Kol Nidrei Sermon – the curious case of collective vows we made in error

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The Neder – The vow, is one of the earliest forms of prayer that we know, first recorded when Jacob speaks to God at Beit El, (Genesis 28)  though even by the time the bible was redacted  it was clearly something to be discouraged.  By the book of Deuteronomy we find “When you shall vow a vow to the Eternal God, do not be slow to pay it, for the Eternal God will certainly expect it from you and you will incur guilt. But if you have not vowed, there is no guilt upon you.” (Deut 23:21-23).

That biblical vow-maker par excellence – the nazir – must bring a sin offering and a guilt offering at the conclusion of his vow – indicating that the additional piety he has taken on himself has some negative aspects to it, and that by denying himself normal pleasures he is behaving wrongly. As the Babylonian Amora Shmuel (2nd/3rd century) said “even though he fulfils the vow, he is called wicked” (Nedarim 22a)

It is clear by the rabbinic period that taking upon oneself additional restrictions beyond those established by the Torah and the Sages is viewed with  extreme disfavour  -to the point of being called a sinner for doing so (Ned 77b) (see Rambam Hilchot De’ot 3:1)

Not surprising then that there is a habit in the orthodox world of adding “bli neder” to any promise or offer, thus ensuring that should it not happen they would not be guilty of an unfulfilled vow.

There are two Talmudic tractates (Nedarim and Shevuot) which are devoted to the complex legal and moral problems that arise when people make vows that cannot or will not be fulfilled, so while vow- making may be frowned upon, it clearly has a place in the heart of the person looking for tools of spiritual value in their lives, and remains a problematic habit in our world.

From the earliest rabbinic times, the annulling of the vows of an individual to another individual is done by a beit din, which must satisfy itself about the nature of the vow, its context, its probability of being able to be fulfilled and so on. And should a beit din act to annul any vow made between individuals, then both people involved must be examined by the court, and must be present for the annulment to take place. Whether they are Jew or gentile, their presence is necessary; no annulment can take place in secret or as a favour to an important person. This is a complex legal arrangement, with many safeguards and requirements in law, and it seems that the formulation of the beit din being asked to annul empty or unfillable vows began fairly early on in the rabbinic period, even while they knew explicitly that the annulment of vows has little basis in any text:  the Mishnah tells us “the rules about the absolution of vows hover in the air and have nothing to support them” (Hagigah 1:8).

But what of the Kol Nedarim prayer that names this service?  This prayer about all our vows was described by the Babylonian Geonim in the 7th Century as a minhag shtut – a foolish custom – but it was already clearly embedded in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah at that point, possibly as a way to begin a new year with a clean slate, or because it resonated with the magic of blessings and curses on incantation bowls from the sixth century – magic that would have been known to the community even if it was not supposed to form part of their world view, and so again promised some kind of supernatural cleansing of a problem at a critical time of the year.

Because it was so deeply ingrained in the customs and folk-understanding, the Babylonian sages compromised with the people, and turned the formula into a religious rather than legal one, seeking mechila, selicha v’kapparah – forgiveness, pardon and atonement – from God rather than from any human entity. They underpinned this text with one from bible – “And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger that sojourns among them; for in respect of all the people it was done in error.” (Numbers 15:26)

וְנִסְלַח, לְכָל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר, הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם:  כִּי לְכָל-הָעָם, בִּשְׁגָגָה.

Bishgaga – as a collective we have vowed things to God in error.  It is an extraordinary statement, reaching well beyond both the laws of Nedarim and of the biblical verse. But it gives us the space to come together and make our teshuvah with the support of our community.

Even after the intervention of the geonim, changing the focus of the vows to those between us and God, changing the time frame of the vows and so on, here are so many problems still with the collective annulment we make each year. It is not really possible legally either to annul vows retroactively nor proactively, and yet a compromise was reached between the spiritual needs of the people and the carefully and closely read and understood legal texts of the rabbinate.   If only that were true today.

The battle between the people’s love for Kol HaNedarim and the rabbinic uneasiness with the whole idea of collectively annulling vows is long standing and ongoing. Each strand of Judaism right up to the early Reform movement has tried to remove the formulation from the liturgy at various times, but always found they had to put it back. The power of the people’s needs and wants in this particular case is extraordinary, it stands out in our history and it begs the question – why do the people venerate this prayer so much?

Why is this prayer almost the only thing that the Jews have resisted the rabbinic rulings about? Across the generations, from the earliest liturgies for the Yamim Noraim till today, ordinary Jews demand the right as a community to convene a communal Beit Din, to remove the scrolls in the evening service from the Aron Kodesh – which we leave open and empty -, and in the presence of the community repeat this formulation three times, each time louder than the last.

We know how this prayer looks to the uninformed – the idea that we begin our service annulling any vows made retroactively or proactively does not play well to the outside world who would not understand that the vows in question are only those between us and God.  Many Jews listening to Kol HaNedarim would have had real lived experience of the anti-Semitic uses this prayer has been put to.  Christian Europe called us perfidious oath breakers precisely because they did not understand the limits of the Kol HaNedarim prayer, did not understand that it was framed in the relationship between us and God, not the relationships between human beings.  The More Judaico (Jewish Oath) was a special form of oath taken in the courtrooms of western Europe, rooted in antisemitism and accompanied by particularly unpleasant requirements such as making the Jew stand on the bloody skin of a pig to recite the words of the oath, or to stand bareheaded on a wobbly stool and beaten if he fell off. The intentionally humiliating, painful and dangerous More Judaico was required of Jews in some European courts of law until the 20th century.

So what is it about the Kol HaNedarim prayer that causes us to cling to a formulation of dubious wording, decried by the rabbis and used against us so cruelly and violently by the people among whom we lived? Why have the Jewish people so consistently and so determinedly fought for this prayer, even using it to describe the service that begins Yom Kippur? What is going on that across the generations, across geography, across every expression of the Jewish people, this formulation – the Kol HaNedarim is so cherished?

It is a question that cannot be definitively answered, but I think driving this determination to recite and to hear the words of this prayer – even for Jews who have little contact with the liturgy or with the community – are the twin ideas of our obligation and commitment to a relationship with something outside ourselves, and of a need for the connection and possibilities of being truly seen and understood, leading to deep forgiveness.

Were we not to consider ourselves somehow obligated to God – however distant this feeling might be in our ordinary daily lives, we would not need a ceremony to forgive us having failed in this obligation and help us to find a way back.  The need for relationship is primal; the connection to the divine giving meaning to our lives is somehow hard-wired into us.

Just as the vidui – the recitation of our sins, is a collective public confession that happens in each of the services of Yom Kippur, the Kol HaNedarim is a collective public statement. Both prayers work at a number of levels in the liturgy, but perhaps the most important is that they enable us to say out loud and within our community things that we might find almost impossible to say or do any other way. We have not all done all of the sins we publicly confess to, yet we join in with the recitation of them all, both to allow any individual to speak out without being noticed or judged, and also to create – and to return to -the community we are . The confessional prayers are written in a particular liturgical form which uses the whole alphabet to describe the sins – to show that we are, when reciting the sins on the page, also symbolically confessing to every other form of bad behaviour which is staining our souls and causing us spiritual discomfort or alienation.  The point of the vidui is to bring us together, into a collective, back to our moment of truth. It allows us to be the truth we seek. It reminds us of our commitments – the active obligations we took upon ourselves, and it allows us to be clear and honest, inside the protection of a community at prayer.

The sound of the shofar, which has been blown every weekday of Ellul, and which will be the last sound of the services of Yom Kippur, also calls us to our true selves.   The Tekiah Gedolah is the bookend to the Kol HaNedarim – alongside that opening ceremony,  it frames the journey we make and makes the space for us to be completely true, fully aware of the sacred within us, as we become part of our community.

My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg writes of the shofar “I always think of the shofar as coming from the depths of creation. Formed from the horn of a ram or mountain goat, its rough, un-honed cry calls of the bond which unites all nature, animal and human. It speaks without words of our bare and basic togetherness in this world of cold and warmth, food and hunger, life and death. The breath which flows through the shofar resonates with the ruach, the breath or spirit which breathes through all life, the spirit of God which hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and which creates and sustains all living being. It calls us home to the sacred within ourselves, and in all life.”

Why have we Jews fought to keep Kol HaNedarim, both against the internal opposition and the external opprobrium it engenders? I think because it allows us access to what Jonathan calls “our bare and basic togetherness… it calls us home to the sacred.. to the bond of life… to the breath of {God}.” It engenders a place where we can be truly who we are, and where our souls can give our most authentic expression.

So as we begin the final services of this period of Yamim Noraim, of the Days of Awe, with the Kol HaNedarim still echoing in our hearts and minds, we journey together this evening and tomorrow in a space of truth, allowing our awareness of the sacred within ourselves and our world. And we hope that when the Tekiah Gedolah ends the services of Yom Kippur tomorrow evening, we can begin to move on in our lives with a renewed awareness of our purpose, and of the sacred tasks of being, and of becoming, bonded together and filled with the breath of God.

 

 

Il Neder, Il voto, è una delle prime forme di preghiera che conosciamo, registrata per la prima volta quando Giacobbe parla a Dio a Beit El (Genesi 28), sebbene, già quando la Bibbia fu redatta, il voto era chiaramente qualcosa da scoraggiare. Nel libro del Deuteronomio troviamo: “Quando farai un voto al Signore tuo Dio, non dovrai tardare ad adempierlo perché il Signore tuo Dio te lo richiederebbe ed in te si troverebbe il peccato. Se invece cesserai di far voti, non ci sarà in te peccato.”. (Deut 23: 22-23)

Quel creatore di voti biblici per eccellenza, il nazir, deve portare un’offerta per il peccato e un’offerta di colpa alla conclusione del suo voto, mostrando che la pietà aggiuntiva che ha preso su di sé ha alcuni aspetti negativi e che negando a se stesso normali piaceri si sta comportando in modo errato. Come disse il babilonese Amora Shmuel (II/III secolo) “anche se adempie al voto, viene chiamato malvagio”. (Nedarim 22a)

Dal periodo rabbinico è chiaro che chi si assume ulteriori restrizioni oltre a quelle stabilite dalla Torà e dai Saggi è visto con estremo sfavore, fino al punto di essere chiamato peccatore per averlo fatto. (Ned 77b) (vedi Rambam Hilchot De’ot 3:1)

Non sorprende quindi che nel mondo ortodosso vi sia l’abitudine di aggiungere “bli neder” a qualsiasi promessa o offerta, assicurando così che, se ciò non dovesse accadere, non si sarebbe colpevoli di un voto non realizzato.

Esistono due trattati talmudici (Nedarim e Shevuot) che si dedicano ai complessi problemi legali e morali che sorgono quando le persone fanno voti che non possono o non vogliono adempiere, quindi, mentre il voto può essere disapprovato, esso ha chiaramente un posto nel cuore della persona che cerca strumenti di valore spirituale nella propria vita e rimane un’abitudine problematica nel nostro mondo.

Fin dai primi tempi rabbinici, l’annullamento dei voti fatti da un individuo verso un altro individuo viene svolto da un beit din, che deve accertarsi sulla natura del voto, il suo contesto, la sua probabilità di poter essere adempiuto e così via. E in caso di annullamento di qualsiasi voto fatto tra singoli individui, entrambe le persone coinvolte devono essere esaminate dal tribunale e devono essere presenti affinché l’annullamento possa aver luogo. Che siano ebrei o gentili, la loro presenza è necessaria, nessun annullamento può aver luogo in segreto o come favore a una persona importante. Si tratta di un complesso accordo giuridico, con molte garanzie e requisiti di legge, e sembra che la formulazione del beit din cui viene chiesto di annullare i voti a vuoto o non adempibili sia iniziata abbastanza presto nel periodo rabbinico, anche se sapevano esplicitamente che l’annullamento di voti ha poche basi in qualsiasi testo: la Mishnà ci dice infatti: “le regole sull’assoluzione dei voti fluttuano nell’aria e non hanno nulla per essere sostenute”. (Hagigà 1:8)

Ma che dire della preghiera di Kol Nedarim che dà il nome a questo servizio? Questa preghiera, che riguarda tutti i nostri voti è stata descritta dai Geonim babilonesi nel VII secolo come un minhag shtut, un’usanza folle, ma a quel punto era già chiaramente inserita nella liturgia di Rosh HaShanà, forse come un modo per iniziare un nuovo anno con una tabula rasa, o perché risuonava con la magia delle benedizioni e delle maledizioni sulle coppe incantatorie del sesto secolo (oggetti rituali apotropaici con la funzione di trappole per demoni), magia che sarebbe stata conosciuta alla comunità, nonostante non avrebbe dovuto far parte della loro visione del mondo, e così da promettere una sorta di pulizia soprannaturale di un problema in un momento critico dell’anno.

Poiché era così profondamente radicata nelle usanze e nella comprensione popolare, i saggi babilonesi scesero a compromessi con il popolo e diedero alla formula aspetto religioso invece che legale, cercando mehilà, selichà ve kapparà, perdono, assoluzione ed espiazione, da Dio piuttosto che da qualsiasi entità umana. Avvalorarono questo testo con uno tratto dalla Bibbia: “E verrà perdonato a tutta la comunità dei figli di Israele e allo straniero dimorante fra essi, perché tutto il popolo ha parte nell’errore.”. (Numeri 15:26)

וְנִסְלַח, לְכָל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר, הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם:  כִּי לְכָל-הָעָם, בִּשְׁגָגָה.

Bishgaga: collettivamente abbiamo promesso delle cose a Dio per errore. È un’affermazione straordinaria, che va ben oltre le leggi di Nedarim e del versetto biblico. Ma ci dà lo spazio per riunirci e fare la nostra teshuvà con il sostegno della nostra comunità.

Anche dopo l’intervento dei geonim, cambiando l’obiettivo dei voti a quelli tra noi e Dio, cambiando l’intervallo di tempo dei voti e così via, abbiamo ancora tanti problemi con l’annullamento collettivo che facciamo ogni anno. Non è davvero possibile legalmente né annullare i voti retroattivamente né proattivamente, eppure è stato raggiunto un compromesso tra i bisogni spirituali delle persone e i testi legali del rabbinato attentamente e minuziosamente letti. Se solo fosse vero oggi.

La battaglia tra l’amore del popolo verso Kol HaNedarim e il disagio rabbinico con l’idea di annullare collettivamente i voti è lunga ed è in corso.

Ogni filone dell’ebraismo fino al primo movimento della Riforma ha cercato di rimuovere la formulazione dalla liturgia in varie occasioni, ma si è sempre trovato a doverla reinserire. Il potere dei bisogni e dei desideri delle persone in questo caso particolare è straordinario, si distingue nella nostra storia e pone la domanda: perché le persone venerano così tanto questa preghiera?

Perché questa preghiera è quasi l’unica cosa per cui gli ebrei hanno opposto resistenza alle sentenze rabbiniche? Attraverso le generazioni, dalle prime liturgie per gli Yamim Noraim fino ad oggi, gli ebrei ordinari chiedono il diritto come comunità di convocare un Beit Din comune, per rimuovere le pergamene nel servizio serale dall’Aron HaKodesh, che lasciamo aperte e vuote, e in presenza della comunità ripetere questa formulazione tre volte, ogni volta più forte della precedente.

Sappiamo come questa preghiera appaia ai non informati. L’idea che iniziamo il nostro servizio annullando qualsiasi voto fatto retroattivamente o proattivamente non suona bene al mondo esterno che non capirebbe che i voti in questione sono solo quelli tra noi e Dio. Molti ebrei che ascoltano Kol HaNedarim hanno avuto una vera esperienza vissuta degli usi antisemiti per cui questa preghiera è stata utilizzata. L’Europa cristiana ci ha chiamato perfidi interruttori di giuramenti proprio perché non capiva i limiti della preghiera di Kol HaNedarim, non capiva che era inquadrata nella relazione tra noi e Dio, non nelle relazioni tra esseri umani. Il More Judaico (giuramento ebraico) era una forma speciale di giuramento prestata nelle aule dei tribunali dell’Europa occidentale, radicata nell’antisemitismo e accompagnata da requisiti particolarmente spiacevoli come far stare l’ebreo sulla pelle insanguinata di un maiale per recitare le parole del giuramento o stare a testa nuda su uno sgabello traballante e picchiato qualora fosse caduto. Il More Judaico, umiliante, doloroso e ed intenzionalmente pericoloso era richiesto agli ebrei in alcuni tribunali europei fino al XX secolo.

Allora, che cosa c’è nella preghiera di Kol HaNedarim che ci induce ad aggrapparci a un enunciato di dubbia formulazione, denigrata dai rabbini e usata contro di noi in modo così crudele e violento dalle persone tra le quali abbiamo vissuto? Perché il popolo ebraico ha combattuto così costantemente e con determinazione per questa preghiera, arrivando a usarla per descrivere il servizio con cui ha inizio Yom Kippur? Per quale motivo attraverso le generazioni, attraverso i continenti, attraverso ogni espressione del popolo ebraico, questa formulazione: il Kol HaNedarim è così amata?

È una domanda cui non è possibile dare una risposta definitiva, ma penso che guidare questa determinazione a recitare e ascoltare le parole di questa preghiera, anche per gli ebrei che hanno pochi contatti con la liturgia o con la comunità, siano le idee gemelle del nostro obbligo e l’impegno per una relazione con qualcosa al di fuori di noi stessi e per il bisogno di connessione e possibilità di essere veramente visti e compresi, portando a un profondo perdono.

Se non dovessimo considerarci in qualche modo in obbligo verso Dio, per quanto distante possa essere questo sentimento nella nostra vita quotidiana ordinaria, non avremmo bisogno di una cerimonia per perdonarci di aver fallito in questo obbligo e aiutarci per trovare una via di ritorno. Il bisogno di relazione è fondamentale; la connessione col divino dà significato alla nostra vita, è in qualche modo connaturata in noi.

Proprio come il vidui, la recitazione dei nostri peccati, è una confessione pubblica collettiva che accade in ciascuno dei servizi di Yom Kippur, il Kol HaNedarim è una dichiarazione pubblica collettiva. Entrambe le preghiere lavorano a vari livelli nella liturgia, ma forse la più importante è quella di consentirci di dire, ad alta voce e all’interno della nostra comunità, cose che potremmo trovare quasi impossibili da dire o fare in altro modo. Non tutti abbiamo commesso tutti i peccati che confessiamo pubblicamente, eppure ci uniamo nella recitazione di tutti, sia per consentire a qualsiasi individuo di parlare senza essere notato o giudicato, sia per creare, e tornare ad essere, la  comunità che siamo. Le preghiere confessionali sono scritte in una particolare forma liturgica che usa l’intero alfabeto per descrivere i peccati, per mostrare che, quando recitiamo i peccati sulla pagina, stiamo anche confessando simbolicamente ogni altra forma di cattivo comportamento che sta macchiando le nostre anime, causandoci disagio spirituale o alienazione. Il punto del vidui è riportarci insieme, in maniera collettiva, al nostro momento di verità. Ci permette di essere la verità che cerchiamo. Ci ricorda i nostri impegni, gli obblighi attivi che ci siamo assunti e ci consente di essere chiari e onesti, all’interno della protezione di una comunità in preghiera.

Il suono dello shofar, che è stato suonato ogni giorno della settimana di Elul, e che sarà l’ultimo suono dei servizi di Yom Kippur, ci chiama anche a noi stessi. Il Tekià Gedolà è un po’ il corrispettivo del Kol HaNedarim, insieme a quella cerimonia di apertura, incornicia il viaggio che facciamo e rende lo spazio per noi completamente vero, pienamente consapevole del sacro dentro di noi, mentre entriamo a far parte della nostra comunità.

Il mio collega Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg scrive dello shofar Penso sempre allo shofar come proveniente dal profondo della creazione. Formato dal corno di un ariete o di una capra di montagna, il suo grido aspro e scabro richiama il legame che unisce tutta la natura, animale e umano. Parla senza parole della nostra nuda ed essenziale unione in questo mondo di freddo e calore, cibo e fame, vita e morte. Il respiro che fluisce attraverso lo shofar risuona con il ruach, il respiro o lo spirito che respira attraverso tutta la vita, lo spirito di Dio che aleggiava all’inizio del profondo e che crea e sostiene tutto l’essere vivente. Ci chiama alla casa del sacro in noi stessi e in tutta la vita.

Perché noi ebrei abbiamo combattuto per mantenere Kol HaNedarim, sia contro l’opposizione interna che contro l’obbrobrio che genera all’esterno? Penso perché ci consente di accedere a ciò che Jonathan chiama “il nostro nudo e fondamentale insieme … ci chiama alla casa del sacro … al legame della vita … al respiro di {Dio}”. Crea un luogo dove possiamo essere veramente chi siamo e dove le nostre anime possono dare la nostra espressione più autentica.

Così, quando iniziamo i servizi finali di questo periodo di Yamim Noraim, dei Giorni del timore reverenziale, con il Kol HaNedarim che riecheggia ancora nei nostri cuori e nelle nostre menti, viaggiamo insieme questa sera e domani in uno spazio di verità, consentendo la nostra consapevolezza del sacro in noi stessi e nel nostro mondo. E speriamo che quando domani sera Tekià Gedolà terminerà i servizi di Yom Kippur, potremo iniziare ad andare avanti nella nostra vita con una rinnovata consapevolezza del nostro scopo e dei sacri compiti dell’essere e del divenire, uniti e riempiti con il respiro di Dio.

 

 

 

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

28th Ellul: The soul is Yours and the body is Yours. A reminder to God that we are as God made us; a reminder to ourselves that we are as God made us.

28th Ellul

הַנְשָמָה לָך וְהַגוּף פְעֳלָך חוּסָה עַל עָמָלָך

The soul is Yours and the body is Your work, Have mercy on the fruits of your labour”

This pizmon (extra-liturgical prayer) is part of the Sephardi rite on the evening of Yom Kippur (Kol Nidrei) and is a favourite in selichot prayers in Elul.

Referencing the verse in Genesis “Then the Holy One formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living soul”the writer of the prayer is reminding both us and God that essentially we are formed by God and belong to God, we rely on God and will return to God.

The prayers for mercy and for forgiveness, for an end to suffering and the dawn of a better time, are integral to this period – known collectively as “selichot” and designed to ask forgiveness for the people Israel, and to remind us and God that we are in relationship.

The selichot are a literature that developed between the 7thand the 16th century –, and are found in every strand of Jewish tradition, though how and when they are used varies according to different minhagim. On Rosh Hashanah they tend to focus on themes such as the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) on Creation, and on the Judgement of Yom HaDin, whereas on Yom Kippur they are more often themed around human frailty, on confession, on the forgiveness of God, and on the suffering of the people.

I’m particularly fond of this pizmon – the reminder that our bodies and our souls belong to God is echoed in the Adon Olam and used in night prayers – “In Your hand I lay my soul, and with my soul my body also, God is with me, I shall not fear”. I like how it reminds God that we are created as reflections of God’s being, that God has some responsibility for how we turn out; And how it reminds us that we are created as reflections of God’s being, that, in the forming of human beings the verb used vayitzer has the letter yod  twice.

וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה:

The Eternal God formed the human as dust from the earth, and blew into its nose the breath of life, and the human became a living soul.

The midrash tells us that that two yods refer to the two “inclinations” in humanity – the inclination to be selfish and the inclination to be selfless, the yetzer ra and yetzer tov. Both of them are valid and necessary impulses, but must be kept in balance for us to be our best selves. They reflect us in so many ways – selfish/selfless; individual being/communal being; thoughtful/needy; driven/reflective – all the aspects that make us up as human beings including of course body/soul.

A reminder of the divine creation of human beings with all the possibilities to build the world, is helpful for those of us who feel ourselves to be simply dust and ashes. A reminder that God is responsible for us, that the words for work are used twice in this short pizmon reminding God that we are God’s created work – that helps us to remember we are, in the words of the rabbis, the children of the sovereign.

As Ellul nears its end, and we face the more intense days ahead, to be reminded that we were created for a good purpose and that God has a stake in us achieving such a good purpose, is a useful and salutary thing.

 

 

 

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.

 

6th Elul :We don’t abstain from helping others if we want to call ourselves religious

6th Elul

“If someone comes to you for assistance and you say to them, ‘God will help you,’ you become a disloyal servant of God. You have to understand that God has sent you to aid the needy and not to refer them back to God.”  (the Lelover Rebbe)

There is an old joke of the person who refused to follow the warnings of a coming flood and persisted in stating that as a person of faith, they knew that God would not let them come to harm. The rains came and the person stayed in their house, moved onto an upper floor and prayed. Suddenly a boat came floating past the window – “quick –get in” said the person in the boat, but the faithful person replied “I will pray and God will save me”. The rain continued, the boat came again, and again the person refused to get in, citing God’s protection of the righteous.

The next morning found the flood even higher, the person had climbed onto the roof of the house, and watched as the rain continued. Suddenly the boat reappeared. “Quick, get in, we won’t be able to come back after this it is too dangerous”. Once more their offer was refused. The flood waters covered the house and shortly afterwards the soul of the faithful person stood before God. Furious, they demanded to know why they had drowned when they had been demonstrating their faith in the goodness and salvation of God. And the Divine Voice replied “who do you think sent the boat?”

In this world we may or may not have a strong faith in God, but we do have a responsibility to each other and to ourselves. And that responsibility extends way past any category of who deserves and who does not, who is like us or how we would like to be, and who is very different.

For those of us who see ourselves as people of faith, it is not enough –not nearly enough- to expect that faith to save us or save anyone else. It is a requirement of our faith that we use it to increase our activity in the world for good, that we recognise that we have our own agency, and we must use it.

It is not enough to say “the Government has a plan” or “there are organisations for these situations or these people” or “other people are helping”. It is not enough to tut and frown and say “what a shame but it is not our responsibility” When people need help, it is our human obligation to give that help. For the Lelover it was an obligation based on being a loyal servant of God. Jewish texts repeat this message in a myriad ways. But however one frames it, the bottom line in Judaism is that we don’t abstain from helping others, we must not abstain – this is our primary work in the world.

 

 

 

 

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)

 

 

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?

 

 

Bereishit: men and women created equally and mutually

Genesis has two creation stories, each with a different structure and a different name for God. The first, with the numbered days of the first week, has Elohim create humanity in God’s image at the end of the process, and this humanity is neither singular nor male. “Vayivra Elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo, betzelem Elohim bara oto, zachar u’nekeivah bara otam” (1:27)

The second, where humanity was created even before the Garden of Eden was made, has one human fashioned from the dust of the earth, and placed into Eden. But it is already clear that one living being is a lonely being, so God creates the animals and birds. The human names them but does not develop a mutual relationship with them, and ultimately God has to create more human beings in the world. To do this, God does not create a new thing, but takes from the existing human to form the being who will be in relationship with it.

How we translate what God takes from the first being is critical to how we understand gender politics. And how it has been translated in the past is a direct outcome of such politics. For God takes מִצַּלְעֹתָיו  – from the side of the first human, and not, as it is frequently translated, a rib from it. This root appears over forty times in bible, and is never translated as anything other than “side” except in this passage, and first found in the Septuagint. If we look more closely we see that the word always describes something that is leaned upon, or (in the case of Jacob) limped upon. So what is bible telling us with this word? When God divides the Adam into ish (man) and isha (woman), the two are equal. One might ask why this understanding disappeared when bible is so clear?

 

(written for “the bible says what?” series for the progressive Judaism page of the Jewish News)