Devarim: religious reform has a long and honourable history, even Moses did it.

deuteronomy scroll qumran2

The book of Deuteronomy is quite different in style, language and focus from the earlier books of Torah.  It is much more concerned with the practicalities of living in the land of Israel, and it focuses on opposing the idolatry of the surrounding cultures and peoples,  It has been posited that this is the book that was found in the Temple in the time of King Josiah, and which enabled him to create the major religious reforms in 622 BCE, reminding the people of the covenant they had with the one God, and emphasising the importance of a centralized Temple in Jerusalem, rather than the use of many local hilltop shrines.

 Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv calls this book “the book of second chances”. He writes :”If we seek some unique feature of this Sefer we shall discover that one of its characteristics – if not the crux of its whole message – is the concept of a “second chance”. In other words, even if one has failed and sinned, there is always an opening for repair and improvement, for change and renewal.” Thus, for Shaviv, the book of Deuteronomy is primarily a book about Teshuvah, about repentance and  about return to relationship with God, to do what God really wants us to doing.  The calendar of Readings is always arranged for this portion to be read on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, as if in reminder that even though cataclysm faces the Jewish people and their land, there will always be a way back to God.

I like the idea of there being a book of second chances. A mechanism to wipe away all the distracting accretions and false starts of living and get us back to the real purpose of our lives. Judaism has a whole series of such mechanisms – from the Teshuvah process that begins in a few weeks in Ellul and takes us to Yom Kippur, or the cyclical reading of Torah so we come back to the same texts every year and are able to understand them afresh. And one of the most powerful mechanisms is the way that Judaism continues to reinvent itself, so we are no longer like any of the various expressions of religion of the extended biblical period, nor that of Temple times; nor of the Mishnaic or later Talmudic period, nor Pale of Settlement. Judaism has always accepted the past but framed it into an understanding suitable for the present. Be it the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (for which he was nearly put under a ban) or the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro, Jews have clarified Judaism for their own times. This process begins right in the sidra of Devarim: in verse 5 of chapter one we are told “ho’eel Moshe bay’air et hatorah hazot – Moses began to clarify this Torah.

 The midrash (Tanchuma) says that it is “inconceivable that Moses would have allowed the Torah to remain unclear to the Israelites” and Rashi suggests that the phrase teaches that Moses translated the Torah into the seventy languages of the world in order to allow the Jewish people to always have access to it. Whatever was the intention of the text, what it gives us is a proof text that Torah is to be clarified and understood by the Jewish people in their own times. 

 This weekend (2010) we are celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the service in Seesen, Germany, which marks the beginning of Reform Judaism. It was a service deliberately created to be accessible to the Jewish community of the time, with some of the (shortened) service and the sermon in the vernacular. The Judaism of Israel Jacobson who created the Seesen Temple and this dedication service was greatly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, with reason and rational scientific principles applied to both Jewish texts and their  interpretation  and understanding. The old system of believing ideas unconditionally and reading the commentators uncritically no longer worked in the face of academic freedom in other areas. Judaism could be held up to rational systems of thought and its riches presented in a modern way.

 Reform Judaism is one more punctuation in the journey of Judaism from biblical times until now. Just as in the midrash which tells the story of Moses sitting in the study house of Rabbi Akiva and finding his teaching unfamiliar and even incomprehensible, but he is reassured when Akiva speaks of the roots of his teaching in the chain of tradition that goes all the way back to Moses, so too does our understanding sometimes look distant from the context of the biblical or Talmudic world, yet it is rooted in the principles of Judaism – the principles of covenant relationship with God, our shared task with God to complete and perfect the world, in the relationship we have with the Land of Israel, and the close and binding relationship we have with Torah.

 Since Moses began to clarify Torah for the benefit of the people who would go into the land without him, the tradition of clarifying and making sense of Torah for each generation and its needs has continued. This too is part of our tradition, and we fail to follow it at our peril, creating Judaism  as a fixed and immutable thing to conserve a past that is no longer with us. In 200 years Reform Judaism has moved a long way, and it continues to change with each generation. We follow the model of Moses, never completing the journey but never letting go of what is important.

(First written 2010 on the 200th anniversary of Reform Judaism with the service in Seesen. Picture of the Deuteronomy Scroll found in Qumran)

shall your brethren go to war and you sit here? reflections on parashat mattot at my farewell service

“The tribes of Reuben and Gad approached Moses and the leadership saying ‘If we have found favour in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession; do not bring us over the Jordan.’ And Moses said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” 32:5,6

This question asked by Moses of the two cattle owning tribes is one that resonates so poignantly today. “Shall your brethren go to war, and shall you sit here?”

We have been watching anxiously as Israel has been slipping once more into war. And as we obsess over the news feeds and the reporting, the analysis and the social media links, we wonder about what is our role? how could we sit here while our fellow Jews are at war? And what is it that we should be doing?

In a skype conversation earlier this week with Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, we asked him to talk us through the very serious issues facing Israel that his organisation is engaged with and the list was long and depressing– serious economic poverty among many Israelis both Jewish and Arab , the problems of the asylum seekers and of the Bedouin in the Negev, the children who are traumatised by the stress of normal everyday living, the crisis of the unemployed and underemployed…. The reality is that while Israel is facing war, all the same problems are still there in her society, many of her people are insecure and vulnerable not just to the rockets coming over from Gaza and from the North but simply their place in society is not protected. He spoke of the work that RHR (known in Hebrew as shomrei mishpat, guardians of justice) has done not only in taking many cases to court in order to gain protection for people, but also in working with the government to mitigate some of the more draconian laws. He spoke with pride of the work done by Idit Lev to develop a policy to help the most underprivileged and of how Government was even beginning to work at funding it – only to say that now we don’t know what money there might still be, it may all have gone in the artillery into Gaza. We sat and listened to the analysis of all that must be addressed in Israeli civic society, conscious that when Israel is at war it is so easy to put these issues into the ‘pending’ file as the rockets being fired from both sides take centre stage in our attention.

He also spoke of the Jewish texts on self-defence, of the rodef, the pursuer, and the principles and laws that dictate the rules of self-defence, and of how we find a way through the tangle of feelings and thoughts that I guess most of us have been enmeshed in recently. Jewish law lays out a general principle of self-defence based on a Biblical case of a thief invading a private home at night (Ex. 22:1-2),: We read in tractate Sanhedrin “The Torah decreed, ‘If [the rodef] comes to kill you, kill him first’” (Sanhedrin 72a). But the rabbis also limit this principle extensively, recognizing the enormous danger of providing a legal way to bypass the judicial process and essentially allow murder. So rabbinic law provides that force must only be used if it will prevent a particular victim from being killed; such force must not be premeditated but rather a spontaneous act when life is in immediate danger ; and no more than enough force is to be used – in other words if you can achieve your objective without having to kill the rodef, then if you do so this principle will not defend you – you will still be liable for murder. Rabbinic law also clarifies explicitly that any self-defence in this case must not harm any innocent third-party. The verse: “Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (M. Sanhedrin 8:7) is used to teach us that everyone who is aware in a situation must attempt to save innocent people from life-threatening danger.

The law of the rodef, the pursuer, is complex and problematic, and because it is based in biblical precedent, while it is bound by many rabbinic constraints it continues to live as a principle, both for our benefit in some circumstances and for a problematic approach to our realpolitik in others. But there is another kind of rodef we find in Mishnah – the rodef shalom. In Pirkei Avot we find that Hillel says “Be a student of Aaron, a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace (rodef shalom), a lover of people who brings them closer to Torah.”

What does it mean to be both a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace? One response from Rabbi Shmuel de Ozedah (16th century Tzfat, Land of Israel) suggests that the phrase ‘lover of peace’ refers to oneself and one’s immediate world, while the ‘pursuer of peace’ refers to the one who brings peace about between people. He writes “one needs first to love peace for oneself, and since it is a good thing in our own eyes and we love it for ourself, we will be drawn to go and bring peace about between others”

The concept of the rodef moves in a process from its earliest incarnation of avenging the death of blood relative to permitting us to defend ourselves – even if necessary pre-emptively – against attack, and further it is the structure within which we can create a more peaceful world.

So how are we to be to be a rodef shalom, the figure that Hillel exhorts us to be? In a 4th Century text (Avot d’Rabbi Natan) we find this explication: “The phrase teaches us that a person should be a pursuer of peace among people, between each and every one. If a person sits in their own place and is silent, how can they pursue peace among people, between each and every one?! Rather, one should go out from one’s own place and go searching in the world and pursue peace among people.”

And so it seems that we come full circle. Moses speaking to the tribes of Reuben and Gad asks “‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” The author of Avot d’Rabbi Natan challenges us that to pursue peace we have to go out from our own place and go searching into the world in order to bring peace about. And Rabbi Shmuel de Ozedah says “we need first to love peace for ourself, and since it is a good thing in our own eyes and we love it for ourself, we will be drawn to go and bring peace about between others”.

Sitting here and knowing that people we love and care for are potentially in danger, that the Land of Israel is once more at war, that many innocent people on both sides are becoming collateral damage rhr2is a painful and uncomfortable place.

Sitting here and watching the news on our various pieces of technology, we feel powerless and frightened, angry and misunderstood – and we desperately want peace. Across the world, many of us fasted this week on 17th Tammuz along with Muslims fasting for Ramadan – and then broke fast as two peoples together – as a way of making a statement that we want to have peace. (The hashtag on twitter was #hungryfor peace). Across the world many of us have sent supportive messages to family and friends, have signed petitions and donated money to organisations busy in building up relationships across the boundaries even while these relationships are under strain. But what else can we do?

It became clear to me this week just how conflicted I felt in my wanting to continue helping the social justice campaigns in Israel at a time when Israel is at war. Could we criticise an unjust situation perpetuated by Israel while she is facing such a serious time? Conversation with colleagues and friends here showed I was not alone in my anxiety, and it was interesting how the same conversation with colleagues and friends in Israel was different. They recognised the unease we feel in hutz la’aretz, the desire not to add to the criticism or the pressure. But they also recognised that we cannot sit quietly just because our brethren have gone to war – the critical issues of social justice do not go away, and to mask them because of the matzav, the emergency situation – is to abdicate our responsibility to our brethren.

So: to be a rodef for peace we need first to love peace for our own nation – including all the different groups who live within it, and then to go out to gain peace between Israel and her neighbours. To be a rodef for peace we need to agitate for the rights of all who live within Israel, as well as to drive dialogue and mediation between Israel and her enemies. And in that mode I tell you about this week’s events in Al Arakib, a Bedouin village in the Negev where despite the freezing of the Begin Prawer plan legislation until the Supreme Court decides the ownership of the land, the State is bypassing the judicial process and once again bulldozing this village, while the inhabitants who live in its only remaining secure structure, the cemetery, are fasting for Ramadan.

Can we stand by even though Israel is at war on its borders and its cities are vulnerable to missiles even though protected by the iron dome? I think we cannot, and I ask for you all to not stand by but to be rodfei shalom, people who agitate for peace. In the words of Isaiah 57:19 Shalom Shalom lerachot ul’karov amar Adonai שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב, אָמַר יְהוָה- Peace, peace, to the one that is far off and to him that is near, says the Eternal.

When Moses asks the two tribes ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?’ it is a rhetorical question. He is asking a number of things of them, and laying down some expectations. One of them is that they support their fellow Israelites as they fight for their land. One of them is that they don’t just sit comfortably and take no responsibility for their own community, and one of them, one which speaks deeply to me, is that we are one people, one community, regardless of all the differences of practise and of opinion that are so vehemently expressed wherever you look in the Jewish world. The Talmud reminds us (Shevuot 39a) Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all of Israel are responsible for each other. It comes in the context of sinning, where if one Jew sees another about to sin, they have the obligation to step in and prevent them. We have real responsibility for each other, and according to Jewish law that communal responsibility is an obligation. Working for the health of community and the well-being of everyone within it is a primary obligation from which much else of value follows.

I chose to work as a community rabbi because I believe in Judaism and I believe in community. I chose to work in South London for so many years because I see in this area a reflection of what I grew up with – a community that can overcome its differences and work together for shared principles and values, that takes its place in the world and that recognises the interconnectedness of our lives. I wrote in Kehillah about this, about the role of community in our lives and the need to nurture it and build it. I would like to finish with the words I ended that article with:

A Jewish community is more than a place for prayer, though that is at its heart. It is a place for gathering, for shared purpose, for organising support for each other as we all face life’s trials. It is a place of safety and for challenge, for learning and for teaching, for deepening our understanding about ourselves and enacting our life’s purpose.

For me as a Jew, as well as as a Rabbi, the building and nurturing of a community has been a source of energy and a source of comfort. And I know that the work will go on here. The words of Rabbi Tarfon speak in my mind “Lo Alecha ha’Melacha Ligmor, VeLo Atah Ben Chorin LeHibatel Mimena” We are not expected to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from engaging with it.

So I wish for you to “gei gesundeheit” to go well with the continuing journey. And “Chazak ve’ematz”, be strong and of good courage as you enter the next chapter of community life.



The Angel of Death and the Limits of Autonomy

angel_deathI sit as a rabbi at the bedsides of the dying. I see the many and varied ways that the dying person, their friends and family, carers and clinicians, cope – or do not cope, with what is happening. I see the fear of pain and the fear of loss. I see ‘good deaths’ and terrible deaths. My own anxiety resonates within me as I walk a few steps of the journey with each person. My most searing rabbinic memory is of an elderly man dying from unstoppable necrosis of the internal organs, curled like a foetus in his hospital bed and whimpering his pain to himself, already far from any awareness of anyone or anything. Such intractable pain witnessed years ago still terrifies me. The pain on the bed and the pain on the face of his soon to be widow, howling in animal agony as she witnessed her husband.

I have seen such deaths and I understand the desire for people not to have to suffer them. I share the desire wholeheartedly, but it does not lead me to believe that legislating in order to assist suicide is a good thing either for society or for the future of many individuals. I fear such legislation even more than I fear such a death for myself, for it will change the narrative and the norms by which human life is seen and valued, and I do not want my children’s children to live in a world where the value of human lives can be quantified, where an expectation may flourish that death is better than continued living, where choosing to die is normalised and accepted as an equal choice with choosing to live.

This, for me, is a case where something may indeed be right for an individual, but where it can never be right for a society. There are some areas of life that will forever have to remain ‘messy’ because to try to clarify them through scaling up to a societal norm what is understandable at the individual level does not work. Life may become such a burden that for an individual it is no longer worth living – but to take this idea to its logical conclusion for society would mean that we would be forced to quantify the value of every life, something so subjective it would be impossible for us to agree on.

Why does our religious tradition, not unaware of or unsympathetic to the problems of overwhelming physical and emotional pain, still refuse to make space within its law codes, its liturgy or its narratives to condone the taking of one’s own life, and why does it explicitly forbid the helping of someone to do so saying “There is no difference between a person who kills either a healthy person or one who is ill and dying, or even a gosses. In all of these cases, the murderer is put to death” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder).

It does so I believe, not because it wants to put people into a position of suffering – indeed it recognises that there are times when the suffering is so great people will indeed act upon it – but because once one deviates from the societal agreement that all human life has absolute and infinite value the door is opened to the possibility of diminishing and relatavising its value. By permitting such an act in its legal codes, it will change the way human life is seen and understood and forever alter the view of the absolute and infinite value of human life. Tradition understands that what is tolerable for individuals to choose does not become tolerable for society to choose. Once it becomes acceptable to measure life in terms of its quality – either subjective or objectively understood, we have laid the groundwork for viewing the value of some life as relatively less than that of others, and opened the door for a diminishment and undervaluing of some human lives.

From this a number of deeply problematic scenarios follow. If quality of life becomes the benchmark by which choosing to die becomes an option, how would one consistently measure it? If by subjective decision making, how easy would it become to opt for death now rather than the more difficult and uncertain continued living? How would depression be measured or ruled out? Or a belief that to choose death will lighten the load either now or in the future, upon the living? Would fear of future pain or incapacity, which may or may not be certain, be allowed to trigger the decision for death, as the anxiety clouds the current quality of life? How and over what length of time would analysis of the capability of the requester be assessed, and against what criteria? Scholars agree that this is always a social rather than a scientifically based process, so no truly objective capability test can be formed. “Capacity assessment” may be the “Trojan Horse” of assisted dying legislation, in that it is meant to provide protection but instead provides cover for dangerous possibilities to enter normal societal discourse.        

As well as the problem of not being amenable to scaling up from the individual to society, the question of assisted dying is a classic dilemma involving two competing ‘goods’:- For people to be able to die without suffering or pain; And for society to protect the vulnerable and not relativise the value of human life. It is not something that is amenable to resolution through legislation, however thoughtfully drafted. In Talmudic terms it is a “Teyku” a situation where the moral arguments on each side balance each other, standing indefinitely in a state of insolubility. 319 times in the Babylonian Talmud the Rabbis are forced to say “Teyku – Let it stand”, when they come across a situation which is not resolvable. There are limits to the application of reason in resolving moral quandaries. In practise one lets the situation stand and each person has to act for themselves while limiting the violations to the other ‘goods’.

Clearly there are intellectual and philosophical arguments on both sides of the debate. Possibly more powerfully there are emotional arguments, such as that we would not allow an animal to suffer what some human beings may experience towards the end of life, or the stories of ‘deathbed’ reconciliation or resolution of entrenched feelings. We are all influenced by our own experiences of seeing someone we love die, or of seeing someone not die, which can indeed be worse. There can be no clear cut and objective line of argument that will lead us to an obvious and shared conclusion. We are talking here about life and death, about the primal emotions that are barely touched by language, so deep are they embedded within us. As Niels Bohr wrote, “There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true”

Let us look more closely at the two great truths that all people should be able to die well, and that human life is of infinite value. Both truths desire the dignity of the individual, both are driven from compassion. The difference lies in their view of the primacy of autonomy.

Autonomy offers absolute sovereignty over self, the power to decide; independence of mind and body is seductive and influential on our thinking. “Of course I want to make decisions about myself and my life, and of course I should take this power for myself” we think, “and I must have the right to do so in every circumstance”. And this is what leads us to the other side of the dilemma.

Independence is a political construct rather than a social one. In both the natural and the social world there is no true independence, there is only interdependence. We can have no complete autonomy, our choices have impact beyond our selves and are shaped by the society in which we live. Our autonomy is limited by our own bodies, by rules of law or convention, by our schools or places of work, our families our communities and our traditions. It is limited by the need for a greater ‘good’ –that which is best for our group

We live at a time when it has become an expectation that we can control all aspects of our lives. We have elevated this expectation to the status of right. And yet sometimes we do not have the control, sometimes we find ourselves lost in a place where random illness strikes or where the power is firmly in someone else’s hands, or where what we feel is right for ourselves is in tension with what we know to be right for our community or family. Sometimes we may desperately want something we cannot have. Sometimes we pray and the answer is that God says ‘no’.

                 Jewish tradition has a great deal to say to us about the process of dying and it is intriguingly complex. It struggles with what may be right for one person, yet toxic for society. Hence its response to suicide, whereby the hard line of the texts against the individual who takes their own life is mitigated to the point where the explicit disapproval can be almost entirely overcome in the practical response in the event of suicide.

 The ethical problems of balancing two ‘goods’ – how to treat with dignity and respect the person who takes their own life while at the same time neither approving nor promoting such behaviour in order to preserve the well being of the community is apparent from early texts, showing how conflicted our tradition has been always. While there are a good sprinkling of texts which are sympathetic to the people for whom life has become burdensome, there is absolutely no leeway for legislative support – the whole thrust of halachic literature is to reinforce the absolute sanctity of life, the giving and taking of which is in the hands of God alone. There is no explicit prohibition against suicide in Bible, but Talmud works hard to source such a proscription in Torah, using a number of different verses to do so. The most usual quoted is from the Noachide laws (Genesis 9:5) where God says “And surely your blood of your lives will I require”, but the ban against destruction from Deuteronomy “Do not destroy” (Deut 20:19) is also brought to bear, with the Gemara stating that if this applies to artefacts, then how much more so should it apply to one’s own body? (Baba Kamma 91b).

Yet while attempting to give strength to this proscription against suicide, the Gemara notes that “It must therefore be said that Tannaim differed on this point, for there is one view maintaining that a man may not injure himself and there is another maintaining that a man may injure himself”. (ibid)

It is interesting to me how important Tradition’s need for a teaching against suicide is, while at the same time there is demonstrable understanding that sometimes life just becomes too much for individuals, and ending it becomes an option to be considered seriously. So for example we have the story of the Hittite City of Luz where “even the Angel of Death has no permission to pass through it, but when the old men there become tired of life (lit. ‘Their mind becomes loathsome to them’) they go outside the wall and then die” (Sotah 46b), and the principle of “lev yodea marat nafsho” (the heart knows the bitterness of the soul) (Prov. 14:10) suggests that subjective feelings having weight in medical decision making is brought into the debate in Yoma 83a.

Despite the compassion towards the [would-be] suicide as individual being, the full weight of Jewish tradition teaches that life is sacred, it is given to us by God, the soul belongs to God and death comes at the will of God alone. Deuteronomy teaches “I cause death and I cause life” (32:39). Hannah prays “Adonai brings death and makes life” (1 Sam 2:6), Job tells us that God gave life and God took life, and God’s name is blessed (1:21), Kohelet tells us that there is “a time to give birth and a time to die” (3:1-2) and just as the process of birthing is out of our control, so too is that of dying. We are made in the image of God, and life is our most precious attribute, something of absolute value that should never be dismissed. The mitzvah of preserving life, Pikuach Nefesh, is so important that fulfilling it supersedes all but three of the mitzvot in Torah.

The Mishnah tells us “Without our consent we are born, and without our consent we live, and without our consent we die, and without our consent we will have to give a reckoning before …the blessed Holy One”. (Pirkei Avot 4:29). Jewish law concerning the dying (gosses) acts every time upon the assumption that life should be cared for, even though it is clear that it will shortly end. Every morning as soon as we awake, we are supposed to pray the words “Adonai, neshama she’natata bi tehorah..” God, you gave me a pure soul. You created it, you formed it, and you made it live within me. But one day you will take it from me to Eternal life”, a prayer that recognises the transience of both life and of death, and the control of God over them both.

Proponents of the right to be assisted in suicide rely on the idea of well framed legislation that would prevent a slippery slope where life would in future be seen as burdensome for reasons that we currently would find problematic. Mention of eugenics, of ending the life of a person with dementia, of pressurising vulnerable people whose care will cost a family or the State a substantial amount of money to choose to die, or of allowing people with mental fragility to choose death over life – all these can be prevented by good drafting of the Bill, they say. But it seems to me that is to place faith in a fragile and inadequately future-proofable instrument. However carefully drafted a Bill may be, there is no guarantee against violation or infringement, and meanwhile the mores of society will drift further away from the valuing of life qua life, into establishing and measuring and challenging the boundaries of what is an acceptable quality of a life, what a reasonable ground for choosing to die. And anyway Law is used to decide between right and wrong, never to be able to choose between two ‘goods’, it is neither designed to do this nor could it possibly be effective.

Once one crosses the Rubicon and accepts the right of the individual to have autonomy over choosing to live or die, the notion of being able to do so only in strictly bounded conditions is open for change. Indeed it is changing already with the owner of the Dignitas Clinic already suggesting that clinical depression is an acceptable reason for choosing death, and the Dutch Supreme Court ruling that “euthanasia or assisted suicide might be justifiable for a patient with severe psychic suffering due to a depressive illness and in the absence of a physical disorder or a terminal condition.” Supreme Court of the Netherlands. Arrest-Chabot, HR 21 June 1994, nr 96 972. Nederlands Juristen Blad 1994;26:893-5.

Once we allow the idea that autonomy over our lives to the point of choosing our deaths is an acceptable societal norm, that human life is not of infinite value and can in some cases be ended through a legally sanctioned process, then there is nothing to prevent a recalibrating of that value in future years. Once we are prepared to attribute a view of quality and to quantify this, then the subjective view of the clinically depressed at one moment in time may trigger an irrevocable decision. No amount of legislative safeguards will completely protect the vulnerable.

Studies have shown that people who want this legislation mainly want it for reassurance, to know that future extreme physical pain can be escaped, and proponents of this kind of legislation quote the relatively small number of people who go on to commit suicide with the help of their physician – about 50 percent of those who receive the prescriptions actually go on to ingest the drug. But this is not about numbers, and reassurance can be provided in other ways.

Consistent studies reveal that the real issues for patients are not so much the fear of physical pain, but the psychological and emotional distress that may accompany it. Patients surveyed usually speak of the fear of loss of autonomy and control, of living with hopelessness and depression. A Dutch research project in 2005 showed that depressed cancer patients were four times more likely to request euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. Another study in New York replicated this figure and adds “Among patients who were neither depressed nor hopeless, none had high desire for hastened death”.

The texts of our tradition understand the fear of extreme pain, of psychological pain, and of the burden that life can become. There is no strand of tradition or classical text that aggrandises pain or suggests that we seek suffering, there is no sanctity to be found in agony, and our sources permit the use of every medical means to avoid pain (Shulchan Aruch YD 241:13). They are compassionate and forgiving of any action which a person may do arising out of excessive pain. But they hold a line about incorporating into law or into society the idea that any such action is le’hatchila acceptable or predicated on a value system we can endorse. I think they understood that there is no place of safety once life stops being seen as infinitely valuable, that we might think we can legislate impregnable safeguards but that when we change the basis on which we see human life there is no way ultimately to protect the most vulnerable people in society.

We are faced in society with a pressure towards absolute autonomy, bolstered by a belief that we can really control all aspects of our lives, that there is no thing we cannot do and no decision we cannot make for ourselves. But the reality is that we live in community, and what may be desirable for an individual may not be desirable for the society within which that individual exists. There are problems both of scale and of tension between the ‘good’ of the individual and the ‘good’ of society. The reality is also that absolute control over our destinies is not in fact ours; sometimes we simply cannot have what we want.

Our spiritual tradition helps us with the areas of our lives in which we feel less able, not in order to make us more able necessarily, but to be able to live with what is not possible as much as with what is. The need for reassurance that there will be no pain towards the end of life is mainly in the hands of the medical profession, and I fear for the future of palliative care should more people opt to avoid it by leaving their lives before it becomes necessary. But it is also in the hands of us all – if we journey alongside the dying, offer warmth and care, see the humanity of the person and who they are; If we recognise the totality of the life they have lived, if we maintain their dignity and self worth, address their fears and sadnesses, then we offer a way to deal with the reality that we cannot exert control over every aspect of life. In the words of Rabbah in the Talmud responding to distress of Honi HaMa’agel “either companionship or death” (Ta’anit 3a)

 first published in “Assisted Dying – Rabbinic Responses” ed Romain 2014

הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם: Pinchas. The Zealot and the Covenant of Broken Peace

No biblical figure is so identified with zealotry as is Pinchas.  He steps out in the closing verses of last week’s sidra, so completely outraged by the sight of a prince of Israel and a Midianite woman cavorting together that he acts immediately, not waiting for Moses or for any process of law – he thrusts his spear into the couple as they lie together, and kills them both.

It is a horrible spectacle for us to read, but more horrible still is God’s response.  God says that for his actions Pinchas is to receive a special reward – “Pinchas is the only one who zealously took up My cause among the Israelites and turned my anger away from them so that I did not consume the children of Israel in my jealousy.  Therefore tell him that I have given him My covenant of peace” (Num. 25:11-12)

Pinchas’ action had ended an Israelite orgy of idolatry and promiscuity that was endangering the integrity of the people far more than any of the curses of the prophet Balak could have done.  But while the outcome was important, the method was terrible. And this rage which led him to act without any inhibition or process is not unique  in bible. Remember the young Moses who murdered the Egyptian taskmaster in a moment of rage?  Or Elijah who slaughtered the priests of Baal? 

These are events in our history which we cannot ignore, but neither can we celebrate. We have in our ancestry the reality of jealous rage and zealotry – and we can be ambivalent about this quality and how it is used.

            I have always been interested in the response to these acts of biblical jealousy and zealotry for God. 

Elijah, having killed hundreds of idolatrous priests and having demonstrated to his own satisfaction the falseness of their faith, finds that being zealous for God does not guarantee safety. Queen Jezebel is angered and Elijah had to run for his life to the wilderness.  There he encounters many strange phenomena, but ultimately he hears God not in the storms but in the voice of slender silence. 

Moses’ act of killing was a little different – a young man who had only recently taken on board his connection to an enslaved people he found their treatment unbearable, and when he found an Egyptian beating one of his own kin –( ish ivri may’echav )– he looked around, saw no one and (using the same verb as the Egyptian taskmaster had done) beat him and hid the body in the sands.  Only on the next day when he realised he had been seen, did he flee into the wilderness, there to meet God at the bush which burned but which was not consumed. 

And Pinchas, whose act of violence was completely unpremeditated and grew from his anger against those who were mingling with the Midianite women and taking up the Midianite gods was rewarded by God with a ‘brit shalom’, a covenant of peace and the covenant of the everlasting priesthood. 

Each of these men killed in anger – anger that God was not being given the proper respect, anger that God’s people were being abused.  None of the men seemed to repent of what they had done, although Elijah and Moses were certainly depressed and anxious after the event and in fear for their lives.  And God’s response seems too mild for our modern tastes. 

            Yet look at God’s responses a little more closely.  Elijah is rewarded not by a triumphalist God but by the recognition of God in the voice of slender silence – what the more poetic translation calls the ‘still small voice’. And that voice doesn’t praise him but challenges him – What are you doing here, Elijah?  After the high drama and the great energy expended at the sacrifices of the priests of Ba’al, Elijah has to come down from his high point and his conviction-fuelled orgy of violence and recognise in the cold light of day the reality of what he has done.  Only when he leaves behind the histrionics does God become known to him – in that gentle sound of slender silence, and with a question that must throw him back to examine the more profound realities about himself and his own journey.

Moses too is not rewarded with great honour and dramatic encounter – his fleeing from the inevitable punishment for his killing has something of the self-centred need for survival rather than his being able to defend a glorious act, and there is a tradition that Moses did not enter the promised land, not only because of what had happened at the waters of Meribah when he struck the rock rather than speaking to it, but because that action brought to mind the striking of the Egyptian – Moses hadn’t learned to control his temper and his actions even after forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

Moses’ first encounter with God too was so gentle as to be almost missable.  In the far edges of the wilderness alone with his father in law’s sheep this miserable young man saw a bush which burned but which wasn’t burned out.  It is a dramatic story we are all used to from childhood, but what is implicit in it –though not something we generally recognise, is that to notice such a phenomenon in the wilderness where bushes must have burned regularly, took a great deal of time – Moses must have stood and watched patiently and carefully before realising there was something different about this fire. There is gentleness and an awareness of something on the edges of our senses, the very antithesis of drama and spectacle, of the immediacy and energy of the zealot.

The reward for Pinchas is also not as it first seems.  God says of him “hineni notein lo et breetee, shalom”.  “Behold, I give him my covenant, peace”.  The Hebrew is not in the construct form, this is not a covenant of peace but a requirement for Pinchas to relate to God with peace, and his method for so doing is to be the priesthood.

The words are written in the torah scroll with an interesting addition – the vav in the word ‘shalom’ has a break in it.  The scribe is drawing our attention to the phrase – the violent man has not been given a covenant of peace but a covenant to be used towards peace – that peace is not yet complete or whole- hence the broken vav – it needs to be completed.

Pinchas is given the eternal priesthood. One of the main functions of the priesthood is to recite the blessing of peace over the people, the blessing with which we end every service but which in bible is recited by the priests who form a conduit for the blessing from God. 

Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta tells us “there is no vessel that holds a blessing save peace, as it says ‘the Eternal will bless the people with peace’”  in other words, the eternal priesthood given to Pinchas forces him to speak peace, to be a vessel of peace so as to be able to fulfil his function and recite the blessing.  In effect, by giving Pinchas “breetee, shalom” God is constraining him and limiting his violence, replacing it with the obligation to promote peace. It is for Pinchas and his descendants to complete the peace of God’s covenant, and they cannot do so if they allow their innate violence to speak.


Each of the three angry men – Moses, Pinchas, Elijah – are recognised as using their anger for the sake of God and the Jewish people, but at the same time each is gently shepherded into a more peaceful place.  And this methodology is continued into the texts of the rabbinic tradition. 

When one first reads the text it seems on the surface that Pinchas was rewarded for his act, but the weight of Jewish traditional reading – and writing – militates against this.  Clearly by Talmudic times the sages are clear that self-righteous zeal is dangerous and damaging and must never take root in our people or be allowed to influence our thinking.

Times change, but people do not – there are still many who would act like Pinchas if they could: every group and every people has them.  Their behaviours arise out of passionate belief and huge certainty in the rightness of those beliefs.  Rational argument will never prevail against them, but gentle patient and persistent focusing on the goal of peace, our never forgetting the need for peace, must temper our zealots.

Every tradition has its zealots and its texts of zealotry, but every tradition also has those who moderate and mitigate, who look for the longer game and the larger goal. Especially in the light of recent events in Israel, when the zealots of both sides acted unchecked and with terrible violence, it is important that we who look for peaceful resolution rise to the occasion and with patient and persistent focus rein in those who would act otherwise.shalom broken vav

Balaam: Carried away and lost by his own words

 My teacher Jonathan Magonet used to ask – “If you were a donkey, how would you read the bible?” The answer of course is that you would notice the stories about donkeys. They are not hard to find, Abraham, Moses and Samuel had famous donkeys, though it might be disappointing to a donkey reader to find the donkeys always described in relation to their human companion. And of course there is Balaam’s amazing donkey we read about today, which was clearly more perceptive than the prophet who rode her.

The point he was making is that when we read a text we bring to it an enormous number of presuppositions related to our experience, knowledge, personal situation, tradition etc. We are none of us objective readers of the text; we are all shaped by our life experience. We bring ourselves to the texts; we read into it as well as read out from it, we notice what we notice and not what has no meaning to us or resonance in our own minds.

The same is true of prophecy in the Hebrew bible. Biblical prophecy is as shaped by the prophet’s own understanding as it is formed by the will of God. And it is affected by those who hear it and act. Jews read biblical text as part of a dialogue and dialectic seeking truth through debate and discussion; We bring ourselves into relationship with the words of Torah. To simply read the p’shat, the literal and surface meaning of the text, is to miss out on the richness that is brought to it through human understanding. We have to reflect on and process what we read, examine it and turn it again and again, for the word of God is renewed through our engagement with it.

Curiously, the story of Balaam, this professional prophet of God, whose donkey is also sensitive to the divine in the world, seems to lack this capacity. And the tradition seems to try to tell us something in the way the story is written – not only the text but the physical appearance of the words.

If you look in a Torah scroll, you will see that while the columns are carefully designed to begin and end at the end of each line (what we might call ‘line justified’ in today’s parlance, there are also breaks in the text, some at the end of a line (p’tuhah) and some in the middle of a line (s’tumah). There is a long tradition preserving these spaces, and scribes follow this tradition carefully. But Balaam’s prophecy contains no such spaces.

The Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) asks why there are no breaks in this parashah as it is written in the Torah scroll. From Balak’s initial alarm and commissioning of Balaam to curse Israel to the very end of Balaam’s prophecy (Numbers 22:2-24:25), there is only solid text. True, Balaam was a prophet, and his prophecy was inspired from above: “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” (Numbers 22:38) But why should this section look so different from others in the Torah?

The Chafetz Chayim answers his own question, based on several midrashic sources, in the following way: The various breaks in Moses’ prophecy (i.e., the rest of the Torah) are indications that God gives Moses (and other Israelite prophets) breathing room to process what they are receiving. They are not to act simply as mouthpieces, as empty vessels through which divine speech flows. Rather, the prophet must understand the prophecy and be changed by it.

Moses and the other prophets of Israel participate in prophecy: Their words of God are refracted through their human thought and experience. Moses at times even argues with God, following the precedent set by Abraham and establishing a pattern that will be followed by the later prophets and by others. We can view breaks in the text as opportunities for reflection-both theirs and ours. But Balaam is allowed no breaks for reflection, nor is he changed by his words. He is only the conduit through which the text is passed, no different than a book or a tape or a digital recording. His prophecy is shallow and limited, his personality not engaged in the activity at all, his lack of understanding and commitment to participation means he fails as a prophet.

Yet Balaam’s words are remembered and, in the case of the phrase ‘Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” they are used prominently in Jewish liturgy.

So while Balaam neither reflected on his words nor sought a deeper meaning, we still are able to take these words and refract them into something both challenging of our world and supporting of what we see. This liturgical twist is an elegant example of the interaction of people and text, when we take the words that were intended for curse and transform them into words that acknowledge and reframe our reality to turn it into blessing.