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

 

 

 

Tetzaveh: the flames that ascend on their own

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

For those of us who enjoy parsing bible, this very first verse of the sidra gives us a rich seam of learning. God is instructing Moses on what will happen inside the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle used for worship in the wilderness years. The sidra gives us elaborately detailed instructions for the clothing of the priests, and about the ceremony of ordination in which they will be dedicated to the service of God. The purpose of the clothes and the rituals are made clear – it is to make the priests holy.

The holiness of biblical times was not the abstract quality we think of it today, it was for them an important state of being for those who were to approach God. Holiness could be acquired through ritual and clothing, washing and the abstention from some actions, people and places. Holiness was a quality which was necessary for those who wished to serve God in the rituals of worship, as it would somehow protect them from what was understood to be a potentially dangerous and certainly unknowable presence of God.

So we have verse after verse of what they wore and when and how they wore it, what they washed and what they daubed in blood; what they ate and when and in what condition, what they slaughtered and what they sprinkled, what they burned and what they waved.

Reading it one can easily fall into a modern-minded trap of wondering how on earth they could believe that this ritual of sacrifice and incense brought people closer to God – but I think the clue is in the very first line I quoted – this is not for God, it was never for God, this is for the people.

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

Rabbinic commentators noticed two surprising words in this verse.

The first being that the oil that is being brought to light the lamps in the Mishkan – and to symbolise the eternal relationship between God and people – is brought not for (or to) God but Alecha – for you. The midrash is clear (Lev Rabbah 31:8) when it tells us that God already has the sun as a servant, there is already fire in the world so God does not need the light that we have burning in the Mishkan. God does not need it, we do. Bringing the olive oil into the Mishkan is an action only for our benefit; it is a way to come closer to God, a way to create relationship with the Eternal. The Midrash tells us that God gives us the mitzvot as a way to let us have as many opportunities as possible to come closer to relationship with God, even in the smallest and insignificant actions of our lives – such as providing olive oil for a lamp.

There is a second curiosity in this verse. The verb used to describe kindling the light is not the normal one for lighting a flame – lehadlik – but instead the bible talks of le’ha’alot Ner Tamid – to cause to ascend a light continually.

In the Talmud are two ideas about this verb and what we can learn from it. Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sukkah 29b) deduced that the unusual word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, literally “to cause to ascend,” meant that the wick had to allow the flame to ascend by itself. And thus the Rabbis concluded that no material other than flax — as in the fine linen of the High Priest’s clothing — would allow the flame to ascend by itself. Similarly, in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21a) Rami bar Hama deduced from the use of word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, that the flame had to ascend by itself, and not through other means (such as adjustment by the priests).

Taking these comments and in particular the idea that the flame should ascend on its own, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the famous nineteenth century founder of the school of “Torah im Derech Eretz” orthodoxy which negotiates the  relationship between traditionally observant Judaism and the modern world, wrote that “the description of the act of kindling a lamp by the term ‘ascending’ is peculiar to the service of the lamp in the sanctuary. It alludes to the action of the priest in applying the flame to the wick which is ready to be kindled until the flame ascends of its own”. The task of the teacher of Judaism is to make themselves superfluous to their pupils. It is not their function to keep the people – the ones who receive instruction from the teacher – continually dependent on them”

The statement is a beautiful distillation of what Jewish education – formal and informal – should be aiming for. That we want our children (and of course our adults) to be themselves ‘flames which ascend on their own’. The goal of Jewish community is that individually and collectively we gain the knowledge and the confidence and the inspiration to live active and thoughtful Jewish lives, that each of us is able to stand up and be a light in the world, living with Jewish values and ethics, striking out for righteousness.

There is an idiom in the English language – to pass the torch – and this is, to some extent what all of us in the Jewish world hope to be doing within our communities. However this sidra reminds us that we are not passing the torch on in order to relinquish our responsibilities, but rather that we nurture the flame of learning and identity of the next generation with our own learning and experience.

The image of Aaron each and every day nurturing a flame in order to have it stand upright and unaided, giving light through the darkness is an image that appeals to me and speaks to me of how we have kept our traditions and our teachings alive through the generations.

candles

Parashat Emor: the importance of knowing our boundaries.

And the Eternal said to Moses: Speak to the priests the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for the dead among his people”(Leviticus 21:1)

Judaism likes the idea of boundaries and separations, of creating different categories in order for the world to work properly. From the moment the Torah narrative begins with the chaos of primeval creation, God first creates the earth and the heavens and then begins to separate everything out – light from darkness, dry land from the sea, the firmaments from the earth, day from night.   The psalmist tells us that God gave the earth to people to live on, while the heavens belong to God. They are different and separate domains.

Biblically the Jewish people were divided into the Levitical priesthood (descendants of the tribe of Levi) and the rest of the Israelites; and the Levitical priesthood itself was divided into the Cohanim (the priests who were direct descendants of Aaron), and the Levi’im – the priests whose work was to service the Cohanim in their duties. Different and separate domains.

Creating categories and boundaries is what we do. We filter and we sort, we include and exclude, we oblige and prohibit.

In the case of the priesthood there are rules which separate them from the rest of the Jewish people. So, for example, even today someone whose family tradition is that they are Kohen will avoid going too close to a dead body – Jewish cemeteries will have rooms and paths to allow the Kohanim to approach in an halachically acceptable way. Whatever we Reform Jews may think about the division amongst the Jewish people which still puts an extra load on the families of the Levitical priesthood, (the Reform response takes into account both the reality that whatever you may believe about your family the hereditary priesthood cannot be a status you can be certain about; and also has moved away from laws specifically to enable Temple ritual, so given that there are substantial disabilities in Jewish law for people identified as Cohanim, we have decided that this category is no longer of importance to us and have effectively removed this particular boundary), we are aware of its ramifications.

 Why must a priest not come into contact with a dead body? It may be a matter of chukkat ha’goy, of copying and assimilating the traditions of the people with whom we live until we are indistinguishable from them, blurring the boundaries of our identity. Egypt we know had a cult of death, with huge tombs and sarcophagi in which the embalmed bodies of the dead were prepared for the afterlife. The rich would stay rich; the poor would stay poor even after death. Torah most certainly is reacting to some of this cult as it reacts to many of the practices of the people amongst whom the Israelites were living. Our whole imperative rejects the cult of death for the cult of life and living, with Moses reminding us in parashat Nitzavim to “Choose Life”.

It may be that the ritual impurity is less to do with the problem of being in a fit state to offer a Temple sacrifice as keeping in a fit state a very important boundary. The separation boundary between life and death is the most powerful that we experience and it must be kept as tight and impermeable as possible. The verse that ended last week’s portion Kedoshim, (Lev 20:27) reminds us “a man or a woman that divines by a ghost or a familiar spirit shall surely be put to death… their blood shall be upon them”

We must keep our focus on this life, in this world. We must pay attention to how we live here and now, rather than make assumptions about, or even try to make forays into, whatever exists outside of our own domain.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of operating within our own world, and within our own time. It contains the laws around sanctifying time – the festivals are given within this sidra, Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. All of these not only set aside time for particular worship, they also remind us of the boundaries of nature, the limits of our behaviour, the importance of stopping the everyday and mundane and remembering the reason for our being.

We are known as an Am Kadosh – often translated as a holy people. But Kedushah is not about holiness in the sense that we are specially sacred and righteous and blessed. We are an Am Kadosh because we follow the rules of Kedushah – of separating out and making (and keeping) boundaries. The root of the word k’d’sh means to make different or separate – hence when we marry (Kiddushin) we make that relationship a different one, we separate our partner for a unique relationship. When we think about our dietary habits, eat certain foods and not eat others, separate milk and meat products and so on, we are forcing ourselves to think about what we consume, rather than mindlessly devouring anything presented to us. When we give a proportion of our income to help others as a matter of principle rather than viewing all our income as being rightfully only to be spent on ourselves; When we choose not to automatically adopt the customs of the surrounding culture but to think about our own identity and absorb the best of what we see around us BECAUSE it is the best of what we see; When we keep in place these boundaries we may find we are able to negotiate the world with more clarity. I am not suggesting that we pull down the defences in order to protect any notional purity or to keep out the modern world, but that knowing who we are and in what area we should focus our energies will give us a greater chance in partnering with God in the work of completing the creation.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of knowing our boundaries. It reminds us that to be Kedoshim – the imperative of last week’s sidra – we have to clarify our context and so to understand it and be able to work within it.

Not Kohens nor Levites, but all the people are holy

It is shocking to read in sidra emor about the particular physical qualifications which must be met by the hereditary priesthood, in particular the restrictions which the bible describes in this week’s sidra. “No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lords offerings by fire.” we are told, “he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Eternal have sanctified them”

The defects are described in the text – blindness, lameness, hunchback, cataracts – all of them physical and external, all of them beyond the control of the individual. Indeed we are told in later rabbinic commentary (on Bechorot 45a) that an internal defect does not disqualify one from priestly service, only external defects do this.

The priests were a group apart, their status protected and hedged around with strict regulations. They could not touch a dead body except that of an immediate blood relative. They could not shave their heads nor cut the sides of their beards. They could not marry a divorced woman- their wives had to be above any suspicion and come from families that also were seen to be pure. In return for their work in the Temple service they were given special privileges and obligations. To this day in Orthodox Judaism the person who considers themselves to be of a priestly family is called to the Torah reading first, is privileged to do the duchenan (the priestly blessing) on festival days, and will perform pidyon haben – the ritual of release of the firstborn son. Reform Judaism does not make such people more special than others in the community. We do not aspire to a third Temple so the role of priest/ Kohen, is defunct. The disbenefits for a Kohen are real, and can complicate their lives, which, given the reality that we have no real way of knowing who is actually a descendent of the Aaronide family can cause problems that do not need to be caused, and anyway Reform Judaism understands that religious leadership is no longer in the hands of the hereditary priesthood, but has passed into the hands of rabbis and scholars and is now embedded in Rabbinic Judaism.  

It is often a surprise to Jews from a traditional orthodox background to find that we do not accord any special privileges to the Cohens and the Levites in our services; that we have no difficulty with them attending funerals like other Jews; that we perform their marriages to proselytes. It is sometimes a shock to them that we have taken for ourselves the wonderful “priestly blessing” formula, and that we use it at the end of most of our services to invoke the blessing of God on the community on a daily or weekly basis. I have occasionally overheard complaints about what is seen as our lack of respect for the priesthood, yet I do believe that this particular reform was one of the most powerful and significant for us. Far from rejecting our history, I am certain that by making all Jews equal within our liturgical practise we are proclaiming that we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Instead of defining holiness within the confines of the ritual of the Temple service, we are opening it out into the lives of all who are looking for it. By rejecting the notion of a priesthood whose holiness or lack of it is expressed in terms of physical defect or perfection, we are free to become a people whose holiness or lack of it is expressed in more inner terms, in our prayers, our hopes and intentions, our yearnings, as well as in the actions which result from our inner lives.

The priesthood described in the bible is a complex structure designed to contain purity and holiness as it was understood then, and shows, I believe, clear signs of having accepted concepts from outside societies as well as creating new forms and ways of being. The notion that physical perfection was required in anything which came near to the place of the sacrifices was taken on board in the biblical tradition, but that doesn’t mean it was divine, nor that it was right. Today one can argue that we know much more about physical disability and are less afraid of it, But more than having a different approach to disability, we have developed a different approach to holiness. Maimonides tells us that the sacrificial system was a necessary step to the more religiously sophisticated and satisfactory practise of prayer. His argument could be extended to communal holiness – we no longer need a special group of people to be holy on our behalf, the professional liturgists and holders of ritual power. We have graduated from such a need and now the special privileges and obligations are the property of the whole Jewish people. It means that we must all take on the work of attending to God’s service, rather than leave it to the people who were born to it, or who are the heirs presumptive. We all have the job of seeing to it that holiness is part of the practise and the being of the Jewish people, that it is expressed both internally and externally, that we truly work together to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. If we don’t do that now, then we will be, in the words of sidra Emor, “profaning Gods holy places”, for the holy places of God are always found within a community of people.

Tazria Metzorah – bringing back the outcast

As we work our way through the scroll, reading a section a week till we have completed the yearly cycle, there are some sections which cry out in their relevance to the moment, and others with which we struggle to connect with at all.  Tazria-Metzorah is one of the latter.

The book of Leviticus brings us into a world we no longer understand.  Yet we still read about it, and it is important that we do, because it reminds us how ancient our tradition really is, and it brings us into the religious and spiritual world of our early ancestors.  We may find the detailed description of the ritual sacrifice of animals and of wine, oil and flour incomprehensible and off-putting, and the clear concern for the community to create a state of ritual purity in its encounters with God perplexing, but it such texts hold the memory and history of our people and must reveal to us something of what they meant in their time. 

The double portion Tazria-Metzorah is concerned with skin disease.  In particular we learn about the condition ‘tzara’at’ – a collection of skin diseases whose causes were unknown, whose duration was also unknown, but which we know were seen to be contagious and dangerously damaging to the community. 

The impurity brought about by tzara’at had serious consequences.  The sufferer was required to remove themselves from the sanctuary, stay on the periphery of the community and announce to all that they were in a state of ritual impurity. They were to tear their clothes, and to keep their distance from anyone else in the community. They were outcasts.

 While we are given a great deal of quasi medical information about tzara’at – all the signs and symptoms are elucidated in the text with a rather grisly fascination – the Torah is not in fact interested in its medical significance, but instead it cares about the ritual significance of the condition. The people who are to monitor and assess the cases are not the healers but the Cohanim, the priests, who are instructed about recognising the disorder, about declaring the individual ritually impure, and they are also trained how to restore the individual to ritual purity after the disorder has run its course.  This is a matter not of medicine, but of ritual. The priests don’t in any way treat the condition nor do they act as safe guarders against infection for health reasons. Their job is to patrol the borders of ritual purity and impurity, and, most importantly, to create the way back into the community for the one who had been afflicted and marginalised.

The priest conducted an elaborate ritual in order to bring back the sufferer into the community once the skin disease had run its course. This ritual was, as is all good ritual, transformational. The­­­­­­­­­­ rejected person was brought back into the people, their status cleaned up and made as if new. It was as if the priest, by power of the ritual, could conquer the fear of tzara’at embodied by the sufferer, and bring forth a new reality for them.

What is happening right throughout the purity/impurity issues which make up the bulk of the book of Leviticus is not some ancient superstitious magic, nor a primitive acting out of an even more simplistic understanding about God that we are long past.  What is being enshrined in ritual and social structures is a way of dealing with, and including, the frightening randomness of life, the sudden illness or ill fortune, the terrifying closeness of death to life, the way our bodies sometimes seem to be following a plan we know nothing about and would not willingly agree to if we did.  The role of the priests is to mediate in some way, and always to bring the person closer to God, even if there has to be a temporary alienation in order to demonstrate the return. 

The Book of Leviticus sometimes seems to be one of a world no longer relevant – altars and sacrifices, blood and smoke, white spots and red skin, magic and superstition.  But reading it carefully it reveals itself as something else, rather like an optical illusion, another perception makes itself known.  The Book of Leviticus isn’t primarily about the rituals and the spices, the prescriptions and the descriptions of priestly activity – it is first and foremost about what a priest should be, how a leader should behave.  Empowered by their role as leaders of the worshipping community the priests  use that power to create a society where everyone has access to God, everyone is able to be brought into the community.  Because the priest declares a thing to be, so it becomes.  Their job description is to effect ‘korban’ – translated often as ‘sacrifice’ but actually meaning  something about “to draw more closely together.” 

In Leviticus, the priest is the leader who holds the ability to create the community through the ritual system.  Nowadays this is not something we can expect from an hereditary priesthood. So where do we look and who can take on the role to make sure that everyone is included, everyone can overcome disability and disaffection in order to be part of the whole people, to be a valued member of community? We no longer have a prescribed ritual system but we still have the imperative to find ways to bring people from the margins back into our society. The Book of Leviticus still calls to us to find a way to do this holy work – it calls to us. So the question for us now has to be “How will we choose to respond?”