The paradox that is Pinchas plays out also in Jeremiah or: the murderous zealot in the cause of God while the despairing prophet gives us hope

There is no literary connection between the torah reading of Pinchas and the designated haftarah- the connection is instead calendrical as this week we begin the cycle of haftarot that will take us to Tisha b’Av, the blackest day of our calendar – and from there to Rosh Hashanah, the day of our judgment and the new year.

The three shabbatot before Tisha b’Av each have a traditional special haftarah reading that deals with the punishment that will befall the people who forget the God of the covenant. They are known as t’lat d’fur’anuta’ the “three of affliction” or of rebuke.  As we enter the first of the three, which signal not only the coming remembrance of the cataclysm that was Tisha b’Av, but also that we are on the run up now to Rosh Hashanah, we are provided with a good deal of food for thought as we must begin to measure ourselves and our lives, to try to comprehend the circumstances and environment  in which we are living.

The prophet Jeremiah lived at the end of the 7th century BCE. The Northern Kingdom had been destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed and lost. Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was in danger of the same fate. Jeremiah recognised this, and he offered both despair and hope in his prophecy. The religious and social conditions of the time were not good – idolatry was rife, and Josiah’s reforms were partial and weak, and did not survive long after Josiah’s death.  People were disconnected from the source of their religious traditions to the point where they even felt that the misfortunes of their country could have been caused by their not offering incense to other gods during the time of Josiah’s reforms. It is likely that there were even human sacrifices being offered at this time, justified as being a return to the true religion, a perversion of Judaism that appalled Jeremiah.

People were being stigmatized as being treacherous; they could not trust one another or build up strong relationships. Social injustice existed on all levels of society, and was barely even noted, so ordinary had it become to mistreat the poor in society. The world of Jeremiah is one we might recognise today, society breaking down, all kinds of fantasies floated as if they might be genuine, fake news and loss of trust in the leadership.

And what does Jeremiah talk about?  He talks about contract, about the covenant that the Jews have with God, about how there is a special obligation of loyalty upon Israel, and that even if Israel does not offer this loyalty, even if destruction follows, the curious truth is that the special relationship between God and the Jews, implied by the covenant, will not be broken. In all of the despair he shines an odd ray of hope.

It is a strange conception that we have an unbreakable contract of obligation to God.  It is almost impossible for us to imagine an agreement which, even if broken on both sides, remains binding. And yet it is at the heart of our history, it is our raison d’être and our aspiration. A Jew cannot repudiate the covenant for all time, even if we appear to despise it or ignore it. The obligation and the special relationship remain in place. I am  reminded of the perennial Jewish complaint to God- “We realise that we are the chosen people, but can’t you just go and choose someone else for a change”.  The answer, of course, is “even if I do, it doesn’t preclude Me from continuing to choose you!”

Reading Jeremiah is to know that we have an inescapable destiny.  The folkloric Yiddish form – that something is bashert, that something is meant to happen in the grand scheme of things – has probably helped the Jewish people to get through all manner of crises. Yet Jeremiah, for all his despair at what is going on around him, is paradoxically aware both of a kind of predestination and of the critical importance that free will will have in any outcome – he is prophesying about the impact of the individual’s choices.  He begins his prophecy in a way that shows he believed he had been called with by God:  “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.  Before you were born, I set you apart.  I have appointed you a prophet to the nations”

Jeremiah develops the twin concepts of predestination and free will.  He rails at the people precisely because he knows that their chosen behaviour is dangerous and wrong, but that they can choose to behave a different way and different outcomes will occur. Predestination is not the same as determinism.  As Mishnah Pirkei Avot comments: All may be foreseen, but freedom of choice is given”  or as Mishnah Berachot frames it “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven”: That is, whatever God may or may not perceive, it doesn’t have to mean that it will necessarily happen.  Unlike the covenant which binds us eternally however many times we may break it, we do have the power to escape what may seem to be our destiny – even a small change in behaviour can lead to a massive change in outcome.  It is in our hands to shape our lives.

Medieval philosophers understood this well. Maimonides comments that we enter the world with a variety of propensities and possibilities, but what use is made of them is our own doing.  Modern science has come to the same conclusion – we may be able to map out a whole variety of genes, but we still can’t guarantee our predictions about the bearers of those genes – even genetically identical twins can live completely different lives.

We read the 3 haftarot of rebuke and affliction every year in the 3 weeks before we commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples.  We can’t undo the history, but we can listen to the message – we know what is required of us, we know the likely outcome of our ignoring what God requires of us, we can change the future.

After Tisha b’Av our liturgical tradition decrees that there come 7 haftarot of consolation – more than double the words of warning and pain – a perfect number of weeks of grieving and moving on. From this Shabbat until Rosh Hashanah there are ten weeks of preparation, mirroring the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the work we do from this period will intensify in urgency and feeling.   The liturgical calendar is being carefully patterned and manipulated to encourage us on a religious journey towards new beginnings. The message is being hammered home – the covenant may be ignored or unfulfilled but it has not broken, we remain obliged to our relationship with God.  Our future is foreseen in all its possibilities but we remain in charge of what will actually be – we have the choice to behave well, and if we choose not to do so we are well aware of the consequences.  But even the consequences, dire as they may be, never rule out the possibility of change, of, to use a very old fashioned word – redemption.  From the reading of the first haftarah of affliction until Rosh Hashanah we have ten weeks – the clock is ticking and, as we read in Pirkei Avot, “the work is great and the Master of the House is waiting.”

 

Rescued from the water – from Moses to SOS Méditerranée. A Jewish response to the refugees fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea

Recently I attended a lecture by Jean-Marc Liling at the conference of the European Union for Progressive Judaism. One of his statements really struck home. Referring to the many migrants rescued from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, he reminded us of how the greatest leader of Judaism found safety having been first hidden in a basket in the reeds on the Nile and then rescued by a woman in the Pharaonic household. She is the one who gives him his name when she adopts him, She calls him Moses/Moshe, because ““I have drawn him from the water – min ha mayim m’shitihu”

Day after day and year after year we hear of the stories of people who are fleeing their homes because of warfare and violence, and who are looking for safety across the Mediterranean sea. Earlier this week the humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée wrote on twitter that its rescue boat Aquarius had taken in 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women. They would take them to a safe port as usual – but the Italian government refused to allow the ship to dock. Even though the mayors of the port cities such as Palermo, Naples, Messina and Reggio Calabria, said they were ready to disobey Salvini’s order and allow Aquarius to dock and disembark in their seaports, the lack of coastguard meant they could not do so. The ship eventually ended up able to disembark its frightened, exhausted and distressed passengers in Spain, after an agonisingly protracted negotiation and a further period of enduring the stormy seas.

Today The Coast Guard ship Diciotti, arrived in the port of Catania, with 932 migrants on board. They were rescued during 7 rescue operations off Libya, and I read that five of the refugees, four pregnant women and a minor, have already been transferred to Sicilian hospitals. On board the ship there are also two corpses, recovered during the rescue interventions.

As a Jew, as a person born with the privilege of a western passport and life, as a human being, I read the stories of these refugees with pity, compassion and some horror.  I am only one generation away from refugee status. My father came as an unaccompanied minor to the UK leaving behind his family in Germany. His father survived Dachau but died stateless –sans papiers – in Switzerland, days after the Swiss Government saw fit to refuse him leave to stay in their country because he was a refugee. My mother was born to parents who fled the anti-Semitic constraints of living as Jews in Eastern Europe. They had arrived there, so family tradition relates, from Spain – when Jews were forcibly converted or killed or fled from the Inquisition.  I am not remotely unusual in the Jewish world. Scratch most Jews and you will quickly find the story of a refugee.

What does Judaism say to us to help us understand?  Right at the beginning of bible Cain asks the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He appears to think that he should not have to be responsible for any other human being, but the answer from God is clear and unequivocal. Yes, we are responsible for each other. We are each other’s brothers and sisters,  we have a human link with each other which cannot be dissolved.

Abraham in Hebron, describes himself as a stranger and sojourner (ger v’toshav Anochi) (Gen 23:3-4) and asks to be allowed to bury his wife.

The most frequent mitzvah in bible is to care for the stranger, the refugee and the vulnerable who live among us – for example- “And if a stranger (Ger) sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong.  The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I am the Eternal your God. (Lev. 19:33-34)

And Moses, the one who reminds us again and again to care for the stranger and those who live amongst us and need our help – Moses was drawn from the water having been put there to flee a death sentence which had been decreed by a violent political power determined to ethnically cleanse his country.

In the Yizkor section of the British Reform Machzor is a prayer that speaks of the many lives lost in pogroms and in Shoah. It speaks of the laughter that was lost, the poetry never written, the science never developed, the music never composed. It lists all the things that died when the people who should have done them died. Not just the descendants who never got born, but the ideas, the humanity, the connections and the learning of the people, which never had chance to form.  When I think about Moses being rescued from certain death in the water, whose life hung on a thread after the political powers determined to play out their own warped agenda, I cannot now forget the question asked at that lecture. What have we lost as we allow the migrants to die in the Mediterranean Sea? The United Nations estimates that at least 500 people have already died in 2018 trying to cross the central Mediterranean, following some 2,853 fatalities last year.

What have we lost by not caring enough to help these people? Not just lives, though that would be bad enough but all the things that would have come from those lives.

The bible tells us that God says to Cain, who had killed his brother ‘The bloods of your brother cry out to Me’ (Genesis 4:10) — and rabbinic tradition, noting the plural that the sentence is cast in, read  that it is not only  his blood but also the blood of his potential descendants….The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) continues:  Therefore was the first human being, Adam, created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if they saved an entire world. Furthermore, only one human being, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among people, so that no one should say to their fellow, ‘My father was greater than yours….

We are a people whose national and foundational stories are of being refugees. We are a people whose great figures – Abraham and Moses, are themselves refugees, Ivri’im, people who cross over from one place to another, in search of a safe place to be themselves. When, as Jews, we read the stories coming out of the desperate people crossing the sea in leaky overcrowded boats in order to escape a terrible existence – or even death – in their own country, our response has to be practical and immediate. We cannot turn away. We cannot parrot the lines about people being economic migrants or ”just” looking for a better life and absolve ourselves of responsibility.

The boat that docked today in Catania is called Diciotti. It is connected to the word 18. 18 is, in Hebrew, Het Yod – Hai –Life. It seems to me a call to remind us to choose life, not only for ourselves and our families, but for all who need our help for them to also choose life.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild 13th June 2018

Jacob Wrestles with God – and so do we

The bible says what?   Jacob wrestles with God.

Genesis 32:25

(25) Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

בראשית ל״ב:כ״ה

(כה) וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃

What happened at the Ford of Jabok was critical in Jacob’s life leaving  him physically marked for life and with another name. He was alone, yet a ‘man’ wrestled with him till dawn. Who that ‘man’ was is open to interpretation but Jacob is in no doubt – he names the place P’niel because he has met God face to face.

The Bible gives a dubious etymology for Jacob’s new name, Israel, but what is important is the meaning given – one who struggles with God and with other people, and is able to do so.

We take this name for ourselves; we are Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and our defining characteristic is that we too must wrestle with God and with our world and make something of ourselves in that struggle.

Judaism is a religion of enquiry,  questions are met with more questions, not with definitive answers. Despite the systematizing work of Saadiya Gaon and Maimonides who responded to the doctrines of Christianity and Islam, Judaism remains a religion of deed, and not of creed. We must keep on engaging with ideas, imagining possibilities, wrestling with God and with our world, in order to be truly alive.

This dynamic tradition of enquiry and analysis has kept us going over the centuries, adapting where necessary, accepting knowledge from outside sources and bringing it into our world view. It is the life-source of progressive Judaism, as we keep our minds open to the world and its knowledge while grappling with our texts and their questions.

Jacob at Jabok is a metaphor for us in so many ways – fearful of the unknown future, struggling with the temptation to run back to the familiar, yet ultimately moving forward carrying the wounds of our struggle with us. I’m proud to belong to a tradition that eschews doctrine and dogma, demands we struggle with God and with ourselves, and helps us aspire to be our best selves..

Written for and Published in Progressive Judaism Page London Jewish News November 2017

Naamah, wife of Noah, sings as she goes about her work. Her voice calls to us as the world is remade

The first thing we learn about Noah is his genealogy  as the generations that separate him from Adam are listed – he is the tenth generation since the creation of humanity and ten is a powerful symbolic number in bible. (Gen5)

The second thing we learn about Noah is a connection between him and the ur-ancestors Adam and Eve, with the verbal root ayin-tzaddi-beit, (the noun itz’von – hard work/ creative work being used earlier for Eve and then for Adam and then not used again in Hebrew Bible)

The third thing we learn is that his name, Noah, meaning ‘rest’ or ‘repose’, but midrashically stretched to mean ‘comfort’ is somehow the counter to the idea of itz’von, that this one,  Noah, y’nachameinu – will comfort us – in our work (ma’asei) and the creative work of our hands (itz’von yadeinu), from the ground which the Eternal has cursed (Gen 5:29)  This is the first time that a name has been explained in bible since the first couple were named.

And the fourth thing we learn is that unlike his nine ancestors, Noah waited a long, long time before having children.  Five times longer than the usual delay – he was 500 years old before fathering a child.

The text has signalled that this man, the tenth generation of human beings, is notable. In some way he is born to mitigate the sheer hard work of creative exertion that has been the lot of human beings since leaving Eden.  And indeed he does alter the course of human history, becoming himself the ur-ancestor for the post-flood generations. And he is a late starter.

Why does Noah wait to have his children? One midrash tells us that God had made him impotent for the first 500 years in order not to have older children at the time of the flood which took place in his 600th year. (Gen Rabbah 26:2). Had his children been wicked they would have been killed alongside the rest of humanity, had they been righteous they would have had to make arks of their own, so the midrash places them at the cusp of adulthood – hence the delay in their births.

A much later commentary (Sefer haYashar) suggests another reason – that Noah knew that he would be bringing children into a corrupt world and chose not to do so. God had to remind him of his duty to find a wife and to have children, and to take that wife into the future in order that more children might  be born after the end of the flood.

I would like to add a third explanation – that just as the child of Sarah was to be the chosen heir to Abraham, so too does the saved remnant of humanity need to be the child of a particular woman.  For the text signals something very powerful about the mother of Shem, Ham and Japhet – she appears five separate times in the bible, and yet her name is omitted from the text.

In all but one of her appearances she is listed after Noah and his sons, and before the wives of the sons, but in the penultimate verse God tells Noah to “Go forth from the ark, you, and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you” but they actually leave in a different order –Noah, his sons, his wife and their wives.

It feels like a moment has been missed. That moment is in need of revisiting and the wife of Noah in need of being rescued from her erasure.

The midrash tells us that the wife of Noah had a name, she was called Naamah.  How do they know? Because we know of a Naamah, the daughter of Lamech and Zillah, and sister of Tubal Cain – she is the only single woman listed in these early genealogies (and the other two women are the two wives of Lamech) and so must be of some importance, though the text does not tell us what.  Her name may give us another clue to her special abilities- the root primarily means to be pleasant, but it also has the connotation of melody and of singing. Naamah, whose brothers are each named for an aspect of human activity (the children of Lamech’s other wife, Adah are Jubal, the founder of the music of harp and pipe, and Jabal the patron of tent dwellers and cattle raisers, while her full brother Tubal Cain is the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron)is not given a role in the text – but surely her pleasant and calm singing voice forms a backdrop to the story much as the singing of a niggun helps us to focus on our own prayer.

Maybe this is her downfall – the musicality of a woman’s voice has certainly become something to fear for some rabbis and commentators.  Maybe her name had to be erased from the text lest her singing lead us to really notice her, make us ask why Noah waited so long to marry her and have children with her, make us wonder what qualities she had that would lead her to being effectively the second Eve, the mother of all living after the flood.

And there is something else that makes the modern feminist want to winkle out more about this unnamed but significant woman – the later midrash and the mystical literature choose to take her name (pleasant/lovely/musical) and transform her into the feared seductress of men, the woman who married the fallen angel Shamadon and who mothered the most fearful demon of all, Ashmodeus, the king of the demonic world. Whenever a woman is trashed in rabbinic literature, called a seducer, a demon, a killer of babies, a prostitute or a witch– there we know we can find a woman whose strength of mind, whose scholarship, whose sense of self is powerful and outspoken. We find a strong woman who scares a certain kind of weak man. Lilith the first wife of Adam who chose not to be secondary to him; Eve whose actions led to the curse of ceaseless work;  Deborah likened to a wasp who moves from being a judge in biblical text to a teacher of established laws as commentaries take over; Huldah described as an irritant, a hornet; Beruriah the scholarly wife of Rabbi Meir whose end was to be seduced by one of his students and so committed suicide…..

A woman’s voice is her sexuality, and takes her from her assigned role of quiet service to others, to one of power and of public awareness. No wonder poor Naamah was hidden in the text, no wonder that even when God said she should leave the ark immediately after Noah and before her sons and their families, when it came to it she was described as having left after her sons, relegated to the status of secondary character  yet again.  Midrash goes on to trash her further, calling her an idolatrous woman who used her voice to sing to idols (Genesis Rabbah 23) The statement by Abba b. Kahana, that Naamah gained her name (pleasant) because her conduct was pleasing to God is rapidly overturned in majority opinion and recorded texts. She is other, she is frightening, and she is the mother of the demon king. Let’s keep her quiet, unassuming, disappeared….

The role of women beyond child bearing and rearing is sometimes frustratingly alarming to the rabbinic world view. Naamah has adult children who themselves are married – her role is apparently fulfilled, we learn of no further children of Noah after the flood, so what else should she be doing? No doubt she knew, but we can only guess.

There she is, the descendant of Cain, bringing his descendants back into play in the world, providing a sort of redemption to the first biblical murder and fratricide.

There she is, the new mother of all living, as everyone now will descend from her and Noah, bringing to fruition the promise made on the birth and naming of Noah, “’This shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which comes from the ground which the Eternal has cursed.”

There she is, released from the burden of Eve, having finished with the work of childbirth and instead supervising the recreation of the post-diluvian world while her drunken husband passed authority to their sons.

There she is, the singer, whose voice echoes the voice of God as the world is once again put back together after the chaos of the flood.

Abba bar Kahana, the 3rd century amora and one of the greatest exponents of aggadah tells us that she was called Naamah (pleasant) because her conduct was pleasing to God. This teaching has been overlaid and overturned in tradition, the idea being apparently too awful for some rabbinic teachers to contemplate. Her conduct was pleasing to God. God noticed her. She was the woman destined to be the mother of all who live since the flood. About time her voice is heard again, singing as she goes about her work.

Shabbat Shekalim:counting ourselves and making ourselves count

In the month of Adar there are 4 extra Torah portions read after the weekly reading each shabbat which give their names to that shabbat. The first of these, read on the shabbat after Rosh Chodesh Adar (the new moon of the month of Adar) is Shekalim.

The extra piece speaks of the census which is taken in the wilderness, where the people are to donate a half shekel each as ‘kofer nafsho’ (a ransom for his soul) and kesef hakippurim (atonement money). This offering to God, which is to be the same amount for everyone counted, regardless of their financial worth, is to fund the service of the tent of meeting.

The half-shekel tax that pays for the maintenance of the worship system is to be paid by the first day of the month of Nisan and so the extra reading at the beginning of Adar functions as a reminder to the community that the payment is about to be due. It has always been a source of amusement to me that many modern synagogues hold their AGM’s (and therefore the beginning of the subscription year) at around this time, in order to nudge their members to think about their membership payments, although now we do not suggest that such payment would effect an atonement.

The way of not counting people but instead counting the coins of identical value goes deep in the Jewish psyche. David incurred the wrath of God and an ensuing plague when he counted the Israelites (2Sam24) and while the commentators suggest it was because the census was not authorised, there has remained a fear of counting individuals in case of danger. This may have had to do with the belief that numbering people implied diminishing them in some way, or that the biblical census was usually associated with upcoming military activity in which many of the people numbered would lose their lives. To this day there is a general Jewish fear of censuses, and when counting a minyan for prayer people will either use the loophole of a negative (as in ‘not one, not two, not three etc.) or a recite a verse with ten words (such as Psalm 28 v9 which has the added benefit of acting as a prayer, translating as “save Your people and bless your inheritance and tend them and carry them forever”).

Whatever the reason for it, this method of counting identically valued coins teaches some valuable lessons. It shows us that while each person may have his or her own individual financial worth, everyone has the same value before God. And it causes us to ask about the significance of each person bringing only a half shekel rather than a whole one.’ Many explanations are offered by commentators: – that the half shekel may represent the time of day when the sin of the golden calf was committed (midday). That it is the equivalent to the penalty for those who disobey the 10 commandments and so this payment can be seen as a kind of atonement. They are all ingenious explanations, but the one I prefer is of a different order – According to Rambam, the use of a half shekel rather than a whole one teaches us that no person is complete when alone – we can only attain full spiritual completeness when we are in relationship with others, when we are in a community of shared interest. And I would add to this view that not only can we not be not be complete when alone, but that our completion is a process rather than an existential state. So that just as the world is in a state of continuing completion we too are always in the position of completing ourselves. And just as the world needs our work and our active interest for is continuation, so do we need the active interest of and participation in the community of ideas and of other people.

As each of us gives of our time and wealth to the community we are also aware of our own needs and our own lacks, we are each looking to be fulfilled by the ‘other half’ that can be found in relationship with other people.

Shabbat Shekalim begins the run up to Pesach, the time of redemption and the beginning of peoplehood rather than the collection of individuals. It is a liturgical nudge, a reminder that we are not fulfilled by ourselves, that we are a work in progress. This year it is paired with parashat vayakhel, the Torah reading that begins with assembling the whole people. The message is clear – community is our natural state however individual and singular we know ourselves to be. No person is complete on their own, but we are all of equal value to God, however much or little we materially own. And every one of us has something to offer the community, every single one of us counts.

Devarim: religious reform has a long and honourable history, even Moses did it.

deuteronomy scroll qumran2

The book of Deuteronomy is quite different in style, language and focus from the earlier books of Torah.  It is much more concerned with the practicalities of living in the land of Israel, and it focuses on opposing the idolatry of the surrounding cultures and peoples,  It has been posited that this is the book that was found in the Temple in the time of King Josiah, and which enabled him to create the major religious reforms in 622 BCE, reminding the people of the covenant they had with the one God, and emphasising the importance of a centralized Temple in Jerusalem, rather than the use of many local hilltop shrines.

 Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv calls this book “the book of second chances”. He writes :”If we seek some unique feature of this Sefer we shall discover that one of its characteristics – if not the crux of its whole message – is the concept of a “second chance”. In other words, even if one has failed and sinned, there is always an opening for repair and improvement, for change and renewal.” Thus, for Shaviv, the book of Deuteronomy is primarily a book about Teshuvah, about repentance and  about return to relationship with God, to do what God really wants us to doing.  The calendar of Readings is always arranged for this portion to be read on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, as if in reminder that even though cataclysm faces the Jewish people and their land, there will always be a way back to God.

I like the idea of there being a book of second chances. A mechanism to wipe away all the distracting accretions and false starts of living and get us back to the real purpose of our lives. Judaism has a whole series of such mechanisms – from the Teshuvah process that begins in a few weeks in Ellul and takes us to Yom Kippur, or the cyclical reading of Torah so we come back to the same texts every year and are able to understand them afresh. And one of the most powerful mechanisms is the way that Judaism continues to reinvent itself, so we are no longer like any of the various expressions of religion of the extended biblical period, nor that of Temple times; nor of the Mishnaic or later Talmudic period, nor Pale of Settlement. Judaism has always accepted the past but framed it into an understanding suitable for the present. Be it the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (for which he was nearly put under a ban) or the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro, Jews have clarified Judaism for their own times. This process begins right in the sidra of Devarim: in verse 5 of chapter one we are told “ho’eel Moshe bay’air et hatorah hazot – Moses began to clarify this Torah.

 The midrash (Tanchuma) says that it is “inconceivable that Moses would have allowed the Torah to remain unclear to the Israelites” and Rashi suggests that the phrase teaches that Moses translated the Torah into the seventy languages of the world in order to allow the Jewish people to always have access to it. Whatever was the intention of the text, what it gives us is a proof text that Torah is to be clarified and understood by the Jewish people in their own times. 

 This weekend (2010) we are celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the service in Seesen, Germany, which marks the beginning of Reform Judaism. It was a service deliberately created to be accessible to the Jewish community of the time, with some of the (shortened) service and the sermon in the vernacular. The Judaism of Israel Jacobson who created the Seesen Temple and this dedication service was greatly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, with reason and rational scientific principles applied to both Jewish texts and their  interpretation  and understanding. The old system of believing ideas unconditionally and reading the commentators uncritically no longer worked in the face of academic freedom in other areas. Judaism could be held up to rational systems of thought and its riches presented in a modern way.

 Reform Judaism is one more punctuation in the journey of Judaism from biblical times until now. Just as in the midrash which tells the story of Moses sitting in the study house of Rabbi Akiva and finding his teaching unfamiliar and even incomprehensible, but he is reassured when Akiva speaks of the roots of his teaching in the chain of tradition that goes all the way back to Moses, so too does our understanding sometimes look distant from the context of the biblical or Talmudic world, yet it is rooted in the principles of Judaism – the principles of covenant relationship with God, our shared task with God to complete and perfect the world, in the relationship we have with the Land of Israel, and the close and binding relationship we have with Torah.

 Since Moses began to clarify Torah for the benefit of the people who would go into the land without him, the tradition of clarifying and making sense of Torah for each generation and its needs has continued. This too is part of our tradition, and we fail to follow it at our peril, creating Judaism  as a fixed and immutable thing to conserve a past that is no longer with us. In 200 years Reform Judaism has moved a long way, and it continues to change with each generation. We follow the model of Moses, never completing the journey but never letting go of what is important.

(First written 2010 on the 200th anniversary of Reform Judaism with the service in Seesen. Picture of the Deuteronomy Scroll found in Qumran)

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.