Purim: by telling ourselves stories we can open up a world of choices, or “is it bashert or is it what I do”

The book of Esther, the foundational text for the minor post biblical festival of Purim, is riddled with ambiguities and ambivalences, allusions and opacities, and we are uncomfortably aware that the text is a constant tease of hidden and revealed, covered and discovered, secret and known. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from a Hebrew root that means concealment. Yet Esther is also related to the word for a star, which shines brightly under the right conditions.

The themes of concealment and revelation are constantly played with – God is never mentioned in the book, yet clearly God is at work here – and there are many other examples. Mordechai overhears a plot to kill the king from his hidden place and brings it to official attention;  Esther is constrained in the harem yet is able to influence the royal policy;  Vashti chooses to remain enclosed when ordered to reveal her beauty in public; , Mordechai’s act is recorded at the time but not revealed and rewarded till much later, the almost playful peek-a-boo of now you see it now you don’t is a thread that runs through the story,  our peripheral vision catching it momentarily as it disappears when we try to look straight at it.

Perhaps the most extraordinary “now you see it now you don’t” moment is in the interchange between Mordechai and Esther, carried on through the medium of Hatach, one of the king’s eunuchs. Mordechai sends word of everything that has happened with regard to the decree against the Jews, and tells Esther she must go to the king to make supplications on behalf of her people. Esther’s response via Hatach is that everyone knows that to approach the king in the innermost (hidden) courtyard without being invited is to risk certain death, and she has not been called to the king in thirty days.

We are right at the centre of the book – almost exactly at the centre in terms of the number of verses – as Mordechai answer’s Esther’s anxious justification for her inability to help. His answer is three fold. First he reminds her that she will not be safe either, even though she is in the harem. Secondly he tells her that the Jewish people will not be destroyed as help will most certainly come from another source if she continues to be inactive, and finally he asks a rhetorical question of her – could it be that this moment is the moment of destiny her life has been leading up to?

“Then Mordecai asked them to return his answer to Esther: ‘ Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:13-14)

It is an extraordinary speech and it raises many questions for us too. The first is a reminder that should we try to keep our heads down and not resist injustice on the grounds that we may survive a toxic political climate by keeping our presence shadowy and not attracting attention to ourselves is a folly and a false position. One need only think of the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller castigating the German intellectuals for their silence in the face of rising Nazi power:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Or the quotation famously attributed to the political philosopher Edmund Burke that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing”, reframed by Albert Einstein as “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

The second assertion is a classical theological position that God will never abandon the Jewish people, even though at times it may appear that God is silent, uncaring, absent, or even chas v’chalila apparently allowing Jewish suffering at this time for some particular purpose. This is a deeply problematic area in theology, not least because of the deep suffering during the Shoah, and while the idea of ‘hester panim, the face of God is concealed from us”  may be rooted in the words of such books as the prophet Isaiah, so that the act of God concealing God’s face is understood as a way of God punishing disobedient subjects, by far the prevailing Jewish sentiment is that of Job:  God may appear to be distant and God’s face hidden from us, but as Martin Buber writes, “a hiding God is also a God who can be found”.

So while the Jews were facing a terrible crisis throughout the empire, Mordechai knew and asserted that relief would come, that God would turn towards them and help them, that even if Esther failed to deliver the liberation, the Jewish people would still prevail.  “Relief and deliverance will arise from a different place”.

The third statement is probably the most challenging for us, the question Mordechai asks Esther “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” This is a formulation of the idea of having a destiny, a preordained role in life, something which can be found in expressions of folk religions, but which comes dangerously close to encroaching on our freedom of will, freedom of choice.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” reminding us of our absolute freedom of will and our own absolute responsibility for our actions. We are entirely free to make our own choices, God has no power over this.

So Mordechai questioning Esther with the veiled suggestion that her destiny has led her to be in such a position, able to make a difference to the experience of the Jewish people, is problematic and in need of our attention. Can she have been destined for this moment?

Many of us like to think that there is a plan in the world, that the universe is not random and our existence in it not merely incidental and accidental.  We like to locate ourselves in something that has meaning; we like to tell ourselves stories to make sense of our life and our choices.

Judaism is predicated on the freedom of will, but still our narratives contain hints of ways to try to understand the mind of God. Decision-making involving the casting of lots (goralim) is mentioned 77 times in the biblical narrative:- in the story of the scapegoat, in the allocation of tribal territories  once the people enter the land of Israel, described both before in the book of Numbers and after in the book of Joshua. Lots are cast in the books of Chronicles to divide the priestly work, in Jonah to decide who is responsible for God sending the storm, and are mentioned in both Psalms and Proverbs as well of course of the famous ‘purim’ cast in the book of Esther to decide a favourable date.  One might also argue that the Urim and Thumim found in the breastplate of the High Priest in the book of Exodus were artefacts of divination to understand the will of God (Exodus 28:30), though they did not always seem to give a certainty, as King Saul found (Sam 28:6) and their use seems to have ended by the early days of the monarchy and the advent of the prophetic tradition.

One of the things that makes us human is our need for storytelling. We are generally uncomfortable with an entirely random context, with the idea that only arbitrary luck brought us into being, of there being no framework of meaning supporting our existence. So we tell ourselves stories to support our choices and those stories in turn become our inner dialogue and shape what we think is possible or justifiable.

Whether we frame our stories in quasi-religious or in historical or political language, we hold these narratives dear because they explain us to ourselves.  In the words of the less than conventionally religious Jewish thinker Karl Marx “[people] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”

We make our choices in life, but these choices are shaped by our context, by how we understand ourselves and our history and how we got to be in the place we are. Whether it is because we believe in something to be ‘bashert’ – (our destiny somehow gifted from God), or whether we consider that the decision making is ours alone, we still tell stories around how we come to our choices, we allow our internal narratives to shape us, to help form what we think and to give us the courage to act. Whether because we believe God is guiding us or we believe that history and context have privileged us;  whether we can tell ourselves it will all be alright because somewhere there is a plan, or we can tell ourselves that if we fail it is because of the randomness of luck, each of us holds to the thread of meaning we tell ourselves is our truth.

One of the questions that arises from Mordechai’s question to Esther is one we  might sometimes ask of ourselves. “Do we feel that our lives have been organised to bring us to a moment of critical action or decision making?”  And if so, what are the things we feel ourselves put on the earth to do? Or maybe to change the perspective slightly – do we feel, looking back on our lives so far, that our existence has impacted positively on the world around us in any way, that we have done things of which we are proud, that are something uniquely ours to have achieved?

Mordechai tells Esther that her not acting will not save her, nor will her inaction change the thrust of history into the future – the Jews will be saved by some means or other, and he introduces to her then that the choice of whether she acts or does not act is in the context of a story she can tell herself – that maybe God has put her in this place where she can risk a meeting with the King in order to try to save her people. This is a powerful pivot in the story that speaks also to us. Our choices cannot be made on the basis of trying to survive a hostile power by keeping a low profile. We need to make choices actively, and there will be consequences that are contingent on our choices. Knowing that, what is important is the story we tell ourselves to confirm or justify the choices we make.

What are the stories that we tell ourselves? The narrative of Jewish persecution and survival is a strong one in our tradition, embodied in many of our festivals with the rather tongue in cheek “they tried to kill us off, they failed, let’s eat”.  Yet alongside this celebration is the remembrance of the  pain and the fear of our history – we look around us to see from where an attack may come, worry about our own likely responses.  We see ourselves as modern, western, education, integrated citizens of our countries, at the same time as identifying with an ancient and particular tradition that encourages a different set of perspectives.  We understand that history rolls on, that our actions may affect its particular course but not its ultimate progression. Our internal story telling may give us the courage to act in a particular way, it may allow us to justify ex post facto the choices we made and our actions or inactions, our beliefs shape how we see the world and help us to imagine a different one.  We toy with the dynamic interface between free-will and destiny, and nowhere in bible is that so clear as in Mordechai’s threefold response to Esther. We must act in the world, we must understand that our actions are neither  ultimate or irrevocable, but we are not free to hide away from making those choices.

Our tradition has always given us a helping set of stories so that we can construct a narrative that will support our choices. Be it Hillel haZakein who told us “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” or Rabbi Tarfon who taught “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” we know the imperative is to act to make the world a better place for our being in it.  In the words again of Hillel haZakein, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. go and learn.”






Toledot: lessons on the control of resources and why we should resist the power


Within the powerful narrative of sibling rivalry and family betrayal of parashat Toledot there runs another, equally powerful and important theme – the control of resources of food and water and how the manipulation of this control distorts everything around it.

Two stories of deception and duplicity frame this sidra, both pivot on the manipulation of food and drink. In Genesis 25:27-34 we have the story of Esau coming in hungry from his venison hunting, and selling his birthright blessing to Jacob for the red lentil stew that Jacob has cooked and whose savoury smell tempted Esau whose appetite was so sharp he felt he would die if he did not eat it. In Genesis 27 we have the story of the blind and ailing Isaac asking Esau to go and hunt him a last meal of venison, after which he would give him the blessing of the firstborn before he died. The same motifs and words come up again and again: blessing; death; venison; In one story food is withheld until the blessing sworn over, in the other the blessing is withheld until the food is eaten. The stories play with each, resonate and mirror each other, but each of them uses food and the control of resource to put one party at a disadvantage to the other.

In the middle of these two stories of blessing and feasting, of manipulation and betrayal comes quite a different narrative. In Chapter 26 we have a story that begins with famine, specifically a new famine that is not the one faced by Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca go to the Philistine Abimelech king of Gerar to find food. God tells Isaac not to leave for Egypt as his parents had done in the previous famine, but to stay on the land and the blessing first given to Abraham would be his. Isaac stays in Gerar, but in a parallel to the story of his parents he tells everyone that Rebecca is his sister rather than his wife, as he clearly fears for his life should the truth be known. Abimelech notices the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca and chastises Isaac – someone could easily have taken Rebecca for a wife and the community would have been punished, and Abimelech places his protection on the couple. The result was that Isaac sowed the land and immediately reaped “me’ah she’arim” a hundredfold return on his work, and God blessed him and all his work. He became richer and richer, with huge flocks and herds, a great household, and this drew the envy of the surrounding Philistines.

I must confess that I find this extraordinary – why should he reap so much for his work? Surely enough would have been enough, and it would surely have been inevitable that such astonishing wealth would attract the unwelcome interest of those who had less than he, but let us pass on for now…

There follows a rather sad narrative of Isaac and the herdsmen of Gerar fighting for the wells that had belonged to Abraham and should therefore now belong to his son. Bible rather laconically tells us that “All the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth”. It is not clear if this was an earlier event to prevent others taking the water after Abraham had left, or if this was a reprisal motivated by jealousy of Isaac’s wealth, or even if this was an attempt to erase any historical roots that Isaac would have had to the area. The wells don’t seem to have been taken over, strange in a world where water is so precious, but filled in – at least until re-dug by Isaac’s men when the fight over the water between the herdsmen became serious. Finally Isaac moved far enough away – first to Rehovot (meaning wide or spacious) and then to Beersheba (meaning 7 wells) – and an uneasy truce prevailed, cemented by Abimelech making a treaty with him having seen that God was with him – a curious treaty hedged with diplomatic ambiguity, asking that Isaac not hurt the people of Gerar, “as we have not touched you and as we have done you nothing but good, and have sent you away in peace…..” (v29)

In this curious narrative, resonant of the earlier stories of Abraham and Sarah, showing Isaac as both a hungry frightened migrant and as a wealthy possessor of animals and land, and finally as a synthesis of these – wealthy but insecure on the land and moved on further and further into the desert, we have the crux of the story. Control of necessary resources is everything. It doesn’t matter how much you possess if you don’t possess the basics of food, water and space to live on. You can be manipulated and dealt out of your rights by the person or group who has control over these, and who can take everything else of value from you. For all that Isaac reaped a hundredfold from his first planting, his wealth meant nothing as long as he was not secure for his immediate needs. Ultimately we are all in thrall to our basic needs. Bible already recognises what Abraham Maslow later put into his theory of the hierarchy of needs – that to live our lives fully we must first meet certain criteria: his first two sets are “Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.” And when these are met, then “Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.” Only then are we in a place where we can grow well.

Why does bible frame the narrative of the Philistine King Abimelech and Isaac between the two stories of family manipulation and betrayal which both use food and immediate desire/need to control events?

One can only guess at the mind of the editor of the text. But in my mind I see that controlling others through controlling the access to resources they need is a human behaviour done to both those we are in close relationship with and those with whom we do not have such relationship. It is an atavistic strategy hard-wired into us, presumably for survival, but it is not a laudable strategy, and it seems to me that the structure of the biblical narrative is trying to remind us of this. The alienation of Jacob and Esau is painfully intensified through this behaviour. The pain between Isaac and Rebecca, and each of the participants in the deceptions reverberates through the text, as does the frustration and impotence of Isaac trying to claim his father’s wells and being chased off his land with violent encounters. There is nothing good to come out of this story except by negative example. We who control resources may wish to use them to control the behaviour of others, but we should think hard and long about giving in to this strategy. For history teaches that empires come and empires go, that there is a turning and a spinning of the world, and that what is in our grasp now may not be in our grasp in the future. How would we want those who control the resources to behave to us? As the famous first century rabbi Hillel framed the golden rule ‘That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.’ (BT. Shabbat 31a)


both cartoons by the wonderful Jacky Fleming

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim: Holiness is not a state to achieve, but a process to live by.

א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדשִׁ֣ים תִּֽהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

Sidra Kedoshim is very familiar to us, echoing as it does the Ten Commandments, and taking the soubriquet “the holiness code”. Reform Jews read it on Yom Kippur as a reminder of what the ethical life would look like. We are aware of its physical and spiritual place in the Torah – it lies at the very centre of the scroll, and in the centre of Kedoshim itself is the golden rule – “love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Eternal”.   This law was quoted by Hillel in the first century, albeit cast into the negative “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”; Rabbi Akiva declared it to be the great principle of the Torah. And many Christians know it through its repetition by Jesus, who called it second only to the commandment to love God.

So when we look at the great commandment which acts as a chorus throughout this sidra –“You shall be Kadosh (Holy) as I the Eternal am Kadosh (Holy) – we tend to immediately think of the great dictum which, if followed, will bring about a better world for us all. Indeed, if we behave towards our neighbour with as much care as we behave towards fulfilling our own needs, we would automatically be living more saintly lives than we do now. But the sidra goes on, and the detail in the second half gives a slightly different flavour to the response ‘Be Kadosh as I the Eternal your God am Kadosh”

It goes on to talk about kilayim – not mixing different kinds or species, be they animal or agricultural. It talks about sha’atnez, not mixing wool and linen together in garments. The laws of Kilayim are elaborated in Talmud which expounds and clarifies the laws of this occasionally strange principle.

It goes on to talk about the prohibition of the fruit of new trees – for three years after a tree is planted its fruit may not be used at all, in the fourth year the fruit is used only for religious celebration, after that, it is permitted to use the fruit of the tree.

And then come a whole lots of individual prohibitions or warnings – don’t eat anything with the blood; don’t practise divination or soothsaying, don’t round of the side growth on your head or your beard, don’t mutilate your flesh or mark yourself in any way. Don’t make your daughter a prostitute. Keep the Sabbath and venerate the sanctuary. Don’t turn to ghosts or familiars. Show deference to the old. Don’t wrong the stranger. Don’t falsify weights or measures.

It is such an odd mix, such a strange set of things for the narrator of the biblical text to be perturbed about. Some of the injunctions are self-evidently good to do, others read to the modern eye as ritual behaviour with no obvious meaning and some superstition implicit within them. What are we to make of not rounding the hair of the head? Or of saving the fruit for 5 years before having the use of it?

The second half of sidra Kedoshim challenges our understanding of what it means to be holy. We are out of the spiritual world and solidly into a more practical one. Holiness becomes less a matter of intention and more a matter of action. Holiness becomes something we do in relation to other people as well as a private matter between ourselves and God.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with holiness. Not simply that I found it hard to achieve in my life, but that put as a spiritual and saintly proposition, it made me feel a bit queasy. Maybe it is my solid and gritty northern upbringing, but the way some forms of piety and piousness are expressed don’t make me feel spiritually uplifted, rather they make me want to kick the individual offering their religiosity in such a way.

It has been a consistent feature of my religious life that the most holy people I encounter are also almost universally the earthiest. I recall a verse of a song by my teacher Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Magonet which affectionately described – some may say lampooned – all the people who had seriously affected his religious growth, called “come and join the cavalcade”. The verse that comes to mind goes something like   “it is not easy to watch the prophet speak. He dribbles on occasion and he’s far too fond of sweets”. I won’t reveal which revered teacher is being described, but I can assure you that, of all the great of his generation, he is certainly the one most able to transmit a sense of the immanent yet transcendent God in such a way that it is almost as if a map of the religious journey is in your hand.

I have a problem with holiness – it seems to have acquired in modern parlance a sort of righteousness, the sanctity and piety of which have suppressed any human odour; it seems not to belong to ordinary life, but to the extraordinary and spiritually chaste living of the favoured few. But that is truly not what Jewish holiness is about – for the Jewish mind the act of holiness is one that we do, and we are made holy by our actions – think of all those blessings which begin with the formula – Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, – Who makes us kadosh (holy) by the obligations to do that God puts upon us.   Look at some of the injunctions in Kedoshim – they are about trying to avoid crossing the sort of boundaries which are in place to protect the vulnerable, or to provide some self discipline, or to prevent us falling into a world view of chaos and randomness that would sap the spiritual yearning from the most determined of us.

The bible has a truly blunt and honest view of human behaviour. It doesn’t expect people to be angels – indeed it is well aware that, while made in God’s image, human beings have potentially everything of God’s image within us – we have the potential to do great evil as well as great good.   We have the potential to do nothing for vast stretches of time and by our inactivity to let evil flourish. The bible sees that people, by nature, often behave selfishly, or thoughtlessly. We face the reality that the bible wouldn’t waste time legislating against things that people would never think of doing, or, having thought of them, do. So the lists of prohibitions gives us a fascinating insight into what some people at least, got up to, and we are able to recognise ourselves in the categories of behaviour if not in the particulars. How many of us take our agriculture and food chain for granted, not caring how a crop was grown, what conditions the labourers in the field worked under, what chemicals were used, what the effect on the environment might have been. How many of us care about how the crops were harvested and transported? Yet here in Leviticus there are indicators about what is important – that the crop should be planted thoughtfully, that the harvest is not ours alone, but in some way is also the creation of system we have no power over. And how many of us practise some form of superstitious magic to gain some control over our worlds – maybe not divination or soothsaying any more, but certainly ways in which we try to ascertain the future so as to be able to feel in control. We might not believe in horoscopes or astrological charts, but we derive some obscure comfort from them too often to be able to admit to them having no effect whatsoever. The abdicating of responsibility and the expectation that others will look after us – or not – is one that is ingrained in many of us, usually without the concomitant expectation that we must do our bit to take care of the more vulnerable aspects of the world.

The biblical kedushah is an amazing concept. It is a recognition of our frailty and our vulnerability, of our self centredness and our fear of the world. And it says – this is who we are, and we are going to build on and use these fault lines to strengthen ourselves. Rav Kook too talks a great deal about holiness, and his premise that the more damaged (the more knots we have in his terms), the more complex and convoluted our personalities, the more we have the potential to become something different and holy – as we work through our faults, so we become more experienced about the world, more compassionate about others, more honest about possibilities.

Holiness is not an unachievable goal, nor is it reserved for the good guys who never do anything really wrong. It is the inevitable result of our struggling with ourselves honestly, of our getting to know who we are and making real efforts to adapt that knowledge into the real world. There is nothing other-worldly about the Jewish concept of holiness, nothing necessarily spiritual or ethereal. Holiness is the outcome of our living in the world, of our focusing on the present and being aware of our behaviour and the impact it might have. It is the result of honest dealings and honest struggle. When Jacob met the angelic figure at the Ford of Jabok and struggling all night was permanently wounded in his groin, the supernatural figure blessed him and changed his name to Israel, saying he was one who had struggled with God and prevailed. Yet immediately the name Jacob is used again, as he tries to slide his family past his brother without effecting the reconciliation his brother so wanted. The name Jacob is used interchangeably with the name Israel for the rest of his life. Jacob isn’t any more holy for the experience, just wiser and more thoughtful and occasionally more tuned in to the right behaviour. I take comfort from that double use of name, because it tells me something that makes sense for me. Holiness is not a state to achieve; it is a choice to make every minute of the day, a process which we follow again and again, sometimes taking the holy way, sometimes not. It is in the struggle that we encounter God, that we become a little more what we could be.   We grow in holiness with every encounter, but we remain rooted in the world. And that is the way life should be.

shall your brethren go to war and you sit here? reflections on parashat mattot at my farewell service

“The tribes of Reuben and Gad approached Moses and the leadership saying ‘If we have found favour in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession; do not bring us over the Jordan.’ And Moses said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” 32:5,6

This question asked by Moses of the two cattle owning tribes is one that resonates so poignantly today. “Shall your brethren go to war, and shall you sit here?”

We have been watching anxiously as Israel has been slipping once more into war. And as we obsess over the news feeds and the reporting, the analysis and the social media links, we wonder about what is our role? how could we sit here while our fellow Jews are at war? And what is it that we should be doing?

In a skype conversation earlier this week with Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, we asked him to talk us through the very serious issues facing Israel that his organisation is engaged with and the list was long and depressing– serious economic poverty among many Israelis both Jewish and Arab , the problems of the asylum seekers and of the Bedouin in the Negev, the children who are traumatised by the stress of normal everyday living, the crisis of the unemployed and underemployed…. The reality is that while Israel is facing war, all the same problems are still there in her society, many of her people are insecure and vulnerable not just to the rockets coming over from Gaza and from the North but simply their place in society is not protected. He spoke of the work that RHR (known in Hebrew as shomrei mishpat, guardians of justice) has done not only in taking many cases to court in order to gain protection for people, but also in working with the government to mitigate some of the more draconian laws. He spoke with pride of the work done by Idit Lev to develop a policy to help the most underprivileged and of how Government was even beginning to work at funding it – only to say that now we don’t know what money there might still be, it may all have gone in the artillery into Gaza. We sat and listened to the analysis of all that must be addressed in Israeli civic society, conscious that when Israel is at war it is so easy to put these issues into the ‘pending’ file as the rockets being fired from both sides take centre stage in our attention.

He also spoke of the Jewish texts on self-defence, of the rodef, the pursuer, and the principles and laws that dictate the rules of self-defence, and of how we find a way through the tangle of feelings and thoughts that I guess most of us have been enmeshed in recently. Jewish law lays out a general principle of self-defence based on a Biblical case of a thief invading a private home at night (Ex. 22:1-2),: We read in tractate Sanhedrin “The Torah decreed, ‘If [the rodef] comes to kill you, kill him first’” (Sanhedrin 72a). But the rabbis also limit this principle extensively, recognizing the enormous danger of providing a legal way to bypass the judicial process and essentially allow murder. So rabbinic law provides that force must only be used if it will prevent a particular victim from being killed; such force must not be premeditated but rather a spontaneous act when life is in immediate danger ; and no more than enough force is to be used – in other words if you can achieve your objective without having to kill the rodef, then if you do so this principle will not defend you – you will still be liable for murder. Rabbinic law also clarifies explicitly that any self-defence in this case must not harm any innocent third-party. The verse: “Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (M. Sanhedrin 8:7) is used to teach us that everyone who is aware in a situation must attempt to save innocent people from life-threatening danger.

The law of the rodef, the pursuer, is complex and problematic, and because it is based in biblical precedent, while it is bound by many rabbinic constraints it continues to live as a principle, both for our benefit in some circumstances and for a problematic approach to our realpolitik in others. But there is another kind of rodef we find in Mishnah – the rodef shalom. In Pirkei Avot we find that Hillel says “Be a student of Aaron, a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace (rodef shalom), a lover of people who brings them closer to Torah.”

What does it mean to be both a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace? One response from Rabbi Shmuel de Ozedah (16th century Tzfat, Land of Israel) suggests that the phrase ‘lover of peace’ refers to oneself and one’s immediate world, while the ‘pursuer of peace’ refers to the one who brings peace about between people. He writes “one needs first to love peace for oneself, and since it is a good thing in our own eyes and we love it for ourself, we will be drawn to go and bring peace about between others”

The concept of the rodef moves in a process from its earliest incarnation of avenging the death of blood relative to permitting us to defend ourselves – even if necessary pre-emptively – against attack, and further it is the structure within which we can create a more peaceful world.

So how are we to be to be a rodef shalom, the figure that Hillel exhorts us to be? In a 4th Century text (Avot d’Rabbi Natan) we find this explication: “The phrase teaches us that a person should be a pursuer of peace among people, between each and every one. If a person sits in their own place and is silent, how can they pursue peace among people, between each and every one?! Rather, one should go out from one’s own place and go searching in the world and pursue peace among people.”

And so it seems that we come full circle. Moses speaking to the tribes of Reuben and Gad asks “‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” The author of Avot d’Rabbi Natan challenges us that to pursue peace we have to go out from our own place and go searching into the world in order to bring peace about. And Rabbi Shmuel de Ozedah says “we need first to love peace for ourself, and since it is a good thing in our own eyes and we love it for ourself, we will be drawn to go and bring peace about between others”.

Sitting here and knowing that people we love and care for are potentially in danger, that the Land of Israel is once more at war, that many innocent people on both sides are becoming collateral damage rhr2is a painful and uncomfortable place.

Sitting here and watching the news on our various pieces of technology, we feel powerless and frightened, angry and misunderstood – and we desperately want peace. Across the world, many of us fasted this week on 17th Tammuz along with Muslims fasting for Ramadan – and then broke fast as two peoples together – as a way of making a statement that we want to have peace. (The hashtag on twitter was #hungryfor peace). Across the world many of us have sent supportive messages to family and friends, have signed petitions and donated money to organisations busy in building up relationships across the boundaries even while these relationships are under strain. But what else can we do?

It became clear to me this week just how conflicted I felt in my wanting to continue helping the social justice campaigns in Israel at a time when Israel is at war. Could we criticise an unjust situation perpetuated by Israel while she is facing such a serious time? Conversation with colleagues and friends here showed I was not alone in my anxiety, and it was interesting how the same conversation with colleagues and friends in Israel was different. They recognised the unease we feel in hutz la’aretz, the desire not to add to the criticism or the pressure. But they also recognised that we cannot sit quietly just because our brethren have gone to war – the critical issues of social justice do not go away, and to mask them because of the matzav, the emergency situation – is to abdicate our responsibility to our brethren.

So: to be a rodef for peace we need first to love peace for our own nation – including all the different groups who live within it, and then to go out to gain peace between Israel and her neighbours. To be a rodef for peace we need to agitate for the rights of all who live within Israel, as well as to drive dialogue and mediation between Israel and her enemies. And in that mode I tell you about this week’s events in Al Arakib, a Bedouin village in the Negev where despite the freezing of the Begin Prawer plan legislation until the Supreme Court decides the ownership of the land, the State is bypassing the judicial process and once again bulldozing this village, while the inhabitants who live in its only remaining secure structure, the cemetery, are fasting for Ramadan.

Can we stand by even though Israel is at war on its borders and its cities are vulnerable to missiles even though protected by the iron dome? I think we cannot, and I ask for you all to not stand by but to be rodfei shalom, people who agitate for peace. In the words of Isaiah 57:19 Shalom Shalom lerachot ul’karov amar Adonai שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב, אָמַר יְהוָה- Peace, peace, to the one that is far off and to him that is near, says the Eternal.

When Moses asks the two tribes ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?’ it is a rhetorical question. He is asking a number of things of them, and laying down some expectations. One of them is that they support their fellow Israelites as they fight for their land. One of them is that they don’t just sit comfortably and take no responsibility for their own community, and one of them, one which speaks deeply to me, is that we are one people, one community, regardless of all the differences of practise and of opinion that are so vehemently expressed wherever you look in the Jewish world. The Talmud reminds us (Shevuot 39a) Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all of Israel are responsible for each other. It comes in the context of sinning, where if one Jew sees another about to sin, they have the obligation to step in and prevent them. We have real responsibility for each other, and according to Jewish law that communal responsibility is an obligation. Working for the health of community and the well-being of everyone within it is a primary obligation from which much else of value follows.

I chose to work as a community rabbi because I believe in Judaism and I believe in community. I chose to work in South London for so many years because I see in this area a reflection of what I grew up with – a community that can overcome its differences and work together for shared principles and values, that takes its place in the world and that recognises the interconnectedness of our lives. I wrote in Kehillah about this, about the role of community in our lives and the need to nurture it and build it. I would like to finish with the words I ended that article with:

A Jewish community is more than a place for prayer, though that is at its heart. It is a place for gathering, for shared purpose, for organising support for each other as we all face life’s trials. It is a place of safety and for challenge, for learning and for teaching, for deepening our understanding about ourselves and enacting our life’s purpose.

For me as a Jew, as well as as a Rabbi, the building and nurturing of a community has been a source of energy and a source of comfort. And I know that the work will go on here. The words of Rabbi Tarfon speak in my mind “Lo Alecha ha’Melacha Ligmor, VeLo Atah Ben Chorin LeHibatel Mimena” We are not expected to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from engaging with it.

So I wish for you to “gei gesundeheit” to go well with the continuing journey. And “Chazak ve’ematz”, be strong and of good courage as you enter the next chapter of community life.



Following the golden rule – the rest is commentary

The Golden Rule, phrased in Leviticus as “Love your neighbour as yourself” appears in many forms and in many different religious literatures: Jesus is reported in the New Testament as saying that the two great rules of behaviour were “You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, your soul and your might”; and “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” . – in other words the Shema (from Deuteronomy) and the Holiness Code given here in Leviticus together give us all we need to live a good life.

Perhaps the most powerful telling for me is the story found in Talmud, when we are told “It happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ But Shammai repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand.  When he went before Hillel, Hillel said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.’ (Shabbat 31a)

Hillel shows great patience and openness to what is clearly – from the context – someone determined to test both of those qualities. But his formulation of the golden rule is genius. Not to do things to other people that are hateful to you is vastly easier than the somewhat obscure commandment to love ones neighbour as one loves oneself. What if what you would like is not what they would like? What exactly is a neighbour? What if one doesn’t particularly love oneself?

The end of that story as told in the Talmud – that this principle of paying attention and not doing to others what you would not like done to yourself is the WHOLE TORAH – everything else is commentary , is also something we should keep hold of.

Judaism is a strange beast, neither solely race nor religion nor culture, nor faith but a collection of ideas we have held on to and transmitted with clarity down the generations. Ultimately how we behave towards others is the whole of Torah and everything else is there to make sure we do it the best way we can. So all the rituals and the laws and the fences around Torah are there to do one job only – to protect the teaching that bible tells us was given to us by God, of looking out for others the same way we would look out for ourselves; of not doing something to someone else that we would find distressing if done to us. No more and no less – it is indeed the one principle we should keep before us always, and everything else will fall into place.