Chayei Sarah: Sarah Imeinu was not the rabbinic paradigm of a perfect woman, but a real woman.

Chayei Sarah – Domestic Abuse in Judaism

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is on 25th November, days after we will have read the parasha detailing the death and burial arrangements for the first biblical matriarch, Sarah Imeinu.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women issued by the UN General Assembly in 1993, defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” It includes such acts as intimate partner violence (battering, psychological abuse, marital rape, femicide);   sexual violence and harassment (rape, forced sexual acts, unwanted sexual advances, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, street harassment, stalking, cyber- harassment);     human trafficking (slavery, sexual exploitation);     female genital mutilation; and  child marriage.

Sarah is introduced to us as the wife of Abraham. Whether she was his niece, his half-sister, or any other relation to him is unclear – but we are not told directly of her antecedents, simply that he takes her for a wife (Genesis 11:29) around the same time that Abraham’s brother Nahor also takes a wife, after the death of Haran their other brother.  The second thing we know about Sarah is that she is unable to conceive a child.

It is not very promising stuff. Here is a vulnerable woman who is married into a “patriarchal family” with a husband ten years older than her, and who is unable to do the one thing expected of her – to produce an heir.  This is a particular trauma given that her husband has been promised to have innumerable descendants – it is almost as though they are being set up against each other, with no possibility of resolution.

Taken yet again from her settled place she and her husband travel to Canaan, and because of the severe famine there ,onward to Egypt, where she is described as her husband’s sister in order to protect his life. The consequence is that she is taken into the harem of Pharaoh, and while we have many midrashim designed to protect her purity and good name, we have no idea what happened to her there – only that Pharaoh gave her back along with material compensation to her husband, after a series of events which he rightly understood to be divine warnings.

After ten years of living in the land, with no sign of a child to fulfil the divine promise, Sarah does what many a female figure in bible will do after her – intervene in order to bring about that which is expected to happen. In this case she hands over her Egyptian maid to her husband in order for him to have a child. While there are those who might see this as a wonderful wifely and unselfish gift, the clear light of day shows otherwise. Ten years of marriage with no child – this becomes grounds for divorce (Mishnah Yevamot 6:6) – and would leave a woman without family to take her in, unprotected socially and economically. Sarah uses another woman to give her husband the child he desires so much, and in so doing causes greater anguish for Hagar, for Ishmael, for Abraham and for herself. One could argue that the pain this intervention caused resonates to this day.

After the birth of Ishmael the relationship between the two women breaks down completely. Sarah mistreats Hagar, Hagar runs away from home but returns – she has nowhere else.  Ishmael and Hagar are banished causing pain to them both and to Abraham who will not know the outcome of their story, Isaac inherits family trauma he cannot begin to understand.

The birth of Isaac is told in quasi miraculous terms. Abraham and Sarah are old, she is clearly post-menopausal. When God tells Abraham there will be another child he laughs, reminds God he is 100 years old and Sarah 90, and pleads for Ishmael to be his heir, only to be told that the promised  child and heir to the covenant will indeed be Sarah’s, though Ishmael will be looked after too.

When God tells Sarah, she too laughs, and she is more direct with God – after she is so old would she have such pleasure?  she asks. And her husband is too old too, she reminds God. (Genesis 18:12)

God then does something extraordinary. His report back to Abraham Sarah’s inner narrative voice, but he alters it. Instead of the clear message that Sarah has given up hope of such pleasure because her husband is too old, God transposes the person – telling Abraham that Sarah laughed because she feels herself to be too old.

This transposition is the origin of the rabbinic idea of Shalom Bayit – of marital harmony, the telling of small innocent lies in order to keep the peace. The idea that somehow the woman has to disproportionally protect the feeling of the man has become embedded into what might otherwise be a laudable aim. And sadly, Shalom Bayit has become the carpet under which domestic abuse has been brushed all too often down the generations.

Sarah has become the paradigm for the ideal woman for rabbinic Judaism in other ways too – when the visitors arrive o announce the birth of Isaac, Sarah is hidden away inside the tent, her husband facing the world. It is he who hurries around being hospitable, she who bakes the bread for the visitors.   Later we will be told that when Isaac marries Rebecca he takes her to his mother’s tent and is comforted and the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 60:16) will teach “Three miraculous phenomena that occurred in the tent during Sarah’s lifetime returned when Isaac married Rebecca: the Shabbat candles remained lit from one Friday to the next, the challah dough was blessed and was always sufficient for the family and guests, and the Divine cloud hovered over the tent.”  The rabbinic tradition generally understand this as showing that Rebecca was, like Sarah, a good and faithful homemaker, their role limited to baking and cleaning and preparing the home.  At least one contemporary – and female – commentator, has a different, and in my view more likely view of the meaning. Tamara Frankiel suggests that the midrash is commenting on the intrinsic holiness of the first two matriarchs, such that the wherewithal for Shabbat and the divine presence were always on hand, rather than that the two women were particularly devoted to housework. She comments also that the description of the tent here is a parallel to the later Temple where the ner tamid was always burning, the 12 loaves of showbread always fresh and present in front of the Ark of the Covenant.  (The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism).

The roles ascribed by the rabbinic tradition to Sarah and the other matriarchs – maternal, wifely, home making, providing the resources of hospitable giving while not actually being present when guests come – these are not the roles given in the biblical texts. And the male gaze through which we generally see these women who clearly have confidence and agency in their own lives when seen in bible, has layered both them and the expectations of subsequent generations with an impossible and also undesirable aura.

Sarah does not put herself down when contemplating a child, she is realistic about her chances, the idea of an unexpected pleasure long forgotten, the changes age has wrought to her, and to her husband. She does nothing towards Shalom Bayit here – it is the rabbinic extension of God’s comments which brings us this view of her as a woman who would subjugate herself for her husband’s feelings. Equally there is nothing in the text to suggest she is subjugating herself when presenting Hagar to her husband in order for him to get a child – if anything the power is all hers, as we see in her response when there is a dilution of that power relationship.  When she takes charge of Hagar once more, even God tells Abraham to listen to her voice and do what she says, something that remarkably has little traction in the male world of traditional rabbinic texts.

Women in the Jewish community are as likely to be the victims of domestic abuse as women in the wider community – about one in four will experience it. Women in the Jewish community are increasingly being constrained and lectured about “Tzniut”, seemingly understood about women’s bodies and actions only, although most certainly in its earlier meanings tzniut is about humility for both men and women.

Women in the Jewish community are at a disability according to halachah – unable to initiate the religious divorce document of Gittin for example. Increasingly the halachah is being reworked to push women out of the public space, to try to remove and hide women’s voices from the discourse, to push some cultural attitudes as if they are legal ones.  And so often Sarah Imeinu is cited – the perfect female paradigm in the minds of the rabbinic tradition, but actually a real woman who develops her own agency and power, who sees the frailties of her husband, who intervenes in history and who laughs disbelievingly at God.

As we mark the day that reminds us of how women have become so vulnerable to male violence that there needs to be an international policy to try to shape a different world, let’s take a moment to see the real Sarah Imeinu, the woman who originally belongs to no man in bible, who marries Abraham and helps him in his life’s work, travelling with him and sharing his destiny, working as part of a team, and subservient to no one.

 

Image courtesy of Rahel Jaskow – Rosh HaShanah : the sign on the right welcoming the men to synagogue,the one on the left telling women where their separate entrance is, telling them to leave as soon as the shofar service is finished (even though the services will continue in the synagogue), that they should go straight home and not loiter in public places………….

Chayei Sara: Sara imeinu non era colei alla quale i rabbini insistono che le donne dovrebbero somigliare, ma forse dovremmo tutti provare ad essere più simili a lei e dare forma ai nostri destini.

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild, il 20 novembre 2019

Chayei Sara – Abusi domestici nell’ebraismo

 

La Giornata internazionale per l’eliminazione della violenza contro le donne sarà il 25 novembre, qualche giorno dopo che avremo letto la parashà che illustra in dettaglio la morte e le disposizioni di sepoltura per la prima matriarca biblica, Sara imeinu.

La Dichiarazione sull’eliminazione della violenza contro le donne emessa dall’Assemblea generale delle Nazioni Unite nel 1993, definisce la violenza contro le donne come: “qualsiasi atto di violenza di genere che provochi, o rischi di provocare, danno o sofferenza fisica, sessuale o psicologica alle donne, comprese le minacce di tali atti, la coercizione o la privazione arbitraria della libertà, che si verifichino nella vita pubblica o privata”. Ciò include atti quali violenza del partner nell’intimità (percosse, abusi psicologici, stupro maritale, femminicidio), violenza e molestie sessuali (stupri, atti sessuali forzati, profferte sessuali indesiderate, abusi sessuali su minori, matrimonio forzato, molestie stradali, stalking, cyber-molestie), tratta di esseri umani (schiavitù, sfruttamento sessuale), mutilazione genitale femminile e matrimonio infantile.

Sara ci viene presentata come la moglie di Abramo. Se fosse sua nipote, la sua sorellastra o se avesse qualsiasi altra relazione con lui non è chiaro, niente ci viene detto direttamente dei suoi antecedenti, ma semplicemente che lui la prende per moglie (Genesi 11:29) nello stesso periodo in cui anche Nahor, fratello di Abramo, prende moglie, dopo la morte di Haran, l’altro loro fratello. La seconda cosa che sappiamo di Sara è che non è in grado di concepire un bambino.

 

Non è materiale molto promettente. Ecco una donna vulnerabile che è sposata in una “famiglia patriarcale” con un marito di dieci anni più grande di lei, e che non è in grado di fare l’unica cosa che ci si aspetta da lei: produrre un erede. Questo è un trauma specifico, dato che a suo marito è stato promesso di avere innumerevoli discendenti: è quasi come se fossero stati messi l’uno contro l’altro, senza possibilità di soluzione.

 

Allontanata ancora una volta dal posto dov’era stabilita, lei e suo marito viaggiano verso Canaan e, per la grave carestia lì presente, di nuovo verso l’Egitto, dove viene presentata, per proteggere la sua vita, come sorella di suo marito. La conseguenza è che viene portata nell’harem del Faraone e mentre abbiamo molti midrashim progettati per proteggere la sua purezza e il suo buon nome, non abbiamo idea di cosa lì le sia successo, solo che il Faraone la ha rimandata indietro unitamente a una compensazione materiale per suo marito, dopo una serie di eventi da lui giustamente intesi come avvertimenti divini.

 

Dopo dieci anni di vita nella terra, senza alcun segno di un bambino che mantenga la promessa divina, Sara fa ciò che molte figure femminili nella Bibbia faranno dopo di lei: interverranno per realizzare ciò che dovrebbe accadere. In questo caso, consegna la sua cameriera egiziana a suo marito per avere un figlio. Mentre c’è chi potrebbe vedere ciò come un dono meraviglioso e disinteressato, la chiara luce del giorno mostra il contrario. Dieci anni di matrimonio senza figli: questo diverrebbe motivo di divorzio (Mishnah Yevamot 6:6) e potrebbe lasciare una donna senza una famiglia ad accoglierla, non protetta socialmente ed economicamente. Sara usa un’altra donna per dare a suo marito il figlio tanto desiderato, e così facendo provoca maggiore angoscia per Hagar, per Ismaele, per Abramo e per se stessa. Si potrebbe sostenere che il dolore causato da questo intervento risuona fino ai giorni nostri.

 

Dopo la nascita di Ismaele il rapporto tra le due donne si interrompe completamente. Sara maltratta Hagar, Hagar scappa di casa ma torna: non ha nessun altro. Ismaele e Hagar sono banditi causando dolore a entrambi e ad Abramo, che non conoscerà l’esito della loro storia, Isacco eredita un trauma familiare che non può iniziare a capire.

 

La nascita di Isacco è raccontata in termini quasi miracolosi. Abramo e Sara sono vecchi, lei è chiaramente in post-menopausa. Quando Dio dice ad Abramo che ci sarà un altro bambino egli ride, ricorda a Dio che ha cento anni e Sara novanta e supplica perché il suo erede sia Ismaele, solo per sentirsi dire che il figlio promesso ed erede dell’alleanza sarà davvero di Sara, anche se di Ismaele si avrà comunque cura.

 

Quando Dio parla a Sara, anche lei ride, è più diretta con Dio e gli chiede: adesso che è così anziana avrebbe tale piacere? E anche suo marito è troppo vecchio, ricorda a Dio. (Genesi 18:12)

 

Dio quindi fa qualcosa di straordinario. Riporta ad Abramo la voce narrativa interiore di Sara, ma alterandola. Invece del chiaro messaggio che Sara ha rinunciato alla speranza di tale gioia perché suo marito è troppo vecchio, Dio traspone la persona, dicendo ad Abramo che Sara ha riso perché lei si sente troppo vecchia.

 

Questa trasposizione è l’origine dell’idea rabbinica di Shalom Bayit di armonia coniugale, il racconto di piccole bugie innocenti per mantenere la pace. L’idea che in qualche modo la donna debba proteggere in modo sproporzionato il sentimento dell’uomo si è radicata in quello che altrimenti potrebbe essere un obiettivo lodevole. E purtroppo, Shalom Bayit è diventato il tappeto sotto cui gli abusi domestici sono stati spazzati via troppo spesso lungo le generazioni.

 

Sara è diventata il paradigma della donna ideale per l’ebraismo rabbinico anche in altri modi: quando i visitatori arrivano o annunciano la nascita di Isacco, Sara è nascosta nella tenda, suo marito affronta il mondo. Lui si affretta a essere ospitale, lei cuoce il pane per i visitatori. Più tardi ci verrà detto che quando Isacco sposa Rebecca la porterà nella tenda di sua madre e verrà  confortata e il midrash (Bereishit Rabbà 60:16) insegnerà: “Tre fenomeni miracolosi verificatesi nella tenda, durante la vita di Sara, tornarono quando Isacco sposò Rebecca: le candele di Shabbat rimasero accese da un venerdì all’altro, l’impasto della Challà fu benedetto e fu sempre sufficiente per la famiglia e gli ospiti, e la nuvola divina si librò sopra la tenda”. La tradizione rabbinica generalmente lo interpreta mostrando che Rebecca fu, come Sara, una buona e fedele casalinga, il loro ruolo è limitato alla cottura, alla pulizia e alla preparazione della casa. Almeno un commentatore contemporaneo, e femminile, ha una visione diversa e, a mio avviso, più probabile del significato. Tamara Frankiel suggerisce che il midrash stia commentando l’intrinseca santità delle prime due matriarche, in modo tale che il necessario per Shabbat e la presenza divina fossero sempre a portata di mano, piuttosto che le due donne fossero particolarmente dedite alle faccende domestiche. Commenta anche che la descrizione della tenda qui è parallela al successivo Tempio, dove il ner tamid bruciava costantemente, i dodici pani dell’offerta erano sempre freschi e presenti davanti all’Arca dell’Alleanza. (La voce di Sara: spiritualità femminile ed ebraismo tradizionale).

 

I ruoli attribuiti dalla tradizione rabbinica a Sara e alle altre matriarche: materno, coniugale, casalingo, fornire le risorse dell’ospitalità ma non realmente presenti quando gli ospiti arrivano, non sono ruoli assegnati nei testi biblici. E lo sguardo maschile attraverso il quale generalmente vediamo queste donne, che godono chiaramente di fiducia e libero arbitrio nella propria vita se viste nella Bibbia, ha stratificato sia loro che le aspettative delle generazioni successive con un’aura impossibile e anche indesiderabile.

 

Sara non si mortifica quando prende in considerazione l’idea di avere un bambino, è realista riguardo alle proprie possibilità, all’idea di un piacere inaspettato dimenticato da tempo, ai cambiamenti che l’età ha portato a lei e a suo marito. Non fa nulla per la Shalom Bayit, è l’estensione rabbinica dei commenti di Dio che ci porta questa visione di lei come di donna che si soggiogherebbe per i sentimenti di suo marito. Allo stesso modo non c’è nulla nel testo che suggerisca che si soggioghi quando presenta Hagar a suo marito per fargli avere un figlio: semmai il potere è tutto in mano sua, come vediamo dalla sua reazione quando c’è un indebolimento di quella forte relazione. Quando si prende di nuovo carico di Hagar, anche Dio dice ad Abramo di ascoltare la sua voce e fare ciò che dice, qualcosa che ha straordinariamente poca popolarità nel mondo maschile dei testi rabbinici tradizionali.

 

Le donne nella comunità ebraica hanno le stesse probabilità di essere vittime di abusi domestici delle donne nella comunità più ampia, circa una su quattro li sperimenterà. Le donne nella comunità ebraica sono sempre più costrette a tenere conferenze sulla “Tzniut“, apparentemente intesa solo riguardo i corpi e le azioni delle donne, anche se certamente, nei suoi primi significati, la tzniut riguardava l’umiltà sia per gli uomini che per le donne.

 

Secondo l’halachà, le donne nella comunità ebraica sono incapaci: incapaci, per esempio, di intraprendere il documento di divorzio religioso di Gittin. Sempre più la halachà viene rielaborata per spingere le donne fuori dallo spazio pubblico, per cercare di rimuovere e nascondere le voci delle donne dal discorso, per sostenere alcuni atteggiamenti culturali come se fossero legali. E così, spesso, viene citata Sara imeinu: il paradigma femminile perfetto nelle menti della tradizione rabbinica, ma in realtà una vera donna che sviluppa il proprio agire e il proprio potere, che vede le fragilità di suo marito, che interviene nella storia e che ride incredula di Dio.

 

Mentre segniamo il giorno che ci ricorda come le donne siano diventate tanto vulnerabili alla violenza maschile da dover esserci una politica internazionale per cercare di plasmare un mondo diverso, prendiamoci un momento per vedere la vera Sara imeinu. La donna che non appartiene in origine a nessun uomo nella Bibbia, che sposa Abramo e lo aiuta nel lavoro della sua vita, viaggiando con lui e condividendo il suo destino, lavorando come parte di una squadra e non servendo nessuno.

 

Immagine gentilmente concessa da Rahel Jaskow – Rosh HaShanà: il cartello sulla destra accoglie gli uomini in sinagoga, quello a sinistra dice alle donne dove si trovano i loro ingressi separati, dicendo loro di andarsene non appena il servizio di shofar è terminato (anche se il servizio continuerà nella sinagoga) e che dovrebbero andare dritte a casa e non bighellonare nei luoghi pubblici ………….

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

Vayera: arrogance and economic egoism destroy the world. Plus ca change plus c’est le meme chose

L’italiano segue l’inglese

After the stories of Creation of the world at the beginning of the book of Genesis, we experience a number of cataclysmic events. After the flood that destroys almost everything that had been created, with only Noah, his family and representatives of each species saved to begin again we once again have a terrible destruction wreaked on the earth by a despairing God – this time of the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, and according to the Book of Deuteronomy also Admah and Zeboiim, four of the five Cities of the Plain in the Vale of Siddim in the lower Jordan valley/ southern Dead Sea area.. . Only Zoar escaped the terrible fate of sulphurous fire that rained down and destroyed those prosperous cities and everyone in them, so that “the smoke of the land rose like the smoke of a kiln” (19:28)

What really happened in this area known for its vineyards and crops, its prosperous and fertile soil?  We cannot know whether this was a volcanic eruption or an earthquake, but the bible and our later rabbinic traditions are very clear why the cities were destroyed so thoroughly, and without any warning.

Ezekiel is very clear when he warns the kingdom of Judah of the consequences of their behaviour, in the sixth century BCE:  “    Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity; yet she did not support the poor and the needy”. (Ezekiel 16:49)

The Midrash develops this idea, speaking of the citizens of Sodom caring only for the wealthy, and saying that they expelled the poor from their midst, or even killed them.   Midrash Pirkei Eliezer teaches that the denizens of the cities were forbidden by law to aid the poor with food or anything else they might need – on penalty of death. Indeed it says that Lot’s daughter – who had grown up with Abram and Sarai and who therefore had a different set of values – was convicted of giving food to the poor and was executed. Before she died she cried out to God, and this was the sound that prompted God to send the messengers to find out what was happening there.

The sin of Sodom was not that of perverse sexual activities, it was the cold hearted arrogance of ignoring the needs of the other. More than that, it was the active greed for more and more, that meant that anything or anyone in the way of acquiring more was to be got rid of. As the citizens of these cities treated each other, so they would have treated the land. It was to be worked ceaselessly, it had to produce more and more, it was given no respect or honour or care.

That greed, that narrow focus on gain and ever greater productivity, led in the end to the rebellion of the land. One thinks of the earthquakes caused in Lancashire by the fracking for shale gas. Of the dust bowls in America and Canada in the 1930’s when the mechanisation and deep level ploughing of the grasslands destroyed the ecology till the top soil simply blew away in the drought.  The parallels are endless.

Meir Tamari, the economist and business ethicist, calls the sin of the cities of the plain “economic egoism”. We are seeing such behaviour again. The way richer and developed countries feel entitled to plunder those less developed. The destruction and deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. The exploitation of the oceans and the pollution of waste matter we have allowed to build up in the seas. The list goes on. We have more than enough and yet still we want more. We know that whole populations are displaced, that the age old climate patterns are changing, that drought and floods are increasingly common, but our arrogance continues and our world will pay the price.

Like Lot, we are living amongst the arrogance and greed, benefitting from it, but still a nagging voice sits in our head. Lot offered the messengers of God hospitality in a city where this was frowned upon – there was enough of a voice from his past with his uncle Abram to remind him of the importance of hospitality, yet he also gave in to the clamour of the people outside, offering his daughters to them in a horrific show of appeasement or of identification with them. We too often vacillate between the values we espouse and the behaviour we show. And all the time the world gets closer to the cataclysm.

What will it take for us to stop assuming the world belongs to us to do what we like with it, and instead to recognise and nurture the personhood of the land itself? As the extinction rebellion movement, the Fridays for future movement, the environmental personhood movement all grow in power, let’s hope it’s not too late, and that the righteous are not swept away with the wicked in one huge event of fire and brimstone.

Vayera: l’arroganza e l’egoismo economico distruggono il mondo. Più cambia, più è la stessa cosa

Di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 13 novembre 2019

Dopo le storie di Creazione del mondo all’inizio del libro della Genesi, viviamo una serie di eventi catastrofici. Dopo il diluvio che distrugge quasi tutto ciò che era stato creato, salvando solo Noè, la sua famiglia e i rappresentanti di ogni specie per ricominciare, abbiamo nuovamente una terribile distruzione provocata sulla terra da un Dio disperato: questa volta delle città di Sodoma e Gomorra, e, secondo il Libro del Deuteronomio, anche di Admà e Zeboiim, quattro delle cinque Città della Pianura nella Valle di Siddim nella bassa valle della Giordania, la zona del Mar Morto meridionale. Solo Zoar sfuggì al terribile destino del fuoco sulfureo che piovve distruggendo quelle città prospere e tutti quelli che vi abitavano, in modo che “il fumo della terra saliva come il fumo di un forno”. (19:28)

 

Cosa è realmente accaduto in questa zona conosciuta per i suoi vigneti e colture, il suo terreno fertile e fiorente? Non possiamo sapere se si sia verificata un’eruzione vulcanica o un terremoto, ma la Bibbia e le nostre successive tradizioni rabbiniche sono molto chiare sul perché le città siano state distrutte così a fondo e senza alcun preavviso.

 

Ezechiele è molto chiaro quando avverte il regno di Giuda delle conseguenze del loro comportamento, nel sesto secolo a.e.v.: “Questo fu il peccato di Sodoma, tua sorella: l’arroganza, lei e le sue sorelle avevano abbondanza di pane e un tranquillo benessere si impadronì di lei, sì che non posero mano al povero e al misero”. (Ezechiele 16:49)

 

Il Midrash sviluppa questa idea, parlando dei cittadini di Sodoma che si prendono cura solo dei ricchi e dicendo che hanno espulso i poveri da loro, o addirittura li hanno uccisi. Midrash Pirkei Eliezer insegna che agli abitanti delle città era proibito per legge di aiutare i poveri con cibo o qualsiasi altra cosa di cui potessero avere bisogno, pena la morte. In effetti, dice che la figlia di Lot, che era cresciuta con Abram e Sarai e che quindi aveva un diverso insieme di valori, fu condannata per aver dato cibo ai poveri e venne giustiziata. Prima di morire gridò a Dio, e questo fu il suono che spinse Dio a mandare i messaggeri a scoprire cosa stava succedendo lì.

 

Il peccato di Sodoma non era quello delle attività sessuali perverse, era l’arroganza dal cuore freddo di ignorare i bisogni dell’altro. E ancor di più, era l’avidità attiva per cercare di possedere sempre di più, ciò significava che qualsiasi cosa o chiunque potesse ottenere di più doveva essere eliminato. Poiché i cittadini di queste città si trattavano a vicenda in questo modo, così avrebbero trattato la terra. Si doveva lavorare incessantemente, si doveva produrre sempre di più, non veniva dato alcun rispetto, onore o cura.

 

Quell’avidità, quella spasmodica attenzione al guadagno e a una produttività sempre maggiore, portarono infine alla ribellione della terra. Si pensi ai terremoti causati nel Lancashire dal “fracking” per il gas di scisto, alle tempeste di polvere in America e in Canada negli anni ’30, quando la meccanizzazione e l’aratura profonda delle praterie distrussero l’ecosistema fino a che il suolo superficiale fu semplicemente spazzato via nella siccità. I paralleli sono infiniti.

 

Meir Tamari, economista ed esperto di etica aziendale, chiama il peccato delle città della pianura “egoismo economico”. Stiamo vedendo un simile comportamento ancora oggi. Il modo in cui i paesi più ricchi e sviluppati si sentono in diritto di saccheggiare quelli meno sviluppati. La distruzione e la deforestazione della foresta pluviale amazzonica. Lo sfruttamento degli oceani e l’inquinamento da rifiuti che abbiamo permesso si verificasse nei mari. L’elenco continua. Abbiamo più che abbastanza e tuttavia vogliamo ancora di più. Sappiamo che intere popolazioni sono sfollate, che i vecchi schemi climatici stanno cambiando, che la siccità e le alluvioni sono sempre più comuni, ma la nostra arroganza continua e il nostro mondo ne pagherà il prezzo.

 

Come Lot, viviamo tra l’arroganza e l’avidità, beneficiandone, ma nella nostra testa c’è ancora una voce assillante. Lot offrì ai messaggeri di Dio l’ospitalità in una città in cui ciò era malvisto, aveva ancora la voce dei suoi trascorsi con suo zio Abramo a ricordargli l’importanza dell’ospitalità, eppure cedette anche al clamore della gente fuori, offrendo a essa le sue figlie in uno spettacolo orribile di appagamento o di identificazione con lei. Troppo spesso vacilliamo tra i valori che sposiamo e il comportamento che mostriamo. E il mondo si avvicina sempre più al cataclisma.

 

Cosa ci vorrà per smettere di supporre che il mondo ci appartenga per fare ciò che ci piace e invece riconoscere e coltivare la personalità della terra stessa? Mentre il movimento Extinction Rebellion, il movimento dei Friday for Future, il movimento per la personalità giuridica dell’ambiente aumentano il loro potere, speriamo che non sia troppo tardi, e che i giusti non vengano spazzati via con i malvagi in un enorme evento di fuoco e zolfo.

 

 

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

28th Ellul

הַנְשָמָה לָך וְהַגוּף פְעֳלָך חוּסָה עַל עָמָלָך

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Parashat Noach: when we don’t confront catastrophe we enable it; or -we have to stop taking the world for granted if we want it to survive

The stories within parashat Noach are among the most frightening – and the most relevant – ones we could be reading right now.

While the narratives of the Flood and of the Tower of Babel are well known to us, there is another thread we tend to overlook. It is the story of how, when returned to dry land, Noah built a vineyard, made wine and stupefied himself with it so that he exposed himself in his tent, causing one son to see and tell, the other two to carefully cover him without themselves looking at their father in such a humiliating and vulnerable state.

There is a Midrash that is telling about this post diluvian Noah.

“When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said, God, how could you have done this? … God replied, Oh Noah, how different you are from the way Abraham … will be. He will argue with me on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah when I tell him that I plan their destruction… But you, Noah, when I told you I would destroy the entire world, I lingered and delayed, so that you would speak on behalf of the world. But when you knew you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch you. You thought of no one but your family. And now you complain? Then Noah knew that he had sinned” (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Noach).

Noah is introduced to us right at the beginning of the story as “a righteous man in his generation”, and quite rightly the rabbis do not see this as a great compliment. The qualifying phrase “in his generation” makes it clear that his righteousness is relative rather than absolute. So this just about good-enough man is enabled to survive in order to begin the world afresh. But as starts to face the future, he realises all that he had not done, that his selfishness and narrow vision had allowed the great destruction to happen, that it didn’t have to be like this.

Noah, facing the new world, cannot actually face the past and his part in it, nor really can he move on into the future. He just gets stupefyingly, paralytically drunk, and his sons are forced to deal with the consequences. The younger one does not know what to do – Midrash suggests that he actually assaults his naked father as he lies dead to the world – but at the very least he does nothing;  the older ones treat him with more respect, but reading the text one has the feeling that they simply cannot bear to see their father lying there, seeing what he has become. By covering him they are also trying to cover up everything that Noah has symbolises – his passivity, his refusal to engage with the situation God tells him of, his lack of compassion for other living beings, his lack of any timely compassion at all and his inability to deal with the consequences of his own inaction.

Upon waking, Noah curses Canaan, the child of his younger son, and blesses God on behalf of the other two, giving them an approximation of a blessing.

Why? Why curse Canaan, the child of Ham who saw him naked? Why not Ham himself? Noah is passing the pain down the generations, to those who are neither present nor responsible for the destruction. His own drunken misery becomes a curse for some of his descendants.

The truth that Noah doesn’t want to face is that he is in a new world now. A world washed clean of the violence and horror of the past, but also washed away – its resources, its people, and its structures all gone. This is no longer the world of miraculous creation, when God walked among the people in the Garden, and oversaw the perfection of the world. We are now in a world that Nechama Leibowitz described as ‘post miraculous’ a world where suddenly there are obligations – the seven mitzvot of the b’nei Noah are given here, … “It was in this renewed world — the world destined to be our world and not in the earlier, miraculous world — that saw the opening of the gate to the conflict between the values of  tikkun olam (perfection of the world) and Humanity .Avraham, who appears at the end of Parashat Noach is the person who takes upon himself the mission of perfecting the world as Kingdom of God, rather than taking the world for granted as Noach had done”

Noach took the world for granted. When warned by God of what was to happen, he took that for granted too. And when the worst had happened and the world was washed away leaving Noah and his family to begin it once again, he failed to do what was necessary, and it took another ten generations – till that of Abraham, for the relationship between God and human beings to flower once more.

It is interesting to me that this parashah began with the phrase, “These are the descendants of Noah,” yet does not go on to list any people, but rather begins a discussion of Noah’s attributes. One commentator suggests that this teaches us that what a person “leaves behind” in the world is not only children, but also the effects of their deeds.

Noah left behind both of course – everyone in the world is a descendant of this man if the flood story is to be believed, and so everyone is obligated to the mitzvot of b’nei Noach. But he also left behind the effect of his behaviours, deeds both committed and omitted.

Noah did not help to perfect the world. He allowed it to be washed away.  He didn’t appreciate the value of the world at all, focussing only on his own family and his own needs. Only after it was gone was he able to understand what was lost, and even then he was not able to deal with this loss. He curses a part of his family into perpetuity, his descendants go on to build the Tower of Babel in order to in some way find a purpose and meaning in their continued existence, and maybe also to challenge the divine using their newly created technology. So they too are forced to confront catastrophe as they are scattered across the world and left unable to communicate with each other. It takes ten generations, with the emergence of Avraham, for the world to begin to heal itself.

Like Noah we too are facing a time when the world seems to be set on a pathway to destruction: climate change, global heating, over fishing, the rainforest which once covered 14% of the earth’s surface now covers less than 8%, with all the consequences of loss of species that involves, years long droughts and famines.  We can see the warnings of destruction, we know the consequences of what is happening now, yet somehow we walk about in a dream, neither warning each other nor challenging what is happening. We spend our time trying to ensure only that we and our families can be safe, that our houses are weatherproofed, that our pantries are stocked. We are behaving no differently than Noah. And if we give it some thought and project our ideas into the near future, we can see than those who survive this environmental tumult will not have the resources to cope.

It is our job to take the story of Noah seriously – not as a good enough man who was saved from cataclysm because he did what God said without question, but as a man who was at least righteous in his generation, someone who hadn’t completely surrendered to the corruption and destructive activities around him. And we should see the consequences of his inactions too – that the world he allowed his children to inherit was damaged and fragile and took generations to heal.

Pirkei Avot reminds us that Rabbi Tarphon said “We are not obligated to complete the task; neither are we free to abstain from it” (2:21). So how do we begin to address the problem? The answer comes from a number of sources – the most clear being that every small step matters. As Maimonides wrote about Teshuvah, “one should consider the entire world as if it were exactly balanced between acts of righteousness and evil. The very next action you take, therefore, can save or condemn the world

Sukkot: the people, the land, the relationships that connect us

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in Bible, forming a particular cycle of harvest celebrations with Pesach and Shavuot, yet unlike them in the passage in Leviticus which details the festivals, Sukkot is given an extra dimension – it is not only an agricultural celebration but also one that reminds us of the foundational story of our people.  “The fifteenth day of this seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you will keep the feast of the Eternal seven days …And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree (hadar), branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook and rejoice before the Eternal .. You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:34-43

This explicit link to the exodus, to the people’s vulnerability and dependence on God, brings a powerful richness to our celebration. Unlike the Spring/Summer celebrations of Pesach and Shavuot, with hope and new life bursting forth, the autumnal setting of Sukkot brings intimations of the dark, hard winter days ahead, the leafless trees, the sleeping earth, a quasi-death experience. Sukkot comes six months after Pesach, and it builds and develops the themes of that festival. Unlike the intense dramatic ‘high’ of the plagues and our leaving slavery in Egypt that Pesach provides, Sukkot marks the “ordinary and everyday” struggle to stay alive and safe. It reminds us that our freedoms are fragile, that even basic necessities are not automatically given to us, that life is made up of routine hard graft and of effortful striving. And in this quotidian mundane activity, God is also present, even if less obvious to us.

Sukkot is a festival of autumnal abundance in preparation for months of wintertime scarcity. But at the same time it draws our attention to our two most basic frailties, our need for water (for ourselves and our crops) and for shelter.  The sukkah itself represents the fragility of our homes, with the “s’chach” open to the skies even as the abundant fruit is hanging from it, and the arba’a minim shaken as an almost magical ceremonial to bring rain in the right season.

The four components, held together as they are shaken, are a fascinating concatenation of concepts. Biblically mandated, the palm, myrtle, willow and etrog can represent such a complexity of characteristics. One midrash suggests that together they represent the whole community, all of whom have value and are included in the ritual – the hadar fruit, the etrog, has taste (Torah) and aroma (Mitzvot); the palm has tasty fruit but no smell, (ie represents those who have torah but no good deeds); the myrtle leaves smell wonderful but it has no fruit (mitzvot but no torah), and the willow has neither taste nor smell (no torah and no mitzvot). Every community has people with each of these categories. When we pray before God, each person is important.

Another view is that each one represents a different part of the land of Israel- so the palm tree which loves a hot dry climate grows well in desert areas, the myrtle thrives in the cooler mountains regions, the willows grow only near the streams and waterways that flow all year, and the etrog is most comfortable in the lower coastal areas and the valleys. Israel has a series of microclimates, each represented here.

Or one can understand the arba minim to represent our history from Egypt to settlement: so the lulav would represent wandering in the desert, the willow- crossing the Jordan, the myrtle our settling in the mountains and the etrog the establishment of orchards.

And there is also a midrash that the arba’a minim represents each human being – the palm being the spine, the myrtle the eyes, the willow the lips and the etrog the heart, and we come in supplication to God because we understand how fragile our existence truly is.

Whichever symbolism resonates, the core truth is the same. We are in this world together, our survival is not guaranteed, we need to work together and support each other even as we celebrate a plentiful harvest.  We need to be aware of scarcity, that we can all be affected, that only by sharing and by working together can we create a more harmonious world.

Sukkot is given four names in bible: “Chag ha’Asif”[i] – the festival of ingathering; “Chag ha’Sukkot”[ii] – the Festival of Booths; He’Chag[iii] – THE festival; and “Chag l’Adonai”[iv] the Festival of the Eternal. Of these, the third name – the festival par excellence – gives us most pause for thought, for it reminds us that Sukkot is the most important festival.

Why is this? The symbols of the festival remind us that EVERY person in our society is important; each one needs the dignity of their own home and the security of knowing that basic needs will be met; (Talmud Berachot 57b tells us a home of one’s own increases self-esteem and dignity). They remind us that we are all journeying, that while we may have the illusion of a stable rooted existence, the world turns and our fortunes can turn with it. They remind us that we all have responsibility for the environment and for how we treat our world, that damage to our environment and changes to our climate affects us all. They remind us that we are dependent on factors that are beyond our control. Yet with all of this unsettling symbolism, the rabbis call this festival “z’man simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing, based upon the verses in Leviticus.  Why does Sukkot make us so happy, this festival of wandering and of fragility? I think because it reminds us of our human commonality and the power of human community. We are connected to God and we are connected to our land, we are connected to our foundational stories and to our historic experiences, but for any of this to truly matter, we must be connected to each other.

[i] Exodus 23:16; exodus 34:22

[ii] Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16:13,16

[iii] Ezekiel 45, 25, 1 Kings 8, 2, Ezekiel 45, 25 and 2 Chronicles 7, 8

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

(written for the “Judaism in 1000 words” section of Movement for Reform Judaism website)

Tetzaveh:

The interface between God and human beings is fraught with potential both creative and destructive. It is uncharted territory where we wander, sometimes alone and sometimes with companions and while we might pay attention to the stories told by those who have more recently gone before us, our constant and most useful guide is Torah.

Torah teaches us the boundaries others have met, the pathways our predecessors have taken, gives us a glimpse into what we might be looking out for.

To some extent, we could call Torah a manual for those who wish to undertake a spiritual journey. But it is a limited manual. It offers no guarantees about reaching the desired destination, it offers some advice sketches out some road signs and extends the hope that as others have done, then so maybe can I.

This limited manual can be a great comfort, but it also creates many problems for us. We have a desire to know “how to do it”, we want to be told that if we behave in a certain way we will reach such-and-such a place. We often want to have concrete guidelines like all those recipe books and television programmes that state very clearly “if you follow my instructions you will have a perfect cake every time”. Increasingly I am asked how to do something or is something allowed or forbidden, not out of curiosity and a genuine need to explore, but because people are seeing religion as the repository of the skills needed to achieve – or rather they are seeing rabbis and priests as the people who hold the secret and can either open or close the door to God.

There is a second problem in modernity – we have forgotten how religious language works, we are so goal centred we pay too little attention to the process, we have lost understanding of symbolic language and our sensitivity to metaphor and allegory is blunted in our need for certainty. The chain of tradition in which generations told the stories they had heard from their ancestors and fed their descendants with the ‘hiddushim’ the innovations they had found, has been disrupted and dislocated. The multiple varieties of ways to understand the torah text that can be seen in Midrash, in the aggadic texts recorded in Talmud, in the rabbinic commentaries on bible and on each others works – they might be recorded but their meaning is often either misunderstood or completely lost.

I am not talking here about the knowledge of Hebrew – indeed there are certainly many more people fluent in the language alive now than ever before – but rather about the understanding of religious process, of symbols and thought processes and of whole concepts that unspokenly underpinned the midrashic and aggadic texts .

Rather than admit to ourselves that our understanding is weakened, it seems to me that we have created structures that make sense to our modern minds and our need to know the recipes, and we try to ignore or dismiss the rest of our tradition as being archaic or irrelevant or magical thinking.

So how does one get back into the living meaning of Torah in order to be able to delve deeper into our spiritual search and come closer to the God who revealed Godself with such clarity to our ancestors that it seemed they were meeting almost face to face.

One way certainly is through studying the Hebrew text, examining the original words both with and without the overlay of rabbinic commentaries in order to reveal the clusters of meanings that are embedded in those words.

Another way is to personalise the text, to find its echoes resonating within our own souls and to extend the meanings into our own experience.

In traditional rabbinic exegesis, these two methods go hand in hand, creating a dynamic and relevant understanding of Torah, to help us use the ‘guide book’ in our own spiritual journey.

Sidra Tetzaveh is, on the surface, a continuation of the instructions about the Mishkan, the physical structure erected by the Israelites in the desert as a constant symbol and reminder of the presence of God.  There are instructions about the building followed by the details of the priestly garments, the anointing of the priests and the offerings they are to bring.

The challenge is to find the relevance to us – progressive Jews who have given up the special status of the Cohanim, who have a real revulsion against animal sacrifice, who have expunged the prayers for its return and for the return of the Temple with all of its offerings, hierarchies and structures from our prayer books.

The relevance to us can be found once we begin to look past the minutiae of the detail of the ritual and let the text speak to us. We are dealing here with the creation of symbols that speak of the presence of God and of the boundaries that will prevent us from getting too close to a power that could overwhelm us so that we lose our own self. We are looking at creating a conduit, to find ways to relate to God. And this is an age old problem every generation must address.

In Sidra Tetzaveh we see the making of a structure that will operate through time and space, connecting the outer world and the inner one, involving both action and prayer, uniting us as one people while at the same time connecting each one to God. It was a structure for its time, one we can hardly comprehend, yet we continue to read it because it has things to teach us still.

The verse which begins the sidra “v’ata tetzaveh et b’nei Yisrael, v’yikhu elecha shemen zayit zach katit l’maor leha’a lot ner tamid”  You shall command the children of Israel that they will bring pure beaten olive oil for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually” is an important one for us. Each of us has a responsibility to keep alight a ner tamid, a continually burning light. Each of us has the responsibility to do it for ourselves, to keep a spark alive in our own souls and our own lives.

The ner tamid in a synagogue is usually explained as being a symbol of the continuing presence of God, and we have taken the idea of externalising it by having one in every synagogue, hanging over the Ark. A light is kept burning in every synagogue to be an outward sign of the light that is burning in every Jewish soul.

Sometimes the symbolism can take on a new and even painful dimension – I remember hearing a survivor of the Shoah, Hilda Schindler, describe how after Kristallnacht in Berlin she saw the ner tamid of the Fasanenstrasse Synabobe burning brightly on the ground.

There are other symbols in this sidra – the anointing and ordaining of the priesthood whose special task is to take care of the boundaries between the Jews and God, and whose economic and functional dependence on the Israelites only points up their special task rather than diminish it – a task that we now have in our own homes and study houses. There is the focus on the garments of the High Priest, on which we model the clothes for the Sefer Torah, and so once again remind ourselves that people and objects can function at the interface of God and humanity.

Our texts speak in many languages in order to make their meaning available to us. It is improper of us to try to distil down the lessons, to accept that there is only one accepted meaning that is taught by someone else and should not be challenged. The beauty of traditional Judaism and the beauty of contemporary progressive Judaism is that we have refused to join in the process of passively accepting the judgements of others.

My first synagogue President, Mervin Elliot z”l used to say that for us Reform Jews tradition had a vote but not a veto. I liked the pithiness of the language when I first heard it,  but now some thirty years later I appreciate more the acceptance of the past and the willingness to explore the present and the future that is embedded in it.

When we come across texts like those in Tetzaveh we can either treat them like a manual or recipe book, decide that those people who are descendants of the Cohanim must have some special power and role that we cannot decipher, and walk away from the challenges of how we build the bridges and the protective structures whereby we can come close to God in this day and age. Or we can take up the challenge, see a product of its time have something that can speak to us today, transmuted perhaps or extended or even echoed, and create the Judaism that does the same work today that the mishkan and priesthood did in biblical times.  We can remind ourselves that we are supposed to be (as we read only a few chapters earlier) “a nation of priests and a holy nation”. Each of us can take on the role, keep alight the ner tamid in our own places and lives, and find that each of us has something to teach, each of us has something to offer the community, each of us protects and nurtures the spark of divine in the world.

(sermon given 2017 lev chadash)

Terumah – the riddle of the cherubim

“Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover.  Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Testimony that I will give you. There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:16-22)

וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם מִשְּׁנֵ֖י קְצ֥וֹת הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃ וַ֠עֲשֵׂה כְּר֨וּב אֶחָ֤ד מִקָּצָה֙ מִזֶּ֔ה וּכְרוּב־אֶחָ֥ד מִקָּצָ֖ה מִזֶּ֑ה מִן־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת תַּעֲשׂ֥וּ אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֖ים עַל־שְׁנֵ֥י קְצוֹתָֽיו׃ וְהָי֣וּ הַכְּרֻבִים֩ פֹּרְשֵׂ֨י כְנָפַ֜יִם לְמַ֗עְלָה סֹכְכִ֤ים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם֙ עַל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת וּפְנֵיהֶ֖ם אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו אֶל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת יִהְי֖וּ פְּנֵ֥י הַכְּרֻבִֽים׃ וְנָתַתָּ֧ אֶת־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת עַל־הָאָרֹ֖ן מִלְמָ֑עְלָה וְאֶל־הָ֣אָרֹ֔ן תִּתֵּן֙ אֶת־הָ֣עֵדֻ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶתֵּ֖ן אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנוֹעַדְתִּ֣י לְךָ֮ שָׁם֒ וְדִבַּרְתִּ֨י אִתְּךָ֜ מֵעַ֣ל הַכַּפֹּ֗רֶת מִבֵּין֙ שְׁנֵ֣י הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־אֲרֹ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֑ת אֵ֣ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֧ר אֲצַוֶּ֛ה אוֹתְךָ֖ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

I have always loved cherubs. It is a love I inherited from my grandmother who had several decorating her homes.  And I too occasionally add to my own collection of sweet faced plump winged babies.

But the cherubim of bible should not be viewed as these somewhat kitsch figures – we do a great disservice to the text to fall into this cosy view.

We first meet the cherubim in the book of Genesis at the denouement of the second creation story: “God drove the human out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:24 )

וַיְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים וְאֵ֨ת לַ֤הַט הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים׃ (ס)

Their purpose is to prevent the human beings gaining access back into the garden and eating from the tree of life, something that we know will mean humanity acquiring  eternity, a characteristic of the divine that is denied to mortals.

Wherever the cherubim appear we are in sacred space. While the word appears almost a hundred times in the Hebrew bible, we know very little about them except for the fact they were winged. How many wings seems to be unclear – it varies in different descriptions. Sometimes they are clearly representational figures such as in Solomon’s Temple, at other times God flies in the skies, carried by the cherubim.

“In the Shrine he [Solomon]  made two cherubim of olive wood, each 10 cubits high. [One] had a wing measuring 5 cubits and another wing measuring 5 cubits, so that the spread from wingtip to wingtip was 10 cubits;  and the wingspread of the other cherub was also 10 cubits. The two cherubim had the same measurements and proportions:  the height of the one cherub was 10 cubits, and so was that of the other cherub.  He placed the cherubim inside the inner chamber. Since the wings of the cherubim were extended, a wing of the one touched one wall and a wing of the other touched the other wall, while their wings in the centre of the chamber touched each other.  He overlaid the cherubim with gold.”   These are huge figures, over twenty feet high, with matching enormous wingspans, dominating the inner chamber. Yet we know them to be olive wood, representations – but of what? And to what purpose? Will God speak to the people from above them?

The most famous depiction of the cherubim is that of Ezekiel, who was among those sent into exile with the king in 597BCE (see 2K 24:14-16) At a body of water he calls the Nehar Kevar, (the Kevar canal) he has a vision. This canal appears to be the area in Babylonia where the exiled Jews were settled and is separately documented in Akkadian literature. He documents part of his vision thus:

“The cherubs ascended; those were the creatures that I had seen by the Kevar Canal. Whenever the cherubs went, the wheels went beside them; and when the cherubs lifted their wings to ascend from the earth, the wheels did not roll away from their side. When those stood still, these stood still; and when those ascended, these ascended with them, for the spirit of the creature was in them. Then the Presence of the Eternal left the platform of the House and stopped above the cherubs.  And I saw the cherubs lift their wings and rise from the earth, with the wheels beside them as they departed; and they stopped at the entrance of the eastern gate of the House of the Eternal, with the Presence of the God of Israel above them.  They were the same creatures that I had seen below the God of Israel at the Kevar Canal; so now I knew that they were cherubs.” Ezekiel 10:15-20

Now it is well known in ancient near eastern mythologies – and even in later western ones –  that the divine being rides some kind of chariot pulled by some types of mythic beasts, and I am certain that the cherubim of the bible must have their origin within even older mythologies.   But that doesn’t really explain their presence in our sacred space, using their wings in some kind of protective way, guarding the area between God and us – for God is often depicted as being seated above the cherubim (for example Hezekiah’s prayer recorded in the book of Isaiah speaks of God “enthroned above the Cherubim”

There is no sense of the cherubim being in any way angelic or quasi divine in the Hebrew bible, they fulfil no role in bridging the space between us and God. They simply are there, figures beyond which we cannot see or go.  The idea of their being in some way angelic comes in later commentaries , so while both Rashi and Ibn Ezra see nothing angelic in the cherubim, the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 21 suggests that they were beings who were created on the third day, with no definite shape or form, while the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu (10th century) believes them to have been part of the group created before the beginning of our world., Bachya ben Asher  in 14th century Spain also believes they are angels but intriguingly he has a reason – it is important to believe in angels because prophecy can only happen through the mediation of an angel, and given that the God speaks to Moses from above the cherubim, these must logically be angels. There are two of them above the ark, to make clear that they are not the image of the one God.

So while there is much speculation about what the Cherubim might be, their connection to the mythic beasts of other traditions – gryphons or sphinxes, centaurs or Assyrian Lamassu, or the way they may have segued into Judaism from the Akkadian winged bulls the kirubu or the shedim that guarded palaces– the reality is, as is often the case, hidden in the past. So by the time of the Talmud it is clear that no one knew much about the cherubim.  There are several discussions recorded including the one found in Chagigah 13b

“What is the meaning of “cherub”? Rabbi Abbahu said: Like a baby [keravya], for in Babylonia they call a baby ravya. Rav Pappa said to Abaye: However, if that is so, what is the meaning of that which is written: “The first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle”? The face of a cherub is the same as the face of a man; what is the difference between them? He replied: The difference is that the face of a man is referring to a large face, whereas the face of a cherub means the small face of a baby.”

It is from this and other passages that the elision from guardian of the divine mystery to cupid-like plump baby boy has occurred, and we have stopped really asking ourselves about the purpose of the cherubim in the Hebrew bible.

Clearly the cherubim serve God, and clearly too they provide a barrier or boundary between the sacred and the mundane; they prevent us from coming to close to the mystery.

But what do they represent to us? What function do they have? We assume that God does not need the protection the cherubim provide, so are they there to protect us?

There is a wonderful, almost transgressive piece in Talmud about the cherubim and what they were doing.

“Rav Ketina said: When the Jewish people would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another, and say to them: See how you are beloved before God, like the love of a male and female. The two cherubs symbolize the Holy One, Blessed be God, and the Jewish people.” (Yoma 54a)

Throughout the tradition there is a thread which asks – what do the cherubim say to us, what are they symbolising?

Rav Ketina stretches the point of the almost to breaking in order to teach that the two figures which are touching at the wingtips, (and whose spreading wings as described in the Exodus passage above, uses a phrase also used as a euphemism for sex elsewhere in bible).  So he posits that the two figures looking at each other, touching each other, are symbolic of God and Israel, entwined in a relationship of love. (Even more unusual of course is the idea that the people got to see the cherubim but that is for another day.)

Later commentators take up the male-female balance of the cherubim explicated by Rav Ketina and suggest that this is not symbolising God and Israel, but reminding us of the imperative to have children and create the next generation.

There are other suggestions as to what the cherubim might symbolise – different attributes of God, mercy and justice, the importance of contact with the other, teacher and pupil, study partners, the mystical world and the world we can know, the bringing close and the keeping of boundaries…..

The text tells us that the cherubim are shielding the cover of the ark with their outstretched wings and they are facing each other and also looking slightly downwards at the cover. To me it is an image of a partnership of protection and support. There is something enveloping about those wings creating a space within them as they touch each other, rather as an adult holds a baby, or a comforter holds the comforted, or lovers hold each other close. The fact that they are both gazing towards the thing they are holding, and their faces are turned towards each other adds to the sense of intention. These are no guards to keep away the people seeking God, no fearsome bouncers keeping us out of sacred space, but protective and nurturing figures, taking care of a precious object. Rather like their parallel the Sphinx, they pose a riddle for the traveller, a riddle whose answer is firmly human focused.

They are not angels, but they prefigure what will be as religion becomes institutionalised, and we have to ask ourselves how will we nurture the word of God in our time and space? How will we show love? How will we communicate? How will we see the other who is just like us but who is not us? How will we protect the sacred and yet allow the word of God to come into the world?

The questions implied and threaded through the appearance of the cherubim almost one hundred times in our bible are questions that challenge us. They ask how God is brought into our world, and each one of us is part of the answer.