Rosh Hashanah Sermon – We live in a participatory universe

L’italiano segue l’inglese

The 11th Century Andalusian Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda was the author of the first Jewish system of ethics in his book known as The Duties of the Heart”  “Hovot HaLev”. He introduced his book saying that many Jews only seemed to care about the outward observances, the rituals, the duties to be performed by the parts of the body “Hovot HaEvarim” – but not those of the inner mind or the driving ideas and values of the Jewish tradition.  Bachya wanted to explain that Judaism was more than ritualistic or habitual behaviour, more than a mechanistic performance – he taught that Judaism is the embodiment of a great spiritual truth.

This truth is not folkloric or magical, but based on reason, on revelation, on the search for God through Torah. He wrote that there was a great need for the many ethical rabbinic texts to be brought together into a coherent system, in the hope that mechanistic Judaism would give way to a more thoughtful and deeper way of living the religion.

It is an unfortunate reality that for many Jews, mitzvot are categorised as being EITHER Hovot HaEvarim (duties of the limbs) OR Hovot HaLev (duties of the heart).

Rav Soloveitchik taught that one can see mitzvot as being both – in his words mitzvot are both “enacted” (Hovot HaEvarim) and “fulfilled” (Hovot HaLev), and, should we perform the mitzvah on one plane but not on the other, then we are not in fact completing the mitzvah.

Soloveitchik used the mitzvot of prayer and of repentance to demonstrate his meaning. We can turn up at the synagogue and say all the right words, but if the words have no effect upon us, then they are empty of purpose and we have not done our work.

Prayer – also known as avodah she’balev – the work of the heart, is much more than the reciting of formulae either in community or alone. Teshuvah, the act of repairing and returning, has no power if it only puts a patch over a problem without changing us and changing our future behaviour.  How do we avoid habitual words that our mouths may say or our ears may hear, but that do not reach and change our hearts?

Bachya wrote that most people act in accord with our own self-interest, with what he saw as selfish and worldly rather than with any higher or more selfless motivation. He wanted us to reach further than our own needs and wants, to willingly and joyfully serve God, whatever God demands of us.

Soloveitchik was interested not only in the doing, but the knowing of God. He wrote: “To believe is necessary but it is not enough- one must also feel and sense the existence of God”.

Both these profound thinkers can help us on the journey we are taking through the Yamim Noraim, as well as into the future. Soloveitchik created the paradigm of the repentant person, the one who returns to God, in this way- “The person embodies the experience which begins with a feeling of sin, and ends in the redemption of a wondrous proximity to God. Between these two points, human beings stand as a creator of worlds, as we shape the greatest of our works – ourselves”  I am not sure I fully agree with Soloveitchik, but where I most certainly concur is his statement that we do indeed shape ourselves through our choices and our actions – and our inaction too.

We are creators of worlds! Jewish thought has always placed human beings in this role. Bible teaches from its earliest chapters that we partner God in the ongoing creation of this world. With Adam then Noah, then Abraham the partnership is increasingly formalised until the covenant with Moses and the whole people Israel – all who will ever be or who will ever become. Rabbinic tradition bases itself on the texts describing the Sinai Covenant and teaches that there are two Torahs given there – the written (torah she’bichtav) and the oral (torah she’b’al peh). The oral Torah is not a transmitted teaching per se, but the route to interpreting the written Torah, which is open to a multiplicity of meanings.

As Nachmanides wrote ““For it was in accordance with the interpretations that the Rabbis would give, that God gave us the Torah.” “Would give” – leaving open to the future times, to new understanding, to continued creation.

For the whole of time that Judaism has evolved there is an important directive for us all – The continuing creation of the world depends not just on God, but on us.  Why is this so?

Perhaps the most developed – but certainly not the only -nor even the most important theory- is that of 16th century Lurianic Kabbalistic theory. It teaches us that our work is to gather the sparks of the divine from wherever they are embedded in the world, in order to bring about a full tikkun – to repair and restore the world to its original state of primordial unity in relationship with God

Now whether we want to return to the primordial binary state of purity and dross, unmixed and tightly boundaried, is a moot point, but certainly the Jewish world-view wherever one looks in our tradition, is that this co-creating partnership is our reason to be. It is the way that we build relationship with God, and this relationship is seen as the foundational aspiration of humanity; Our tradition tells us that this is an equal aspiration for God. God wants us – God’s creations – to become creators ourselves. To make something of our time in the world, to change it even if only a little, and to leave it a better place for our being here. As the Chasidic tradition would have it “nothing is more precious to us than that which we create through hard work and struggle. The brilliance we pull out from the dust, the beauty we can make from broken pieces…to take the things we are given, the damaged and broken, even our own lives which may be hurt and fragile, and to make them whole. This is the foundation of our worlds existence, the purpose by which it was thought into being- the Creator’s wish that those created would themselves become creators, and partners in the perfecting of Gods world” (maamar bechukotai)

What our texts are pointing towards can also be found in quantum mechanics –

According to the rules of quantum mechanics, our observations influence the universe at the most fundamental levels. The boundary between an objective “world out there” and our own subjective consciousness blurs… When physicists look at the basic constituents of reality— atoms or photons – what they see depends on how they have set up their experiment. A physicist’s observations determine whether an atom, say, behaves like a fluid wave or a hard particle, or which path it follows in traveling from one point to another. From the quantum perspective the universe is an extremely interactive place, and all possibilities exist, at least until they are observed. In the words of the American physicist John Wheeler, “we live in a “participatory universe.””

Now I am not a physicist, nor I guess are many of you, but it fascinates me how the same ideas can emerge from both science and religion.

“We live in a participatory universe.”

Judaism teaches that our actions matter, that even small changes in our behaviours can potentially cause major change both to ourselves and to others; that how we behave in the world can have transformative effects. It asks us to be aware of our environment, of how we treat the stranger and the vulnerable. It reminds us that the earth belongs not to us but to God, ultimately everything is on loan to us, we will take nothing when we depart this world. “The earth is Gods and all its fullness”, says the psalm (24),” and all who live upon it.”

(לַיהוָה, הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ –

But while we are here, we have the responsibility of creation – the world is not a separate entity untouched by our presence, we live in a participatory universe.

Bachya, Soloveitchik, Lurianic Kabbalah, quantum physics – all remind us that we exist in relationship to others and to “the other” as well as to ourselves. What we do, how we act – it matters to more than just our own conscience or our own feelings. We are each of us part of the continuing creation of our world.

Bachya famously wrote “Days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered”. What exactly did he mean by this? Is he referring to the Talmudic “book of life” where everyone’s deeds are recorded for the benefit of the heavenly court as well as for themselves? Is he referring to the library of history, so that while each of us lives and dies, something of us remains and can be accessed in order to remember us? Is he saying that we write only on our own scrolls or is he referring to the way we impact on others “scrolls”, how we treat them being written into their own experience, maybe to be dealt with in the future by a therapist or to be held onto as supportive help in difficult times?

During the Yamim Noraim we tend to reflect on our own lives, our goals, our hopes, our mistakes, our feelings…. We think about how we have acted and how we can repair what we did, how to make ourselves better. It is important work, reflecting on the way we are living our lives, working to become the people we would like to be.

But there is another aspect to the work of the Yamim Noraim. We belong in a participatory universe, we are the creators of worlds.

Days are scrolls. And scrolls embody the words and the experiences, the teachings and the mistakes, the learning and the doing not only of our own selves, but of our people, and ultimately of our shared humanity. What will we write in our own scrolls for the coming year? What will we write in the scrolls of others? Will we participate in the work of completing creation or will we close down the possibilities of change? Will we become more conscious of the rest of the world impacted by our choices or will we shut out the clamouring voices of environmentalists, refugees, people caught up in famine, in war, in poverty?

We begin the ten days towards return – teshuvah. What will it look like? And what will the days and weeks and months look like after we close this festival period and no longer be quite so conscious of the trails we make on the pages of life.

Days are scrolls. We make our marks whether we choose to or not. We write and we read, changing not only our own life trajectory but also potentially those of others. What will we write on the scrolls in the coming year? What will we mark on the scroll of our own life and what will we mark on the life scrolls of others?

We live in a participatory universe, we create each day anew. Today is the beginning of a new year in a number of areas where we check our accounts and rebalance what we will do going forward. Let it also be the beginning of a new way of our being aware of what each of us is creating and is contributing to creation.

Sermone per Rosh HaShanà           Viviamo in un universo partecipativo

Di Rav Sylvia Rothschild, Lev Chadash Milano 2019

Il rabbino andaluso del XI secolo Bachya Ibn Pakuda fu l’autore del primo sistema ebraico di etica, nel suo libro noto come “I doveri del cuore” “Hovot HaLev“. Introdusse il suo libro dicendo che molti ebrei sembravano preoccuparsi solo dell’osservanza esteriore, dei rituali, dei doveri che devono essere eseguiti dalle parti del corpo “Hovot HaEvarim“, ma non quelli della mente interiore o delle idee guida e dei valori della tradizione ebraica. Bachya volle spiegare che l’ebraismo era più che un comportamento rituale o abituale, più che una performance meccanicistica: insegnò che l’ebraismo è l’incarnazione di una grande verità spirituale.

Questa verità non è folcloristica o magica, ma basata sulla ragione, sulla rivelazione, sulla ricerca di Dio attraverso la Torà. Scrisse che c’era un grande bisogno che i molti testi etici rabbinici fossero riuniti in un sistema coerente, nella speranza che l’ebraismo meccanicistico lasciasse il posto a un modo più ponderato e più profondo di vivere la religione.

È una  sfortunata realtà che per molti ebrei le mitzvot siano classificate come Hovot HaEvarim (doveri degli organi) o come  Hovot HaLev (doveri del cuore).

Rav Soloveitchik ha insegnato che uno può vedere le mitzvot in entrambi i modi, nelle sue parole le mitzvot sono sia “messe in atto” (Hovot HaEvarim) che “appagate” (Hovot HaLev), e quando si esegue la mitzvà su un piano ma non sull’altro, in realtà non stiamo completando la mitzvà. Uno degli esempi di Soloveitchik in questo saggio sono le mitzvot della preghiera e del pentimento. Possiamo presentarci alla sinagoga e dire tutte le parole giuste, ma se le parole non hanno alcun effetto su di noi, allora sono prive di scopo e non abbiamo adempiuto il nostro obbligo. La preghiera, nota anche come avodà shebalev, il servizio del cuore, è molto più che la recitazione di formule sia in comunità che da soli. La teshuvà, l’atto di riparare e tornare, non ha alcun potere se mette solo una pezza su un problema senza cambiarci e cambiare il nostro comportamento futuro. Come possiamo evitare che le parole abituali che le nostre bocche possono dire o le nostre orecchie sentire, manchino di cambiare i nostri cuori?

Bachya ha scritto che la maggior parte delle persone agisce in accordo con il proprio interesse personale, con ciò che vede come egoista e mondano piuttosto che con qualsiasi motivazione più alta o più altruista. Voleva che arrivassimo oltre i nostri bisogni e desideri, per servire volontariamente e gioiosamente Dio, qualunque cosa Dio richieda da noi.

Soloveitchik era interessato non solo al fare, ma alla conoscenza di Dio. Scrisse: “Credere è necessario ma non è abbastanza, bisogna anche sentire e percepire l’esistenza di Dio”.

Entrambi questi profondi pensatori possono aiutarci nel viaggio che stiamo facendo attraverso gli Yamim Noraim, così come nel futuro. Soloveitchik ha creato il paradigma della persona pentita, quella che ritorna a Dio, in questo modo: “La persona incarna l’esperienza che inizia con un sentimento di peccato e finisce con la redenzione di una meravigliosa vicinanza a Dio. Tra questi due punti, gli esseri umani si ergono come creatori di mondi, lì, mentre modelliamo la più grande delle nostre opere, noi stessi ”Non sono sicura di essere pienamente d’accordo con Soloveitchik, ma certamente concordo sulla sua affermazione che in effetti modelliamo noi stessi attraverso le nostre scelte e le nostre azioni, e anche la nostra inazione.

Siamo creatori di mondi! Il pensiero ebraico ha sempre posto gli esseri umani in questo ruolo. La Bibbia insegna fin dai suoi primi capitoli che collaboriamo con Dio nella creazione in corso di questo mondo. Con Adamo, poi Noè, poi Abramo, la collaborazione è sempre più formalizzata fino all’alleanza con Mosè e l’intero popolo Israele, tutti quelli che ci saranno o che lo diventeranno. La tradizione rabbinica si basa sui testi che descrivono l’Alleanza del Sinai e insegna che ci sono due Torà che lì sono state date: la Torà scritta (Torà shebichtav) e quella orale (Torà she’b’al pè). La Torà orale non è di per sé un insegnamento trasmesso, ma il percorso per interpretare la Torà scritta, che è aperta a una molteplicità di significati.

Come scrisse Nachmanide “Perché era in accordo con le interpretazioni che i Rabbini avrebbero dato, che Dio ci ha dato la Torà”. “Avrebbero dato“, lasciando l’apertura ai tempi futuri, a nuove comprensioni, alla creazione continua.

Per tutto il tempo in cui l’ebraismo si è evoluto, esiste un’importante direttiva per tutti noi: la creazione continua del mondo dipende non solo da Dio, ma da noi. Perché è così?

Forse la più sviluppata, ma certamente non l’unica, e neppure la teoria più importante, è la teoria cabalistica lurianica del XVI secolo. Ci insegna che il nostro lavoro consiste nel raccogliere le scintille del divino da qualsiasi parte del mondo esse siano incorporate, al fine di creare un tikkun completo, per riparare e ripristinare il mondo al suo stato originale di unità primordiale in relazione con Dio.

Ora, se vogliamo tornare allo stato binario primordiale di purezza e scorie, non mescolate e strettamente circoscritte, siamo a un punto controverso, ma certamente la visione ebraica del mondo, ovunque uno guardi nella nostra tradizione, è che questa collaborazione di co-creazione è la nostra ragione d’essere. È il modo in cui costruiamo una relazione con Dio, e questa relazione è vista come l’aspirazione fondamentale dell’umanità; La nostra tradizione ci dice che questa aspirazione è uguale per Dio. Dio vuole che noi, le creazioni di Dio, diventiamo noi stessi creatori. Fare qualcosa del nostro tempo nel mondo, cambiarlo anche se solo un po’ e lasciarlo un posto migliore per il nostro essere qui. Come vorrebbe la tradizione chassidica “niente è più prezioso per noi di quello che creiamo attraverso il duro lavoro e la lotta. Lo splendore che estraiamo dalla polvere, la bellezza che possiamo ricavare dai pezzi rotti … prendere le cose che ci vengono date, le cose danneggiate e rotte, persino le nostre stesse vite che possono essere ferite e fragili e renderle intere. Questo è il fondamento dell’esistenza dei nostri mondi, lo scopo con cui è stato pensato, il desiderio del Creatore che quelli creati diventassero essi stessi creatori e partner nel perfezionamento del mondo di Dio”. (Maamar BeChukotai)

Ciò a cui puntano i nostri testi può essere trovato anche nella meccanica quantistica.

Secondo le regole della meccanica quantistica, le nostre osservazioni influenzano l’universo ai livelli più fondamentali. Il confine tra un “mondo là fuori” oggettivo e la nostra coscienza soggettiva sfuma … Quando i fisici guardano i costituenti di base della realtà, atomi o fotoni, ciò che vedono dipende da come hanno organizzato il loro esperimento. Le osservazioni di un fisico determinano se un atomo, per esempio, si comporti come un’onda fluida o una particella dura, o quale percorso segua nel viaggio da un punto all’altro. Dal punto di vista quantistico l’universo è un luogo estremamente interattivo e tutte le possibilità esistono, almeno fino a quando non vengono osservate. Nelle parole del fisico americano John Wheeler, “viviamo in un” universo partecipativo”.

Ora, io non sono un fisico, e credo che neppure molti di voi lo siano, ma mi affascina come le stesse idee possano emergere sia dalla scienza che dalla religione.

“Viviamo in un universo partecipativo.”

L’ebraismo insegna che le nostre azioni contano, che anche piccoli cambiamenti nei nostri comportamenti possono potenzialmente causare grandi cambiamenti sia a noi stessi che agli altri; che il modo in cui ci comportiamo nel mondo può avere effetti trasformativi. Ci chiede di essere consapevoli del nostro ambiente, di come trattiamo lo straniero e il vulnerabile. Ci ricorda che la terra non appartiene a noi ma a Dio, in definitiva tutto è in prestito per noi, non prenderemo nulla quando lasceremo questo mondo. “Al Signore appartengono la terra e tutto ciò che essa contiene”, dice il salmo (24), “e tutti coloro che vivono su di essa”.

לַיהוָה, הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ –

Ma mentre siamo qui, abbiamo la responsabilità della creazione: il mondo non è un’entità separata non toccata dalla nostra presenza, viviamo in un universo partecipativo.

Bachya, Soloveitchik, la Kabbalà lurianica, la fisica quantistica, tutti ci ricordano che esistiamo in relazione con gli altri e con “l’altro” e con noi stessi. Cosa facciamo, come agiamo – è importante per qualcosa di più della nostra sola coscienza o dei nostri sentimenti. Ognuno di noi è parte della creazione continua del nostro mondo.

Ciò che ha scritto Bachya è rinomato: “I giorni sono pergamene, scrivi su di essi ciò che vuoi venga ricordato”. Cosa intendeva esattamente con questo? Si sta riferendo al “libro della vita” talmudico in cui vengono registrate le azioni di tutti a beneficio della corte celeste e per se stessi? Si riferisce alla biblioteca della storia, così che mentre ognuno di noi vive e muore, qualcosa di noi rimane e vi si può accedere per ricordarci? Sta dicendo che scriviamo solo sui nostri rotoli o si riferisce al modo in cui influenziamo gli altri “rotoli”, come li trattiamo mentre vengono scritti nella loro stessa esperienza, forse per essere trattati in futuro da un terapeuta o per essere trattenuti come aiuto di supporto in tempi difficili?

Durante gli Yamim Noraim tendiamo a riflettere sulle nostre stesse vite, i nostri obiettivi, le nostre speranze, i nostri errori, i nostri sentimenti … Pensiamo a come abbiamo agito e come possiamo riparare ciò che abbiamo fatto, come migliorarci. È un lavoro importante, che riflette sul modo in cui viviamo la nostra vita, lavorando per diventare le persone che vorremmo essere.

Ma c’è un altro aspetto nel lavoro degli Yamim Noraim. Apparteniamo a un universo partecipativo, siamo creatori di mondi.

I giorni sono pergamene. E i rotoli incarnano le parole e le esperienze, gli insegnamenti e gli errori, l’apprendimento e il fare non solo di noi stessi, ma della nostra gente e, in definitiva, della nostra umanità condivisa. Cosa scriveremo nelle nostre pergamene per il prossimo anno? Cosa scriveremo nelle pergamene degli altri? Parteciperemo al lavoro di completamento della creazione o chiuderemo le possibilità di cambiamento? Diventeremo più consapevoli del resto del mondo influenzato dalle nostre scelte o elimineremo le voci clamorose degli ambientalisti, dei rifugiati, delle persone coinvolte nella carestia, nella guerra, nella povertà?

Iniziamo i dieci giorni verso il ritorno, la teshuvà. A cosa somiglierà? E come saranno i giorni, le settimane e i mesi dopo la chiusura di questo periodo delle festività quando non saremo più così consapevoli dei sentieri che tracciamo sulle pagine della vita.

I giorni sono pergamene. Lasciamo il segno che scegliamo oppure no. Scriviamo e leggiamo, cambiando non solo la nostra traiettoria di vita ma anche potenzialmente quella degli altri. Cosa scriveremo sulle pergamene nel prossimo anno? Cosa segneremo sulla pergamena della nostra vita e cosa segneremo sulla pergamena della vita degli altri?

Viviamo in un universo partecipativo, creiamo ogni giorno nuovamente. Oggi è l’inizio di un nuovo anno in una serie di settori in cui controlliamo i nostri conti e riequilibriamo ciò che faremo in futuro. Facciamo che sia anche l’inizio di un nuovo modo di essere consapevoli di ciò che ognuno di noi sta creando e sta contribuendo alla creazione.

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo

Lech Lecha: the covenant of Abraham and Sarah

The idea of covenant with God was already present with the narratives of Noah. In Genesis Chapter 6 we find “And God said to Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make an ark of gopher wood…. I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort you will bring into the ark to keep them alive with you….So did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.”

After the flood comes another covenant – (Genesis Ch.9) “And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you… never shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; nor shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And God said: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. …And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.’ And God said to Noah: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

So when God makes the covenant of the pieces with Abram in Genesis 15 “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. In that day the Eternal made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” while we may find the description opaque, the idea of the divine promise given to one individual but extending into the future is familiar.

Parashat Lech Lecha introduces the covenant that is central to Jews and Judaism – brit milah – circumcision.  In Genesis 17 we read “God appeared to Abram, and said to him: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be wholehearted. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply thee exceedingly.’ ‘ My covenant is with you and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. Your name shall not anymore be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…And I will make you exceeding fruitful, I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant….. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed…must be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. …..And God said to Abraham: ‘As for Sarai thy wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.  And I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.”

Judaism is based on the particular covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. And this relationship begins with Abraham and Sarah, travelling down the generations through their son Isaac. This covenant relationship is unbreakable, however much we let God down or God lets us down. God has other covenantal relationships with humanity, but the specific Jewish relationship of responsibility and purpose is the one that underpins all Jewish teaching.

Pretty much every Jewish family circumcises their 8 day old baby boy in the ceremony of brit milah as bible requires. The child is brought in ceremonially to the mohel and blessings said, which include the blessing “who has commanded us con­cerning circumcision” and   “who has commanded us to  enter [him] into  the covenant of Abraham our father.”

Bible is clear on this – all baby boys, whether born into the Jewish family or adopted into the household, are to be given this sign in their flesh that they too are part of the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patriarchal society into which they are born, the brit is their male right – but what exactly is the position of women in this covenant so central to Jewish self-understanding?

A closer reading of our texts reveals something interesting. The covenant of the pieces, opaque and full of dark magical symbolism, is deeply patriarchal and refers to the continuity of possession and power of the Abrahamic line. There is a prefiguring of the terrifying experience at Sinai, with smoke and fire and a God who overawes. Yes the childless Abram will have heirs, countless descendants, but their fate will be difficult and painful as slaves and exiles,  until they finally inherit the land, displacing the nations living upon it. Abram himself will die peacefully in old age encountering nothing of the complex future.  The second covenant is different – here it is personal and intimate. While land and descendants are still the critical core of the covenant, here the land is an ahuzah, a family holding, rather than a nation state as in the earlier covenant. Here  Abram’s line is described in terms of family, it is described positively as being fruitful, a multitude of nations including king. There is no mention of a terrible period of time in exile and slavery, instead the focus is on the mutuality of the covenant – Abram and his line must keep the covenant as well as God, and his name is changed to show the personal transformation. And in parallel we are told that Sarai too is part of this promise, she will bear a son, and through that son nations and kings will be born, and the covenant will be held within this familial line. She too has her name changed; she too is radically altered by the encounter. This is a covenant with real people who are active in the creation and expression of the covenant, and who are transformed by the event – both have the letter ה added to their names, a letter used to signify God and both will shortly by transformed by the birth of their child.

While the sign of the covenant is to be embedded in the flesh of the male member, the covenant itself is not limited to those who carry the sign – it is enshrined in the peoplehood that descends from Abraham and Sarah, in their activity and participation.

Looking at the biblical texts we can see that each covenant apparently made with one individual is in reality made with an extension from that individual – be it the covenants with Noah that are in reality made also with his extended family or secondly with the whole of humanity, or the covenants with Abraham which extend to his descendants through Sarah, the notion of the individual limited covenant is a mistake. When we get to Sinai it is clear that while the discussion is with Moses, the covenant is actually with all the people both present and yet to be born or to choose Judaism. Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy in parashat Nitzavim make this clear – everyone, male, female, adult, child, high status or low – is in the covenant.

So how come we only seem to celebrate or mark the entry into the covenant of male children? How are women supposed to see themselves as integral to the covenant too?  Traditional texts assume simply that women need no such entry point. In the Talmud (avodah zarah 87a) we read a debate about who can perform circumcision. The focus is on the repeated words “himol yimol” in the passage from Genesis 17 – this can be translated as the individual must be circumcised to enter the covenant, or it can be understood as ‘the circumciser needs to be circumcised’. Following this second reading, one would imagine that only a man can act as mohel (circumcisor) and yet we know that Zipporah herself circumcised her child. From this the Talmud decides that women are classed as ‘among the circumcised’ – in other words, women are already born with the sign of the covenant in their bodies, and need no extra marking in their flesh.

What this natural state is is subject to debate – it seems to have something to do with the blood released- could it be menstruation or the ability to give birth, both of which involved natural bleeding?  Is it to do with the ability to procreate – certainly the idea of circumcision is also seen in the treatment of fruit trees whose fruit cannot be eaten for three years – they are ‘orlah’, literally ‘uncircumcised’. So possibly the act of milah is an act to make the male ‘fruitful’, something a woman is seen as being ab initio?

But while our texts understand women to be part of the covenant even without ceremony, and the traditional debate is only to clarify the reason for this, it seems to me that a real issue is being overlooked. We bring a boy child into the covenant surrounded by family and community, with great joy and love, a week after his birth. But a girl child is simply noted, a mi sheberach (blessing) recited in her father’s synagogue when neither she nor her mother are present, end of story.

It is not enough. It is not enough to say that women are on a spiritually higher level than men and therefore need not be obligated to do mitzvot. It is not enough to teach that a woman’s glory is internal, that she should be shielded from the outside world, protected from public space. It is not enough to recite platitudes to try to flatter or distract women from living full and public lives, from actively taking their place in the covenant, from operating openly in public space, their voices and ideas heard in study and in action.

By denying women a public recognition of our place in the covenant, we have slid into the position where women’s roles have become seen as lesser than those of men, where women are somehow not counted in the legal or spiritual community of Jews.  It begins to be taught that women are only in the covenant by virtue of their relationship with men – fathers or husbands or sons. It begins to be understood that women’s rights and women’s voices are contingent on their relationship with men. And then we slide into a deeply dangerous place, where women are not only removed from the public space, their voices silenced to protect male ‘sensibilities’, but women’s reality is eroded, women’s experience downplayed, and the covenant is deprived of what was clearly there at the beginning – the particular contribution of women.

Judaism is not only a religion, not only a set of beliefs, not only a genetic inheritance, not only a set of shared values and stories and way of seeing the world – it is a peoplehood in covenant with God. And that peoplehood contains a complex variety of souls. Like the lulav and etrog which are seen as symbolising the Jewish people – some with learning but no mitzvot, others with mitzvot but no learning, yet others with both learning and mitzvot and still others with no learning and no mitzvot – we encompass the full range of what is possible in a people, and we need each other to fulfil ourselves.

So the ceremonies that bring daughters into the covenant – simchat bat, zeved habat, brit bat, – these are important ceremonies and while some date to the 17th century, they are not yet in common usage across the community, nor always recognised as being more than a nice way to celebrate having a new baby in the family or to welcome a daughter into the world.

Women are, and always have been, part of the covenant. Abraham may have had to circumcise himself, but Sarah too was physically altered, bringing her child into world long past the age of childbearing. Both were named, both were transformed, both were necessary

It is time we took more seriously the rite of passage to bring a daughter into the covenant. Time to bring the creative ceremonials out of the shadows and into the mainstream liturgy and life of the synagogue community. Respect for women begins with treating the births of female children with the same communal enthusiasm and joy as the birth of male children is celebrated. From publicly entering a girl child into the covenant may come a greater understanding that women have our own part in the covenant, must explore it and explain it and be creative with it as the men have over the centuries.

Merle Feld’s poem “We all stood together at Sinai” is a salutary reminder of what happens when we don’t give equal value time and space to women’s covenant experience.

We All Stood Together   By Merle Feld   (for Rachel Adler)

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down

And then
As time passes
The particulars
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
The feeling

But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Sparks flying

 

 

 

 

 

Parashat Lech Lecha: the covenant of circumcision

This sidra contains a number of different covenants, but the covenant of circumcision is one which continues to resonate with us as a sine qua none of Jewish identity. “God further said to Abraham, As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Genesis 17:9-11  

The Brit Milah is the first of the rites of passage, and it quite literally etches into the child the central values of Judaism, connecting him to the past and future of the Jewish people.   In the midrash (Kohelet Rabbah) we find a story which makes this clear – it tells of a father of a baby who gives to the guests some good wine to drink in celebration, and says “Drink of this wine, and I trust in my God that I shall also be able to give you wine on the day may son marries”. The guests replied with a blessing that is also found in the ceremony – “Just as the child has entered the covenant, so may he also enter into Torah and into good deeds and be married under the Chuppah”. With this blessing is the clear hope that the Brit Milah is the beginning of a child entering the Jewish community, and the expectation that this will be a lifetime’s commitment. The Brit Milah does not make the child Jewish – that is acquired through birth to a Jewish mother – but it gives the child the mark of Judaism, and with it a Jewish identity.

 Brit Milah may or may not have other reasons to support (or not) its usage – some talk of hygiene, of lower levels of cervical cancer in women whose partners are circumcised, of social or psychological reasons to do it-or not. But the reason why Jews have fulfilled the obligation of Brit Milah down the generations – often at serious personal sacrifice or danger – is precisely because it is just that – an obligation, a mitzvah. It symbolises our willingness to be connected to God, it reminds us of the relationship begun between God and Abraham of which we are a part.

 Circumcision is also seen as an act of completion or perfection. The ceremony is understood traditionally to be one of ‘finishing’ the creation of the child, so that we participate with God in the act of Creation. It is also seen as a willingness to submit, to give up a part of the child for the sake of the whole. As Judah HaNasi (c200CE) wrote – “Great is circumcision, for despite all the commandments that Abraham our father carried out, he was called complete (shalem) only with his circumcision, as it is written (Gen 17) “Walk before Me and be perfect” .

 Whatever one’s view about circumcision, it has become the sign not only of the biblical covenant, but of the male Jew. It has been said that it is not so much the mark of a Jewish man, as the mark of a man whose parents have chosen for him to be Jewish, who were prepared to undergo this ceremony in order to enter him into the Covenant. It is the mark of one generation upon the next, the physical expression of what we want for our child. There is much debate as to its meaning – and the changes in its meaning – over the years. Was it simply a transformation of a pagan fertility ritual, done not to a man at puberty or marriage in order to increase sexual potency but to a child at eight days in order to increase spiritual connection? Was it a fertility rite that extended through agricultural practise to human beings – a sacrifice of a small part for a greater good? Was it a divine requirement to cleanse the people, separating the idolatrous ancestors of Abraham from his monotheistic descendants? Or a blood rite parallel to the Temple sacrifice, that found echoes in Christianity and the crucifixion, returning to express salvation through self not another?  It is all these and more, but when one considers the importance of the rite throughout Jewish history it is hard not to see it as a unifying symbol, the mitzvah which most Jews have practised and with which we pass on covenantal Judaism to this day.