Renewal, Reform, the Chatam Sofer and Me – a Rosh Hashanah Reflection

L’italiano segue l’inglese

I imagine we all wonder occasionally just how we got to be here – all the random coincidences and statistical improbabilities that caused our ancestors meet each other and produce children; all the wars and migrations and social upheavals that could so easily have changed our own histories. In even the most recent history of my family, had my mother’s parents not fled the oppression of the Russian Empire and my father not been sent as a young teenager to escape Hitler’s Germany – both ending up accidentally in the same ordinary northern town, I would never have been born.

And when I go back further, I find my family tree has some characters who fought hard against the Judaism that gives me my identity and my passion – Reform Judaism – My great-great-great grandfather Levi Yehudah Spanier, the president of the (orthodox)synagogue Beth El in Albany, New York, was in the beginning very good friends with its rabbi -Dr Isaac Mayer Wise, but ended up in a series of fiery and violent disputes over Dr Wise’s reformist tendencies – to the point where he ultimately dismissed Dr Wise from his post of rabbi to the community effective on 6th September 1850 – the shabbat the day before Rosh Hashanah. Dr Wise refused to accept the dismissal –  turning up at the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. This is his description of what happened next

“Everything was as quiet as a grave, Finally, the choir sings Sulzer’s great Ein Kamocha. At the conclusion of the song, I step before the ark in order to take out the scrolls of the law as usual, and to offer prayer. Spanier steps in my way and, without saying a word, smites me with his fist so that my cap falls from my head. This was the terrible signal for an uproar the like of which I had never experienced. The people acted like furies. It was as though the synagogue had suddenly burst forth into a flaming conflagration.”

The fracas was so pronounced that the Sheriff was called; the Sheriff cleared the synagogue, locked the doors, and took the keys. This was the end of Wise’s position at Temple Beth-El and the beginning of the Reform Movement in the USA -its many synagogues, the Rabbinical College HUC, the Central Conference of Progressive Rabbis, and Reform Judaism becoming established as the majority Jewish expression in the USA.

So my three-times-great-grandfather in his desire to close down Reform Judaism, instead accelerated its growth, and periodically I wonder what he would have made of his descendants’ choices to become Reform Rabbis.

Then there is Moshe Sofer-Schreiber, my seventh cousin seven times removed. More usually known as the Chatam Sofer, he is sometimes described as the father of Orthodoxy and the scourge of Reform Judaism. Born in Frankfurt in 1762 he was an outstanding scholar at several prestigious yeshivot. However he was not always so acceptable to the Jewish world. In his youth he was deeply attached to Natan Adler, a kabbalist whose followers practised the exceedingly new form of Judaism known as Chasidut. The group were known for their revolutionary religious tendences – praying Sefardi liturgy even though they were Ashkenazim, wearing their tefillin according to the custom of Rabbenu Tam[i] They formed and prayed in separate and independent minyanim, generally following Chassidic customs nobody had heard of previously. The Ashkenazi Jewish world they belonged to was not happy to see such changes in customs and traditions, and began to persecute Rabbi Adler and his followers. Indeed some prominent rabbis wrote attacking the “new sect” who, they said  “with great haughtiness in their hearts did not attend to the customs of the Jewish people, a Torah fixed from antiquity  according to our ancestors z”l and changed them by the crudeness of their spirits”. They were identified by the established Jewish community as being a dangerous phenomenon akin to Sabbateanism.[ii]

In a pamphlet entitled “An Act of Trickery” published in Frankfurt in 1789, Rabbi Nathan Adler and his acolytes were accused of intending to “destroy the foundations of our customs, to cut off the roots of our received tradition, to build new manners […] and in their galling daring, they mocked our holy fathers, and deny those bearing the received tradition, and the wise men who founded our good customs were as grasshoppers to them.”

 This conservative fury led to Rabbi Adler’s excommunication. He was expelled from Frankfurt (1782) and wandered through German communities while suffering repeated attacks. He remained excommunicated until two weeks before his death. In his wanderings, he was accompanied by his young student, Moshe Schreiber who would become known as the Chatam Sofer.

What was happening in the Jewish world – among both the Mitnagdim [iii]and the Chassidim, personified by the towering figures of the Vilna Gaon and of the Baal Shem Tov, was that they simply had no respect for the view that “we do it this way because it was always done this way”. They were ready to change the practise of Judaism, initiate new customs, read the text in different more modern ways, correct the unthinking habits and mistaken ideas that had taken root among the ordinary Jews.

It would be to go too far to say that the groundwork for Reform Judaism was laid by such figures, but the context in which Reform Judaism developed is important. Once the genie of challenging “always doing what was always done” and of not allowing innovation was out of the bottle, it was impossible to return it. My cousin Moshe Schreiber discovered this as he grew in stature as an halakhist, and effectively joined the “establishment” and it seems that as he grew older the growth of desire for modernity in Judaism which was leading to a thirst for Reform Judaism alarmed him. Challenging the fixed and the habitual seems to have been acceptable when done by Rabbi Adler, but  when the newer generation chose to challenge harder and more widely, looking for rational explanations and for a less burdensome set of behaviours, he apparently repudiated his earlier expressions of Judaism.

His most well-known innovation was to insist upon the primacy of the custom of a community to outweigh halachic arguments.   He argued that the custom of a community took the same importance in halacha as a vow – and in Torah the prohibition against breaking a vow is absolute.  He knew exactly what he was doing with this extraordinary step: Responding to a halachic question from a student he wrote “I have spoken about this at length because, as a result of our many sins, the lawless in our nation have now grown in number. They present a false vision, ridiculing the second day of Yom Tov, that it is merely a custom. They do not wish to follow in the footsteps of the Sages of Israel; they speak against their own lives; they know not, nor do they understand; they walk on in darkness.” (Responsa Chatam Sofer I, OC, no. 145)

In the pre-modern period, custom was seen as a competitor to written halacha; it was an “external source” which sometimes contradicted halacha outright. So the Chatam Sofer’s “hiddush” – new teaching -was a turning point in the history of halacha. Identifying custom as the ultimate rival of modernity and rational debate, he deliberately increased its importance, turning it into a potent weapon against Haskalah – the Enlightenment, which was based on reason. He not only reinvented  the status of custom but utterly changed the process of halacha because now halacha was to follow custom rather than the other way around.

While there were other rabbis who elevated the status of community custom, (E.g. Yitzchak Alfasi, Asher ben Yechiel) but they did so based on the idea that the oral teachings of a community were to be respected as coming from an earlier age of halacha. The Chatam Sofer did not do that – instead he based his view on an entirely new link he himself had forged between local customs and biblical vows.  

The Chatam Sofer created what can only be called a conservative revolution. Why? It was because he could not accept the nascent Reform Judaism that was taking hold around him in  Enlightenment Europe. Reform Judaism that was challenging burdensome customs such as two days of festivals in diaspora and demanding rationales be given for halachic dicta, beyond the emotional imperative that “our ancestors did this” or of maintaining the status quo. Reform Judaism, grew not so much from the Mitnagdik or the Chasidic challenges to “normative Judaism” but from a desire to bring Enlightenment thinking into Judaism – what today we might call “informed choice”, to base our practises on reason and on thought rather than historical precedent or the words of earlier sages. And so he brought in his own “reform” or “renewal”, ironically to try to prevent any other reform or renewal taking place.  

The Chatam Sofer’s principle as a halakhist is summed up in his statement “He’Chadash assur min HaTorah” – literally meaning “The new is forbidden by the Torah”. He was punning from a biblical verse which forbade the eating of the new grain (Chadash) until the Omer offering had been given on the second day of Pesach. With that one phrase of word-play the stage was set for what would later be termed “orthodoxy”.  

For generations Judaism had managed to retain its dynamism and adaptability to the circumstances and context it found itself in.  Only with the emergence of modernist Judaism influenced by enlightenment philosophy and scientific thought, did the traditionalists feel so threatened they did something utterly radical, and tried to close this dynamism down. Yet paradoxically the Chatam Sofer relied on innovation. In his battle against Spinoza who argued that bible should be studied as a human document, Sofer wrote that to do so would be to deny all the “hiddushim” – new understandings – that could be created if it were studied as a divine document, multi layered and with concealed meanings. He was not against new insights – indeed his name proclaims their importance –  While the name Sofer is a direct translation of his name “Schreiber”, “Chatam” is an acronym for “Hiddushei Torat Moshe” – “New insights of the Torah of Moses” (though he may also be referencing a particularly opaque part of the last prophecy in the book of Daniel (Shut up the words and seal the book” (Stom ha’devarim va’chatom ha’sefer) Daniel 12:4.

When I think of my illustrious ancestors and their stringent desire to protect a traditionalist Judaism that meant doing things as they had always been done, I have some sympathy. In a world of great flux and change, the temptation to appeal to tradition for stability and certainty and to unify behind agreed norms is equally great. Yet I am grateful that they did not carry the argument, that instead the modernisers of Judaism have thrived alongside the traditionalists. Because classically Judaism has always operated along that dynamic – the old being honoured and cherished and at the same time being renewed.

We say in the yotzer prayer וּבְטוּבוֹ מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית  That God in divine goodness renews every day the works of creation. Our liturgy speaks of continual renewal  – God is described as the one who “in mercy gives light to the earth and to those who dwell on it” – the very first creative act repeated every morning through God’s mercy and God’s goodness. Creation is perpetually renewed, so we – as part of creation – can also be renewed. This is because of God’s goodness and God’s mercy to us. We do not have to be stuck in behaviours that are not beneficial to us or are simply habitual and without meaning – we can – indeed we must – renew not only ourselves but our also our world. 

The Hebrew word for year is “Shanah” and every Rosh Hashanah, every beginning of a year, is a prompt and an opportunity for our renewal. The root of the word Shanah means both to repeat (as in the number two) and also to change. Which will we do this year? Repeat what we have always done, or will we change and make ourselves and our lives renewed and refreshed? The reality is likely to be somewhere in between, as we hold the tension between comfortable “business as usual” and a fearful desire to make changes in aspects of ourselves and our lives.  

We live our lives repeating many of our habits and making small incremental changes. Jewish time is not circular but spiral – we find ourselves back at Rosh Hashanah, but we are not the same person we were last year. If all goes well, slowly we find ourselves changed – not drastically different but a renewed version of ourselves. We have a Lev Chadash, a new direction and a new heart within the person we have always been. This is the beauty of the Jewish year and of the tradition of renewal within it.

Rav Kook wrote the “The old shall be renewed, and the new shall be made holy”. It is part of his exploration about observing the Shmitta year in the Land of Israel but it is true of every aspect of Judaism.

So this is the challenge asked of us today – and every day. We are asked to renew ourselves and make ourselves holy. We are reminded that God renews creation every day from divine mercy and goodness – that we can take accept that mercy and renew our own being too – repeating and changing, step by step, evolving our Jewish selves as we find our own hiddushei torat Moshe – new meanings in the ancient never changing text.  

The prophet Ezekiel reminds us of God’s promise to give us a new heart and a new spirit… and you will be My people and I will be your God.

וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב חָדָשׁ, וְרוּחַ חֲדָשָׁה אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם

וִהְיִיתֶם לִי, לְעָם, וְאָנֹכִי, אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים…………

Now is the time for renewal, for return, and for making the changes that will enable us to fulfil  this promise. For as Hillel said, If not now, When?


[i] Rashi and Rabbenu Tam disagreed on the order in which the sections of text are written on the parchment. Early authorities state that one should not wear Rabbenu Tam Tefillin unless he is generally known to be pious and careful in all his actions. Otherwise, doing so would be considered a pompous display of piety.

[ii] Sabbateanism—a messianic movement of unprecedented duration and scope—was centred on the charismatic personality of Shabtai Zevi, a seventeenth-century Jew from the Ottoman port-town of Smyrna who, even after his conversion to Islam in the summer of 1666—a discreditable act which was paradoxically explained in kabbalistic terms as the most challenging part of his mission—was believed by many to be the ultimate redeemer and an incarnate aspect of the kabbalistic godhead. The messianic frenzy he created spread rapidly throughout the Jewish world to become a mass movement, but it subsided gradually following his conversion and evident failure to accomplish his mission by the time of his death in 1676.

[iii] lit. “opponents”), a designation for the opponents of the Hasidim. The name originally arose from the bitter opposition to the rise, way of life, and leadership of the Hasidic movement. By the second half of the 19th century the hostility began to subside. One of the causes of the cessation of hostilities was the common front which both formed against the Haskalah (Enlightenment) from which Reform Judaism grew.

(https://iyun.org.il/en/article/challenge-of-change/edmund-burke-and-the-chatam-sofer/)

https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Sofer_Mosheh

RINNOVAMENTO

23/09/2022 04:14:45 PM

di rav Sylvia Rothschild

Immagino che di tanto in tanto tutti noi ci chiediamo come siamo arrivati qui: tutte le coincidenze casuali e le improbabilità statistiche che hanno fatto sì che i nostri antenati si incontrassero e generassero figli; tutte le guerre, le migrazioni e gli sconvolgimenti sociali che avrebbero potuto cambiare così facilmente le nostre storie. Anche nella storia più recente della mia famiglia, se i genitori di mia madre non fossero fuggiti dall’oppressione dell’Impero russo e se mio padre non fosse stato mandato da giovane adolescente a fuggire dalla Germania di Hitler – finendo entrambi casualmente nella stessa città del nord – io non sarei mai nata. 

E se vado più indietro nel tempo, scopro che nel mio albero genealogico ci sono personaggi che hanno combattuto duramente contro l’ebraismo che mi dà la mia identità e la mia passione – l’ebraismo riformato -. Il mio trisavolo Levi Yehudah Spanier, presidente della sinagoga (ortodossa) Beth El di Albany, New York, all’inizio era molto amico del suo rabbino, il dottor Isaac Mayer Wise, ma finì in una serie di accese e violente dispute sulle tendenze riformate del dottor Wise, al punto che alla fine licenziò il dottor Wise dal suo incarico di rabbino della comunità con effetto dal 6 settembre 1850, lo shabbat del giorno precedente Rosh Hashanah. Il dottor Wise rifiutò di accettare il licenziamento e si presentò in sinagoga il giorno di Rosh Hashanah. Ecco la sua descrizione di ciò che accadde in seguito:

“Tutto era silenzioso come una tomba, Infine, il coro intona il grande Ein Kamochadi Sulzer. Al termine del canto, mi avvicino all’arca per estrarre, come di consueto, i rotoli della legge e per offrire la preghiera. Spanier si mette sulla mia strada e, senza dire una parola, mi colpisce con un pugno che mi fa cadere il cappello dalla testa. Questo fu il terribile segnale di un tumulto che non avevo mai sperimentato. I presenti si comportarono come una furia. Era come se la sinagoga fosse improvvisamente esplosa in una fiammeggiante conflagrazione”. 

La rissa fu così forte che fu chiamato lo sceriffo, il quale fece sgomberare la sinagoga, chiuse le porte e prese le chiavi. Questa fu la fine della posizione di Wise al Tempio Beth-El e l’inizio del Movimento di Riforma negli Stati Uniti, con le sue numerose sinagoghe, il Collegio Rabbinico HUC, la Conferenza Centrale dei Rabbini Progressisti e l’affermazione dell’Ebraismo Riformato come espressione ebraica maggioritaria negli Stati Uniti.

Così il mio trisavolo, nel suo desiderio di far finire l’ebraismo riformato, ne ha invece accelerato la crescita, e periodicamente mi chiedo cosa avrebbe pensato delle scelte dei suoi discendenti di diventare rabbini riformati.
Poi c’è Moshe Sofer-Schreiber, mio lontano cugino. Più conosciuto come Chatam Sofer, è talvolta descritto come il padre dell’Ortodossia e il flagello dell’Ebraismo Riformato. Nato a Francoforte nel 1762, fu uno studioso di spicco in diverse prestigiose yeshivot. Tuttavia, il suo pensiero non fu sempre così accettabile per il mondo ebraico. In gioventù fu profondamente legato a Natan Adler, un cabalista i cui seguaci praticavano la nuovissima forma di ebraismo nota come Chasidut. Il gruppo era noto per le sue tendenze religiose rivoluzionarie: pregavano la liturgia sefardita pur essendo ashkenaziti, indossavano i tefillin secondo l’usanza di Rabbenu Tam, formavano e pregavano in minyanim separati e indipendenti, seguendo generalmente usanze chassidiche di cui nessuno aveva mai sentito parlare prima. Il mondo ebraico ashkenazita, a cui appartenevano, non era contento di vedere tali cambiamenti nei costumi e nelle tradizioni e iniziò a perseguitare Rabbi Adler e i suoi seguaci. Alcuni rabbini di spicco scrissero infatti attaccando la “nuova setta” che, a loro dire, “con grande superbia nel cuore non si è curata delle usanze del popolo ebraico, di una Torah fissata dall’antichità secondo i nostri antenati z “l e le ha cambiate con la crudezza dei loro spiriti”. L’establishment ebraico li identificò come un fenomeno pericoloso, simile al sabbateismo.
In un pamphlet intitolato ‘Un atto di inganno’, pubblicato a Francoforte nel 1789, il rabbino Nathan Adler e i suoi accoliti vennero accusati di voler “distruggere le fondamenta dei nostri costumi, tagliare le radici della nostra tradizione ricevuta, costruire nuove maniere […] e nella loro audacia gallica, si sono fatti beffe dei nostri santi padri, e rinnegano coloro che portano la tradizione ricevuta, e i saggi che hanno fondato i nostri buoni costumi sono per loro come cavallette “.
Questa furia conservatrice portò alla scomunica del rabbino Adler. Espulso da Francoforte (1782), vagò per le comunità tedesche subendo ripetuti attacchi. Rimase scomunicato fino a due settimane prima della sua morte. Nelle sue peregrinazioni era accompagnato dal suo giovane studente, Moshe Schreiber, che sarebbe diventato noto come il Chatam Sofer.
Quello che stava accadendo nel mondo ebraico – sia tra i Mitnagdim che tra i Chassidim, con le figure imponenti del Gaon di Vilna e del Baal Shem Tov – erano considerate semplicemente posizioni che non avevano rispetto per l’opinione prevalente per cui “facciamo così perché è sempre stato fatto così”. Erano pronti a cambiare la pratica dell’ebraismo, a introdurre nuove usanze, a leggere il testo in modi diversi e più moderni, a correggere le abitudini e le idee sbagliate che si erano radicate tra gli ebrei comuni.
Sarebbe esagerato dire che le basi della riforma ebraica siano state gettate da queste figure, ma il contesto in cui l’ebraismo di riforma si è sviluppato è importante. Una volta che il genio che sfidava il “fare sempre quello che si è sempre fatto” e a non permettere l’innovazione era uscito dalla bottiglia, era impossibile farlo rientrare. Mio cugino Moshe Schreiber lo scoprì mentre cresceva la sua autorevolezza come halakhista e si univa di fatto all’establishment e sembra che, con l’avanzare dell’età, la crescita del desiderio di modernità nell’ebraismo, che stava portando all’interno dell’ebraismo a un desiderio di riforma, lo abbia allarmato. Sembra che sfidare l’immobilismo e l’abitudine poteva essere accettabile se fatto dal rabbino Adler, ma quando la nuova generazione scelse di spingersi più duramente e più ampiamente, alla ricerca di spiegazioni razionali e di un insieme di comportamenti meno gravosi, egli apparentemente ripudiò le sue precedenti espressioni dell’ebraismo.
La sua innovazione più nota fu quella di insistere sul primato della consuetudine di una comunità rispetto alle argomentazioni halachiche. Sosteneva che la consuetudine di una comunità avesse la stessa importanza nella halacha di una promessa, di un impegno – e nella Torah il divieto di infrangere un voto è assoluto. Sapeva esattamente cosa stava facendo con questo passo straordinario. Rispondendo a una domanda halachica di uno studente, scrisse: “Ho parlato a lungo di questo perché, come risultato dei nostri molti peccati, i senza legge nella nostra nazione sono ora cresciuti di numero. Essi presentano una visione falsa, ridicolizzando il secondo giorno di Yom Tov, che è solo un’usanza. Non vogliono seguire le orme dei Saggi di Israele; parlano contro la loro stessa vita; non sanno e non capiscono; camminano nelle tenebre”. (Responsa Chatam Sofer I, OC, n. 145)

Nel periodo pre-moderno, la consuetudine era vista come un concorrente della halacha scritta; era una ‘fonte esterna’ che a volte contraddiceva apertamente la halacha. L’’hiddush’ (nuovo insegnamento) del Chatam Sofer fu quindi un punto di svolta nella storia della halacha. Identificando la consuetudine come l’ultimo rivale della modernità e del dibattito razionale, egli ne accrebbe deliberatamente l’importanza, trasformandola in una potente arma contro la Haskalah – l’Illuminismo, che si basava sulla ragione. Non solo reinventò lo status della consuetudine, ma cambiò completamente il processo della halacha, perché ora la halacha seguiva la consuetudine anziché il contrario.
Ci sono stati altri rabbini che hanno elevato lo status della consuetudine comunitaria (ad esempio Yitzchak Alfasi, Asher ben Yechiel), ma lo hanno fatto sulla base dell’idea che gli insegnamenti orali di una comunità dovevano essere rispettati in quanto provenienti da un’epoca precedente della halacha. Il Chatam Sofer non fece così, ma basò il suo punto di vista su un legame del tutto nuovo che egli stesso aveva creato tra le usanze locali e i voti biblici.
Il Sofer Chatam creò quella che può essere definita una ‘rivoluzione conservatrice’. Perché? Perché non poteva accettare il nascente ebraismo riformato che si stava affermando intorno a lui nell’Europa illuminista. Un ebraismo di riforma che metteva in discussione usanze gravose come i due giorni di festa in diaspora e che chiedeva di dare una motivazione che andasse oltre l’imperativo emotivo del “i nostri antenati facevano così” o del mantenimento dello status quo. L’ebraismo riformato non nacque tanto dalle sfide mitnagdik o chasidiche all'”ebraismo normativo”, quanto dal desiderio di portare il pensiero illuminista nell’ebraismo – ciò che oggi potremmo chiamare “scelta informata”, per basare le nostre pratiche sulla ragione e sul pensiero piuttosto che sui precedenti storici o sulle parole dei saggi precedenti. E così introdusse la sua “riforma” o “rinnovamento”, ironicamente per cercare di impedire che si realizzasse qualsiasi altra riforma o rinnovamento.
Il principio del Chatam Sofer come halakhista è riassunto nella sua affermazione “He’Chadash assur min HaTorah”, che letteralmente significa “Il nuovo è proibito dalla Torah”. Si trattava di un gioco di parole che prendeva spunto da un versetto biblico che proibiva di mangiare il grano nuovo (Chadash) fino a quando l’offerta dell’Omer non fosse stata fatta il secondo giorno di Pesach. Con questo gioco di parole si è posto il punto di partenza per quella che in seguito sarebbe stata definita “ortodossia”.
Per generazioni l’ebraismo era riuscito a mantenere il suo dinamismo e la sua adattabilità alle circostanze e al contesto in cui si trovava. Solo con l’emergere dell’ebraismo modernista, influenzato dalla filosofia illuminista e dal pensiero scientifico, i tradizionalisti si sentirono così minacciati da fare qualcosa di assolutamente radicale, cercando di chiudere questo dinamismo. Eppure, paradossalmente, il Chatam Sofer puntava sull’innovazione. Nella sua battaglia contro Spinoza, che sosteneva che la Bibbia dovesse essere studiata come un documento umano, Sofer scrisse che così facendo avrebbe negato tutti gli “hiddushim” – nuove comprensioni – che si sarebbero potuti creare se fosse stata studiata come un documento divino, a più strati e con significati nascosti. Mentre il nome Sofer è la traduzione diretta del suo nome “Schreiber”, “Chatam” è l’acronimo di “Hiddushei Torat Moshe” – “Nuove intuizioni della Torah di Mosè” (anche se potrebbe anche riferirsi a una parte particolarmente opaca dell’ultima profezia nel libro di Daniele (Taci le parole e sigilla il libro” (Stom ha’devarim va’chatom ha’sefer) Daniele 12:4).
Quando penso ai miei illustri antenati e al loro rigoroso desiderio di proteggere un ebraismo tradizionalista che significava fare le cose come erano sempre state fatte, provo una certa simpatia. In un mondo di grandi cambiamenti, la tentazione di appellarsi alla tradizione per avere stabilità e certezza e di unificarsi dietro norme condivise è altrettanto grande. Tuttavia, sono grata che non abbiano portato avanti l’argomento e che invece i modernizzatori dell’ebraismo abbiano prosperato accanto ai tradizionalisti. Perché l’ebraismo classico ha sempre operato secondo questa dinamica: l’antico viene onorato e custodito e allo stesso tempo rinnovato.

Noi diciamo in yotzer  וּבְטוּבוֹ מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית Che Dio nella bontà divina rinnova ogni giorno le opere della creazione. La nostra liturgia parla di un continuo rinnovamento – Dio è descritto come colui che “per misericordia dà luce alla terra e a coloro che la abitano” – il primo atto creativo che si ripete ogni mattina grazie alla misericordia e alla bontà di Dio. La creazione si rinnova continuamente, quindi anche noi, in quanto parte della creazione, possiamo rinnovarci. Questo grazie alla bontà e alla misericordia di Dio nei nostri confronti. Non dobbiamo rimanere bloccati in comportamenti che non ci giovano o che sono semplicemente abitudinari e privi di significato: possiamo, anzi dobbiamo, rinnovare non solo noi stessi, ma anche il nostro mondo.
La parola ebraica che indica l’anno è “Shanah” e ogni Rosh HaShanah, ogni inizio d’anno, è un invito e un’opportunità per il nostro rinnovamento. La radice della parola Shanah significa sia ripetere (come il numero due) sia cambiare. Cosa faremo quest’anno? Ripetere quello che abbiamo sempre fatto o cambiare e rinnovare noi stessi e la nostra vita? La realtà è probabilmente una via di mezzo, in quanto siamo in tensione tra il comodo “business as usual” e il timoroso desiderio di cambiare alcuni aspetti di noi stessi e della nostra vita.
Viviamo la nostra vita ripetendo molte delle nostre abitudini e apportando piccoli cambiamenti incrementali. Il tempo ebraico non è circolare ma a spirale: ci ritroviamo a Rosh Hashanah, ma non siamo la stessa persona dell’anno scorso. Se tutto va bene, lentamente ci ritroviamo cambiati – non drasticamente diversi, ma una versione rinnovata di noi stessi. Abbiamo un Lev Chadash, una nuova direzione e un nuovo cuore all’interno della persona che siamo sempre stati. Questa è la bellezza dell’anno ebraico e della tradizione del rinnovamento al suo interno.
Rav Kook ha scritto “Il vecchio sarà rinnovato e il nuovo sarà reso santo”. Fa parte della sua esplorazione sull’osservazione dell’anno Shmita in Terra d’Israele, ma è vero per ogni aspetto dell’ebraismo.
Questa è la sfida che ci viene posta oggi – e ogni giorno. Ci viene chiesto di rinnovarci e di santificarci. Ci viene ricordato che Dio rinnova la creazione ogni giorno grazie alla misericordia e alla bontà divina, e che possiamo accettare questa misericordia e rinnovare anche il nostro essere, ripetendo e cambiando, passo dopo passo, evolvendo il nostro essere ebrei mentre troviamo i nostri hiddushei Torat Moshe – nuovi significati nell’antico testo che non cambia mai.
Il profeta Ezechiele ci ricorda la promessa di Dio di darci un cuore nuovo e uno spirito nuovo… e voi sarete il mio popolo e io sarò il vostro Dio.

וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב חָדָשׁ, וְרוּחַ חֲדָשָׁה אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם

וִהְיִיתֶם לִי, לְעָם, וְאָנֹכִי, אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים…………
È il momento di rinnovarsi, di tornare e di fare i cambiamenti che ci permetteranno di mantenere questa promessa. Perché, come disse Hillel, se non ora, quando?

Traduzione di Eva Mangialojo Rantzer

Mishpatim: The Code of Law that structures Human Rights in its very bones, or Justice and Judges must uphold the moral imperative.

Mishpatim 2022

Parashat Mishpatim continues the process begun at Sinai, explicating and evolving the laws that will govern this nascent Israelite society. It begins with the laws that govern the indentured Israelite servants, and then moves on to the laws of damages- beginning with the person who either intentionally or unintenionally causes damage, and then dealing with the damage that is caused indirectly or by the property of people. The parasha then continues into other areas.

On first reading, it seems as if the laws contain a jumble of different areas and contexts with little logical order. Rabbi Elchanan Samet however has a different view: “Our question about the organization of the parasha of damages is based on the assumption that the order should follow the categories of the agents which CAUSE damage. Such a categorization is appropriate from a legal perspective, since one’s level of responsibility for the damage determines whether and how much restitution he much pay.  Our questions, however, disappear when we realize that the Torah orders this section based on the categories of those who are DAMAGED, not those who CAUSE damage”.

(https://etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/torah/sefer-shemot/parashat-mishpatim/mishpatim-laws-damages-declaration-human-rights)

In other words, the Torah has an organising principle here not just of legal categories, but of societal values. It begins with the value of human and then animal life, moves onto plant life and the sustaining ability of agriculture for society, and only then moves to general property or to money.  By using this principle, we are reminded powerfully that all human life and wellbeing, )closely followed by animal life and well being) is de facto more important to sustain and to protect than property or wealth.

On this organising principle, Judaism builds an edifice of understanding and provides a moral compass for us and for all of society. One cannot claim for example that the poor deserve less than the rich, that refugees have fewer rights to security than those comfortably living in the land, or that the rights of animals to life and welfare can be negotiated (or worse) for monetary profit.

Mishpatim has often been described as a foundational text for our society, a text which creates an environment built on laws that are applicable to everyone, that have authority, that addresses a broad variety of human experiences. The view that the organising principle is not only the legal sysem regulating human action but actually the moral imperative to be particularly concerned about supporting the wronged person and getting justice for them is mind blowing.  We generally focus on the idea that it is clearly built on earlier codes, such as that of Hammurabi, and examine the differences between the two codes of law, but to change focus and look at how the code is structured to prioritise people’s humanity and well being, the care for all living creatures and for nature BEFORE considering the care for material wealth and possessions is to understand the biblical imperative to care for the world and its inhabitants even at the cost of any accumulation of wealth or other material power.

We cannot of course ignore the fact that the legal code is critical to keeping the moral code properly focused and working. It is law – good law that is made to help people rather than to oppress or constrain people – that keeps society safe. The very word “mishpatim” means “laws”, and it requires people who apply wisdom and compassion to interpret and wield these laws.

I have been thinking a great deal recently about my grandfather, Walter Fritz Louis Rothschild, whose career as a judge faltered and ultimately came to an end with the rise of the Nazis in Germany. We have a newspaper where the following is reported on 21st January 1933 under the heading “A Public Scandal” :

“Offener Brief an den Reichsjustizminister.

Wir berichteten bereits in unsere gestrigen Ausgabe über den öffentlichen Skandal am hiesigen Amtsgericht.  Der Führer der SA-Obergruppe 2, Lutze, hat jetzt folgenden offenen Brief an den Reichsjustizminister gerichtet:

Ein Einzelfall, der in der Bevölkerung Hannovers berechtigte Entrüstung und Empörung ausgelöst hat, gibt mir Veranlassung, mich an Sie zu wenden und ein Problem zur Sprache zu bringen, das dringend und umgehend der Bereinigung bedarf.

               Der Vorgang ist folgender:           Das Amtsgericht Hannover hat es für zweckmäßig befunden, in einer politischen Strafsache, die am Mittwoch, dem 18. Januar 1933 vor dem hiesigen Amtsgericht anstand, in einem Verfahren gegen 2 SA-Männer den jüdischen Amtsgerichtsrat Dr. Rothschild als Vorsitzenden herauszustellen.

               Die Vernehmung der Beklagten erfolgte von Seiten des Dr. Rothschilds in überaus provokatorischer und unsachlicher Form.

   Der Verteidiger der Angeklagten bezweifelte daraufhin die Unbefangenheit des jüdischen Vorsitzenden und wird von diesem in einer Art und Weise behandelt, die weit über das Maß des Erträglichen und Erlaubten hinausgeht. Das Gericht zieht sich zur Beratung zurück und erklärt dann den Antrag des Verteidigers als gegenstandslos.

               Herr Reichsjustizminister! Es dürfte auch Ihnen nicht entgangen sein, daß das deutsche Volk, soweit es die nat.-soz. Weltanschauung vertritt – und das sind rund 40 Prozent der Gesamtbevölkerung Deutschlands – die jüdischen Fesseln abzustreifen sich anschickt.

               Wir verbitten es uns, daß man Vollblut- und Halbblutjuden als Richter über deutsche Menschen einsetzt. Wir fordern, daß der verantwortliche Amtsgerichtsdirektor, der für den obengenannten Vorgang  die Verantwortung trägt, zur Rechenschaft gezogen wird.

               Ich hoffe, daß Sie diesem Appell in letzter Stunde die gebührende Beachtung schenken, ehe es an den Gerichten zu Auftritten kommt, die eine autoritäre Rechtspflege überhaupt in Frage stellen.

               Zu Ihrer Orientierung diene Ihnen, daß sich die hannoverschen Gerichte durch Herausstellung jüdischen Justizpersonals besonders hervortun. Ich nenne u.a. :

               1. den ersten Staatsanwalt Wolfssohn,

               2. die Richterin Alice Rosenfeld,

               3. den Amtsgerichtsrat Rothschild,

und empfehle Ihnen, die Genannten schnellstens in der Versenkung verschwinden zu lassen.

Der Führer der SA-Obergruppe II, gez. Lutze, M.d..R.”  [i.e. Mitglied des Reichstages.]

“Open letter to the Reich Minister of Justice.

We already reported in yesterday’s issue about the public scandal at the local district court.   The leader of SA-Obergruppe 2, Lutze, has now addressed the following open letter to the Reich Minister of Justice:

An individual case which has caused justified indignation and outrage among the people of Hanover has given me cause to address you and to raise a problem which urgently and immediately needs clearing up.

               The process is as follows:

               The District Court of Hanover has found it expedient to single out the Jewish District Court Councillor Dr. Rothschild as the presiding judge in a political criminal case which was pending before the District Court here on Wednesday, January 18, 1933, in proceedings against 2 SA men.

               The questioning of the defendants was carried out by Dr. Rothschild in an extremely provocative and unobjective manner.

   The defendants’ defence counsel then doubted the impartiality of the Jewish chairman and was treated by him in a manner that went far beyond what was tolerable and permissible. The court retires for deliberation and then declares the motion of the defence counsel to be without object.

               Mr. Minister of Justice! It should not have escaped your notice that the German people, in so far as they represent the National-Socialist worldview – and that is about 40 percent of the total population of Germany – are preparing to throw off the Jewish shackles.

               We forbid the use of full-blooded and half-blooded Jews as judges over German people. We demand that the director of the district court, who is responsible for the above-mentioned incident, be brought to justice.

               I hope that you will give this appeal the attention it deserves at the last hour, before there are any appearances in the courts that call the authoritarian administration of justice into question at all.

               For your orientation, please note that the Hanoverian courts are particularly prominent in singling out Jewish judicial personnel. I mention, among others:

               1. the first public prosecutor Wolfssohn,

               2. Judge Alice Rosenfeld,

               3. the district court judge Rothschild,

and I recommend that you let the aforementioned disappear as quickly as possible.

The leader of SA-Obergruppe II,

signed. Lutze, M.d..R.”     [i.e. member of the Reichstag.]

One can only imagine the arrogant confidence of the writers of the letter, who, unhappy that an incident where up to 30 SA (Sturmabteilung – Nazi paramilitary wing “Storm Detachment) men had set upon a man wearing a Reichsbanner badge in his hat (anti fascist/ liberal organisation of the Weimar republic) and beaten him up, were questioned robustly by a Jewish court judge and found to have a case to answer – felt able to demand that Jewish judges be removed from office.

One can only imagine the feelings of that judge  – my grandfather- writing his carefully worded and thoughtful 5 page response to the accusation, only to be removed from his role within a week of his rebuttal as the Nazis came to power and removed all Jews from their public roles.

My grandfather died as a result of the physical ill- treatment he received in Dachau shortly after the war. But my grandmother survived and on occasion she would reminisce with me. One day she told me of her overwhelming fear in the early thirties – I think it must have been around the time of this court case – as she tried to persuade her husband to leave the country. He told her “I can’t. If the judges leave then there will be no justice”.

By the time he realised that there would be no judges and no justice it was too late to leave. Countries had closed their borders to Jews, they and extended family were trapped.

Last week I lit a yahrzeit candle for him. This week we are mark the European Holocaust Memorial Day and we repeat the words “never again” and “Zachor – Remember” hopefully and desperately in the knowledge that since the Shoah we have seen people dehumanised because of their ethnicity or religion, we have seen people attempt to erase any memory and any learning from memory.

And this week we read parashat Mishpatim. We read a parasha where a society is created by laws. A parasha structured to remind us that every single human being is of value, every single human being is of equal value, and that value is paramount in how we organise our society.

If only our society followed the structure set out in parashat mishpatim. To value human life, animal life, the natural world. To care for them, to protect them, to nourish and sustain and honour them. And only after that to consider material wealth, profit, gains.  If only we had a system where the person damaged was the most important to consider, not the damage to property or wealth.

We are witnessing an assault by government on our codes of justice. We are witnessing legislation whereby if the government does not agree with the judiciary, they will overrule the judgments. We are witnessing long term underfunding of our system which is causing it to break down. We are witnessing a government that thinks the law is not for them to follow. We are living in dangerous times.

And I think of my brave and lonely grandfather saying to my fearful and anxious grandmother. “If the judges leave there will be no justice.”

Hannover Judges. My grandfather Landgerichtsrat Dr Walter Fritz Louis Rothschild third row from the front, fourth from the right

A Tree of Life – and life giving trees: Tu b’Shevat

“One day Choni the circle maker was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready-grown] carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me so I too plant these for my children”.            ( Talmud Bavli: Taanit 23a)

Trees are deeply important in our tradition, and also have their own relationship with God. They are prominent in our texts – mentioned at the Creation, vital to the narrative in the Garden of Eden; the Hebrew word for tree appears in the bible over 150 times and more than 100 different kinds of trees, shrubs and plants are named. The Mishnah follows suit, naming hundreds more plants in its legal codification. In all more than 500 different plants are named in our traditional texts.  Trees are a signifier of the connection the Jews have with the land, and reflect the relationship that we have with the Land of Israel – Moses repeatedly reminds us that we must care for the land and treat it well, and not only land but people – otherwise we will be driven out from there as other nations apparently were before us.  

Trees have a special place in how we create awareness of God. For they are not only part of the natural world, they are also used repeatedly in our texts as a metaphor for humanity, for life, for reaching upwards to God and rooting the self in the world.  Trees symbolise so much, they have a quasi-divine element, a quasi-human element. They feed us, they provide shelter, they bridge the generations, and they act as a bellwether for our moral state.

We read in Deuteronomy “ When you will besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you? (20:19)

This image, comparing the fruit tree to human beings, powerfully reminds us of the damage that can be inflicted in a war between people, and in obliging us to protect the trees reminds us of what we have in common with them. If we should not cut down the fruit bearing tree, how much more so should we consider the safety of the people being besieged?

We are about to celebrate the festival of Tu b’Shevat – the fifteenth day of the month Shevat. Originally Tu b’Shevat was simply the way by which the age of trees was measured for purpose of tithing and of orlah (the first three years when the fruit was considered strictly God’s property and not to be eaten by anyone). In effect it marks the boundary of a tax year.

After the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70CE the taking of tithes from fruit trees fell into disuse, but the date remained special in our calendars. The Mishnah recorded four new years  and their dates: – Rosh Hashanah le’ilanot (Tu b’Shevat) for trees, Rosh Hashanah for years, Rosh Hashanah lema’aser behemah for tithing animals, and Rosh Hashanah le’mel’achim for counting the years of a king’s reign.

The date of Tu b’Shevat has stayed in our calendar throughout the time we were without our land, celebrated and noted by communities all over the world. The Kabbalists of Sfat in the 16th and 17th century developed a ritual – the Tu b’Shevat Seder – to represent our connection to the land of Israel and also to reflect the mystical concept of God’s relationship with our world being like a tree.  The Seder consisted of eating the different types of traditional fruits grown in Israel and connecting the different types of these fruit with each the Four Worlds of Kabbalistic theology, drinking four cups of wine that were each mixed with different proportions of wine with each cup of wine symbolizing one of the four seasons, and reading texts about trees.

The mystics understand Tu B’Shevat as being the day when the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe.  And they taught that by offering blessings on Tu B’Shevat, a person can help in the healing of the world. From this came the belief that since on Tu B’Shevat we offer a blessing for each fruit before we consume it, the more fruits we eat, the more blessings we can offer to help heal the world.

In more modern times Tu b’Shevat has been a gift to the Zionist movement and the return to the Land. They have used it as an opportunity to plant trees in Israel as a way of transforming  the land, as well as re-attaching ourselves to the physical Land of Israel. And most recently the Jewish ecological movements have adopted the day to remind us in  powerful messages of our obligation to care for the environment.

All these themes bound up in Tu b’Shevat are important and helpful to our own Jewish identity and spirituality. There is an overarching theme of healing the world through our connections with nature, of the importance and symbiosis of our relationship with the natural world. And in our relationship with nature, we express our relationship with God. Caring for our world is a sacred task. As we read in Proverbs (3:18)

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ 

[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her is happy.

Our tradition asks: “How can a person of flesh and blood follow God? … God, from the very beginning of creation, was occupied before all else with planting.  Therefore … occupy yourselves first and foremost with planting.  – Midrash: Leviticus Rabbah 25:3

It reminds us that  “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you that the Messiah has come, plant the sapling and then go and greet him” (Avot de Rabbi Natan)

Vaccinations and Public Health – Pikuach Nefesh

L’Italiano segue Inglese

When my mother told my small niece not to go out of the gate when playing in the garden, my niece resisted, saying she had learned at her orthodox Jewish primary school that “the God of Israel will protect me”. She could certainly leave the garden and go into the road. When my mother explained that the God of Israel was using her as the protective agent to watch over my niece’s safety, she reluctantly agreed to staying within the garden.

I think of this story whenever I come across Jews who refuse medical interventions because of “the will of God”, and when I hear the phrase “pikuach nefesh” used in response. While we are used to translating the phrase as “saving a life”, its root meaning is “watching over or overseeing a person”. Our obligation to others is to watch out for them, ensuring that they are not endangered.

My niece, disabused of the notion that God would always protect her, grew up aware of the Jewish obligation to take care of each other, that the “looking out for” the other is the responsibility of everyone in society.  Looking out for the other means taking public health seriously, rather then allowing each to make a decision for themselves that may have harmful consequences for others. It means not expecting God to intervene to help us, but being the agent of protection ourselves – protecting ourselves and others.

History has shown us that biblical verses like “Whoever keeps the mitzvot will  know no harm” (Ecc8:5) cannot be read at face value, that faith in God is not the harbinger of survival, and that the kind of piety that expects divine protection as reward for uncritical devotion is at best misguided. From Talmud on the idea that a doctor may heal even what God has caused is threaded through our texts. Healing becomes a religious obligation, preventing danger and illness a duty.

Recently the haredi world was in uproar when a prominent rabbi advocated vaccinating children against Covid. He received death threats, was called “Amalek” whose name must be erased, accused of murder by his own community, purportedly in God’s name.

Progressive Judaism does not teach that illness is God’s will nor that only the undeserving succumb. Faith does not preserve, disease is not a judgment, each of us must watch out for others.  Vaccination protects us all. It’s a mitzvah. Do it.

Vaccini e salute pubblica – Pikuach Nefesh

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild il 9 gennaio 2022

          Quando mia madre diceva alla mia nipotina di non uscire dal cancello mentre giocava in giardino, mia nipote opponeva resistenza, e, come aveva imparato nella sua scuola elementare ebraica ortodossa, diceva: “il Dio di Israele mi proteggerà”. Poteva lasciare il giardino e mettersi tranquillamente in strada. Quando mia madre le spiegava che il Dio d’Israele la stava usando come agente protettivo per vegliare sulla sua sicurezza, lei accettava con riluttanza di rimanere nel giardino.

          Penso a questa storia ogni volta che mi imbatto in ebrei che rifiutano gli interventi medici a causa della “volontà di Dio”, e quando sento la frase “pikuach nefesh” usata come risposta. Nonostante siamo abituati a tradurre la frase come “salvare una vita”, il suo significato principale è “vegliare o sorvegliare una persona”. Il nostro obbligo nei confronti degli altri è di prenderci cura di loro, assicurandoci che non siano in pericolo.

          Mia nipote, disillusa all’idea che Dio l’avrebbe sempre protetta, è cresciuta consapevole dell’obbligo ebraico di prendersi cura l’uno dell’altro, che “prendersi cura” dell’altro è responsabilità di tutti nella società. Prendersi cura dell’altro significa prendere sul serio la salute pubblica, piuttosto che permettere a ciascuno di prendere una singola decisione che potrebbe avere conseguenze dannose per gli altri. Significa non aspettarsi che Dio intervenga per aiutarci, ma essere noi stessi l’agente di protezione, proteggendo noi stessi e gli altri.

          La storia ci ha mostrato che versetti biblici come “Chi osserva le mitzvot non conoscerà alcun male” (Ecc 8:5) non possono essere intesi alla lettera, che la fede in Dio non è foriera di sopravvivenza e che il tipo di pietà che si aspetta la divina protezione come ricompensa per la devozione acritica è, nella migliore delle ipotesi, fuorviante. Dal Talmud in poi l’idea che un medico possa guarire anche ciò che Dio ha causato è intessuta nei nostri testi. Guarire diventa un obbligo religioso, prevenire il pericolo e la malattia diventa un dovere.

          Recentemente il mondo haredi è stato in subbuglio quando un eminente rabbino ha sostenuto la vaccinazione dei bambini contro il Covid. Ha ricevuto minacce di morte, è stato chiamato “Amalek” il cui nome deve essere cancellato, accusato di omicidio dalla sua stessa comunità, presumibilmente in nome di Dio.

          L’ebraismo progressivo non insegna che la malattia è volontà di Dio né che solo gli immeritevoli soccombono. La fede non preserva, la malattia non è un giudizio, ognuno di noi deve stare attento agli altri. La vaccinazione ci protegge tutti. È una mitzvà. Fatela.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Lech Lecha: the land cannot continue to sustain us and something has to change

Now Avram was very rich in cattle, silver, and gold. And he proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai, the site of the altar that he had built there at first; and there Avram invoked the ETERNAL by name. Lot, who went with Avram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Avram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle.—The Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.—  Avram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate:a (Lit. “Please separate from me.”) if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the ETERNAL had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the ETERNAL, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other; Avram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. (Genesis 13:5ff)

Avram and his nephew (and heir presumptive)  Lot had travelled from their homeland of Haran and, finding famine in the land of Canaan had journeyed on to Egypt. There, the encounter with Pharaoh who took Sarai into his harem, believing her to be not Avram’s wife but his sister, led to the family acquiring great wealth before leaving Egypt and returning to Canaan (Gen 12:16). Travelling north through the Negev desert, they reached Beit El (North of Jerusalem), where they had struck camp on their original journey from Haran, and settled there.

But this time their herds and flocks were numerous, the land could not sustain so many animals – theirs as well as those of the Canaanites and Perizzites – and -as ever when a resource becomes scarce, tempers flare and cooperation ends as each group tried to take as much of the resource as possible to sustain their own before thinking of the needs other.

The land could not support them staying together for their livestock [possessions] were so many…..”

Abusing the land by overgrazing or by planting too intensively is a phenomenon as old as settled human habitation. The bible not only understands it, but legislates. So for example in Exodus 22:4 we read “When a man lets his livestock loose to graze in another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, he must make restitution for the impairment Lit. “excellence.” of that field or vineyard.” And Rashi comments here (quoting Talmud Baba Kama 2b) “this describes when  he takes his cattle into the field or the vineyard of his fellow and causes damage to him by one of these two ways: either by the mere fact that he lets his cattle go (tread) there, or by letting it graze there .”  The rabbis of the Talmud were well aware that overgrazing by animals damages the land in two different ways – by eating the vegetation which can then cause soil degradation and later erosion,  and by treading down the land so vegetation cannot thrive there.  

Bible is threaded through with the idea that the land itself has value and agency, quite separately from the fact it acts as home to humanity. From the moment the first human beings are created in the narrative in the first chapter of Genesis, they are given a blessing to “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and control it;” – this last verb is the focus of much commentary – one being that of Sforno (died Bologna 1550)  “It means that the human is to use their intelligence to prevent predators from invading their habitats”, and certainly both biblical and midrashic texts make clear that humanity can only keep control of the land if they take care of the land and act righteously in the way that God requires.  In the words of Rabbi Dovid Sears “the blessing to “control comprises a form of stewardship for which humanity is answerable to God”

The second creation story links humanity to the land even more intimately – Adam, the human being, is created from the Adamah – the ground. We are made of the same stuff, and while the life force is within us we have choices, afterwards we return to the dust we were formed from.

In the story of Avram and Lot there are a number of issues we can recognise in our modern problems with how we deal with our environment.

First of course is the sheer number of animals that they own between them – and the animals of the other peoples in the area. Quite simply the pshat (plain reading of the text) is that there is not enough grazing for them all.

Then there is the fact of individual desires that may mitigate against the needs of others. Ibn Ezra (died 1167 Spain) comments on the word “yachdav” (v6) thus “Yachdav (together) can refer to two (as in our verse) or to many, as in And all the people answered together (yachdav) (Ex. 19:8)….. Yachdav is not synonymous with yachad (together). Yachdav means acting like one person.”. Ibn Ezra is building on the interpretation of Targum Onkelos (early 2nd century translation of the Torah into Aramaic)  which translates yachdav to mean “as one person,” and makes clear that there must be shared values and deep relationship if human beings are to live in full harmony with the land. The uncle and nephew simply can’t create a strategy where they can share the resource that is there, they are each apparently calculating based on their own interests and values  – Lot for wealth, Avram one assumes, for the fulfilment of the covenant by staying on the land.That is, their individuality is blended, as in And all the people answered together (yachdav) (Ex. 19:8), which means that all the people answered as if they were one person. Yachad implies two people acting at the same time, but each one by himself (Weiser).

Thirdly, Avram gives Lot the choice of where he will take his animals. And Lot takes full advantage – “Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the Eternal had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Eternal, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;” (13:10,11)

Lot chooses what he believes to be the best and most richly resourced land for himself. Off he goes to the wealthiest part of the land to further his own material ambitions. We know of course that the cities of the plain – Sodom and Gomorrah – are materially rich but ethically lacking, a compromise that Lot appears prepared to make. His accompanying Avram on the great adventure of Lech Lecha, his role as heir presumptive – all of these are about feeding his own ambitions, and there is apparently no moral imperative in the choices he makes. We cannot but read this text in the light of what happens to Lot and his family, to the point where the descendants of Lot, the Moabites and the Ammonites are forbidden to intermarry with the descendants of Abraham.

Shortage of resource – be it land, water, grain, – the bible is constantly dealing with this problem – so much of the narrative is set against the backdrop of famine or struggles over the right to land. plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose.  We too are dealing with that same shortage of resource in the world – and unlike Avram and Lot we cannot simply spread out to find a place with enough resource to sustain us.

We have to address the overwhelming need to work together as one humanity on one planet. In a way that is truly “yachdav”. We are interconnected in so many ways across the globe: as our climate changes we will have an ever increasing number of refugees. As we compete for resources – be they metals for computer chips or construction, or for water, land and gran – we have to find a way to share equitably and openly. As the coronavirus circulates the globe we must share vaccines and medications if we are to prevent its repeated mutations and iterations. We are living in a world – as shown by recently leaked documents – where the rich are getting richer and hiding their wealth from the rest of the world, while the poor are not only getting poorer but are actively unable to sustain themselves from day to day.

The earth will not continue to sustain us as she is abused and ignored, as soil erosion and flooding, tidal changes and hurricanes increasingly demonstrate. The parasha Lech Lecha comes immediately after the cataclysmic floods and the dispersal following the tower of Babel in Parashat Noach. It is reminding us of our responsibility to each other and to our world. There is, as they say, no Planet B.

By Wenceslaus Hollar – Artwork from University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital CollectionScanned by University of TorontoHigh-resolution version extracted using custom tool by User:Dcoetzee, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6233909

World Mental Health Day 2021 – A Jewish approach

In the Talmud, Berachot 5b, we read a series of stories of the sages and their illnesses. First we are told of Rabbi Yochanan’s student, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, who falls ill. “Rabbi Yochanan entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Hiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward, as one who welcomes this suffering with love is rewarded. Rabbi Yochanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Similarly, Rabbi Yochanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yochanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.

The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yochanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yochanan stand himself up. The Gemara answers itself “A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.”

I read these stories as being a very clear statement of the repudiation of pain or suffering being “good for the soul” – or that accepting any pain or suffering is a gateway to divine mercy. Rather, the rabbis reject the idea that suffering is necessary for achieving closeness to God, or for salvation of the soul, or indeed for anything beneficial to the sufferer, in this world or the next.

Threaded through the narratives of the Hebrew bible are the stories of individuals who protest suffering – their own or that of the people around them.

Moses calls out to God to free him from the burden of leadership of a fractious people (Numbers 11:14-15), adding “And if You deal thus with me, kill me, I pray, out of hand, if I have found favour in Your sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness.” – Moses would rather die than continue in his mental distress and the loneliness of his position.

In 1Kings 19:4ff we see Elijah, having shown courage and confidence against the Baal worshippers only the chapter before, now frightened and depressed at his situation “He went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom-tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said: ‘It is enough; now, O Eternal God, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.”

We see King Saul, the first King of Israel,  repeatedly demonstrating disturbed behaviour and showing emotional and mental distress: shortly after he is anointed King by Samuel he has an episode where he joins a band of wandering prophets and falls into some kind of ecstatic prophetic frenzy, (1Sam 10:10) leading to the proverb “Is Saul also among the prophets?”;  and again he appears to have an episode much later when chasing David (1Sam 19:23f) whom he knows will now be king in his place “And he went to Naiot in Ramah and the spirit of God came upon him also, and he went and prophesised until he came to Naiot in Ramah. And he stripped off his clothes and prophesised before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say “Is Saul also among the prophets”

More frequently however Saul is described in what today we would understand to be deep depression and anxiety– described as “an evil spirit from God”, and could be soothed only by David playing the lyre before him (1Sam 16:23).

The Psalmist repeatedly writes of emotional and mental distress, of feeling alone and abandoned, of the anxiety of living with the knowledge that there are those who seek to harm them. The language used is very much bodily oriented – feelings are experienced in heart and belly and bowels, and this reinforces the Jewish teaching of Maimonides – “the body is the home of the soul and the soul guides the body. This means that the body and the soul are one unit”

Maimonides also wrote that “”When one is overpowered by imagination, prolonged meditation and avoidance of social contact, which he never exhibited before, or when one avoids pleasant experiences which were in him before, the physician should do nothing before he improves the soul by removing the extreme emotions.”  He believed that mental health was as important as physical health, earning him the distinction of being the father of psychosomatic medicine. He emphasised the prevention of illness of all kinds, mental or physical, since they interfered with the person’s ability to serve God. (Koenig: Faith and Mental Health: Religious Resources for Healing, p34)

 His understanding that before addressing a person’s physical needs, physicians must first attend to the patient’s emotional and mental needs, was a powerful innovation for his time (12th Century) and led to him being appointed as court physician, as well as being described by Ibn Abi Ozeibia (1203–1270), the famous physician and historian of Cairo as a “healer of the body and the mind.”

In the traditional community prayer for healing, the “Mi Sheberach” prayer read in the morning service when the Torah is read, we pray for a r’fuah shleimah, a complete recovery, which includes both r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf, a healing of the soul and the body. This ancient formula which asks for “complete healing”, specifies that both the body and the soul are often in need of help, that we are human beings who experience distress and pain in both the physical and spiritual parts of our being. Judaism acknowledges a that both mental and physical ill- health exists, and our tradition treats them on equally, knowing that for a human being to be “shalem” complete and whole,  there should be good health in both the physical and spiritual aspects.

Somewhere this understanding that we are made up of body and spirit, that everyone from the highest social status to the lowest can be subjected to distress of both mind and body, and that prioritising physical health over mental distress can never successfully alleviate either – somewhere this knowledge has diminished.

  • According to MIND 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England  
  • 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/

In any given week in England people suffer:    Mixed anxiety and depression: 8 in 100 people

  Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD): 6 in 100 people

  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): 4 in 100 people

  Depression: 3 in 100 people

  Phobias: 2 in 100 people

  Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): 1 in 100 people

  Panic disorder: fewer than 1 in 100 people.

We know that people who suffer from mental health challenges are not only having to deal with their illness, but that society will often stigmatise them and exclude them. People with a visible illness may attract empathy and concern, yet often people with an invisible illness or disability will find themselves ridiculed or dismissed, ignored or even feared.

Today is World Mental Health Day. A day for us to stop and recognise that each of us has a risk of mental ill-health in our lifetime, just as we have the risk of physical ill-health. A day for us to see the people whose suffering is often invisible to us; a day to give space and time to those who may be struggling, a day to tell others of our own distress and struggle. A day to remember that we are each made up of body and soul, and both can become out of sorts, both need to be in balance for our well-being.

 Mi she-bei-rach a-vo-tei-nu, Av-ra-ham, Yitz-chak, v’Ya-a-kov, v’i-mo-tei-nu Sa-rah, Riv-kah, Ra-chel, v’Le-ah, Hu yi-va-rech vi-ra-pei et ha-cho-leh/ha-cho-lah ____ ben/bat ____ Ha-Ka-dosh Ba-ruch Hu yi-ma-lei ra-cha-mim a-lav/a-lei-hah, l’ha-cha-li-mo/l’ha-cha-li-mah u-l’rap-o-to/u-l’rap-o-tah, l’ha-cha-zi-ko/ l’ha-cha-zi-kah u-l’ha-cha-yo-to/u-l’ha-cha-yo-tah V’yish-lach lo/lah bim-hei-ra r’fu-ah sh’lei-mah, r’fu-at ha-ne-fesh u-r’fu-at ha-guf, b’toch sh’ar cho-lei Yis-ra-el, hash-tah ba-a-ga-lah u-viz-man ka-riv, v’no-mar, Am-en!

May the One who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless and heal the one who is ill: ____ son/daughter of ____. May the Holy One, the fount of blessings, shower abundant mercies upon him/her, fulfilling his/her dreams of healing, strengthening him/her with the power of life.

Merciful one, restore him/her, heal him/her, strengthen him/her, enliven him/her. Send him/her a complete healing from the heavenly realm, a healing of body and a healing of soul, together with all who are ill soon, speedily, without delay; and let us say: Amen! Translation by National Center for Jewish Healing

https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/guides-tools-and-activities/five-steps-to-mental-wellbeing/

https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/health-wellbeing/conditions-illnesses/depression-anxiety/

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/world-mental-health-day

Bereishit – the roots of social justice are entwined with our creation as human beings

And the Eternal God said, behold, the human being is become like one of us, to be able to know good and evil (Gen 3:22)

ֶוַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ, לָדַעַת, טוֹב וָרָע;

What had been an ability reserved for divinity, to know and differentiate good and evil, to understand morality and make ethical decisions, has now become a human capacity. We can no longer exist in a state of ethical indifference to the world – we cannot claim we do not understand the consequences of our actions.

The Italian rabbi  and biblical commentator Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (died Bologna 1550) wrote an extraordinary comment on this verse. He read the latter half of the verse as meaning that humanity will know good and evil while continuing to “wear our image”, an intolerable situation because of the human tendency to give in to the yetzer ha’ra, the inclination towards material rather than spiritual imperatives.

For Sforno the problem was that the human being, in favouring their yetzer hara, would not then reach the spiritual level set out for them when God first created them in the image of the divine, but I read his comment slightly differently. While protected and camouflaged because they were wearing the clothing of being created in the image of God, human beings would continue to choose selfishly intentionally. They would bring into disrepute the name and the meaning of being a religious person, they would disgrace and dishonour the values taught by religious traditions, because they would use it for their own purposes and to fulfil their own needs.

I cannot help thinking of how often in our world people wear the clothing of integrity while simultaneously denigrating and demeaning it. Of the police officer who used his warrant card to kidnap, rape and murder a young woman walking home, and all the other stories that are emerging as women tell their stories. Of the politicians who flaunt the national flag in their interviews as if they are defending the values of our nations. Of the despots who rule in the name of “the people” and divide communities by disparaging some imagined “elite”. Of the clergy and the educators and the employers who have historically abused their power and abused those in their power. Of the “nationalists” who foment hatred against outsiders and people in need. The list seems endless right now.

Moral authority  must be much more than clothing we can take on or take off. And much more than the roles we inhabit professionally. It must come from within, be ingrained in how we choose to behave whether “in role” or not, our actions informed by it whether we can be seen or whether we are in private.

Judaism is very clear that each of us is responsible for our own actions. God has given us a pure soul for which we thank God every morning in the “elohai neshama” prayer. It is for each of us to take care of that gift, to be aware of what might taint it and how we can make reparations and teshuvah in order to keep ourselves in good order. No one else can act as intermediary or offer absolution – we have to do the work ourselves.

 But Judaism is also interested in our responsibility for others and for our world. In this week’s sidra the first murder, the fratricide of Abel by Cain, is recorded. And God asks Cain the same question that God asked Eve – “What have you done? (Mah zot aseet/ mah aseeta?”. Eve tries to pass the blame onto the serpent who is then cursed among all the animals, (Genesis 3:13ff) but Cain’s denial of responsibility is far more chilling, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and it leads to him being cursed from the very earth of which he is made, as God says “the bloods of your brother cry out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).

We cannot read this sidra without being very clear that the actions of one can impinge upon another. We cannot see God’s responses to our actions as being anything other than a repeated demand that we act ethically and morally, in the interest of the community rather than pursue our own desires. We see that God doesn’t ignore or deny the wrongdoing even if we might try to do so, to mitigate, to explain away, to obfuscate to ourselves or to others.

Each of us has the gift of moral discernment. We know the difference between right and wrong; we can identify even in the most complex situations what we should be doing, even if we choose not to do so. Each of us has the gift of a pure soul, every morning we are reminded in our prayers that the condition of our moral being is our own responsibility.  Each of us is also tasked with the welfare and well-being of our own communities, of giving a gentle “tochecha”(rebuke/honest feedback/helpful criticism) when we see someone whose behaviour is not in line with ethical imperatives.  We are indeed “our brother’s keeper”

In this very first sidra of the yearly cycle, we see the roots of social justice established as part of the agreement between God and humanity. We see how each of us is given the ability to understand right and wrong, each of us is given the choice, the continuous and continuing choice, in how we decide to act. We see that none of us are isolated or insulated from each other, that the choices we make may have deep impact on the lives and wellbeing of others. That we have responsibility to and for each other.

So when we see people wearing the image of the divine while at the same time diminishing the presence of divine will in the world, we have to speak up. When we see people abusing their authority, abusing their power over others; when we see politicians gaslighting the electorate or waving the flag to cover their selfish and destructive behaviour, we have to stand up and speak out. When we hear the rhetoric of hate in the guise of patriotism, we must call it out, confront it and those who speak it.

If like Adam, Eve and the Serpent we just try to pass on the blame, or like Cain we deny that any blame might be attached, we are denying the humanity of the other and denying our own human obligation to support and care for others – our obligation to act in the image of God. If we add to that our wearing the clothing of integrity and moral authority while denying the obligations they entail, we are truly ignoring the lessons of this sidra, and we are adding insult to injury by not only choosing our yetzer ha’ra over our yetzer hatov, but masquerading, pretending that this is divinely sanctioned behaviour.

Hiding behind a professional role, clothing ourselves in terms of values while choosing to behave directly in contradiction to those values, whether it be a religious professional or a policeman, a politician charged with working to benefit the country or a regulator tasked with ensuring their organisation does what it is supposed to do – Sforno was right to be worried. If we traduce the divine image in which we are made while proclaiming our rights and our righteousness, the damage we can do is amplified beyond measure. And so society loses trust in educators and police, in politicians and regulators, in journalists and in clergy…

15th Elul: Which God do you not believe in?

Elul 15 23rd August

A discussion among my colleagues – “What does one say when someone says to you “Rabbi, I don’t believe in God””

One answer – “I always ask them which God they don’t believe in”.

My teacher Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet used to bemoan the fact that so many Jews give up serious Jewish education at bar/bat mitzvah. They had, he used to say, a thirteen year old god. And as they grew and matured, their idea of God was frozen in time, adolescent and unbelievable.

Jews are the people of Israel – literally the ones who struggle with God. We are not required (despite the Maimonidean doctrine) to believe in God. Indeed earliest rabbinic Judaism was not so much interested in what people believed about divinity, but talked instead about shared narratives. Slightly later we have the extraordinary rabbinic midrash on the verse in Jeremiah (16:11) “They have forsaken Me and not kept my Torah”   – “If only they had forsaken Me but kept my Torah!” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 5-7th Century)

Rabbinic Judaism is far more interested in how people behave, in the keeping of mitzvot, in action rather than in belief.

Since the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai on the way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in their ancestral land, Jews are a people who are commanded – who are under a chiyyuv, and obligation – and whose live are traditionally framed by the observance of mitzvot.

Of course the idea of commandments does somewhere require there to be a commander, but while we may have an historic metzaveh in our texts, the doing of mitzvot is in and of itself integral to our religious life. So for example Rabbi David Polish wrote that “When a Jew performs one of the many life acts known as mitzvot to remind themselves of the moments of encounter, what was only episodic becomes epochal, what was only a moment in Jewish history becomes eternal in Jewish life”[i]  His examples of the lighting of shabbat candles or of sitting at a Pesach seder are some of the examples he gives of our connecting with Jews across the world and across time.  The meaning and purpose of mitzvah for him is in part a way of sharing history and experiences across Jewish people hood, something that strengthens us in the world, and that momentarily allows us to transcend the mundane into the spiritual. 

There are many rabbinic names and descriptors for God. There are ways of understanding God not as a noun but as a verb – we are not tied to a thirteen year old god, some kind of supernatural being to whom we have to speak in stilted and formalised language. My very favourite name for God is “haMakom” – literally “the place”. Not a geographical location but a space where things can happen.

Israel – Jews – are named for struggling with God. Struggling with the ideas, the ethical demands, the behaviours that are required of us to be in covenant with God. The struggle is ongoing. If you find it hard to believe in the God of your childhood, then it is up to you to search the texts and find God with whom you can have a dialogue.


[i] ” Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle, ed. Simeon J. Maslin [New York: CCAR Press, 1979]

13th Elul – ki tetzei – you shall not remain indifferent

Elul 13  21st August  Shabbat ki Tetzei

Ki Tetzei: You Shall Not Remain Indifferent – The Extra Dimension in Jewish Law

first Posted on September 1, 2014

            Parashat Ki Tetzei contains seventy two commandments, (some say 74: either way the largest number in any Torah portion). They deal with such diverse subjects as the treatment of captives, defiant children, lost animals, birds’ nests, roof railings, divorce, rights of aliens, loans, vows, and protection of works; parental guilt, charity for the poor, regulations for inheritance and fair weights and measures. Many attempts have been made to categorize such laws, but the words of Torah which conclude the duty to return lost property or to keep it safe until it can be restored to its owner – the words lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent (or you shall not hide or act as if you cannot see) seem to me to sum up the ethical principle which underpins these disparate laws most powerfully.

            Way back in the book of Genesis, when Cain says to God “am I my brother’s keeper?” the response from God is “What have you done, your brother’s blood calls out to Me from the ground” – in other words it is made clear to Cain that ‘Yes, we are responsible for each other; we must not remain indifferent to the situation of others, nor hide from their pain, nor avoid seeing their distress. More than that, we have to try to see ahead, to work out the possibilities that our actions or omissions may cause others. We are obliged to consider the effects of what we do upon other people.

‘Lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent’ It is a powerful dictum, a motto for every day life. It could have been formulated for our middle class existence, when people talk of compassion fatigue, of undeserving refugees; when we create rational and reasonable explanations for our unwillingness to care about the discomfort in the world we see around us.   Lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent – it is an in-your-face moral and ethical requirement, taking us further into our humanity, reminding us that however practical Judaism is, however much a religion of doing, the doing is based on our shared humanity, our striving to reach a fuller and richer knowledge of our Source.

            Nachmanides makes it clear that the mitzvah of returning lost property supersedes any inconvenience to the finder. He reminds us that the mitzvah applies to friends, strangers, and even to enemies. He says “Assist others. Remember the bond of humanity between you, and forget the hatred”. Benno Jacob builds on his commentary, and suggests that the act of helping an enemy by helping his lost animal is itself a means of arriving at reconciliation. But it is Pinchas Peli who crystallizes the heart of Judaism taught in this huge collection of disparate laws – “From the moment one notices an animal gone astray, or an object lost by someone, one must not hide oneself. Whether he is busy with something else, or whether he chooses to get involved, a person is in fact involved, and duty bound to bring the object to his home, keeping it there safely until it can be returned to its owner. While some legal systems require returning or handing over found property to the authorities, none enjoins the finder from ignoring the lost object in the first place.

            Judaism is an infinitely complex way of being. There is no single Hebrew expression to approximate the word ‘religious’ – the use of idioms such as dati (legally observant) or charedi (quaking in the presence of the lord) are recent innovations, and they are not only inadequate and parochial, they distort the essence of Judaism. Judaism is not only about what one does and doesn’t do. It is more than what rituals you keep, or what time you separate. It isn’t lived only in the spiritual plane nor exclusively in the material world, but is rooted in the ethical and the moral. A legal code which tells us to behave properly towards others, to look after lost property even of your enemy, to make strenuous efforts to return that property – this we all understand and appreciate. But that extra expectation, – you shall not pretend not to see or to notice this property – you shall not hide yourself or be indifferent to your surroundings, however inconvenient it might be for you to notice them and therefore to have to respond to them – that is a quintessentially Jewish requirement, a teaching which fully recognises age old human rationalizations or ways of glossing over what we’d rather not deal with.    

            At this time of year, in the month of Ellul, we examine our lives and the things we have done or left undone, affecting people around us as well as affecting ourselves. It is a time when we need to be honest, to stop hiding behind all the good reasons why we didn’t have time to do what we should have done, to stop sliding our eyes away from the pain we have participated in.

Lo tuchal lehitalem- you shall not hide yourself, you shall not be indifferent.   We are not permitted to look the other way, to continue with our lives as routinely as before. Hiding the truth from ourselves and not acting to help others is a direct prohibition. Indifference to our world is intolerable, unethical and it breaches our morality. As we continue the run up to Rosh Hashanah, the annual Heshbon ha Nefesh – accounting of our soul, we need to strip away the pretence, come out of hiding and look clearly and dispassionately at our world and our place in it.

Losing our indifference might be the best thing we do all year.

wiesel indifference

 

11th Elul – Yossele the miser and Yomtov Lipman Heller

Elul 11 19th August 2021

On 19th August 1654 the Yom Tov Lipman Heller, a student of the Maharal of Prague and the author of a commentary on the Mishnah (Tosefot Yom Tov) died.  He was a deep scholar of Talmud, but also a keen student of bible, Hebrew grammar, philosophy, geometry, natural science mathematics and astronomy.  He was also known for his integrity and became a communal leader at a very early age.

Besides his great talmudic knowledge, he engaged in the study of Kabbalah, religious philosophy, and Hebrew grammar and also acquired an extensive general knowledge, particularly of mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences. In 1597, when only 18 years of age, he was appointed dayyan in Prague, and served in this office for 28 years, during which period he became renowned for his knowledge and for his integrity. As well as Talmudic commentary, he wrote commentary to that of Asher ben Yechiel, (The Rosh) focussing on prayer and on kashrut and developing the local Prague halachic traditions. He also translated the Rosh’s ethical work “Orchot Chayim” written originally for the author’s sons and embodying teachings to live an ethical Jewish life. Heller introduced the reading of parts of this work into the liturgy of his community and the work is an important part of mussar literature to this day.

His life was not easy – his integrity and his straightforwardness meant that he was not a successful political being nor always a revered community leader, but his character shines through his work and through stories that are told about him. So, for example, we see his response to the persecutions of 1648 being to try to help agunot lose that awful status. And we have the testimony on his death that “he did not leave the wherewithal to purchase shrouds, even though he was the Av Beit Din of Cracow… all this because he never took dishonest money” (testimony of Z Margulies, intro Hibburei likkutim 1715)

The story I find most fascinating is that of Yossele, the Miser of Cracow.  When Yossele, a wealthy man but one who was never seen to give tzedakah or to help the community died, YomTov Heller was asked where to bury him. He decreed that as this man had not supported the community in any way, he should be buried in a far corner of the cemetery away from the places where the most honoured people would be buried. Shortly after the burial however it became apparent that far from being a miser Yossele had practised the highest level of tzedakah – he had given anonymously via third parties so that no-one knew the level of his charitable giving, nor did he know to whom this support were going.  Far from being a miser, he was now understood to be a lamed vavnik. Yom Tov Heller repented his harsh decision and left instruction that he be buried in the same section as Yossele as an act of teshuvah.

His grave is indeed in a remote part of the cemetery in Cracow.

Image of grave by Talmidavi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48824514