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.

Ki Tetzei: whether you believe in the Metzaveh or not, you are not free to walk away from proper behaviour to others

The sidra of Ki Tetzei contains, according to Maimonides, 72 of the fabled 613 commandments in the Torah – on first reading the effect is of an enormous list of apparently haphazard rules ranging from family relationships to the treatment of a judicially executed corpse. From care for animals to cultic prostitution; from financial probity to cloth made from a mixture of wool and linen.

Throughout history Jewish scholars have tried to explain the unified theory of mitzvot; rather like with the laws of physics there is the sense that somehow there is an elegant rationale that, once found, will enlighten us about the world and its meaning. The best try (in my view) is that of Rabbi Pinchas b Hama who wrote (Devarim Rabbah 6:3) that “Wherever you go and whatever you do, pious deeds will accompany you. When you build a new house, make a parapet for the roof. When you make a door write the commandments on the doorposts; when you put on new garments consider from what they are made; when you reap your harvest and forget a sheaf, leave it for the widow, orphaned and the stranger, the vulnerable in your society”

In other words, every aspect of our daily life can be made holy through following these mitzvot – the mundane can be raised to the exceptional, the quality of our lives infinitely changed in these tiny regular incremental actions.

Many years ago studying with Rabbi Hugo Gryn zl I learned about the Shema, the prayer recited morning and evening of each day, for many people the defining prayer of Judaism. It speaks in the first line of the unity of God, and of the relationship of God and Jews. But before it does it demands something else of us – Shema – listen! Pay attention! Hear what is really important!

The first command in the prayer is to love God completely – with heart, spirit and physical strength. Then we are told that God’s commandments should be with us always, spoken of repeatedly to our children, talked about when we sit in our home, when we are walking outside, when we lie down, when we get up. They are to be written upon our doorposts so that going in and out of our homes we see and are reminded of the requirements of God. And in the Shema too we are told “ukshartam l’ot al yadecha, v’hayu l’totafot beyn eynecha” you shall hold fast to them as a sign upon your hands and they will be (reminders) before your eyes. The line has been understood to be the source of the practise of placing tefillin – small leather boxes containing some prayers – on the head and hand during the weekday morning prayer as an aid to remembering, but Rabbi Gryn had a different view – he understood it to say “in everything your hand touches and everything your eye sees you must respond to the requirements of God.”

If we really fulfil the commandment of ‘Shema’, then no part of our life is exempt from the dictates of holiness. We cannot be pious in the synagogue but not at home or at work. We cannot care about the humanity of the people we like but not that of those we dislike or disagree with. We cannot do the technical bare minimum to fulfil our obligations to society and consider our job well done. As another part of this sidra says – lo tuchal le’hitalem– You are not able to/ must not remain indifferent.

In this sidra too is the commandment to wear tzitzit – the knotted threads on the edges of some garments, most usually seen today on the tallit, which are the physical reminders that we have regular and routine obligations as Jews. Our obligation to love God is played out in our world – how we relate to others, how we care for the vulnerable, how we manage risk, how we nurture good values. The traditional unified theory of mitzvot is based on an unquestioned acceptance of the Metzaveh – the One who commands – that is God. In today’s world that understanding does not work so well – there are many who find such faith impossible or even undesirable. And yet the value of the system of mitzvot remains powerful – Judaism has never asked what you believe, but demands that you behave according to its belief. Lack of faith in God is no excuse for lack of proper behaviour towards others.

Hear Our Voices

The wonderful Anat Hoffman was arrested  recently at the Kotel, for the crime of saying the Shema out loud there with a group of women who were in Israel celebrating the Hadassah centennial birthday. Even to write this sentence seems surreal – how much more so for the people who experienced this event and what followed. Anat was handcuffed and her legs shackled, she was strip searched, dragged along the floor, and finally left in a cell with a young woman accused of prostitution who herself was the target of lewd remarks from the staff.  She was not allowed to call her lawyer.  There was no bed in the cell where she was held overnight. Anat, who describes herself rightly as “a tough cookie” was frightened and miserable.

No charges were made and the next day a court released her on condition she did not go to the Kotel for 30 days.  Why was this allowed to happen? As Anat herself says “What is the purpose of arresting a woman, interrogating her, collecting video footage of her every move, questioning witnesses and spending hours writing reports, if at the end charges are never made? I believe the purpose of this harassment and treatment is to wear down the leaders of our women’s prayer group, to exhaust us into giving up our struggle for these rights.”

I consider myself to be one of the Women at the Wall and am part of their Chevra. I daven with them on the rare occasions I am in Israel on Rosh Hodesh – they actually only go to pray the  morning service once a month, early in the morning, and in accordance with constraints imposed upon them take their torah scroll around the corner to the Robinsons Arch area to read it. (Bizarrely the perceived holiness of the wall appears to the ultra orthodox ‘minders’ to be only where it meets the Kotel plaza.)  Like thousands of men and women around the world, I care about what happens to this relatively small group of women from across the religious community who choose to pray together at the site of the Temple in Jerusalem.  I care because they are looking after some of the most important values in my Judaism – of mutual respect, of sensitivity both to prayer and to the complex differences in prayer that are the signature of the Jewish world, that all people are able to pray in peace and community, that every voice is heard.

Why are women’s voices being suppressed in some ultra conservative Jewish communities, and why is the State of Israel complicit with this suppression when its founding principles state the exact opposite?

The phenomenon is known as “Kol isha erva”, which could be translated as “a woman’s voice is licentiousness” and even a cursory study of this concept shows an increasingly narrowing of interpretation over time until it becomes the exact opposite of the original biblical statement. In Song of Songs we read the verse O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.’ (2:14) “let me hear your voice “Ki kolech arev” for your voice is sweet”. Whoever wrote that beautiful book which is found in Tanach clearly believed that women’s voices should be heard and that they are sweet (arev). In the Talmud, in a discussion specifically about saying the Shema in the presence of a woman who may be sexually alluring, one rabbi uses this verse and puns upon it – a woman’s voice is no longer sweet (areiv) but nakedness (ervah) [Berachot 24a].  This particular pun does not seem to become codified into halachah at the time – it develops over time and in hardens only in the sixteenth century – the great codifier Joseph Caro makes this clear when he writes “but it is, in any event, good to be cautious before the fact not to see hair and hear the voice of a woman singing during the recitation of Shema.”[Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 75]. This language makes clear that there is no general existing prohibition at the time of writing.

So a biblical verse used to describe the sweet voices of women singing is reinterpreted in the third century to suggest an intentional sexual provocation that might happen if a woman were to sing in the hearing of a man intent on praying Shema, and then by the sixteenth century the solution seems to have been not to get men to concentrate harder on their prayer but to quieten women’s voices – and this then hardens into the view that women’s voices should simply not be heard.

Let us be clear. Women pray in the bible. Their voices are heard. Rebecca goes to enquire of God when her pregnancy is hard. Hannah prays in the Temple itself – and ironically is accused of mocking prayer because she is speaking only in her heart and moving her lips soundlessly – The priest expects her to make a sound and is suspicious when she doesn’t. There is nothing pious or authentically Jewish about suppressing the voices of women at prayer. For every source that demands this kind of modesty from women, there are other sources that say quite the opposite. The responsa literature has always taken into account context, culture and norms when judgements are decided and this has historically happened even in the discussion about women’s voices. It seems that the reverse process is now happening – context, culture and norms are being created by the decision to criminalise women’s voices at prayer, and the history of women’s prayer is being buried by a modern kind of fundamentalism.

So if this prohibition is being used more and more in the modern world to shut women out from the public domain, we have to ask ourselves why – what is going on in some parts of the Jewish world that the men want to assert such a misogynistic power? What are some men so terrified of living alongside that it has come this week to the arrest and violent treatment of a middle aged woman for singing the Shema in prayer?. Why should the Kotel, remnant of the Temple and focal point for Jews across the world, become de facto the most orthodox of synagogues, rather than a place of prayer for all Jews? Why when Judaism has a strong tradition of recording all opinions rather than only the majority decision, should all voices that are not part of one world view in Judaism be silenced? And why when the declaration of Independence states that : “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will,, foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” are the police involved in arresting the women who are trying to pray, rather than the men who are throwing chairs at them from the other side of the mechitzah?

Women have been arrested with increasing frequency for praying at the Kotel just like women pray all over the world. Their voices and even their images are being denied, suppressed, removed from public discourse by a fanatic few who claim that theirs is the authentic Jewish response. It is not. And we cannot sit back and let it become by default the assumed voice of Jewish authentic tradition.  This must be challenged every time and everywhere  it happens. In the words of the prophet Isaiah “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep my peace (62:1). Anat and the Women of the Wall will not. I will not. Will you?

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild October 2012