Shofetim: authority cannot be taken it must be given, so stop the bullies and stand up for diversity in the Jewish world and beyond

“This parashah, more than any other in Deuteronomy, is concerned with what we would call authority: rightful action in a world full of wrongdoing; power that is right and not merely effective; rule by those who have a right to rule. A parade of authorities is delineated, starting with the word that opens the parashah and gives it its name—magistrates—and followed by officials, judges, priests, prophets, elders, kings, and, of course, the immediate and ultimate authors of the book who are the sources of its authority: Moses and God. We need authority desperately, the Torah teaches, because our very lives depend upon doing what is right—and that is difficult for us.” (Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor, JTS. 2011)

I have been thinking about the whole idea of authority recently. Defined in dictionaries as being the ability to make decisions, to have power and control politically or administratively, to give orders and to enforce obedience, authority has a different meaning in Judaism – or at least it used to have.

Authority was always multifaceted – there were different groups who could wield only one part of the whole – the monarchy, the priesthood and the prophets all held authority, and in biblical times they kept each other in check.   The most dangerous of these was generally held to be the monarchy, God had not wanted the Jewish people to have a monarch at all, but acceded to the request in the book of Samuel after Samuel had warned the Israelites of how a king would exploit them if they insisted on having one but “Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No, but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles’. (I Sam. 8:11-21).. and so began the unhappy monarchy of King Saul.

In Judges 9:7-21 we have the mashal of Jotam, a story that is sometimes told on Tu B’Shevat and reads a bit like a fairy story, but is in reality a biting allegory against monarchy:
Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon is the only one left alive after his older brother Abimelech has murdered all the other brothers and anointed himself as king. He escapes to Mount Gerizim, near Shechem and recounts the story of “the trees who went forth to anoint a king over them.”

The trees first ask the olive tree to be their king, but it refuses. “Should I give up my oil which honours God and people, in order to have power over trees?” The trees then ask the fig, and then the vine, both of which turn down the offer of sovereignty over the trees because they are already producing good fruits which honour God and people and each tree repeats the idea that they cannot do the good work they already do in producing fruits/oils/wines which benefit society at the same time as holding the monarchy.

Finally the trees ask the Atad – a bramble or thorn bush – to be their monarch  and this plant which produces nothing and has nothing to offer society except some shade, agrees to reign – and at the same time it issues a threat: ‘If you really want to anoint me sovereign over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the Atad and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’ (Judges 9:15).

The Atad is a thorny tree, its shade is patchy, it has a wide ranging root system which drains the water and nourishment from the soil around it. It produces no fruits and has no benefits whatsoever to anyone else, though it is well adapted to survival in difficult terrain.

The allegory is clear in its context – the good people either do not want to be sovereign because they are already contributing greatly to society and this would suffer, or they see no point in acquiring a pointless status. The thorny unpleasant and selfish person/plant not only accepts the power with alacrity, but begins its reign with bullying and threats in order to keep the power.  Abimelech is the thorn in the context of the parable, but we see so many who take over power undeservedly or with bullying in our own world.

Leaving aside the current world political situation where leaders who are Atadim are grabbing power and manipulating and bullying others, I was thinking of our own Jewish world, where the mansplaining, the power grabbing over women’s bodies and voices, the conferences on women’s health or activities which are led by men, the advertising or even news stories where pictures of women have been edited out or the women completely disappeared – these are the Atadim grabbing power they should not have, and certainly there needs to be other power bases who can challenge and contain them, as in the biblical model of the three separate strands of authority.

Who will challenge them? There is “Flatbush Girl” who photoshops pictures from the frum community, there is the hashtag #frumwomenhavefaces ; there are Women of the Wall at the Kotel and there is attorney Batya Kahana-Dror—who petitioned the high court and is currently vying for the position of Rabbinical Courts director, and these all do good work. But where are the voices from the rest of the Jewish world? Where are the people challenging the Israeli Government demanding equality for all the citizens, male and female, Jewish and non-Jewish, as the declaration of Independence proclaims. Where are those people who can promote and defend a halachic system that is multifaceted and diverse?

The problem is with the word “authority” which has come to mean a singular, all powerful monopoly that cannot be challenged and that does not need to explain itself.

This is a modern phenomenon. Heck, even I am older than it, I can still remember the norm of rabbis being independent thinkers, of different regions having different and equally valid customs and practises, of vibrancy and creativity and innovation in the responsa literature. Now I meet people whose only approach is that that someone else told them the line they are taking and it cannot possibly be challenged.

Authority ultimately is seen as coming from God. We have in Talmud a series of blessings upon seeing leaders – In Berachot 58a we read :

The Rabbis taught: ‘On seeing sages of Israel one should say: “Blessed be the one who has imparted  wisdom to them that have awe of God.”

‘[On seeing] sages of other nations, one says: “Blessed be the one who has given wisdom to flesh and blood.”

‘On seeing kings of Israel, one says: “Blessed be the one who has imparted  glory to them that have awe of God.”

‘[On seeing] kings of other nations, one says: “Blessed be the one who has given glory to flesh and blood.”‘

It is clear from this that the wisdom and the glory that leaders have are divinely given, and in the context of Jewish leadership there is a relationship of awe and perspective between the human beings and God.   It is also clear that leadership exists in a number of different contexts and that different populations have different and valid leaderships. And it is abundantly clear that each leader must make of their leadership what they can, from their own skills, creativity and perceptions and that each is only a Jewish leader if they are not out for themselves but out to increase God in the world.

Sadly we seem increasingly in the orthodox world to have leaders who are more thorn bush than cedars, whose fruits are only about increasing their power and control over others and not about honouring God and people or about developing a thriving society where everyone can take part. Whether it be newspapers editing women’s faces (or whole selves) out of photographs, so that even Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton have disappeared from recorded images, or adverts where apparently men only households eat the cereal or whatever is being advertised, or women being refused access to work positions, or women not being allowed to sing…… this is getting more and more ridiculous and the parable of Jotam increasingly relevant. We don’t need a centralised leadership in Judaism and up till now we have never had one. We don’t need the people who want to be powerful to take power over us – indeed we want them NOT to have access to the levers of power. And if we are stuck in a position like Yotam where it is happening anyway, then we must protest, we must raise our voices and say “not in my name” and most of all we must mistrust anyone who claims to have this authority and be clear that we are not about to cede it to them.

Authority ultimately must be consensus driven and agreed or it is bullying and oppression. And any threats from the Atad claiming their power or else there will be trouble must be faced and faced down.  We have history and authenticity on our side, let’s take our own authority too

#frumwomenhave faces #allwomenhavefaces #maleandfemalecreatedequal #halachahisdiverse

 

 

 

Musings – what other foods might we put onto a seder plate?

It is becoming common now to have an alternative seder plate with foods to remind us about the importance of the festival themes. So there is an orange to represent the alienated and isolated Jews, be they women, gay, transgender… There is the olive to remind us of the need for peace in the world, and specifically the need to make peace between the Israeli and Palestinian inhabitants of the Land. There is the fairtraid cocoa bean and also the tomato, to remind us of the modern slavery endured by others in order that we have such products cheaply… There is the cup of water filled for Miriam the prophetess who is credited with providing water in the desert.

Image I was asked last year what else I might choose to put on a seder plate, and here is my response:

I would choose a pomegranate to be on my Seder plate as a reminder of the many different strands of my Judaism and the fact that I am free to have a complex layered understanding of tradition. The pomegranate is one of the seven species the bible tells us about growing in the land of Israel, (the shivat haminim), fruits which are traditionally eaten on Sukkot, a full half year from Pesach, a reminder of the connection to the Land to which I remain spiritually attached. It was said to be one of the fruits brought back by the spies to demonstrate the fertility of the land – a tempting luscious fruit that can only be eaten sensually, as Song of Songs reminds us.

Tradition tells us that a pomegranate has 613 seeds – equivalent to the mitzvot, and I particularly like the chutzpah of such a statement and that fact that we remember it while knowing that it is not remotely true. I like that the mitzvot are likened to the jewelled seeds, and the implication of richness and nourishment within them, while remembering the hard pip within each seed that can be both irritation and pleasure, and that can stay with one long after the juicy flesh has been taken. And I like the way that pomegranates are so useful in so many ways – as health food, as astringent, as spice and decoration, as traditional remedy for any number of ailments right through the body, as drink and paste and marinade. It prompts me to think of the multi-faceted ways Judaism is expressed, from the traditional covenantal relationship and discipline of mitzvot, to the loose warmth of ‘kitchen Judaism’ as people respond to the remembered smells of the different festival foods though the year.

Bible tells us that Aaron wore a special garment as high priest, and it was decorated with alternate bells and pomegranates on the hem, so that when he moved the sounds of these objects clashing would be heard and people would know he would be safe – indeed the bible is starkly clear – “so that he will not die”. This brings me from the sacrificial system of Biblical Judaism right into the modern world of Jewish community – people will pay attention to how others are, particularly those who are vulnerable. They will notice if they haven’t seen or heard them, and do something so that their lives are sustained and preserved. The pomegranate is the standard bearer for communication in community.

Another tradition tells us that the forbidden fruit eaten by Eve in Eden was not the apple (a later pun on the Latin ‘malum’ to mean both bad and apple) but the pomegranate. If it is truly the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it would be a potent reminder at Seder that we have choices in what we do, a freedom in our lives with consequent responsibilities. We cannot accuse others for our not having achieved what we know we should have, or take refuge in the modern day ‘slavery’ to routine. The pomegranate would challenge us –“know what is important, do what is right”.

A pomegranate is similar in shape to a grenade (indeed its name in both English and Hebrew reflects this) and so it would be a salutary reminder that even that which is beautiful and health giving could easily become dangerous and destructive in the wrong circumstances, another warning on the Seder table to remind us that our Judaism can either sustain us in living well or in living selfishly and without care or thought for the other among whom we live. Choose Life! says the bible, but both blessing and curse are set before us and it is our freedom to decide which way to go.

And finally – the best way to eat a pomegranate is to cut it into two pieces, turn each upside down in one hand and hit it with a wooden spoon so that the seeds fall into a waiting container. A satisfying if difficult thing to do well, a metaphor for much of the Jewish world one might think. But the best bit comes last – once the Seder is over and a home must be found for the objects on the Seder plate, to eat a wonderful juicy fresh pomegranate must be the best end to the ritual I can think of!