Chol haMoed Pesach: the love affair begins – the view from the harem

During Chol HaMoed Pesach it is traditional to read Shir HaShirim (Shir haShirim), one of the five ‘megillot’ read in synagogues over the year.  Esther is read at Purim for obvious reasons, Ruth at Shavuot, Eicha (Lamentations) at Tisha b’Av, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) at Succot.

While the Midrash Rabbah groups these books together (along with the Five Books of Moses), they were not written at the same time or indeed in the same way, and date from between the 5th and the 12th centuries as far as we can tell.  Purim is predicated on the Book of Esther, Tisha b’Av is clearly connected to Eicha, but the three pilgrimage festivals having their own Megillah is rather more complicated and the links between them somewhat fragile.

So why is Song of Songs read during the festival that commemorates the exodus from Egypt?

It is, quite plainly, a book of love poetry. It describes the story of a Shulamite woman who is passionately in love with a shepherd but is separated from him, having been taken into King Solomon’s harem. In an erotically charged and physically explicit series of poems she remembers the relationship she yearns for, the imagery is bucolic and sensual, using imagery of the field and the vineyards, painting a picture of intense love between two people. In a dialogue structure we hear the voice of the lover describing her and their encounters, lingering on her face, her body, her breasts and thighs and neck, her face, her smell. A third voice, that of narrator or chorus, also appears in the structure and the protagonist occasionally turns to speak to or to give advice to the daughters of Jerusalem.

The book begins with a superscription informing us that this is “Song of Songs which is Solomon’s” and so it is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, a factor which was critical into its acceptance into the biblical canon. But this authorship is unlikely in the extreme. The language shows it to be much later than the Solomonic period – probably 3rd to 1st Century BCE; It has parallels with other love poetry of the region and with Greek poetry and it fits into the genre of women’s poetry for the harem.

Yet it was taken into the biblical canon and treated by the rabbis as an allegory of the love story between Israel and God, with Israel taking the role of the female protagonist and King Solomon standing for God. The book was clearly controversial and only the powerful and passionate defence by Rabbi Akiva in the first century ended the argument. Famously he said” Heaven forbid that anyone in Israel would ever dispute the sacredness of Shir HaShirim for the whole world is not worth the day on which Shir Hashirim was given to Israel;  all of the Writings are kodesh (“holy”) but Shir Hashirim is kodesh kodashim (“holy of holies”).

Quite why he defends it so robustly, or why he plays on the name with the idea of holiness (kodesh kodashim) is left in history, but it has the effect of reframing how we read this book so fully that the voice of the woman is all but muted, the physicality and comfort with her emotions and desires are practically erased, and the book is taken into the men’s domain of ‘holiness’ and of the patriarchal God, and the religiousness of the woman and of women in general is diminished to the point of invisibility.

This is a book that speaks of the power of love through the voice of a woman. It bespeaks young and untested love, the intense first love that nothing ever quite matches again.  One can see why it fits Pesach which happens in the springtime when all the animals and birds are coming out of a long winter and going through their mating rituals prior to settling down. One can see how it fits into the first love of the Exodus from Egypt, when the beloved can change the world for their lover, in this case quite literally. Nothing bad has happened yet, no quarrels, no golden calf, no element of falling short of the mark, the beloved can do no wrong and as yet is untainted by doubt.

Yet having been appropriated for the patriarchal view of covenantal religion it is easy to miss that this book is women’s religious literature, that Solomon is not the desired or the lover, but instead represents a disruption to the older, earlier love that is both more pastoral and more prosaic. Religion in the hands of men created a structure of ritual purity, a hierarchy and a priesthood who ministered in mysterious inner sanctums where no one could see or could enter. Religion in the hands of women was more nature based, more in tune with the rhythms of the body, focused on the creation of new life and the dwindling of energies as life diminishes. It is no accident that there were women in the liminal space at the doorway before the tent of meeting, performing their poetry and songs, welcoming the bringer of the sacrifice and facilitating their leaving the ritual. It is no accident that it is women who mark important events with song – there are more women’s songs in bible than men’s by far. Women from Deborah to Jephthah’s daughter, from Hannah to Miriam, sing across the boundaries of events.

I think that Rabbi Akiva was right when he says that this book is so holy, but probably not for the reasons he gives. It is holy because it records the religious expression of women, it is forthright and unashamed about the physical space that women take up, and while written from an inner world of the harem it reminds the reader that the author is well aware of the outer world and all its gifts. The voice of the woman is equal to that of the man in this book, it is ideal in that it takes us back to the first story of Creation and the simultaneous formation of men and women.  It can bespeak the love affair between God and Israel in the sense that a truly matched couple in love must not have a power dynamic where one is so much greater than the other – in this love affair God enters our world as lover not as sovereign. There is much eye contact and kissing in the poetry, it is a relationship where both participants give and receive equally.

I fear that the book which reflects the spirituality of women has been so reframed and reinterpreted that it is almost heretical to read it in what I believe was its original voice. It seems to be no coincidence that the mangled punning of Shmuel to alter the beautiful phrase from this book “…har’ini et mar’ayich, hashmini et kolech, ki kolech arev umarech naveh” – “show me your countenance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your countenance is pleasant” is made to read instead “kol b’ishah ervah” the voice of a woman is nakedness/sexuality. (BT Berachot 24) and then offered as a proof that women’s voices should not be heard.

Did he choose the verse from the very book of women’s voices singing in public space to try to mute that very voice from discourse as a deliberate act in order to add insult to injury? To assert the patriarchal norms and taking up of all public space for masculine voices in order to silence any other way of worship?  Is this the first attempt in recorded history of mansplaining?

Whatever the process, for a long time the voice of women in religious worship and religious relationship has been quiet, a whisper, the voice of slender silence. Yet there are hints throughout our tradition that the voice is still speaking – the bat kol, literally the daughter of the voice, is a rabbinic term for communication from the divine.

The book ends with a plea for the voice to continue to be heard: “You who dwell n the gardens, the companions listen out for your voice: Cause me to hear it. Make haste my beloved” (8:13,14)

There is another reason that shir hashirim is read on Pesach, the great festival of our liberation, our freedom from oppression, the fulfilled desire of the Israelites to be able to worship their God in their own way – it is a reminder that the voices of women in Judaism are still struggling to be heard, still searching for a space in the discourse, still asserting viewpoints that are seen as less valid or less important or less authoritative. We have not yet achieved our liberation within the Jewish tradition. But our voices will continue to sing, to speak, to shape the world we see and to counter and add counterpoint to the other voices heard so loudly in our tradition.

 

 

 

Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague

My father was the son of Walter, the son of Alice, the daughter of Leah, the daughter of Rosalie, the daughter of Abraham, the son of Gitel, the daughter of Isaac, the son of Jacob, the son of Meir the son of Shmuel, the son of Yehoshua, the son of Rabbi Pinchas Halevy Horowitz, for whom this synagogue is named and grandson of Aharon Meshulam Horowitz it’s founder: my eleventh great grandfather.

So in a strange sort of way, I feel this Rosh Hashanah that I am coming home.

pinkus synagogue pinkus synagogue4

This family link got me to thinking about the roots and connections, and about the nature of Jewish history which in bible is framed within the structure of ‘toledot’ – generations. Judaism has traditionally passed on its defining ideas and ways of being within the family home and within the extended family we call community. The teaching goes from one generation to the next, the identity formed by watching and doing as much as by any formal learning.

( That said, from earliest times the idea of Judaism being a family tradition alone doesn’t really have traction. Abraham and Sarah famously “made souls” in Haran before leaving on God’s instructions ‘Lech Lecha’ – go, leave your ancestral land and go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:5). These souls are understood to be people they had converted to their faith; in other words, birth is only one doorway into Judaism, and the formation of Jews happens in a wider context than family alone.)

So I was thinking about the genealogical line between me and Pinchas Halevy Horowitz, the 13 generations between us, eight of whom were rabbinic families whose history I know only sketchily, and I wondered about what this relationship might mean, how his life fed ultimately into mine. I wondered too about how Judaism had developed in the almost 400 years since his death, what had changed, what had endured. For the truth about Judaism and about families is that they are not monolithic, they do not stay the same and their natural state is of flux and of change.

So if my ur-ancestor Pinchas was sitting here today in the synagogue that bears his name, what would be familiar to him? What would be radically changed? And what would be the golden thread, the Shalshelet haKabbalah, that ties his community to us, the latest in the toledot line?

There is a famous story in the Talmud (Menachot 29b) “Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav said, “When Moses ascended to the heavens, he found the Holy One, sitting and attaching crowns to the letters. He said to God “Sovereign of the Universe! What are you doing? God said to him, “There is one man who will exist after many generations, and Akiva the son of Yosef is his name, he will in the future expound on every crown and crown piles and piles of laws.” Moses said “Sovereign of the Universe! Show him to me.” He said to him, “Turn around.” He went and sat behind the students in Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash, and he did not know what they were talking [about]. He became upset but when he heard the students ask “Our teacher, from where do you learn this?” And heard Akiva answer “It is a law [that was taught] to Moses at Sinai” he calmed down.

This very early Talmudic story sets the rabbinic principle that Judaism evolves, and that what was understood or necessary in one generation was not written in stone. Just as Moses would not understand the teachings of Akiva, so would Pinchas Halevy Horowitz not recognise much of the Judaism of the 21st century.  Yet there is a great deal he would recognise. The great themes of this service have remained the same since the Rosh Hashanah liturgy was instituted and the mussaf service in particular is explicit about the leitmotifs of the festival – Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot – the Coronation of God, the time for both we and God to Remember each other, and the blowing of the Shofar. Essentially, the service we have today stays true to the ancient themes of Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah has a number of different names: it is Yom Teruah, the day of blowing of the shofar; Yom haZikaron, the day for remembrance; Yom haDin, the day for judgement; and less well known it is also Yom haKesseh, the day of concealment. The first three are clear to us, we hear the shofar calling us to attention, and speak of standing before God (and also in our own eyes) in order to judge ourselves. We think back over our lives and our actions in order to be able to put things right where possible. But what is the concealment of which our liturgy speaks when we recite “Tiku ba’chodesh shofar, ba’kesseh l’yom chageinu. Ki chok l’yisrael hu, Mishpat lelohei Yaakov. (Psalm 81:4-5) Sound the shofar at the new moon, at the [Kesseh] concealed time for our feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.”

It would make sense in the poetic structure for Kesseh to be the parallel of Chodesh and mean the new moon, and so the psalmist would be speaking of blowing the shofar when the moon is so new it could barely be seen, Rosh Hashanah is the only festival to be celebrated at the beginning of a month rather than at the full moon or later. But Kesseh is an unusual word to use and so it draws our attention. And suddenly the work of this season becomes clearer, though ironically the clarity we gain shows that the work of the Yamim Noraim is to both make transparent and then to obscure some of our past behaviour.

The core meaning of the word Kesseh is to cover or to conceal; the meaning of Kapparah is also to cover over, to hide or even obliterate. We are in the season of concealment – but who is doing the hiding, what is being concealed, where does it go and to what purpose?

One of my favourite teachings of how Jews do teshuvah, the work of this penitential period is that we do not expect to wash clean all our past actions as if they never existed, and start again as if we were newly born souls. Instead we have time to reflect on our past, to face all the things we did that we wish we had not, and all the things we did not do that we wish we had done, and to own up to them, to accept our own actions. We admit to ourselves under the watchful gaze of God, and we repent – an active behaviour in Jewish law that requires us to try to make good the damage we have done, to ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt, to resolve to change how we will act in the future when faced with the choices again. And then, when we have done all we can to repair our past, we are able to let go of it – not to deny it or to disown it, but to cover it (kapparah) to conceal from view (Kesseh) all the things of which we are ashamed and of which we have repented. We know that if we do this, God too will forgive us, the page will turn on our heavenly record so that a clean sheet shows going forward, although the previous pages of the book remains written, just hidden from view and not holding us back in hopelessness. We are shaped by our past but our future is not distorted because of it.

Reading recently about transitional justice I came across an interview with Vaclav Havel and was struck by the similarities in his views. Speaking of dealing with the political past and its effects, he said “It is important to find the right balance, the right approach, one that would be humane and civilized but would not try to escape from the past. We have to try to face our own past, to name it, to draw conclusions from it, and to bring it before the bar of justice. Yet we must do this honestly and with caution, generosity and imagination. There should be a place for forgiveness wherever there is confession of guilt and repentance.” Transitional Justice: Country Studies v.2: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes: Country Studies…Dec 1996 by Neil J. Kritz

Jewish tradition holds that the work of this season – teshuvah – requires us to bring to mind the harsh realities of our failings, to go through a process that ends with us no longer held back by the pain or the shame or the fear of what we have done, and to move forward in our lives. We leave behind, concealed from view but not forgotten or denied, the actions and inaction that stained our souls, that had imprisoned us. This is what we are doing here today, it is what the Jews of this community were doing when this synagogue was built. While some of the language may have altered and some of the prayers been edited, Rabbi Pinchas Halevy Horowitz would recognise what we are doing were he to join us today. As would those whose names are inscribed on the walls, and all the Jews of the generations between the two. We are joined to them by the liturgy of this day, by the shared understanding of the meaning and work of this season, by the timelessness of the tradition that speaks of repentance and return to God, of forgiveness and of moving on, of not denying the past but not being held captive to its power.

The Jews who came before us are held with us in a chain of tradition, their wisdom and experience passed on through the generations and through the communities which welcome people into Judaism We in modernity will one day pass into history, leaving behind a name, some family stories, some wisdom and some love, maybe some descendants, and hopefully a physical memorial of some kind. On that memorial will no doubt be the acronym also found on the walls of this synagogue over the names of those Prague Jews taken and murdered in the camps  ת’נ’צ’ב’ה  It is taken from a verse in Samuel via the memorial prayer and which speaks of the soul being bound up in the bundle of life, an image rather like an unending piece of fabric or carpet, in which the souls of those who came before are part of the weave, necessary to anchor and to hold the structure which will go on being woven as new souls come into the mix. In this image, the lives of those who came before are an integral part of the fabric of our lives, as our lives will help shape the world of those to come. And this knowledge brings both a sense of rootedness and of responsibility to those who came before and to those who will come after.

For the fabric to be strong, the lives must be connected, and even when one thread physically ends, its existence provides the anchor for the later ones. For that anchor to be solid, there must be regular teshuvah, the reflection and balance, the bringing to mind and naming of what went wrong in order to face it, to learn and understand, to apply compassionate and proper justice, and to bring about a conclusion, an end to the pain or bitterness or anger in order to let go, to cover over and to move on with the weave. Whether that image is about each of our individual lives, or scaled up to the life of a family or of the Jewish people as a whole, the lesson and the work remains the same. We reflect and remember, we admit and repent, we try to repair, we do our best to make good, and then we let go and go out into life ready to write on a new page of our Book of Life.

Our Rosh Hashanah Liturgy quotes not only the psalmist but also Isaiah (65:16-17) who describes God as saying “So that the one who blesses in the earth shall bless by the God of truth; and the one that swears in the earth shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from Mine eyes. For now I create new heavens and a new earth, and the past need not be remembered, nor ever brought to mind. Be glad and rejoice in what I can create.”

The work of remembering, of making transparent, of repenting and repairing and of letting go in order to go move on is holy work. The Kesseh or Kapparah of this season mirrors the divine work of creation. This season is the season of penitence in which we wear white; Yom Kippur a joyful fast rather than a time of misery and gloom. The sound of the shofar reminds us of the work we do alongside God, the concealment and covering of a reasonably resolved past nudges us forward to do the work God expects from us. We are tied into the past and we honour from where we came. We are tied into the future, and in order to help bring about the best one we can, we are here together. As links in the shalshelet haKabbalah, the chain of tradition, the golden thread that brings us close to all who prayed the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, it is our turn to Remember, to Repair, to Repent, and to Return. May all who came before us bless us, and may we in turn be a blessing to those who journey with us and those who come after.

Lag B’omer. A moral tale for election day

Election Day will fall on Lag b’Omer –the thirty third day of the omer period where we count the days between Pesach and Shavuot, between Exodus and Revelation, between Freedom and Purpose.

The period of the counting of the omer is traditionally a quiet and introspective one, a time of semi mourning, although it is not clear for what we are mourning. One tradition says we are mourning the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague because they had not shown enough respect to each other. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the omer, and so this is a day taken out of the mourning period, a day for celebration and bonfires, before we go back into our counting the days till Shavuot. The story does not make sense – why would we mourn those who behaved so badly? Why do we go back into mourning after lag b’omer? But what does make sense is the idea of why God sent the plague – because these students of the celebrated rabbi were disrespectful of each other.

There is a long tradition in seeing the hand of the divine in natural disasters – from the ten plagues in Egypt onwards Jewish teachers have linked what insurers call ‘Acts of God’ to spiritual lessons about God’. Sometimes, as with the story trying to add meaning to the minor festival of Lag b’Omer there is a morality tale that we can understand. When people do not value each other and treat each other with respect, catastrophe can ensue. Indeed we also have the tradition that the fall of Jerusaelm was essentially down to sinat chinam, to the populace hating each other without reason.

But sometimes this tradition gets out of hand. This week after the terrible earthquake in Nepal with thousands of people dead and many thousands more struggling to survive in desperate circumstances, two rabbis chose to make a linkage. One, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi posted approvingly on his Facebook page “All the idol worshiping places in Nepal are now destroyed”. And then The chief of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious court, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, told followers that the earthquake was meant as a lesson to the Jewish people to stop the conversions of people to Judaism done by Government paid rabbis within the IDF (and not under the control of his court)

I guess if we are going to have a habit of interpreting events in the natural world to give us moral lessons from the divinity we are always going to risk those voices who are so sure that their agenda is also God’s agenda come to the fore. And in the days of social media (a facebook page noch) these people will put their ideology across.

It is always difficult to be sure that we hear the authentic voice of God, but there is one sure fire test – if it is harmful to any people or peoples, all of whom our bible reminds us right at the start are created in the image of God, then we can be pretty sure this may be our viewpoint but it isn’t God’s.

We are counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, we are in a strange period of quiet and reflection, we are readying ourselves for Revelation, for meeting with God, for learning what our purpose is to be. We will remember the students of Rabbi Akiva who died, either because they were disrespectful of each other or, in another tradition, because they were rebelling against the harsh Roman Government of the day and fell in a great battle. Maybe both – revolting against a government that did not care about them, and passing on the lack of care to their fellows.

The next few days and weeks will see the election promises recede into the past and real politik take over. But whatever the colour and shape of our new governing body, it behoves them to remember to treat all of us with respect, to remember that we are all valuable human beings and equal before the creator, and that while God may not intervene in a dramatic way to show Divine pleasure or displeasure, there will most certainly be another election and we, the masses of ordinary people, will be able to affirm or dislodge them.

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim: Holiness is not a state to achieve, but a process to live by.

א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדשִׁ֣ים תִּֽהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

Sidra Kedoshim is very familiar to us, echoing as it does the Ten Commandments, and taking the soubriquet “the holiness code”. Reform Jews read it on Yom Kippur as a reminder of what the ethical life would look like. We are aware of its physical and spiritual place in the Torah – it lies at the very centre of the scroll, and in the centre of Kedoshim itself is the golden rule – “love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Eternal”.   This law was quoted by Hillel in the first century, albeit cast into the negative “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”; Rabbi Akiva declared it to be the great principle of the Torah. And many Christians know it through its repetition by Jesus, who called it second only to the commandment to love God.

So when we look at the great commandment which acts as a chorus throughout this sidra –“You shall be Kadosh (Holy) as I the Eternal am Kadosh (Holy) – we tend to immediately think of the great dictum which, if followed, will bring about a better world for us all. Indeed, if we behave towards our neighbour with as much care as we behave towards fulfilling our own needs, we would automatically be living more saintly lives than we do now. But the sidra goes on, and the detail in the second half gives a slightly different flavour to the response ‘Be Kadosh as I the Eternal your God am Kadosh”

It goes on to talk about kilayim – not mixing different kinds or species, be they animal or agricultural. It talks about sha’atnez, not mixing wool and linen together in garments. The laws of Kilayim are elaborated in Talmud which expounds and clarifies the laws of this occasionally strange principle.

It goes on to talk about the prohibition of the fruit of new trees – for three years after a tree is planted its fruit may not be used at all, in the fourth year the fruit is used only for religious celebration, after that, it is permitted to use the fruit of the tree.

And then come a whole lots of individual prohibitions or warnings – don’t eat anything with the blood; don’t practise divination or soothsaying, don’t round of the side growth on your head or your beard, don’t mutilate your flesh or mark yourself in any way. Don’t make your daughter a prostitute. Keep the Sabbath and venerate the sanctuary. Don’t turn to ghosts or familiars. Show deference to the old. Don’t wrong the stranger. Don’t falsify weights or measures.

It is such an odd mix, such a strange set of things for the narrator of the biblical text to be perturbed about. Some of the injunctions are self-evidently good to do, others read to the modern eye as ritual behaviour with no obvious meaning and some superstition implicit within them. What are we to make of not rounding the hair of the head? Or of saving the fruit for 5 years before having the use of it?

The second half of sidra Kedoshim challenges our understanding of what it means to be holy. We are out of the spiritual world and solidly into a more practical one. Holiness becomes less a matter of intention and more a matter of action. Holiness becomes something we do in relation to other people as well as a private matter between ourselves and God.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with holiness. Not simply that I found it hard to achieve in my life, but that put as a spiritual and saintly proposition, it made me feel a bit queasy. Maybe it is my solid and gritty northern upbringing, but the way some forms of piety and piousness are expressed don’t make me feel spiritually uplifted, rather they make me want to kick the individual offering their religiosity in such a way.

It has been a consistent feature of my religious life that the most holy people I encounter are also almost universally the earthiest. I recall a verse of a song by my teacher Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Magonet which affectionately described – some may say lampooned – all the people who had seriously affected his religious growth, called “come and join the cavalcade”. The verse that comes to mind goes something like   “it is not easy to watch the prophet speak. He dribbles on occasion and he’s far too fond of sweets”. I won’t reveal which revered teacher is being described, but I can assure you that, of all the great of his generation, he is certainly the one most able to transmit a sense of the immanent yet transcendent God in such a way that it is almost as if a map of the religious journey is in your hand.

I have a problem with holiness – it seems to have acquired in modern parlance a sort of righteousness, the sanctity and piety of which have suppressed any human odour; it seems not to belong to ordinary life, but to the extraordinary and spiritually chaste living of the favoured few. But that is truly not what Jewish holiness is about – for the Jewish mind the act of holiness is one that we do, and we are made holy by our actions – think of all those blessings which begin with the formula – Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, – Who makes us kadosh (holy) by the obligations to do that God puts upon us.   Look at some of the injunctions in Kedoshim – they are about trying to avoid crossing the sort of boundaries which are in place to protect the vulnerable, or to provide some self discipline, or to prevent us falling into a world view of chaos and randomness that would sap the spiritual yearning from the most determined of us.

The bible has a truly blunt and honest view of human behaviour. It doesn’t expect people to be angels – indeed it is well aware that, while made in God’s image, human beings have potentially everything of God’s image within us – we have the potential to do great evil as well as great good.   We have the potential to do nothing for vast stretches of time and by our inactivity to let evil flourish. The bible sees that people, by nature, often behave selfishly, or thoughtlessly. We face the reality that the bible wouldn’t waste time legislating against things that people would never think of doing, or, having thought of them, do. So the lists of prohibitions gives us a fascinating insight into what some people at least, got up to, and we are able to recognise ourselves in the categories of behaviour if not in the particulars. How many of us take our agriculture and food chain for granted, not caring how a crop was grown, what conditions the labourers in the field worked under, what chemicals were used, what the effect on the environment might have been. How many of us care about how the crops were harvested and transported? Yet here in Leviticus there are indicators about what is important – that the crop should be planted thoughtfully, that the harvest is not ours alone, but in some way is also the creation of system we have no power over. And how many of us practise some form of superstitious magic to gain some control over our worlds – maybe not divination or soothsaying any more, but certainly ways in which we try to ascertain the future so as to be able to feel in control. We might not believe in horoscopes or astrological charts, but we derive some obscure comfort from them too often to be able to admit to them having no effect whatsoever. The abdicating of responsibility and the expectation that others will look after us – or not – is one that is ingrained in many of us, usually without the concomitant expectation that we must do our bit to take care of the more vulnerable aspects of the world.

The biblical kedushah is an amazing concept. It is a recognition of our frailty and our vulnerability, of our self centredness and our fear of the world. And it says – this is who we are, and we are going to build on and use these fault lines to strengthen ourselves. Rav Kook too talks a great deal about holiness, and his premise that the more damaged (the more knots we have in his terms), the more complex and convoluted our personalities, the more we have the potential to become something different and holy – as we work through our faults, so we become more experienced about the world, more compassionate about others, more honest about possibilities.

Holiness is not an unachievable goal, nor is it reserved for the good guys who never do anything really wrong. It is the inevitable result of our struggling with ourselves honestly, of our getting to know who we are and making real efforts to adapt that knowledge into the real world. There is nothing other-worldly about the Jewish concept of holiness, nothing necessarily spiritual or ethereal. Holiness is the outcome of our living in the world, of our focusing on the present and being aware of our behaviour and the impact it might have. It is the result of honest dealings and honest struggle. When Jacob met the angelic figure at the Ford of Jabok and struggling all night was permanently wounded in his groin, the supernatural figure blessed him and changed his name to Israel, saying he was one who had struggled with God and prevailed. Yet immediately the name Jacob is used again, as he tries to slide his family past his brother without effecting the reconciliation his brother so wanted. The name Jacob is used interchangeably with the name Israel for the rest of his life. Jacob isn’t any more holy for the experience, just wiser and more thoughtful and occasionally more tuned in to the right behaviour. I take comfort from that double use of name, because it tells me something that makes sense for me. Holiness is not a state to achieve; it is a choice to make every minute of the day, a process which we follow again and again, sometimes taking the holy way, sometimes not. It is in the struggle that we encounter God, that we become a little more what we could be.   We grow in holiness with every encounter, but we remain rooted in the world. And that is the way life should be.

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

deuteronomy scroll qumran2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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