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?

 

 

Behukkotai:rebukes that remind us we must work together

Sidra Behukotai ends the book of Leviticus, and while frequently read in conjunction with sidra Behar, it differs from it substantially in the tone of the narrative. It opens by describing the blessings and rewards that the Israelites will receive if they uphold the covenant with God and follow the mitzvot that are the conditions of that covenant, and ends  with a brief series of teachings about tithing, the sanctification of voluntary gifts to the Temple, and about vows. But the centre of this short sidra is the passage known as the rebukes – tochecha – when Torah lists the tragedies that will befall us should we abandon God’s covenant and our obligation to do mitzvot.

One particular verse stands out for me as being emblematic of the tochecha: In Leviticus 26:23-24 we read:

“Ve’im b’eileh lo tivasru li, v’halachtem imi keri, v’halachti af ani imachem b’keri,v’hikeiti etchem gam ani sheva al chatoteichem.” (And if after these [punishments] you are not disciplined/corrected but [instead] will walk ‘keri’ with me, then I will walk, even I, with you in ‘keri’, and I will smite you, yes me, seven times for your sins”)

This word, which is found right at the heart of this narrative of rebuke, appears nowhere else in Torah in this grammatical form, yet in this text we find it repeated seven times within twenty sentences (vv 21,23,24,27,28,40,41) forcing us to notice and explore it. Our behaviour clearly b’keri has terrible consequences. And yet it is not clear what the writer means by it.

Many classical commentators follow Rashi and Maimonides and understand the root of the word to be k.r.h – meaning something that happens by casual chance or by accident (mikreh), though it may also be translated as being in opposition or contrary, or indeed it may come from the root k.r.r meaning to be cold.  But we also know that when used in bible, the apparent casual chance of the text is not ever quite what it seems to be on the surface, but instead is a coded phrase used to let us know that something of significance is about to happen.  So it is that Ruth meets Boaz the language of k.r.h is used to alert us to the significance of her choosing his field to glean in.   There is something curious about a phrase used to describe a chance that is not exactly chance, a casual encounter of enormous significance, but that is how the word keri is used, and to find it so definitely  emphasised in the text of the tochecha means we need to look closely at just what God means when God says “If you walk ‘keri’ with me, then most definitely I will walk ‘keri’ with you.

The three most common teachings about this are: the classical idea expressed by Rashi and Maimonides that there is a lack of interest or intention in walking God’s way – a sort of going through the motions without really caring or understanding or being principled in doing God’s will; The extension of this mechanistic approach of indifference which is developed by R.Samson Raphael Hirsch of modern orthodoxy, and which overlays on the classical understanding the idea that when we do God’s will b’keri it is essentially not simply a casual coincidence but a phenomenon that happens when our will and God’s will coincide so that while it feels we are doing God’s will with intention, in reality we are following our own self-interest and priding ourselves on acting with more righteousness than should be claimed; and thirdly the position of the founder of the ethical mussar movement R.Israel Salanter who layers in the idea of coldness to the behaviour to suggest that when we walk with God b’keri it is that we follow God’s commandments not only mechanistically but also without any warmth or passion for it – there is no possibility of our doing the mitzvot changing us or developing our relationship with the creator.

I like this idea that if we follow God’s commandments to the letter, but without any passion – without committing ourselves and our hopes and fears – that this is viewed by God as b’keri: casual indifferent and cold religion. It bespeaks irrelevance – the acting out of what is required but in no way coming from the commitment of the self.  It is act but not attitude. How do we bring God closer into the world if we do not ourselves make the effort to make the world a better place? How do we bring ourselves closer to God if we pay attention more to how things look than how things are?

The warning in the tochecha, of all the things that will go wrong if we act b’keri – is so powerful an imperative that we are told that not only will God mirror our indifference, God will go further and punish us seven fold – the designation of maximalist or absolute punishment, the other end of the spectrum from casual/chance/indifferent.  If anything is designed to catch our attention, it must be the severity of this response.

And after it all, the horror story painted so dramatically of famine and war and terror and starvation and expulsion and yearning and pain – there comes this: “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land….And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Eternal.”

God promises to remember – to actively recall the relationship of Covenant between God and the Jewish people which will never be broken no matter how badly behaved we might be. And God compounds this by naming the Avot, the three founding patriarchs of the Jewish people, and unusually lists them in reverse order, the only time this is found in bible.

This bringing in of the patriarchs leads to the concept of zechut avot, the merit of our ancestors, which we can call upon to weight our case before the heavenly court. The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah) explicates this, asking  “Why are the Avot listed backwards? To say: If the acts of Jacob are not worthy, then the acts of Isaac are worthy, and if the acts of Isaac are not worthy, then the acts of Abraham are worthy. The acts of each one is sufficiently worthy that the world can be saved for his sake.”

Rashi mitigates this a little, saying Why are they listed backwards? As if to say: Jacob, the youngest, is worthy of that; and if he is not worthy, behold, Isaac is with him, and if he is not worthy, behold, Abraham is with him and he is worthy.”

It is, I think, a little dig or reminder to the Jews of modernity – the greatest zechut/merit is that of Abraham, and as time goes on the merit is by its nature in decline. So we need to add the merit of our ancestors rather than assume any one is sufficient by itself. We, so much further away from biblical times are expected to have less merit than the founding patriarchs – so how much more do we need each other to fulfil our task. If we just do our tasks with indifference, or follow God’s will where it coincides with our self-interest, or do not attempt our holy task with all the passion and awareness we could bring to it, then we will fail. And to do our holy task well enough we must do it together, in community, with shared and common interest. We need not only the combined merit of our ancestors in tough times, we need the combined merit of our fellow human beings. Only in this way, by working together to make the world a better and holier place, by rebuking each other where necessary, by paying attention to what we do and its effect on others – only in this way will we create the blessing we yearn for.

Mishpatim: Torah MiSinai is only one half of the conversation

In parashat Yitro is the climactic coming together of God and the Israelite people as three months after the dramatic exodus from Egypt following signs and wonders, the people are encamped at the foot of Mt Sinai and Moses and God encounter each other once more in order to create the agreement that as long as the people will obey God’s voice and keep the covenant, then they will be God’s special treasure among all the peoples of the earth, and shall become a kingdom of priests to God, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5,6). A period of purification is followed by the majesty of the presence of God, and the words of God are declaimed amid black smoke, thunder and lightning, terrifying the people who declare their willingness to accept the covenant but ask for Moses to be their representative and for them to keep well away from whatever is going on.

The relationship is consummated with words, called in Hebrew the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Statements, which function essentially as the paragraph headings that prescribe the boundaries and the requirements of the relationship.

Like any new relationship, each side views the other as pretty wonderful, there is no need immediately to get into the gritty details of the red lines and the expectations that will make living together successful or not. But soon of course those realities set in and the couple have to ‘talk tachlis’. Hence the detailed miscellany of laws in the following chapters, including a whole sidra named ‘mishpatim’: the laws and rules of the relationship.

This year, I was especially drawn to thinking about the authority of the rules – who gets to decide what they are, who gets to change them, and to ask – how does the relationship evolve?

In Exodus 24 we have insight into the beginning of the ‘tachlis period’. Moses is to come alone to God. There has been some etiquette about introducing the leaders of the people further up the Mountain, but now Moses tells the people all God’s words and the people answer in unified response “all the words which the Eternal spoke we will do”. Then Moses writes down all the words of God (it is not clear where he does this), after which he builds an altar representing the entire people and there is a sacrificial rite, followed by this information “And Moses took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, and we will understand.’ (24:7)

What is this Book of the Covenant? Why does Moses follow his reading – and the people’s oddly worded response – with a ritual where he takes the blood of the previous sacrifice, sprinkles it on the people and tells them ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Eternal has made with you in agreement with all these words.’ We now have a Book of the Covenant (Sefer ha brit) and Blood of the Covenant (dam ha brit) and then suddenly we are in a vision, as the 70 plus elders of Israel find themselves at a feast where they see God standing on a clear sapphire pavement.

Just as suddenly we are out. God tells Moses ‘Come up to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah (teaching) and the commandment (mitzvah)(, which I have written, that you may teach them.’ (v12)

What are these tablets of stone, the Torah and the Mitzvah that Moses is to teach? How do they fit into the covenant? Why then does Moses stay on the mountain after this for forty days and nights, hidden in cloud, leaving his people leaderless and frightened and alone?

The text, like the top of the mountain, is opaque. We cannot understand the encounter, only know that there was indeed such a moment that cemented the relationship between God and Israel, a relationship that might go through many rocky patches and many silences, but which will never actually break. We have a brit, a covenant, and we are tied to each other for eternity.

But what are the parameters of the covenant? What do we have to do? What will we come to understand? And while the existence of the covenant is unchanging, the conditions have clearly developed and altered.

The Talmud sets out the traditional position of the verse asking: What is the meaning of “And I will give you the tablets of stone and the law and the commandment, which I have written so that you can teach them”? “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the law” -this is the Torah, “the commandment”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Berachot 5a).

This passage is frequently cited as the proof text of Torah miSinai – that God gave to Moses everything that would become Rabbinic Judaism in later years. Either it was given at Sinai or it has no authenticity runs the argument. But surely this cannot be a literal reading of the biblical text, nor a complete reading of the Talmudic one.

The phrase Torah mi Sinai is found only once in Talmudic texts – in the introduction to the Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, where we are told “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

It is found not at all in Bible, and indeed while the seeds of the idea of divine revelation encompassing the whole of what became Rabbinic/Halachic Judaism can be discerned, they are only in the later books of Chronicles and of Ezra and Nehemiah, books which are generally seen as being written only in the 5th/4th Century BCE. These books use the words haTorah / Torah while earlier books refer always to Torot, a plurality of teachings. The Book of Nehemiah even refers to Ezra reading In the book, in the Law of God, (BaSefer, b’torat Elohim) distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. (8:8,18), and also” Ezra the scribe [was asked] to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded to Israel”, and so clearly by the early Second Temple period there was a tradition of a Mosaic/divine book of Torah, which is variously described as being the Torah of God or the Torah of Moses, something unknown in earlier biblical texts.

This idea is seized upon by the Rabbis who took for themselves the right to decide not only what the texts would mean, but also used it to assert their authority and control over the people. Hence we have the midrashic text in Leviticus Rabbah (5th Century) ““everything an experienced pupil might ever say to his teacher was revealed to Moses at Sinai.”, and the more worrying Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:1) “…These have no share in the World to Come: 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..”

Why did they do this? Was it in order to emphasise the authenticity of their authority post Temple, against the Karaites and the Sadducees and those who wished to continue Priestly authority? This would certainly make sense as they were reinventing what it meant to be Jewish after the central worship authority had disappeared, and a multiplicity of rival claims may have spread the Jewish people too thinly to survive.

But we are in a different world, where literary criticism and scholarship that takes into account the context of a text mean that we can see that Torah miSinai cannot be a literal description of our foundational texts. Even Maimonides, who famously enshrined Torah miSinai into his thirteen principles of faith, would surely have framed those principles differently in modern times, (And one must also take into account the context of those principles that became Yigdal – he was responding to Islamic claims about the superiority of its revelatory texts).

Whatever the Torah of Moses /the Torah of God means, for which the shorthand remains “Torah miSinai”, it has become a barrier for the Jewish people rather than an enabler. People who have good academic understanding in the secular world find the notion of one book literally given at one time on a desert mountain to be improbable, which means that the world of scriptural literalists tries to keep modernity away from ‘their’ Jews, with terrible consequences often. People who seek to understand the text differently are shunned or worse, treated as if they are no longer Jews. And then there is the halachic process, which from being a dynamic and responsive practice has become solidified and deeply unhelpful often, simply because there is nothing ‘miSinai’ that pushes for change.

I love the idea of God speaking with Moses in the presence of the entire people, and that being an inspirational and creative moment that energised the ongoing relationship of God and the Jews. But I hate the idea that the route to the relationship is held in the hands of people with little understanding of modernity or the modern Jewish people and State, who try to excommunicate anyone who challenges or brings in modern ideas from the Covenant and the peoplehood.

It is time to reclaim Torah MiSinai, to go back to that moment where the whole people heard and said, we will do and we will understand, and while they may have deputed Moses to negotiate the contract on their behalf, did not abdicate their own responsibility for being part of the development of what the contract would mean over time.

_Moses_on_Mount_Sinai_Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-1895-1900

Va’era: Does God hear prayer? Does God appear to us when we pray?

When God speaks to Moses at the beginning of the sidra, God says to him “And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant (6:5)

 וְגַ֣ם אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַֽאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַֽעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָֽאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי:

In Bible, God hears prayer and frequently is recorded responding to the request. Be it Isaac’s prayer for a child for Rebecca (Genesis 25:21) or Jacob asking for deliverance from the avenging Esau (Gen 32:12), be it Moses and Aaron asking for the healing of Miriam’s skin disease (Numbers 12:13) or the desperate request for a child from Hannah. Be it David asking for God’s blessing and support (2Sam 7:18ff) or Solomon asking for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5ff) It seems that people prayed for what they wanted or needed and God reacted.

Jewish traditional texts assume that prayer comes from the heart and finds its way to a divine hearing. Later in rabbinic Judaism, prayer was more formalised, the wording more fixed (or at least the themes of the prayers, their introductions and endings were organised and prescribed) and while there was room for spontaneous prayer there was also a structure of community prayer, with the underlying assumption that the prayers of a community together would somehow strengthen the power of the words, that God would more readily listen to the combined communal prayer. Hence the minyan, the minimum of ten people for some prayers to be recited, and the extraordinary effect it has of creating community and awareness of the needs of others. Jewish tradition teaches that our communal prayer reminds us not just to think of ourselves, that our prayer must be broader, and when we pray in the right way, with our hearts and minds fully engaged and within the community of our peers, that God will hear our prayer.

But this all begs the question – does God hear all prayer? And if so does our prayer make a difference to the outcomes we seek? What does it mean for God to hear our prayer? And what does it mean if it appears that God does not hear us, or at least does not give us what we want?

The Hebrew verb le’hitapallel, from which the word for prayer –tefillah – comes, means in essence to work on oneself and to judge oneself. So the language of prayer is reflexive, we do something to or for ourselves in prayer, albeit in the gaze of the divine. Prayer is not so much for God as it is for us. In one form, alluded to in the English form of the word, prayer, it is indeed about asking for something, usually for God to influence and outcome, but tefillah is much more than this – it is about stepping outside of the normal stream of time and busyness and looking at ourselves in order to decide for ourselves.

And yet we persist in praying as if our prayer is heard by someone outside of ourselves who has the power to effect change for us. Our core texts all assume this to be true, even while our lived experience shows no real evidence. And we continue, despite everything, to pray to God as if such prayer is heard, as if it matters, as if God will be impacted by our words and the world will be different.

The later books of the Hebrew bible record many prayers uttered in desperate times. The book of Psalms can be read as a liturgical resource bank, and it is no coincidence that so many verses from this book are the building blocks of our liturgy and prayers. Prayer is seen as a natural and human response, and Maimonides reminds us in the Laws of Prayer that “It is a positive commandment to pray each day as it is stated, “And you shall serve the Eternal your God (Ex. 23:25) … They taught that “serve,” means prayer, as it is stated, “And you shall serve God with all your heart” (Deut. 11:13). The Sages asked, “What is the service of the heart? This is prayer” (Ta’anit 2a).”

Prayer is understood in tradition as being rooted in the behaviour of our founding Patriarchs, has the status of being a mitzvah, a commandment, and is one of the spiritual pillars upon which the world stands, taking the place of the sacrificial system of Temple worship that brought God closer to our world.

Right up to current responsa, prayer is seen as being the obvious and most basic demonstration of belief in God. R. Moshe Feinstein wrote that “The essence of belief in God is that only God can ultimately guarantee our livelihood or cure our diseases. And when a person does not trust in God and does not pray to God, it is as if he is denying belief in God for the sake of belief in something else…” (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. II, Chapter 24)

Yet if asked, many people of faith, who pray regularly and with kavannah (focus/intention) will still hesitate to sign up to such an idea that it God has such activity within our daily lives so that our livelihoods and our health are entirely at the mercy of the divine. How can we live with a God who can capriciously save some and condemn others? How can we live with a God who sees the righteous suffer, when by an act of will they would not have to do so? How can we live with a God who demands praise even while the world is in pain?

Like so much of Jewish experience, we seem able to live with two contradictory ideas both being true, to be comfortable with the cognitive dissonance of both/and, of eilu v’eilu – that many ways of being can be ways to live a righteous and blessed life. We pray because we have to pray, it is hard wired in our souls. We call to a God we don’t always believe in, a God we are sometimes uncertain might be there. We act ‘kiv’yachol’ – as if our prayer will be heard and answered, and yet at the same time we call it the act of le’hitpallel, of judging ourselves, of working upon ourselves.

Does our prayer change God’s mind? In many ways it is simply the wrong question. Our prayer is essentially the internal dialogue that keeps us true and keeps us aware of the direction our moral compass must direct us towards. Whether God hears and responds, hears and takes note, hears and ignores, or does IMG_1791not hear – who can tell? It is enough that we believe ourselves to be in God’s presence when we judge ourselves and we work to change ourselves. And sometimes, rarely, we suddenly have the encounter, we recognise the presence of God and hear the voice of slender silence resonating in our soul and we know that God is listening, that God is there. And we have the strength to go on.

 

Vayeshev: the crime of selling a person

“Behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said to his brothers, “what profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brothers listened to him.
And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt. And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said: ‘The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?’ (Gen 37:25-30)… And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ishmaelites, that had brought him down thither. (39:1)…[And Joseph said] For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ (40:15)

The first story of human trafficking is told here in sidra vayeshev, and sadly it is a story that resonates to this day in the lived experience of the six to eight hundred thousand people estimated to be trafficked across international boundaries each year, and the 20 – 30 million people who are currently estimated to be living in slavery.
Like many who are trafficked today, Joseph is young and vulnerable, he is (to be) sold off by family members, and while presumably sold for labour it is not impossible he could have been sold for sex (certainly Potiphar’s wife has expectations in this area). He finds himself at the mercy of a well organised people trafficking structure, sold through the agency of the Midianites to the Ishmaelites who go on to sell him in Egypt along with their other products. Today human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It reportedly generates a profit of over £21 billion every year of which £10 billion is made in industrialized countries. Human trafficking is big business. And it causes enormous suffering.
Bible begins by telling us that human beings are created in the image of the Divine, from which we understand the basic and absolute value of human beings. Just as God is indivisible and of infinite worth, so is humanity indivisible and of infinite worth. We might construct all kinds of models in our heads about class, ethnicity, gender, power, social status, geographical cultural and historical connections, but bible keeps reminding us of the one basic truth: human beings are one group, connected ultimately to the earth on which we live, connected deeply and irrevocably to each other.
The bible as a document is powerfully engaged with this idea, and with how it plays out in the power relationships that humans participate in, that shape our society. It knows how easy it is to abuse power, how simple to turn a blind eye to it happening in both the intimate details of our lives and in the macro environment in which we are live. It knows about the human tendency to construct realities that favour ourselves over others, to neglect or ignore what does not speak to our own self-interest or conform to our idea of reality. Bible provides the nudge, the spur to remind us that not only is there more to the world than our own experience, it repeatedly teaches us that there is an obligation on us to pay attention outside of our comfort zone, a requirement to see the world as God sees it – a fragile and beautiful place filled with fragile and beautiful creatures engaged in a process of improvement but simultaneously undermining and subverting that process out of ignorance or selfishness or thoughtlessness or greed.
We see ourselves in the texts; we recognise the themes and the motifs that play through the stories and we know that we are being prompted to respond.
So when we read the story of Joseph, defenceless in the pit after his brothers’ intervention, saved from being murdered but arguably paying the even greater price of being traded from group to group with no protection and no idea of what the end of his journey may be, powerless and frightened, a product not a person, about whom no one will care what happens – we have to pay attention and we have to respond. There are estimated to be between six and eight hundred thousand people having a similar experience ever year in our world. And we should care.
In the book of Exodus, in the legal code following the giving of the ten commandments and the covenant made between God and Israel, comes the instruction “And one who steals a person and sells them, or if a person be found in their possession (as merchandise), they shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:16). Deuteronomy repeats the command: “If a person be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and he deal with him as a slave, and sell him; then that thief shall die; so shall you put away the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 24:7). In the biblical world clearly people were bought and sold, seen as chattels to be profited from, and already the voice of the text is outlawing the behaviour. By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) (for e.g. Sanhedrin11:1) the death penalty for human trafficking is discussed and accepted – a mark of how seriously the crime is taken to be and this is continued in the Gemara (5th Century CE) (e.g. Sanhedrin 86a)
In the medieval period there are responsa again underlining the importance of challenging the prevalence of abducting and selling human beings – for example Maimonides (12th C) tells us that Torah views the kidnap of a person as the most serious form of theft that is strictly prohibited on pain of death under the Noachide code and in the eighth of the Ten Commandments, ( Laws of Theft 9:1-6) and also teaches that redeeming captives is more important than supporting the poor, because captives are in danger of their lives (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyyim 8:10). Rabbi Joseph Colon (1420-1480) warns that a person who has the ability to save a trafficked person yet delays doing so is “like one who sheds blood.”… the responsa can be found in every century, in every place, demonstrating that the crime of trafficking human beings can equally be found in every century and in every place – including, sadly, our own.
So what should we do? Firstly, we should not ignore the issue, not assume that it is not happening because we have not noticed it, nor that it “wouldn’t happen” in our bit of the world. Secondly we should educate ourselves on the signs, so that we are alert to the possibility of trafficking. These can be found here: http://www.stopthetraffik.org/uk/page/spot-the-signs
Community_Signs_2

And we can also think through the ways we live and the choices we make – are the clothes or food we want to buy surprisingly cheap indicating that the makers/pickers are on low wages? Is there an ethical policy in place in the financial transactions we make? Are we sufficiently educated about the real cost, the real chain by which products come to us, the reality faced by people who find themselves in economic bondage to others?
The tragedy of human trafficking is that it hides in plain sight. Bible knew that and tried to give us the tools to see. We are in need of such tools even today. Let the words of Joseph speak to us again “For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ And remind us that the lack of freedom for those who are trafficked is real, a dungeon from which they cannot escape and a place where no meaning can be gleaned.

The Angel of Death and the Limits of Autonomy

angel_deathI sit as a rabbi at the bedsides of the dying. I see the many and varied ways that the dying person, their friends and family, carers and clinicians, cope – or do not cope, with what is happening. I see the fear of pain and the fear of loss. I see ‘good deaths’ and terrible deaths. My own anxiety resonates within me as I walk a few steps of the journey with each person. My most searing rabbinic memory is of an elderly man dying from unstoppable necrosis of the internal organs, curled like a foetus in his hospital bed and whimpering his pain to himself, already far from any awareness of anyone or anything. Such intractable pain witnessed years ago still terrifies me. The pain on the bed and the pain on the face of his soon to be widow, howling in animal agony as she witnessed her husband.

I have seen such deaths and I understand the desire for people not to have to suffer them. I share the desire wholeheartedly, but it does not lead me to believe that legislating in order to assist suicide is a good thing either for society or for the future of many individuals. I fear such legislation even more than I fear such a death for myself, for it will change the narrative and the norms by which human life is seen and valued, and I do not want my children’s children to live in a world where the value of human lives can be quantified, where an expectation may flourish that death is better than continued living, where choosing to die is normalised and accepted as an equal choice with choosing to live.

This, for me, is a case where something may indeed be right for an individual, but where it can never be right for a society. There are some areas of life that will forever have to remain ‘messy’ because to try to clarify them through scaling up to a societal norm what is understandable at the individual level does not work. Life may become such a burden that for an individual it is no longer worth living – but to take this idea to its logical conclusion for society would mean that we would be forced to quantify the value of every life, something so subjective it would be impossible for us to agree on.

Why does our religious tradition, not unaware of or unsympathetic to the problems of overwhelming physical and emotional pain, still refuse to make space within its law codes, its liturgy or its narratives to condone the taking of one’s own life, and why does it explicitly forbid the helping of someone to do so saying “There is no difference between a person who kills either a healthy person or one who is ill and dying, or even a gosses. In all of these cases, the murderer is put to death” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder).

It does so I believe, not because it wants to put people into a position of suffering – indeed it recognises that there are times when the suffering is so great people will indeed act upon it – but because once one deviates from the societal agreement that all human life has absolute and infinite value the door is opened to the possibility of diminishing and relatavising its value. By permitting such an act in its legal codes, it will change the way human life is seen and understood and forever alter the view of the absolute and infinite value of human life. Tradition understands that what is tolerable for individuals to choose does not become tolerable for society to choose. Once it becomes acceptable to measure life in terms of its quality – either subjective or objectively understood, we have laid the groundwork for viewing the value of some life as relatively less than that of others, and opened the door for a diminishment and undervaluing of some human lives.

From this a number of deeply problematic scenarios follow. If quality of life becomes the benchmark by which choosing to die becomes an option, how would one consistently measure it? If by subjective decision making, how easy would it become to opt for death now rather than the more difficult and uncertain continued living? How would depression be measured or ruled out? Or a belief that to choose death will lighten the load either now or in the future, upon the living? Would fear of future pain or incapacity, which may or may not be certain, be allowed to trigger the decision for death, as the anxiety clouds the current quality of life? How and over what length of time would analysis of the capability of the requester be assessed, and against what criteria? Scholars agree that this is always a social rather than a scientifically based process, so no truly objective capability test can be formed. “Capacity assessment” may be the “Trojan Horse” of assisted dying legislation, in that it is meant to provide protection but instead provides cover for dangerous possibilities to enter normal societal discourse.        

As well as the problem of not being amenable to scaling up from the individual to society, the question of assisted dying is a classic dilemma involving two competing ‘goods’:- For people to be able to die without suffering or pain; And for society to protect the vulnerable and not relativise the value of human life. It is not something that is amenable to resolution through legislation, however thoughtfully drafted. In Talmudic terms it is a “Teyku” a situation where the moral arguments on each side balance each other, standing indefinitely in a state of insolubility. 319 times in the Babylonian Talmud the Rabbis are forced to say “Teyku – Let it stand”, when they come across a situation which is not resolvable. There are limits to the application of reason in resolving moral quandaries. In practise one lets the situation stand and each person has to act for themselves while limiting the violations to the other ‘goods’.

Clearly there are intellectual and philosophical arguments on both sides of the debate. Possibly more powerfully there are emotional arguments, such as that we would not allow an animal to suffer what some human beings may experience towards the end of life, or the stories of ‘deathbed’ reconciliation or resolution of entrenched feelings. We are all influenced by our own experiences of seeing someone we love die, or of seeing someone not die, which can indeed be worse. There can be no clear cut and objective line of argument that will lead us to an obvious and shared conclusion. We are talking here about life and death, about the primal emotions that are barely touched by language, so deep are they embedded within us. As Niels Bohr wrote, “There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true”

Let us look more closely at the two great truths that all people should be able to die well, and that human life is of infinite value. Both truths desire the dignity of the individual, both are driven from compassion. The difference lies in their view of the primacy of autonomy.

Autonomy offers absolute sovereignty over self, the power to decide; independence of mind and body is seductive and influential on our thinking. “Of course I want to make decisions about myself and my life, and of course I should take this power for myself” we think, “and I must have the right to do so in every circumstance”. And this is what leads us to the other side of the dilemma.

Independence is a political construct rather than a social one. In both the natural and the social world there is no true independence, there is only interdependence. We can have no complete autonomy, our choices have impact beyond our selves and are shaped by the society in which we live. Our autonomy is limited by our own bodies, by rules of law or convention, by our schools or places of work, our families our communities and our traditions. It is limited by the need for a greater ‘good’ –that which is best for our group

We live at a time when it has become an expectation that we can control all aspects of our lives. We have elevated this expectation to the status of right. And yet sometimes we do not have the control, sometimes we find ourselves lost in a place where random illness strikes or where the power is firmly in someone else’s hands, or where what we feel is right for ourselves is in tension with what we know to be right for our community or family. Sometimes we may desperately want something we cannot have. Sometimes we pray and the answer is that God says ‘no’.

                 Jewish tradition has a great deal to say to us about the process of dying and it is intriguingly complex. It struggles with what may be right for one person, yet toxic for society. Hence its response to suicide, whereby the hard line of the texts against the individual who takes their own life is mitigated to the point where the explicit disapproval can be almost entirely overcome in the practical response in the event of suicide.

 The ethical problems of balancing two ‘goods’ – how to treat with dignity and respect the person who takes their own life while at the same time neither approving nor promoting such behaviour in order to preserve the well being of the community is apparent from early texts, showing how conflicted our tradition has been always. While there are a good sprinkling of texts which are sympathetic to the people for whom life has become burdensome, there is absolutely no leeway for legislative support – the whole thrust of halachic literature is to reinforce the absolute sanctity of life, the giving and taking of which is in the hands of God alone. There is no explicit prohibition against suicide in Bible, but Talmud works hard to source such a proscription in Torah, using a number of different verses to do so. The most usual quoted is from the Noachide laws (Genesis 9:5) where God says “And surely your blood of your lives will I require”, but the ban against destruction from Deuteronomy “Do not destroy” (Deut 20:19) is also brought to bear, with the Gemara stating that if this applies to artefacts, then how much more so should it apply to one’s own body? (Baba Kamma 91b).

Yet while attempting to give strength to this proscription against suicide, the Gemara notes that “It must therefore be said that Tannaim differed on this point, for there is one view maintaining that a man may not injure himself and there is another maintaining that a man may injure himself”. (ibid)

It is interesting to me how important Tradition’s need for a teaching against suicide is, while at the same time there is demonstrable understanding that sometimes life just becomes too much for individuals, and ending it becomes an option to be considered seriously. So for example we have the story of the Hittite City of Luz where “even the Angel of Death has no permission to pass through it, but when the old men there become tired of life (lit. ‘Their mind becomes loathsome to them’) they go outside the wall and then die” (Sotah 46b), and the principle of “lev yodea marat nafsho” (the heart knows the bitterness of the soul) (Prov. 14:10) suggests that subjective feelings having weight in medical decision making is brought into the debate in Yoma 83a.

Despite the compassion towards the [would-be] suicide as individual being, the full weight of Jewish tradition teaches that life is sacred, it is given to us by God, the soul belongs to God and death comes at the will of God alone. Deuteronomy teaches “I cause death and I cause life” (32:39). Hannah prays “Adonai brings death and makes life” (1 Sam 2:6), Job tells us that God gave life and God took life, and God’s name is blessed (1:21), Kohelet tells us that there is “a time to give birth and a time to die” (3:1-2) and just as the process of birthing is out of our control, so too is that of dying. We are made in the image of God, and life is our most precious attribute, something of absolute value that should never be dismissed. The mitzvah of preserving life, Pikuach Nefesh, is so important that fulfilling it supersedes all but three of the mitzvot in Torah.

The Mishnah tells us “Without our consent we are born, and without our consent we live, and without our consent we die, and without our consent we will have to give a reckoning before …the blessed Holy One”. (Pirkei Avot 4:29). Jewish law concerning the dying (gosses) acts every time upon the assumption that life should be cared for, even though it is clear that it will shortly end. Every morning as soon as we awake, we are supposed to pray the words “Adonai, neshama she’natata bi tehorah..” God, you gave me a pure soul. You created it, you formed it, and you made it live within me. But one day you will take it from me to Eternal life”, a prayer that recognises the transience of both life and of death, and the control of God over them both.

Proponents of the right to be assisted in suicide rely on the idea of well framed legislation that would prevent a slippery slope where life would in future be seen as burdensome for reasons that we currently would find problematic. Mention of eugenics, of ending the life of a person with dementia, of pressurising vulnerable people whose care will cost a family or the State a substantial amount of money to choose to die, or of allowing people with mental fragility to choose death over life – all these can be prevented by good drafting of the Bill, they say. But it seems to me that is to place faith in a fragile and inadequately future-proofable instrument. However carefully drafted a Bill may be, there is no guarantee against violation or infringement, and meanwhile the mores of society will drift further away from the valuing of life qua life, into establishing and measuring and challenging the boundaries of what is an acceptable quality of a life, what a reasonable ground for choosing to die. And anyway Law is used to decide between right and wrong, never to be able to choose between two ‘goods’, it is neither designed to do this nor could it possibly be effective.

Once one crosses the Rubicon and accepts the right of the individual to have autonomy over choosing to live or die, the notion of being able to do so only in strictly bounded conditions is open for change. Indeed it is changing already with the owner of the Dignitas Clinic already suggesting that clinical depression is an acceptable reason for choosing death, and the Dutch Supreme Court ruling that “euthanasia or assisted suicide might be justifiable for a patient with severe psychic suffering due to a depressive illness and in the absence of a physical disorder or a terminal condition.” Supreme Court of the Netherlands. Arrest-Chabot, HR 21 June 1994, nr 96 972. Nederlands Juristen Blad 1994;26:893-5.

Once we allow the idea that autonomy over our lives to the point of choosing our deaths is an acceptable societal norm, that human life is not of infinite value and can in some cases be ended through a legally sanctioned process, then there is nothing to prevent a recalibrating of that value in future years. Once we are prepared to attribute a view of quality and to quantify this, then the subjective view of the clinically depressed at one moment in time may trigger an irrevocable decision. No amount of legislative safeguards will completely protect the vulnerable.

Studies have shown that people who want this legislation mainly want it for reassurance, to know that future extreme physical pain can be escaped, and proponents of this kind of legislation quote the relatively small number of people who go on to commit suicide with the help of their physician – about 50 percent of those who receive the prescriptions actually go on to ingest the drug. But this is not about numbers, and reassurance can be provided in other ways.

Consistent studies reveal that the real issues for patients are not so much the fear of physical pain, but the psychological and emotional distress that may accompany it. Patients surveyed usually speak of the fear of loss of autonomy and control, of living with hopelessness and depression. A Dutch research project in 2005 showed that depressed cancer patients were four times more likely to request euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. Another study in New York replicated this figure and adds “Among patients who were neither depressed nor hopeless, none had high desire for hastened death”.

The texts of our tradition understand the fear of extreme pain, of psychological pain, and of the burden that life can become. There is no strand of tradition or classical text that aggrandises pain or suggests that we seek suffering, there is no sanctity to be found in agony, and our sources permit the use of every medical means to avoid pain (Shulchan Aruch YD 241:13). They are compassionate and forgiving of any action which a person may do arising out of excessive pain. But they hold a line about incorporating into law or into society the idea that any such action is le’hatchila acceptable or predicated on a value system we can endorse. I think they understood that there is no place of safety once life stops being seen as infinitely valuable, that we might think we can legislate impregnable safeguards but that when we change the basis on which we see human life there is no way ultimately to protect the most vulnerable people in society.

We are faced in society with a pressure towards absolute autonomy, bolstered by a belief that we can really control all aspects of our lives, that there is no thing we cannot do and no decision we cannot make for ourselves. But the reality is that we live in community, and what may be desirable for an individual may not be desirable for the society within which that individual exists. There are problems both of scale and of tension between the ‘good’ of the individual and the ‘good’ of society. The reality is also that absolute control over our destinies is not in fact ours; sometimes we simply cannot have what we want.

Our spiritual tradition helps us with the areas of our lives in which we feel less able, not in order to make us more able necessarily, but to be able to live with what is not possible as much as with what is. The need for reassurance that there will be no pain towards the end of life is mainly in the hands of the medical profession, and I fear for the future of palliative care should more people opt to avoid it by leaving their lives before it becomes necessary. But it is also in the hands of us all – if we journey alongside the dying, offer warmth and care, see the humanity of the person and who they are; If we recognise the totality of the life they have lived, if we maintain their dignity and self worth, address their fears and sadnesses, then we offer a way to deal with the reality that we cannot exert control over every aspect of life. In the words of Rabbah in the Talmud responding to distress of Honi HaMa’agel “either companionship or death” (Ta’anit 3a)

 first published in “Assisted Dying – Rabbinic Responses” ed Romain 2014