a Rosh Hashanah, ma non siamo la stessa persona dell’anno scorso. Se tutto va bene, lentamente ci ritroviamo cambiati – non drasticamente diversi, ma una versione rinnovata di noi stessi. Abbiamo un Lev Chadash, una nuova direzione e un nuovo cuore all’interno della persona che siamo sempre stati. Questa è la bellezza dell’anno ebraico e della tradizione del rinnovamento al suo interno.
Rav Kook ha scritto “Il vecchio sarà rinnovato e il nuovo sarà reso santo”. Fa parte della sua esplorazione sull’osservazione dell’anno Shmita in Terra d’Israele, ma è vero per ogni aspetto dell’ebraismo.
Questa è la sfida che ci viene posta oggi – e ogni giorno. Ci viene chiesto di rinnovarci e di santificarci. Ci viene ricordato che Dio rinnova la creazione ogni giorno grazie alla misericordia e alla bontà divina, e che possiamo accettare questa misericordia e rinnovare anche il nostro essere, ripetendo e cambiando, passo dopo passo, evolvendo il nostro essere ebrei mentre troviamo i nostri hiddushei Torat Moshe – nuovi significati nell’antico testo che non cambia mai.
Il profeta Ezechiele ci ricorda la promessa di Dio di darci un cuore nuovo e uno spirito nuovo… e voi sarete il mio popolo e io sarò il vostro Dio.

וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב חָדָשׁ, וְרוּחַ חֲדָשָׁה אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם

וִהְיִיתֶם לִי, לְעָם, וְאָנֹכִי, אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים…………
È il momento di rinnovarsi, di tornare e di fare i cambiamenti che ci permetteranno di mantenere questa promessa. Perché, come disse Hillel, se non ora, quando?

Traduzione di Eva Mangialojo Rantzer

Pesach to Shavuot – milestones and memories

The fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot contain a number of commemorations that range from the most ancient to the most modern of our people’s history.   Beginning with the birth of our nation and our peoplehood with the exodus from Egypt, the period ends with the birth of our covenant relationship with God as a people at Mount Sinai.

In between, the fifty days of the Omer are days of semi mourning for a reason we are never quite clear about. Some say it is in memory of the oppression of Jews under the Romans, and the failure of the revolts against them; Others that 24 thousand students of Rabbi Akiva died in that period of a plague.  One the thirty third day we have Lag B’Omer  – (Lamed Gimel = 33) which provided a brief change in fortunes for the beleaguered Jews of the time. 

Less than a week after the end of Pesach, when we commemorate the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites at the Red Sea on the seventh day of the festival, we remember a period when deliverance did not come.   The abortive uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, and all the murdered victims of the Holocaust are recalled on Yom ha Shoah ve’ha’Gevurah – the day for remembering the holocaust and the heroism.

 A week later, and more of our dead are remembered on Yom ha Zikaron – the day of memorial for those who gave their lives for the emerging State of Israel.  The day after that we mark Yom Ha’atzma’ut – Israel’s independence day, and this looks forward to the last week of the Omer period and its 44th day when Yom Yerushalayim commemorates the reunification of the city in the Six Day War.

So in fifty days we range over three thousand five hundred years of history.  We see victories and defeats, celebrations and mourning.  We observe Festivals that are at the core of our being as Jews, we see half festivals, not-really-festivals, and festivals in the making.  We see the dynamism and the forward thrust of Judaism which continues to create liturgy and ritual through which to express the most contemporary of events, and we look forward to messianic age promised in all our celebrations at this time But as we look forward, we also remember, are reminded, have memory of, recall, memorialise, commemorate, reminisce.   All these events have one thing in common, both past and future, the intertwined and symbiotic fate of the nation of Israel and people of Israel.

  We are all Israel, connected to each other, to our history, to our future and to our historic land. That connection and what happens to the land remains even today integral to what happens to the people.  We are a people, a tribe, links in a chain that never breaks.

The purpose of the exodus from Egypt was not simply freedom from slavery, it is freedom with a purpose – the purpose fulfilled at Shavuot, the unbreakable covenant we made with God, a covenant made for all generations, for those who were there at the time and those who were not there, for those born into the people and those who chose to join it.

The time between Pesach and Shavuot is a time that we count, a time we make count. We build up to the Sinaitic moment where God and people connect in a way never seen before nor since. We live and are nourished from that moment.

Shavuot is often overlooked, a festival without much ritual in the home, and all night study in the synagogue doesn’t appeal to everyone. But it marks a pivotal moment in our narrative and our formation.

Shavuot is celebrated this year (2022) on Saturday 4th in the evening till Sunday 5th in the evening (or Monday if you follow the diaspora tradition of a second day).

Find yourself a community of learners, a community of pray-ers and celebrate Shavuot, take yourself to Sinai and recommit to the eternal covenant. And then move forward into the rest of the Jewish year, away from Sinai and onto the journey that builds the people of Israel and binds us together as we go through the desert to the promised land.

Abortion and Jewish Tradition

Discussion about abortion is necessarily complex and frequently freighted with contextual perspectives. Yet an examination of Jewish sources reveals that while indeed this is a complex and nuanced subject, certain matters are clear since biblical times. Firstly biblical law does not treat abortion as murder, but as a civil matter. We find the legal status of the foetus encoded in Mishnah Ohalot (7:6) which speaks of therapeutic abortion even during childbirth:- the life of the unborn child is of less legal weight than that of the mother right up to the point of the emergence of the head, because until that point it is not a “nefesh”.  The mother’s right to life supersedes that of the unborn child.

Our tradition also deals with the emotional well-being of the mother. Mishnah Arakhin teaches that a pregnant woman who is convicted of a capital crime is executed quickly in order not to prolong her agony while she carries the child to term. Commentary on this somewhat grisly text makes clear that the rights of the foetus are not greater than the emotional distress of the mother.  Once again the mother’s needs take precedence over those of the unborn child.

Interestingly both Rabbinic law (which describes a pregnancy of 40 days as “water”) and early Church law – which permitted abortion until the child “quickened” (about 16-20 weeks), were the norm for centuries. Not that anyone doubted that the body belonged to God, and that abortion was a serious matter, but punishments were not severe, nor was the perpetrator deemed criminal.  In the UK, abortion after “quickening” attracted the death penalty only in 1803, and in 1937 earlier abortion was added. After that a succession of laws increasingly limited access to abortion and criminalised those involved. Similarly in the Jewish world some eminent poskim narrowed access to abortion to medically mandated life-saving situations only. In part this was a response to Shoah – Jewish lives lost should be replaced, went the thinking. But clearly something else is in play – the rights of a woman over her own body and her own fertility, accepted for centuries as being in the private domain, were brought into public discourse in order to control them.

Once again the rhetoric is ramping up. But the Jewish view is clear – our focus should be to look after the children and families who are living and who need society’s help, not policing women’s bodies.

Written for “Progressively Speaking” in Jewish News July 2020

Aborto e tradizione ebraica

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild il 22 maggio 2022

          La discussione sull’aborto è necessariamente complessa e, spesso, carica di prospettive legate al contesto. Eppure un esame delle fonti ebraiche rivela che, mentre in effetti è un argomento complesso e ricco di sfumature, alcune cose sono chiare fin dai tempi biblici. In primo luogo la legge biblica non tratta l’aborto come un omicidio, ma come una questione civile. Lo stato giuridico del feto lo troviamo codificato nella Mishnà Ohalot (7,6) che parla di aborto terapeutico anche durante il parto: la vita del nascituro ha un peso legale inferiore a quella della madre fino al momento in cui la testa emerge, perché fino a quel punto non è “nefesh”. Il diritto alla vita della madre prevale su quello del nascituro.

          La nostra tradizione si occupa anche del benessere emotivo della madre. Mishnà Arakhin stabilisce che una donna incinta condannata per un crimine capitale venga giustiziata rapidamente senza farle portare a termine la gravidanza, per non prolungare la sua agonia. Il commento a questo testo alquanto raccapricciante chiarisce che i diritti del feto non sono maggiori del disagio emotivo della madre. Ancora una volta i bisogni della madre hanno la precedenza su quelli del nascituro.

          È interessante notare che sia la legge rabbinica (che descrive una gravidanza di quaranta giorni come “acqua”) sia la legge primitiva della Chiesa, che consentiva l’aborto fino a quando il bambino non compiva i primi movimenti percepibili (tra la sedicesima e la ventesima settimana circa), sono state la norma per secoli. Non che qualcuno dubitasse che il corpo appartenesse a Dio, e che l’aborto non fosse una cosa seria, ma le punizioni non erano severe, né l’autore del reato era ritenuto criminale. Nel Regno Unito, l’aborto dopo la percezione dei movimenti fetali, è stato punito con la pena di morte solo nel 1803, nel 1937 è stata poi aggiunta per l’aborto nella fase precedente. Dopodiché una serie di leggi limitava sempre più l’accesso all’aborto e criminalizzava le persone coinvolte. Allo stesso modo, nel mondo ebraico, alcuni eminenti poskim hanno ristretto l’accesso all’aborto solo a situazioni salvavita obbligatorie dal punto di vista medico. Questa è stata in parte una risposta alla Shoà: le vite perdute degli ebrei dovrebbero essere sostituite, si pensava. Ma, chiaramente, è in gioco qualcos’altro: i diritti di una donna sul proprio corpo e sulla propria fertilità, accettati per secoli come dominio privato, sono stati introdotti nel discorso pubblico al fine di controllarli.

          Ancora una volta la retorica si fa strada. Il punto di vista ebraico è però chiaro: il nostro obiettivo dovrebbe essere quello di prenderci cura dei bambini e delle famiglie che vivono e che hanno bisogno dell’aiuto della società, e non quello di sorvegliare i corpi delle donne.

          Scritto per “Progressively Speaking” in Jewish News luglio 2020

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Holocaust Memorial Day – Helene Rothschild

rabbisylviarothschild

My great aunt Helene Rothschild was born on the 6 May 1862 in Ottenstein, the daughter of Siegmund Rothschild. She never married. She stayed in the village and ran the grocery business among her other activities. Family lore recalls that she kept charge of the sefer torah from the synagogue built by the family, and that it was one of the possessions she tried to protect till the end – but while my grandmother saw much of her furniture and linens and silver and art work after the war in the houses of her erstwhile neighbours, the scroll disappeared.  We have one beautiful tablecloth of hers that one neighbour gave to my grandmother.

She had expected to die where she had been born and lived, where her family owned the Jewish cemetery and her father and mother were buried.  Indeed family lore speaks of the grave she had organised for…

View original post 203 more words

The Use and Care of  Public Money 

Every year around this time we read about the money given by the people to build the mishkan, the tent of meeting that will travel with them, and the work of creating it. At the end of book of Exodus we read P’kudei – “the accounts of the tabernacle….as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses”. From here comes the imperative that public money has to be accounted for in detail, with complete transparency.

Centuries later King Jehoash expected Temple donations given to the priests would be used to keep the Temple in good repair. Discovering that money was given but the Temple was not maintained, he changed the system and installed a large chest with a small hole in it near the altar, where all monetary donations were safely deposited. Then  “the royal scribe and the high priest would come, put the money into bags, and count it. They would deliver the money to the overseers of the work. These, in turn, would pay the carpenters and the labourers …and pay for the wood and stone and .. every other expenditure needed to maintain God’s House. (2Kings12 10ff)

The imperative for transparency and proper use of public money may have been natural for Moses, but by the time of Jehoash  structures were needed to protect public funds. Notice the representative from monarchy as well as priesthood when the box was opened and the money counted. Talmud tells us “Money for the charity fund is collected by two people and distributed by three people. It is collected by two people because one does not appoint an authority over the community composed of fewer than two. And it is distributed by three people, like the number of judges needed in cases of monetary law, since the distributors determine who receives money and how much” (Baba Batra 8b)

There is a longstanding tradition in Judaism that those who collect or disburse public money must be provably honest and doing it “leshem shamayim” –  not for their own benefit but for the public good. They had to not only be honest but be seen to behave honestly – they were to stay together when collecting, not be seen putting even their own money into their pockets, be trusted to collect and distribute appropriately.  Money given in order to support the community is heavily regulated in Jewish law. No one can evade the communal responsibility to support the poor in their society and they do so through the regulated and trusted system.

As Maimonides writes “A city with a Jewish population must establish men who are known and reliable, who will go about among the people weekly, taking from each their fixed amount, and giving to each poor person enough food for seven days: this is called “kupah.”

Likewise they establish gabbaim who will take daily, from each courtyard, foodstuffs or money from whoever donates at that time, and distribute the collection in the evening among the poor, giving to each a day’s sustenance, and this is called “tam’hui.””

While Mishna Avot may tell us that “everything belongs to God”,  the reality has always been that some accrue wealth at the expense of others, misappropriating public funds – as Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun”. So given our texts exhorting public service over private gain, never allowing the control of public money to fall to a small  unaccountable elite, legislating communal responsibility to feed, clothe, house and maintain the poorer in society (defined as not having enough for two good meals a day), what would Moses or Jehoash say about the homeless, the food banks, the benefit cuts, or the writing off of fraudulently misappropriated public funds?

(written for the Jewish News Progressive Judaism page February 2022)

Mishpatim: The Code of Law that structures Human Rights in its very bones, or Justice and Judges must uphold the moral imperative.

Mishpatim 2022

Parashat Mishpatim continues the process begun at Sinai, explicating and evolving the laws that will govern this nascent Israelite society. It begins with the laws that govern the indentured Israelite servants, and then moves on to the laws of damages- beginning with the person who either intentionally or unintenionally causes damage, and then dealing with the damage that is caused indirectly or by the property of people. The parasha then continues into other areas.

On first reading, it seems as if the laws contain a jumble of different areas and contexts with little logical order. Rabbi Elchanan Samet however has a different view: “Our question about the organization of the parasha of damages is based on the assumption that the order should follow the categories of the agents which CAUSE damage. Such a categorization is appropriate from a legal perspective, since one’s level of responsibility for the damage determines whether and how much restitution he much pay.  Our questions, however, disappear when we realize that the Torah orders this section based on the categories of those who are DAMAGED, not those who CAUSE damage”.

(https://etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/torah/sefer-shemot/parashat-mishpatim/mishpatim-laws-damages-declaration-human-rights)

In other words, the Torah has an organising principle here not just of legal categories, but of societal values. It begins with the value of human and then animal life, moves onto plant life and the sustaining ability of agriculture for society, and only then moves to general property or to money.  By using this principle, we are reminded powerfully that all human life and wellbeing, )closely followed by animal life and well being) is de facto more important to sustain and to protect than property or wealth.

On this organising principle, Judaism builds an edifice of understanding and provides a moral compass for us and for all of society. One cannot claim for example that the poor deserve less than the rich, that refugees have fewer rights to security than those comfortably living in the land, or that the rights of animals to life and welfare can be negotiated (or worse) for monetary profit.

Mishpatim has often been described as a foundational text for our society, a text which creates an environment built on laws that are applicable to everyone, that have authority, that addresses a broad variety of human experiences. The view that the organising principle is not only the legal sysem regulating human action but actually the moral imperative to be particularly concerned about supporting the wronged person and getting justice for them is mind blowing.  We generally focus on the idea that it is clearly built on earlier codes, such as that of Hammurabi, and examine the differences between the two codes of law, but to change focus and look at how the code is structured to prioritise people’s humanity and well being, the care for all living creatures and for nature BEFORE considering the care for material wealth and possessions is to understand the biblical imperative to care for the world and its inhabitants even at the cost of any accumulation of wealth or other material power.

We cannot of course ignore the fact that the legal code is critical to keeping the moral code properly focused and working. It is law – good law that is made to help people rather than to oppress or constrain people – that keeps society safe. The very word “mishpatim” means “laws”, and it requires people who apply wisdom and compassion to interpret and wield these laws.

I have been thinking a great deal recently about my grandfather, Walter Fritz Louis Rothschild, whose career as a judge faltered and ultimately came to an end with the rise of the Nazis in Germany. We have a newspaper where the following is reported on 21st January 1933 under the heading “A Public Scandal” :

“Offener Brief an den Reichsjustizminister.

Wir berichteten bereits in unsere gestrigen Ausgabe über den öffentlichen Skandal am hiesigen Amtsgericht.  Der Führer der SA-Obergruppe 2, Lutze, hat jetzt folgenden offenen Brief an den Reichsjustizminister gerichtet:

Ein Einzelfall, der in der Bevölkerung Hannovers berechtigte Entrüstung und Empörung ausgelöst hat, gibt mir Veranlassung, mich an Sie zu wenden und ein Problem zur Sprache zu bringen, das dringend und umgehend der Bereinigung bedarf.

               Der Vorgang ist folgender:           Das Amtsgericht Hannover hat es für zweckmäßig befunden, in einer politischen Strafsache, die am Mittwoch, dem 18. Januar 1933 vor dem hiesigen Amtsgericht anstand, in einem Verfahren gegen 2 SA-Männer den jüdischen Amtsgerichtsrat Dr. Rothschild als Vorsitzenden herauszustellen.

               Die Vernehmung der Beklagten erfolgte von Seiten des Dr. Rothschilds in überaus provokatorischer und unsachlicher Form.

   Der Verteidiger der Angeklagten bezweifelte daraufhin die Unbefangenheit des jüdischen Vorsitzenden und wird von diesem in einer Art und Weise behandelt, die weit über das Maß des Erträglichen und Erlaubten hinausgeht. Das Gericht zieht sich zur Beratung zurück und erklärt dann den Antrag des Verteidigers als gegenstandslos.

               Herr Reichsjustizminister! Es dürfte auch Ihnen nicht entgangen sein, daß das deutsche Volk, soweit es die nat.-soz. Weltanschauung vertritt – und das sind rund 40 Prozent der Gesamtbevölkerung Deutschlands – die jüdischen Fesseln abzustreifen sich anschickt.

               Wir verbitten es uns, daß man Vollblut- und Halbblutjuden als Richter über deutsche Menschen einsetzt. Wir fordern, daß der verantwortliche Amtsgerichtsdirektor, der für den obengenannten Vorgang  die Verantwortung trägt, zur Rechenschaft gezogen wird.

               Ich hoffe, daß Sie diesem Appell in letzter Stunde die gebührende Beachtung schenken, ehe es an den Gerichten zu Auftritten kommt, die eine autoritäre Rechtspflege überhaupt in Frage stellen.

               Zu Ihrer Orientierung diene Ihnen, daß sich die hannoverschen Gerichte durch Herausstellung jüdischen Justizpersonals besonders hervortun. Ich nenne u.a. :

               1. den ersten Staatsanwalt Wolfssohn,

               2. die Richterin Alice Rosenfeld,

               3. den Amtsgerichtsrat Rothschild,

und empfehle Ihnen, die Genannten schnellstens in der Versenkung verschwinden zu lassen.

Der Führer der SA-Obergruppe II, gez. Lutze, M.d..R.”  [i.e. Mitglied des Reichstages.]

“Open letter to the Reich Minister of Justice.

We already reported in yesterday’s issue about the public scandal at the local district court.   The leader of SA-Obergruppe 2, Lutze, has now addressed the following open letter to the Reich Minister of Justice:

An individual case which has caused justified indignation and outrage among the people of Hanover has given me cause to address you and to raise a problem which urgently and immediately needs clearing up.

               The process is as follows:

               The District Court of Hanover has found it expedient to single out the Jewish District Court Councillor Dr. Rothschild as the presiding judge in a political criminal case which was pending before the District Court here on Wednesday, January 18, 1933, in proceedings against 2 SA men.

               The questioning of the defendants was carried out by Dr. Rothschild in an extremely provocative and unobjective manner.

   The defendants’ defence counsel then doubted the impartiality of the Jewish chairman and was treated by him in a manner that went far beyond what was tolerable and permissible. The court retires for deliberation and then declares the motion of the defence counsel to be without object.

               Mr. Minister of Justice! It should not have escaped your notice that the German people, in so far as they represent the National-Socialist worldview – and that is about 40 percent of the total population of Germany – are preparing to throw off the Jewish shackles.

               We forbid the use of full-blooded and half-blooded Jews as judges over German people. We demand that the director of the district court, who is responsible for the above-mentioned incident, be brought to justice.

               I hope that you will give this appeal the attention it deserves at the last hour, before there are any appearances in the courts that call the authoritarian administration of justice into question at all.

               For your orientation, please note that the Hanoverian courts are particularly prominent in singling out Jewish judicial personnel. I mention, among others:

               1. the first public prosecutor Wolfssohn,

               2. Judge Alice Rosenfeld,

               3. the district court judge Rothschild,

and I recommend that you let the aforementioned disappear as quickly as possible.

The leader of SA-Obergruppe II,

signed. Lutze, M.d..R.”     [i.e. member of the Reichstag.]

One can only imagine the arrogant confidence of the writers of the letter, who, unhappy that an incident where up to 30 SA (Sturmabteilung – Nazi paramilitary wing “Storm Detachment) men had set upon a man wearing a Reichsbanner badge in his hat (anti fascist/ liberal organisation of the Weimar republic) and beaten him up, were questioned robustly by a Jewish court judge and found to have a case to answer – felt able to demand that Jewish judges be removed from office.

One can only imagine the feelings of that judge  – my grandfather- writing his carefully worded and thoughtful 5 page response to the accusation, only to be removed from his role within a week of his rebuttal as the Nazis came to power and removed all Jews from their public roles.

My grandfather died as a result of the physical ill- treatment he received in Dachau shortly after the war. But my grandmother survived and on occasion she would reminisce with me. One day she told me of her overwhelming fear in the early thirties – I think it must have been around the time of this court case – as she tried to persuade her husband to leave the country. He told her “I can’t. If the judges leave then there will be no justice”.

By the time he realised that there would be no judges and no justice it was too late to leave. Countries had closed their borders to Jews, they and extended family were trapped.

Last week I lit a yahrzeit candle for him. This week we are mark the European Holocaust Memorial Day and we repeat the words “never again” and “Zachor – Remember” hopefully and desperately in the knowledge that since the Shoah we have seen people dehumanised because of their ethnicity or religion, we have seen people attempt to erase any memory and any learning from memory.

And this week we read parashat Mishpatim. We read a parasha where a society is created by laws. A parasha structured to remind us that every single human being is of value, every single human being is of equal value, and that value is paramount in how we organise our society.

If only our society followed the structure set out in parashat mishpatim. To value human life, animal life, the natural world. To care for them, to protect them, to nourish and sustain and honour them. And only after that to consider material wealth, profit, gains.  If only we had a system where the person damaged was the most important to consider, not the damage to property or wealth.

We are witnessing an assault by government on our codes of justice. We are witnessing legislation whereby if the government does not agree with the judiciary, they will overrule the judgments. We are witnessing long term underfunding of our system which is causing it to break down. We are witnessing a government that thinks the law is not for them to follow. We are living in dangerous times.

And I think of my brave and lonely grandfather saying to my fearful and anxious grandmother. “If the judges leave there will be no justice.”

Hannover Judges. My grandfather Landgerichtsrat Dr Walter Fritz Louis Rothschild third row from the front, fourth from the right

A Tree of Life – and life giving trees: Tu b’Shevat

“One day Choni the circle maker was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready-grown] carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me so I too plant these for my children”.            ( Talmud Bavli: Taanit 23a)

Trees are deeply important in our tradition, and also have their own relationship with God. They are prominent in our texts – mentioned at the Creation, vital to the narrative in the Garden of Eden; the Hebrew word for tree appears in the bible over 150 times and more than 100 different kinds of trees, shrubs and plants are named. The Mishnah follows suit, naming hundreds more plants in its legal codification. In all more than 500 different plants are named in our traditional texts.  Trees are a signifier of the connection the Jews have with the land, and reflect the relationship that we have with the Land of Israel – Moses repeatedly reminds us that we must care for the land and treat it well, and not only land but people – otherwise we will be driven out from there as other nations apparently were before us.  

Trees have a special place in how we create awareness of God. For they are not only part of the natural world, they are also used repeatedly in our texts as a metaphor for humanity, for life, for reaching upwards to God and rooting the self in the world.  Trees symbolise so much, they have a quasi-divine element, a quasi-human element. They feed us, they provide shelter, they bridge the generations, and they act as a bellwether for our moral state.

We read in Deuteronomy “ When you will besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you? (20:19)

This image, comparing the fruit tree to human beings, powerfully reminds us of the damage that can be inflicted in a war between people, and in obliging us to protect the trees reminds us of what we have in common with them. If we should not cut down the fruit bearing tree, how much more so should we consider the safety of the people being besieged?

We are about to celebrate the festival of Tu b’Shevat – the fifteenth day of the month Shevat. Originally Tu b’Shevat was simply the way by which the age of trees was measured for purpose of tithing and of orlah (the first three years when the fruit was considered strictly God’s property and not to be eaten by anyone). In effect it marks the boundary of a tax year.

After the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70CE the taking of tithes from fruit trees fell into disuse, but the date remained special in our calendars. The Mishnah recorded four new years  and their dates: – Rosh Hashanah le’ilanot (Tu b’Shevat) for trees, Rosh Hashanah for years, Rosh Hashanah lema’aser behemah for tithing animals, and Rosh Hashanah le’mel’achim for counting the years of a king’s reign.

The date of Tu b’Shevat has stayed in our calendar throughout the time we were without our land, celebrated and noted by communities all over the world. The Kabbalists of Sfat in the 16th and 17th century developed a ritual – the Tu b’Shevat Seder – to represent our connection to the land of Israel and also to reflect the mystical concept of God’s relationship with our world being like a tree.  The Seder consisted of eating the different types of traditional fruits grown in Israel and connecting the different types of these fruit with each the Four Worlds of Kabbalistic theology, drinking four cups of wine that were each mixed with different proportions of wine with each cup of wine symbolizing one of the four seasons, and reading texts about trees.

The mystics understand Tu B’Shevat as being the day when the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe.  And they taught that by offering blessings on Tu B’Shevat, a person can help in the healing of the world. From this came the belief that since on Tu B’Shevat we offer a blessing for each fruit before we consume it, the more fruits we eat, the more blessings we can offer to help heal the world.

In more modern times Tu b’Shevat has been a gift to the Zionist movement and the return to the Land. They have used it as an opportunity to plant trees in Israel as a way of transforming  the land, as well as re-attaching ourselves to the physical Land of Israel. And most recently the Jewish ecological movements have adopted the day to remind us in  powerful messages of our obligation to care for the environment.

All these themes bound up in Tu b’Shevat are important and helpful to our own Jewish identity and spirituality. There is an overarching theme of healing the world through our connections with nature, of the importance and symbiosis of our relationship with the natural world. And in our relationship with nature, we express our relationship with God. Caring for our world is a sacred task. As we read in Proverbs (3:18)

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ 

[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her is happy.

Our tradition asks: “How can a person of flesh and blood follow God? … God, from the very beginning of creation, was occupied before all else with planting.  Therefore … occupy yourselves first and foremost with planting.  – Midrash: Leviticus Rabbah 25:3

It reminds us that  “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you that the Messiah has come, plant the sapling and then go and greet him” (Avot de Rabbi Natan)

Vaccinations and Public Health – Pikuach Nefesh

L’Italiano segue Inglese

When my mother told my small niece not to go out of the gate when playing in the garden, my niece resisted, saying she had learned at her orthodox Jewish primary school that “the God of Israel will protect me”. She could certainly leave the garden and go into the road. When my mother explained that the God of Israel was using her as the protective agent to watch over my niece’s safety, she reluctantly agreed to staying within the garden.

I think of this story whenever I come across Jews who refuse medical interventions because of “the will of God”, and when I hear the phrase “pikuach nefesh” used in response. While we are used to translating the phrase as “saving a life”, its root meaning is “watching over or overseeing a person”. Our obligation to others is to watch out for them, ensuring that they are not endangered.

My niece, disabused of the notion that God would always protect her, grew up aware of the Jewish obligation to take care of each other, that the “looking out for” the other is the responsibility of everyone in society.  Looking out for the other means taking public health seriously, rather then allowing each to make a decision for themselves that may have harmful consequences for others. It means not expecting God to intervene to help us, but being the agent of protection ourselves – protecting ourselves and others.

History has shown us that biblical verses like “Whoever keeps the mitzvot will  know no harm” (Ecc8:5) cannot be read at face value, that faith in God is not the harbinger of survival, and that the kind of piety that expects divine protection as reward for uncritical devotion is at best misguided. From Talmud on the idea that a doctor may heal even what God has caused is threaded through our texts. Healing becomes a religious obligation, preventing danger and illness a duty.

Recently the haredi world was in uproar when a prominent rabbi advocated vaccinating children against Covid. He received death threats, was called “Amalek” whose name must be erased, accused of murder by his own community, purportedly in God’s name.

Progressive Judaism does not teach that illness is God’s will nor that only the undeserving succumb. Faith does not preserve, disease is not a judgment, each of us must watch out for others.  Vaccination protects us all. It’s a mitzvah. Do it.

Vaccini e salute pubblica – Pikuach Nefesh

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild il 9 gennaio 2022

          Quando mia madre diceva alla mia nipotina di non uscire dal cancello mentre giocava in giardino, mia nipote opponeva resistenza, e, come aveva imparato nella sua scuola elementare ebraica ortodossa, diceva: “il Dio di Israele mi proteggerà”. Poteva lasciare il giardino e mettersi tranquillamente in strada. Quando mia madre le spiegava che il Dio d’Israele la stava usando come agente protettivo per vegliare sulla sua sicurezza, lei accettava con riluttanza di rimanere nel giardino.

          Penso a questa storia ogni volta che mi imbatto in ebrei che rifiutano gli interventi medici a causa della “volontà di Dio”, e quando sento la frase “pikuach nefesh” usata come risposta. Nonostante siamo abituati a tradurre la frase come “salvare una vita”, il suo significato principale è “vegliare o sorvegliare una persona”. Il nostro obbligo nei confronti degli altri è di prenderci cura di loro, assicurandoci che non siano in pericolo.

          Mia nipote, disillusa all’idea che Dio l’avrebbe sempre protetta, è cresciuta consapevole dell’obbligo ebraico di prendersi cura l’uno dell’altro, che “prendersi cura” dell’altro è responsabilità di tutti nella società. Prendersi cura dell’altro significa prendere sul serio la salute pubblica, piuttosto che permettere a ciascuno di prendere una singola decisione che potrebbe avere conseguenze dannose per gli altri. Significa non aspettarsi che Dio intervenga per aiutarci, ma essere noi stessi l’agente di protezione, proteggendo noi stessi e gli altri.

          La storia ci ha mostrato che versetti biblici come “Chi osserva le mitzvot non conoscerà alcun male” (Ecc 8:5) non possono essere intesi alla lettera, che la fede in Dio non è foriera di sopravvivenza e che il tipo di pietà che si aspetta la divina protezione come ricompensa per la devozione acritica è, nella migliore delle ipotesi, fuorviante. Dal Talmud in poi l’idea che un medico possa guarire anche ciò che Dio ha causato è intessuta nei nostri testi. Guarire diventa un obbligo religioso, prevenire il pericolo e la malattia diventa un dovere.

          Recentemente il mondo haredi è stato in subbuglio quando un eminente rabbino ha sostenuto la vaccinazione dei bambini contro il Covid. Ha ricevuto minacce di morte, è stato chiamato “Amalek” il cui nome deve essere cancellato, accusato di omicidio dalla sua stessa comunità, presumibilmente in nome di Dio.

          L’ebraismo progressivo non insegna che la malattia è volontà di Dio né che solo gli immeritevoli soccombono. La fede non preserva, la malattia non è un giudizio, ognuno di noi deve stare attento agli altri. La vaccinazione ci protegge tutti. È una mitzvà. Fatela.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Va’Era: listening, hearing and acting in despondent and terrifying times

“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the ETERNAL. I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the ETERNAL, am your God who freed you from the labours of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I sworeto Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the ETERNAL.” But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” Exodus 6:5-9

Twice now we hear that God hears the groaning of the Israelites – At the burning bush God tells Moses “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings……”  Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. (Exodus 3:7,9), yet at no point does the bible record the Israelites calling out to God for help to save them from their slavery in Egypt. Yet God hears them and decides to act to help them.

This contrasts painfully with the lack of listening that the Israelites themselves do. When Moses speaks to them of his encounter with God, and the re-entry of God into their narrative, they refuse to listen to him. They  are too fully absorbed in the misery of their existence to contemplate anything beyond it.

The text plays repeatedly with miscommunication, with what is said, or listened to, or heard or understood. God hears what is not cried out. Moses pleads his inability to speak well to others. Pharoah chooses not to understand the import of the signs and wonders being inflicted on his people and land. He too is fully absorbed in retaining and growing his own power to notice what else is happening around him. Again and again he is forced into accepting a version of the request of the Israelite people, to go and worship God in the wilderness, only to retract his agreements shortly afterwards.

What we come to understand is that listening and understanding are both active and committed behaviours. While one can communicate without intending to do so, it is also possible to be exposed to the communication of others without taking on board what it is that they are communicating. One can hear the silent pain of others and yet miss the explicit and direct words shared with us.

When Moses brings the message from God to the Israelites, the message of freedom from slavery, they do not hear him – and the bible explains that they are crushed by their conditions, have no ability to think beyond their misery.

Listening and understanding are active behaviours of commitment to the other. It is not enough to just skim the surface of communication, gleaning sufficient though scant information in order to continue one side of a conversation.  Listening is an act of will, paying attention takes effort, being present in communication is not the easy route.

The Israelites are consumed by their conditions, exhausted by the effort they must put in just to survive. They cannot hear the voice of freedom even when it speaks directly to them. God has to try another way to get their attention, as well as the attention of their oppressors.

We are living in a world undergoing pandemic, where almost everyone is giving their attention to negotiating the unknowable. After almost two years of this “new normal”, many of us are exhausted, many burned out, many in more fragile situations in work or in relationships, many contemplating a different way to live their lives going forward. The hard work of just keeping going means that for many of us all our attention is taken, we have no bandwidth for listening and really hearing the messages of others, no emotional capacity for even the directly spoken plea.

Yet it is important that we are able to turn our attention outside our immediate situation. Be it climate change or massively increased poverty, increasing political corruption or the desolation of the many bereaved people – we have to lift our heads and begin to pay attention. To listen to the pain of others even if not directed to us. To commit to understanding and engaging with the problems our world is facing, even if we would rather just keep our heads down and plough on.

When God sends the signs – seven of which appear in this sidra – they are signs not just to Pharaoh, but to everyone, from Hebrew slave to Egyptian courtiers. They are attention grabbing reminders that the world needs us to pay attention, that the vulnerable and the frightened need us to pay attention, that the people treated unjustly need us to pay attention.

In the beginning of this sidra God tells Moses” I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name”

Much is written about the names of God here, but I am minded to pay attention this year to the words of Saadia Gaon who said that the shin of Shaddai is a preposition, so the word is really She’ Dai – The One Who said to the world “Enough”

Standing up and being prepared to say “Enough” takes courage, presence, commitment and deep attention. And it is something we also need to be doing. Saying “enough” to the facts of extreme poverty in rich nations, of frightened refugees preferring to risk their lives because there are no proper secure or legal routes to safely. Saying “enough” to those who would grab resources for themselves at the expense of other peoples. Saying “enough” to corruption in government, to legislation designed to remove rights, to legislation designed to erase history

We are all tired and frightened and uncertain in this pandemic time, but if we don’t begin to pay attention to what else is happening while Covid 19 rampages through the globe, if we don’t stand up and say “enough” to human beings living in terrible conditions with little hope of change, then we are not paying attention to our texts. The ten signs God sends to Egypt increase in severity and terror. God has to find a way to be heard. And if we just stop and listen for the still small voice of our texts and traditions, we will hear and understand and gather the strength to be who we need to be.