10th Elul – the sin of giving in to despair

In the vidui, the confession to be recited so many times at this season, we find the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair.”   It slips by almost unnoticed most of the time as we recite a catalogue of misbehaviours by rote. But is despair really a sin and can we repent of it and actively change our attitudes? R. Nachman of Bratslav is credited with crystallising the concept, saying “there is no such thing as despair” and even, on his death bed: “Assur l’hit’ya-esh  – It is forbidden to despair – never give up hope” (Likutei Moharan ll.78).

In our machzor the phrase comes in a set which includes the sins of plotting against others, hard heartedness, arrogance, and giving in to our evil impulse and secrecy.   It is a strange positioning – The giving in to despair is sandwiched between a sense of our own arrogance– literally eynaim ramot – raised eyes, and our own yetzer ha’ra – our selfishness and base inclination.  This placing seems to suggest that when we choose not to engage with reality, either by refusing to see what is around us or by allowing our internally constructed world view to dominate us – that is when despair creeps in.

Nachman also wrote Im atta m’amim she’y’cholin lekalkeil, ta’amin she’y’cholim le’taken: – If you believe that it is possible to break things, you must also believe that it is possible to repair things”.   So whatever we have broken in the past year let’s not despair, but know that it is time to repair by really noticing what is happening around us rather than living in the bubble of our own self constructed realities.

 

 

 

 

 

9th Elul – to value each day

In Psalm 90 there is a verse “Limnot yameinu, ken hoda, v’navi l’vav chochmah” – “teach us to assess our days so that we may bring to the heart some wisdom”  This verse is a powerful reminder of what we can do in order to make more of our lives.

The psalmist is reminding us to assess each day, to really appreciate and to treasure every one of them, and make them count.

Many of us are so busy just getting through each day, so many different events and activities to juggle, that we forget just how much of a gift each new day really is. Others of us try to fill the acres of time that stretch ahead of us as we get up, wondering how best to get through the day. Almost all of us rarely find the time to treasure our days, or to make them count. Looking back at the end of a week that has been frantic with activity we can rarely feel satisfied that we used the time well.

The morning prayer that traditional Jews say upon waking, before even getting out of bed is  “Modeh Ani lefanecha, melech chai v’kayam, she’he’chezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, Rabbah Emunatecha.­­­­­“I Gratefully Thank You, living and eternal Sovereign, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion –great is your faith”

While Jewish prayer does not on the whole expect us to explicitly state any belief in God, it does have a dominant mode of gratitude and of thanksgiving. The tradition gives us the words to appreciate our lives, to be grateful for what we already have rather than to always be the petitioner for what we do not have but would like. That is not to say that our prayer does not include us appealing to God for things, but that this pleading is circumscribed and is far less frequent than the prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude. And on Shabbat the petitionary prayers disappear entirely, giving God (and ourselves) the day off from listening to our demands.

In the prayer Modeh Ani, we begin the day by being aware of our good fortune and appreciating it – we are alive, it is a time for fresh possibilities, anything can happen in this new day. And we end the prayer not by declaring our faith in God, but by asserting God’s faith in us. We make a statement of extraordinary power. Whether we believe in God is almost immaterial, for God believes in us.

Just as we do not consider the air which we breathe, yet breathe nevertheless; just as fish presumably are unaware of the water in which they swim,  Jewish prayer assumes the faith of God in us is a given, the environment in which we operate. All we are reminded to do is to appreciate each day, to be grateful for what we do have, and to use our time wisely in order to become our best selves, to build our best world.

Psalm 90, a psalm about the eternity of God and the fragility and mortality of humankind, asks God to help us to do the one thing we can really do to make our lives meaningful – teach us to treasure each day, to make every day we live in this world count for something. As we travel through Elul and contemplate the upcoming New Year, with days that may be filled with activity or that may stretch emptily out ahead of us, let this be our motto – to think about and to treasure each day, and to do something each day to give that day meaning and to make it count.

 

8th Elul: building bridges in all directions

8th Elul

The Psalmist asks “Eternal God, what are human beings that you should care for them, mortal creatures that you should notice them?” (psalm 8)

The question is carefully posed.  We recognise that we are indeed fragile presences on the earth, our lives barely impacting in time or space, yet we confidently assert that God notices us and cares about us.  We wear celebratory white during this season of penitence because we know that God will forgive us if we sincerely repent.

Our tradition provides us with a strong sense of ourselves. We are at one and the same time both “dust and ashes” and “the beloved children of the Sovereign”.  We are mortal and yet we are bound up in immortality. We are fully individual and also we are a small part of a whole creation.  It takes a particular view of the world to be able to hold both all the opinions at the same time, yet the Jewish mind is asked to somehow encompass them all, just as our liturgy speaks of God in a variety of ways all at the same time. And it is this dynamic tension that traditionally nurtures our distinctive identity and sense of self.

Yet how easily could we agree with the Psalmist today? Are we able to put a direct question to God? And even if we are comfortable with that relationship, would we dare to remind God that a precondition of the conversation is that God must pay attention to us and care for us? For many of us the easy familiarity of the covenantal relationship is lost and we struggle to find a bridge to that place.  This is what the month of Ellul is for, and it is also some of the work of the High Holy Days.  We may no longer be sure of God; we may wonder about the purpose of prayer. And yet part of us doesn’t want to let it all go; we want to return to that clarity that gives meaning to our lives. The Psalmist had many doubts and fears, but he knew his worth in relation to God.  It is time for us to reclaim that knowledge, to search ourselves and to begin to really know ourselves. This understanding is the foundation of the bridge we build into the future, the bridge we build back to the knowledge of God.

 

7th Elul- selicha: the word of the moment

One of the first words you might hear in Israel – particularly if you mix among the anglo saxim, is the phrase “s’licha” – roughly translated as ‘please’, or ‘I beg your pardon”.  Well, maybe not one of the first, but if you stay in Israel long enough someone, hopefully, will use it after they push past you in a bus queue or tread on your toe in the market.

At this time of year, it is time for us to use the word too – as we pray the

Selichot – the petitionary prayers that prepare us for the season of teshuvah – repentance. Tradition teaches that the month of Elul is a particularly good time for repentance, and the mood builds throughout Elul to the period of Selichot – the prayers that are read late on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah and continue to be read every morning until the very end of Yom Kippur.

Our tradition teaches us that prayer requires preparation, and for most of us the marathon that is Yom Kippur certainly requires training– both the physical preparation such as reducing our caffeine intake to ward off the Yom Tov headaches, and the spiritual preparation to make sure we do more than simply regret past actions, or make ineffectual attempts at damage limitation. Maimonides in his laws of Repentance laid out what might be called the three ‘R’s of the work – Regret, Rejection and Resolution – and this process clearly takes much more time than even a well focused day of contemplation. Hence the build up to the work of the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – so that when we arrive at shul on Yom Kippur we really are ready for it.   There are many variations of selichot services, though they almost always include a recitation of the thirteen attributes of God, and reading Psalm 27 – and portray of God of mercy and compassion. But also a God of whom we should be in awe.  We are told that when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai lay dying his disciples asked him for a blessing. He replied “May you fear God as much as you fear human beings”. They asked him – “what, no more than that?” to which he answered that that was enough. “do you not know that when we are about to commit a transgression, we forget about God and hope only that no human eye will see us”

As part of the prayers of pardon and petition, we add into the text of the Amidah on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur a prayer to help us learn to be in awe of God. We tend to fear the opinion of other people far more than we worry about what God might think of us, and we behave accordingly.  The two themes – of a forgiving and compassionate God who is only waiting for us to return, and of a God who is to be held in awe and revered – are not mutually incompatible. The liturgy of this time weaves them in and out of our consciousness – the God who sees and remembers everything we do, both good deeds and bad; and the God who is just waiting for us to say “selicha” – “forgive me” so that we can move on into our lives, lessening the alienation and anomie.

סליחה

5th Elul – fragmenting ourselves or unifying ourselves?

5th Elul

“On Judgment Day God will not ask you to which sect you belonged, but what manner of life you led” (Chafetz Chaim)

We Jews have a habit of fracturing into different groups, and cordially disliking or despising those not in our particular corner of the Jewish world.  The famous joke of a desert island with one Jewish inhabitant having two synagogues – one he would go to and the other he would never go to, has a kernel of truth at its heart. I’ve lost count of the people who tell me that Reform Judaism is not authentic, or that the stricter one is, the more Jewish one is. The lurch towards increasing humras (strictnesses) in behaviour, of being more pious than anyone else has happened in my lifetime, possibly because the confidence of doing things like our parents did them has taken a knock, as the generation of survivors who were dislocated from their destroyed communities began to look instead to texts and guidelines rather than trust their custom and family habits.

I belong to many on-line groups where the questions are put – is it allowed? Is it kosher? Is it forbidden? Instead of living a life of continuation, many Jews are now living a life of uncertainty, of the need for being told how to do their Judaism – with the information usually coming from books and compilations of judgments, rather than from lived generational experience which may not always match with the letter of the “law” but which was how Jews did it for centuries.

The problem with this need for certainty, is that it leads to a univocal Judaism that will not tolerate difference in practise. It leads not only to “orthodoxy” but to “modern orthodoxy” and “ultra-orthodoxy” and “Haredi orthodoxy” and even the group lev tahor (google them and weep) or neturei karta – and heaven knows what else.

Judaism is not univocal and it never was. There are local customs and traditions that suit the community that has them, and that should not be given up for the sake of recognition by other Jews. Yet they are often under pressure to do just that.

The Talmud tells us “Jews were not exiled until they separated into sects” (Johanan bar Nappaha in TJ Sanhedrin 10:5). That “the command in Deuteronomy 14:1 (You shall not cut yourselves) means, according to Shimon b Lakish that “You shall not cut yourselves into separate sects” (TB Yevamot 13b)

Yet still we do it. The Hasidic world follows many different dynasties which often do not have good relationships between them. The progressive world is divided into different movements which have developed n the last few hundred years. Time was a Jew was a Jew was a Jew. We trusted them to follow their Judaism without fear or favour, criticism or taunt. There were plenty of other problems without having to have the internal squabbles, or at least without spending so much time and energy on them

During the Yamim Noraim and our preparation for these days, when we will all stand before God as one people, and all differences of nuance and practise fall away, let’s try to savour the feeling that we are Am Yisrael, and hold onto it when these days are done. And so go into the New  Year giving each other respect for our differences, and support in our Jewish living – however it may be expressed.

 

4th Ellul – our determination to return, however hard the path, will keep us located in our source.

4th Elul – massacre of the Jews of Barcelona 1391

Across Europe the conditions for the Jews deteriorated between the late 13th and 14th centuries.  Expelled from England in 1290 and intermittently from France from 1306, the most violent deterioration was across the Iberian Peninsula. Barcelona, which had a substantial Jewish population with roots going back to at least the year 870, suffered a terrible pogrom on this day and for 500 years no Jews lived in Barcelona.

The riots began in Seville on 15th March 1391. Public opinion had been stirred against the Jews for some years, Jews had been discriminated against by both Church and Monarchy  in law – unable to enter work in finance or medicine, not being allowed to have Christian servants or otherwise “have power” over Christians etc. Special items of clothing marked them out, and in law courts their testimony was worth less than those of Christians.  This atmosphere was stoked and fuelled by the sermons of a Christian Monk, the Archdeacon of Ecija, Ferdinand Martinez, who preached his hatred eloquently, and who incited his flock against what he saw as the perfidious and untrustworthy Jews – to the point that the aljama of Seville complained about him several times, and the King of Castile Juan 1st wrote to him urging him to moderate his behaviour. The king tried to keep the peace, but in 1390 he died, leaving his heir, a minor, to rule.

Martinez’ Ash Wednesday sermon in 1391, demanding that Jews either convert or die, incited the crowds into the Juderia, the Jewish section of the city. When the mayor tried to control the rioters, Martinez spoke out against him. In Jun of that year, the rioters came back to finish the pogrom, blocking the exits of the Juderia and setting it alight – four thousand Jews died, the few survivors either converted or left. Their property was expropriated. After this, the pogroms spread across the peninsula, and as Jews lost their property and their lives, it became clear to many that conversion to Christianity was their only option to stay alive.

It is estimated that up to half the Jewish population of the Iberian Peninsula converted, including whole communities, their leadership and rabbis. The violence against the Jews that began in 1391 culminated in the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.

The Jewish community of Barcelona, destroyed and murdered on 4th Elul 1391, disappeared. There may have been hidden or crypto Jews, but essentially it was a space inimical to Jewish life until the 20th century, when a few Jews came to the city from North Africa and from Eastern Europe. Today there are an estimated 3,500 to four thousand Jews – the highest concentration of Jews in Spain, and it has synagogues, a day school, an old age home and even a Jewish literary festival and Film Festival.

The stories of pogrom, of the rising anti-Semitism that led to them, of the lack of good government to control the growing violence and hatred, of the lack of good people to challenge prevailing narratives of xenophobic rage – Jews are conditioned in our very DNA it seems to me, to sense this in our world and to be early responders to the threats.

But we also have a different conditioning – we respond by continuing to hold to our identity, by supporting each other in community, by retelling our stories and transmitting our values. By recording our realities and teaching our truths.

It never fails to move me when I visit synagogues that were destroyed deliberately – or worse when they have been renovated by the State back to their former glory, but with no Jews to pray in them, study in them, and create community in them – this seems somehow to make a travesty of our history and our survival – albeit in a different world. But it never fails to move me when the descendants of the forcibly converted come forward to reclaim their lost and dislocated identity. And working as I do in Europe, seeing people come back to Jewish community either informally or more formally after such dislocation, working through brit/mikveh/beit din, I know that however dangerous it might sometimes be to be an “out” Jew, there is another force that drives us. In Ellul it is said the gates to the Divine are open, the possibilities of return are infinite. Be that teshuvah the return from a state of alienation back into a state of connection and however we understand and locate ourselves in those terms, now is the time to record, remember and continue our Jewish journey. And God waits to welcome us home.

image from the Barcelona Haggadah, Jews praying in synagogue

 

 

 

3rd Elul: birthday of Menachem Meiri

3rd Elul birth of Menachem ben Solomon Meiri or Ha’Meiri (1249–1306)

The Meiri was a Catalan rabbi, Talmudist and Maimonidean, regarded as one of the most brilliant commentators of his time. His works, which have often been ignored by much of the halachic process since, show a clear and logical – and scientific – approach to our great foundational texts.  He was a philosopher whose learning kept him open to new approaches – from the Jewish Encyclopaedia we read that “Meiri was too much of a philosopher himself to interdict the study of philosophy. Thus, when solicited by Abba Mari to give his adhesion to the excommunication launched against the secular sciences, Meiri wrote him a letter in which he emphatically defended science, the only concession he made being to forbid the study of secular sciences by any one before he has thoroughly studied the Talmud.”

He is especially famous for his writings on Jewish-Gentile relationships, repeatedly holding that the statements against the other nations in the Talmud and the discriminatory laws against them, were only about the long-disappeared idolatrous nations of that time, and in no way were to be used in his contemporary setting.  He was also a clear early voice in support of women’s reading of the Sefer Torah and the Megillah within the community.

Other comments of his are also worth bringing forward for attention– for example on the fractious dispute that has surfaced in our time: Kol b’isha ervah – the idea that a woman’s voice is sexually provocative and must therefore not be heard – also provide useful early texts to remind those who would silence women en masse in public spaces, that their viewpoint is not miSinai. On the nature of Ervah as it relates sexuality he is clear that this is highly subjective. “That a person knows himself and his inclinations” and that Kol B’isha does not apply when one knows that her voice will not be sexually stimulating. And concerning this the Torah says I am the Eternal your God” — indicating that each person must draw an honest and individual boundary”

He rules that even a minor may read from the Torah scroll for the community. He believes that one’s obligation to read the Torah publicly is not one that falls under the halachic concept that a person of lesser obligation cannot perform a commandment on behalf of a person with a greater obligation, for that is holds only for individual obligations and not communal ones. Hence, women too can read from the Sefer Torah.

There are downsides to his writing. In particular I found his comments on who to marry disappointing: Commenting on BT Yevamot 63a where Rav Pappa advises “Be patient and marry a woman who is suitable for you. Descend a level to marry a woman of lower social status, and ascend a level to choose a friend”   Rashi glosses: “Do not take an important woman as your wife, lest she find that you are unacceptable to her” But the Meiri goes further in his commentary -“Never seek a wife among those who are greater than you, lest as a result of her higher standing, she rules over you. Surely then she will not obey you regarding household tasks.”

We are all children of our time, and we have all absorbed the generation norms in which we live, to a greater or lesser degree. The Meiri was of his place and time, but had the courage to speak against much of the prevailing fear of “the other” – be they women or gentiles.  And he continued to be open to knowledge from whatever source, defending the learning of the sciences and a good and rounded education. We need more such voices today.