Parashat Emor: Proclaim God’s Time or Time is more than a packages of moments; it encodes our history, our identity, our meaning, our purpose

Right at the beginning of the bible comes the need to distinguish time. God divides the phases of creation into days and nights and sets up structures in the universe to define the time that already exists, making the sun, moon and stars. Then God models for us the structure of six days of work followed by a seventh day of rest.

Jewish time is further developed in the rest of the bible. In the book of Exodus in Parashat Bo we find the very first commandment in Torah that is addressed to the entire Jewish people and we find that it is about Time. “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim rishon . . . , “This month shall be to you the first of the months . . . “(Exodus 12:2).

Tradition reads this as an instruction to organise a calendar. And this week, in Parashat Emor, we are given the monthly and daily specifics of what goes on it. Mo-adei Adonai Asher Tikr’u otam . . . , “These are God’s set times which you shall proclaim . . . “(Leviticus 23:2).

Jewish time is the ebb and flow of working week and restful shabbat; it is structured around the major festivals which bound the year – so that until recently most Jews would remember a birthdate or a yahrzeit as being in relation to the nearest festival.

Our calendar is a way of making sure that life is not simply the flow of one homogenous day after another.  It is a way of structuring and therefore being able to use and understand, time.

But it’s not just a matter of giving dates for our holy days in order for us to remember and mark them. Our calendar is more complex and more nuanced than that.

First of all, the days of the year must be indexed to the seasons, otherwise even the tiniest annual discrepancy would, over the decades and centuries, mean that we would be celebrating the Spring festival of Pesach in the winter, and the Autumn festival of Sukkot in the spring. So we have to intervene in how we describe time in order to allow it to work in the right and proper place.

Our sages quickly worked out that neither the solar nor the lunar calendar on their own will solve our problem.  Counting full days does not bring the earth back to precisely the same place in its solar orbit. The solar year – the time it takes the sun to pass from vernal (or spring) equinox to vernal equinox is actually 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds, so there is about a six-hour  or quarter-day margin of error each year. If we did not compensate for this we would create a margin of error of about 24 days after only 100 years.

So in the Gregorian calendar we add a “leap year” with one more day every four years to bring us back to ‘true’.

The lunar calendar, while having the great visual advantage that the eve of the fourteenth day of every lunar month has a full moon (Pesach, Sukkot, Purim, Tu B’Shevat), still brings the difficulty of being one whole lunar month short every two or three years as it is about eleven days shorter than the solar month. We solve this by adding an Adar Sheini, a second month of Adar nine times every seventeen years.

The creation and structuring of time in order to use it is one of the things that makes us human, and how we do it in our particular tradition is one of the things that makes us who we are as Jews. By our working alongside the natural world of day and night, of solar year and lunar cycle and by adding something of our own so as to keep our festivals in their seasons, we are working alongside of God to co-create both our environment and our expression of our history and spirituality. And it is the list of festivals in parashat Emor which gives us the permission and the expectation to do this.  Having been able to create our time and associate our festivals not just with dates, not simply with seasons, but also with a quasi historical meaning, we Jews, so long uprooted from our land and from the agricultural tradition, have learned to build and to buttress our identity and our history through the use of time. Pesach has become the time of redemption from slavery, Shavuot the time of connection with God through Torah, Sukkot gives meaning through our recognition of our mortality and fragility, as well as acknowledging God’s real and practical gifts to us.  Time is more than a series of events of packages of moments; it encodes our history, our identity, our meaning, our purpose.

However secular or distanced from tradition we may be, we still sense the flow of sacred time alongside our awareness of our routine diaries and the calendars of secular events. Spring time still brings thoughts of Pesach, the Autumn heralds the solemn festivals of new year and Yom Kippur. And Jews who rarely feel the need for community or ritual will contact a local community to find out about seder, or a ticket to the high holy days. We still sense the sacredness of time, but how do we express its holiness apart from a tug into community a few times a year? The psalms tell us the messianic age could arrive tomorrow, if only we would listen. Today’s sidra is called “Emor” – the imperative to speak. Yet if we focus only on speaking we would quickly dislocate ourselves in our dialogue, for just as time is lunar AND solar, so is communication about speaking AND listening.  What we listen to, what we hear bible telling us again and again, is the requirement to be holy because God is holy. And how do we do that? Clearly in part it is a focus on what we do, how we act in the world, but Emor tells us also that becoming holy has something to do with how we ‘make time’ for the important things in life, with we use our time on this earth.

Rabbi Jon Adland (US Reform Rabbi) put it like this: “Time is all we’ve got in our lives, and how we use this precious inheritance will determine the mark we leave on this world. Holy days and holidays are not only about acknowledging God, but also about affirming community and remembering that which came before. The rest of time, the majority of moments outside of the holy days, are left for us to structure. In many ways, every day that isn’t a Jewish holiday is chol hamo-eid, an “intermediate day” in a year-long calendar. Just because a day is not a holy day on the calendar doesn’t mean it can’t be made holy through our actions.”

So we need to be asking ourselves each day: “What should we be doing to sanctify our time?”  “In what way should we be speaking out? In what way should we be listening?”

Our religious practise has moved on since the days that we brought offerings to God at set times to the Temple. Now we have to ask how we use our time in a way that honours God and our tradition. Be it fighting for social justice or bringing compassion to individuals in distress; be it offering gifts of food or money or opportunity to those in need or our living with low impact on the environment; be it political activism or small acts of kindness – there are a myriad ways we can use our time in this world. The important thing is that we use our time well, and create holiness in our world.

 

Sermon 2018

Kedoshim Tihyu: Holiness lies in the interconnected world, in our relationships and our responsibilities

Parashat Kedoshim takes its name from the phrase it begins with: “Kedoshim tihyu, ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem” – You will be Kadosh, as I the Eternal your God Am Kadosh.  (Leviticus 19:2)

The root K.D.Sh appears 152 times in the Book of Leviticus, and while usually translated as “separate/distinct” or “holy”, it has a richer and more complex life within Jewish thought than to be boundaried in such a way. It is difficult to fully explicate this word, in part because Kedushah is an attribute of the essence of God, and something we human beings are to pursue in our behaviour and being, the result of such pursuit is attachment to the Divine, understood in mystical tradition as the ultimate goal of all our spiritual strivings.

The 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu deVidas explains in his mystical and meditative work (Reishit Chochma) that fleeing evil and doing good creates within us the ability to receive holiness from God. Holiness is a Divine response to our actions, and inhabits and shapes our soul, creating the possibility for communion with God.

Holiness exists in two different frameworks in bible: one is the sanctity of the priesthood and temple rituals which is the focus of much of this book of Leviticus; the second is the sanctity of peoplehood, of the whole community, as is underscored with the first verse of this sidra – “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You (voi) shall be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).”. It is this second framework that speaks to us. Holiness is an aspiration for a community much more than a state for priest and temple. The focus moves a little away from the ritual rooted in the sacrificial system and more towards the ethical rooted in community living.

Avoiding evil and doing good seems to the main thrust of much of what is contained in the apex of the holiness school of guidance, found in Leviticus chapter 19.(Full holiness Code found Leviticus 17-26) According to Sefer haChinuch, there are 13 positive and 38 negative mitzvot in sidra kedoshim, guiding us towards doing good things, and away from improper behaviour.

We are used to categorising these mitzvot (commandments) in Kedoshim as either Ritual ones or Ethical ones, but there is another way to see these imperatives that does not divide them into different and separate types, but functioning instead together, as part of a whole and complex system.

The commandments that guide us towards holiness can be understood as being ecological in structure –together they are a description of the web of relationships that unite the people, the land, the environment including both flora and fauna, and God.  Together they both set the balance that allows each component to flourish, each constituent to be in harmonious relationship.

There are curious parallels that signal the interconnectedness if one looks – for example the law of pe’ah forbids us to cut the edges of the land (19:9) and the edges of the human head and beard (19:27). People and land are treated in the same way, albeit for different motivations.

The section of bible known to us as “holiness code” (Leviticus 17-26) can be understood as a coherent and unified corpus, which aims to bring together –  through varied and diverse subject matter, terminology and historical perspective – the connection of people and land. Specifically here people and land which each have a distinct relationship with God. The people are to aspire towards ideal behaviour; the land is to embody the sacred.  Each generation is to learn and understand the principles that underlie this text, to draw out and fulfil those principles in their own time and their own context. The texts play with time. This is the generation of the desert being told how to behave in the land they have settled. We are simultaneously at Sinai shortly after the exodus from Egypt, in the desert as a travelling and unrooted people, and in the Land of Israel as the people who are responsible for the welfare of both land and society.

The effect of these time distortions within the text is to reinforce the timelessness of the message and of those to whom the message is addressed – to remind us that each generation of the people Israel is to understand that we too are part of the web of relationship. Just as the Pesach Haggadah reminds us that each of us is to consider ourselves part of the generation that was freed from Egyptian slavery, so here we are reminded that the relationship between people, land and God is one we are firmly held within.

This year the message of the ecology, the web of the relationships and the connections between plants, animals, people, and the environment, has never been so powerful to me, and the balances and imbalances between these relationships cry out for our attention.

We are living in a time of climate change happening with unprecedented speed. Everything is being affected and generally not for the good of the world. Be it the insect populations diminishing or disappearing due to insecticides, or else the changes in weather which have disrupted their breeding; or the crops blighted by drought or to-heavy rains; be it the animals whose habitats are changing around them, leaving them ill equipped to survive, or the people who face tsunami or cyclones, or drought or blistering heat – we are once again forced to pay attention to the interdependability of our world, and to note how our behaviour is unbalancing not only our own context but the future world of our children.

When one reads this section of Leviticus not to tease out the ritual or ethical behaviours we feel ourselves commanded to follow, but to become more fully conscious of what it means to hear the imperative to holiness that we must pursue in order to come closer to God, it is impossible to ignore how the impetus to Kedushah is situated within the web of relationships between people, animals and land. The book of Genesis (2:15) tells us we have a responsibility to steward the land, to keep it in good order and fully functioning, we have to work it responsibly and mindfully. The book of Deuteronomy reminds us that should we not care properly for the land and for the people we will be expelled from living in the land, reminds us too that God is watching how people treat the land that is so special to God (Deut 11:12) And all the books of bible repeatedly remind us that we are not inheritors of this world by right, but that we are privileged to live here and have a role we must play, relationships we must nurture, transmission we must be part of. How we live our lives matters not just to us or our close family or generation, how we live our lives is part of the ecology of the world and how it will thrive – or not

Imitatio Dei, the imitation of the attributes of God, holds a central place in Jewish thinking, right from the creation of people b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. We cannot absorb God nor become God, we cannot understand or encompass God, but we still have the obligation to come closer to Kedushah. The Talmud phrases it best, I think, like this:  “Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina said: (Deuteronomy 13:5) “After God you shall walk.” And is it possible for a person to walk after the Presence of God? And doesn’t it already say (Deuteronomy 4:24) “Because God is a consuming flame”? Rather, [it means] to walk after the characteristics of God. Just as God clothed the naked [in the case of Adam and Chava]… so, too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God visited the sick [in the case of Avraham after his brit milah]…so, too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God comforted the mourners [in the case of Yitzhak after Avraham’s passing]…so, too, should you comfort the mourners. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God buried the dead [in the case of Moshe]…so, too, should you bury the dead” (Sotah 14a:3-4)

It is a lovely description of how to imitate God to make the world a better place. But as our liturgy reminds us three times a day in the Aleinu prayer, it is our duty “letaken olam b’malchut Shaddai” To repair and maintain the world with the sovereignty of God. This is bigger than the cases suggested by Rav Hama – for the sovereignty of God is more than the relationships between people, important as they are. Instead I think the phrase is referring to the Kedushah we find in the Holiness Section of Leviticus – we must maintain and repair the relationships not simply bein Adam v’Chavero (between people) but bein Adam v’Olam – between people and the living beings – animal and vegetable – on this earth.

How we treat the earth – the rainforests with its trees often logged mercilessly and the environment of the animals who live there decimated and unsustainable; the rivers we clog with chemicals or detritus, the seas filled with plastic and becoming toxic to so many who swim in them, be they small turtles or huge orcas; the air in cities that are filled with pollutants, the fields we drench with fertilizers or insecticides, the animals and birds we so carelessly damage, the environment we so thoughtlessly injure, the casual littering and the mindless consumption of limited resources – all of this is in direct contradiction to what we are told about Kedushah, the holiness we should be striving to attain.

In London this week a 16 year old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, came to speak to Parliament and also to the many protestors of Climate Change who brought our cities to a standstill as they sought to persuade the government, by non-violent action, to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to zero. The group “Extinction Rebellion” which has a Jewish section also held a Seder outside the Parliament buildings, linking the traditional ten plagues to the many threats to the earth if greenhouse gas emissions are not massively reduced, and global warming brought below two degrees.  They linked too to the damage to seas and air and land we are increasingly seeing happen. (The group is also protesting in Milan, Rome and Torino and in other countries too).

Reactions were mixed to the protests – in part because of the inconvenience caused to daily living, in part to vested interests, in part to political games-playing. But what became clearer to me was not just the science the protesters were drawing our attention to, but the religious values we have been ignoring for so long.

For when we categorise mitzvot into ethical or ritual, meaningful or opaque, spiritual or mundane, we mask over something else – the inter-relatedness of our world, which the mitzvot are designed to help  us to understand if only we would pay attention, the web of relationships between us and our environment, between animals and plants and humans and land and God.

When God tells the people that we must strive for Kedushah, an essential attribute of the divine, we often put this into the domain of the heavens, and forget that we live on the earth. We forget that the web of relationships is planet wide, that it involves trees and plants and soil and animals and insects….   Holiness demands from us the awareness of these relationships, and a response that values them.  “Le’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai” – to maintain and repair the world with divine ruling” – that is out task, and it is not in the heavens or far from us, but in our everyday interactions with the created world.

(sermon given 2019)

 

 

Tzav- we need to understand commandedness through the lens of both halacha and aggadah or we will miss the point completely

Sermon given 2018 Lev Chadash Milano

Every so often the Jewish world erupts into a debate about authenticity and flung into the mix are accusations about what Torah is, what mitzvot are, and who has the right to decide.

In parashat Tzav we find God telling Moses “Command Aaron  and his sons to do these rituals”  There follows a description of the five sacrifices the priests are to perform, the limits to the acceptable consumption of the meat of the sacrifices, and the details about how Aaron and his sons were to be prepared for ordination as priests.

The power of that imperative “Tzav!” which introduces the details of the ritual reverberates across the centuries.  To this day Jews view ourselves as commanded, and Rabbinic Judaism has grounded itself on the Halachah of mitzvot, what they are and how to do them, while Jewish theology and the meaning of WHY we live in this way, essentially remains in the area of aggadah.

It is the tension between these two ways of ‘being Jewish” that causes us so many problems. For Eugene Borowitz, possibly the most influential Reform Jewish thinker, “While Halachah seeks to define just what constitutes one’s obligation, the aggadah often attempts to supply the theological and historical foundation of Jewish duty” or as AJ Heschel formulated it, Halacha becomes Jewish behaviour while the motivation for these behaviours is aggadah.

How we approach God is important, and to know that there is more than one way to do this within Judaism, offers a validity to what we know Judaism to be – a variety of ways in which to be authentically Jewish, rather than a doctrinal or behavioural “orthodoxy” which itself creates heresy.

Halacha gives form and structure, provides a system for us to live and work within. Aggadah  is harder to define, but must express our limitless striving to relate to God in the world.  Essentially Halacha – and the system of mitzvot that Rabbinic Judaism cherishes – prescribes for us how to behave in the world while Aggadah helps us formulate our aspirations for what life is about, helps give meaning to our existence, and inspires us to continue the search for relationship with God.

The Rabbinic Judaism within whose system we all now function began as a wonderfully dynamic melding of both halachic and aggadic discourse. Talmud is its apotheosis.  Within Talmud there is very little interest in proclaiming what the halachah actually is, and indeed any such ruling is hardly ever found. Instead we have a variety of opinions recorded, debated, refuted or supported with biblical verses or teachings from either inside or outside the text of the Talmud itself, and this rich raw material becomes the foundation of how Judaism could develop.  Halachah and aggadah coexist in this system, each informing and enriching the other, providing balance and dynamism.   The two systems probably only begin to diverge in the Geonic Period (c600 – 1000 CE) and with the codifying of the Oral Torah we find that the system of halachah and mitzvot becomes rigid and stultifies, while the creative emotive and wide-ranging  aggadic system often gets relegated to a less important status. Yet, as Heschel wrote: ”To maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of halachah is as erroneous as to maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of aggadah. The interrelationship of halachah and aggadah is the very heart of Judaism. Halachah without aggadah is dead, aggadah without halachah is wild.”

We Jews see ourselves as a commanded and covenanted people, a people who perform mitzvot, who follow the directives of God with whom we are in a covenant of obligation. Yet we cannot quite agree on the Who is doing the commanding, nor what the commandments actually are, let alone how we must carry them out authentically.

Is the commander the God of Torah – and if so, which of God’s commands in bible are even applicable to us, let alone take precedence? Is the commander the God of later literature, of the Nevi’im, the Prophetic books and the Ketuvim (Writings)?   Is the Commander the Voice of God we discern in our lives and through our experiences? Is it the Voice of our tradition and history, the chain of which we are but one generational link? Is the voice emanating from our modern ethical understanding of the world? There are as many answers are there are Jews formulating them – in the words of Leonard Cohen in “Who by Fire”, a treatment of the famous Rosh Hashanah prayer:  “And who shall I say is calling?”

Yet that word follows us – Tzav!  We are a commanded and covenanted people.

How are we to understand it?  Mitzvah is not “the law” – or at least it is only one of ten biblical terms used to describe regulation of the people. There are also “din” “tzedakah” “davar” “mishmeret” “torah” “Mishpat” “chok”  “edut”  “ot” in bible, terms often used interchangeably in the biblical text, reminding us that the guidelines come in various ways and are just that – guidelines. Even the word “halachah” comes from the root lalechet – to go or to walk, and Torah is related to the word for parents – the people who guide us and help us become our best selves.

Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, the great scholar and 1st-2nd century Tanna (the early generation of teacher) developed the idea that the language of Torah is divinely revealed, so that there was semantic significance, or at least midrashic potential, to every word and every letter in the Torah – nothing in it was a mistake or an addition, the document was in every sense divine. His slightly younger peer, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha took a different view – he said that the Torah speaks to human beings in human language, with repetitions and metaphor and so on.  The views of both continued into the development of Judaism, yet it seems that Rabbi Akiva’s view took the ascendant over time, and that while Yishmael developed principles for understanding the divine intention, the notion of “Torah miSinai” hardened over time into what people generally take it to mean today – that everything from Torah to rabbinic teshuvot today were revealed to Moses at Sinai

The origin of this idea can be found not in Torah but in Talmud: “Rabbi Levi bar Hama said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said “ God said to Moses: Ascend to me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets and the Torah and the mitzvah that I have written that you may teach them” (Exodus 24:12). What is the meaning of this verse?  “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the Torah”-this is the Torah (five books of Moses), “the Mitzvah”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Brachot 5a).

From this aggadic text comes the idea that everything, ALL aspects of Torah, all halachic rulings, were given to Moses at Sinai by God and thus are incontestable, and not liable to challenge or modification.  Resh Lakish’s statement appears in different places in gemara, attributed to others, but we also find an extension of it in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 2:4) commenting on a verse found in Deuteronomy :”Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: …Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud and Aggada — even that which an experienced student is destined to teach before his master — were all told to Moses at Sinai…”

From the process of discussion and debate that epitomises Talmud, we come to a place of no discussion and of rulings given from “on high” with the barely veiled threat of delegitimising anyone who questions.

It is quite a leap, yet it seems to be one that many barely notice these days. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me – wrongly even in the terms of foundational Rabbinic Judaism – that as a Reform Jew I am not following “real” Judaism, that halachic rulings cannot ever be challenged, that every mitzvah ever is to be found in Torah itself, and every Jew is obligated to follow them all, without exception, (aside from the ones that have to happen within the Temple or the Land of Israel. )

It worries me that Rabbi Akiva has such an ascendancy over Rabbi Ishmael, that Torah is not read as a document for human beings to encounter but only for accepted scholars within an increasingly narrow tradition. It worries me that a hardening has happened so that whereas the Mishnah only documents three “laws given to Moses from Sinai”, by the time we get to the medieval period and Maimonides the laws are codified and fixed, and the tradition of ascribing them as Torah from Sinai is used to suppress debate or challenge.

Torah miSinai to the rabbinic world was not what it means today. The original understanding was that while the Written Torah was given to Moses, the Oral Torah – or rather the authority to create and develop oral torah that would impact on our understanding of written torah – was given alongside it, in order to both bolster the claim to authority of the rabbinic tradition, and also to keep relevant and human a text given in the desert in a particular and ancient context at one moment in time.  Torah mi Sinai became the process, the dynamism, the way we can keep written Torah open to us and our own contexts. So to the Rabbis Torah mi Sinai was the whole range of midrashic exploration, all of  the interpretations, the discussions and the disputes, the variety of recorded opinion, the consensus of each generation as matters became relevant and live to them.  Torah miSinai is contradictory, it is interpretive, it holds opposing and dissonant views, it is alive. This best described in a midrash (Midrash Tehilim (11-14th century) where Rav Yannai taught “Had the words of Torah been given in clear decisions, our condition would have been intolerable. How so? When God spoke to Moses, Moses said “Define the law precisely, leaving no doubt, no ambiguity.” But God answered “follow the majority. If the majority acquit, acquit, If the majority condemn, condemn. Torah is to be interpreted in 49 ways to say something is pure and 49 ways to say something is impure” (12:7)

We are a commanded people. Our text matters to us, we hold it as sacred, we read it and study it and try to ascertain its meaning for us. We must never let go of this, even as personal autonomy takes pride of place in our lives.

Eugene Borowitz spent his life thinking and writing about the dialectic between our commandedness and our sense as Reform Jews of a personal autonomy. He could not square the circle, but he taught that while we have autonomy he insisted that we must confront our Judaism with our Jewish selves, not as “autonomous persons-in-general”. He taught the importance of our decision making based on informed and understood knowledge of our tradition and our texts.  He felt that Reform Jews must be “rooted in Israel’s corporate faithfulness to God” and that this would help structure how we live our lives. Borowitz advocated for the importance of Reform Jews knowing our tradition, interacting with our texts, understanding the historic covenant that Jews have with God. Yet he also wrote  “this does not rise to the point of validating law in the traditional sense, for personal autonomy remains the cornerstone of this piety.”

It is I think harder to be a Reform Jew than a traditional Jew, for we must bring ourselves into the thinking, rather than accept the crumbs offered as “torah miSinai”.

And Borowitz added an extra piece to our work. Whatever we ”do or say in the name of Judaism must be ethical”.  While many see mitzvot as prescribed behaviour, often focusing on the minutiae of ritual activity, we Reform Jews must see mitzvot as behaviour that will bring us closer to God by doing God’s will. We may not follow all of the ritual mitzvot that have developed in Rabbinic Judaism but that is not how we should be defining ourselves – we must define ourselves by what we do rather than what we don’t do. And more than that, anything that we do not do, that may separate us from the weight of traditional consensus, should be understood and considered and be open to revisiting rather than have the door closed on it forever. So early Reformers did not do Purim, seeing it as somewhat repellent, but now almost all progressive synagogues have brought it back. Many early Reformers gave up kashrut as being anachronistic, whereas now kashrut has once again found a home in our tradition, both as normative tradition, and also as an expression of concern for the environment – eco kashrut.

A colleague of Borowitz’, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, also advocated for informed decision making to be a hallmark of Reform Judaism, and challenged us to “ethicize the ritual mitzvot and ritualise the ethical mitzvot”, as in the interplay of Halachah and Aggadah, we need both the practical behaviour and the understanding, the ritual and the ethical driver of the ritual.

We Reform Jews are part of a tradition going back to Sinai – the tradition of Aggadah and Halachah influencing each other, the tradition of commandedness, the tradition of covenant with God. We are part of the tradition that says we must question and know our texts, learn, debate, act.

Tzav – we are a commanded people. We may not be in agreement about many things within this statement but the statement itself stands.

So for we Reform Jews, while we may challenge the idea and substance of the 613 mitzvot, while we may debate the relevance of or even need for  some of the ritual mitzvot, we are part of the system of halachah and aggadah, of mitzvot and Jewish texts. We cannot step away and abdicate responsibility; we must be part of the dialogue. And as we add our voices and our experience to the voice of commandment, to the history of our people, we shall enhance and nourish it, as we ourselves will be enhanced and nourished.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will

Ogni tanto dal mondo ebraico scaturisce un dibattito a proposito dell’autenticità, e ci si mettere a discutere su cosa sia la Torà, quali siano le mitzvot e chi abbia il diritto di deciderlo.

Nella parashà Tzav troviamo Dio che dice a Mosè: “Comanda ad Aronne e ai suoi figli di compiere questi rituali”. Segue una descrizione dei cinque sacrifici che i sacerdoti devono compiere, dei limiti del consumo accettabile della carne dei sacrifici e i dettagli su come Aronne e i suoi figli debbano essere preparati per l’ordinazione sacerdotale.

Il potere di quell’imperativo: “Tzav!”, che introduce i dettagli del rituale, trova riverbero attraverso i secoli. Fino ai nostri giorni noi ebrei vediamo noi stessi come precettati e il giudaismo rabbinico si è basato sulla Halachà delle mitzvot, su cosa siano e come adempierle, mentre la teologia ebraica, e il significato del PERCHÉ viviamo in questo modo, rimane essenzialmente nell’area dell’Haggadà.

È la tensione tra questi due modi di “essere ebrei” che ci causa tanti problemi. Per Eugene Borowitz, forse il più influente pensatore ebreo riformato, “Mentre l’Halachà cerca soltanto di definire ciò che costituisce il proprio obbligo, l’Haggadà tenta sovente di fornire il fondamento teologico e storico del dovere ebraico” o, come formulato da A.J. Heschel: l’Halachà diventa un comportamento ebraico mentre la motivazione di questo comportamento è l’Haggadà.

Il modo in cui noi ci avviciniamo a Dio è importante, e sapere che nell’ebraismo c’è più di un modo per farlo offre validità a ciò che sappiamo essere l’ebraismo:  una varietà di modi in cui si può autenticamente essere ebrei, piuttosto che una “ortodossia” dottrinale o comportamentale che già di per sé crea eresia.

L’Halachà dà forma e struttura, ci fornisce un sistema per vivere e al cui interno lavorare. L’Haggadà è più difficile da definire, ma deve esprimere il nostro sforzo illimitato di relazionarci con Dio nel mondo. Essenzialmente l’Halachà,  e il sistema di mitzvot che il giudaismo rabbinico apprezza, ci dà prescrizioni su come comportarci nel mondo mentre l’Haggadà ci aiuta a formulare le nostre aspirazioni per ciò che riguarda la vita, ci aiuta a dare un senso alla nostra esistenza e ci ispira a continuare la ricerca di relazione con Dio.

L’ebraismo rabbinico, nel cui sistema noi tutti ora operiamo, ha avuto inizio come una fusione meravigliosamente dinamica del discorso halachico e di quello haggadico. Il Talmud ne è la sua apoteosi. All’interno del Talmud c’è pochissimo interesse nel proclamare ciò che realmente sia l’Halachà, e, in effetti, una tale sentenza non si trova quasi mai. Abbiamo invece una varietà di opinioni registrate, discusse, confutate o supportate con versetti o insegnamenti biblici, sia all’interno che all’esterno del testo del Talmud stesso, e questa ricca materia prima diventa il fondamento di come l’ebraismo potrebbe svilupparsi. Halachà e Haggadà coesistono in questo sistema, ciascuna informando e arricchendo l’altra, fornendo vicendevolmente equilibrio e dinamismo. I due sistemi iniziarono probabilmente a divergere solo nel Periodo Geonico (circa 600 – 1000 E.V.), e, con la codificazione della Torà orale, troviamo che il sistema dell’Halachà e delle mitzvot diventa rigido e illogico, mentre il sistema haggadico, legato alle emozioni, creativo e ad ampio spettro, spesso viene relegato in uno status meno importante. Tuttavia, come scrisse Heschel: “Sostenere che l’essenza dell’ebraismo consista esclusivamente di Halachà è errato quanto affermare che l’essenza dell’ebraismo consista esclusivamente di Haggadà. L’interrelazione tra Halachà e Haggadà è il vero cuore dell’ebraismo. L’Halachà senza Haggadà è morta, l’Haggadà senza Halachà è selvaggia”.

Noi ebrei vediamo noi stessi come popolo che ha ricevuto precetti e che è coinvolto in un patto, ovvero un popolo che compie mitzvot, che segue le direttive di Dio, con il quale abbiamo un patto di obblighi. Tuttavia non possiamo essere completamente d’accordo su chi stia impartendo il comando, né su cosa siano effettivamente i precetti, per non parlare poi di come dobbiamo adempierli autenticamente.

Chi dà i precetti è il Dio della Torà? E, se sì, quale tra i precetti di Dio nella Bibbia è applicabile anche a noi, per non parlare delle priorità? Chi dà i precetti è il Dio della letteratura successiva, dei Nevi’im, dei Libri Profetici e dei Ketuvim (Scritti)? Chi dà i precetti è la Voce di Dio che discerniamo nelle nostre vite e attraverso le nostre esperienze? È la Voce della nostra tradizione e della nostra storia, la catena di cui siamo solo un anello generazionale? La Voce è emanazione della nostra moderna comprensione etica del mondo? Ci sono tante risposte quante sono gli ebrei che hanno formulato le domande, per usare le parole di Leonard Cohen in “Who by Fire”, adattamento della famosa preghiera di Rosh Hashanà: “E chi dirò che sta chiamando?”

Eppure quella parola ci segue: “Tzav!”  Siamo un popolo precettato e che si è impegnato in un patto.

Come possiamo intenderlo? Mitzvà non significa “la legge”, quantomeno è solo uno dei dieci termini biblici usati per descrivere le regole date al popolo. Nella Bibbia sono presenti  anche “Din”, “Tzedakà”, “Davar”, “Mishmeret” “Torà”, “Mishpat”, “Chok”, “Edut” e “Ot”. Termini spesso usati in modo intercambiabile nel testo biblico, che ci ricordando che le linee guida giungono in vari modi e sono proprio questo: linee guida. Anche la parola “Halachà” deriva dalla radice lalechet, andare o camminare, e la Torà stessa è legata alla parola che significa genitori: le persone che ci guidano e ci aiutano a diventare i nostri migliori sé.

Il rabbino Akiva ben Yosef, grande studioso e Tanna del I-II secolo (la prima generazione di insegnanti), sviluppò l’idea che il linguaggio della Torà sia stato divinamente rivelato, che ci fosse quindi un significato semantico, o almeno un potenziale midrashico, in ogni sua parola e in ogni sua lettera; nulla in essa era stato frutto di un errore o di un’aggiunta: il documento era in ogni senso divino. Il suo collega un po’ più giovane, il rabbino Yishmael ben Elisha, adottò un punto di vista differente: disse che la Torà parla agli esseri umani nella lingua umana, con ripetizioni, metafore e così via. Le opinioni di entrambi trovarono seguito nello sviluppo dell’ebraismo, eppure sembra che la visione di Rabbi Akiva ebbe la meglio nel tempo e che, mentre Yishmael sviluppava i principi per comprendere l’intenzione divina, la nozione di Torà miSinai si sia consolidata nei secoli in ciò che generalmente si intende che significhi oggi: che tutto, dalla Torà alle teshuvot rabbiniche odierne, sia stato rivelato a Mosè al Sinai.

L’origine di questa idea non si trova nella Torà ma nel Talmud: “Rabbi Levi bar Hama disse che Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish disse: ‘Dio disse a Mosè: sali verso di Me sul monte e rimani là, e Io ti darò le tavole di pietra, la Torà e la mitzvà che Io ho scritto per istruirli (Esodo 24:12). Qual è il significato di questo verso? ‘Tavole di pietra’: sono i Dieci Comandamenti; ‘La Torà’:  questa è la Torà (cinque libri di Mosè); ’la Mitzvà’: questa è la Mishnà; ‘che ho scritto’: questi sono i Profeti e gli Scritti; “per poterli insegnare”: questa è la Ghemarà. E ciò ci insegna che erano tutti dati a Mosè sul Sinai” (TB Brachot 5a).

Da questo testo haggadico proviene l’idea che tutto, TUTTI gli aspetti della Torà, tutte le regole halachiche, siano stati dati a Mosè al Sinai da Dio e che quindi siano incontestabili, e non suscettibili di contestazioni o modifiche. L’affermazione di Resh Lakish appare in diversi punti della Ghemarà, attribuita ad altri, ma se ne trova un’estensione anche nel Talmud di Gerusalemme (Peah 2: 4), nel commento di un verso tratto dal Deuteronomio: “il Rabbino Joshua ben Levi disse: … Scrittura, Mishnà, Talmud e Haggadà, anche quello che uno studente esperto è destinato a insegnare prima del suo maestro, sono stati tutti raccontati a Mosè al Sinai … ”

Dal processo di discussione e dibattito che si incarna nel Talmud, arriviamo a un luogo di non discussione e di decisioni date da “in alto”, con la minaccia appena velata di delegittimazione per chiunque faccia domande.

È un bel salto, eppure sembra essere uno di quelli di cui a malapena ci si accorge, di questi tempi. Ho perso il conto del numero di volte in cui le persone mi hanno detto, erroneamente anche nei termini dell’ebraismo rabbinico fondativo, che come ebrea della riforma non sto seguendo il giudaismo “reale”, che le regole halachiche non possono mai essere sfidate, che ogni mitzvà di ogni epoca si trova nella Torà, e ogni ebreo è obbligato a seguirle tutte, senza eccezioni (a parte quelle che devono aver luogo all’interno del Tempio o della Terra di Israele).

Mi preoccupa che Rabbi Akiva abbia un tale sopravvento su Rabbi Ishmael, che la Torà non sia letta come un documento per esseri umani da incontrare, ma solo per studiosi accettati all’interno di una tradizione sempre più ristretta. Mi preoccupa che sia accaduto un inasprimento tale che, mentre la Mishnà documenta solo tre “leggi date a Mosè dal Sinai”, quando arriviamo al periodo medievale e a Maimonide le leggi sono codificate e fissate, e la tradizione di attribuirle come Torà del Sinai sia usata per sopprimere il dibattito o la sfida.

La Torà miSinai per il mondo rabbinico non era ciò che significa oggi. L’interpretazione  originale era che, mentre la Torà scritta venne data a Mosè, la Torà orale, o piuttosto l’autorità per creare e sviluppare la Torà orale che avrebbe avuto un impatto sulla nostra comprensione della Torà scritta, le fu affiancata al fine di sostenere il richiamo all’autorità della tradizione rabbinica e per mantenere rilevante e umano un testo dato nel deserto in un contesto antico e particolare e in uno specifico momento temporale. Torà miSinai è diventato il processo, il dinamismo, il modo in cui possiamo tenere la Torà scritta aperta a noi e ai nostri contesti. Così per i rabbini Torà miSinai era l’intera gamma di esplorazioni midrashiche, di tutte le interpretazioni, le discussioni e le dispute, della varietà di opinioni registrate, del consenso di ogni generazione quando le questioni diventavano rilevanti e vive per loro. Torà miSinai è contraddittoria, è interpretativa, ha punti di vista opposti e dissonanti, è viva. Questo è meglio descritto in un midrash (Midrash Tehilim – 11-14 ° secolo) in cui Rav Yannai insegnava: “Se le parole della Torà fossero state date in decisioni chiare, la nostra condizione sarebbe stata intollerabile. In che modo? Quando Dio parlò a Mosè, Mosè disse: ‘Definisci la legge con precisione, senza lasciare dubbi, senza ambiguità.’ Ma Dio rispose: ‘segui la maggioranza, se la maggioranza assolve, assolvi, se la maggioranza condanna, condanna, la Torà deve essere interpretata in 49 modi per dire che qualcosa è puro e 49 modi per dire che qualcosa è impuro.” (12: 7)

Siamo un popolo che ha ricevuto precetti. Il nostro testo conta per noi, lo riteniamo sacro, lo leggiamo e lo studiamo e cerchiamo di accertare il suo significato per noi. Non dobbiamo mai lasciarlo andare, anche se l’autonomia personale è al primo posto nelle nostre vite.

Eugene Borowitz trascorse la sua vita a pensare e scrivere a proposito della dialettica tra il nostro aver ricevuto un comando e il significato dell’autonomia personale in quanto ebrei riformati. Non ha potuto quadrare il cerchio, ma ha insegnato che nonostante abbiamo autonomia ha insistito sul fatto che dobbiamo affrontare il nostro ebraismo con i nostri sé ebraici, non come “persone autonome in generale”. Ha insegnato l’importanza del nostro processo decisionale basato sulla conoscenza informata e consapevole della nostra tradizione e dei nostri testi. Sentiva che gli ebrei riformati devono essere “radicati nella fedeltà di Israele a Dio” e che ciò aiuterebbe a strutturare il modo in cui viviamo le nostre vite. Borowitz sostenne l’importanza degli ebrei riformati conoscendo la nostra tradizione, interagendo con i nostri testi, comprendendo l’alleanza storica che gli ebrei hanno con Dio. Eppure ha anche scritto che “questo non porta al punto di convalidare la legge nel senso tradizionale, perché l’autonomia personale rimane la pietra angolare di questa fede”.

Penso che sia più difficile essere un ebreo riformato di un ebreo tradizionale, perché dobbiamo concentrarci sul pensiero, piuttosto che accettare le briciole offerte come “Torà miSinai”.

E Borowitz ha aggiunto un pezzo in più al nostro lavoro. Qualsiasi cosa “facciamo o diciamo nel nome dell’ebraismo deve essere etica”. Mentre molti vedono le mitzvot come un comportamento prescritto, spesso concentrandosi sulle minuzie dell’attività rituale, noi ebrei riformati dobbiamo vedere le mitzvot come un comportamento che ci porterà più vicini a Dio, facendo la volontà di Dio. Potremmo non seguire tutte le mitzvot rituali che si sono sviluppate nel giudaismo rabbinico, ma non è così che dovremmo definire noi stessi, dobbiamo definire noi stessi per mezzo di ciò che facciamo piuttosto che di ciò che non facciamo. Inoltre, tutto ciò che non facciamo, ciò che potrebbe separarci dal peso del consenso tradizionale, dovrebbe essere compreso e considerato ed essere aperto alla rivisitazione invece che essere chiuso per sempre. Quindi i primi riformatori non festeggiavano Purim, considerandolo un po’ repellente, ma ora quasi tutte le sinagoghe progressiste lo hanno ristabilito. Molti primi riformatori abbandonarono la Kashrut in quanto anacronistica, mentre ora la Kashrut trova nuovamente posto  nella nostra tradizione, sia come tradizione normativa, sia come espressione di preoccupazione per l’ambiente, la eco-kashrut.
Un collega di Borowitz, il rabbino Arnold Jacob Wolf, sosteneva anche che il processo decisionale informato fosse un segno distintivo dell’ebraismo riformato e ci sfidava a “rendere etiche le mitzvot rituali e ritualizzare le mitzvot etiche”, come nell’interazione di Halachà e Haggadà, abbiamo bisogno sia del comportamento pratico che della comprensione, del rituale e del motore etico del rituale.
Noi ebrei riformati facciamo parte di una tradizione che risale al Sinai, la tradizione in cui Haggadà e Halachà si influenzano a vicenda, la tradizione dei precetti, la tradizione dell’alleanza con Dio. Facciamo parte della tradizione secondo cui dobbiamo interrogare e conoscere i nostri testi, imparare, discutere, agire.
Tzav: siamo un popolo con dei precetti. Potremmo non essere d’accordo su molte cose all’interno di questa affermazione, ma la dichiarazione stessa è valida.

Quindi, noi ebrei riformati, mentre possiamo sfidare l’idea e la sostanza delle seicentotredici mitzvot, mentre possiamo discutere l’importanza o addirittura la necessità di alcune delle mitzvot rituali, siamo anche parte del sistema di Halachà e Haggadà, mitzvot e testi ebraici Non possiamo allontanarci e abdicare alla responsabilità; dobbiamo essere parte del dialogo. E mentre aggiungiamo le nostre voci e la nostra esperienza alla voce del comandamento, alla storia della nostra gente, la valorizzeremo e la nutriremo, poiché noi stessi saremo valorizzati e nutriti.
Ken y’hi ratzon. Possa essere la volontà di Dio

 

 

 

 

Pekudei – continuing creation gives purpose, recreating creation is our role

The book of Exodus ends with the completion of the portable Tabernacle painstakingly made to God’s exact instructions by the children of Israel. It seems that we have been reading about this building work for weeks – no other event in the journey the Israelites make in the wilderness has been told us in such detail. And now, finally, a year after Moses had told the people to prepare for leaving slavery in Egypt, the place is ready – and Moses is checking the last details, assembling the artefacts,  making sure everything is as it should be.

There is a beautiful symmetry in the torah between the events here at the end of the book of Exodus and the ones at the beginning of the book of Genesis.  And the words used in the narrative here are an echo of those used at the beginning of our text – just as Moses finishes the work he has done (va’y’chal Moshe et ham’lacha) so we are reminded that God in creating the Shabbat, also finishes the work he had done. V’y’chal elohim b’yom hash’vi’i et ha’m’lachto.

We are being deliberately reminded of the work of Creation as the Tabernacle is completed. We are being clearly prompted to understand that the creation of the sanctuary in the wilderness by the children of Israel is a mirroring of the divine creation of the universe.  In making the world God created a home for us, and in the making of the tabernacle we echoed that creation – but for whom are we making a home?  What are the responsibilities we are taking on by behaving within our microcosm like the divine creator of the universe?

When God told the people to make the tabernacle, the instruction was to build the place so that God would dwell among them. The purpose of the Mishkan wasn’t so much the place itself as the process of building with shared intention, the learning for the people was about larger issues than construction  – it was about responsibility for others, about development of relationship, about removing oneself from the centre  and instead becoming part of the whole system.

Building the tabernacle in effect transferred the power and the responsibility of creation from heaven to earth, and God was no longer simply  the Mover behind the creation of the universe, but became part of human experience – Because of the building of the tabernacle, God now dwelled among the people who were created in the image of the divinity, they had built a place for the divine presence to enter the world – not in the tabernacle as such, but in the actions of the people who worked together to bring it into being.

By the end of the book of Exodus, God and people are truly partners in creation. It is an image we continue to use to this day – the idea that the world is not yet completed, that people are completing it.  Unlike the creation of humanity at the beginning of the book of Genesis, the people are required not to be the passive consumers of the garden of Eden, nor are they to be so focussed on making a living that they cannot begin to consider other more metaphysical needs – by the end of the book of exodus we find that we are indeed to work hard in life, but for a greater cause than to earn our daily bread. Our hard work is the necessary ingredient to complete the work of creation begun with the words of God.

Something else emerges from the texts surrounding the building of the tabernacle which adds to our understanding of what it is to take on the responsibility for creation in our sphere as God does for the universe.  Even a brief reading of the stories of the time in the wilderness will reveal a people who are unhappy with their lot, who foment rebellion, who wish to return to slavery rather than face the unknown of the future land.  Already in the year before the building of the Mishkan – a year in which they had seen the terrible things done in Egypt, a year in which they had found freedom – a year in which the people were able to experience the Revelation at Sinai; already the people had rebelled, had complained, had tried to rid themselves of the leadership of Moses, and had begged Aaron to create the golden calf for them to worship.  And yet this should have been the most wonderful and undemanding year of their lives.  They were no longer enslaved, no longer routinely humiliated in the society in which they lived.  They had food every day which simply fell from heaven and lay there for them to collect, their clothing never needed mending, and their shoes never wore out.  All of their material needs were met. The leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam took over all their responsibilities and resolved the disputes that arose, there was absolutely nothing to worry about or concern themselves with.  Like the first humans in the Garden of Eden, everything should have been perfect – yet somehow it wasn’t.

The Midrash notes the continual stream of complaining and notes too that God responded to it compassionately – “it was because of their constant murmurings that the Holy One asked them to put their hand to the making of the Mishkan”  And the response works – the Midrash again highlights the fact that there were no complaints, no rebellions and no conflict recorded during any of the chapters in Torah that describe the building of the tabernacle: “the whole time they were engaged with the work of the Mishkan they did not grumble” (Midrash Pesikta Rabbati).

So what do we learn from this, what did God bring about in the world with this task?

God understood that human beings need a sense of purpose, that we need to have a point to our existence, we need to be able to care about something and to be able to engage in meaningful activity. Without such endeavour we dissolve into bad tempered pointlessness, into destructive behaviour, into misery and self indulgent self-centredness.  Left to our own purposelessness we create a sort of human tohu va’vohu, and it becomes harder and harder for human relationships to take root and for society to develop to the benefit of its members.

If the Midrash is right, that the people complained and the society disintegrated because everyone felt superfluous and without any role or consequence, then the notion of our taking on the task of being creator of our world is even more important, and it is increasingly vital that we consider just how we bring God into our Mishkan.  How are we building the Mishkan today, creating the space for the divine to be experienced in our world? How are we making sure that everyone, not just the leadership or the elite are able to contribute to making our world a better place?  It is a question we have to ask again and again – for the Mishkan is a travelling structure, constantly taken down and put up again, reflecting the reality that we re create our world each day, in every aspect of our lives.

Tetzaveh

“And you will command the children of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for lighting, to cause a lamp to burn continually (ner tamid)” (Exodus 27:20-12)

This first mitzvah of the tabernacle is interesting for several reasons. It echoes the first words of God at creation– y’hi or – let there be light. And in a narrative dedicated to the clothing and behaviour of the priests, the command here is communal – the responsibility for an eternal light belongs to the people, not the priesthood. The lamp sits facing the ark curtain, prepared and lit by the priests each evening to burn through till the morning. In the parallel passage in Leviticus 24:2-4 the ner tamid clearly has several flames, and far from hanging over the ark as a modern ner tamid does, it is part of a lampstand on the opposite wall to the ark– the seven branched menorah. Indeed during the temple period its other name was the ner ma’aravi, the western light. It is thought that while all the lights burned through the night, only one was kept burning continually (1Sam 3:3)

Why does the bible ask us to keep a small light burning continually since clearly the function of lighting the sacred space is done by the other lights? And why must we repeatedly light more lights?  We often say the ner tamid is a reminder of God’s continuing presence in our world, a small beacon of hope that stays with us as the pillar of fire guided us in the desert. Yet this is not enough. The echo of y’hi or reminds us that we too must play our role in the creation of our world. Every day we must tend to this work. The people must bring the prepared oil – this is our job and no one else’s.

 

written for “the bible says what?” Jewish News February 2019

mikketz – seeing ourselves as foreign may enable change; or, how a new perspective can open up a new life

By the time the family of Jacob came to Egypt to find food, their brother Joseph is unrecognizable as the good looking, spoiled young lad who was thrown into the pit at Shechem. He is thoroughly Egyptianised.  His name is changed to Zaphenat Pane’ach, his style of dress is Egyptian, he has an Egyptian wife Asenat and native born children. He has status in the community as right hand man to Pharaoh. It is highly unlikely that the brothers, who think that their brother Joseph had most probably died in the intervening 22 years since they last saw him, will suspect Zaphenat Pane’ach of being anything except he court official he apparently is, yet we have the verse early on in their meeting   – ”And Joseph saw his brothers and he recognised them, but he made himself strange (unrecognisable) to them. (42:7)

ז וַיַּ֥רְא יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיַּכִּרֵ֑ם וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר אֲלֵיהֶ֜ם

Va’yar Yosef et echav, va’ya’kireim, va’yit’nakeir alei’hem

There is a peculiarity of the Hebrew language here – the Torah expressing two opposite meanings by employing the same Hebrew root  נכּר  in two different grammatical voices – one meaning to disclose an identity, to recognise someone, and the other meaning to conceal identity/ to be a stranger/ to be unrecognisable.

Joseph’s purpose in concealing his identity and putting his family through so  much anguish is the subject of a great deal of rabbinic commentary. After all, he charged his brothers with espionage, incarcerated Shimon, demanded the presence of Benjamin in Egypt and finally framed Benjamin as a thief before admitting to his brothers his true identity and inviting the whole family to stay with him in Egypt.  It is pretty horrible to read this apparent abuse of power, and the traditional commentators have had a hard time refuting the charge that Joseph’s motives for such behaviour were vengeful and cruel. They bring three separate explanations for his unbrotherly conduct:

The first is that he manoeuvred in this way so as to bring about the realisation of the dreams he had had in his youth – the dream that his brothers and father would prostrate themselves before him. The second is that he was attempting to teach his brothers the lessons of his own experiences which they had brought upon him by allowing him to be sold into slavery, framed as a criminal and imprisoned. And the third –  that he devised the various experiments and tests so as to assure himself  of their complete change of heart and their repentance.

None of these explanations fully satisfies us about what was in Joseph’s mind when he treated his brothers so roughly, but the end result is worth noting, for it becomes clear that the brothers have indeed changed since they last saw Joseph. They no longer hate Rachel’s sons,  and they are solicitous of their father’s feelings. The way is paved for one of the recurrent themes in bible- for brothers to become reconciled after a period of estrangement.

So what is going on in this verse where Torah uses the same  verb to express the double event of Joseph recognising his brothers  while hiding his own identity?   The pun draws the eye and ear to the text of this verse, yet Joseph’s actions in the rest of the chapter seem to throw no light on why he did what he did – hence the energy used for the rabbinic apologetics – something important must be happening here, and we must try to find out what it is.

Let’s look at the situation from a different angle:-

Joseph recognises his brothers, but he cannot know them, for 22 years have passed since he  last saw them. He already had a foreign persona, and the brothers, described in the text both as Joseph’s brothers and as Jacobs sons will be unable to perceive their relation in Zaphenat Pane’ach: – they will only able to relate to the young vain Joseph as they remember him, not the powerful figure second only to the Pharaoh who sits before them.

Joseph makes himself even more foreign וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר and puts his brothers into uncomfortable situations before finally revealing himself. The extreme foreignness is  the prelude to the reconciliation.   It is almost as if the difference between Joseph and his brothers 22 years earlier, and their situation now has to be exaggerated to prove that all the protagonists in the story are now quite different people  – so that their arguments can be resolved and put into the past;  and only then can reconciliation take place.

Far from revealing himself immediately – “look at me, I’m the same Joseph you lost”, Joseph has to show his new characteristics and persona “look at me – I’ve changed”

The brothers too must display how much they have grown and changed. Sometimes, when a fight and a separation have been too hurtful, it is necessary for a period of separation to be followed by proof of change, before  reconciliation can be attempted and the situation resolved. With all the other stories of brotherly argument and reconciliation, this proof of change was not needed, presumably because the hurt was not quite so life changing as what had been done to Joseph.

It seems that here in the final story of sibling rivalry and reconciliation, we have an extra dimension to our understanding of necessary change  before reconciliation can take place – each side must show they are no longer the people who had been in conflict earlier in their lives but have deepened in their understanding of the other and grown in maturity.  Consequently the extra need for “foreignness” or “strangeness” is emphasised in the story. Joseph is no longer the youthful and untested dreamer who had so hurt his brothers with his arrogance and certainty. And they, having lived with the guilt of his disappearance and the grief of their father,  are no longer his hate filled siblings.

We are reaching the end of the secular year – always a good time to take stock of our lives. And it is a good time to look at our own hurts and estrangements,  as individuals and as a community and as a people, and to question how far we are along our journey towards reconciliations of the hurt and the damage we harbour.  We can look within the Jewish world, with its politics and power games, and we can look at the behaviour of Israel both internally to its peoples and externally to its diaspora, and we see much work to be done, much change to happen before the Jewish people become our best selves.

And each of us as individual human beings has our own list of hurts with which we have been unable to deal yet, and maybe we need to change ourselves before we can begin to address them – we like Joseph, need both to recognise the other and also change ourselves.

Le’hit’nacher – to make ourselves different, to hide parts of ourselves and to develop and prioritise other charcteristics within ourselves, to make ourselves foreign to our past faults. It is all part of the small steps we make towards reconciliation and resolution of our hurts and our mistakes. It is something, like Joseph, we can choose to do, even if, like Joseph, we do it in small steps and out of some fear that nothing has yet changed for us from the outside.

Mikketz means “at the end of”. Every new step has the possibility of ending something with which we are familiar or comfortable – it is why the fear of change is so strongly rooted in us.  But to follow Joseph’s example, to make ourselves different, foreign, changed from our usual narratives – it seems that we might bring an end to some of our hurts, and open a door for ourselves into the future.

sermon given at lev chadash milano 2017

 

 

 

Vayetzei : the lessons of Jacob’s hat

Many years ago an older colleague explained to me the origin of religious Jews covering their heads with this remark – “It comes from parashat Vayetzei, where we are told ‘Vayetzei Yaakov – Jacob went out’ – you don’t think he went out without a hat do you?

It isn’t exactly a joke, nor of course is it a real proof-text for a religious behaviour. But it does shine a light onto a process that we often disregard – the bridge between biblical text and religious expression.

First let me get out of the way the reality that the practise of covering the head – either at all times, or during prayer, or during prayer and study of torah – does not come from parashat vayetzei, though its history and origin is somewhat mysterious and there is no actual mitzvah to do this – it is custom and practise rather than commandment

Mishnah Sanhedrin, chapter ten, includes the teaching “These have no share in the World to Come: (Olam haBa): One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah.”

Now this is interesting. Nowhere in fact does Torah teach of the physical resurrection of the dead. The closest texts are Isaiah 26:19 (Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, You who dwell in the dust!— For Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth; You make the land of the shades come to life.) and Daniel 12:2 “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence”

Yet from these poetic and figurative expressions comes, by the early Talmudic period, the rabbinic idea not only that physical resurrection is possible, but that anyone who does not believe in it forfeits their place in the world to come. The idea is also embedded in the Amidah prayer,in the gevurot blessing, which references the power of God to give life to the dead six times in a fairly short blessing, and which was probably written early in the 1st century BCE.

Another maxim from the same colleague – the more answers rabbinic tradition gives to a question, the more we know that there is no single answer to the question and each response is an attempt to make sense of a problem. So when we see the idea of God giving life to the dead six times in one blessing we can see the determination that this must become authoritative belief, leading us to see that at the point the amidah was written, it clearly was not yet a stable principle of faith.

So when we look at the mishna Sanhedrin 10:1 again, we see that it is an interpolation into an otherwise strictly legal text. It is demanding that three principles are mandatory, the red lines of the argument. Phrased in a way that says “all Jews achieve olam haba except Jews doing these three things” reads to me rather like the apocryphal note in the margin of a sermon – “argument weak, shout louder”.

The principle of belief in the dead living once more is ambiguous – is this something that will only happen at the end of days? Is it physical resurrection? Is it the continuation of the self, the soul? Is it something we can nuance – that the dead live on in our memories, in our actions, that the actions they did while living are impactful after their death?

It is the later part of the statement that has caused many more problems for us – What do we mean when we say that Torah is from heaven (min hashamayim)? What did the rabbis of the mishnah mean by it?

This idea has proved to be one of the most difficult and controversial ones of rabbinic Judaism.  While Maimonides coded the idea into his thirteen principles of faith, which have become de rigeur for a section of the Jewish world  – the eighth principle is “ I believe by complete faith that the whole Torah now found in our hands was the exact same one given to Moses, may peace rest upon him.”

But what does this mean? What did Maimonides mean by “Torah” or by “given to Moses”  It is unlikely that he meant that God literally dictated the entire text of the five books of Moses to Moses at Sinai.

Maimonides was a product of his time.  The time in which he lived was a time when Christians, Muslims and Karaite Jews were all challenging the Jewish world, his thirteen principles were a formulation to argue against people saying that the Jews had altered torah to exclude references to their religions, and against the idea that Torah could be added to and rewritten.

Each of us are products of our time. Each of us swim in a sea of habit and shared assumptions we barely notice, and a sea of change and challenge we notice all too easily and which either cause us to retreat behind the assumptions we cannot see to challenge, or to venture out and have to deal with the dissonance.

Most Jews think that covering the head with kippah or streimel, cap or bowler hat – is a religious act mandated from Torah. It is not. It does not appear in Talmud either except in one comment in tractate Kiddushin which also suggests that one should not walk fully upright – both of them referring to an awareness of the glory of God in the world of which we should be in awe at all times, and another in tractate Shabbat that suggests that covering the head /being aware of the presence of God – might have a tangible effect on behaviour.

Head covering seems to have come about as a response to the world around us, where covering or uncovering the head showed respect to a greater power. Indeed when I was young I often saw people doffing their cap in the presence of those they perceived to be their social superiors, or removing hats as a funeral cortege passed by. Why do Jews put a hat on when the rest of the world takes it off? Davka. Why do we think the custom has the force of law – because we are used to it, we no longer notice its origin in social constructs.  The same is true when we try to distort the concept of torah min hashamayim. Torah from God – mediated through human beings – this was the standard understanding until Maimonides forced the issue into one of orthodox belief, putting people inside or outside Judaism.

Jacob went out – and of course he put on his hat. But the question today is – would any of the many different streams of the orthodox world recognise him as being part of the community of Klal Yisrael?  Would they see a Jew under that hat?