Parashat Terumah: In the making of Sacred Space, we create Sacred community

When Jacob left his home and journeyed to Haran he spent the night on the road. There he had a dream of a ladder between heaven and earth, and of God standing above him. When he woke, he said to himself:  Ma Norah HaMakom ha’zeh. Eyn zeh ki im beit Elohim, v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim.   ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ Gen 28:17

Sacred space is something that we all resonate with. And in parashat Terumah we have the beginnings of the first deliberately created sacred space.

When Jacob recognised the awesomeness of the place where he had so blithely slept, he simply set up a pillar and offered a sacrifice of oil to the God he had just encountered. He moved on to Haran the next day, keeping with him the memory and the promise God had given him. He had no need to do more than mark the space for future use, but we need more – either because we have never had an encounter with the divine, or because we know that memory fades and we need a more concrete reminder of what God can be for us – we need to inhabit sacred space.

In parashat Terumah God tells Moses to build a sacred space – a mikdash, a place that is in some way kadosh – separate, distinct and special, that embodies an idea and directs us towards it.

From earliest times the commentators have pointed out that what the mikdash does NOT do is to embody God, or in any way be a place where God actually lives. The phrase that God uses “Assu li mikdash v’shachanti BETOCHAM” – let them make for me a mikdash, a sacred and separate space, and I will dwell AMONG THEM is key.Image

The mikdash is the first building to be created for the awareness of God, it will be in the midst of the camp and will be a portable building that moves with the community, but it will be in the making of it – assu – that God dwells among us. Moses is told where and how to build the mikdash.  There are chapters and chapters of detail as to how to build it, with what materials, what colours shapes and sizes, how much everything weighs and costs, where it is to be placed. But all of that is secondary – God’s presence isn’t in the building, but in the people working to create it. The presence of God is something that occurs only when people are actually doing something to bring it about.



The synagogue I grew up in, the Bradford Synagogue was the third Reform synagogue in this country and is the second oldest building (Manchester having lost its original synagogue in Park Place). The quotation at the top of the extraordinarily decorated exterior comes from a young Jacob who had just encountered God in a very ordinary place, “Ma Norah HaMakom hazeh. Eyn zeh ki im beit Elohim, v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim.   ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” was one that seemed to fit the grandeur of the Moorish Architecture of this beautiful building which was built in 1880 as the Bradford Synagogue for British and Foreign Jews. It was and is an amazing building, with vaulted ceilings and a free standing domed ark with grille-work to the front standing within a huge niche which is painted a midnight blue, and golden stars shine behind it, so that as a child it was easy to imagine being in a different and exotic world. Added to that the rich scarlet of the bimah coverings and the Persian carpets covering the raised area by the ark meant that truly it was (and is) a place filled with awe.. It was an awesome place and a place where heaven and earth met because of the community which met within it, which educated its children and celebrated the festivals and fasts of Jewish time. It was a community always small enough for every single person to matter, for everyone to have to be involved if it would survive.Image

That Synagogue is proof that it isn’t really the building that creates a sense of God, however gorgeous and ornate it might be – it is the people who come to work within it, the ordinary people who in daily life might work in retail or wholesale, be dentists or doctors, teachers or journalists.  Each of them, with willing heart, brought what they had to create a community. The whole key is in that verb – assu. We have to be doing, to making, to be forming and creating the whole time, not resting on our laurels in beautiful places, not turning places into museums of sacred space. Jacob had the right idea when having acknowledged the power of the encounter with the words “Ma Norah HaMakom hazeh. Eyn zeh ki im beit Elohim, v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim.   ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.‘ –  he then he marked the place and moved on.

Sacred space is only sacred if we keep adding to its kedushah by being ourselves people who are kedoshim – people who follow the sacred principles and try to be more like God in our behaviour.










Women in Public Space – a proud Jewish tradition in danger of being forgotten


Where has it come from, this strident male voice insisting that women are so dangerous that they must neither be seen nor heard? When did woman, created equally and simultaneously alongside man in the first creation story  (Genesis 1:27) lose that position in the eyes of some commentators so that they not only feel the need to hide women away from the public eye and mute our voices, but go on to claim that this is God’s will as indicated in bible? And then, for good measure, decree that women cannot study these texts for reasons of modesty?

The position of women in Judaism is under assault and despite what some may say, this is essentially a modern phenomenon. Biblical women are strong personalities, active players in the narrative. Sarah, like Abraham, “makes souls” (Genesis 12:5). God tells Abraham “in all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice (obey her); for through Isaac shall your descendants be called. (gen 21:12) making Sarah as important a transmitter of covenant as Abraham. The other matriarchs are equally powerful players in the narrative, as are many other women in bible. The Talmud tells of the seven prophetesses in bible (BT Megillah 14a) including Deborah, the only person in the book of Judges to actually be seen making judgements for the Children of Israel  who came to her for rulings  (Judges 4:5). Women scholars can be found in our tradition down the years: Talmud records the comments if first century Ima Shalom,  In the 2nd Century Beruriah, daughter of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon was such a scholar that Talmud tells us “she learned three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day” (BT. Pesachim 62b).  Rashi’s daughters learned Talmud.

We have archaeological evidence that there were women leaders in the ancient synagogues from the second century on, that they were active participants in ancient Jewish society long before the rabbinic period. Women have affected tradition through the generations, be it taking on mikveh for themselves or creating their own prayers and techines. Even the way we pray the amidah is based on Hannah’s prayer (BT Berachot 31). So why now as the rest of the world is waking to the benefits of women in public space of is one part of the Jewish world going in the other direction? And how can traditional Jews recite Eshet Chayil (Proverbs 31:10-31) which celebrates the  domestic and commercial skills of a good woman, and at the same time declare that the mere presence of a woman in the public sphere will cause licentious thoughts and so must be prevented at all costs?

The segregation of women in prayer and study is a case in point. Mechitza is sometimes cited today as the gold standard of orthodoxy – yet less than a generation ago many orthodox synagogues did not require such a barrier between the sexes. Its origin is neither biblical nor from Temple period – indeed it most likely entered Jewish practise in medieval times from the practises of the people among whom the Jewish people were living. According to Talmud there was only one day in the year when men and women were separated, on the exceedingly festive Simchat Beit Ha’Sho’eva.  (Sukkah 5:1) Fascinatingly, according to the Talmud, on this day in order to prevent too much rowdy behaviour, there was a rabbinic enactment (takkanah) to separate the men and women, and after some trial an error putting the men outside the courtyard and the women inside, then vice versa, the solution was hit upon – to build a gallery above the courtyard and to place the women safely above the fray. Fancy that- a rabbinic enactment changing the plans of the Temple! Imagine the daring to create an architectural reformation that goes against the original divine blueprint.

The Talmudic Rabbis are well aware of this huge dissonance and dislocation in the tradition in order to respond to the people and attempted to support it with a verse from Zechariah, and as all those who study or write response know, supporting verses from the prophetic books are not enough to create Halacha, and most certainly they are not of the category of biblical law. The sleight of hand would be amusingly audacious if it has not meant within the last generation or so that it has disappeared behind the “because I say so” school of responsa, and emerged as a biblical imperative that must not be questioned.

 The area of the Second Temple known as the Ezrat Nashim was not an area designated especially for women as is popularly imagined, but the first courtyard as one entered the Temple precinct and it is clear that both men and women mingled within it. There is no evidence – either textual or physical, that men and women were separated during public worship until the middle ages when we find the statement in the tenth century Tana D’vei Eliyahu that “a man should not stand among women and pray, because he is likely to be distracted by them” – a statement that seems to imply that men are indeed praying alongside women.  

So why in the last few years has one part of the orthodox world chose to focus on taking women out of public space? Why have the laws of tzniut (modesty) become not a spiritual aid, but a stick with which to beat girls and women, to force them to suppress much of their own selves as an act of piety. Posters abound in the frum world, such as the ones shown on this blog, warning women that if they do not wear suitably modest clothing the messiah will not come, they may cause ill health to others and even to themselves, the world is dependent on their covering up and ensuring that no one might notice them at all as women.  There are attempts to silence the voices of women in public, to prevent women singing even at secular events such as Israel Independence Day or Holocaust Memorial Day, although confusingly the responsa about what and where women may sing are so many and varied that what one rabbi may see as the worst possible time and place is noted by another as the only permissible way for women to sing….  And now women’s prayer minyanim are under attack, something that has happened throughout the ages in the Jewish world as attested by the many prayer books left behind, women praying together, studying and reading Torah together, are suddenly in the firing line for some rabbis determined to have a ruling calling them inauthentic, and outside the orthodox fold.

As a woman rabbi trained and working in a progressive stream of Judaism, this concerns me deeply. While I know enough to know how to challenge some of the so called traditions and see them in their context, and can read and critique the responsa which are steering this flight into a mind-set one cannot even really call medieval, I also know that there is a growing determination to control women as never before, and this worries me. Where is it coming from this strident male voice that is insisting that women are dangerous, that sexuality is impure, that authenticity can be found in a mind set so far from biblical and most rabbinic sources as to be from a different world. What is happening in some parts of the Jewish world that it is consuming not only the rights to self expression of women, but also the dynamism and scholarship and thoughtfulness of so many years in order to make a one size fits all costume to clothe and smooth away and hide from view the diversity, the openness and the audacity of our rabbinic ancestors.

Mishpatim: Respecting life, do not add insult to injury

Three times Torah tells us not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. (Exodus 23:13, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21)
Why is Torah so interested and concerned about this practise that it repeats the prohibition so insistently?
The probable reason is that this act must have been one that was practised by the surrounding peoples for religious/idolatrous reasons and it must also have been seen as quite attractive to the Israelite people – otherwise why would Torah mention it?
Talmudic rabbis give no reasons for the prohibition. It is the later commentators from the medieval period who turn their attention to a rationale. Maimonides(died 1204) suggests that it was an idolatrous practise but he gives no supporting text for his statement. Sforno (d 1550) also thought that the law referred to an idolatrous practise in which young goats were cooked in their mother’s milk as a kind of fertility rite and indeed an Ugaritic text translated in the 1930’s seems to talk of an agricultural fertility ritual of doing just this, followed by spreading the mixture on the fields.
But whether or not this was a practise of the surrounding peoples performed in order to bring about fertility or to appease their gods, the prohibition of “basar be’chalav” (meat in milk) is profoundly embedded in Jewish dietary practise, and the three references are used as the basis for three separate laws:
The prohibition against cooking a mixture of milk and meat
The prohibition against eating a cooked mixture of milk and meat and
The prohibition against deriving any benefit from a cooked mixture of milk and meat. (BT Chullin 115a)
However regardless of the origin of this prohibition, and also of the way that the Jewish legal tradition has taken it, there is another, ethical dimension to the statement.
Sforno argued that as well as this being a practise of idolatry, the using of the milk of an animal to cook its child is inhumane, and he compared it to the principle of shilu’ach ha’keyn – the injunction to send away the mother bird from a nest before taking the eggs, so that she does not get distressed in seeing it. Ibn Ezra also understood the injunction ethically, to mean that one should not to kill a mother and its offspring at the same time, as this would show an inexcusable lack of sensitivity to life.
But the ethical message was, I think, best put by Rabbi Hugo Gryn z’l who echoes Philo of Alexandria by suggesting that the passage was in reality an imperative not to add insult to injury – that is, not to use the thing meant to nurture a child as the agent of its destruction. This isn’t about mixing milk with meat, but about cooking with mother’s milk – about bringing together life and death in some terrible symbolic fusion.
Judaism has a profound respect for life – even that of a herd animal. Hence our system of shechita (kosher slaughter) so that a life taken for food is taken reflectively and respectfully. This respect for life is also demonstrated in the value we must place on every human being, no matter what their social status or their state of health and ability to contribute to the community.
Life is a gift, to be enjoyed and valued, respected at all times. Whatever happens in our lived experience, we should take care not to add insult to injury but to treat everyone with the same respect and sensitivity.

Parashat Yitro : The process of Revelation, the giving and the accepting.

Famously in bible the Jews are given Torah at Sinai, and while the exact experience of what happens and in what order is hard to follow in the text, three times the words of God are put before the Jewish people and three times they respond to Moses:  

The first report comes in Exodus 19:7-8 where we are told “And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Eternal had commanded them. And all the people answered together and said “all that the Eternal has spoken we will do. And Moses reported the words of the people to God.” 

It is not clear if “all the people” described here are really all the people, or their representatives, but the response is clear – “everything God has said, we will do: na’asseh”.

But later, after the giving of the Ten Commandments and the beginning of their explication in the chapters that follow, we are told this:  “And to Moses God said Come up to the Eternal, you and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel;  and worship at a distance. And Moses alone shall come near to God, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people go up with him. And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Eternal, and all the rules, and all the people answered with one voice and said “All the words which the Eternal has spoken, we will do : na’asseh” (Exodus 24:1-4)

And a few verses later we are told “And [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read in the hearing of the people, and they said “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do and we will hear: na’asseh venishma”

This repetition of the transmission of the covenant described in different ways leads us to some interesting places. The phrase “na’asseh venishma” is curious for a number of reasons, not least the meaning of the word nishma here, and of course the word order.  The root shema (shin mem ayin) primarily means to hear, to listen, to pay attention, and goes on to have a meaning of to understand, even to consent to, to agree, to obey…. 

Usually translated as “we will do it and we will understand”, the word order echoes a modern understanding of learning – ie that learning or understanding emerges from action, rather than the other way around.  In the words of Pablo Picasso, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it”. From this strange word order comes the Jewish tradition of action first – that we don’t have to spend time studying or learning before doing the mitzvot, we don’t have to wait to act until we have a fully researched position, but our actions lead to our understanding of the world, and deepen our thinking.  This is much the same way that prayer works. By the act and process of regular prayer, of reciting or meditating upon ancient words, we find ourselves on occasion in the presence of God. In my experience it rarely happens the other way about, that, finding ourselves aware of the Divine, we utter our prayer. The routine of prayer, the regularity and even the almost mantra like poetry of the words and the rote action lead us to another level of awareness sometimes. It acts upon us and seeps into us and changes us.

Na’asseh venishma –it is usually understood to mean that we act before we might have fully worked out all the consequences. It is traditionally understood to mean that we are a religion of doing rather more than one of believing. That our understanding of, and relationship with, God emerges from our right behaviour in the world. I must admit this makes sense to me, resonates with my own experience of mitzvot and of prayer.  

But there is something else. Three times the revelation is presented before the people it seems, and twice only the response “na’asseh” is given. The first time, before the Ten Commandments are spoken, the revelation seems to be given specifically via the elders. It is accepted as a commitment – na’asseh, we will do it.

The second time the revelation is presented is after the Ten Commandments are spoken, but again we are reminded of the leadership’s attendance, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders are nearby, even though only Moses is in the presence of God.  Again the response is na’aseh, we will do it.

But the third time it is different –this time the relationship between God and people is not mediated through a leadership, but Moses reads the Book of the Covenant to all the people, and then they reply with this curious phrase “na’asseh venishma”. What is being added to the agreement to act? Is it truly knowledge and understanding? Is it compliance and obedience? Or is it the openness to committing at a deeper level? Not the intellectual expertise that grows from repeated doing, but the relationship that is created from an ongoing commitment to simply be there, attentive, part of the other person’s world.  Once the people are engaged directly, it seems to me that they not only agree to the Covenant being presented to them, they additionally agree to the relationship that will emerge from this Covenant being enacted, that the Covenant in effect will become part of them.

We live in a world where we pride ourselves on being rational, thought-through, evidence based. We don’t act without forethought, without awareness of consequences. We would rather overthink than reach out impulsively. We are cautious, careful, watchful. And yet at Sinai we see something different – the willingness to take on trust, the preparedness to take the next step without knowing what it might entail, the openness to whatever will grow and emerge that is out of our ability to control. It is the paradigm for any loving relationship, the model for any creative endeavour. It bespeaks hope and it bespeaks a kind of confidence that whatever comes our way we will be able to negotiate through it. That to me is the miracle of Sinai. Not the shaking mountain or the smoke and shofar, but the way that God and Moses learn to stop using a hierarchy and engage directly with the people, and the way the people respond by throwing their lot in with God and Moses. Clearly both sides take a risk and step into the unknown.

It is said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty and here there is no certainty. There is only the openness that what will be will be a journey worth embarking upon. A journey and an openness to possibility that marks us even now – for as the Midrash tells us, we all stand at Sinai.

Tu b’Shevat and a recipe for date and walnut loaf

In the first Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah we are told of four different New Years, and one of them is the New Year for trees, which falls on the 15th (ו “ט   Tet Vav) of month of Shevat. It sounds odd at first – why should trees have a new year? What do they do to celebrate it? Well sadly the trees do nothing to celebrate, this is a date set for tax purposes – we are commanded to offer certain tithes from our grains and fruit trees, firstly to give ‘Terumah’ an offering to God in thanksgiving which was originally brought to the Temple, then to offer three different offerings in different agricultural years – one share given to the Levites, one share to be eaten in Jerusalem, and one share to be given to the poor.  Also the age of a tree for the purposes of “orlah” (one is not allowed to eat the fruit from a tree in its first three years) was counted using Tu B’Shevat. The criteria as to which year a fruit fell into for tax purposes included which year it was formed in, and the critical date was the 15th of Shevat. Why this date? Because in Israel it was understood that the trees begin to grow on this date, coming out of their winter dormancy and beginning to form flowers and fruits.

While for a long time after the fall of the Temple the minor festival of Tu B’Shevat was effectively not much practised except in some liturgical amendments, it was not totally forgotten and there was an Ashkenazi custom to eat the different fruits and grains of Israel on the day “in honour of the significance of the day” and so grapes, figs, pomegranates, dates, olives, wheat and barley were all consumed especially on this day.  In 16th Century Sfat in Northern Israel the Kabbalists who had gathered there connected the trees and fruit of the land with their own mystical tradition which used the idea of a Tree of Life with roots in the divine space and its branches in our world. They developed the kabbalistic Seder we know today. And of course return to the land and a renewed connection with the agricultural cycle has given Tu B’Shevat a new impetus in Jewish life today. 

Trees have always been special in Jewish tradition, and fruit trees most of all. In bible the first thing that God does is to plant a garden within which are trees of all kinds and of course those two particularly special fruit trees – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (the fruit of which was eaten by Adam and Eve) and the tree of Life (whose fruit was specifically protected from being eaten by the expulsion from the garden of Adam and Eve).  We are told that in order to imitate God, we too should plant our gardens and tend them well and planting trees in the Land of Israel is a mitzvah for us to this day. Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine wrote that agriculture has the power to unify the Jewish people, and that our ideal Jewish society should be based on agriculture rather than on commerce. Commenting on Mishnah Bikkurim 3:3 which tells us that “All the professionals in Jerusalem would stand before them (the farmers) and inquire as to their welfare,” Rabbi Kook wrote: “….When the nation is morally depraved, when individuals’ eyes and heart are only upon money, these two types, those who engage in nature and those who engage in artifice become alienated from one another. The farmers, who dwell in villages close to nature, will be the object of disrespect on the part of the professionals who have learned how to live as a society divorced from nature.”  He worried that we would develop into a people who did not value the land and those who work it and who feed us all from it.

Fruit trees have a special place in our tradition – from the biblical injunction not to cut down fruit trees in times of war and siege to the extraordinary blessing to be said on seeing for the first time that year a fruit tree in bloom  “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, King of the universe, Who has ensured there is nothing lacking in the world, and Who created in it good creatures and good trees in order to benefit and give pleasure to people, we are reminded that our lives are dependent on trees and plants, that we are nourished and sustained by them and would quickly die if they failed. 

Tu B’Shevat comes to remind us to look again at how we value our trees and our land, and how we value those who work with the land in order to provide our food. It reminds us that we are all dependent on the natural world, that we must look after it and keep it in good order not only for our time but for the generations that follow. The midrash in Kohelet Rabbah tells us that God took the first human being around the Garden of Eden and said “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are, and everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful. Do not spoil or destroy my world, for if you do there will be nobody who will come after you to repair it”

Recipe: My mum’s Date and Walnut Bread

½ cup roughly chopped walnuts

½ lb chopped dates

1 egg

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

¾ cup boiling water

½ cup sugar

1 ½ cups self raising flour

Large knob of butter


Put dates, bicarbonate and butter into a bowl and pour on the water

Add beaten egg, flour etc and mix together

Bake in a loaf tin for one hour, 180C

(first written for wimshul cooks on wordpress in 2012)