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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.

Friday, 12 February 2021

Can There be Mitzvah Without a Metzaveh? - Mishpatim, February 2021

 The Torah portion of Mishpatim is chock-full of commandments. Moses is still up on Sinai after having heard the aseret hadibrot, the Ten Sayings – more commonly known as the Ten Commandments – and now God continues to let Moses know of more laws to help the community live in the future. Laws of indentured servitude are mentioned, as are laws concerning penalties for various crimes, laws regarding loans, laws regarding courts of law, laws regarding the mistreatment of foreigners, laws regarding festivals and so much more – traditionally, it is said that there are fifty-three commandments in this Torah portion alone!


The word mitzvah means commandment. It comes from the root tzavav, meaning to command. But what does it mean for God to command? Is God really the Metzaveh - the Supernatural anthropomorphized Commander who barks unquestionable orders from on high? That is surely the model presented in Torah, but is it how we view God today? And if not, what does that mean for the concept of mitzvah, of commandment, itself?


Freud believed that the anthropomorphic God – the God who talks and acts like we do is a projection “of man’s own emotional impulses … [so that he] meets his internal mental processes again outside himself…”[1] Rabbinic literature says that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are just Torah speaking in human language so that it could be comprehended. Whether that supernatural God is an external projection of the self, or a linguistic approximation… either way the concept of God as Commander immediately opens itself up for scrutiny when we don’t text the Biblical text absolutely literally. And if God is not compelling us, why would we keep any mitzvah, any commandment? Do we only feel compelled because of a supernatural Commander, or can there be another thing driving us?  


For some Jews, the compulsion to perform mitzvot comes from, to use Leslie Fiedler’s term, the desire to not be “the terminal Jew, the last of a 4,000 year line.” In other words, they perform mitzvot out of guilt. Ironically, it is exactly that kind of reason which might lead them to be the terminal Jew in their family, for doing things out of guilt is not something any of us wish to pass down to our children. Similarly, ironically, resorting to the old trope of “tradition!” no longer holds much appeal in current younger generations who have been exposed to a wider variety of traditions than ever before, and so find themselves at the luxury of being able to choose which traditions to continue. That appeal to tradition worked when the Jewish community was responsible for enforcing its own laws, but the price of assimilation into the larger secular society, which of course brought with it great learning and opportunities, was that the Rabbi and the community were no longer able to enforce commandments. For the first time, there was no way to punish someone who did not follow a commandment. What, then, is the point of a commandment if there are no consequences for following it or not?


For many Jews today, God is within us or within the world. If that’s the case, then, does mitzvah no longer exist? Can we be commanded if the commander is within us or within the world? Perhaps one answer to this can be found in Talmud, where we learn (Eruvin 13b) that “for three years Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai debated each other. These said that the halakhah follows their view, and these said that the halakhah follows their view. A heavenly voice went forth and declared, “These and these are the words of the living God”. But the halakhah follows Bet Hillel.” Two schools of thought believed that the law followed their interpretation. Although in the end a Divine Voice decrees in favor of one and not the other, we cannot rely on heavenly voices – indeed, another famous text (Bava Metzia 59a-b) known as the Oven of Akhnai specifically puts the authority for halakhic decisions on earth by saying lo bashamayim hi – it is not in heaven! It is up to us to study together and to determine what we are commanded to do. The law is in our hands, not in the hands of a Supreme Commander on High.


Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan translated mitzvot as “folkways designed to ensure the enhancement of the value of Jewish life.” While I admire his interpretive effort, I don’t think that is sufficient – indeed, it potential elevates human feelings of enhancement over any sense of compulsion or duty. It is also extremely subjective because what one person thinks enhances their Jewish life another might not, at which point mitzvah becomes a meaningless term.


Talmud also teaches us (Shabbat 88a) that at Sinai the Israelites “stood at the foot [lit. in the bottom] of the mountain… and that ‘This teaches that the Holy One, blessed is He, covered them with the mountain as an upturned vat. He said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine. But if not, your burial will be there!’’ When the Israelites reply to Moses na’aseh v’nishma – we will do and we will hear, as they say in this week’s Torah portion, that suddenly sounds like desperation – “Okay, we’ll do it, now put down the mountain and we will hear what you want us to do!” The reality is, though, that very few Jews today feel like there’s a mountain held over their head. There is no compulsion from on high. But there is a drive from within.  


If it’s not guilt, not tradition, not compulsion from a supernatural deity above… what is that drive from within? Rabbi Elli Tikvah-Sarah, my teacher, translates mitzvah as compelling commitment. That may be a commitment to becoming a better self, to creating a better world, to maintaining or invigorating an ancient practice. The commander is not personal, but something deep within, perhaps tribal, perhaps personal, perhaps communal. It is elusive. Maybe we feel compelled to perform a mitzvah because it enriches our life – maybe it brings beauty, calmness, a memory of family long gone. Maybe, then, the Metzaveh – the Commander – isn’t a supernatural general in the sky, it’s not in the great supernatural displays. Maybe, instead, it’s the still, small voice within us, the voice that gently whispers to us with a soft, murmuring sound that stirs our soul. That’s not a voice that terrifies us into observance, it’s one that lovingly invites us. After all, Talmud also teaches (Sotah 31a) that the greater person is the one who acts out of love, not fear. And if that’s the case, if love is the metzaveh, the guide that brings us to observing mitzvot, then I believe that our task must be to instil love of Judaism in this generation and in future generations. Together, we can lovingly pore over the texts of our tradition and try to give shape to the compelling commitment in our generation. And it is not any commitment, it is not a social commitment, or a personal one, but a religious one. A shared religious commitment. Every day we stand together again at Sinai, trying to understand how to make real our religious sense of being. By bringing together study, logic, tradition, emotion, love and new readings of our tradition to be held with traditional readings, we can give shape to the voice that calls to us from on top of the mountain. It calls us to ascend, not to meet God who waits on high for us… it calls us to truly find ourselves. May we ascend in community, in love, and compelled to act together as one Jewish community. And let us say, Amen.


[1] Freud (1964), p.150

Friday, 5 February 2021

Yitro 2021 – Being Leaders

In this week’s Torah portion of Yitro, we read the following account:

It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening. When Moses' father-in-law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?" Moses said to his father-in-law, "For the people come to me to seek God. If any of them has a case, he comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God and God’s teachings." Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Ex. 18: 13-18)

Jethro tells Moses that he will remain the intermediary between the people and God and that he will admonish the people regarding the statutes and teachings and will “make known to them the way they shall go and the deeds they shall do.” But at the same time, Moses has to delegate much of the civic responsibility to members of the community, essentially setting up Moses as the Supreme Court and some of the delegated leaders as the local courts.

It’s a start, but I cannot see that model of leadership being anywhere near sufficient in today’s Reform movement. For starters, it puts all the God-stuff, all the spirituality, specifically in the lap of the Rabbi and all the admin in the lap of the Board and committees. That kind of model mistakenly implies that the work of committees is not sacred work, that it is done with the end goal of keeping the roof on, when, in fact, that is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is the encounter with the Divine, individually and communally, which in Torah happens immediately after Jethro’s management consultancy exercise. But the Torah community is profoundly hierarchical. Not only is that a product of its time but it also expresses the reality of the people’s connection to the tradition and to God at the time – indeed, midrash makes it clear that the people were so assimilated that they were almost not redeemed at all. As such, Moses’ task is to educate the people in law and in spirituality, to prepare them for a life lived in God’s presence and to hold them through that experience. In the meantime, the people take care of the things that they themselves are capable of attending to.

In Torah, the account of revelation that follows is a grand account, a top-down narrative of God above descending to the people below, who are too feeble to receive the revelation so they beg Moses to intercede on their behalf. It is an account of a spiritually inept community relying on their leader for God stuff. That is not me, and that is not us. Midrash changes that revelation account. There, (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:13) Rabbi Yochanan says that at Sinai an angel carries each utterance from God to each of the Israelites in turn. The angel says to each Israelite, “Do you take upon yourself this commandment? So-and-so many rules are attached to it, so-and-so many penalties are attached to it, so-and-so many precautionary measures are attached to it, so many precepts and so many lenient and strict applications are attached to it; such-and-such a reward is attached to it.” The Israelite would answer, “Yes.” The angel would then say, “Do you accept the divinity of the Holy Blessed One?” and the Israelite would answer, “Yes, yes.” Thereupon the angel would kiss the Israelite on the mouth and the commandment would be learnt. The other Rabbis disagree with Rabbi Yochanan and say that it wasn’t an angel but the commandment itself that would fly to each Israelite and ask the same questions before kissing them on the mouth. The point is the same whether it was an angel or a commandment – this is no longer the hierarchical model of revelation but the personal, intimate one. It is not forced upon each person, but requested, invited. Of course, not all midrash is as gentle – one (Shabbat 88a) talks of God holding Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites and giving them a choice – either accept Torah or die there. Nonetheless, this specific midrash that we’re focusing on presents a very different style of community, one that I believe is far more appropriate to our community today.

In approaching each person individually, this midrash shows us that connection to Judaism is individual in the context of the larger Jewish community. We aren’t monolithic in the way we think and the way we behave. As such, everything we do within community has to be in the context of relationship – coming to understand each other, our vision, our motivation, before we can move forward. That takes education, openness, love, dialogue, and patience. 

Where this midrash falls down in the context of a Reform community is in the assumption that every Israelite says yes to every command. Were that to happen today, and an angel flew to every one of us and asked, for example, of the command to stone our rebellious child (Deut. 21:18-21), most of us would not answer “yes.” When the angel asks if we accept the Divinity of God, I think that instead of saying “Yes, yes” as in the midrash, most of our community members would answer with a question, “Well, what do you mean by God, exactly?” Not content with acceptance of top-down hierarchical authority from a supernatural being, many… perhaps most… of our members might start talking about how they relate to God, experience God, question God, wrestle with God, doubt God. The essence of Reform Judaism isn’t cherry-picking as it is often accused of being, but it is about informed choice, about balancing tradition and modernity. It’s not about obedience, about righteous people and sinners. If we are all made in the image of God, as Genesis clearly states (Gen. 1:26), then the answer “no” to an outdated ancient tradition could also be a godly response.

Jewish community today is therefore very different to the community as presented in Torah and somewhat different to how it is presented in midrash. Our community is one where we appreciate our differing spiritual journeys, educational journeys… indeed, personal life journeys. Instead of waiting for revelation on high, here at Temple Beth Shalom we seek it together in the context of community. We don’t force individuals to believe particular things or to behave in particular ways, but instead we come together in our varied and individualized expressions of Judaism from those who meet God on Sinai to those who meet God in the still, small voice (I Kings 19:11-13) to those who do not meet God at all.

And with all this in mind, we turn our attention not just to everyone in our community but specifically this week to our board members and to our new members. To our outgoing board members, we thank you for your dedication to creating a sacred space, a space of tolerance, of learning, of welcoming, of community. To you we share this prayer:

You have sustained and nourished us with the sacred wisdom and traditions of our people, helping us to teach Torah to each other, so may God bless you and keep you.

You have worked alongside us to bring the light of justice and compassion to God’s broken world, so may god’s face shine upon you and always be gracious to you.

You have helped to bear witness to our lives and accompanies us on our journey, you have helped elevate our consciousness and search for God’s presence in our lives. So, for your dedication to our community, may God lift your hearts and grant you wholeness, fulfillment and peace, and let us say, Amen.

To our incoming board members, we share this prayer:

May God help you!

I kid, of course. To our incoming board members, we pray:

Holy One of Blessing, bestow Your blessing on these leaders who have been elected to serve our community. Instill in them insight and understanding, perseverance as well as patience. Inspire them to work together in pursuit of our community’s greatest aspirations, even as they watch over its daily needs. O God, we are thankful for the dedication and giving spirit that bring our new Board members before You, prepared to devote their energies to Your service and to the benefit of us all. Grant success to their endeavors, and help them to lead us in the pursuit of our sacred mission, and let us say, Amen.

And finally, to our new members, we pray:
May we cherish your presence among us, learning and growing from your presence in our community. May we welcome you with open arms and open hearts as we together open doors of learning, of spirituality and of companionship. May we support each other through good times and through challenging times. May we grow together as travelers on a journey through life. May we help each other receive and respond authentically to the individual call to wrestle with our tradition. May we, through our connection with each other bring out the best in each other, and let us say, Amen.