Bein HaMetzarim: The Days of Distress to which we are still contributing

The three weeks that separate the fast of the 17th Tammuz, the date that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the 9th Av, the date on which we commemorate the destruction of both the first and second temple are known as “bein ha’metzarim – בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים – within the straits.” It is a phrase taken from the third verse of the book of Lamentations which speaks of the desolation of post destruction Jerusalem, and of the exile and wanderings of her surviving displaced people.

The three weeks have become a discrete period of time, characterised by mourning customs and by an increasing sense of danger, and have their own flavour and liturgical reminders – the three haftarot of rebuke which take us up to Tisha b’Av are related to the date rather than the Torah reading for example, and many Jews forgo eating meat or drinking wine and eat more simple meals. The idea is to immerse in the mourning, to give up the ordinary joys of good meals or new clothes. Instead we are supposed to be reflecting on our mortality, on the limited time we have to act in this world. We are supposed to be finding a way through all the busyness of life to the core business of being alive – to connect to each other and to the world, to make the world a better place for our being in it.

The quasi mourning customs for the three weeks increase in intensity up till Tisha b’Av itself, from 17th Tammuz till Rosh Chodesh Av, from Rosh Chodesh Av till the end of the 8th day, and then the black fast itself. There are different traditions in different parts of the Jewish community to signify the mourning period, but an awareness of the period of bein ha’metzarim thrums in the background. In a time of mourning for the unity and safety of the Jewish people in their ancestral and promised homeland we are all that bit more thoughtful, aware of each other and their sensitivities, aware of the Talmudic description (Yoma 9b) of sinat hinam – that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Jewish disunity and the baseless hatred the Jews of the time had for each other.

So here we are bein ha’metzarim, in the days of distress, the narrow straits of danger and fear where we are supposed to be reflecting on our own contributions to sinat hinam. And it comes as no real surprise that the disunity in Israel is growing, that the gap between rich and poor, haves and have nots, men and women, Jews and others, Haredim of all hats and footwear, Dati’im (people very strict in Jewish law) and those who have other ways of being a religious Jew, Religious and secular – the gap is widening; There is quite the opposite of a physical bein ha’metzarim growing in Israeli society – there is a gulf between people and peoples, but sadly the sinat hinam is still there and flourishing, contributing to that abyss that separates the human beings.

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the women of the wall went, as they do every Rosh Chodesh except that of Tishri, to pray at the foot of the wall that retains and supports the Temple Mount, the Kotel. They have been praying on Rosh Chodesh there, early in the morning, for over a quarter of a century. Women who come together from the very orthodox through the religious spectrum through to the cultural and feminist women who support their sister’s needs. For the last few months, having been forbidden to use a Torah scroll from the many that are kept at the Kotel, they have brought in their own. They have had to smuggle their scroll into the Kotel, as now no one is supposed to bring their own scroll for their own use, an exercise of power and control by the ultra-fundamentalist group currently in charge of the Kotel plaza. There is no religious meaning behind this rule – women can read from scrolls and do so all over the world.

And on Rosh Chodesh Av this year, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, a board member of Women of the Wall, was arrested not at the checkpoint, but after she had entered the Kotel Plaza with a scroll in her backpack. The arrest warrant reads: “The suspect was arrested on 17.07.2015. From her hands was confiscated a Torah scroll in the colours of blue and gold which was involved in the conducting of the crime. Also confiscated was an orange and grey rucksack.”

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the date on which the mourning intensifies for the nine days that lead to Tisha b’Av, a woman was arrested and handcuffed and taken to the police station at the Kotel, and the warrant also apparently arrested the Torah Scroll “which was involved in the conducting of the crime”

Words fail me at this point. We are truly bein ha’metzarim, in the days of distress, of narrow vision, of causeless hatred.

We managed, with the help of God, to leave Mitzraim – the place of slavery, the doubly narrow place, the slavery in Egypt. But having left Egypt and having returned to the Land, we have brought the narrowness of vision, the narrowness of self-interest, the narrowness of a failed empathy and imagination with us.

Will we be able to leave it again?

photo of Rachel Cohen Yeshurun with her arrest warrant taken from facebook wall of Women of the Wall Nashot haKotelrachel cohen yeshurun with her arrest warrant

Parashat Pinchas: What do we notice and what do we value?

Pinchas has always been a problem. We are told that this sidra begins where it does, in the middle of the narrative – to cause an interruption between the violent act and the divine response, in order the record the disapproval of the Babylonian rabbis who divided the sidrot.  A distance is created between the horror of what he did, and the reward that God seems to offer.  To read the story straight through would cause us many problems with God – how can such a terrible act be so calmly and gladly acceptable?

The Rabbis of the Talmud (San 82b) struggle with the story too. The act of Pinchas is repugnant. Rabbi Yochanan deals with the problem by giving all the responsibility to God :

Rabbi Yochanan taught that Pinchas was able to accomplish his act of zealotry only because God performed six miracles: [First, upon hearing Pinchas’s warning, Zimri should have withdrawn from Cozbi and ended his transgression, but he did not. Second, Zimri should have cried out for help from his fellow Simeonites, but he did not. Third, Pinchas was able to drive his spear exactly through the sexual organs of Zimri and Cozbi as they were engaged in the act. Fourth, Zimri and Cozbi did not slip off the spear, but remained fixed so that others could witness their transgression. Fifth, an angel came and lifted up the lintel so that Pinchas could exit holding the spear. And sixth, an angel came and sowed destruction among the people, distracting the Simeonites from killing Pinchas. (B Talmud Sanhedrin 82b.)]

Pinchas becomes simply the conduit of God’s will, and his act of individual violence is subsumed under the divine plan. But this isn’t the only rabbinic struggle with the text: on the same page of Talmud we read that after Pinchas killed Zimri and Cozbi, the Israelites began berating him for his presumption, as he himself was descended from a Midianite idolater, Jethro. ..To counter this attack, God detailed Pinchas’s descent from the peaceful Aaron the Priest. And then God told Moses to extend a greeting of peace to Pinchas, so as to calm the crowd. (B Talmud Sanhedrin 82b.)]

Here the Rabbis show the Israelites shifting the responsibility for Pinchas’ actions not onto God, but onto Pinchas’ own mixed ancestry, implying that Pinchas maybe wasn’t quite ‘one of us’, his actions not those of a mensch.

In these examples we see that the Rabbinic tradition felt both a revulsion for what Pinchas did, and a need to transform the event in some way; to try to reconcile our disgust at his act, with God’s approval of it. While God may have valued Pinchas’ actions enough to offer him the reward of the priesthood, our tradition remains uncomfortable. We find reasons for this reward – it was given because the plague stopped, it is because he saved the people, it is for anything but the actual act of violent murder without judicial process that it seems to be.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is easier to the modern mind – in fact often the modern mind finds it hard to see the problem in the first place. Zelophehad has died and left no son. So who will inherit from him, and what will be the status of his five daughters?  It isn’t an issue for Moses either, until the daughters come before him to remind him of their existence and to request that they inherit the estate. Moses is so surprised he has no answer – this is simply not part of his world view – and he goes to God for a response.  Luckily God proves to be a feminist and the women get to inherit in their own right.  Today we find this solution to be clearly right. Yet for the Rabbis of the Talmud again they needed to explicate the result – the claims of gender equality were not part of their world, not noticed and not valued.

So we are told, for example: Rabbi Joshua taught that Zelophehad’s daughters petitioned first the assembly, then the chieftains, then Eleazar, and finally Moses” B Talmud Baba Batra 119b) as if it was their following due process was somehow the deciding factor in the decision.  We are also told in a Baraita that Zelophehad’s daughters were wise, Torah students, and righteous.  That they demonstrated their wisdom by raising their case in a timely fashion, just as Moses was expounding the law of levirate marriage; and they argued for their inheritance by reference to that law. (Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 119b.).

According to the midrash they saw the world very clearly, so that “When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes but not among the women, they convened to discuss the matter. They said, “God’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of humankind. Humankind favours men over women. God is not like that. God’s compassion extends to men and women alike…” ( Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas, 27; Sifri 27:1).

Both Pinchas and the daughters of Zelophehad caused real problems to the rabbis – they notice that Pinchas’ act of violence goes against all the values and rules of their world, yet it seems to be welcomed by God, so they struggled to signal their own disapproval, to reframe the act so that it is not possible for anyone else to repeat it, and to deal with the apparent delight of God. In this story they notice what is going on, and their job is to try to keep it together with the values and judgements they are hoping to transmit into the future.

The daughters of Zelophehad however are simply less visible or accessible to the rabbis, as they are clearly barely visible to Moses until they bring themselves forward. I would posit that because the idea of gender equality is not part of the ancient world view, they simply cannot conceive of it, even when it is presented to them with clarity and due process. They do not notice it and so they do not value it. One might add that in certain streams of the Jewish world that has not changed much! But that isn’t my point.

What I do want to say is this: What we do not notice for whatever reason, we do not value. And what we do not value for whatever reason, we do not notice. While something may be clearly apparent to someone else – think of Pinchas’ instinctive response to the actions of Cozbi and Zimri – if the tramlines of our mind don’t run on that route, we just won’t see it. And because Moses and the others didn’t see that they had to take action on the behaviour of the people rather than simply lecture them, they didn’t take any action and they didn’t value the action that was taken. It was left to God to show that Pinchas, while clearly hot-headed and over the top, was at least on the right lines. I have always felt that the reward of the covenant of eternal priesthood was at the very least an ironic reward – it would rein in the impulsive nature of a Pinchas into the very disciplined world of ritual purity and choreography and leave no space for him to behave that way again. God may have valued what Pinchas did, but he also noticed that such a zealous personality needed some serious boundaries – and so God provided them.

When Moses brings the request of the daughters of Zelophehad to God, the response is “The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly…”  Rashi explains that God was saying : “[As the daughters of Zelophehad spoke it] so is this section of Torah written before Me on high.” This informs us that their eyes saw what the eye of Moses did not see.” (on Num 27:7)

Moses is the greatest prophet who ever lived, and yet the daughters of Zelophehad apparently saw something that he did not see. Each of us notices and values what is of meaning and importance to us, and each of us can teach the others in our world about the things that have meaning for us, so that we can all learn to value and to notice what may otherwise go unvalued and unnoticed. If we teach each other to see what we can see, we increase the richness of our understanding of our world, and so grow closer to its Creator.

Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests …..

At the age of ten I went to live with my grandmother in Switzerland for a year. I can still remember handing over to her my shiny new stiff covered blue and gold British passport for safekeeping. She took it and held it, stroked its cover and opened it to the page which informed the world that Her Britannic Majesty requested my safe passage in the world. She told me how lucky I was to possess such a wonderful document and how I must never do anything to lose it.

I remember the scene vividly. We were standing together in her bedroom by the elegant Venetian writing desk she kept there. I remember her voice, the urgency of her words, and something else: something that communicated itself to me and resonates within me almost fifty years later.

At the time it seemed an important conversation and one I should pay attention to but I didn’t really understand why or what it was she was trying to communicate.

Now I do. My grandmother, the pampered only child of wealthy Berlin parents who grew up with all the advantages that money could buy in that cultured elegant world of the late 1800’s fell in love with and married a Jewish lawyer from Hannover in late 1922. With a young son, my father, born in 1924 they should have been set to live a comfortable and happy life together. My grandfather rose in the ranks of the legal system and was becoming a respected Judge, but within ten years of their marriage their idyll was ended as the political situation in Germany worsened and the Nazis, having come to power in January 1933 began to implement their policy of removing all Jews from public office and public service. My grandfather had no job, no position, and life became intolerable. They moved within Germany to another family home in Baden-Baden, suffering a kind of internal exile. My father was sent away to school first in Switzerland and then in the UK and on 9th November 1938 as the synagogue was destroyed by fire on Kristallnacht, and the men of the community humiliated in public, my grandfather was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp.

The story continues – of my grandparents fruitless attempts to protect extended family from being transported to the gas chambers. Of my grandmother’s extraordinary efforts to protect her husband and bring him to a family home in Switzerland which she achieved in 1939.Because of this they were stripped of their German nationality and became officially stateless. There are intrigues and horrors galore in the family archives, but the upshot was this. They left Germany having bribed and paid heaven knows what kinds of fines in money and kind, my grandfather desperately ill after the various arrests and incarcerations and beatings, my grandmother frantically learning how to deal with a world she had not been brought up to even imagine, and they ended up in French Switzerland living on favours from friends and from various refugee agencies, moving to ever cheaper accommodation, often with barely enough to eat or to warm themselves with, let alone pay the necessary medical bills. All the time they were uncertain as to how long they could take shelter in Switzerland, their papers were endlessly circulated among bureaucrats, their permissions to stay always temporary and for short periods. The last letter refusing any more extension of permission to stay arrived only two or so days before my grandfather died in 1950. His death certificate describes him as “sans papiers” – a man without papers, with no nationality or right to stay as citizen or even as refugee. His grave, provided by the Jewish community of Lausanne, is so modest that currently even his name is worn away.

My grandmother eventually took Swiss nationality, helped by the fact of a family home and presence in the country. She was grateful to Switzerland for giving her this eventual security. She was desperately grateful that her son had settled in England, been given British nationality and that his children too were under the protection of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government. She wanted me to know, without telling me any details of the story which we only fully uncovered years after her death, that the most basic security that had been denied to her and my grandfather was beyond precious. To be a refugee, a seeker of asylum running from a chaotic government that seeks your destruction is to have nothing and nowhere. It is destabilising, it prevents any normal development or relationship in life, it causes your family to scatter or worse, it means you scream in your sleep as you remember what your waking mind suppresses. To be a refugee and seeker of asylum is to be the most vulnerable kind of human being it is possible to be. Just holding onto identity, to remember the person inside you, not to fall apart into a dislocated existence takes all the energy and resilience one has.

Yesterday I took part in a day of study and prayer with imams and rabbis and priests, in a tent close to Harmondsworth detention centre. We called in Abraham’s Tent. We looked at the texts of our tradition that speak of caring for the vulnerable, the stranger, the one whose world has fallen apart and who looks for help from others. Yesterday we fasted, the coincidence of both Muslim and Jewish fast days with the concomitant introspection they call for gave us yet another dimension in common. I was proud to join with the others to draw attention to the conditions facing many of those who seek asylum in the UK and who find they can be detained indefinitely in what is essentially a high security prison, while the process to accept or reject their application grinds on. They are there not because of any criminal activity or intent, but because they have fled their own country, requested asylum in the UK, and their papers are not in order. We are the only country in Europe with no time limit on how long someone can be kept in detention while the process takes place. The treatment of vulnerable people, many of whom are already traumatised by earlier experiences that caused them to flee their own countries, is against the British values my grandmother so idolised. Tens of thousands of people are put into detention each year, with 30,902 entering detention in 2014 and the rate is increasing.

I am proud to hold a British Passport, and I am grateful. My grandfather died without any passport at all, despite having been an upholder of Justice all his life. I understand what my grandmother wanted me to know – to be stateless and without official identity or secure place to live is to truly have nothing, to be at the mercy of everyone and to feel no mercy at all. Surely in the UK it is time to treat all people with dignity and respect whether they ultimately receive the right to remain or not. It is time to limit indefinite detention to the all-party parliamentary group recommendation of 28 days and to remember that everyone in this system is a fellow human being.       #Time4aLimit

packing abrahams tent