The naming of Jacob and a midrash on Israel – Parashat Vayishlach

Twice in this sidra we are told about the name given to Jacob. The first time happens at the Ford of Yabok after he has wrestled all night before meeting his brother Esau again. At his demand as the dawn rises he requests a blessing and his name Jacob is changed to Israel, (Vayomer: lo Ya’akov yei’ameir od shimcha, ki im Yisrael, ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim v’tuchal Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with people, and have prevailed.’  (Genesis 32:28-29)

The second time is a few chapters later, when having met Esau he has reached Beit El, the place we are told was the scene of his original meeting with God when, having fled his family after cheating Esau of the birthright blessing he dreamed of a ladder from heaven to earth and made his deal with God should he come back safely to his own land. This time we are clear about who is doing the naming, but with less clarity about what the new name is supposed to mean:  “Vayomer Elohim lo, shimcha Ya’akov. Lo yikarei  shimcha od Ya’akov ki im Yisrael yihyeh sh’mecha, Vayikra et sh’mo Yisrael” And God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, your name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be your name. And God called his name Israel”

So the first time we have a reason for the name given to Jacob – albeit one that is a bit of a stretch for our imaginations – by a shadowy figure who may or may not really be there; And a few chapters later we have certainty that his name is given to him by God but no reason given for the name.

The names Jacob and Israel have been the focus of much discussion and debate over the generations – after all we call ourselves B’nei Ya’akov – the children not of Abraham or Isaac, but of Jacob; our pleople and land are named Israel and any other name would seem unthinkable.  We descend in a very intimate way from this naming; we take the identities as our own, we describe ourselves as a people who struggle with God and who survive.

Much of the debate centres around the interchangeability or not of the two names and what they indicate in each context. Everywhere else in bible when your name is changed it is changed forever and there is no going back to the old one. Your name signifies a central essence, it is you and you are it, be it description, aspiration or significant memory, names in bible describe what that person most essentially and existentially is. Yet here we have a patriarch whose name is changed by God in dramatic circumstances with the words “your name shall no longer be Jacob”, who continues to be called by his original name as well as the new name throughout the text until his death.

Let us look a little closer at the names. Ya’akov/Jacob means to be curved, like a heel (and the pun works in English as well as in Hebrew).  In truth, Jacob is a bit of a heel, someone perfectly able to treat his twin brother without real respect, pulling him back in order to gain advantage. Israel means – well what does it mean? Bible tells us it means one who has struggled with God, though etymologically it would make more sense to be from Yashar El – the one whom God straightens out.

Bible though has a different interest to that of etymologists and does not need to follow the rules of grammar in the way that we might expect it to. It wants to tell us something important. Jacob has struggled with God and with Humankind and has “tuchal” – variously understood as “prevailed”, “been able, continued. So the name is given – Yod, S/hin, Reish, Alef, Lamed.

Taking this word apart, in the full knowledge that Jacob has not only wrestled with God (Elohim) but also with Humankind (Anashim) we can see that the word begins with the word for human being – Ish, and ends with the name for God – El. And what is left in the middle is the letter Reish. The name can be understood as signifying something of the relationship between God and Humanity; the letter Reish is the bridge between the two, the place of the wrestling and struggling which is the pathway to God.

What is this connecting letter, the Reish? Well it comes almost at the end of the Hebrew alphabet, but its meaning is primarily to do with beginning – it is connected to the word Rosh meaning ‘head’ or Rishon -‘beginning’.  The word ‘Reish’ is also part of the very first word of Torah, Bereishit, famously translated as ‘in the beginning’ but actually part of a very ambiguous phrase – it could mean “with Reishit God created….”  or even “for the sake of Reishit God created” and the rabbinic traditional exegetical process then develops to understand “Reishit” as meaning “Wisdom”. And what is true Wisdom? Surely it is Torah. So Jacob becoming Israel could be seen as the realigning (from the curvature of the heel to the straightening of yashar) of the relationship between God and humanity through Reish, through new beginnings or through Torah.

Two events happen in between the two texts about the renaming of Jacob.

One is the meeting and reconciliation with his brother Esau, after which Jacob continues his journey to Canaan and Esau back to his own land.

The second event is the story of Dinah and the Prince of Shechem, where Jacob is passive and his sons unleash horrible violence upon the Shechemites when they are recovering from their circumcisions in order to be able to marry into the family of Jacob. Jacob is passive but he does speak and act at the end – He accuses Shimon and Levi of putting himself and his family into danger by their actions and he follows God’s imperative to go to Beit El and to fulfil his vow made there when he had woken from his dream of the ladder. Jacob takes all the idolatrous artefacts from his household and buries them in Shechem, and then he brings his newly cleansed household to Beit El ready to start his new life in the Land.  It is at this point that God names him once more.

In each of these stories there is one common thread – at first Jacob is passive and then reactive to the immediate circumstance, then he eventually  does act to try to do the right thing, and then he moves on.

The letter Reish is written as a curve, rather like a person with head bent over. It is often mistaken for the letter Dalet which is all sharp angles and straight lines. It has been noted that the Reish symbolises the one who searches out a number of directions, bending and swaying around, while the Dalet looks neither right nor left but moves onwards to its destination. If the Reish in Israel is the bridge between humanity and God, the process that takes the one to the other, then it makes a lot of sense that this letter is chosen, the one that bends and sways, the one that symbolises new beginnings and uncertainties, fresh starts and reservations. For that is what we always do, we feel our way through life uncertainly, responding as best we can with what we know, making mistakes. We make mistakes but then we make another new beginning. We use our heads and increase our wisdom as we experience our lives, and we hope that this life journey will eventually bring us closer to God.

Jacob becomes Israel but stays Jacob till his death. He does not prevail, instead he increases in his ability to live life even while making mistakes.  Scripture is right to see both his reality (Jacob) and his aspiration (Israel) alongside each other, for sometimes one is expressed and sometimes the other. We don’t find holiness in one moment or with one action – holiness is the sum of all our actions and the way we learn from them and change because of them.  Jews are certainly Israel in that we struggle with God and with people as did Jacob. But I would take issue with the understanding of “tuchal” as meaning we prevail in the struggle. Rather I would rather see that verb in its more primary meaning of being able. We struggle to bridge many gaps in life, we struggle to build a bridge between the heavens and the earth, between aspiration and reality, between people who find each other difficult – and the naming of Jacob reminds us that each failure, as well as each success, can bring us closer to forming that bridge, and making it secure.

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

As human beings we are programmed not to understand our own mortality. Few of us believe it to be true; most of us shy away from thinking about it for more than a few moments at any one time. Whenever I am privileged to be part of someone’s final journey I am reminded that I too will have to take this path, and yet somehow the knowledge does not penetrate too deeply for very long. As is traditional in Judaism, we have a powerful focus on life, on what we do in this world. In Pirkei Avot (4:21) Rabbi Jacob (2nd Century CE) describes this world as “a corridor to the world beyond.” We prepare ourselves in this world so as to be in good order to appear before God.

What does the preparation look like? One theme I have come to recognize is that what we do in this world is hugely important, yet it doesn’t always look important. As I write the funeral eulogy for people I see that sometimes a quietly lived life, loving others and caring for them has had extraordinary impact on a small corner of the world. Sometimes working at a particular profession has a powerful long lasting effect  – healing the sick, teaching skills, creating gardens…. Sometimes there have been numerous honours bestowed by the world, but no family or good friends who care enough to come to mourn. What I have learned is that a life well lived can look different depending on who has lived it, but there is always an impression of that life left on the universe when it has been lived fully.

When Dylan Thomas advised us to “not go gentle into that good night”,  he thinks in part of those wise people who, “because their words had forked no lightning, they/ Do not go gentle into that good night”.

I have been privileged to meet many people whose words have, indeed, forked lightning – albeit in a gentle and undramatic way. And one of these is my own sister, who, while on chemotherapy for breast cancer some 16 years ago, started a fundraising quiz which has now raised over 80 thousand pounds. Initially the money was for equipment for her local hospital that would mean that other women would not have to have so intrusive a treatment as she herself suffered, later the money was directed to the Macmillan cancer charity.

She had just turned 40, had started a new and demanding job, and her two children were both under ten when the diagnosis came out of the blue and her world collapsed and she was parachuted into that parallel universe that is the domain of the seriously ill. As she surfaced through what felt to her like “the cold waters of fear, anxiety and confusion” she coped by deciding to focus on doing something that would make things easier for the women coming after her, and to distract herself and set her mind down a different path than fear for the future, she devised a cryptic quiz that she would sell to family and friends. The quiz, selling for £2 a copy, took on a life of its own, with its recipients selling it on to their family and friends, and her target of £500 was surpassed four fold.

Every year after that she, her husband and an old school friend created, sold, marked, the new quiz. It has now become a fixture in many homes, something to do over the Christmas period, with the possibility of a small prize to the winners. Hundreds of people now contact her for a copy of the quiz, a JustGiving page allows people to donate and many offer more than the requested £2.

When I asked her about it recently, she wrote to me “Facing your own mortality head on and so bluntly, actually sharpens your thinking about what is important once you do come up for breath.  It also makes you realise how short a time we are on this world anyway – cancer or not.”

So – if you want to know more and would like to take part in this year’s quiz (with a botanical theme), please e mail her at or contact me via the blog and you too can take your part in one of the myriad small and unsung actions that go on across the world and leave a definite  and positive mark on the world.

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parashat vayetzei


Every so often someone asks about the word “mizpah”, found in this sidra, because it appears on a piece of jewellery sold in a national chain of shops.

When the sidra Vayetzei begins, Jacob is effectively running for his life, leaving home and family in Beer Sheba, and going towards unknown relations in Haran.  A frightened and homesick young man, uncertain of what the future will bring, he stops alone by a roadside at night and dreams the dream which is to sustain him throughout his life – he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven to earth, and there on that ladder he encounters God.  By the time the sidra ends, much of the trickery which caused him to leave home will have been reflected into his own life – his father in law will have deceived him with his bride (the mirror image of his own deceiving of his father), the older will not be passed over for the younger (as was done when he took the blessing meant for his older brother.)    After 20 years Jacob is returning home a wealthy and confident man, no longer alone but with a substantial entourage, and of course also as a husband and father.  Relations with his father in law have been marked by abuse and mistrust, and at the end of the sidra Jacob makes good his escape, only to be chased by Laban who is searching for the stolen household gods, and who doesn’t want this young kinsman to leave and take with him both family and family wealth.  The two make a pact finally, neither of them happy about the other but both unable to do anything further about it.  The pact is marked by a mound of stones, named in both the Hebrew of  Jacob (Galeid)  and the Aramaic of Laban (y’gar sahadoota) ,  and then it is suddenly named again ‘Mitzpah’, because Laban  said  “May the Eternal watch between you and me when we are out of sight of each other,  if you ill- treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters  – though no one else be about, remember the Eternal God will be a witness between you and me” (31:49).

Mitzpah then is not a blessing but a warning.  Far from being a token designating eternal love, it is more a sort of token of eternal mistrust.  Yet there it is to be found on the pages of well known catalogue store under the rubric  “His and Hers split pendant set”, along with other split pendants with such inscriptions as “Our Hearts beat as One”, and even the famous speech of Ruth to Naomi “where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God”.

One wonders what the designers of this jewellery, and also the many people who actually buy it would think, if they realised that the apparently romantic message in fact is a barely coded warning between two known tricksters that whatever they do, even in secret when no one is around to observe them, the truth will be known to God, who will most certainly judge them.

The whole business set me wondering about the things we wear to remind us of what is important to us.

Traditionally Jews wear  certain things to remind us of the biblical commandments – tefillin in the daily morning service which contain paragraphs from bible reminding us of the obligation to love God and to teach our children to do so too;  or tallit with the corner fringes knotted to remind us of the 613 commandments said to be in Torah, many of which deal with how to behave towards others –  but even these reminders can become habitual so that we don’t really think of the meaning of these commandments which are designed to shape our behaviour to be holy – to behave against our own selfish needs or interests in favour of Imagebettering our world, developing creation along with God. We could do though with something to jolt us out of our daily existence, something to remind us that God is there in everything we do and everything we see.  The traditional system of blessings said before we do any action has much to commend it, the whole system of time bound mitzvot marking our days and our weeks, of shabbatot and festivals, they are all designed as ‘signs’ to remind us of our partnership with the Creator and our responsibilities to God, but few of us today have the kind of lives which would make all these signs meaningful.  Thinking about it, maybe we should all buy one of those pendants which say MIZPAH, not as a declaration of love for another, but to remind ourselves that all the twists and turns of our lives, all our petty temptations and deceits and actions and inactions, they may all be hidden from our fellow human beings, but will never be hidden from God, who will ultimately judge us.  Everything we say and everything we do, at home or outside, whatever time of day – we should do in the certain knowledge and fear that it will not be forgotten.  That would certainly add a different dimension to our lives!

Kristallnacht. November 9th – 10th 1938

The November Pogrom in Baden-Baden.’

 The events of 10.11.1938 in Baden-Baden were described by Arthur Flehinger, a teacher at the Hohenbaden Gymnasium, who subsequently came to Bradford, Yorkshire,  in a report he wrote in 1955: (In Stadtarchiv Baden-Baden 05-02/015). Translated by Rabbi Walter Rothschild.Image

“Until the infamous 10th November 1938 Baden-Baden remained largely sheltered from the worst excesses of the Nazis. This was not because anyone wanted to grant the Jews of the Spa town any especial privileges, but from purely egoistic reasons, because the Spa had strong international connections which had to be maintained; It was, as one said, Germany’s Visiting Card. Any major disruption of the inner peace would have had as an effect a reduction in the number of visitors from abroad and therefore a reduction in foreign currency takings, and the Nazis needed money and more money. Of course all the Nazi Orders (fingerprinting, Jewish forenames etc.) were imposed just as strongly as elsewhere. However, the foreign tourists would not notice any of this. But whereas foreign newspapers were as good as invisible in other cities, in Baden-Baden one could read ‘The Times’ almost until the end, and it was a particular irony of fate that only one day after the Order regarding Jewish forenames was promulgated that the ‘Times’ published an article stating that ‘Sara’ meant something like ‘Duchess’ and that ‘Israel’ meant ‘one who argues with God.’

From Summer 1937 onwards it was noticeable that a different wind was blowing also in Baden-Baden, and that the Nazi poison was eating its way also into the otherwise relatively calm town. The lawn behind the Kurhaus offices was prohibited to Jews. The owner of the formerly famous hotel Holländischer Hof decorated the entrance to his restaurant with the conspicuous lettering “Dogs and Jews Forbidden.’ In the Jewish shops, insofar as these still existed, the Party Members were ever-more ruder and saw it as their responsibility to report to the Party anyone who still had the courage to enter a Jewish business…..

The 10th. November ended any remaining hesitations and illusions of calm, and Baden-Baden also experienced its Nazi ‘Razzia’.

At 7 in the morning a Policeman appeared at our house in the Prinz-Weimar-Strasse 10 and ordered me to accompany him to the Police Station. Since I had been teaching at the Baden-Baden Gymnasium for many years I was known by both young and old and I observed the policeman‘s own embarrassment. It seemed pointless however to enter into any discussion with him and so I walked along with him… maintaining my calm appearance. In the town at this hour it was of course still quiet. If one saw anyone else in the street, it was another victim under police escort. The number of poor enforced early-risers grew, the closer we were to the Police Station. Although in normal times the Season at Baden-Baden would be over in November, there were still some Jews staying in those hotels which were still avaailable to them. Others had settled here since 1933, since this town seemed like an Eldorado compared to the places they had lived in until then.

In front of the Police Station the infamous Supervisor had posted himself like a sort of Gessler and demanded that everyone who passed him had to take off their hat. It would have been pure madness to refuse. About fifty victims were already gathered at the Police Station and more came continuously to join us. The Police were all in their Gala uniforms. It was a Day of Triumph of the Strong over the Weak, and at the same time a dramatisation of Lafontaine’s fable ‘The Wolf and the Lamb.’ Everything was carefully minuted, with German accuracy and efficiency.

Around 10am we were led into the courtyard and here had to assemble ourselves in rows. The fuss with which the vermin of the Third Reich ran around indicated some special sort of Aktion was under way. Around midday the gate was opened, and the column of defenceless men marched off, heavily guarded right and left, and forced to process through the streets of the town. It seemed they had waited until midday to be sure of a crowd of observers. But to the honour of the Baden-Badeners let it be said that the majority of them refused to let themselves be seen on the street. What those who were observing could see, was mere humiliation. There were three teachers who were not ashamed to be seen on the street. One of them, Herr Dr. Mampell, merely let the column pass by him; Whereas another, the Director of the Volkschule, Herr Hugo Müller and his friend Herr Schmidt had gathered a number of young pupils, so that they could call out ‘Juda Verrecke!’ Whether this demonstration really cheered up the spectators is something I strongly doubt. I saw people who were weeping behind their curtains. One of the decent Baden-Badeners is reported to have said: ‘What I saw was not a Christ figure, but a whole column of Christ figures; With heads raised, and not bowed down by any sense of guilt did they march….’

The column neared the Synagogue, where the upper steps of the staircase outside were already filled with a mixed crowd with and without uniform. That was a real running the gauntlet; One had to pass by the mob, and they made sure to howl insults as the sorry procession passed. I myself looked people directly in the eye all the way along the procession and as we reached the top steps someone called down, “Don’t look so cheeky, Professor.’ That was actually less an insult as more a confession of their own weakness and fear.

In Dachau also later I observed that the officials couldn’t stand being stared right through. The mob was less merciful with my friend Dr. Hauser – he was a busy and much-respected lawyer in Baden-Baden, later on he and his wife were taken to Southern France, then to Celle and from there to the death chambers in Auschwitz. The poor fellow got many punches from those who claimed the right to use their fists, and I saw the pitiful chap later fallen onto a tallit that the Nazis had spread out on the floor, so that we had to walk over it.

In the synagogue everything had been turned upside down. The holy floor of the architecturally-so-beautiful Temple had been defiled by vile hands. The House of God had been turned into a playground for black, uniformed hordes. I saw how people were busy upstairs in the Women’s Gallery running to and fro…. These were not Baden-Badener. For the 10th. November the authorities had brought in SS men from neighbouring towns, that is people who were not restricted by even a faint spark of humanity and were therefore in a position to carry out their vile work without any sense of disturbance…..

Suddenly a rude, fat voice called out ‘You will now sing the Horst Wessel Lied’. It was sung in a way that anyone could have expected, and so we had to ‘sing’ it again a second time. So for a second time we had to struggle through their ‘National Hymn’. Then I was called to go up to the Almemor and I was given a passage from ‘Mein Kampf’ to read. In the circumstances a refusal would have only endangered my life and that of my fellow sufferers. So I said, ‘I have received the order to read the following’, and I read quietly enough. Indeed, so quietly that the SS man standing behind me gave me several blows to my neck. Those who, after me, also had to read samples of this fine literary cookbook of the Nazis suffered similarly. Then there was a pause. We were in no way allowed to use the toilets, but had to do what we had to do in the courtyard, with our faces to the wall of the synagogue, and in the meantime received kicks from behind.

From the synagogue we then had to go to the Hotel Central opposite. The hotel owner, Herr Lieblich, who had of course not been warned in advance of the pleasant programme for the day, had suddenly to conjure up food for about 70 people. He managed to achieve this in a masterful fashion. That we managed to get anything at all to swallow down was really a miracle….

There was then a great mystery concerning our future destiny. No-one seemed to know what they planned to do with us. We were fully cut off from the outside world. Our anything-but-quiet discussions were then broken by the Cantor of the community, Herr Grünfeld, who entered the room as white as a corpse and with a bleeding heart said, ‘Our beautiful House of God is in flames.’ The most brutal of the Hitler band then commented on Herr Grünfeld’s tragic news, by adding in a frivolous manner the sentence ‘’And when I had anything to do with it, you would all be there in the flames too.’

The high point of the tragedy had been reached. The hope of being able to see our families again that evening was now replaced by a strong pessimism. When at last those over 60 years old were sent to their homes, we were as good as certain that a sad fate awaited us. There was then a sort of inspection by a high-ranking SS officer, who attempted to add some sort of motivation to the whole event. Also Herr Medizinalrat Dr. Walter, a well-known and active member of the Party, appeared that evening in order to give at least an appearance of humane treatment to those who were to be excluded on health grounds. In reality the files on the fifty or so remaining had already been closed. The bus waited in front of the door, and with it a whole crowd of ‘angry’ citizens. The deportation to Dachau had been already long-planned, only we poor victims didn’t know it. We had to run out to the bus, and whoever didn’t run enough received a firm reminder…. At the station we waited for a special train from the Freiburg district. It brought the Jews from the Upper Baden region. In each compartment sat a guard. Not a single word came from his mouth. As the train turned after Karlsruhe in the direction of Stuttgart, one heard only the horrible word ‘Dachau’.

Chayei Sarah

I cannot read the story of Sarah, her life and death and subsequent burial arrangements, without sadness. I want to ask about her – who was this woman? She had been moved from her homeland without the experience of hearing God’s command to support her. She had been infertile in a time when fertility meant status and her husband was expecting myriad descendants.  Twice she had had to pretend that her husband was not her husband in order for him to survive (and consequently be taken into the harem of Abimelech king of G’rar, and also into that of the Pharaoh). She had taken matters into her own hands by offering her maidservant Hagar to her husband in order for him to bear a son, and was humiliated and embittered by the experience, causing her eventually to send Ishmael away from the family.  The longed for child she finally bore in old age, Isaac, was traumatised by his experiences with his father on a mountain top, and was not present either at her death or her funeral arrangements.  Poor Sarah. Living apart from her husband in Kiryat Arba Hebron while he was in Beer Sheva, a woman one might say who loved too much for her own good.

But it is her last days and her burial arrangements that have extended into our own times, and some of the bitterness and humiliation and tragedy still stalk us. Why was she living in Kiryat Arba, the City of the Four, rather than with her husband and son?  Who were the Four to which the name refers? And why is she to be buried in this cave in Hebron belonging to Ephron the Hittite? A cave whose name, Machpelah, means ‘doubled’?

It is almost as if the idea of plurality is embedded in this text – Kiryat Arba meaning “the city of the four”, Machpelah meaning ‘doubled’ or ‘a couple’, Hevron meaning ”joined/or the place of friendship/relationship”.

The loneliness of the woman living away from her family, somehow estranged from the events that had happened within it, is mirrored with the words to do with ‘two’ or ‘couple’ or even ‘twice coupled’. It is as if we are looking at parallel universes, at the individual and the communal, at being alone and isolated – and at having friends and connections.

Sarah dies alone, without her husband or son, in a place called ‘friendship’. It is a painful and horrible irony. Her husband buries her alone, in a cave called ‘couple’, and goes on to remarry a woman called Keturah (fragrant), though his two sons come and bury him with his first wife in Machpelah when his time comes. As if, after death, everything comes right and husband and wife are reunited. But we know, of course, that we should be putting things right before death comes to us, that behaving well in life is a far greater act than making atonement after the event.

Hevron today is a tragic place; a catastrophe doubled and doubled again, a place not of friendship but of tears and fearfulness. One can almost hear the cries of our mother Sarah who lies at the centre of a town filled with anxiety, where everyone feels alone and isolated, afraid of each other, afraid of what they themselves might do. There is no plurality there at all, just different communities each wishing the others didn’t exist.

I spent a day there a few years ago and was horrified at what I saw, tearful and shaken at how this town I had remembered in the 1980’s as bustling and thriving had become empty and watchful. The tension in the air was palpable, the tension in the people horribly clear. Shuhada Street, a main thoroughfare which led down to what had been the central market area is, in army parlance, ‘sterilised’, meaning it is closed to Palestinians – even those whose front doors open onto it.

The isolation of Sarah, and the tragic events in her life that led up to it, can be felt today in Hevron. All the missed connections, the lack of understanding of human feelings and needs that seem to underpin her life can be felt in modern Hevron.

The support that Sarah gave to Abraham was given at enormous personal expense to – and distortion of -herself, and ultimately they were driven apart by her giving more than she could, and him taking without apparently appreciating what it was that he received. While he mourned her death he did not celebrate her life, he did not seem to know her, or to understand what motivated her or to appreciate her. He was focussed on his religious belief – leave the land they knew to go to another place, offer his son to God on a mountain – to the exclusion of his wife.

“What if” is not usually a productive game to play, but given that it was to be the son of Abraham AND Sarah who was to inherit the promise and the covenant, what if Abraham had worked together with Sarah to share the burden? What if he had understood the price she paid for him to become the wealthy and powerful patriarch he did? What if he had supported her too, so that she did not suffer at the hands of Hagar and retaliate against Ishmael?

And what if Hevron could finally become a place of friendship rather than antagonism, where both parties could share the space and the place, where both could worship at the ancestral graves, where both could live lives of fulfilment and peace, thinking about the needs and feelings of the other and appreciating their difference?

Sarah’s final days and her burial could be a lesson to us in so many ways, the plurality of the names of Machpelah and Kiryat Arba, the relationship and sense of connection implicit in the name Hevron. And the stark reminder that all of us are mortal, that sometimes it is too late to make up again, that then we can only mourn.

Hear Our Voices

The wonderful Anat Hoffman was arrested  recently at the Kotel, for the crime of saying the Shema out loud there with a group of women who were in Israel celebrating the Hadassah centennial birthday. Even to write this sentence seems surreal – how much more so for the people who experienced this event and what followed. Anat was handcuffed and her legs shackled, she was strip searched, dragged along the floor, and finally left in a cell with a young woman accused of prostitution who herself was the target of lewd remarks from the staff.  She was not allowed to call her lawyer.  There was no bed in the cell where she was held overnight. Anat, who describes herself rightly as “a tough cookie” was frightened and miserable.

No charges were made and the next day a court released her on condition she did not go to the Kotel for 30 days.  Why was this allowed to happen? As Anat herself says “What is the purpose of arresting a woman, interrogating her, collecting video footage of her every move, questioning witnesses and spending hours writing reports, if at the end charges are never made? I believe the purpose of this harassment and treatment is to wear down the leaders of our women’s prayer group, to exhaust us into giving up our struggle for these rights.”

I consider myself to be one of the Women at the Wall and am part of their Chevra. I daven with them on the rare occasions I am in Israel on Rosh Hodesh – they actually only go to pray the  morning service once a month, early in the morning, and in accordance with constraints imposed upon them take their torah scroll around the corner to the Robinsons Arch area to read it. (Bizarrely the perceived holiness of the wall appears to the ultra orthodox ‘minders’ to be only where it meets the Kotel plaza.)  Like thousands of men and women around the world, I care about what happens to this relatively small group of women from across the religious community who choose to pray together at the site of the Temple in Jerusalem.  I care because they are looking after some of the most important values in my Judaism – of mutual respect, of sensitivity both to prayer and to the complex differences in prayer that are the signature of the Jewish world, that all people are able to pray in peace and community, that every voice is heard.

Why are women’s voices being suppressed in some ultra conservative Jewish communities, and why is the State of Israel complicit with this suppression when its founding principles state the exact opposite?

The phenomenon is known as “Kol isha erva”, which could be translated as “a woman’s voice is licentiousness” and even a cursory study of this concept shows an increasingly narrowing of interpretation over time until it becomes the exact opposite of the original biblical statement. In Song of Songs we read the verse O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.’ (2:14) “let me hear your voice “Ki kolech arev” for your voice is sweet”. Whoever wrote that beautiful book which is found in Tanach clearly believed that women’s voices should be heard and that they are sweet (arev). In the Talmud, in a discussion specifically about saying the Shema in the presence of a woman who may be sexually alluring, one rabbi uses this verse and puns upon it – a woman’s voice is no longer sweet (areiv) but nakedness (ervah) [Berachot 24a].  This particular pun does not seem to become codified into halachah at the time – it develops over time and in hardens only in the sixteenth century – the great codifier Joseph Caro makes this clear when he writes “but it is, in any event, good to be cautious before the fact not to see hair and hear the voice of a woman singing during the recitation of Shema.”[Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 75]. This language makes clear that there is no general existing prohibition at the time of writing.

So a biblical verse used to describe the sweet voices of women singing is reinterpreted in the third century to suggest an intentional sexual provocation that might happen if a woman were to sing in the hearing of a man intent on praying Shema, and then by the sixteenth century the solution seems to have been not to get men to concentrate harder on their prayer but to quieten women’s voices – and this then hardens into the view that women’s voices should simply not be heard.

Let us be clear. Women pray in the bible. Their voices are heard. Rebecca goes to enquire of God when her pregnancy is hard. Hannah prays in the Temple itself – and ironically is accused of mocking prayer because she is speaking only in her heart and moving her lips soundlessly – The priest expects her to make a sound and is suspicious when she doesn’t. There is nothing pious or authentically Jewish about suppressing the voices of women at prayer. For every source that demands this kind of modesty from women, there are other sources that say quite the opposite. The responsa literature has always taken into account context, culture and norms when judgements are decided and this has historically happened even in the discussion about women’s voices. It seems that the reverse process is now happening – context, culture and norms are being created by the decision to criminalise women’s voices at prayer, and the history of women’s prayer is being buried by a modern kind of fundamentalism.

So if this prohibition is being used more and more in the modern world to shut women out from the public domain, we have to ask ourselves why – what is going on in some parts of the Jewish world that the men want to assert such a misogynistic power? What are some men so terrified of living alongside that it has come this week to the arrest and violent treatment of a middle aged woman for singing the Shema in prayer?. Why should the Kotel, remnant of the Temple and focal point for Jews across the world, become de facto the most orthodox of synagogues, rather than a place of prayer for all Jews? Why when Judaism has a strong tradition of recording all opinions rather than only the majority decision, should all voices that are not part of one world view in Judaism be silenced? And why when the declaration of Independence states that : “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will,, foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” are the police involved in arresting the women who are trying to pray, rather than the men who are throwing chairs at them from the other side of the mechitzah?

Women have been arrested with increasing frequency for praying at the Kotel just like women pray all over the world. Their voices and even their images are being denied, suppressed, removed from public discourse by a fanatic few who claim that theirs is the authentic Jewish response. It is not. And we cannot sit back and let it become by default the assumed voice of Jewish authentic tradition.  This must be challenged every time and everywhere  it happens. In the words of the prophet Isaiah “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep my peace (62:1). Anat and the Women of the Wall will not. I will not. Will you?

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild October 2012

The Assaulting of Mrs Lot: Parashat Vayera

I have a particular fondness for the bit part players in bible, and Mrs Lot, whose story is told in Vayera, is someone who deserves more attention than she often gets, and she certainly deserves a more appreciative inquiry into her story.

Poor Mrs Lot, who is given no name in the biblical narrative, and who seems to be chained in marriage to one of the less attractive personalities in Genesis.

Lot is the nephew of Abraham, the man who might have inherited from him, except that his behaviour was such that he ruled himself out of the dynasty. Lot shows himself in biblical narrative to be self centred, greedy, and without much common sense. When he leaves Abraham it is because they cannot reconcile their arguments over shared use of the grazing land, and Abraham says “”Let’s not have any strife between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” And Lot’s response?  “Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the Eternal…Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.  Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Eternal”.

When the Angels come to Sodom Lot does have the grace to invite them to his home – he clearly understands that they would be in danger alone in the town, but that is his one understandable action.  Mrs Lot is hidden when they come home. She is not involved in the work of hospitality, but her husband prepares the food. The angels do not seem to know she even exists until the following morning.  She does not go to try to persuade her married daughters to leave with them – Lot does, and his sons in law laugh at him. Presumably his reputation as a fool is known, but maybe Mrs Lot would have had a better chance. She is not consulted when her husband offers their two unmarried daughters as a sacrifice to the rampaging townsfolk who are angry that they cannot make sport with the strangers, and it is the angels who take charge after this extraordinary proposition. Her husband does not hurry to save her and the two daughters – again it is the angels who physically take hold of the family and transport them outside of the city walls. And critically nobody ever tells her not to look back when they flee – Lot was told, but he doesn’t seem to feel the need to pass on the information.

Now Mrs Lot had to die in order for her daughters to believe that no human beings were left and that it was their duty to repopulate the world with their father. She is a device in a narrative, not ever fleshed out or understood. The midrash tries to give her some background, but sadly cannot detach itself from protecting Lot and therefore deciding that she is the baddy in the story. They pun on the word ‘salt’ (melach) suggesting that when the poor came to the door to ask for bread (lechem, same three root letters) she refused them as she had no compassion (chemlah – same root letters). But I prefer to think of her as the victim who got away. The domestic abuse she clearly suffers is ended, and her husband becomes a drunken incestuous figure who fathers the two traditional inimical tribes the Moabites and the Ammonites. But she is free, standing tall and glittering with crystals, still there near the Dead Sea, and the Talmud (Berachot 54b) tells us to say two blessings when we see her – the blessing of God who remembers the righteous, and the blessing of God as the true Judge.  The rabbis who discuss this teaching assume the righteous who was remembered must be Lot, and the blessing “Dayan Emet” is to remind us that her death was a punishment, but in the words of Mandy Rice Davies: “they would, wouldn’t they”.

I like to think that she was the righteous one who had been through enough, had lost her home and two children in the cataclysm and was destined to live alone in a strange place with her abusive and foolish husband and her remaining daughters. God released her from that horrific future.

In life she was unnoticed and treated without honour. But in death she stands proud and dazzling, remembered and blessed long after the disappearance of her unlikable husband. Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Mrs Lot received the blessing of the righteous.