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Friday, 11 June 2021

Divine Authority and Tyranny (Korach 2021)

Yesterday, an annular eclipse helps those who have lost track of the Hebrew date, because eclipses always happen on a new moon. So, how might we connect the new moon with Korach, the apparently rebellious priest after whom this week’s Torah portion in named. The answer is in the Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah (2:8-9). In order to declare the new moon, and thus the new month, witnesses needed to appear before the court. In this Mishnah, two witnesses came to the Rabbinic court at Yavneh and said that they saw the moon in the east on the morning of the 29th and they saw it in the west in the evening. Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri said that they were false witnesses. However, Rabban Gamaliel accepted their testimony, assuming that they had just made a mistake with their morning sighting. Two more witnesses came along and gave a differing testimony – that they saw the moon in its proper time. However, the moon did not appear to the Court as predicted but Rabban Gamaliel nonetheless accepted their testimony. Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said that they were false witnesses. He asked, “How can they testify that a woman has given birth when, on the very next day, her stomach is still up there between her teeth?” In other words, how can we say there’s a new moon when no-one can see the new moon? Rabbi Joshua said to him, “I can see your position.” In other words, Rabban Gamaliel, the head of the court, has accepted the testimony of the witnesses who, it turns out, are false witnesses. Rabbi Joshua agrees with Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas who challenges how the court – specifically Rabban Gamaliel – came to accept false testimony. So, then something fascinating happens. Rabban Gamaliel turns to Rabbi Joshua and says, “I decree that you come to me with your staff and purse on the Day of Atonement which is determined in accordance with your counting.” Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas has provided a challenge but instead of answering that challenge, Rabbi Joshua has furthered it, essentially starting a group of people who have challenged Rabban Gamaliel’s authority. So Rabban Gamaliel’s response is to tell Rabbi Joshua that if he counts the calendar differently, he should demonstrate his apparent rebellion publicly. Is it rebellion, though? Yes, Rabbi Joshua is questioning how Rabban Gamaliel’s method for examining witnesses, but is it an innocent query or is it open mockery of the leader of the court? It could be read both ways. Rabban Gamaliel takes it as publicly questioning his authority, so he reacts by showing strict authority. Whether it was intended to be rebellious or not, Rabban Gamaliel’s response turns it into a rebellion that must be ended.


Rabbi Akiva finds Rabbi Joshua greatly troubled and explains that everything that Rabban Gamaliel has done is valid because Torah says “These are the set feasts of the Eternal… which you shall proclaim” (Lev. 23:4). Whether they are in their proper time or not, the key is that God has given authority to the Rabbis to proclaim the calendar. Akiva, ever the peace-maker, then went to Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas and said, “If we’re going to take issue with the court of Rabban Gamaliel, we have to take issue with every single court which has come into being since the time of Moses to the present day.” He quotes the book of Exodus which talks of “Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel…” (Ex. 24:9) “Why,” he asks, “have the names of the elders not been given? To teach that every group of three elders who came into being as a court of Israel are equivalent to the court of Moses himself.” We assume that Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas is calmed and accepts the authority of Rabban Gamaliel to determine the dates of the festivals because when the court decrees them, that’s when they are, even if the calendar doesn’t match totally with what is in the sky.


Next we read that Rabbi Joshua took his staff with his purse in his hand and went to Yavneh, to Rabban Gamaliel, on the Day of Atonement according to his counting. In response, Rabban Gamaliel says to him, “Peace, my master and disciple – my master in wisdom and my disciple in accepting my rulings.” What Rabban Gamaliel saw as a rebellion has now been contained peacefully.


In our Torah portion, Korach challenges Moses, God’s emissary, the man who speaks with God, the man who literally glows with the Divine Presence. His challenge isn’t one of subjective rulings – is it the new moon or not – but a challenge of authority. Korach says that Moses takes on too much because all the people are holy, not just Moses. Essentially, he’s saying that Moses is no better than anyone else. That, of course, stands in complete contradiction with the word of God, since God clearly states at Sinai that only Moses can come up the mountain and that anyone who even touches the mountain shall die. God also says that no-one can see God’s face and live but God nonetheless lets Moses see God’s back, a privilege not granted to any other Israelite. So Korach’s challenge is one against not just Moses’ authority but actually against the whole structure of the Jewish community. Judaism sets up a community which has specialists – the priests were the specialists in sacrifice and the Rabbis are specialists in deciding halakhah, Jewish law. Rabban Gamaliel is the supreme specialist in the court, so questioning his decision-making ability is essentially like questioning God.


This, I believe, is what leads to the perceived rebellion – divine authority that supports human decision-making is inherently dangerous, since human beings are flawed. It is clear that Rabban Gamaliel made a mistake with the witnesses but the system that was established gave divine approval to his mistake. It made the incorrect correct. That’s very difficult for those who want a court with no mistakes, like Rabbi Joshua, who was clearly right to ask his question about the correctness of the decision. It’s not rebellion to question a leader’s terrible decision, and to ask how that can be enshrined in law. What’s fascinating is what else happens – after Rabban Gamaliel seemingly humiliates Rabbi Joshua with the demand regarding the date of Yom Kippur, their colleagues are so shocked by Rabban Gamaliel’s behavior that he is ousted as the head of the court! Although he is later returned to his post once he and Rabbi Joshua are reconciled, there continues to be a power-sharing agreement moving forward.


When people believe that they act on divine authority, their leadership can easily slip into tyranny. Nonsense laws are backed up with humiliation aimed at anyone who dares to disagree. In some sense, we see this same phenomenon with Korach as represented in Midrash. For example, when Moses tells the people that God instructs them to wear a blue tassel on their clothing so that it catches one’s eye and we remember God’s commandments, Korach asks what to do if their entire garment is blue? The Rabbis suggest that Korach asks these questions because he’s a trouble-maker, but I cannot see him that way. I believe that Korach sees divine authority being directed through one man, who is clearly very flawed, and who therefore tests the problematic system. It’s not that Korach rebels against God – he rebels against Moses because he is the only arbiter of divine authority.


The end of the Korach story is humiliation. Talmud (Bava Batra 74a) says that there is a spot that Rabbi bar bar Hana visited where he heard Korach cry up from the ground the words “Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars.” That’s not fair. God tells the Israelites to be holy (Lev. 19:1) and Korach says that all the people are holy. That’s not a liar. He says that Moses has taken on too much, which is exactly what Moses’ father-in-law Jethro said back in Exodus 18(:14). Korach says that God is in the midst of the people. Well, that one’s a stretch – God is clearly centered around the Tabernacle. But once the Second Temple is built and then destroyed many hundreds of years later, the Rabbis end up saying essentially the same thing as Korach does in our Torah portion – that God is not focused on one specific location. If anything, then, Korach is a visionary. But he is humiliated just as Rabbi Joshua is humiliated, because any system that claims divine authority can easily tend towards terror and violence against anyone who disagrees with it.


Moses was flawed and Rabban Gamaliel was flawed. Moses ends his life without being able to cross into the Jordan because of his failure. Rabban Gamaliel ends up in a power-sharing arrangement because of his failure. That, I believe, is a wonderful lessons for all leaders – that if you think you came to this position because you’re perfect, you will end up failing. And this can, indeed, be a lesson for everyone – to hear those who would disagree with us without accusing them, to learn from their questions about how we may be wrong, to embrace humility, to be less certain of ourselves.  For some of us that’s more of a challenge than for others. But a religious community that tries to encounter God is not the same as God – we’re not perfect and that’s the point. We learn from our flaws instead of pretending that they don’t exist.


So, may God be with us as we embrace our imperfection, as we celebrate the opportunity to learn and grow from our interaction with others. May we embrace being questioned and challenged. And may we all question and challenge each other with love and respect, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Shelach Lecha Sermon 2021 - At the Border of Change

Earlier this morning, I led a service from the Bimah in our Sanctuary. It was the first time I had led a Shabbat service there in a year. The last time I did so, it was to a totally empty Sanctuary. I knew that many members were watching online, but the Sanctuary itself was totally empty and it was an extremely lonely experience. I returned to the empty Sanctuary for the High Holy Days because the internet connection at our home wasn’t reliable enough. Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and all the way through Yom Kippur I led services to a totally empty Sanctuary. There were moments in those services when I sang and my voice was the only sound in the entire room, and it was incredibly moving for me personally to fill a sacred space with my own voice. There was an immediacy between me and God that I have only felt a few times before in my life. At the end of the Yom Kippur services, once the Ne’ilah service finished, once we had wished shanah tovah to everyone, once I ended the online streaming and was left alone in the Sanctuary, though, I started crying. It wasn’t just due to exhaustion or stress, although there was certainly much of that at that time. It was fundamentally because of the loss of essential human interaction during a time when human interaction is so necessary. Yes, having my rendition of sh’ma koleinu fill the Sanctuary was powerful, but can never be as fulfilling as leading a service with a community. A one-to-one connection, a moment of I-Thou in our Sanctuary between God and me is something to be treasured, but it doesn’t compare to sharing sh’ma in a minyan, because we don’t celebrate festivals alone. The Jewish community experiences time communally, and observes special moments in that time – Shabbat and the festivals – communally.

For just over a year, we’ve been streaming services on Zoom which allowed members to see me and have some sense of shared festival experience, although I could not see them because I had to focus on the slides. Over the last year, leading Shabbat services went for me from a shared journey to a weekly presentation of Jewish spirituality, enabling others to experience something that I could not. My spiritual role shifted from guide to presenter, from spiritual artist to professional sacred space holder, from companion to enabler. That’s why I genuinely want to return to in-person services so that we can share something spiritual together once again. At the same time, though, I’m nervous. I’ve got so used to leading services in my slippers from the comfort of my couch or my study that the transition to a new spirituality is nerve-wracking. For this morning’s Preschool Shabbat, I chose to force myself across that boundary, which was especially helpful as a taster of things to come since in two weeks’ time, we open up in-person Shabbat services for those who want to return physically.

With that in mind, I want to share my experience of Preschool Shabbat this morning. The first thing that struck me was when one of the older kids walked into the Sanctuary and said, “Rabbi Neil, I haven’t seen you in a long time.” I felt seen and so valued and had forgotten how wonderful it feels to be seen by members of a loving community.From the get-go, I was amazed that I remembered all of my shtick – all of my jokes and songs that I do with them – even though I haven’t uttered them for a very long time. When we lit the Shabbat candles, my voice broke a little and I had to hold back tears because we sang the brachah together and we were engaging in Jewish ritual together when for so long for me it has been a solo performance. I didn’t realize how much it had hurt my soul to not hear others praying along with me. When it came time for challah, I took a piece and tucked it into my mouth under my mask but the kids had to wait until lunch to have theirs. Suddenly, that communal act of breaking bread together not being able to happen reminded me that we are still in a pandemic and that coming back to services will feel profoundly different.

Once the Preschool kids left the Sanctuary I had a momentary pause. I was in shock. It was nice but it felt a little odd. It was returning to the old but in a new way. It was a return, but only partially. It was communal prayer for the first time in a year, which felt transformative, inclusive, shared, communal, and supportive, but it was also distanced, changed, and limited. I had finally experienced the wonderful but disjointed reality of an in-person pandemic prayer service. What I needed, and what I’m really going to start working on over the next two weeks, was a transition ritual, a ritual of return. I mentioned this a few weeks ago, but now it has become even more relevant.  

As I started to consider this ritual, I remembered this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha. In it, the Israelites send twelve spies into the land of Canaan, the land of milk and honey, the land that was promised to them by God, and yet they are too terrified to move forward. The challenges facing them overwhelm them psychically. Their report back to the people is called “evil” by the Torah, because it strikes fear into the people and they yearn to go back to Egypt, to the worst of places, simply because it was familiar. The entire people become demoralized by the account. In response, God tells Moses that the entire people will be wiped out and will start again with Moses, but Moses argues that that cannot happen. He gets it. It’s not about the community leader. It’s about the people, some of whom are ready to go into the land and some of whom are not. In the end, most of them are banned from entering because of that hesitation when the time was right. Immediately regretting missing their window of opportunity, they rush to make amends and pour into the land where they are soundly defeated by the inhabitants because they’re not prepared.

This Torah portion helps me prepare the ritual of return in a few ways. It needs to acknowledge fear of change, fear of personal harm, trepidation of crossing the threshold, that some people will feel. It needs to hold those who remain on one side of the border while others cross over. It needs to acknowledge that it is not good for a prayer leader and the prayer community to be physically separated. It needs to acknowledge the transition of the prayer leader from nebbish with a Powerpoint presentation back to emissary of communal prayer. It needs to acknowledge a physical and psychological divide that was forced upon our community and that also needs to celebrate that it is slowly going away.

Like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, we are near the border of a transformative change. We won’t rush in blindly but we’ll also not yearn to go back to the worst out of fear of change.  Together, we will find a balance. May God help us as we search for that balance, together, as a community, and let us say, Amen.


Friday, 14 May 2021

Praying and Working for Peace in Jerusalem, May 14th 2021

 As far as I have learned, in 1875, Rabbi Avraham Ashkenazi and Rabbi Meir Auerbach acquired some land from Arab sellers.  In 1946, shortly before Israel’s War of Independence, two Jewish non-governmental organizations moved to register the deed with authorities in what was then British Mandatory Palestine. In 1982, the Palestinian residents of the property – including the parents and grandparents of some of the current occupants – signed an agreement confirming that the Israeli NGOs were the rightful owners. In the early 2000s, these two Israeli non-profits sold the land to the Nahalat Shimon organization. The Palestinians occupying the dwelling were nevertheless allowed to continue living there and enjoyed “Protected Residents” status. However, by law, the tenants were required to pay rent to Nahalat Shimon. It was only after the Palestinian residents refused to do that, and instead illegally expanded the property and rented out spaces to third parties, that Nahalat Shimon initiated eviction proceedings. Before going to court, the Jewish owners of the property and the Palestinian residents almost came to an out-of-court settlement but the Palestinian Authority threatened the Palestinian residents with violence if they agreed to a compromise. It therefore became an intractable legal issue of squatters, and had to go to court.

You may not have heard of this. Instead, you made have recently heard from Reuters that “Jewish settlers backed by an Israeli court have taken over some homes” in Sheikh Jarrah, or may have seen Associated Press reports that “dozens of Palestinians are fighting attempts by Israeli settlers to evict them from their homes.” You would not be alone. What is actually a landlord/squatter issue that only came to court because of pressure from the Palestinian Authority for the Palestinian residents not to cave to Israelis has become a narrative of Jewish settlers stealing Palestinians homes. Such a claim, which I believe is demonstrably false in this case, doesn’t arise from a vacuum, though. Many American Liberals, good people who are honest about their own country’s history of ethnic cleansing and systemic state-sanctioned racist violence, view everything in the rest of the world in similar terms. World history is viewed through the lens of American history, which is sometimes a useful way to look at things but is sometimes reductive and unhelpful because in so doing, it misses the uniqueness of the non-American experience. Not all of human history is American history expressed in differing locations. I am starting to think that guilt experienced by contemporary Americans for profiting off a society that was created through the violent oppression of indigenous people is then transferred to Israel, the only other state with which such people have a personal connection. Israel is then condemned in the strongest possible terms for any acts of violence against Palestinians, while Palestinian violence is excused as being understandable or even justified – Palestinians viewed like Native Americans are then seen as justifiably resisting white colonialist expansion. Such a comparison is deeply problematic that I believe reveals an American experience totally removed from life on the ground in the Middle East. I appreciate that this opening analysis of liberal Jewish American responses to the current crisis is challenging, but when such people, whom I believe are absolutely well-intentioned and good people, talk and organize 100 times more about human rights issues in Israel/Palestine than they do about human rights issues in the whole of the rest of the world combined, and when they demonize Israel using language that they would never consider using for any other country in the world, including those which commit far worse human rights abuses, I think it’s important to explore why. The Rohingya crisis which started in late 2017, in which more than 740,000 Muslims have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape the military’s demonstrable ethnic cleansing, and which still continues today, American liberal Jews are essentially silent about that. Countless human rights abuses particularly towards women in Saudi Arabia have occurred for as long as I can remember but nobody speaks about them perhaps because to do so might threaten the oil supply that powers American society. China’s brutal oppression of over thirteen million Uyghurs that we all know is ongoing produces hardly an objection from the American Jewish community, perhaps so that we can all enjoy cheap Chinese products. In Kurdistan, the rights of millions of people have been taken away, facing indiscriminate arrest from Iraqi authorities. So why is it that American Jews are so silent when tens of millions of Muslims worldwide are oppressed, and focus only on the suffering of Muslims living in Gaza and the West Bank in a situation that is far, far more complex and nuanced than any of those I just mentioned? What I’m not saying, by the way, is that there aren’t serious human rights issues in Israel - of course there are. Israeli society is demonstrably inequitable towards non-Jews, particularly Arabs. Despite the fact that this particular instance in Sheikh Jarrar is not about settlers evicting Palestinians from their homes, last year Israel reached its highest rate of home demolition in four years, with over 560 Palestinian homes destroyed, displacing over 750 people. Plans for the annexation of the West Bank were openly advanced by Bibi Netanyahu. In response to Hamas’ clear war crime of firing 187 unguided rockets that targeted Israeli civilians last year, as well as their campaign of launching incendiary balloons, Israel once again limited food and medicine going into Gaza, blocked access to Gaza’s territorial waters for Palestinian fishermen, and slashed fuel imports to Gaza’s power plant, in an unequivocally immoral form of collective punishment. So, I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate for people to comment on human rights issues in Israel, but I do believe that regimes that violently oppress their minorities all over the world must love the fact that the world community obsesses about human rights issues in Israel and hardly pays attention to it in other oppressive countries, even ones that demonstrably engage in active campaigns of genocide.

And it’s not just the focus that is problematic to me, it’s the vitriolic language used about Israel as well. I’ve heard all too often this week, including from Jews, that Israel is a colonial project that is the root cause of Palestinian suffering, by being not only an aggressive militaristic nation, but a genocidal, deliberately child-murdering, undemocratic, racist, apartheid state that is either largely or totally responsible for the violence in the Middle East, and furthermore I’ve heard it repeatedly said that indiscriminate violence towards Israeli civilians – our fellow Jews - from rocket attacks to terror bombings even to full-blown historic invasions, is justified or at least understandable due to that narrative about Israel. As disturbing as that narrative (which I am confident I could refute every single point) may be, what is also so upsetting for me is the outrageous aggression that regularly accompanies that narrative. I have been told that I challenge that false narrative of Israel not because of facts but because of my white, male Ashkenazi privilege, or because I want to keep conservative Temple donors, or because I’m a coward too afraid to be a real leader. After I explained to someone in a very left-wing social media group how Jordan, other Arab nations and how the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are also the cause of so much Palestinian pain, I was told to “F*** off with that colonialist bullshit.” People in that very left-wing group then asked if “Zionists and genocide deniers” like me could be permanently banned from the group. I got in touch with the admin of the group, who is Jewish, and asked if I would be banned. He said that Zionists are not all banned, but decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Here are my problems with all of this. Firstly, nothing is achieved by reductive soundbites that work well in tweets and social media posts that frame deeply entrenched and complicated political situations as one side good, one side bad, or one’s sides violence is abhorrent while the other’s is understandable. I would go further and say that not only is nothing achieved by such statements, but the dialogue that could be used to help bring about peace and understanding is muddied by such simplifications. Such statements don’t work towards peace, they just seem to reveal the speaker’s righteous indignation in the face of a situation far more complex than they want to accept. Secondly, shutting down nuance, deliberately ignoring facts that challenge the overly simplistic narrative, shouting down or trying to humiliate or shame anyone who dares to disagree with the prevailing false narrative about Israel that is so popular in liberal circles… all of those things turn people away from that liberal narrative and make them resent liberalism. I posted one article on Facebook and a colleague in England said that even though he agreed with it, he was too scared to post it. That is not a good look for liberal discourse.

This week I have learned more about my fellow Jews than I have about the conflict between Israel and Hamas – and I say it that way deliberately because this is not a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, despite so many people saying it is. Israel is a deeply flawed country, an absolute beacon of democracy and human rights in the Middle East compared to every nation around it, but yet still with a long, long way to go before it is an equitable and totally moral country….. very much like America has a long, long way to go before it is an equitable and totally moral country. Seeing how many Jews conflate Hamas’ violence with Palestinian violence has been disturbing. Hamas, to be clear, is a rabidly antisemitic genocidal terror group whose charter includes the statement that “there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad” and that “initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.” Hamas will never want peace. It only wants Palestine from the river to the sea, and there is only one way to achieve that. The fact that I have seen that vision now repeated in liberal circles this week shows how normalized Hamas’ genocidal plans have become in so much liberal discourse. The Hamas Charter also says that, and I quote, the Jews “were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there….They were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources. They obtained the Balfour Declaration and formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world.” It even says, and think just how disturbing this is, that the Jews were “behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state.” That is Israel’s neighbor, who seized control of Gaza and who have ruled it with an iron first ever since, murdering anyone who dares to disagree with them or even anyone whom they suspect may disagree with them, using their people as human shields and poisoning the minds of their children with disturbing anti-semitic propaganda. That is why I am so troubled when so many liberal Jews condemn Israel far more than they do Hamas. I’m not saying that this current conflict is totally Hamas’ fault, either, though. As far as I have learned, this most recent conflict was not the result of a specific act of Israeli aggression, but a combination of at least 7 differing factors:

1) The incompetence of an underfunded and unguided Israeli police force who have been left to fend for themselves by the essentially moribund Israeli government for years, and therefore lacking any strategies or human resources to respond to anti-Israel protests, to stopping violence between Israelis and Arabs, as well as lacking any sense of a PR disaster when arresting Hamas extremists engaging in riotous protests from within one of the most famous mosques in the world,

2) The need for the Palestinian Authority to attach an Israeli-oppressor narrative to a simple tenancy dispute to make themselves relevant again in the face of both the Abraham Accords which demonstrated that the rest of the world, particularly the Arab nations, are fed up waiting for the Palestinians to work towards peace, and also in the face of the Palestinian Authority’s declining popularity amongst Palestinians that even led to Mahmoud Abbas cancelling an election that he thought he might lose,

3) Iran once again testing the new American President through its puppet organizations like Hamas, as they have done a number of times across the region for the last few months,

4) Hamas seeing that the Ra’am party was about to join the majority in the Knesset for the first time ever and knowing that the best way to stop such enormous progress that demonstrates that violence isn’t the only route to Palestinian liberation is to cause Israelis to distrust Palestinians again, leading Hamas to stoke up violent protests, including the one in the Al-Aqsa mosque,  

5) The rise of Israeli ultranationalism that has its roots in the ever-increasing poverty in some areas of Israel and which has been widely tolerated by right-wing politicians for years for their own political benefit, a racist, violent nationalism which seizes on every act of Palestinian violence against Israelis, from rocket attacks to attacks on settlers or civilians, as proof of Palestinian intent to destroy their people.

6) The radicalization of many Palestinians by Hamas in the face of an Israeli state which constantly reminds those Palestinians that the law does not treat them equally.

7) The total lack of an Israeli national strategy to work towards peace caused both by repeated elections leading to internal political deadlock, and also caused by a lack of intention in creating such a national strategy due to Israel having no-one to speak to for peace as a result of the deep unpopularity of the Palestinian Authority and the clear genocidal intent of Hamas.

There are, of course, many more factors, but my point is that we cannot work for peace just by pointing fingers at one side, we cannot work for peace by seeing every international incident through the lens of American history, and we definitely cannot work for peace by trying to silence or shame those who try to reveal the nuance of every situation in order to try to find the unique solutions to that unique situation.

More than that, though, a time of conflict such as this is not a time to pick sides, to condemn, to hunker down in entrenched views, or to become intellectual extremists. Screaming from afar “This is your fault” while people die isn’t a humanitarian response and it isn’t going to change anything. Tikkun Olam is not found through blame. A time of conflict like this is a time to be compassionate to the victims on all sides. Magen David Adom is the only emergency medical service in the region that treats both wounded Israelis and wounded Palestinians. If you really want to help this situation right now, if you genuinely want to be an agent for positive change in people’s lives, you could actively support them. That would be infinitely more helpful than expressions of internet rage.

More than that, there are specific people and specific groups in the region on both sides who benefit from Israeli/Palestinian division. The more we take sides, the more they succeed. So, we must do everything in our power to stop responding with blame and instead to start reaching out to the overwhelming majority of people in the region who just want peace. So, for example, yesterday hundreds of Jews and Arabs gathered on a bridge outside Abu Gosh, a town on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, to show cooperation and shared humanity. I believe that such actions are infinitely more helpful than ranting on social media about who is to blame. Crises such as these are times when we should be actively supporting organizations that bring people together, like Creativity for Peace or the Aravah Institute. Israelis are on the whole good people and Palestinians are on the whole good people. The overwhelming majority of them want a two-state solution. Despite the aggression and intransigence of their leaders, most Israelis and Arabs get on very well with each other. But that’s not a narrative that keeps people tuning into news stations, so it’s not one that is regularly shared. But I believe that especially during times of conflict, that should be our narrative. We should be highlighting stories of cooperation. If we are to condemn, we should condemn all who resort to violence on all sides. We should never excuse violence, we should never justify violence, and we should not be defined by violence. We should look forward to a time when all who cause loss of life shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks (Is. 2:4). We should pray for the peace of Jerusalem - a just, equitable, realistic peace that addresses pain on all sides, so that all who love Jerusalem be secure. We should pray for peace within her walls, for the sake of all people and for the sake of the house of God. (Ps. 122:6-9). We should pray that God Who creates peace in the highest brings down peace upon us and upon all Israel. And we should accompany our prayers with actions that bring peace to all. May God guide us in our endeavors, and help us to work toward a just and long-lasting peace, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 2021 – Encounter at the Boundary of Pardes

 In our double-portion of Acharei Mot – Kedoshim this week, God says to Moses (Lev. 16:2) “Speak to your brother Aaron, that he should not come at all times into the Holy within the dividing curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he should not die, for I appear over the ark cover in a cloud.” God places a limit on access to the Divine. This isn’t the first time that God has done so – back in Exodus 19, God warned Moses to erect a boundary around Mount Sinai so that the people do not touch it and die. As I spoke about last week, this is very much because of the danger of closeness with God. That danger is not just expressed in Torah but even in Rabbinic literature (Tosefta Hagigah 2:2, Bavli Hagigah 14b, Yerushalmi Hagigah 9:1), such as the following short story about pardes – Paradise:

Four entered pardes — Ben AzzaiBen ZomaElisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; Elisha ben Abuyah looked and apostatized; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.

This isn’t a story of four untrained Jews – these are four Rabbis who seem to peer into the unknown, who apparently try to peel back the mystical coverings protecting us from Divine danger. Of the four, three of them suffer – one dies, one goes mad and one becomes a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva is untouched. It’s a terrifying narrative. It seems to be saying that the closer one draws to Divinity, the more likely one is to be harmed.
So, what does that mean for the rest of us, for those of us who are not Akivas?  Do we not get the Premium Divinity service – do we only get access to God-lite? And why are they even trying to plumb the Divine depths when God is very clear in Exodus (33:18) that “no one may see Me and live”?
At first glance, it may seem that this story is merely trying to elevate Akiva to the level of Moses, or perhaps even above it, thereby justifying Rabbinic interpretation of the Revelation originally given to Moses. Indeed, this isn’t the only text to do so – in Tractate Menachot (29b) in Talmud, for example, Moses asks God why letters in Torah need crowns and God explains that Akiva will arise in the future to explain laws upon laws just on those ornaments alone. Akiva can teach more from the law than Moses himself! Moses dares not look at the fullness of God, whereas Akiva has a different experience. Moses’ experience is far more passive – he hides in a cleft in a rock and God’s glory passes by, whereas Akiva enters and departs Paradise. Of course, God and Paradise are not the same thing, and it would be problematic were we to conflate the two. However, Rashi says specifically that Ben Azzai dies in this story because he gazes at the Presence of God, which Moses was warned not to do. So, Pardes is a place where one might experience the fullness of God, meaning that Akiva’s entry into it is extraordinary.
What is Pardes? It’s a Persian loan-word meaning “orchard,” and is generally taken to mean Paradise. Rabbinic literature also plays on it as an acrostic, though, to represent the four differing ways of reading a text – P’shat (literally), Remez (allegorically), Drash (metaphorically), Sod (mystically). Pardes is all of Jewish interpretation. To truly see Pardes, one sees how to interpret everything. No wonder Ben Zoma goes mad! That’s too much knowledge for one person. And no wonder Elisha ben Abuya becomes an apostate, because the more one learns, the more one single misinterpretation can cascade down into a totally skewed mindset.
With all this in mind, we need to reread our story to realize an important difference between the three Rabbis who suffer and Akiva….
Four entered pardes — Ben AzzaiBen ZomaElisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; Elisha ben Abuyah looked and apostatized; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.
Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuya all look but Akiva enters and departs - Akiva does something different to the other three. If Pardes is taken as all of Jewish learning, three Rabbis learn objectively from a distance, whereas one learns subjectively from their own lived experience. If Pardes is taken as a place of being, as a place of encountering the Divine, the three Rabbis lift the veil to look beyond, whereas Akiva actually crosses from the realm of the finite to the realm of the Infinite and back again. Three Rabbis are limited by the boundary, whereas Akiva encounters and crosses the boundary. He doesn’t stare objectively from a distance, he doesn’t study what is beyond - he lives it. He knows he cannot live it fully for that is not his realm, so he enters and then he leaves. We, therefore, can be either like the Rabbis or like Akiva in this tale. To quote Buber’s I-Thou, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuya all relate to Pardes on an I-It level, on the level of distant objectivity. That is the level that is actually dangerous, because it separates us from real experience. Akiva, on the other hand, crosses over and experiences - just as the High Priest in the Tabernacle is allowed to cross the boundary - albeit only at certain times and in certain ways. The boundary between the human and the Divine, between the finite and the Infinite, keeps us safe, but it is not intended to keep us out forever, but merely to guide us safely into the realm beyond and, importantly, to guide us back home. It serves as a warning to those who are not ready to enter, and also as an invitation to enter only for those who are prepared. The boundary is not a prohibition, it is a place of reflection and potential encounter, a place to ask ourselves if we are truly ready to cross over. For we have to cross over, we cannot gawp from afar dispassionately and objectively, for to do so would not be a genuine experience of the Divine.
So, we prepare ourselves as the High Priest does before entering the Holy of Holies. In every moment of our lives we face the boundary between the finite and the infinite. At every moment, we are asked the question Ayyeka – Where are you? (Gen. 3:9) – are you now ready to cross over the boundary and truly experience Me?  At that moment of crossing over, perhaps only then can we truly fulfil one mitzvah expressed in this week’s Torah portion – k’doshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem – Be holy, be distinct, be separate [from this limited existence] for I, the Eternal your God am holy, am distinct, am separate [from this limited existence] (Lev. 19:2).
This Shabbat, then, may we take tentative steps toward the boundary of existence by reflecting on ourselves and by preparing ourselves spiritually. May we not participate in Jewish ritual and study from afar but up close, with all our heart and all our soul and all our might. May we prepare ourselves to enter the inner chamber (Avot 4:16), so that may God delight in our steps (Ps. 37:23), and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 16 April 2021

Tazria-Metzorah Sermon 2021 – How To Return from Impurity


This week’s Torah portion hits me on a rather emotional level. At first glance, it’s a double portion focused on impurity – from that of childbirth or from a peculiar disease known as tzara’at, which is a scaly affliction that affects both people and inanimate objects, even houses. On a superficial level, this reading is about exclusion, about determining who has to be quarantined away from the rest of the camp. Today, though, as we’re starting to discuss how we might return to physical activities like services and educational sessions in the Temple, it reads very differently.

Yes, I appreciate that in order to relate this week’s reading to our current predicament that I have to rather gloss over the concept of impurity from childbirth. To do so is not to ignore that part of Torah, which I believe demonstrates once again Torah’s concern about uncontrolled blood loss. The difference between the blood impurity of childbirth and the impurity of the carrier of tzara’at, though, is important – the mother can only transfer impurity where the carrier of tzara’at can transfer the disease itself. It is almost as if Torah is talking about levels of risk of transference, and my focus this evening is on that second level.

Last year, when I spoke on Tazria-Metzorah, I spoke of the loneliness of enforced isolation, an isolation that we were all still somewhat in shock about at the time. I spoke of the fact that Torah doesn’t inform us what to do while in isolation, it just tells us when to isolate and when one can come out of isolation. Torah’s interest is not on individual people but on the entire people, on the camp, so what a person does in that time of isolation is essentially up to them. Last year, I spoke of the three stages of isolation – shock, acceptance, and return. Shock is what we experienced in March of 2020 when we suddenly had to all isolate, acceptance is what happened in the months after, and now, as more and more members of our community are vaccinated, we start to consider return.

I recently read someone asking why God chose to use just one group of people – the Levites – are priests… why create an exclusive club and thus a hierarchy between the people? Many people, including early Reform Jews, abhor the concept of priesthood for its notion of intermediaries between God and the people, for the idea that some people could be more elevated for special service than others. I don’t see that. To understand why the priests were needed, we have to go back to preparations for the Revelation at Sinai, in Exodus 19. There, God informs Moses to put up a boundary around the mountain so that people do not touch it and die. In the following chapter, the people are so terrified of God’s awesomeness that they ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf, saying, “Do not have God speak with us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19). Later in Torah, in the portion of Shemini that we read only recently, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer an improper fire and are immediately killed. Since God is beyond the human realm, the closer one comes to God, the closer one comes to danger on a human level, in other words, closeness to God risks human death. A rather trite comparison might be electricity – it is awesome, powerful, it illuminates our lives, but if we touch it, we risk death. God’s realm is not the human realm, so to draw close to God means to risk losing contact with the human realm. So, the priests are not there for control, they are the safety specialists – they’re the people whose specific task it is to allow the people to draw as close as possible to God without getting dangerously close.

I understand, of course, that Rabbis aren’t priests, especially now there is no Tabernacle or Temple to which people might regularly bring sacrifices. Nonetheless, as our community starts to explore how we might slowly return to activities in the same physical space, I find much sympathy with the priests in this week’s reading, especially when it comes not to blood impurity but to disease impurity. The priest is responsible for balancing sacred concerns with physical concerns. They want to bring the person back into the camp but they have to be absolutely certain that there is no risk of contamination of the larger community. This is not an issue of control or hierarchy, it’s an issue of public safety. The priest, who normally protects the individual from sacred danger by drawing too close to God, suddenly finds themselves protecting the entire community from physical danger. Their sphere of responsibility has widened enormously, in a similar way to how the High Priest atones on behalf of the entire people on Yom Kippur. I wonder – and I realize I may very well be projecting onto the text here – if the priest is afraid of the harm that might come from their decision if their assessment is wrong in any way? Perhaps that’s why the text goes into so much detail as to how to make the observation – so that the priest is guided through that awesome and terrifying process. In a similar way, I guess, that’s why Temple Beth Shalom has a Reopening Committee that is addressing how we all might return physically – so that the responsibility does not fall on one person.

The reality is, though, that I am afraid. I’m afraid of us coming back together and people not being able to sing in services or hug one another for a long time, resulting in them being really excited to return and then actually really disappointed at how services feel for a while. I’m afraid that we’ll take precautions but still become a source for someone in our community getting sick, or worse. And at the same time, I’m afraid for something that Torah does not concern itself with – with the feelings of extended isolation and loneliness of members of our community. What the priests have in this week’s reading, and what I feel at the moment, is a sense of awesome responsibility, in terms of awe being that reverential feeling of fear and wonderment.

That feeling of awesome responsibility cannot limit action, though. At some point, the priest has to make the call as to whether or not the person must stay physically away from others or whether they can return. That is where I believe this week’s reading is incredibly sensitive, because after the assessment and the decision to let someone return, Tazria-Metzorah provides a ritual for returning to the community. I’ve started to wonder about this. When we return to Shabbat services, what will our ritual be? It needs to be more than a Shehecheyanu. We’ve become so used to ritualizing behavior around the wearing of masks or social distancing that we need to be sure that that’s not our only rituals around prayer. In this week’s reading, (specifically Lev. 14), the person returning brings two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson wool  and some hyssop. An extraordinary ritual follows that includes presentation of a guilt offering and a sin offering on behalf of the person returning to communal life. Torah specifically then says, “vichiper alav hakohen v’taheir – “thus shall the priest atone for him and he shall be clean” (Lev. 14:20). Would we, as we consider returning to the community, need to bring a guilt offering, a sin offering? Do we need atonement?

Maybe there is a place for a guilt offering and a sin offering, for the times when we did not socially distance, for tolerating a society so unequal that when the pandemic raged through this country it was devastating for certain communities and not those we lived in. Maybe we would need something in place of a guilt offering and a sin offering for the times when we secretly did not keep best practice, did not stay socially distanced, either for us individually or, as on Yom Kippur, on behalf of all those in our community who erred in this way. And what would it mean for atonement to be made for us? The root of the Hebrew word atonement is return, return to the right way, return to connecting with God, return away from previous modes of behavior. A ritual of return is surely necessary. Perhaps it would include washing of hands as we walked into the Sanctuary, a ritual of cleanliness but also a ritual of washing off the past. I have yet to create the ritual, but our Torah reading this week definitely demonstrates what I profoundly feel at the moment - the importance of some kind of ritual of return.

Once again, during the pandemic, the Book of Leviticus has revealed itself not to be a dry list of hierarchical responsibilities and arcana rituals but, rather, a text that is extremely sensitive to balancing the physical and spiritual needs of the community in the face of contamination and even death. What it shows us is that the return to the physical community must be done very carefully, in measured ways, and accompanied by some kind of ritual of return that allows us to express physically what we are feeling as we slowly transition from isolation to community.

The first phase is isolation – shock – was sudden and we were unprepared. The second stage – isolation – was extended and difficult. Now we slowly and carefully approach the third stage – return. So, may our return to physical community be loving, be deliberate, may it acknowledge and help work through our differing fears, and may it ultimately help us return to God



Friday, 9 April 2021

Shemini Sermon 2021 - Judaism as a Religion

How do we define the word “religion?” The ancient Israelites couldn’t define religion – there was no such thing to them and hence in the Bible there is no word for religion. That doesn’t mean the ancient Israelites weren’t religious – of course they were – but they did not understand religion as a separate concept. For them, Judaism was a way of life, something which is often nowadays called a “cultural system.”  But a cultural system could be entirely secular, so we need to include some sense of the Divine in order to define religion.


According to one modern definition, a religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.


Let’s unpack that. A religion starts with a set of beliefs regarding the cause, nature and purpose of the universe. Most religions have a creation narrative and many have visions of the end of the universe as well, Judaism being no exception to this. Interestingly, though, while the Torah’s creation narrative is perhaps the most famous of all, it has no eschatology – no reference to final days. The rest of the Bible does, in the prophets and the writings, but not Torah.  So, even though Reform Jews often focus more on Torah than on the rest of the Bible or on subsequent Rabbinic commentary, our religion has traditionally had a set of beliefs regarding the nature and purpose of the universe, and that becomes rather difficult for us because Reform Jews don’t believe the original beliefs. An ultra-Orthodox Jew can rest comfortably in the belief that the world was created less than 6000 years ago by a deity who created the whole world in six days, but there are very few Reform Jews who believe the same. We take the findings of science, we see that the Earth is millions of years old and that the universe is billions of years old, and we take the biblical narrative figuratively, not historically. What this means is that as Reform Jews we actually struggle to understand the nature and purpose of the universe because we have no textual guide as a literalist does mean that we have to come to understand the nature and purpose of the universe in differing ways. I say literalist because we can never know the true intention of the Biblical text – whether it is intended to be understood more literally or metaphorically. When God speaks the universe into being, for example, is there any way to understand that other than metaphorically? If the Bible is metaphor, though, then the original beliefs regarding the nature and purpose of the universe are also metaphors, which means that they are wildly open to interpretation. That, indeed, is surely one of the strengths of Judaism – it’s constant and expansive interpretive method. The challenge for a traditional with expansive interpretation, though, is that it’s difficult to demarcate boundaries of what is and what isn’t authentically Jewish. The risk of falling outside acceptable boundaries is exactly seen in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini, in which Nadav and Avihu offer strange fire to God and are immediately killed. Traditional interpretation says that they erred because they were drunk, which is why immediately following their deaths, Torah warns the priests not to drink while on duty. But that’s just an interpretation of the text. What if they merely understood the fire differently and brought something that was merely outside the norm? Despite Torah telling us later (e.g. Deut. 28:14) not to turn to the right or the left, the essence of interpretation is looking in differing directions and exploring their consequences. So, if anything, while we might say that Judaism says that God is the cause of the universe, the nature and purpose of the universe is open to interpretation even in Jewish tradition, even if it’s guided by at least a formative text, which is the Bible.


But what do we mean when we talk about God? Are we talking about a supernatural agent, as the original definition suggested? Looking further at the Biblical text, reference to God as a supernatural agent make sense but, once again, that’s not necessarily how many Jews have always seen God. A supernatural agency is that which exists totally outside nature but which can interact within nature in order to transform elements within nature. Kabbalists went beyond the literal reading of the text, though, to try to uncover the mystical pathways to connect with that which is, essentially, only crudely described in the Bible using words to guide us towards the indescribable. Many Jews today also see God as more of a transnatural agency – a Deity both outside nature and within nature, perhaps expressed through nature but not only of nature. So, once again, many Jews today find themselves with no strict textual guidance on matters of theology.


According to our definition, a religion also has a set of devotional or ritual observances, but that also leads to interesting questions for Reform Jews. Even up to only a few hundred years ago, it was standard devotional practice for only men and not women to wear certain prayer garments or to lead communal prayer. There were exceptions to those norms, of course, like Hannah Rochl, the Maiden of Ludmir, but the exceptions often proved the rule. Today, however, these restrictions no longer apply, in differing ways depending on Reform, Conservative and even some Orthodox communities. There is no uniformity in Jewish ritual practice… indeed, there definitely never has been. Even in Torah, we see variant practice, just like with Nadav and Avihu. There may have been serious consequences for expressing variant practice, of course, but to speak of one set of devotional or ritual observances is challenging. It’s easier in the orthodox community because a person is defined as an Orthodox Jew if they follow the rulings of the code of law known as the Shulchan Aruch. However, Orthodoxy is not the normative or default position of Jewish ritual observance. So, then, what does it mean for Judaism to have a set of devotional or ritual observances? A set is a collection of things that are not necessarily the same. Therefore, we could say that we have a set of rituals around prayer or a set of rituals around festival observance, or a set of rituals around food such as the laws of kashrut which are expounded upon in our Torah portion. While one Jew may take from each of those sets according to one interpretation, another Jew may take differing observances from those sets according to their interpretation. There are limits on those sets, though, and the limit usually involves symbols or rituals from other faith traditions. That, indeed, may be where Nadav and Avihu come undone – in offering fire that is “strange” in the sense of “more akin to the fire of other communities around them.”


The final part of our definition of a religion is that there is a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Interestingly, this is where I think Reform Judaism has a strength in that we are often just as interested in our ethical conduct in this world as we are our ritual observances. Judaism is not a monotheistic religion, despite what many people say. Judaism is Ethical Monotheism, which means that belief in God – however one understands God – must be accompanied not only by appropriate ritual conduct, as I just mentioned, but also by appropriate ethical conduct.


I appreciate that this was only one of countless definitions of religion, but I find this a particularly interesting one to consider during this week’s reading of the Torah portion of Shemini because of the behavior of Nadav and Avihu which challenged what was at that time considered to be “normative” Jewish “religious” practice. Reviewing this definition, especially in light of this Torah portion, reminds us that Judaism is, and has always been, far more flexible in interpretation of what constitutes normative religious thought and behavior than we might think.  Some Jews today might baulk at the idea and insist that there is normative behavior with only specific small variance, but even the presence of widely differing Ashkenazi and Sephardi custom shows that to be untrue. How we eat, what we believe, how we act, how we mourn, how we celebrate…. these are all diverse, wondrous sets of practices from which differing Jews can find comfort at differing times of their lives. With that in mind, then, perhaps we shouldn’t busy ourselves worrying necessarily about defining “What is Judaism?” but rather saying “What is my Judaism?” or, perhaps even better considering the essence of Judaism is in community, “What is our Judaism?”


I believe that our Judaism is a shared and multifaceted response to the varying expressions of Judaism of the past and of the present. More than that, I believe our Judaism speaks in many voices - sometimes answers, sometimes questions. As we read the Torah portion of Shemini this week, then, and as we explore what it means for us to journey through the Omer from slavery in Egypt to full expression of Jewish self at Sinai, let us explore that core question, “What is our Judaism?” for in that exploration, I believe we draw many steps further along that path to religious freedom. May our steps on that journey be guided with strength, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 5 March 2021

When the Rabbi's Away...! The consequences of harsh leadership in Ki Tissa (March 2021)

 Why is it that the Israelites turn so quickly to idolatry after having experienced God’s Presence at Sinai? This is the people who witnessed wonders and miracles in Egypt, as they fled from Egypt, and then at Sinai, where they experienced literally the greatest thing ever – God’s revelation to them – a revelation that clearly contains a prohibition against building graven images. How, then, is it that because Moses returns up the mountain and is away from the people for too long, the people ignore everything that they’ve heard – the Word of God through Moses – and start building an altar? They say that they build it because they do not know what has happened to Moses but that doesn’t seem to make sense. When a religious figure teaches something, their immediate absence doesn’t render what they say to be irrelevant – at least, as a Rabbi I feel like that has been a safe assumption in my work!

The most common explanation for their behavior is that, out of fear, they reverted to what they knew. The people had been in Egypt for hundreds of years and so they were exposed to Egyptian idolatry constantly. This explanation suggests that as soon as they feared that the new Israelite ways of worship were going to fail through Moses’ absence, they reverted back to idolatry. Indeed, in this opinion the mixed multitude who left Egypt with the people were clearly the basis for this return to idolatry. But this seems problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the Israelites had seen the Egyptian theological structures destroyed. The Ten Plagues were not just an attack on Egypt, they were an attack on Egypt’s gods like the Nile and the Sun. The Egyptians who remained did not just live in a land whose infrastructure had been destroyed, but also in a land whose deities had been totally humiliated. There should have been absolutely no appeal, then, to return to the theological practices of the Egyptians because they were shown to the Israelites to be worthless. The second reason this explanation is problematic is that when a religious leader doesn’t appear for a service, the laity who lead the service in their place don’t break into spontaneous idolatry! It’s not as though every time I take a vacation the rest of the congregation wheel out a sacred golden calf to worship! Or, I should say, if they do, they’ve done a very good job of hiding it! Instead, the people who attend services do what they can – the service goes on. Reflecting that back into our text, there seems to be no reason for the Israelites to suddenly create a golden calf in Moses’ absence.

So what leads them to do it? Another common explanation, similar to the first, focuses on fear. The Israelites panic without Moses to guide them. But just as before, panic doesn’t necessarily mean idolatry. The Israelites panicked at the Sea of Reeds, but they didn’t start worshipping idols – instead they turned to Moses who guides them. Here, with Moses absent, they could have just turned to Aaron instead.

But perhaps their reaction at the Sea and their reaction to Aaron here can help us. Earlier in the Book of Exodus, when the Israelites are trapped at the Sea of Reeds, the community’s reaction to Moses is anger. “Why did you bring us here to die?” they ask (Ex. 14:11-12). In other words, they actually have no faith in their leader. Similarly, here, the people don’t politely ask Aaron to build them an idol. The Hebrew tells us vayyikkahel ha’am al aharon – the people assembled against Aaron. This is why midrash has a number of stories explaining why Aaron gives in to their requests – he doesn’t agree with what they’re doing but he realises, according to midrash, that with Moses gone, the people will kill him if he doesn’t do what they say. Whereas Moses throughout Torah stands up to the people when they rebel, Aaron does not.

There is a profound difference between the leadership models of Moses and Aaron. Aaron gives the people what they want, Moses does not. Moses is combative and aloof in order to shepherd the people away from danger and to keep them in relationship with God. When Korach challenges Moses later in Torah, Moses doesn’t cave – he challenges. Aaron, on the other hand, when finally on his own, does not stand his ground. In differing moments when the Israelites risked returning to idolatry, Aaron’s response is to capitulate, while Moses’ response is either to fight or, importantly, to create something new to stop the Israelites from returning to old ways. For example, the people complain about being trapped at the Sea so Moses creates a new path for them, the people complain about lack of water so Moses strikes a rock to bring them water.

Moses’ leadership model is the stronger, but it is also flawed, even without superimposing it into a modern understanding of leadership. If the people are constantly reverting to idolatry and anger at their leader, it speaks not just of them but also of him, although I acknowledge that the relationship between the people and Moses is still relatively new.  Nonetheless, even though by the end of Deuteronomy he has safely delivered the people to the land, he is not allowed to join them there and the people constantly revert to idolatry afterwards so in some sense he succeeds and in another he does not. Most importantly, Moses does not succeed in removing the temptation of idolatry from the people – indeed, it is only through acts of violence that Moses temporarily halts its spread among the people. I do appreciate that I may be setting Moses up to fail here because maybe the entire message of the Biblical narrative is that even a leader as great as Moses couldn’t remove idolatry from the people, so how could anyone else?

Nonetheless, there’s a reason that the people rebel in this week’s Torah portion and beyond, which is the model of leadership that Moses has embarked upon. His father-in-law Jethro has already warned him of the danger of centralization of leadership into one figure and yet that model of centralization continues, which is why Korach is able to inspire rebellion later with the words “the entire congregation are all holy and the Eternal One is in their midst, so why do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s assembly?” (Num. 16:3) Moses is too distant a leader to affect change in the people. He relies too heavily on the divine authority given to him, and he rallies the people with an almost identical hierarchical system. When he talks to them, it is with frustration at their failings, not with praise for their successes. He views them either as rebels (Num. 20:10) or as potential rebels, not with the gentleness that newly liberated slaves need. He demands too much, and as a result, they fail in his eyes, and he lets them know.

The episode of the golden calf is, in fact, terrifying. Three thousand people are put to the sword for their transgression. This is a slaughter the likes of which the people have never before witnessed by their own kind. There is nothing subtle about Moses’ message – obey or die. It almost makes me wonder if it was a set-up, if he expected some of the people to revert to idolatry during his extended absence and he hoped they might expose themselves in his absence so he could deal with them when he returned. In that reading, his response to Joshua saying that it is not the sound of battle he hears in the camp but the sound of blasphemy (Ex. 32:18) is not because he recognizes it, but because he expected it. Even if that’s not the case, Moses fails the people at Sinai. He has led from the top, the people are only just starting to form their sense of identity, and then he – the intermediary between the people and God – disappears. What else were they to do other than try to reach God through the means they knew? And when they do sin, he checks in with Aaron to ask why he allowed such a thing to happen, but he never checks in with the people to find out why they did it. Instead, he immediately assumes that they’re rebellious and punishes them accordingly. He serves as judge, jury and executioner, when he could have instead taken on the role of teacher or loving parent. Moses listens to the people only when he has to decide matters of law, and that is a cold, distant way to relate to people. There is no-one who gently guides the people, so they never really change their behavior.

So, what might we learn from this Torah portion of Ki Tissa? I learn that it doesn’t help the people for today’s religious leaders to be like Moses – aloof, filled with scorn and rebuke, assuming the worst of their community, ignoring their pre-existing behavior patterns and insisting on new ones brought down from on high. This week’s Torah portion reminds me that establishing communal praxis without communal buy-in is doomed to failure, even if it’s God Almighty who is setting that praxis. Moreover, this week’s Torah portion shows us the danger of confusing leadership with control, and how control becomes a self-perpetuating system that leads to rebellion as soon as control disappears. It shows us the problems that are caused by religious leaders being distant. It shows us that Moses, and indeed all religious leaders, work best when they are able to offer viable alternatives to whatever currently ails the community and it shows us that while sometimes we have to stand firm in the face of the mob, religious leaders have to do everything in their power to stop the mob from forming in the first place.

With all that in mind, may God guide our community as we continue to work together to create and implement a communal vision. May leaders and laity continue to support and strengthen each other, may we be forgiving of our mistakes, and may we continue to be creative whenever difficult times arrive. May such be God’s will, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 19 February 2021

God has Given... But is God Taking Away? A sermon on the HB-47 bill

In January of 2017, some people came to speak to me about a bill that they were hoping to bring to the legislature in the future. The bill would follow a similar law in Oregon that would help people suffering from a terminal illness to die on their own terms. It was not an assisted dying bill, it was a bill that said that the terminally ill individual could go to their primary care physician to talk of their desire to die, they would refer the individual to mental health support services if they wished, but ultimately if not then that physician would be able to write a prescription for a medical cocktail that the individual had to pick up from the pharmacy themselves, then could take home, consume, and it would painlessly lead to their death. The key thing of the bill was that the cause of death on the death certificate would not be suicide but the terminal illness that the person was suffering from. I was very sympathetic but to me there was a core problem with the bill – that I thought it was dishonest because the cause of death was, as far as I was concerned at the time, suicide. I wanted to help but emotionally could not do so.

Two years ago, my thinking on this started to shift. I gave a sermon in which I shared a narrative from Talmud (Ketubot 104a) in which Rabbi Judah HaNasi is dying and the other Rabbis and his students decree a fast and pray to keep him alive. His maidservant went up to the roof and prays that the lower realms might win out over the upper realms, in other words, that he be kept alive and not taken to heaven. However, when she sees how often he has to go to the bathroom, and how uncomfortable he is taking off and putting on his tefillin, and how much discomfort he is in, she changes her mind. However, the sages are still praying for him to remain alive, so she takes a jug and throws it to the ground. The sages are shocked by the sound, stop praying for a moment, and as a result Judah HaNasi dies. Did she kill him? No, she clearly didn’t. She just saw that keeping someone alive just so that they might suffer is not a just cause, so she intervenes and he then dies as a result of what was killing him in the first place. It’s not an identical situation to this bill but it is very similar and it does highlight a particular ethic, which is codified in the 16th century text the Shulchan Arukh that says that “it is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature…

But, for the most perverse reason, many people are extending their suffering instead of ending it, and that reason is life insurance policies, which are usually invalidated if someone takes their own life. The fact that people endure continued extreme suffering in order to financially protect their surviving loved ones is clearly immoral. So, putting the cause of death as the terminal illness means that such a thing no longer happens. And, indeed, had it not been for the pre-existing terminal illness, the person involved would not even be taking this concoction, so actually one can say that the terminal illness was the overlying cause, just as the maidservant didn’t cause Rabbi Judah haNasi’s death even if she hastened it.

It is fascinating that once this law was enacted in Oregon, the number of people who died from suicide decreased dramatically because people were more openly talking about their issues with a primary care physician who was then able to refer them to professional support if they needed. Indeed, a third of the people who started the process with their physician never even completed the process but did end up with professional support or, importantly, the essential human ability to make a choice as their decreasing mobility robbed them of basic choices.

My sermon two years ago also included reference to the death of Saul in 1 Samuel 31. Saul is seriously wounded and he turns to his armor bearer and asks to be run through so that the Philistines do not torture him. The armor bearer is afraid to do so, so Saul takes his own life instead (I Sam. 31:2-4). Many commentators say that Saul behaved improperly, as with much else in his life, but one minority opinion from the 14th century Besamim Rosh says that if a person is dying and in intolerable pain, it is permitted for them to take their own life. Minority opinion though it may be, it is still an opinion in our tradition that rather accords with the narrative of the maidservant in Tractate Ketubot.

Four years after I was first consulted, the bill is now being voted on in the Legislature and, after much reflection and difficult soul searching, I have now openly spoken in support of the bill. In my 16-year Rabbinic career, I have had too many people who are slowly and painfully dying ask me if there is anything I could do to end it all. I have always told them the same – that there is nothing I can do. Now, by supporting this bill, I feel that I can. I can give them a real choice, through supporting this bill I can help them get support or a little dignity as their decaying body tries to rob them of it. And to be clear, this is not encouraging terminally ill people to end their lives, it’s just allowing them to do it painlessly and with dignity.

At a funeral service, I always recite the line Adonai natan vAdonai lakach y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach – God has given, God has taken away, may God’s Name be blessed. Could I recite that line if someone with a terminal illness got a prescription that deliberately ended their life early? Yes, I absolutely could… because God “took away” the moment they got a terminal illness.

There are many voices in Judaism….perhaps too many voices… that say that suffering is a gift from God, that it helps us atone, elevates us, and is even a demonstration of God’s love (e.g. Genesis Rabbah 9:8, Zohar, Gen., 180b, etc.). I understand why a people who have suffered for thousands of years would say that because it provides a positive view of something profoundly negative. But that is a theological position that can help people move through suffering. At the same time, though, just like the maidservant, I would never seek to extend someone else’s suffering because I thought it was good for them. As Lion Feuchtwanger wrote in the Paris Gazette in 1940, “it is only the strong who are strengthened by suffering; the weak are made weaker.” When someone has already been weakened by a terminal illness, when they have suffered beyond the point that they can handle it any more, more suffering is not a gift from God or, if it is, it’s not a gift that most people appreciate! Indeed, to say to someone else that their suffering should extend because of a particular theological belief of mine would not only be religious hubris in the extreme, but also disturbingly callous. If a person is suffering toward the end of their life and if they believe that suffering is a gift from God, then it is absolutely their right to ignore this bill and suffer until the very end. That is different to a person saying that they believe that suffering is a gift from God so others should suffer, too. Imposing one’s own religious beliefs to prolong another person’s suffering is unequivocally immoral. You can say, “But our tradition says….” and even if I agreed with you (which I likely wouldn’t because our tradition rarely speaks with only one voice on any issue), you still don’t have the right to extend another person’s suffering as a result of your theological belief, only your own. If you believe Judaism is against it, don’t do it yourself. It’s really that simple. And this is core and I believe deserves repeating again – if your religious view prolongs the agony of another person who does not share the same theology or practice as you, it does not speak well of your religion. As it is, I refuse to listen to anyone who says that suffering is a gift from God and it’s not our place to interfere in it but who takes painkillers if they have a headache. That kind of pious hypocrisy does not interest me. Similarly, I refuse to listen to anyone who says that it’s not for us to intervene in God’s plan for our bodies but who also uses a doctor. That kind of pious hypocrisy does not interest me. I get it – it’s an emotional topic. We instinctively don’t want to make it easier for people to die but the reality is that the people who will be affected by this bill are already actively dying. Their terminal illness cannot be stopped. This doesn’t make people die, this doesn’t convince them to end their own lives because if someone is utterly determined to end their life to avoid suffering, they’re going to do it anyway, it's just that they will likely choose a method that is extremely painful in the short term to avoid suffering long-term. This bill helps reduce human suffering.

The question I ask myself is “Could I, as a Rabbi, sit with someone as they took this medication, just as I already sit with someone who is actively dying?” The answer is yes. If I can be there for someone to help them die with dignity, instead of in pain, if I can make that moment sacred for them, then I will.

But, isn’t it my duty to save everyone’s life? Doesn’t Judaism abhor suicide as a rejection of the gift of life from God? It used to. Orthodox authorities used to even deny mourning rites to people who took their own life because it was said that they had essentially denied God in that act. Reform Judaism has always considered that to be callous and cruel in the extreme. Influenced by this, more and more contemporary Orthodox authorities create a loophole and say that only someone who was not fully in their own mind would ever reject God by ending their own life, so we assume that they were essentially not in their own mind at the time, and we afford them mourning rites accordingly. I would say, if it’s possible for that, so it must be possible for this. Only those who live with intolerable chronic pain, or those who hear the cries for any kind of end by some of those who die from terminal illness can understand that suffering can take a person out of themselves in the cruellest of ways. An exception must be made for terminally ill patients. Even if we don’t count Saul as an exception, we do count Masada as an exception. There, in the year 74 CE, Josephus says that as the Romans finally ended their successful siege, the Jewish rebels there took their own lives instead of suffering at the hands of their besiegers. For nearly 2000 years, that act has stood as heroic resistance. So, if those people defeated by the Romans, knowing that the rest of their lives would be filled with unimaginable suffering, are allowed to be an exception, so too today’s terminally ill patients must be allowed to be an exception if they so choose. In my mind, it must always be better for me to sit with someone, to say Sh’ma, and to have them thank God for the life they’ve led up to that point than to prolong their pain and to doubt or curse God for the extended suffering they now endure and for them to beg me in despair to help end their life. And if I’m wrong, if it is not better, let it be on me, not on them. Terminally ill patients have enough to deal with already without any person saying that they’re doing something wrong. I hold no terminally ill individual liable for anything they do. I believe that everything we do should be to support them and help them maintain their humanity which was, indeed, a gift from God. I believe that if they choose to end their life on their terms instead of on the terms of the terminal illness from which they suffer, that we should support them in that choice and only blame the illness that ultimately led them to that decision. Judaism is an evolving religious civilization, so let it evolve with compassion for the most vulnerable in our society, as it always has. Let it not be the cause of prolonged agony, but the gateway to a life – and death - of dignity in the presence of God. And let us say, Amen.