Tzav- we need to understand commandedness through the lens of both halacha and aggadah or we will miss the point completely

Sermon given 2018 Lev Chadash Milano

Every so often the Jewish world erupts into a debate about authenticity and flung into the mix are accusations about what Torah is, what mitzvot are, and who has the right to decide.

In parashat Tzav we find God telling Moses “Command Aaron  and his sons to do these rituals”  There follows a description of the five sacrifices the priests are to perform, the limits to the acceptable consumption of the meat of the sacrifices, and the details about how Aaron and his sons were to be prepared for ordination as priests.

The power of that imperative “Tzav!” which introduces the details of the ritual reverberates across the centuries.  To this day Jews view ourselves as commanded, and Rabbinic Judaism has grounded itself on the Halachah of mitzvot, what they are and how to do them, while Jewish theology and the meaning of WHY we live in this way, essentially remains in the area of aggadah.

It is the tension between these two ways of ‘being Jewish” that causes us so many problems. For Eugene Borowitz, possibly the most influential Reform Jewish thinker, “While Halachah seeks to define just what constitutes one’s obligation, the aggadah often attempts to supply the theological and historical foundation of Jewish duty” or as AJ Heschel formulated it, Halacha becomes Jewish behaviour while the motivation for these behaviours is aggadah.

How we approach God is important, and to know that there is more than one way to do this within Judaism, offers a validity to what we know Judaism to be – a variety of ways in which to be authentically Jewish, rather than a doctrinal or behavioural “orthodoxy” which itself creates heresy.

Halacha gives form and structure, provides a system for us to live and work within. Aggadah  is harder to define, but must express our limitless striving to relate to God in the world.  Essentially Halacha – and the system of mitzvot that Rabbinic Judaism cherishes – prescribes for us how to behave in the world while Aggadah helps us formulate our aspirations for what life is about, helps give meaning to our existence, and inspires us to continue the search for relationship with God.

The Rabbinic Judaism within whose system we all now function began as a wonderfully dynamic melding of both halachic and aggadic discourse. Talmud is its apotheosis.  Within Talmud there is very little interest in proclaiming what the halachah actually is, and indeed any such ruling is hardly ever found. Instead we have a variety of opinions recorded, debated, refuted or supported with biblical verses or teachings from either inside or outside the text of the Talmud itself, and this rich raw material becomes the foundation of how Judaism could develop.  Halachah and aggadah coexist in this system, each informing and enriching the other, providing balance and dynamism.   The two systems probably only begin to diverge in the Geonic Period (c600 – 1000 CE) and with the codifying of the Oral Torah we find that the system of halachah and mitzvot becomes rigid and stultifies, while the creative emotive and wide-ranging  aggadic system often gets relegated to a less important status. Yet, as Heschel wrote: ”To maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of halachah is as erroneous as to maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of aggadah. The interrelationship of halachah and aggadah is the very heart of Judaism. Halachah without aggadah is dead, aggadah without halachah is wild.”

We Jews see ourselves as a commanded and covenanted people, a people who perform mitzvot, who follow the directives of God with whom we are in a covenant of obligation. Yet we cannot quite agree on the Who is doing the commanding, nor what the commandments actually are, let alone how we must carry them out authentically.

Is the commander the God of Torah – and if so, which of God’s commands in bible are even applicable to us, let alone take precedence? Is the commander the God of later literature, of the Nevi’im, the Prophetic books and the Ketuvim (Writings)?   Is the Commander the Voice of God we discern in our lives and through our experiences? Is it the Voice of our tradition and history, the chain of which we are but one generational link? Is the voice emanating from our modern ethical understanding of the world? There are as many answers are there are Jews formulating them – in the words of Leonard Cohen in “Who by Fire”, a treatment of the famous Rosh Hashanah prayer:  “And who shall I say is calling?”

Yet that word follows us – Tzav!  We are a commanded and covenanted people.

How are we to understand it?  Mitzvah is not “the law” – or at least it is only one of ten biblical terms used to describe regulation of the people. There are also “din” “tzedakah” “davar” “mishmeret” “torah” “Mishpat” “chok”  “edut”  “ot” in bible, terms often used interchangeably in the biblical text, reminding us that the guidelines come in various ways and are just that – guidelines. Even the word “halachah” comes from the root lalechet – to go or to walk, and Torah is related to the word for parents – the people who guide us and help us become our best selves.

Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, the great scholar and 1st-2nd century Tanna (the early generation of teacher) developed the idea that the language of Torah is divinely revealed, so that there was semantic significance, or at least midrashic potential, to every word and every letter in the Torah – nothing in it was a mistake or an addition, the document was in every sense divine. His slightly younger peer, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha took a different view – he said that the Torah speaks to human beings in human language, with repetitions and metaphor and so on.  The views of both continued into the development of Judaism, yet it seems that Rabbi Akiva’s view took the ascendant over time, and that while Yishmael developed principles for understanding the divine intention, the notion of “Torah miSinai” hardened over time into what people generally take it to mean today – that everything from Torah to rabbinic teshuvot today were revealed to Moses at Sinai

The origin of this idea can be found not in Torah but in Talmud: “Rabbi Levi bar Hama said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said “ God said to Moses: Ascend to me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets and the Torah and the mitzvah that I have written that you may teach them” (Exodus 24:12). What is the meaning of this verse?  “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the Torah”-this is the Torah (five books of Moses), “the Mitzvah”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Brachot 5a).

From this aggadic text comes the idea that everything, ALL aspects of Torah, all halachic rulings, were given to Moses at Sinai by God and thus are incontestable, and not liable to challenge or modification.  Resh Lakish’s statement appears in different places in gemara, attributed to others, but we also find an extension of it in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 2:4) commenting on a verse found in Deuteronomy :”Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: …Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud and Aggada — even that which an experienced student is destined to teach before his master — were all told to Moses at Sinai…”

From the process of discussion and debate that epitomises Talmud, we come to a place of no discussion and of rulings given from “on high” with the barely veiled threat of delegitimising anyone who questions.

It is quite a leap, yet it seems to be one that many barely notice these days. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me – wrongly even in the terms of foundational Rabbinic Judaism – that as a Reform Jew I am not following “real” Judaism, that halachic rulings cannot ever be challenged, that every mitzvah ever is to be found in Torah itself, and every Jew is obligated to follow them all, without exception, (aside from the ones that have to happen within the Temple or the Land of Israel. )

It worries me that Rabbi Akiva has such an ascendancy over Rabbi Ishmael, that Torah is not read as a document for human beings to encounter but only for accepted scholars within an increasingly narrow tradition. It worries me that a hardening has happened so that whereas the Mishnah only documents three “laws given to Moses from Sinai”, by the time we get to the medieval period and Maimonides the laws are codified and fixed, and the tradition of ascribing them as Torah from Sinai is used to suppress debate or challenge.

Torah miSinai to the rabbinic world was not what it means today. The original understanding was that while the Written Torah was given to Moses, the Oral Torah – or rather the authority to create and develop oral torah that would impact on our understanding of written torah – was given alongside it, in order to both bolster the claim to authority of the rabbinic tradition, and also to keep relevant and human a text given in the desert in a particular and ancient context at one moment in time.  Torah mi Sinai became the process, the dynamism, the way we can keep written Torah open to us and our own contexts. So to the Rabbis Torah mi Sinai was the whole range of midrashic exploration, all of  the interpretations, the discussions and the disputes, the variety of recorded opinion, the consensus of each generation as matters became relevant and live to them.  Torah miSinai is contradictory, it is interpretive, it holds opposing and dissonant views, it is alive. This best described in a midrash (Midrash Tehilim (11-14th century) where Rav Yannai taught “Had the words of Torah been given in clear decisions, our condition would have been intolerable. How so? When God spoke to Moses, Moses said “Define the law precisely, leaving no doubt, no ambiguity.” But God answered “follow the majority. If the majority acquit, acquit, If the majority condemn, condemn. Torah is to be interpreted in 49 ways to say something is pure and 49 ways to say something is impure” (12:7)

We are a commanded people. Our text matters to us, we hold it as sacred, we read it and study it and try to ascertain its meaning for us. We must never let go of this, even as personal autonomy takes pride of place in our lives.

Eugene Borowitz spent his life thinking and writing about the dialectic between our commandedness and our sense as Reform Jews of a personal autonomy. He could not square the circle, but he taught that while we have autonomy he insisted that we must confront our Judaism with our Jewish selves, not as “autonomous persons-in-general”. He taught the importance of our decision making based on informed and understood knowledge of our tradition and our texts.  He felt that Reform Jews must be “rooted in Israel’s corporate faithfulness to God” and that this would help structure how we live our lives. Borowitz advocated for the importance of Reform Jews knowing our tradition, interacting with our texts, understanding the historic covenant that Jews have with God. Yet he also wrote  “this does not rise to the point of validating law in the traditional sense, for personal autonomy remains the cornerstone of this piety.”

It is I think harder to be a Reform Jew than a traditional Jew, for we must bring ourselves into the thinking, rather than accept the crumbs offered as “torah miSinai”.

And Borowitz added an extra piece to our work. Whatever we ”do or say in the name of Judaism must be ethical”.  While many see mitzvot as prescribed behaviour, often focusing on the minutiae of ritual activity, we Reform Jews must see mitzvot as behaviour that will bring us closer to God by doing God’s will. We may not follow all of the ritual mitzvot that have developed in Rabbinic Judaism but that is not how we should be defining ourselves – we must define ourselves by what we do rather than what we don’t do. And more than that, anything that we do not do, that may separate us from the weight of traditional consensus, should be understood and considered and be open to revisiting rather than have the door closed on it forever. So early Reformers did not do Purim, seeing it as somewhat repellent, but now almost all progressive synagogues have brought it back. Many early Reformers gave up kashrut as being anachronistic, whereas now kashrut has once again found a home in our tradition, both as normative tradition, and also as an expression of concern for the environment – eco kashrut.

A colleague of Borowitz’, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, also advocated for informed decision making to be a hallmark of Reform Judaism, and challenged us to “ethicize the ritual mitzvot and ritualise the ethical mitzvot”, as in the interplay of Halachah and Aggadah, we need both the practical behaviour and the understanding, the ritual and the ethical driver of the ritual.

We Reform Jews are part of a tradition going back to Sinai – the tradition of Aggadah and Halachah influencing each other, the tradition of commandedness, the tradition of covenant with God. We are part of the tradition that says we must question and know our texts, learn, debate, act.

Tzav – we are a commanded people. We may not be in agreement about many things within this statement but the statement itself stands.

So for we Reform Jews, while we may challenge the idea and substance of the 613 mitzvot, while we may debate the relevance of or even need for  some of the ritual mitzvot, we are part of the system of halachah and aggadah, of mitzvot and Jewish texts. We cannot step away and abdicate responsibility; we must be part of the dialogue. And as we add our voices and our experience to the voice of commandment, to the history of our people, we shall enhance and nourish it, as we ourselves will be enhanced and nourished.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will

Ogni tanto dal mondo ebraico scaturisce un dibattito a proposito dell’autenticità, e ci si mettere a discutere su cosa sia la Torà, quali siano le mitzvot e chi abbia il diritto di deciderlo.

Nella parashà Tzav troviamo Dio che dice a Mosè: “Comanda ad Aronne e ai suoi figli di compiere questi rituali”. Segue una descrizione dei cinque sacrifici che i sacerdoti devono compiere, dei limiti del consumo accettabile della carne dei sacrifici e i dettagli su come Aronne e i suoi figli debbano essere preparati per l’ordinazione sacerdotale.

Il potere di quell’imperativo: “Tzav!”, che introduce i dettagli del rituale, trova riverbero attraverso i secoli. Fino ai nostri giorni noi ebrei vediamo noi stessi come precettati e il giudaismo rabbinico si è basato sulla Halachà delle mitzvot, su cosa siano e come adempierle, mentre la teologia ebraica, e il significato del PERCHÉ viviamo in questo modo, rimane essenzialmente nell’area dell’Haggadà.

È la tensione tra questi due modi di “essere ebrei” che ci causa tanti problemi. Per Eugene Borowitz, forse il più influente pensatore ebreo riformato, “Mentre l’Halachà cerca soltanto di definire ciò che costituisce il proprio obbligo, l’Haggadà tenta sovente di fornire il fondamento teologico e storico del dovere ebraico” o, come formulato da A.J. Heschel: l’Halachà diventa un comportamento ebraico mentre la motivazione di questo comportamento è l’Haggadà.

Il modo in cui noi ci avviciniamo a Dio è importante, e sapere che nell’ebraismo c’è più di un modo per farlo offre validità a ciò che sappiamo essere l’ebraismo:  una varietà di modi in cui si può autenticamente essere ebrei, piuttosto che una “ortodossia” dottrinale o comportamentale che già di per sé crea eresia.

L’Halachà dà forma e struttura, ci fornisce un sistema per vivere e al cui interno lavorare. L’Haggadà è più difficile da definire, ma deve esprimere il nostro sforzo illimitato di relazionarci con Dio nel mondo. Essenzialmente l’Halachà,  e il sistema di mitzvot che il giudaismo rabbinico apprezza, ci dà prescrizioni su come comportarci nel mondo mentre l’Haggadà ci aiuta a formulare le nostre aspirazioni per ciò che riguarda la vita, ci aiuta a dare un senso alla nostra esistenza e ci ispira a continuare la ricerca di relazione con Dio.

L’ebraismo rabbinico, nel cui sistema noi tutti ora operiamo, ha avuto inizio come una fusione meravigliosamente dinamica del discorso halachico e di quello haggadico. Il Talmud ne è la sua apoteosi. All’interno del Talmud c’è pochissimo interesse nel proclamare ciò che realmente sia l’Halachà, e, in effetti, una tale sentenza non si trova quasi mai. Abbiamo invece una varietà di opinioni registrate, discusse, confutate o supportate con versetti o insegnamenti biblici, sia all’interno che all’esterno del testo del Talmud stesso, e questa ricca materia prima diventa il fondamento di come l’ebraismo potrebbe svilupparsi. Halachà e Haggadà coesistono in questo sistema, ciascuna informando e arricchendo l’altra, fornendo vicendevolmente equilibrio e dinamismo. I due sistemi iniziarono probabilmente a divergere solo nel Periodo Geonico (circa 600 – 1000 E.V.), e, con la codificazione della Torà orale, troviamo che il sistema dell’Halachà e delle mitzvot diventa rigido e illogico, mentre il sistema haggadico, legato alle emozioni, creativo e ad ampio spettro, spesso viene relegato in uno status meno importante. Tuttavia, come scrisse Heschel: “Sostenere che l’essenza dell’ebraismo consista esclusivamente di Halachà è errato quanto affermare che l’essenza dell’ebraismo consista esclusivamente di Haggadà. L’interrelazione tra Halachà e Haggadà è il vero cuore dell’ebraismo. L’Halachà senza Haggadà è morta, l’Haggadà senza Halachà è selvaggia”.

Noi ebrei vediamo noi stessi come popolo che ha ricevuto precetti e che è coinvolto in un patto, ovvero un popolo che compie mitzvot, che segue le direttive di Dio, con il quale abbiamo un patto di obblighi. Tuttavia non possiamo essere completamente d’accordo su chi stia impartendo il comando, né su cosa siano effettivamente i precetti, per non parlare poi di come dobbiamo adempierli autenticamente.

Chi dà i precetti è il Dio della Torà? E, se sì, quale tra i precetti di Dio nella Bibbia è applicabile anche a noi, per non parlare delle priorità? Chi dà i precetti è il Dio della letteratura successiva, dei Nevi’im, dei Libri Profetici e dei Ketuvim (Scritti)? Chi dà i precetti è la Voce di Dio che discerniamo nelle nostre vite e attraverso le nostre esperienze? È la Voce della nostra tradizione e della nostra storia, la catena di cui siamo solo un anello generazionale? La Voce è emanazione della nostra moderna comprensione etica del mondo? Ci sono tante risposte quante sono gli ebrei che hanno formulato le domande, per usare le parole di Leonard Cohen in “Who by Fire”, adattamento della famosa preghiera di Rosh Hashanà: “E chi dirò che sta chiamando?”

Eppure quella parola ci segue: “Tzav!”  Siamo un popolo precettato e che si è impegnato in un patto.

Come possiamo intenderlo? Mitzvà non significa “la legge”, quantomeno è solo uno dei dieci termini biblici usati per descrivere le regole date al popolo. Nella Bibbia sono presenti  anche “Din”, “Tzedakà”, “Davar”, “Mishmeret” “Torà”, “Mishpat”, “Chok”, “Edut” e “Ot”. Termini spesso usati in modo intercambiabile nel testo biblico, che ci ricordando che le linee guida giungono in vari modi e sono proprio questo: linee guida. Anche la parola “Halachà” deriva dalla radice lalechet, andare o camminare, e la Torà stessa è legata alla parola che significa genitori: le persone che ci guidano e ci aiutano a diventare i nostri migliori sé.

Il rabbino Akiva ben Yosef, grande studioso e Tanna del I-II secolo (la prima generazione di insegnanti), sviluppò l’idea che il linguaggio della Torà sia stato divinamente rivelato, che ci fosse quindi un significato semantico, o almeno un potenziale midrashico, in ogni sua parola e in ogni sua lettera; nulla in essa era stato frutto di un errore o di un’aggiunta: il documento era in ogni senso divino. Il suo collega un po’ più giovane, il rabbino Yishmael ben Elisha, adottò un punto di vista differente: disse che la Torà parla agli esseri umani nella lingua umana, con ripetizioni, metafore e così via. Le opinioni di entrambi trovarono seguito nello sviluppo dell’ebraismo, eppure sembra che la visione di Rabbi Akiva ebbe la meglio nel tempo e che, mentre Yishmael sviluppava i principi per comprendere l’intenzione divina, la nozione di Torà miSinai si sia consolidata nei secoli in ciò che generalmente si intende che significhi oggi: che tutto, dalla Torà alle teshuvot rabbiniche odierne, sia stato rivelato a Mosè al Sinai.

L’origine di questa idea non si trova nella Torà ma nel Talmud: “Rabbi Levi bar Hama disse che Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish disse: ‘Dio disse a Mosè: sali verso di Me sul monte e rimani là, e Io ti darò le tavole di pietra, la Torà e la mitzvà che Io ho scritto per istruirli (Esodo 24:12). Qual è il significato di questo verso? ‘Tavole di pietra’: sono i Dieci Comandamenti; ‘La Torà’:  questa è la Torà (cinque libri di Mosè); ’la Mitzvà’: questa è la Mishnà; ‘che ho scritto’: questi sono i Profeti e gli Scritti; “per poterli insegnare”: questa è la Ghemarà. E ciò ci insegna che erano tutti dati a Mosè sul Sinai” (TB Brachot 5a).

Da questo testo haggadico proviene l’idea che tutto, TUTTI gli aspetti della Torà, tutte le regole halachiche, siano stati dati a Mosè al Sinai da Dio e che quindi siano incontestabili, e non suscettibili di contestazioni o modifiche. L’affermazione di Resh Lakish appare in diversi punti della Ghemarà, attribuita ad altri, ma se ne trova un’estensione anche nel Talmud di Gerusalemme (Peah 2: 4), nel commento di un verso tratto dal Deuteronomio: “il Rabbino Joshua ben Levi disse: … Scrittura, Mishnà, Talmud e Haggadà, anche quello che uno studente esperto è destinato a insegnare prima del suo maestro, sono stati tutti raccontati a Mosè al Sinai … ”

Dal processo di discussione e dibattito che si incarna nel Talmud, arriviamo a un luogo di non discussione e di decisioni date da “in alto”, con la minaccia appena velata di delegittimazione per chiunque faccia domande.

È un bel salto, eppure sembra essere uno di quelli di cui a malapena ci si accorge, di questi tempi. Ho perso il conto del numero di volte in cui le persone mi hanno detto, erroneamente anche nei termini dell’ebraismo rabbinico fondativo, che come ebrea della riforma non sto seguendo il giudaismo “reale”, che le regole halachiche non possono mai essere sfidate, che ogni mitzvà di ogni epoca si trova nella Torà, e ogni ebreo è obbligato a seguirle tutte, senza eccezioni (a parte quelle che devono aver luogo all’interno del Tempio o della Terra di Israele).

Mi preoccupa che Rabbi Akiva abbia un tale sopravvento su Rabbi Ishmael, che la Torà non sia letta come un documento per esseri umani da incontrare, ma solo per studiosi accettati all’interno di una tradizione sempre più ristretta. Mi preoccupa che sia accaduto un inasprimento tale che, mentre la Mishnà documenta solo tre “leggi date a Mosè dal Sinai”, quando arriviamo al periodo medievale e a Maimonide le leggi sono codificate e fissate, e la tradizione di attribuirle come Torà del Sinai sia usata per sopprimere il dibattito o la sfida.

La Torà miSinai per il mondo rabbinico non era ciò che significa oggi. L’interpretazione  originale era che, mentre la Torà scritta venne data a Mosè, la Torà orale, o piuttosto l’autorità per creare e sviluppare la Torà orale che avrebbe avuto un impatto sulla nostra comprensione della Torà scritta, le fu affiancata al fine di sostenere il richiamo all’autorità della tradizione rabbinica e per mantenere rilevante e umano un testo dato nel deserto in un contesto antico e particolare e in uno specifico momento temporale. Torà miSinai è diventato il processo, il dinamismo, il modo in cui possiamo tenere la Torà scritta aperta a noi e ai nostri contesti. Così per i rabbini Torà miSinai era l’intera gamma di esplorazioni midrashiche, di tutte le interpretazioni, le discussioni e le dispute, della varietà di opinioni registrate, del consenso di ogni generazione quando le questioni diventavano rilevanti e vive per loro. Torà miSinai è contraddittoria, è interpretativa, ha punti di vista opposti e dissonanti, è viva. Questo è meglio descritto in un midrash (Midrash Tehilim – 11-14 ° secolo) in cui Rav Yannai insegnava: “Se le parole della Torà fossero state date in decisioni chiare, la nostra condizione sarebbe stata intollerabile. In che modo? Quando Dio parlò a Mosè, Mosè disse: ‘Definisci la legge con precisione, senza lasciare dubbi, senza ambiguità.’ Ma Dio rispose: ‘segui la maggioranza, se la maggioranza assolve, assolvi, se la maggioranza condanna, condanna, la Torà deve essere interpretata in 49 modi per dire che qualcosa è puro e 49 modi per dire che qualcosa è impuro.” (12: 7)

Siamo un popolo che ha ricevuto precetti. Il nostro testo conta per noi, lo riteniamo sacro, lo leggiamo e lo studiamo e cerchiamo di accertare il suo significato per noi. Non dobbiamo mai lasciarlo andare, anche se l’autonomia personale è al primo posto nelle nostre vite.

Eugene Borowitz trascorse la sua vita a pensare e scrivere a proposito della dialettica tra il nostro aver ricevuto un comando e il significato dell’autonomia personale in quanto ebrei riformati. Non ha potuto quadrare il cerchio, ma ha insegnato che nonostante abbiamo autonomia ha insistito sul fatto che dobbiamo affrontare il nostro ebraismo con i nostri sé ebraici, non come “persone autonome in generale”. Ha insegnato l’importanza del nostro processo decisionale basato sulla conoscenza informata e consapevole della nostra tradizione e dei nostri testi. Sentiva che gli ebrei riformati devono essere “radicati nella fedeltà di Israele a Dio” e che ciò aiuterebbe a strutturare il modo in cui viviamo le nostre vite. Borowitz sostenne l’importanza degli ebrei riformati conoscendo la nostra tradizione, interagendo con i nostri testi, comprendendo l’alleanza storica che gli ebrei hanno con Dio. Eppure ha anche scritto che “questo non porta al punto di convalidare la legge nel senso tradizionale, perché l’autonomia personale rimane la pietra angolare di questa fede”.

Penso che sia più difficile essere un ebreo riformato di un ebreo tradizionale, perché dobbiamo concentrarci sul pensiero, piuttosto che accettare le briciole offerte come “Torà miSinai”.

E Borowitz ha aggiunto un pezzo in più al nostro lavoro. Qualsiasi cosa “facciamo o diciamo nel nome dell’ebraismo deve essere etica”. Mentre molti vedono le mitzvot come un comportamento prescritto, spesso concentrandosi sulle minuzie dell’attività rituale, noi ebrei riformati dobbiamo vedere le mitzvot come un comportamento che ci porterà più vicini a Dio, facendo la volontà di Dio. Potremmo non seguire tutte le mitzvot rituali che si sono sviluppate nel giudaismo rabbinico, ma non è così che dovremmo definire noi stessi, dobbiamo definire noi stessi per mezzo di ciò che facciamo piuttosto che di ciò che non facciamo. Inoltre, tutto ciò che non facciamo, ciò che potrebbe separarci dal peso del consenso tradizionale, dovrebbe essere compreso e considerato ed essere aperto alla rivisitazione invece che essere chiuso per sempre. Quindi i primi riformatori non festeggiavano Purim, considerandolo un po’ repellente, ma ora quasi tutte le sinagoghe progressiste lo hanno ristabilito. Molti primi riformatori abbandonarono la Kashrut in quanto anacronistica, mentre ora la Kashrut trova nuovamente posto  nella nostra tradizione, sia come tradizione normativa, sia come espressione di preoccupazione per l’ambiente, la eco-kashrut.
Un collega di Borowitz, il rabbino Arnold Jacob Wolf, sosteneva anche che il processo decisionale informato fosse un segno distintivo dell’ebraismo riformato e ci sfidava a “rendere etiche le mitzvot rituali e ritualizzare le mitzvot etiche”, come nell’interazione di Halachà e Haggadà, abbiamo bisogno sia del comportamento pratico che della comprensione, del rituale e del motore etico del rituale.
Noi ebrei riformati facciamo parte di una tradizione che risale al Sinai, la tradizione in cui Haggadà e Halachà si influenzano a vicenda, la tradizione dei precetti, la tradizione dell’alleanza con Dio. Facciamo parte della tradizione secondo cui dobbiamo interrogare e conoscere i nostri testi, imparare, discutere, agire.
Tzav: siamo un popolo con dei precetti. Potremmo non essere d’accordo su molte cose all’interno di questa affermazione, ma la dichiarazione stessa è valida.

Quindi, noi ebrei riformati, mentre possiamo sfidare l’idea e la sostanza delle seicentotredici mitzvot, mentre possiamo discutere l’importanza o addirittura la necessità di alcune delle mitzvot rituali, siamo anche parte del sistema di Halachà e Haggadà, mitzvot e testi ebraici Non possiamo allontanarci e abdicare alla responsabilità; dobbiamo essere parte del dialogo. E mentre aggiungiamo le nostre voci e la nostra esperienza alla voce del comandamento, alla storia della nostra gente, la valorizzeremo e la nutriremo, poiché noi stessi saremo valorizzati e nutriti.
Ken y’hi ratzon. Possa essere la volontà di Dio

 

 

 

 

Ekev: justice and mercy, individual and society, unity and interdependence from the Shema to the Days of Awe

Ask most Jews to explain the Shema and chances are they will think only of the first paragraph. They will speak of the Affirmation of the unity of God, the centrality of that belief to Judaism. Many Jewish commentators wax lyrical about the Shema as confession of faith through the ages. There are stories of those who die “al Kiddush HaShem”, prolonging the words of the Shema until they expire, leaving this world with the proclamation of their belief in the one God. Others speak of  the duty to love God that is spoken of in the prayer, the requirement to keep Gods commandments and to teach our children to do so. They remind us of the awareness of God that is to be present at all times and in everything we do – whatever we look towards, whatever our hands are busy with.

So central to Jewish theology is this prayer, that the early leaders of the Reform Movement made a deliberate policy to highlight it during the services, and hence many progressive congregations would stand whilst the first paragraph is being recited, and some even open the ark so as to further underline the point.

But the Shema itself is actually comprised of three paragraphs, and in our zeal to highlight the first we have cast the other two into shadow. We are aided and abetted in this by our own siddur which offers other passages for reading in silence as well as the full text of the shema.

It is not surprising that the reformers were less keen to proclaim the sentiments of the second paragraph, for whilst the first has an underlying principle of Loving God, this one had as its essence the principle of Fearing God.

Here we have the God of Righteous Retribution. The powerful God of Justice whose requirement and commandments must be fulfilled on pain of death. No room for negotiation here, only unswerving dedication and acceptance of the mitzvot will do. This time God is perceived as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is no middle way and there is no way out. If you truly listen go God, love and obey completely, the rains will come at the right time and the land will be fertile and productive.

If however your heart strays to other gods, then there will be no rain, the land will not produce and disaster will come

The equation is simple and horribly clear. Obeying God means remaining in the land which is lush and fertile; disobeying means the likelihood of a horrible death from famine.  Jeremiah, describing one such drought wrote: “Judah is in mourning, her settlements languish. Men are bowed to the ground and the outcry of Jerusalem rises. Their nobles sent their servants for water; they came to the cisterns they found no water. They returned their vessels empty. They are shamed and humiliated, they cover their heads. Because of the ground there is dismay, for there has been no rain on the earth. The ploughmen are shamed they cover their heads. Even the hind in the field forsakes her new-born fawn because there is no grass. And the wild asses stand on the bare heights, snuffling the air like jackals. Their eyes pine because there is no herbage”( Jer 14:1-6)

Rain in its due season, life giving water, is a gift from God. God may choose to withhold it and so cause wholesale death as punishment. This is the theology of the fundamentalist  who blames the difficulties we experience as punishment for someone’s (usually someone else’s) sin . It is a perception of God that is both childlike and horrific, a god without mercy who dispenses reward and punishment with machine like efficiency and no extenuating circumstances to be taken into account.

Small wonder the Reform Movement had no desire to weight this paragraph with the same glory as its predecessor. Small wonder the MRJ siddur took to printing it out only once, and in other places laconically writes “during the silence the second and third paragraphs of the Shema may be read, or the following” and then gives us uplifting selections from Isaiah, Proverbs or the Holiness Code in Leviticus.

Traditionally the three paragraphs are printed in full whenever the Shema is to be read, and the rabbis of old had other way of dealing with this rather frightening aspect of the almighty. Prayers for rain in their due season are recited in services, the principle prayer being recited during Musaf on the last day of Sukkot and from then until Pesach the sentence “mashiv ha ruach umoreed ha geshem” is inserted into the Amidah (who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall). After Pesach another prayer for dew is recited and there are several other petitionary prayers recited at the appropriate times of the year.

The prayers for rain are amongst the earliest of all the liturgical texts and are clearly a response to the fear of divine threat that would withhold rain as punishment. If these prayers do not work, then the Mishnah lays down another response – that of fasting. The structures become greater the longer the period without rain, from people of merit fasting during daylight hours for three days to eventually the whole community fasting a total of thirteen days, with no washing, little business transacted and so on. The bible may describe certain punishment, but the rabbis modified it to take account of repentance.

Other responses take account of the fact that we do not often see the righteous rewarded nor the wicked punished in everyday life, though the development of the idea of an afterlife is later than the text here in Deuteronomy but once it appears in our philosophy, it means that punishment need not be tied into the agricultural year.

The book of Job was written as a response to the convention wisdom that all who are afflicted in life have in some way deserved it. Maimonides coped with this threat of divine retribution by writing that people should first serve God for a reward in order to learn to serve God without any motive – he took the view here (as with the sacrificial system) that ideal worship has to be learned and will not come without a process of weaning away from other forms. Hence this was a necessary stage in the history of the development of the relationship of the Jewish with God.

A more modern attempt to cope with this difficult second paragraph is to look at it in context with the first. In the first paragraph the underlying principle is love and the wording is in the singular – you will love God and do God’s commandments.  In the second paragraph the underlying principle is that of fear, and through the fear will come the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments – most of which cannot be done without other people.

The wording is in the plural precisely for that reason. One can fulfil the first paragraph alone, but for the second paragraph to be valid, other people are vital. The shema moves from the relationship of the individual with God to relationships within society. For these relationships to work there must be rules and sanctions, boundaries must be set in place for the security of all concerned. Love alone will not enable a society to function smoothly – courts of laws are needed to.

We are moving towards a time of the year when the image of God as Judge is becoming stronger. Soon we shall be entering the moth of Elul with its lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nachmanides wrote that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgement. Either way both mercy and judgement are part of the unity of God, interdependent and of equal importance just as we see in the full shema.

There is a Midrash that before God made our world God first made and destroyed other worlds. Some were made only with justice but no one could survive. Some God made only with mercy and love but the inhabitants were anarchic and constantly destroyed each other. Finally God made a world with a blend of the two, an imperfect but pragmatic world that worked. And that was when God knew that it was good.

Thoughts for Rosh Hashanah and the coming year: believing in the aspiration to goodness.

I was asked to write my thoughts in a booklet to be sent to the Movement for Reform Judaism’s constituent congregations on “What inspires you, how you will change and what you will change in the coming year?”  and I share my contribution here.

Rabbi Joseph, Morris2

Rabbi Morris Joseph is by way of a hero of mine. A man who had journeyed in his life from service as rabbi of orthodox communities, to the West London Synagogue, his published writings belie the fact that he was essentially a man of the 19th century and have much to say to us in the 21st. In his sermon on “Reform and Reformers” he challenges his listeners to think about why they are in a Reform community at all. Dealing with those who joined for the laxity of “Judaism lite” or who enjoyed the aspect of revolt against established authority he admits the difference between the ideal theology and its less than ideal practitioners. He says “If the religious tone of our congregation is unsatisfactory, it is simply because so large a number of our members do not realize the responsibilities which their membership imposes upon them. They either attach no meaning to Reform, or they attach a wrong meaning to it.”. He goes on to remind us that the relaxation of some laws is done to free us for the meaning behind the law: “..because we are less bound, ritually and ceremonially, than other Jews. We are more free in one sense ; shall we accept that freedom without giving something in return, or, worse still, make it a pretext for stealing a wider and far less desirable freedom ? Why has the yoke of the Ceremonial Law been lightened for us ? Surely in order to place us under the yoke of a higher law, to set our energies free for the truly religious life. If we do not believe this, then we degrade Reform to the level of mere convenience and selfishness. We make it a force acting not on the side of Religion, but against it.”

Morris Joseph believed in the progressive nature of Judaism. He thought that in order to
live, Judaism had to adapt itself to the shifting ideas of successive ages. But that did not mean that he did not also believe in the eternal nature of the Jewish message, and he preached wonderful sermons that set out a theology of high ideals and the importance of trying to live up to them. Ultimately, his measure of a person as not their theology, but the way they lived their lives. The point of Reform Judaism was to free our energies not to focus on the finest ritual details but to become the best, most honourable person we could become. His hope was that all who joined his synagogue would do so under “a strong and solemn sense of ethical and religious responsibility”.

Growing up in the Bradford Synagogue, one of the earliest Reform Communities in the country after West London and Manchester, the influence of Morris Joseph could still be felt. His call not for Judaism lite but for an ethical Judaism connected to its history and covenant with God still echoed within that beautiful building. The Jewish world has altered unimaginably since his death in 1930, and the wartime influx of German Jews to Britain changed and energised Reform synagogues in this country. The establishment of the State of Israel has also impacted on what it means to be Jewish. Yet his words continue to inspire me – his belief in the goodness of humanity, in the striving to be a better person expressed as our religious obligation, in his love of prayer and liturgy and his writing of new prayers for his community.

So what will be my change in the coming year? After more than eleven years successfully pioneering a job sharing model with Rabbi Sybil Sheridan, her retirement means it is time for me also to move on. At the time of writing I do not know what this will mean, but I shall be accompanied as always by the words and the teaching of Morris Joseph who believed in religion, in humanity, in community, in the Jewish people and in the aspiration to goodness.

What about myself will I change? I will once again search my heart and mind in order to identify how I can work this year towards becoming my best self, even though I know that this endeavour will never be fully achieved – and I will neither give up nor despair because I know this. And I will aspire to his ideal of becoming one of “those who have helped to form anew the moral life of Israel and to vitalize it afresh as a world-wide force.”

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)

With increasing joy, we explore our dark side: Purim thoughts

purim shadowPurim is possibly the hardest Jewish festival to explain, to Jews and non Jews alike. A festival whose roots are not in Torah, whose story is found in the only biblical book not to mention God, Megillat Esther is also notable for its lack of references to the Land of Israel, or to Temple rite, or any recognisably Jewish expression. Instead we know this festival for noise making, drinking to excess, the celebration of violence, and some distinctly “unreligious” behaviour and clothing.
Set in Persia in the third year of the King Ahasuerus (said to be Xerxes, King of Persia in the 5th Century BCE), a Jewish man named Mordechai allows his niece Esther to go forward in the beauty contest to be queen after Vashti has been expelled for insubordination. Esther duly becomes that mythical creature, a Jewish princess, but does not reveal her Jewish identity to anyone until plans for genocide against the Jews are unveiled by Haman, the King’s senior minister, and Esther finds herself in a position of potential influence of the King. Esther persuades the King that Haman must be removed from power but tragically the decree, once made, cannot be retracted and so the only remedy is to command the Jews to defend themselves against the attacking Persians. So on the date chosen by casting lots (Purim), the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, five hundred attackers are killed in Shushan, the capital city and seventy five thousand are killed in the rest of the empire. No material possessions are taken – this was simply an act of self defence. The next day, (14th Adar) was designated a day of celebration of the survival, and Esther sends a letter throughout the Empire commanding an annual commemoration of the event.
There is no evidence of Esther or of this particular event outside of the megillah, but the genre of the story of course is one we know well – that Jews living on sufferance in a land that is not their own find that they become disliked or scapegoated or simply political pawns in someone else’s power game. It could be because they are successful in the land and become the victims of jealousy, or else that they are not successful and seen as parasites. Whatever the pretext, the historical Jewish experience has been of differing levels of insecurity and an apprehensive reliance on the goodwill of a host community; usually the apprehension has had a good basis as in difficult times the Jewish community have traditionally been vulnerable. This festival then does not mark an agricultural milestone nor a theological event, but it does speak to the lived experience of a people in Diaspora.
The Havdalah service with which we mark at the end of the Sabbath on a Saturday night is a bittersweet event – we are leaving behind the solace of the Shabbat, and entering a working week once more, with its concomitant expectation that we are facing all the problems of the outside world once more. The service begins with a number of verses taken primarily from the book of Psalms and from the prophet Isaiah, which refer to the protection of God and the hope for divine salvation. One verse stands out for me in this collection of verses that hope for relief from a worrying world – that from the book of Esther “La’yehudim ha’yetah orah ve’simcha ve’sasson viykar The Jews had light, happiness, joy and honour”. (Esther 8:16) which is followed by a heartfelt addition – the response: “Cayn tihyeh lanu – May it be the same for us”. The use of this verse here in the service marking the end of shabbat and the start of the working week, and the response which is added to it liturgically, speaks to me of the clear and frequent anxiety of the Jewish community who, having taken time out from the world to create the Shabbat experience of security, peacefulness and warmth within their homes now know that this time out of time is over for the week and they have to get through another six days in a hostile world before having the possibility of experiencing this peace again.
Purim is unusual because it is a fantasy which we act out for one day each year and for this small amount of time all the usual rules are relaxed. Drinking is encouraged, there is a carnival atmosphere as people wear fancy dress and may even abandon the prohibition of cross dressing (OH 696:8). We joyously and noisily blot out the name of Haman as the Megillah is being read aloud in the synagogue. We celebrate the reversal of our usual story – for once we are the victors not the victims. For once we get to stand up and fight back. In the short space of this festival we act out a revenge fantasy against all those who blindly want to destroy or humiliate us.
But this is not without a degree of conflicted anxiety. While the need to imagine winning against one’s enemies for at least one day a year was clearly understood, at the same time the effect of this fantasy being enacted in a public show was not ignored. Right back Talmudic times (Megillah 7a) we read that Rav Shmuel bar Yehudah taught that Esther had to plead for her story to be told. This is something quite unique in tradition where remembering is the essence of our activity.
“Rav Shmuel Bar Yehudah said: “Esther sent a message to the Sages: “Place me in Jewish memory for all generations!” But the sages replied “Your story would incite the nations against us.”. However Esther replied: [It’s too late for that.] My story is already recorded in the chronicles of Medean and Persian kings.”
– In other words, while the celebration of the story of Purim might damage interfaith relationships, and even potentially contribute a pretext for a pogrom, it could not be hidden away and therefore might as well be told.
There remain a large number of apologetics in our tradition to mitigate the effect of the festival – for example one comment on Esther 9:5 “And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, slaughtering and exterminating; and they did to their enemies as they wished.” Is that the words “vaya’asu besone’eihem kiretzonam” — “they did to their enemies as they wished” is understood to mean that the Jews acted the way their enemies had wished to do to them – in other words this is simply a reversal of the active and passive objects of the verbs, not a new activity.
In the early life of Reform Judaism there was a question whether Purim should continue to be marked – it seemed to the fastidious European reformers to be distasteful, noisy, cruel, uncivilized – all the things we had moved on from, or so we thought. But any idea of removing it from our calendar has long gone – it has become clear that Purim is a necessary festival, allowing us to explore our darker side in safety and with clear and certain boundaries for a very short time each year. Even though we are now not a people who are entirely dependent on a host community but have a land of our own, the story of Purim retains its importance and its meaning for us and we have to express our pain and frustration at having been the scapegoat in so many places over so many generations. The question now is of course, how we engage with our dark side outside of Purim, how the pain which some say our history has bred into our DNA can be dealt with so that it is not suppressed but is acknowledged while not being allowed to colour our judgements today. This is a priority for our generation and those who follow us. As we rightly celebrate our survival through centuries of persecution, and our ability and right to fight for that survival keeping our values and responsibilities intact we should remember the importance of keeping perspective and limits that the festival also highlights, and remember too that our identity is based on the how we behave all the days of the year.