Lech Lecha – leave the idolatry, an instruction we need to hear again and again

What happened before God told Avram “Lech Lecha: Leave, go out from your country and your family and from the house of your ancestors into the land I will show you….”. The text before has given us the genealogy so that we know that Terach was the father of Avram, Nahor and Haran. That Haran had died young in Ur Kasdim, leaving a son, Lot, and two daughters, Milcah and Iscah. That Avram and Nahor had married: Avram married Sarai and Nahor had married Milcah his niece. Sarai was childless, (Milcah we know from later in the book had eight sons (Gen 22))

Terach took Avram his son, and Lot his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law; and they left Ur Kasdim, to go into the land of Canaan; they came to a place rather confusingly called Haran, and they stayed there, and Terach died there.

Why had Terach left Ur Kasdim? Why did he not take all of his family with him? We cannot know, and the question sits tantalisingly as we read the genealogy that details the ten generations after Noah who himself is the tenth generation from Adam. Had God spoken to Terach and told him to leave? Was there some family issue? Maybe this is why we are told of Sarai’s infertility here, a condition which is all the more painful when we later find that her sister in law was producing son after son? Maybe after the death of one of his three sons he just had to leave and start again, taking the surviving grandchild with him, away from the place his father had died in so as to give him a better start. Maybe something happened and he had to leave the area with his less rooted and established descendants. But what? And whatever it was, why did Nahor and Milcah stay?

The book of Joshua gives us the peg on which the midrash can hang a back story: “Joshua said to all the people, thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel. Your ancestors dwelled in old times beyond the River, even Terach the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. And I took your father Abraham from beyond the river, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed and gave him Isaac”. (Joshua 24:2).

So the catalyst for Terach leaving with Avram, Sarai and Lot may have been something to with idolatry:- either that it was an established family practise that God needed to get them away from (presupposing that God had chosen Terach and Avram for the covenant) or that the family did something that challenged the idolatrous practise in Ur Kasdim, and so needed to leave to save their lives.

Hence we have the stories (found in Genesis Rabbah 38.13), of a young Abraham, having destroyed the idols in his father’s shop, telling his father that a woman had wanted to make an offering to the idols, but that the idols had argued over which one should eat first, and one idol had taken a stick and smashed the others. Terach’s response that they are only statues with no understanding elicits Abraham’s stinging rebuke to his father – “why are you worshiping them then”?

It is a powerful story, and often mistakenly found in books of bible stories as if of the same status, but it is really an indicator of the rabbinic dislike of idolatry rather than a likely explanation for why this branch of the family left their land and travelled south (in stages) towards Canaan.

Much of Judaism, from bible onwards, can be read as a polemic against idolatry and for the one-ness of the divinity. There is a constant suspicion of foreign influencers who will bring in the foreign practises of ‘avodah zarah’ (strange worship). What is very clear is that the battle was a continuing one, from which we can see that while worshiping YHVH/Adonai was something that the Israelites were well able to do, worshiping ONLY YHVH/Adonai was much harder. The prevalence of the rightness of having a multiplicity of gods for a multiplicity of purposes was deeply rooted in the psyche of the ancient world, and the Israelites were no exception. And this has remained true today. While we may look at the statues of Greek or Roman gods in the museums of the world and feel no resonance with them, we are not so different from the people who worshiped them sincerely. We too fall into the habit of not being true to the One God, we idolise all sorts of people or ways of being, or objects. We idolise ‘celebrities’ be they in the popular entertainment industry or writers/artists/scientists. We idolise the marketplace, or money and the people who own it. We idolise the products of the fashion industry, fantasise about unlikely and unrealistic situations, really believe that if we were thinner or prettier or more powerful in some way our life would be transformed. Sometimes we make a fetish of political positions, be they left wing or right wing, and we idolise religious leaders too – and that is possibly the most dangerous of all.

I have watched with mounting horror as a Jewish idolisation of Judaism – or at least of a particular interpretation of Judaism – has grown exponentially in my lifetime. It has become something not to help us to survive and to grow and to create security and goodness in the world, but a way of living to be fetishized and followed in cumulative minutiae. Somehow the texts and traditions have become distorted by increasingly narrow and strict interpretations that have managed to cloak themselves in the language of authenticity and normative usage. Somehow there is an idolisation of certain rabbinic leaders, who are treated as more than human, given powers that no rabbinic tradition would authorise or approve, a fetishisation that does not even disappear when they di e- indeed the death is not recognised in some way, the rabbi elevated instead to a kind of Elijah figure or even a messianic figure. Somehow the chumrah (the extra stringency that the very pious took on for themselves) has become the norm in many Jewish communities. And yet the more usual (and I would say authentic) Jewish tradition fights against this tendency, with, for example, the words of R. Isaac recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1) “do you think that what the Torah prohibits is not sufficient for you, that you take upon yourselves additional prohibitions?” Or the Babylonian Talmud discussing the Nazirite (Nazir 19a) which says “if the one who deprived himself only of wine is called a sinner then how much more so someone who deprives himself of all things”.

The word “orthodox” was brought into Judaism as a response to the “Progressive” or Reform Judaism that developed as a result of the enlightenment. The idea that Judaism has an orthodoxy is essentially an idea from outside of Judaism. It has always been a tradition that recorded debates rather than the results of debates, ideas to steer rather than rulings to stifle. In the ‘orthodox world’ today there are a multiplicity of different interpretations, customs, teachings, activities, beliefs, which shelter under the title of ‘orthodox Judaism’ merely to differentiate itself from a different and more open multiplicity of different interpretations, customs, teachings activities and beliefs sheltering under the rather less powerful ‘non-orthodox’ label. Indeed so diverse has orthodox Judaism grown, that the umbrella term is no longer enough. Now we have ‘ultra orthodox’, ‘hassidic’, ‘observant’, ‘traditional’ ,’modern orthodox’…. Each of which sees itself as the true and sometimes the only heir to Judaism. And each of which is vying for authority and authenticity by multiplying rulings, prohibitions designed to keep adherents away from the modern world, and concentrating power in the hands of the leadership.

Now I am not saying that we progressive Jews don’t also fall prey to idolatry – we tend to idolise social justice and tikkun olam over prayer, ritual and a deep relationship with God. We tend to fetishize universalism at the cost of a particular Jewish identity and lifestyle. Our Jewishness tends towards the culture and cuisine of our people and less towards studying and adopting its texts and scholarship. We all have a problem with idolatry – in that way we are just like our ancestors from biblical times onwards. So we need to return to the beginning. Lech Lecha – go, leave behind the lazy habits and the comfortable assumptions and following what others do, and go back to finding what God wants from us. Don’t leave that journey for others to tell you about, don’t fall into the common culture of everyone else, worshiping what we know to be false. Break the idols we have become dependent upon and leave them behind.

Noah: a cautionary tale to take us out of our comfort zone

Everyone knows the story of Noah. He was a good man, God gave him instructions to build a boat and he obeyed. He collected all the right kinds of animals, did everything God said, and so allowed a remnant of the original Creation to survive. When the flood waters finally abated, and God sent the rainbow as a sign, Noah and his family and the animals returned to dry land and got on with the business of repopulating the earth….

Well, that is the story we tell our children. And rainbows are a really beautiful image to put on our walls or use to represent diversity and natural benevolence; and anyway, it is a fairy tale isn’t it?

I have a real fondness for parashat Noah, not least because it is my own batmitzvah sidra, but that said, I also have enormous problems with it. Nobody comes out very nicely in the story of Noah. We begin with a list detailing the ten generations from Adam to Noah, and are told that in that ten generations humanity has created violence and corruption and destruction and brutality and bloodshed, so much that the whole world is awash with it. And God, who only ten generations earlier saw that the world was good, even very good, is now sickened and appalled and furious. God wants to wash the whole thing away. God wants out of the creation business. But not completely, it seems. Because there is a bit of God that is open to the understanding that wanton destruction won’t get entirely the result that God wants – God wants creation to keep going, just not like it currently appears. God is prepared to save the world.

But unfortunately, neither God nor Noah seem to have the ability to do anything rather than the obvious. The earth really is a dreadful mess and clearly something must be done to help it return to its divine purpose. According to the Midrash this world is not the first that God created, but that many worlds were created and destroyed when they did not turn out as intended – it is almost as if having made so many attempts God got tired of having to start right at the beginning yet again. But God still hadn’t quite got the hang of what else could be done when faced with a problem of this scale. And Noah, well Noah was not a great man, he is described as being “ish tzadik v’tamim b’dorotav” a man who was righteous and whole hearted in his generation”. What is the purpose of that qualifying phrase – in his generation. We know that the generation was appalling – was Noah just a bit less appalling? Compared with the others, Noah was a Tzaddik?

Noah doesn’t speak. Not ever. He doesn’t ask any questions of God, he certainly doesn’t argue with God (unlike Abraham who will come ten generations later), he doesn’t go out to the populace to warn them, he doesn’t even talk to his wife and children about it. He just gets on with the commandment – he will save himself and his family and the animals according to God’s instructions.

We are told about Noah that he walked with God. It is as if there is no space between them, they are confluent and therefore unable to see another viewpoint. Even the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden had more about them than Noah. Maybe if he had asked his wife the story would have been different!

To compare Noah once again with Abraham, Abraham did not walk WITH God, he was told by God to ‘walk before me and be wholehearted” – in other words, by the time of Abraham, ten generations after Noah, God had understood the need for Creation to be separate, to grow away and develop into who they must be. It was a lesson first given at Eden, but it took both God and humanity some time to absorb and act upon it. That God must be God and that we must be fully us. We are different. We will not always see the same way, we will not experience the world in the same way, and God will see things that we do not, and will never be able to understand. In the same way, we will see things our way, follow our instincts or our desires even knowing that our choices are not God’s choices. people have free will to be able to do things they shouldn’t. That is the deal.

But we haven’t really got there yet, here in the second weekly reading of Torah, only ten generations away from Creation. Here in this text we meet a God who has much to learn about relating to Creation, and we meet a human being who has much to learn about their own possibilities in relating to God. We have a God who responds to violence with violence. A human who seems to find it perfectly acceptable not to challenge that, who seems to have no problem with wholesale destruction, of the punishment of the innocent with the guilty. Tradition ascribes to Noah the position of toddler in the relationship with God, meaning that he is powerless in the relationship, but that certainly isn’t my experience of toddlers! – Noah simply isn’t up to the job of challenging God and putting a robust argument for the defence of the world because he, like we, is flawed. And he hasn’t had a long tradition of ethical argument to fall back upon, he has no role models of note, he is living in a dangerous world and he is afraid. Noah never really overcomes that fear. Even after the floods are gone and he is back on the cleansed earth, his first act is to sacrifice some of the animals he has saved in order to appease the divine power and to give thanks for the survival of his own family – an act which clearly exasperates God. The only other thing we are told about him is that he plants a vineyard, makes wine, and spends his declining years as a drunk, presumably because he cannot face the horror of what has happened to the world, the pain of his loss and the knowledge of his own inadequacy. He has learned an agonizing and heart-rending lesson about himself and about God. And it will be his descendants who will take the learning forward, Noah himself cannot.

God, however, can and does learn. God immediately repents of the destruction of the flood, takes responsibility, promises not to bring about such devastation by water again. And God gets involved with people, learning to relate to them, learning to see them as separate individuals with their own authenticity and validity. After catastrophe comes something quite amazing – acceptance of each others flaws, readiness to learn and to be, divine and human consideration of each other. So when humans once again become arrogant and dangerous, determining to build a tower to rival heaven, preferring the symbols of technology and empire to the humanity of each other, then God once more steps in, but this time creates diversity and difference, rather than trying to force the world into one narrow way of being, at the expense of individual emergence.

By the end of sidra Noah, both people and God have found many ways to express themselves – not always constructively nor easily, but with a healthy multiplicity of being. And so the Torah readies us for endless possibility in the pathways to become who we really are – all of us in the world are betzelem elohim, made in the image of God.

Anti Slavery Day – the trading and trafficking of people is flourishing in 2015

This coming Sunday sees Anti-Slavery Day, a reminder that slavery is alive and well, a major global business exploiting vulnerable people and causing untold misery. Whether for sexual exploitation, forced labour, or people trafficking, it’s estimated that 800,000 people are traded annually.

In the ancient world slavery was unremarkable, and Hebrew bible is concerned only to regulate fair treatment of slaves, a view further developed in the rabbinic codes and responsa. While one cannot say bible condemns slavery, it does not condone the abuse of power by one person over another, and in Exodus we read “one who steals a person and sells them… shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:16) Modern day slavery steals people and traffics them for profit.   Globally there are estimated to be 27 million people treated in this way. What are we doing to address the abuse of so many people?

Heschel wrote that “Judaism is forever engaged in a bitter battle against a deeply rooted belief in fatalism” and suggested that our natural human state is of inertia, rather than of actively confronting social, moral and spiritual wrongs. He taught Judaism wants us to emulate Abraham, not in terms of faith, but in terms of his not conforming when something was wrong, but instead to “keep the way of God by doing righteousness and justice” and possibly even more importantly, to instruct his household and his descendants to do the same (Genesis 18:19)

I recognise the inertia; when we see such a complex and horrible problem as modern slavery we simply cannot begin to comprehend it, relying on our politicians or various institutions to deal with it on our behalf. And I see that those to whom we have delegated responsibility are also overwhelmed, and so slavery and trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable people far from home is able to flourish. Even here, in the UK; even now in 2015.


The biblical “people stealer” is still with us.  Why are we, the Jewish community, whose foundational texts these are, not doing more to stop people trafficking, forced labour, and the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people? We are commanded to protect the powerless. So let’s fight the inertia and act!

image from http://www.stopthetraffik.org/uk

Shabbat Bereishit: the yahrzeit of Rabbiner Regina Jonas

Fraulein Rabbinerin Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained Rabbi in modern times, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 and her name and story submerged until the fall of the Berlin Wall meant that some of her papers were retrieved and studied.


Her story is a complex one. We know tantalisingly little about her; there are some basic facts about her birth and parentage. She grew up in a poor part of Berlin, and after the early death of her father when she was only eleven years old, she, her older brother and her mother became ever poorer. She lived amongst Jews from Eastern Europe, whose religious practise was orthodox (as was hers). In her teens she found the comfort of the synagogue, and never really left. The rabbi helped her to take her Jewish studies to a level where she could make a living teaching, and so she supported her widowed mother and herself as best she could, and she continued to study, and she dreamed of rabbinic ordination, writing her thesis on the subject “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?” and proving to her own satisfaction that according to Halachah the answer was ‘yes’

While her thesis was sound, academic scholarship was no match for centuries of misogyny and custom. Her teachers would not ordain her as a Rabbi. She was the victim of a collision of circumstances- her teachers did not want to cause a problem in the wider Jewish community by going outside of orthodox tradition and ordaining a woman. The conditions in Germany in 1933 were preoccupying the German Jewish world as they cast about looking for a rational response to an insane situation. More than that, she was an orthodox woman studying at a Liberal institution. She was widely perceived as being ‘strange’, a woman who did not care about her looks, an academic whose mind did not deal with frivolity, a radical and transgressive figure who yet wore the clothes of convention and tradition. She challenged many social and religious norms, demanding her right and coping with what was clearly some hostility towards her. She was said to be a good teacher, a good pastoral worker, yet even with the dwindling number of rabbis in Germany she could not find a community willing to take her. Her work took place in the old age homes and the hospitals – the traditionally gendered “caring” roles.

Regina Jonas comes across as an isolated and lonely figure, a trailblazer and pioneer who did not however achieve a following in her lifetime. Yet she did not give up. She worked wherever she could, and before deportation to Theresienstadt she ensured that her papers would be lodged in the archive from where some fifty years later they would emerge. She deposited photos of her in her rabbinical gown, her ordination certificate and some press cuttings. She held on to a hope that she would be remembered, not go nameless and forgotten into the future.

She worked in Theresienstadt for two years, teaching, giving a series of lectures, acting pastorally and rabbinically and working in the team of the famous psychoanalyst Viktor Frankel – her job was to meet the trainloads of shocked and frightened Jews transported to the ghetto and to try to comfort them. She worked hard and with great dedication for two years until she too was sent to Auschwitz where she was later murdered.

Her date of deportation was 12th October 1944. It was Shabbat Bereishit, the first Sabbath after Simchat Torah, when we finish the book of Deuteronomy with the death of Moses and the transition in leadership to Joshua and we immediately begin to read the book of Genesis with its universal story of the creation of the world.

On Shabbat Bereishit we learn that leaders die but leadership goes on. That ideas are stronger than individuals. That out of endings come new beginnings.

We don’t really know very much about Regina Jonas except what we can try to piece together from scant evidence and tiny remnants of memory. Having been officially forgotten from 1942 until the early 90’s she has re-emerged, as ambiguous and as perplexing as she seems to have been in life.

We progressive women rabbis have taken her for a standard. She has become “the first woman rabbi”. Her story reads as a cautionary tale for the rest of us – will we too disappear after working so hard to achieve, after caring so much, after labouring at the coal face of the community rabbinate?

Anger has been expressed at her ‘disappearance’ from the narrative when so many who knew her or knew of her never bothered to pass the information on to the next generation of women studying rabbinics who felt so lonely, so trailblazing, so exposed. There is the sense that if only we had known about her when studying ourselves, we would have been able to speak of her and so be comforted by her earlier initiatives. She would have stood between us and the void of women rabbis in history.

We have taken her for a standard, and now we have adopted Shabbat Bereishit for her yahrzeit, the probable date of her death. In Bereishit we read the two stories of creation – the first where women are created equal to men and at the same time as them; the second where woman is created from the side of the first man to become ezer k’negdo, a help and an opposition to him.   Regina Jonas’ life expresses so many ideas in this Torah reading, read both on Simchat Torah and the following Shabbat – it is almost as if it were bashert. The way she lived her life demands of us that we take seriously the questions she posed to the conventions and community of her time as we look at how those questions are asked and answered in our time and communities.    But maybe we should also be more honest and say that Regina Jonas is not the forerunner of women in the non-orthodox rabbinate – she is really the forerunner of women in the orthodox rabbinate. That now there are women with orthodox semicha is exciting, though there is still a long way to go for them to be much more accepted than Regina Jonas was when she finally received her semicha eighty years ago.

Eighty years – twice times 40, the signifier of “a long time”. Eighty years, the biblical length of a long life. And so much has happened since her ordination. The number 80 is signified by the letter Peh. It is an explosive sound. It means an opening or a mouth. The Torah is both written text (bich’tav) and oral (she’b’al peh). It give me some satisfaction that at 80 years since ordination there are women rabbis in every stream of Judaism. Regina Jonas’ mouth continues to open and to teach, and each of us embroiders what we hear.

After prayer, introspection, critique and teshuvah, the time for action is now

The Jewish year has a number of cycles, and one cycle has just concluded – from the seventeenth Tammuz which happens three weeks before Tisha b’Av in the early summer time, till Shemini Atzeret /Simchat Torah, the conclusion of the Yamim Noraim, more than thirteen weeks later, we have been focusing on how our behaviour impacts upon the world, how what we do really matters. The destruction of the Temple and the Exile from Israel in the year 70CE was caused, according to our tradition (and firmly based in the historical narrative) on “sinat hinam” – acts of causeless hatred, where Jews betrayed other Jew; Individuals did not value others; Greed and selfishness overtook care and compassion. With the effects of the destruction of Jerusalem resonating in our souls we go through the summer and on to the high holy days mindful of the words of Talmud Sanhedrin 37a    “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if they destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if they saved an entire world.” The text goes on to make clear that the destruction and the saving are not necessarily of the life itself, but of the quality of that life.

Simchat Torah ends this particular cycle – while of course also beginning another, that of the weekly progression of readings from the scroll. But Simchat Torah now also marks for us the greater focus on the outcomes of the Yamim Noraim – the importance of repairing the world, of righteous behaviour and of acts of compassion – the three Jewish principles of Tikkun Olam, of Tzedek and of Gemilut Hasadim.

For a quarter of the year, from the middle of Tammuz, through Av, Ellul and more than half of Tishri we have been prompted through liturgy and festivals to consider repeatedly about how we are behaving in the world, reminded again and again that there are consequences and impacts arising from our choices. We have drilled down from the sweep of Jewish history into the capacities of each individual soul to enact change both for themselves and for the world. And now, with Simchat Torah and the return to the beginning of bible, which reminds us of our universalistic beginnings, of God as Creator of the whole world, interested in every person and every action, it is time to change our focus back to the wider world in which we live. We have thought hard about our own failings and tried to make ourselves better, now it is time to try out our newer better selves, to go into the world and try to make a difference. As the new year of Torah readings begins, they nudge us to find something new and pertinent in the familiar. There is much to do close to home – be it working for our communities so that everyone feels valued and becomes connected. Be it working for more fairness in the workplace, for the safety and security of those who find themselves lost or in poverty, or homeless. And from within our own community we can also work to help those further away, the refugees currently risking their lives while fleeing terrible circumstances in their own country, the dispossessed and isolated because of war or disease. We can add our voices to those who protest where humanity is cruel or thoughtless to others, we can demand of our leaders that they behave according to the values they say they espouse.  We remind ourselves of the teaching in the Talmud Sanhedrin 37a    “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if they destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if they saved an entire world.” The text goes on to make clear that the destruction and the saving are not necessarily of the life itself, but of the quality of that life.

olive harvest rhr

The time for contemplation is over, the time for action is now

image from rabbis for human rights co-ordinating volunteers to help Palestinian farmers harvest their olives.

We need folks to sign up to join us for the harvest THIS Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. For those of you who have already signed up, now is the time for you to work with our office to specify a date. Please email info@rhr.israel.net or call 02 678 3876 to sign up. Dates are also available until Nov 6th.