Chanukah and Christmas: chocolate coins and presents as we celebrate God in the world

On Tuesday evening Jews all over the world will light chanukiot, the 8 branched candelabra used to celebrate the festival of Chanukah. It commemorates the regaining of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE, and its rededication after the occupying Seleucids had defiled it while imposing Hellenic culture over its empire, prohibiting any other religions.  The story of the successful revolt by a small group of pious Jews against the large military power of its day has a touch of the miraculous, and sure enough the narratives first found in the apocryphal first two Books of Maccabees have evolved in their retelling, well beyond the original event.

The dark threads of the story are eclipsed by the reframing in the Talmud, which saw Chanukah as less of a human story of oppression and guerrilla warfare, and more as a demonstration of the divine presence in history. So today we celebrate the miracle of oil staying alight for 8 days rather than one, and we eat foods cooked in oil and play games of chance that refer to the miracle, we give presents each night and generally make merry with friends and family, and think very little of the origin of the rebellion against assimilation with the dominant power.

The date of Chanukah – 25th Kislev – moves around the calendar a little but is always around Christmas. And the date is not the only similarity. Both are festivals rooted in pagan winter solstice where lighting the surrounding darkness is central. Both use tree symbolism – the Chanukiah is based on the Temple Menorah, which bible describes using botanical terms – clearly a Tree of Life, while Christmas uses evergreens – holly, ivy, fir trees – to proclaim Everlasting Life. Both stories are set in times of oppression – the Seleucid Empire and the Roman one, and both embed hope that human oppression is vanquished by divine activity. Both signal God’s presence in the world and both stories have a mythic quality of redemption.

And there are other similarities. In modern times the minor post-biblical festival of Chanukah has taken on some less wholesome aspects of Christmas in a bid to compete for Jewish attention.  Both now struggle against commercialisation overpowering their religious message, both become overindulgent. On Chanukah the ‘gelt’ that began as a way to give children small change to use when playing dreidl quickly grew into a present every evening, as more assimilated communities noticed the joy that Christmas presents brought. Chocolate coins took over. What can you do when your child looks at all the glittering baubles with awe and desire? The festival marking rejecting the dominant culture has assimilated it perfectly. As my young son said to his friend when discussing their different Decembers – “What? ONLY ONE night of Christmas? Poor you”

 This article first published in the London Evening Standard on 11th December 2017

Vayeshev – the transformation from brat to tzadik begins here

The narratives of Joseph occupy a large tranche of the book of Genesis – in the next four weeks we will focus almost entirely on the life and the experiences of this eleventh son of Jacob and first son on Rachel.  By the end of the book of Genesis we’ll know more about Joseph than about anyone else in his family before or since. We’ll know about his dreams, his relationships, his skills, his political exploits, his love affairs, his character flaws and strengths, his successes and his failures; his problems.

The narratives about him are long and somehow ponderous, telling the stories repeatedly, hammering the same points – the sibling rivalry, the parental favoritism, the tricks of hiding precious articles and retrieving them later;   It is hard to understand just why we are told every last detail about the life of this particular man, what we are supposed to make of this weight of information.

Tradition tells us that the stories of Joseph foreshadow the future experiences of Israel.  Reading the text we see that they also reconcile many of the themes that have come before. Joseph acts as a linchpin in the Genesis narratives – reliving and reworking the lives of his ancestors, and finally dealing with some of the issues which had held them back, finishing the business so to speak, and so allowing the people of Israel to move on in their religious journey.

The narratives of Joseph end one chapter of identity and open another.  No longer will individuals know God in the way that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob personally experienced and encountered the Divinity.  With Joseph comes the exile into Egypt which will culminate in Sinai and peoplehood.  A different sort of belonging to God is introduced here – one can not really say people are ‘relating to God,’ because in all of these narratives God is at one remove, a spectator in the story, hardly present except in the shadows at the edge of perception.

The metamorphosis which occurs with the life of Joseph is almost entirely a human one rather than one that speaks of divine interest – though it does have a flavour of fairy tale to it Political rather than theological, the transformation is very much of this world:-  A family changes radically when the favourite child falls victim to his own beliefs.  A poor immigrant succeeds beyond his wildest expectations in his adopted country.  A servant becomes a political master, changing the way the country structures itself and its socio-economic policy.  A slave becomes a prince.  A penniless Jewish refugee with no family or friends builds himself a life amongst a people not his own.

With Joseph we have a new construct with which to view our lives.  He is a Diaspora Jew, maybe even a secular Jew, certainly a political rather than a theological Jew.  Elie Wiesel describes him as “the first person to bridge two nations and two histories, the first to link Israel to the world…. In the context of the biblical narrative he was a new kind of hero heralding a new era…”  (in ‘Joseph, or the Education of a Tzaddik’ – Messengers of God p144/5

So not a patriarch, but certainly a recognizable human being and role model, giving us a different way of being.  Our problem in many ways is that we are far more like Joseph than like anyone else in the narratives – building our world on a political rather than theological basis, allowing God to be a spectator in our lives, at the margins of our identity.  Joseph is a role model with outstanding flaws for us to deal with, focusing so entirely on the present world that he seems to ignore the next one, becoming not so much integrated between two cultures as appearing to be assimilated into one almost without trace of his origins visible.

Yet Joseph is described in tradition as a Tzaddik – a Just and Righteous person.  The weight of the narrative must be trying to tell us something more – Joseph’s position as the mid point between the clearing up of past rivalries and the foreshadowing of future exile and oppression must yield more for us.  Again it is Elie Wiesel who identifies the critical point – “One recognizes the value of a text by the weight of its silence. Here the silence exists, and it weighs heavy…. “ First there is Joseph’s astounding silence during the brutal scene at Shechem, in which all his brothers except Benjamin participated.  When his brothers faced him with their hate – Joseph was mute.  More striking yet is Jacob’s silence – from the day that Joseph was taken we are told, he did not speak for 20 years.  He didn’t even speak to God.  He didn’t search for his son, didn’t go to the place where his son was last seen – he lived instead in a solitary, silent place, only resuming his conversation with and prayers to God after the family reunion, when God encouraged him to go to Egypt.

And what do we make of God’s actions – God too is silent.  Jacob didn’t address God in his interminable inconsolable grief, but neither did God address Jacob.

And Joseph in Egypt, as wealthy political potentate – where were his words, the one’s he could have sent back to Canaan to tell of his life’s story and put his father’s mind at rest?

All the words that began this story, the terrible words that Joseph spoke about his brothers, the words of peace they could barely bring themselves to utter, the words of his dreams, the words he was to bring back to his father – all those words at the beginning of Joseph’s stories descended into silence when Joseph descended into the pit, and the silence became heavier and heavier until the moment of the family reunion in Egypt, until Joseph could no longer suppress the words, no longer restrain himself.  But this time his words were changed, they became the words of a man who had transformed himself, not just from the arrogant sibling who considered that the universe should worship him, into  caring and beneficent brother;    not just from immigrant slave to ruling prince.  The transformation was from spoiled and self-centered brat into Tzaddik, a man able to forgive the wrongs done to him, a man able to transcend his history and reflect not only his humanity, but the reflection of God that is at the core of all humanity.   The heavy silence was not a time of nothingness but a time of real change, change that ultimately allows us to move on from the preoccupations of this world – the rivalries and jealousies, the acquisitiveness and the defence of the self – and move into the book of Exodus, into the beginning of the redemption.

Tradition tells us that Joseph was a Tzaddik.  A Tzaddik not because God had made him one, not because he was brought up to be one, not even because his life inevitably trained him to be one.  Joseph was surely a Tzaddik because in the face of the pain of his conception and the difficulties of his upbringing, in the face of his own weaknesses and drives,  he still managed to overcome his experiences and actually transform himself, actually allow his humanity to develop, to become something he didn’t have to be, without any supernatural help.  Everyone else changed as a result of their encounters with God. Joseph changed despite not encountering God in any observable way.  As a role model, this is the Joseph we should be reflecting – not the assimilated but the searching Jew, who found God in the unlikeliest places because God is there to be found.

 

Vayishlach: we all struggle with who we are to become our best selves

 

Genesis 32:25

(25) Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

בראשית ל״ב:כ״ה

(כה) וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃

What happened at the Ford of Jabok was critical in Jacob’s life leaving  him physically marked for life and with another name. He was alone, yet a ‘man’ wrestled with him till dawn. Who that ‘man’ was is open to interpretation but Jacob is in no doubt – he names the place P’niel because he has met God face to face.

The Bible gives a dubious etymology for Jacob’s new name, Israel, but what is important is the meaning given – one who struggles with God and with other people, and is able to do so.

We take this name for ourselves; we are Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and our defining characteristic is that we too must wrestle with God and with our world and make something of ourselves in that struggle.

Judaism is a religion of enquiry; questions are met with more questions, not with definitive answers. Despite the systematizing work of Saadiya Gaon and Maimonides who responded to the doctrines of Christianity and Islam, Judaism remains a religion of deed, and not of creed. We must keep on engaging with ideas, imagining possibilities, wrestling with God and with our world, in order to be truly alive.

This dynamic tradition of enquiry and analysis has kept us going over the centuries, adapting where necessary, accepting knowledge from outside sources and bringing it into our world view. It is the life-source of progressive Judaism, as we keep our minds open to the world and its knowledge while grappling with our texts and their questions.

Jacob at Jabok is a metaphor for us in so many ways – fearful of the unknown future, struggling with the temptation to run back to the familiar, yet ultimately moving forward carrying the wounds of our struggle with us. I’m proud to belong to a tradition that eschews doctrine and dogma, demands we struggle with God and with ourselves, and helps us aspire to be our best selves.

 

 

 

Vayetzei: The Importance of Awe

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know”. He has a sense of wonder, and he expresses it:  “How full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”

The phrase “Ma nora ha’makom ha’zeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim” (How full of awe is this place, this is none other than the house of God”) is part of the stonework on the exterior of the synagogue I   grew  up in, and as one walked in and looked up, that is the sentiment one felt – even though it is situated in what is now inner city Bradford, on a less than salubrious road.

The religious message I received as a child was bound up in this synagogue, in the community of people and in the building they worshipped in. It was a two-fold message- Firstly that we can encounter God wherever we are, for God is always ‘in this place’ as are we, and often we do not notice how close God can be to us.

Secondly it was made clear that awe is a necessary instinct;  God is beyond our comprehension or reason, and we must respect that reality. We have to live with not being able to control God or demand from God or expect to understand God.

When we pray, what are we really doing?

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a scholar, theologian and social activist. He wrote “the predicament of prayer is twofold: not only do we not know how to pray, we do not know what to pray for.  We have lost the ability to be shocked.”

Heschel also suggested that we have overemphasized intellectual ideas when we think about religion, and that we also overemphasise religious belief; For Heschel religion is more like a way of being in the world, a way of facing life and dealing with it.

In Judaism, ‘Believing’ is not the most important thing for a religious Jew, but Awe, or the ability to be shocked is the fundamental requirement.  The bible talks of the religious person as one who is yirat Adonai, or yirat shamayim – in awe of God or in awe of heaven. Without a sense of awe, without the ability to be shocked or moved by what we see around us, we can never really move on to encounter God, or develop a sense of faith.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told in my rabbinate that someone doesn’t really believe in God;  the number of apologies that somehow come my way. I never quite know as a rabbi how to help people to believe in God if that is what they think they want, but what I am sure of is that the beginning of such a journey is Awe.

When Jacob first encounters God he notices how the place is filled with Awe, and he had not understood it. It takes time, and possibly even a certain vulnerability for us to open ourselves to noticing God.

Many of our services begin with the phrase “v’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon” usually translated as “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favourable time”, but it is more complex than that, meaning something more like and I am my prayer to you God at a favourable time”. We are in fact our own prayers – if only we would let ourselves be so. Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote “Meeting God can be simple, but nothing can happen if we do not will it. If we seek God then God can be found. God will allow us to find God if we seek with all our will” (RSGB Machzor p 312)

 

One of the lessons from this sidra is how easy it is not to notice how close God can be to us if we do not choose to open ourselves to the possibility.  And we sometimes need help to do this. Beautiful places, whether natural or built by human beings, can help us catch the numinous. Too narrow a focus on what we are doing, our goals and aspirations, our desire not to look back – all can stop us being aware and in the moment.

The ability to be shocked, to notice and to understand the implications of what has become normalised – this is the skill we need to nurture. The ability to be moved by what we see and hear, rather than to blot it out or cover it with our own inner monologue. Jacob left his comfort zone when he left his home, and only then did he meet God. We may not need to leave our homes, but we too need to go out as he did – vayetzei – and begin to pay attention to all we have ignored.bradford interior

 

 

 

 

 

Toledot: the family ties that bind a people together

 Jewish history is told in terms of Jewish family. We chart our progress through the generations, marvelling at how we are able to adapt and to change, to move countries and to begin again, yet never having to begin at the beginning – we take with us the wisdom and the tradition of our ancestors to support and nourish us as we add our own experiences and our own lives to the chain.

We are part of an eternal covenant.  Since Abraham’s first encounter with God that set him off on his journey as an Ivri (one who passes over into a new place), and since the encounter at Sinai when the whole Jewish people – (including all who were yet to be born and all who would willingly join with us) – we have been a family with a powerful tradition that has enabled us to retain our identity despite huge shifts in geography, language, autonomy, and cultural expression.  Whenever one tries to dissect and define Jewish identity, there is immediately a problem that no absolute characterization can be agreed upon – there are secular and religious Jews, culinary and cultural Jews, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Italkit and Romaniot;  there are Jews who passionately believe in a personal God and others who are passionately agnostic. What binds us is the notion of peoplehood – specifically that of toledot – of family.

The word itself comes from the root to give birth, yet we first find it early on in the book of Genesis when God is creating the world: –  אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם:  בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים–אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם.:

“These are the generations (toledot) of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Eternal God made earth and heavens.  (Gen 2:4). 

The term is clearly much more than the physical giving birth – it has to do with developments, with outcomes, with the next stage, and virtually every time it is found in the book of Genesis it has a transitional function, introducing the new and concluding the story of the old.  In the ten passages in which the word is used in Genesis, each time there is an important liminal point –a break but at the same time a kind of continuation.   So for example we have the toledot of the creation of the world which is then left to run, the toledot of Adam whose sons bring chaos into the world, the toledot of Noah, upon whom rest the hopes of mending the world, of the three sons of Noah who are the founding ancestors of the known world, and then the specific genealogy of Shem from whom we descend and which takes us to Abraham. Then we have the generations (toledot) of Abraham, of Ishmael, of Isaac, of Esau and finally of Jacob.

I find it deeply interesting that the bible gives us the generations not only of the line from whom we ourselves descend, but also of those who are connected to us but who are no longer “of” us.  The recording of the other genealogical threads reminds us of what is truly important:- that there is family and family, connections and bonds, and some are closer and others less so, but we are ultimately all one humanity even when our stories and our lineages diverge.

The story today begins with the toledot of Isaac, but is really interested in the fate of his younger son Jacob.  And it is Jacob, shortly to be renamed Israel on account of his own encounter with God, who is the ancestor from whom we generate our own history. In this sidra Jacob is given two blessings by his father: the first is the blessing of the first-born that his father had intended for Esau, the second is given to him as he departed for Paddan Aram to find a wife for himself and to begin a new life. One blessing was about the recognition and importance of the ancestral tradition of covenant, the other was about striking out into new territory. One was concerned with material well being, the other about spiritual direction and the future of the Jewish people.

What becomes clear is the inextricable link between past and future, that to try to have one without the other is to misunderstand the nature of Jewish identity.  And what becomes clear too is that each new generation has to find their journey and their meaning for themselves, building upon what has been given to them by their parents and grandparents, but creating something new as well, to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

Our history really is about toledot – the concluding of the story of one generation and the new story of the next loosely threaded onto it.  With each new generation there is always going to be change, but at the same time we know that the fundamental blessings continue down the years, and that while some of the paths seem to disappear over the horizon and out of our sight, that is only to be expected and accommodated.

We do the best we can in our own generation, and we trust the ones who come after us to have their own encounter to add to the richness that is passed on.  Isaac cannot ever have expected the boy he named from youth as Ya’akov – the bent one, the one who clung to the heel of his brother, the one who delayed – to become Yisrael, the one who struggles with God and overcomes.

 

Chayei Sarah: how Sarah’s legacy got lost or “undermining the pillars of the women’s gallery”

As we read about the death of the first matriarch, the woman chosen to transmit the promise through her son with Abraham, the woman who “made souls” along with her husband, the woman who laughed at God, it seemed a good time to post an article I wrote in the 1980’s for the first book by women rabbis in the UK – “Hear Our Voice”.  The article was entitled “Undermining the pillars that support the women’s gallery: an examination of the foundations of the custom of segregated seating” and examines and lays bare the paucity of reasoning and of sources for this custom that keeps so many of Sarah’s daughters out of public space and public dialogue.

“As women slowly gain an increased profile and greater power in the management of synagogues, they find themselves disadvantaged within its religious expression. In some cases they are literally hidden from view, their presence screened over and muted.

The reasons given for this are fourfold:

  1. That it is a biblical/rabbinic prohibition for men and women to sit together in worship
  2. That in Temple times there was a separate women’s courtyard (Ezrat Nashim) and a synagogue by Talmudic principle is a sanctuary in miniature (mikdash me ‘at)
  3.  That male worshipers would become distracted from fulfilling their obligations to pray, if they had to do so in mixed company
  4.  That it is the long established custom and practice for Jews to worship in this way, and to change it would be to “Christianize” the synagogue

Tracing the phenomenon of separate seating – and in particular of Mechitza, (the separating screen) – what emerges is that the historical, legal and theological case for such behaviour is not at all substantial. This is surprising, given the vigour with which it is promulgated and defended.

What is the legal source for the prohibition?

In the responsa literature there is some debate as to whether the separation of the sexes (and how it is to be done) is a biblical prohibition or a rabbinic one (and therefore less authoritative).

The few responsa that argue for a biblical prohibition find themselves unable to provide any verse whatever from Torah to underwrite the claim. The single biblical verse quoted to back up the claim for separation of the sexes being a biblical command in Zechariah (12:12)

“And the land shall mourn, every family apart.

The family of the House of David apart, and their wives apart.

The family of the House of Nathan apart, and their wives apart.”

The plain reading of the verse is that it is set within an oracle in which Zechariah describes the future Jerusalem. The city will be besieged by many nations, but God will strike them with madness and confusion. God will protect Jerusalem, destroying all who make war on her, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will mourn the nations they have “thrust through”. The mourning will be done family by family alone, and Zechariah goes on to name a number of households separately, and to state “and their women [will mourn] alone”

How can this be read as a biblical injunction not only for separate seating but for segregated seating – Mechitza? The logic would seem to be that if, in this quasi-messianic period, men and women were to be separated, and if they were specifically segregated during a period of terrible mourning, how much more should the separation be enforced in our corrupt times, and how much more so when the spirit is not depressed by sadness. For who knows what frivolity might be encouraged if men and women are allowed to be together?

As Moshe Feinstein wrote

“Nowhere do we find that this instance of future mourning was to be in the sanctuary….it therefore indicates that wherever men and women must gather, they are forbidden to be without a dividing Mechitza between them, so that they cannot reach a state of levity…..And so in our synagogues too….”[i]

Clearly this understanding is not the plain meaning of the passage in Zechariah, and clearly too Feinstein’s is a partial reading, as the issue of each family mourning separately is not developed into their behaviour at worship. More important however, is the fact that this source – the ONLY biblical text used to support segregation, comes not from Torah but from Nevi’im – the prophetic books. Feinstein deals &with this by writing:

“And even though its source in the Bible is a verse from the Prophets, in which the rule is that it cannot establish any biblical prohibition, here a biblical law can be derived from it, for it does not seek to originate any prohibition, but merely requires that mourning be observed in accordance with the [apparently pre-existing] scriptural law – men separate and women separate. We learn similarly of many biblical laws from the actions of the Prophets, Judges and Kings, out of verses quoted in passages of Oral Tradition” [ii]

In other words, Feinstein views this as coming under the category of received wisdom – i.e. that we can infer from the narrative the existence of an older law which is then assumed to be a biblical law. So had the text in Zechariah overtly prohibited men and women from mourning together it would not have been a biblical prohibition, but since it does not say that, then we can legitimately infer such a prohibition (!)

Leaving aside such convoluted processes, the main objections, that nowhere in the Bible is the separation of men and women in public worship or assemblies commanded,(and indeed we find many examples where men and women clearly do worship together, see below) and that the one verse that is even remotely applicable is in the Prophets, are not addressed.

So it would seem that the prohibition must be, in fact, a rabbinic one.    Many responsa, including those of Rav Kook, take this view.

If we look to the Talmud we find that it addresses the separation of men and women only in terms of the Ezrat Nashim (the women’s courtyard in the Second Temple), and of the great amendment made to the Tempe to accommodate the celebration of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva, the water libation ceremony which took place during Sukkot.

In the Second Temple there was a system of courtyards of increasing holiness, culminating in the Holy of Holies. One outer courtyard was ‘the Courtyard of the Women – Ezrat Nashim’, beyond which it is thought that women did not normally go.  Likewise there was a ‘Courtyard of the Israelites – Ezrat Yisrael’, beyond which men who were not of priestly descent did not normally pass.

The Ezrat Nashim, however, was certainly not a secluded and enclosed place designed only for the women, as a synagogue gallery is meant to be. It was a large outer courtyard where both sexes could mingle freely. It could not have been an area where women could go to pray quietly and separately, because the men had to pass through it to get to the courtyard of the Israelites and beyond.

Therefore we cannot deduce from the Temple architecture that the sexes were separated for the purpose of worship or assembly. Ezrat Nashim here means not a place reserved for the women, but the furthest point that the women generally went into the Temple (unless of course they were bringing a sacrifice to the priest)

Furthermore we know that the Ezrat Nashim was a busy place. Mishna Middot tells us:

“The Ezrat Nashim was 135 [cubits] in length by 135 [cubits] in width. And there were four chambers at its four corners each forty cubits square; they were not roofed over….And what purpose did they serve? The south-eastern one was the Chamber of the Nazirites, because there the Nazirites cooked their peace offerings, and cut their hair, and cast it beneath the pot; the north-eastern one was the Chamber of the Woodstore, and there the priests that were blemished searched the wood for worms, for any wood wherein a worm was found was invalid [for burring] upon the altar. The north-western one was the Chamber of the Lepers; the south-western one – Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said “I have forgotten what it was used for”, but Abba Saul says “there they stored the wine and the oil and it was called the Chamber of the House of Oil” [iii]

The place described scarcely sounds like the paradigm for separated and segregated seating, such as that above the main body of the synagogue in a balcony, or behind a mechitza. We come a little closer to such a possibility further on in the same mishnah:

“Originally [the Ezrat Nashim] was not built over, and[later] they surrounded it with a balcony so that the woman should look on from above and the men were down below in order that they should not intermingle. And fifteen steps went up from within it to the Ezrat Yisrael, corresponding to the fifteen degrees in the Book of Psalms, and upon them the Levites used to sing” [iv]

So a women’s gallery did exist for part of the time the Second Temple stood, and it was added after the Temple was built.    To find out why this structure was built we need to look at the mishnah and gemara in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah.

The mishnah reads:

“One who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water drawing (Simchat beit HaSho’eva) has never seen rejoicing in their life. At the conclusion of the first festival day of Tabernacles, they (the priests and the Levites) descended to the court of the women (Ezrat Nashim) where they had made a great enactment”

The gemara asks:

“What was the great enactment? R.Eleazar replied ‘As that of which we have learned. Originally [the walls of the court of the women] were smooth, but [later the court] was surrounded with a gallery, and it was enacted that the women should sit above and the men below.” Our Rabbis have taught. “Originally the women used to sit within [the Court of the Women] while the men were without, but as this caused levity it was instituted that the women should sit without and the men within. As this however still led to levity, it was instituted that the women should sit above and the men below”[v]

Note that the men and women swapped their quarters for the celebration, the men in the Court of the Women and the women in the smaller, inner Court of the Israelites.

So we have found the very first enclosure or gallery for women, but are left with two problems if we want this to be the source for the phenomenon either of separate seating or of mechitza.

First, the gallery spoken of in tractate Sukkah is of a temporary nature, erected only for this festival of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (a festival which has not been observed for centuries).

Secondly, there are always problems in drawing a parallel between the Temple and the synagogue. While a synagogue may be a miniature sanctuary[vi],many activities particular to the Temple are not transferred to the synagogue (for example, the use of musical instruments is not acceptable in an Orthodox synagogue).

There is no reason why this once-a-year change in seating so as to prevent an over-enthusiastic celebration should transfer to the synagogue as a permanent relegation of women to a gallery or separated enclosure.  As Steinsaltz wrote:

“Simchat Beit HaSho’eva; as well as it being a religious commandment to be joyful every festival it is a particular commandment to rejoice on the days of the festival of Sukkot and thus they used to do in the Temple. On the eve of the first day of the festival they would prepare a gezuztra (enclosure or balcony whose finished side faced upwards) in the Court of the Women, so that the men and women would not mingle, and would begin festivities at the end of the first day. And so it would be for each of the intervening days of the festival. From the time that the evening sacrifice was offered, they would rejoice and dance the rest of the day and all of the night”[vii]

This is scarcely the practice today.

If the Talmud only mentions separated and segregated seating in the setting of the annual erection of the gezuztra in the Court of the Women (from which we can also infer that the gezuztra was taken down for the rest of the year), where does the practice begin?

The Codes do not specifically discuss the special women’s galleries in synagogues. Neither the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (1135-1204) nor the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro (1488-1575) refer to such a thing. This could be for one of two reasons:

It could mean that the law referring to mechitza and the separation and segregation of women was so well known that it was pointless to codify it, or else it could signify that the law was not known at all.

Certainly there are many instances in the Bible where the women are involved in public worship. The earliest example is in Exodus 38:8 when we are told about the serving women who did service at the door of the tent of meeting. Other references can be found in Leviticus 12:16, the Prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:12, the Shunammite woman in 2Kings 4:23 and there are many more.

The book of Nehemiah contains a specific reference to Ezra the priest reading the Book of the Law “before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding…in the presence of the men and the women” (8:2-3) and in 2 Chronicles we are told:

“And all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women spoke of Josiah in their lamentations unto this day” (35:24-25)

Interestingly here we have a text which speaks of joint mourning, both men and women public lamenting, as distinct from the verse from Zechariah, used as a prop for the custom of separated worship.

We know too that the early Christians – who modelled themselves on contemporary Jewish observance – did not have separation of the sexes in worship. We read in Acts (1:13-14)

“These [male disciples] all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers”  Further sources are Galations 3:28, Romans 16:12 etc.

Professor Shmuel Safrai of the Hebrew University is clear “from numerous sources” that women attended synagogue in antiquity, but that “there were no women’s galleries or any other known form of sex separation in synagogues”. He acknowledges that there might have been some internal division of sexes (for example women seated to the side or to the back), but if there were “there are no contemporaneous sources to describe them”[viii]

The exhaustive survey of the remains of ancient synagogues by Bernadette Brooten[ix] backs up Safrai’s claim. Having examined synagogue remains from the ruin of Masada (first century) onwards, her conclusion is unequivocal. There is absolutely no archaeological evidence for a women’s gallery or a separate women’s section in ancient synagogues. Instead she found much evidence of the prior assumptions held by the archaeologists who investigated this subject. She writes:

In a lecture on the Galilean Synagogue ruins held on 16 December 1911 in Berlin, Samuel Krauss said to his audience: “Now that we are inside the synagogue, let us first of all – as politeness demands – looks for the rows of the seats of our dear wives, non the supposition that something will be found which could be viewed as the remains of a ‘Weibershul’ in the synagogue ruins”

Following the demands of politeness, Mr Krauss did look for, and did find, the remains of what he called the women’s gallery in the ancient Galilean synagogues. The majority of modern Judaica scholars and archaeologists follow Krauss in both method and result – i.e. they look for a women’s gallery and they find one.

An example: In Gamla (destroyed 67CE) the synagogue is approached in its southeast corner by stairs coming up the side of the hill. An article in the Biblical Archaeological Review states that these stairs ostensibly led to an upper [women’s] gallery….. Further excavation in 1979 revealed that these steps are a continuation of a road leading up the side of a hill to the synagogue, and are thus leading to the synagogue itself, rather than a gallery”

Bluntly stated, Brooten’s conclusion is that a number of Palestinian synagogues clearly never had a gallery, and of the few where a case was made for a gallery by the archaeologists, the evidence examined did not support such a hypothesis. In the case of side rooms in the excavated sites, the general rule seemed to be that if a gallery could not be imaginatively reconstructed, then the side room was perceived as the women’s area. Otherwise it was assumed to be storage or a school room.

So, given that there is no strong biblical, Talmudic or archaeological case for a women’s gallery or a separate women’s section, we are left with a mystery. Where does such a fixture (and custom) come from?

The earliest written source is from the thirteenth century. Mordechai ben Hillel haKohen (1240? – 1298), a German rabbi and author, who wrote a commentary on the Talmud. On a discussion about permitted and prohibited actions on the Sabbath he noted:

“It is forbidden to set up any screen whatever on the Sabbath, unless it is for chasteness in general…. But a screen for general chasteness is permitted. For example, we are permitted to erect on the Sabbath the partition curtain between men and women, which is set up during the time of the rabbi’s sermon”[x]

Mordechai is using an existing practice to illustrate his point about work on the Sabbath. This is the first we know of such a practice, and it clearly shows that normally the women were not segregated within the synagogue, and that the segregation of men and women was done only to prevent impropriety during a sermon when the synagogue building was full.  By the time of R. Jacob ben Moses Moelin(Cremona 1565) the curtain is said to have been made from prayer shawls, strung across the room to form a divide[xi]

Other responsa on the subject of the separation and segregation of women in the synagogue all stem from the mediaeval period or later. For example Rashi (1040 -1105), commenting on a Talmudic passage which is dealing with men and women being alone together, says, “Where men and women come together either for the sermon or for a wedding, he should arrange earthenware jugs between them so that if they approach each other these would make a noise”[xii]

The Yalkut Shimoni (a midrashic work dating from the first half of the thirteenth century) cites the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu Rabba (a midrashic work composed in the second half of the tenth century, probably in Southern Italy) as follows:

“A man should not stand among women and pray, because he is likely to be distracted by the presence of women”[xiii]

It would seem that at some point in mediaeval times the notion of men being distracted from their obligatory prayer by the presence of women (also praying?) took hold. What was a problem in Second Temple times only during one very energetically celebrated festival became a problem for the Jewish community permanently. What remains unclear is – why?”

Several theories have been advanced. The dispersing of the Jewish population in Europe as the Crusades swept through Europe in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries may have forced a hardening of attitudes towards the women, in common with the non-Jewish world outside. Some scholars believe that it is the influence of Islam on Judaism, which has encouraged it to hide its women away [xiv]

Possibly the separation and segregation was done to protect the women in some way. Certainly the separated and segregated seating is required only when there is an halachic obligation to gather, and so for weddings for example there is no need for such a partition. In the same way as the Talmudic law works on the principle that women do not need to put themselves in danger by exposing themselves to a dangerous situation in order to fulfil a religious commandment, the separating and segregating may have been a technique to protect those who were seen as the vulnerable sex.

Israel Abrahams wrote:    In the separation of the sexes the synagogue only reflected their isolation in the social life outside. The sexes were separated at Jewish banquets and home feasts no less than in the synagogue. If they did not pray together, neither did they play together. The rigid separation of the sexes in prayer seems not to have been earlier however, than the thirteenth century. The women had their own court in the temple but it is not impossible that they prayed together with the men in Talmudic times. Possibly the rigid separation grew out of the mediaeval custom- more common as the thirteenth century advances – which induced men and women to spend the eve of the Great Fast (Yom Kippur) n the synagogue. By the end of the thirteenth century, and perhaps earlier, Jewish women had their own prayer meetings in rooms at the side of, and a little above, the men’s synagogue. With which the rooms communicated by a small window or balcony. Or if they had no separated apartments, they sat at the back of the men’s synagogue in reserved places, screened by curtains [xv]

The idea that the separation and partition came about to protect chastity during Yom Kippur (and which then took on a life of its own) makes the most sense in terms of the innovation which was brought into the Temple on Simchat Beit HaSho’eva, and of the first textual reference by Mordechai ben Hillel haKohen

The Synagogue is seen as a place of reverence, and levity would be out of place. Thus, when the opportunity arose- a rowdy minor festival, a sermon in crowded building, a night when both sexes would be sleeping in the same large room – the erection of a separate screen would seem logical and desirable. The only problem is the ex post facto legitimization of this screen into a biblical command, building into it the devaluing and disappearance of the women. One must also question whether it is the right way to combat levity in the synagogue today, or whether it actually induces people to ignore the service in favour of elaborate signalling communication with each other

This would lead us into the question of where it is possible to change an age-old custom, and whether this would ‘Christianize’ the synagogue. To take the latter first. The early Christians copied the Jews in matters of ritual. They had men and women praying together because that was the age-old Jewish way. Add to that the fact that the gallery was taken into synagogue architecture from outside the Jewish tradition (it certainly did not feature in the ohel moed, the tent of meeting in the desert – nor the Temple as described in the Book of Chronicles, and one could ask whether removing the mechitza and the galleries from our synagogues might not in fact be bringing us closer to our architectural roots.

Krauss believed that the gallery was adopted by the Jews from the Greek style, and later copied by the Christians. Certainly many Christian chapels have very similar architecture.

Regarding the changing of a time honoured custom (and as this is the true source for the mechitza this is the crux of the matter) there is, as ever, more than one opinion.

One view would be that this is a relatively new custom which was made to prevent the reverence of the synagogue from being tainted by levity and unchastity. Since it now has the effect of alienating women from the service, and in their alienation causing them to chatter and laugh and try to catch the eye of others, tis innovation no longer serves its purpose and should be allowed to lapse, as so many customs have done throughout Jewish history.

The stringent view would be that in effect custom takes on the force of law. In the Jerusalem Talmud the response of the Sages to a request to change an ancestral custom was “do not deviate from the customary practices of your fathers whose souls rest in peace”. Thus it is inferred that to disregard customs instituted by earlier generations to safeguard religious practice is to dishonour those dead earlier generations. The proof text for this desire not to amend or to innovate within Jewish practice is taken from the Book of Proverb (1:8).  “Forsake not the teaching of your mother”. Somehow, when applied to the segregating of women behind thick curtains, or up into galleries away from the heart of the synagogue service, that is the biggest irony of all.

[i] Responsum by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein “On the law of Mechitza” reprinted in B.Litvin, “the sanctity of the synagogue” KTAV, New York 1987, 124

[ii] Ibid 120

[iii] Mishna middot 2:5

[iv] Ibid

[v] Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah 51a

[vi]Babylonian Talmud tractate Megillah 291

[vii] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Orach ha Halachah, ad loc

[viii] Professor Shmuel Safrai, Tarbiz 32, 1963

[ix] Bernadette Brooten “women leaders in the ancient synagogue” Brown Judaic Studies 36, Scholars Press, California 1982

[x] Mordechai on Mishnah Shabbat 3 (n.311)

[xi] Sefer Maharil 38a

[xii][xii] 12Rashi on Babylonian Talmud tractate Kiddushin 81a

[xiii] Yalkut Shimoni 1, 934, cited in Litvin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue (note 1)

[xiv] Professor Shmuel Safrai interviewed in the Jerusalem Post 8th August 1986

[xv] Israel Abrahams “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages” 1896 Athenaeum, New York 1985

 

Vayera – how does God appear in the world – and how do we manage God’s appearance in the world?

At the end of last week’s sidra, Abraham, Ishmael and all of the men in his household were circumcised as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. Abraham’s implicit trust in God has led him to leave his homeland, together with his wife and household. He has made covenants with God, each time with the promise/blessing that he will have descendants and land.

They left Haran and arrived in Canaan and within six verses we have another divine encounter: “Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, untilעַ֖ד אֵל֣וֹן מוֹרֶ֑ה – the oak trees of Moreh, while the Canaanite was still in the land.     

And God appeared to Abram  וַיֵּרָ֤א יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־   אַבְרָ֔ם   and said “to your seed I will give this land” and he built there an altar to God who had appeared to him  הַנִּרְאֶ֥ה אֵלָֽיו

After this Abram went to the mountain to the east of Beit El and encamped there, and built an altar to God and called on God’s name, before moving onwards to the south.

The nature of Abraham’s “call”, his acceptance of God and his willingness to do as commanded has sometimes meant that Abraham is seen as the ultimate “man of faith”. After all he is willing to remove himself from homeland and family, to travel to an unknown destination, to offer both his sons to God’s desires and his existential aloneness is mitigated by the covenant with God. Yet Abraham is also held up to us as a role model – he is the first Ivri, one who crosses boundaries; he is Avraham Avinu – our father and founder; he is the embodiment of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, modelling openness and welcoming hospitality to all.

We are not privy to the origins of Abraham’s extraordinary faith – the first we know is that God tells him to go and he goes. But early in parashat Lech Lecha God appears to Abram by some oak trees, and now here in parashat Vayera we have the same thing.  Sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day, Abraham is sheltering and looking outwards. He is, once again, by some oak trees וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א this time those of Mamre, when God appears to him. The same language, the same setting, with only minor differences. Abraham has a revelation, once more seeing God amongst the trees.

There is debate among the traditional commentators whether Abraham has one or two revelations at this point. Is the introductory verse telling us that God appears to Abraham just that, a sort of headline for what is to follow, as Maimonides posited? Or is it a revelation in and of itself as Rashi and others thought, and in that case, just what can be learned from it? For Abraham sees not God, but three ‘men’, and his response is not to build an altar or set out a ritual covenant, but to rush out to welcome them in, and to provide a meal for them. And the next verse gives us even more room for ambiguity, for when Abraham speaks he says:

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַֽעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ

“Adonai (either “God” or “My lords”) If I have found favour in your sight, please do not pass by your servant”

Is he speaking to the men to invite them in for a rest, a wash and a meal? Or is he speaking to God and saying “wait please, while I offer hospitality to these men, and then I will have time to pay attention to you”?

I must say, I used to love the first interpretation the most: – the idea that we know that God was in these men but Abraham did not, yet still he responded to their needs with honour and dignity. From this it is easy to understand the importance of seeing past the surface of the people we meet, to draw the lesson that everyone has a spark of God within them, everyone is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and so we have a duty to relate to them, to care for them. The three men, hot and dusty and hungry and thirsty would have been a drain on the resources of their host, but Abraham did not hesitate to give them food and drink and comfort.

I still love that interpretation of the text, but I have come to appreciate the second one more. What if God reveals himself to Abraham, but immediately after this there is a pressing need to care for human beings, and Abraham finds himself saying to God – “can you wait please, there is something more important to do than listen to you right now?”

The something more important is, of course, the hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of the stranger and carer for the traveller that Abraham is so famous for. And the spiritual high, the encounter with the divine is of  lesser importance than the practical obligation to behave well towards others.

I like the idea that Abraham is less the paradigmatic man of perfect faith in the sense of his doing everything God tells him almost entirely without protest, and more the practical human being who responds viscerally to visceral need. I wonder if this instinctive act to help the travellers in the desert is the same instinct that causes him to later challenge God when the second revelation happens – the information that the whole of the city of Sdom will be destroyed, the righteous alongside the corrupt.  And I wonder what happened to that instinct after this episode.

For it seems to me that Abraham somehow loses his religious edge as he becomes a more patriarchal figure, and he becomes institutionally religious rather than instinctively so. No longer does he tell God to wait, nor does he argue with God when God asks the unaskable. He concurs. It is a terrible and repeated mistake, and by accepting God’s decrees he appears to lose his relationships with both his sons, with Hagar and with Sarah.

Abraham is indeed a role model for us, but maybe that should be modelling not uncritical religious faith and practise, but challenging it and inserting ourselves into the narratives. It would, I recognise, take some faith to ask God to wait while we do more important things in the world, but I have the feeling it would not be unwelcome.

Whenever I read the narratives of Abraham and Sarah, I am frustrated and made uncomfortable both by what is explicit in the text – the treatment of Hagar and Ishmael excluded from the family, the treatment of Sarah when she is bargained for Abraham’s freedom and of Isaac bound as a sacrifice to a demanding and testing God etc; and also by what is not explicit in the text – how does God talk to Abraham, what does Abraham see and experience…. I mistrust the certainty that seems built in to the narratives, the pain that is ignored – and I wonder how these stories can be a model for us – how can we recognise God’s presence in the world?

Abraham meets God twice by oak trees – large trees that cast shadows with canopies that play with the light coming through them. In each case the appearance of God could be understood to be just that – an appearance, or a vision, or a revelation. Abraham’s response in the first instance is to build an altar to mark the spot, but then to move some distance away and build a second altar from which to call on God. In the second instance no altar is necessary, no calling on God’s name and hoping for encounter – Abraham knows now what is important, he has his priorities straight – taking care of people in need trumps any vision or revelation, it outranks a personal encounter with divinity, all of that can wait – the work we do in the world to make it better is the critical work of being human and in the image of God.

I am not suggesting that prayer or contemplation or listening out for God’s voice in the world are not important – far from it. Any way in which we can ground ourselves in the relationship we have with the creator is important, it will nourish us and develop us and challenge us to be our best selves. But to make that the goal is to miss the point. Religion and ritual exist in order to keep us aware of what is important, though often they appear to exists only in order to perpetuate their own structures. Once a religion becomes an institution its focus changes to survival and regular challenges and reformations are needed to stop it crystallising.  The institutions may talk the talk but they walk the walk less readily.

So the idea of Abraham, the patriarch and founder of monotheistic religion, asking God to please wait while he gets on with caring for travellers is an important idea to keep hold of. We serve God best when we serve God’s creation, we cannot do God’s work if we turn our backs on God’s creatures in order to have a more spiritual focus.