What we can learn from Balak : acceptance of the other is the best strategy for survival

Twice in Torah, we are privy to the thoughts of a powerful leader about the children of Israel. The first time, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see the rise of the melech hadash – the new king who did not know Joseph, and his view that “Hinei Am b’nei Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu”, “Behold the people who are the children of Israel are more and mightier than we” (Exod. 1:9).  From this fearful perception came the enslavement of the Israelites, and eventually their liberation from Egypt to journey towards the Promised Land. And now here, Balak, the king of Moab, having seen what the journeying Israelites had done to the Amorites, and distressed at the power and size of the Israelites, calls to Balaam: “V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni”, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me” (Num. 22:6).

There are many parallels between the narratives in Egypt from enslavement to liberation and the narratives of Balaam’s attempted cursing for Balak, but it is the phrase describing the mightiness of the people Israel that draws attention.  For when the Pharaoh describes this group of descendants of Jacob as “Am”, “a people”, he ascribes to them for the first time coherence beyond family connectedness. He has changed them from a genealogical group into peoplehood. The category shift is vast. Whatever we may know about Abraham and Sarah making Jewish souls and converting the people they met into their way of being, here for the first time is textual evidence that Bnei Yisrael is more than a family or genetic inheritance; it is peoplehood, a community brought together by something other than ancestry. Posited against the Egyptian peoplehood (rav v’atzum mimenu, “more and mightier than we are”), they are perceived to be a threat to the Egyptian way of being and must, in the eyes of Pharaoh and his court, be constrained.

But for Balak, something different is happening, albeit in almost the same words. V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me.” (Num. 22:6). This is personal, something to do with Balak king of Moab himself, and so we must look into his own history and his future to determine what it could be.

Balak is a Moabite, a member of a people said to be born from the drunken coupling of Lot and his older daughter in a cave after the destruction of Sodom, when they thought they were the only survivors of a destroyed world. Her son, Moab (the name meaning literally “from my father”) is the progenitor of this people, though we do not have any direct chain of genealogy back to Lot (Gen. 19:37). So Balak is of the family of Abraham through Lot, someone who represents “what might have been” had different choices been made. Unlike Pharaoh he has a connection with the children of Israel, albeit a tenuous one, and a connection to the covenant that Abraham made with God.

The Hebrew phrase “atzum hu mimeni”, besides being cast in the singular and personal frame, can also be translated as: “This people is mighty from me.”

Balak may have been asserting that had Lot not chosen to separate from Abraham and go to Sodom, the line of transmission would have been different, with Lot’s descendants claiming the covenant. But there is another way of viewing this phrase, one that may speak to us more in the struggles of today’s Jewish world. Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Halevi Horowitz (1565-1630) chose to understand this verse as referring not to what might have been in the past, but to what would certainly be in the future: that the anointed kingly and messianic line of David would descend from Balak.

Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David was herself a Moabite woman, descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b).

And their direct connection is made plain at the end of her eponymous book. From King Balak would ultimately come King David – No wonder Balak felt that the strength of Israel was coming from himself! He was inadvertently contributing to the continuation and wellbeing of the people Israel.

In an added twist we have the story told as a moral tale twice in Talmud: “Rav Judah, citing Rav, said: A man should always occupy himself with the Torah and [its] precepts, even though it be for some ulterior motive, for the result will be that he will eventually do them without ulterior motive. For as reward for the forty-two sacrifices which the wicked Balak offered, he was privileged to be the progenitor of Ruth, for R. Jose son of R. Hanina has said that Ruth was descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b and Horayot 10b).”

What Balak is recognising, albeit in his case with horror, is that the merging and mingling of other people into Judaism is of enormous benefit to the people of Israel. Like Pharaoh, he sees not a bloodline, but a covenant line, an “Am” a people whom one can join and in joining can benefit.

His horror is because he is an enemy of the Israelites. One can only wonder what the dismay of modern naysayers of conversion into Judaism can be based upon.

The recent trend in some parts of the Dati Jewish world towards the annulment of some conversions for perceived breaches of behaviour, and the disbelief of the sincerity of Jews by choice is the curse that Balak asked for Balaam to give come into fruition in our own time.  When Balak asks Balaam “V’attah l’cha na ara li”, we can read him as saying “come now and curse me,” understanding that in his spite he is asking to be cursed himself, rather than allow his descendants to enter into and to strengthen the Jewish people. Today we seem to have those willing to place a curse on the Jewish people rather than accept the benefit and goodwill of those who have chosen to join us.  They would rather rip apart the Jewish world in their quest to follow their own desire single-mindedly for some notional (and decidedly not traditional) purity, rather than work to include and welcome those who wish to join us. One might ask, “Where is the donkey of Balaam now when we need a clear sighted and generous spirit?”

Conversion procedure and law in Judaism is based on the texts surrounding Ruth, a Moabite woman, descendant of Balak, who would rather not have mixed his bloodline with ours. And about Ruth and her conversion there is nothing but praise: Rabbi Abahu said, “Come and see how precious are proselytes to the Holy One, blessed be He. Once she [Ruth] had set her heart on converting, Scripture placed her in the same rank as Naomi, as it is said: “And they both walked till they came to Bethlehem” (Ruth 1:19) (Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth, Chapter 1, 601).  There was no need for her to prove by her subsequent life choices that her conversion continued to be valid. The famous phrase “Al tifg’ivi l’ozveych lashuv may’acharayich”, “Do not entreat me to leave you, or to return from following after you, for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16),  can be translated somewhat differently. The verb peh, gimmel, ayin means “to meet, encounter, reach” and can mean both to encounter with kindness or with hostility, to encounter with a request as in “entreat” or more frequently  “to fall upon and kill”  (1 Sam. 22:17-18 ; Judges 8:21. etc.)

So what if Ruth was saying, “Do not destroy me by making me leave you or not allowing me to be with you”? The verse would then have a whole extra dimension. Instead of asking Ruth to go away (the traditional three time refusal of a person wishing to convert that is derived selectively from these verses) and putting the onus on the convert to be brave enough to return to ask once more, and yet again, the problem becomes ours: we would bear responsibility for the sin of destroying another person by our cold shouldering of the prospective convert.

In Talmud Yevamot 24b we find the following :

MISHNAH. “If a man is suspected of [intercourse] with a slave who was later emancipated, or with a heathen who subsequently became a proselyte, lo, he must not marry her. If, however, he did marry her they need not be parted. If a man is suspected of intercourse with a married woman who, [in consequence,] was taken away from her husband, he must let her go even though he had married her.” GEMARA. “This implies that she may become a proper proselyte. But against this a contradiction is raised. Both a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a woman and a woman who became a proselyte for the sake of a man, and, similarly, a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a royal board, or for the sake of joining Solomon’s servants, are no proper proselytes. These are the words of R. Nehemiah, for R. Nehemiah used to say: Neither lion-proselytes, nor dream-proselytes nor the proselytes of Mordecai and Esther are proper proselytes unless they become converted at the present time (ie when there was no benefit to becoming a proselyte). How can it be said, ‘at the present time’?-Say ‘as at the present time’! -Surely concerning this it was stated that R. Isaac b. Samuel b. Martha said in the name of Rav: The Halachah is in accordance with the opinion of him who maintained that they were all proper proselytes. If so, this should have been permitted altogether! – On account of [the reason given by] R. Assi. For R. Assi said, ‘Put away from you a disobedient mouth, and perverse lips, etc.’”

In other words, there were always those who found a reason not to accept proselytes. There were those who worried that behind someone’s wish to join the Jewish world there would be some material benefit they could claim, so their request could not be said to be pure or acceptable. But the Halachah does not go that way, even if the discussion has to proceed in order to make clear that the point of view is recorded in order to be invalidated. And later commentary on the Mishnah records an overwhelming majority of halachists who agree with the opinion of Maimonides that conversion in order to marry a Jew (which may not be of noticeable benefit) also does not invalidate a conversion.

So back to Balak. Why was he so afraid that the Children of Israel would become stronger through him? Why would he rather have been cursed himself with no descendants than accept the existence and energy of the Israelites. Well we have no idea, just as we can have no sensible idea for the balagan that is conversion in Israel at the moment. Any logical analysis is both too depressing and too frightening to contemplate. Can we have removed ourselves so far from the golden rules – to be a holy people as God is holy, to care for others as we care for ourselves, to concern ourselves with the strangers and the vulnerable and the defenceless – that we have removed ourselves from the divine force that nourishes and sustains us? Only time will tell.

Balak himself failed in his curse, and his hatred and enmity was turned into acceptance of the other and the messianic promise. May the curse that stalks our people now go the same way so that once again we will be able to say, and to mean, Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How good are your tents O Jacob, and your dwelling places O Israel”

 (a version of a draft first written for Leo Baeck College Parashat HaShavuah 2008

Chukkat: how to remove the ritual impurity that is confusion so that we see the world more clearly

The sidra Chukkat is named after the instructions about the red heifer – instructions that even the learned commentators on Hebrew bible found mysterious and puzzling beyond understanding. A person made ‘tum’ah’ – unclean through contact with a corpse, was to be sprinkled with special water made with the ashes of a sacrificed perfectly red cow with absolutely no blemish upon it. The ritual is given in great detail over five verses, and is described as Chukkat Olam – a law for all time.

In the midrash Tanhuma, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is described as telling the outer world that this ritual is one of exorcism, of ridding oneself of something awful – but tellingly to his own disciples he declares “the corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the ritual of the red heifer is simply a decree of the Sovereign above all Sovereigns, and we are not permitted to transgress it…”

So our portion is named for a ritual that has no rational meaning, and that we cannot in truth really understand – something that we just do because God tells us to do it. It is a difficult concept to embrace in the twenty first century for modern progressive Jews.

But maybe we might understand it more if we don’t focus on the nature of this law as being an illogical diktat from on high, but we look instead at the nature of tum’ah that the ritual is designed to remove.

In the 19th Century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented on the relationship between tum’ah – described as ritual impurity, and timtum – confusion. He suggested that the connection between them was that of the intensity of physical experience, that what renders a person ‘tam’ei’(ritually impure) is the state of being emotionally overwhelmed and unable to focus on the present context. This idea builds on the Talmudic comment that the nature of tum’ah is one ‘she’metamem et halev’ – one that blocks or paralyses the heart. Essentially to be ritually impure means to lack any mindfulness of self or context, to not be able to locate oneself fully in the world.

Ritual impurity – tum’ah – then can be seen as a function of the clarity of our consciousness, or lack of it. It is something that has to be removed, unblocked, or given a new frame and lens through which to understand what is happening and so change our response to it.

Suddenly this apparently irrational ritual of the red heifer has meaning – we have to do something to change our world view, do something to clarify our perceptions and to move on.

It is no accident I think that the sidra also contains the reporting of the deaths of first Miriam and then Aaron. When Aaron dies the community mourns and sheds tears for him for thirty days, but in the case of Miriam’s death the mourning is not reported – instead we are told that the source of the water dried up and the Israelites became thirsty and frightened.

A frequently quoted Midrash on this text tells us that Miriam had been the source of water for the Israelites, so that when she died the water too went away, but Rabbi Moshe Alsheich’s comment is I think more interesting – “Because they did not shed tears over the loss of Miriam the source of their water dried up”.

Because the children of Israel did not know what to do at the sudden loss of the woman who was the source of water, the source of life, their response was one of confusion – timtum – and of anger. We know about the anger because its most potent expression was that of Moses in response to the anger of the people. Against God’s instruction simply to speak to the rock he made an emotional speech accusing the people of rebellion and then he struck the rock not once but twice in front of the community, and the water poured out of it. Moses’ anger almost burns the page as we read it. Bereaved, lost, his world turned upside down, and with a community who are simply unable to cope with what has happened, his response is to give way to his fury – a completely human reaction but unfortunately not one that was helpful to anyone. Both he and the community are trapped in a state of tum’ah – blind confusion where no possibilities of renewal can be perceived, where everything is terrible and lost and lonely, and the future a bleak and frightening place.

The anger is the first response of the timtum, but it is ultimately a very damaging one – for this anger Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. The healing response comes after the death of Aaron when we are told “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron for thirty days”. These tears are curative, part of the necessary process of mourning. And restorative life giving water comes in response to the waters shed in the tears.

The tears bring relief from tum’ah, from the intense confusion and pain and depression caused by the loss of Miriam and Aaron. But tears alone do not bring full cleansing – the waters of the ritual are mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, the emblematically perfect animal sacrificed for this ritual.

What can we use instead of the ashes to help ourselves out of the state of tum’ah?

Some mix whiskey with their water, but it will only help the tears to flow and ultimately prolong the state of timtum.

Some sacrifice themselves, their joy in life, their interest in the world, sinking into depression and despair.

Some sacrifice their future, holding on the state of anger and confusion, in order to punish the one who put them there.

Many rabbinic traditions (BB10a) suggest that instead of ashes we use tzedakah – for as our liturgy for the Yamim Noraim tells us, tzedakah, acts of righteousness and charity, save from death (proverbs10:2) or at least will blunt the severity of the decree against us.

Tzedakah, deeds of righteousness and charity, along with our freely flowing tears and expressions of our inner pain, do seem to be the way towards cleansing ourselves from our state of tum’ah, our pain filled confusion of timtum. But it is hard to do. Maybe this is why the heifer of the bible had to be so perfect, so completely red, so unusual that few have ever been born. It is hard but not impossible. For the people did it – they learned to mourn for Aaron fully, they learned to let go of the feelings of fear and confusion and express them in a structured and ultimately contained way. Only after that did they begin to live again, and to go on to new things, symbolised by the water which once again was accessible to them, the living waters of restoration and new ways of being.

Korach: being alongside each other signifies the presence of God. Standing over each other to dominate signifies the end of our purpose

The story of Korach is, at one level, the story of the tension between the individual and the community. Korach gathers together a group of interested parties in order to challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron saying “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why do you raise yourself above the congregation of the Eternal?” (Numbers 16:3)

Two phrases are used in this verse to describe community – kol ha’eidah, and kehal Adonai.  The community is both eidah: a group of people who share the same ‘witnessing’ or belief systems, and kehillah a group of people who assemble together in an organised fashion in order to share certain functions for mutual benefit.

Community has always been of critical importance to us Jews. Isaiah tells us “Ameich kulam tzadikim” and continues “They shall inherit the land for all time.” (Isaiah 60:21) We can read this verse as either “the people are all tzadikim (righteous) ” or that “the people when together, are tzadikim, and will inherit the land….

The former seems unlikely to say the least – indeed in our High Holy Day liturgy right before the vidui (confessional prayer) we actually remind God that we don’t have the right to say we are all tzadikim but ask for God’s mercy in the light of the zechut Avot, the relationship God had with our forebears. The latter – the idea that together we become better than we are individually, is a much more resonant idea for us and is one of the reasons for the obligation for communal prayer in a minyan. We are taught that when we pray together we will be heard, while our individual prayers may not have the power to reach the heavens.

There is a folk story that a young child on first learning the Hebrew alphabet pointed to the letter yod which is much smaller than the other letters, and asked her teacher ‘What is this small mark?’ to be told ‘It is the letter yod.’

Then she pointed to two yods written together and asked what they signified to be told that when the two small letters were written together, it was to indicate the reader must understand the particular name of God was being pointed to.

Fascinated, the child looked very carefully in the Chumash to find other examples of these two marks together, to see again the name of God, and then found that occasionally the two letters yod could be found one on top of the other. The teacher told her “this is a sign to mark the end of the sentence” “But they look so similar” said the child, “how do I know which is which?” And she was told “no, they are very different. For when the two sit next to each other as equals, they are the Name of God. When one stands over the other and dominates it, then they are not the Name of God and everything comes to an end.’

Isaiah speaks of a collective righteousness that depends on us being alongside each other, maintaining our equality and creating community. The folk story reminds us that if we don’t do this, but instead put ourselves over the other, dominate or suppress or even just not notice them as being people too, then the logical conclusion is that our history and being will come to an end.

Interestingly it is clear that Korach knows at some level the importance of communal activity. The two phrases he uses here for community – kol ha’eidah – the shared nature of our beliefs, and kehal Adonai – the shared nature of our activities which bring mutual benefit, remind us that we create community together based on shared purpose and values and that we must organise so that all of us are part of something greater than our individual desires. Korach failed because he wanted something more for himself than for the good of the community. He did what he had accused Moses of doing and set himself above the community rather than alongside it. We create community by working with each other, not through a set of top down policies. And if we address the needs of each other with compassion and care, we create a community that will last. Otherwise, when one stands over the other and dominates it, then we no longer represent the Name of God and everything comes to an end.’

Forty Years of Women Rabbis in Britain: From Regina Jonas to Jackie Tabick

In bible, the number ‘forty’ is code for ‘a very long time’. The years marked in tranches of ‘forty’ are also usually times of trial or probation. Forty years ago Jackie Tabick was ordained by the Leo Baeck College as the first woman Rabbi in the UK. Forty years before that, in 1935, Regina Jonas was ordained privately in Germany. Before Jonas there had been other women who had achieved the scholarship required to function as a rabbi, and there were a number who had sought to be ordained as rabbis and failed. The question about women’s ordination was asked yet somehow never answered, responded to instead with ridicule or outrage or dissembling. Even where there appeared to be a rabbinic will to ensure religious equality, somehow this never got past the ideological stage. The father of German Reform Judaism Abraham Geiger called for equality for women as long as it did not transgress “the natural laws governing the sexes”, while those who left Germany to develop Reform Judaism in the USA also called for full religious emancipation for women but failed to either discuss the measures needed, or vote upon the call at the 1846 Breslau Conference due, they said, “to lack of time”, and had anyway moderated their call for women’s religious equality “so far as it is possible”.

Until Regina Jonas, many women studied but none took away more than a certificate that qualified them to teach Judaic studies. Jonas was different. Clearly formidably determined, with no status to lose either within the Jewish world or the rapidly disintegrating secular environment, she pushed and pushed, writing her thesis on the question “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” and having examined the rabbinic literature concluding “Almost nothing halachically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office” .

Jonas studied at the Berlin Hochshule, where a number of teachers at both Leo Baeck College in London and Hebrew Union College in the USA had trained. They must have been aware of her and her struggle to overcome the prevailing culture that mitigated against the early ideology of Reform Judaism, and yet they never spoke of her. They didn’t tell us of her semicha, or her work as rabbi and teacher in Berlin albeit not in the synagogue setting. After her death in Theresienstadt she vanished into history until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of archives, ironically to be rescued by Dr Katerina von Kellenbach, a Christian researcher who had written on anti-Jewish themes in feminist theology.

In the daughter seminaries of the Hochshule women came to study, but fell by the wayside before reaching ordination. It is noticeable that Sally Priesand and Jackie Tabick, the two women first ordained in the States and in the UK, were women who entered their respective seminaries unsure that they would be seeking semicha, women who were by nature private and introspective people, who chose ordination after beginning their studies. Somehow it seemed they flew under the radar, not challenging the rabbinic faculty, not interested in what Priesand called “the unbelievable and almost unbearable pressures of being the first woman rabbi”, and possibly because of their unconfrontational natures they found themselves at the end of their studies with the majority of their teachers willing to give them ordination – though this was not unanimous.

Both became associate rabbis in large synagogues and both left after serving well and faithfully when it became clear that they would not become the Senior Rabbi. As Sally Priesand said she believed that “ability, sincerity, and dedication would outweigh gender” but she learned that “competence and commitment are enough for a man, but not for a woman.” There was certainly a view among the pioneering women rabbis in this country that we had to work extra hard and extra well to justify our desire to enter the rabbinate, though this fear has weakened over time.

Biblically forty years describes a long time characterised by trial and probation. In the forty plus years women have been ordained by seminaries, have we passed the test? And has the Jewish world come to terms with women rabbis? In the non-Orthodox world women rabbis are a fact of life. Leo Baeck College has ordained 52 women for progressive movements around the world, HUC many more. In the UK women are the Senior Rabbis of both the flagship mother synagogues for Reform and Liberal Judaism, both Rabbinic bodies are chaired by women Rabbis, the Leo Baeck College Principal is a woman as is the Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism. And Rabbi Jackie Tabick is the Convenor of the Reform Beit Din. So it looks good for women – but….

Comments are still made about the bodies of women on the bimah, as are derogatory remarks about the feminisation of the Rabbinate, about women not having the authority or gravitas of men. More worryingly there is still a view that there can be ‘too many women’, and here the fact that women have risen to prominent roles is seen as a negative rather than a positive phenomenon. More than one person suggested to me that celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman rabbi in the UK might not be a good idea as it would ‘draw attention to the number of women in senior roles”.

Colleagues tell anecdotes showing that for those who are familiar with women rabbis, the phenomenon is unremarkable, but for those who have not been so exposed it remains alien and ‘not quite right’. People still ask if for a male rabbi for their life cycle events, or comment if there is more than one woman rabbi at a service, or tell male rabbis that they are pleased to have a ‘real’ rabbi. The voices, bodies and family choices of women rabbis are still seen as fair game for comment, whereas for male rabbis appearance is unremarked, and children seen as a positive asset. Some women rabbis speak their gratitude for the generation that came before them having opened the doors, and others speak irritation in encountering patronising comments about gender and people who cheerfully transgress personal boundaries. Often difficulties are coded, people will say they want a ‘more traditional’ rabbi when they mean male, and certainly there is a pay differential that is closely tied to the gender of the rabbi.

Forty years is just over one generation. It has certainly been a testing time for the women blazing this trail. Clearly women have brought new energy and perspectives to the rabbinate, have shaped it and helped it understand and reflect women’s experience. Now many more life cycle events have rituals and liturgies to help us navigate them. Now more women take a full part in the religious life of the community they pray in, are engaging with texts and bringing their views to enrich our understanding. The orthodox world has taken note and is now creating women rabbis in all but title, recognising the value of women to this role.

It took forty years in the wilderness for the Jewish people to transition from Egypt to Israel. After twice forty years it’s time to step into the new world and see role of rabbi as fit for both women and men of ability, sincerity, and dedication.

(this is a longer version of an article written for Jewish Chronicle. Photo of Regina Jonas found in the archive in East Germany)