Saturday, 26 May 2018

Book of Job - Book of Wisdom for Maureen Kendler

Assif is doing a learning series in memory of Maureen Kendler, teacher, friend and mentor to many of us here.  She was a literature teacher and one of her favourite books was The Book of Job, and so in her memory we have been learning it together in a six-part series.  We’re half way there.   I’m doing from chapter 22 -till chapter 37. Then Ariel is doing the next section and finally RJW is wrapping it up.

Because it’s been a while since we spoke about it, and because there may be new people here, I’ll do a quick recap. It’s a great book of literature, 42 chapters long.   Basically, Job is an innocent, successful man who fears god and shuns evil.  Then very bad things happen to him.   God and the devil are testing him by making him suffer.  Down on earth, Job’s friends try to comfort him.  They say all kinds of things like if you were truly good, God wouldn’t have punished you.  Although they try very hard, they fail.  Job finally gets it and says therefore I recant and relent being nothing but dust and ashes.  Al afar v’eifar.   Somehow finally the light has gotten in through the cracks.  He passes the test.  He becomes a wise, wealthy man, who fears god and shuns evil.  And for the rest of his life, all is good.

The structure for the middle part of the friends trying to comfort him is intriguing. It has three cycles. In each cycle, Job debates first with Elipha, then with Bildad and then with Zophar.    Andrew Cohen drew the short straw, and he had to explain the first two cycles where the friends are not being helpful. Lucky for me, the section I am looking at includes the third round of debates and chapter 28 which is a beautiful poem on wisdom.  Let’s dive in.

In the third cycle of debates it almost but not quite follows the structure of the first two cycles.  Elipha and Bildad are trying their luck to cheer up Job up with less than useful comments like if you pray to god he will listen to you and the things you ask for will be fulfilled. Thanks Elipha.

Or this sad point of view from Bildad: How can one born of women be cleared of guilt. Unsurprisingly Job sinks into a deep depression.  (As my father would say, with friends like this, who needs enemas)  Strangely, in this cycle, there is nothing from Zophar.  Instead, there is an exquisite poem of wisdom that I highly recommend you read in full, and that is chapter 28.

The pshat version of this chapter is all about going into the earth mining it for treasures.  It says human can take out precious metals from the earth. They can probe the depths of the earth, dig tunnels and take out the gold dust, the sapphires and the iron.  Barzel mei afar yikach.
It is saying:  Man can dig for gold under the earth but man can't just dig for wisdom.  All wisdom and the path to it is sometimes beyond human knowledge. In fact, I’d say for me, wisdom is usually beyond my knowledge.  Wisdom can’t be summoned at will.  It comes when it comes, and it can come to light in the very midst of our struggles and suffering.

To understand this section of the book of Job, I need to explain the difference between wisdom and understanding.
I also need to explain the difference with getting it with your eyes and with your ears.
When I talk, you hear me and what I am trying to say and you understand me.
But really you need to see what I am saying for yourself, like a thunderbolt from the sky as Rambam would say.
I also need to explain the difference between wisdom and understanding.
Bina is the Hebrew for understanding and chochmah is the word for wisdom.
Chochmah or wisdom is the thing that is outside of ourselves.   God is chochmah.
Bina is the human part. We understand profoundly that which is true.

Where can wisdom be found? What is the source of understanding? The book of Job asks.
It is hidden from the eyes of the living.
Chapter 28 ends with this: He said to man:
See. Fear of God is wisdom. To shun evil is understanding.
All wisdom is too big for us. The most we can do is to understand our place in creation and as a consequence avoid doing bad things. In other words, I want to behave well because of my perception of where I fit into the universe.
In other words, it’s a flash of knowing I am not the universe that was, is and every could be, but I am currently in that universe.  It’s an unconditional understanding that there are no personal rewards or prizes for your good behaviour from God. There is no if…then.
It starts with being in the dust, having awe of god, to see we are not the centre of the vast and complex universe that is being constantly created before our eyes.  What we understand from that is that as living actors in this magnificent creation, it’s on us not to do bad things.

The book of Job teaches us that the best thing you can do for a friend who is suffering is to stand by them, and help them specifically with things they may need, foot-cream, meals, and tissues for the tears or a cure for cancer.  That’s the easy part. The hard part is to show up to their pain, without trying to fix it for them or to share your pity.  The worst thing you can do is to point out that they are being punished for their sins by God.  That’s not true or wise.

And now the Maureen Kendler level of interpretation… Maureen’s gift was to see the treasure, the gold and the iron in all of us even when we couldn’t see it ourselves.
When she talked to me, I felt she believed that what I had to say was worth saying. And I believed her and it was life-changing.

I would like to pass on her gift to me to you today. You have gold in you although you might not always see it.  Maureen isn’t alive to see it. But I am. And so are you.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Saying the wrong thing - Behar/Be-hukkotai

The best thing about having work colleagues is that it can force you to have conversations with people with whom you profoundly disagree.
Emily sat next to me at work. She was kind, easy to get along with and worked hard. Occasionally we chatted though, about non-work things as you do, on a long day. 

Somehow we got into the subject of why the Holocaust happened. Her opinion and mine couldn't have been more different.  I believed Emil Fackenheim who noted in a footnote in a book he wrote about Holocaust theology, about a conversation he had with a fellow academic who said that it happened because Hitler wanted it to happen.  

My colleague Emily believed it had happened because the Jews of Europe had not kept Shabbat.

I was profoundly upset by her opinion; that bad things happen to people as a punishment for their sins. I thought of my lecturer who had said whatever claims you make about the Holocaust, you have to say them in front of the pyres of burning children. 
I wanted to say this to my colleague, but I couldn't get the words out. Did she really believe a good god would burn millions of innocent children because their parents hadn't kept Shabbat? I was too upset and offended to reply. 

And a literal reading of the Parasha this week supports her position. Keep the mitzvot and God will reward you, transgress and you will suffer dreadful punishments.  We read that part of the Torah quietly and fast because we don't like it. The sages from Rav in the Talmud to Rashi and Rambam do heavy lifting to generously interpret beyond the literal meaning.    Here are some examples:

Firstly my beloved Rambam who says 'Ra' (bad or evil) results from three things.
Firstly from nature – a flood that washes you away for example.
Secondly from mankind - the wars we wage or crime for example –
and thirdly from the bad we do ourselves like overeating and over drinking.
He says We suffer when we want a different reality than the one we have. And he suggests we seek a true understanding of the world we live in as a remedy for our suffering. 

From the macro to micro:
There is much made  of the repeated use of lo Tanu ish et amito ( Leviticus 25.17) 
Don't wrong/offend/harm/deceive the person who is with you. 

The Talmud interprets it to mean don't cause verbal offense and goes on and on about how bad it is to do ona'at devarim or verbal offense. Don't use nasty nicknames or cause verbal offense for example, is when a person is suffering an illness or burying a child, one shouldn't be like the friends in the book of Job saying 'whoever perished being innocent' 

Rabbi Norman Lamm has something lovely to say.  He quotes a Hasidic master, Rabbi Yitzchak of Vorke who says there are two ways to carry out the mitzvah of lo tonu ish et amitecha- the shurat ha din way is not to harm/offend others.  The higher way of doing this mitzvah or the Lifnim shurat hadin way is not to harm/offend or deceive yourself. 
In other words, be honest with yourself. 

I think that's a good place to start. I've been having interesting conversations with a new work colleague. She is grieving her mother's death from cancer.  She says she's learned a lot from the experience.  Mostly, that people will surprise you. Some will be empathic and some will not. She says you want them to acknowledge the loss rather than not speak about it, even if they get the words wrong. 

It always comes back to empathy- the showing up for another person with awareness of yourself and your own limitations. But it's very difficult to do in real life, isn't it? We've all been there. Someone tells you of their pain, and you can't bear the pain it causes you so you try to fix it for the other person. You hear a friend has cancer and you don't know what to say so you don't call. You hear a child is lonely and you give 12 suggestions before breakfast on how to make friends. Suffering is not accepting your own reality or the person you're speaking to's reality. It's not helpful or comforting.

It’s only with honesty to yourself and with the modesty of not seeing yourself as the centre of the universe, that you can be helpful to another person. 

The liberating truth is that you don’t have to have the perfect words, solutions or answers.

Paradoxically, it’s only with honesty to your own experience that you can offer true solidarity to anyone else.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Words that create reality

When I was a child in Cape Town, negotiating with my friends, my brother and sisters, in complicated scenarios of sharing, I would say to them and they would say to me sometimes:
“Ten fingers on the Jewish Torah” and we would put our hands out with fingers spread wide as we said it. We’d say it to support our truth claims, to show we weren’t lying, to show we would definitely do what we promised to do. “It wasn’t me that broke your doll, I didn’t touch it, I’m telling the truth, ten fingers on the Jewish Torah, or “lend me ten cents, I promise I will give it back, ten fingers on the Jewish Torah”   In the shared community of meaning in the playground, the torah was the external vehicle by which we held ourselves accountable. The statement “ten fingers on the Jewish torah” was what you said to guaranteed trust between two children and it cemented what you said with what you did.  It was probably created by a Jewish child who needed their own version of the Christian: “cross my heart and hope to die” and then it caught on.  Children and adults need something outside of themselves, something shared socially, a higher authority, to hold themselves accountable, something like the Torah or God.

And according to what we read in the Torah today, we are allowed to make vows to God, as long as we keep them.  We read at the beginning of Mattot, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge.  He must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” So that’s ok then, right?

But not so fast my friend. What we didn’t know in the playground in South Africa,  and what I do know now, is that there is a world of difference between what it says in the Torah and the Halachic system created by the Rabbis.  It is the vast difference between D’oreita and d’rabbanan, and contrary to what we believed in South Africa, we don’t live in D’oreita times anymore. Far from it. From the Mishna to the Talmud to the Mishnah Torah to the Shulchan Aruch, some of the laws in the Torah have been reduced, limited, ignored completely, changed and extended by a vast and living halachic system.  Some laws are literally made up out of thin air.  In the Rabbinic project that is my community of shared meaning now, the torah is the source of a muscular, living, dynamic, evolving tradition for all who cling to it. 

For example, while it says in the torah, we are allowed to make vows as long as we keep them, the rabbis, or sages were strongly against making them. They did not want people going off piste, and making vows in God’s name about not eating meat, or chocolate cake or telling the truth or even giving to charity.  So the sages created a rabbinic innovation that reduced the power of vows significantly, not just for women but for men too.  The institution of hatarat nedarim (literally, “the unbinding of vows”) allows a sage to annul vows of another person by saying “Mutar lakh” (You are unbound).

The rabbis were well aware that this innovation about releasing other people from their vows was not rooted in Torah law at all.  In the Mishnah (Hagigah 1:8), it says heter nedarim porchin ba-avir",  The laws of Heter Nedarim "float in the air" which means they are not connected at all to torah justification. Those long and complex laws of unbinding of vows in the Mishnah and later in the Gemara have no explicit Torah verses to rely upon.  But they are an essential instrument in the rabbinic system, so that people don’t suffer by promises, vows and oaths they have made, and find impossible to live by.  In fact, we start Kol Nidrei by this communal unbinding of vows and oaths.  
The Shulchan Aruch, the great Jewish law code published in Venice in 1565, that even made its way to South Africa when I was growing up, opens with the following admonition taken from the Talmud, “do not be habituated to make vows, he that makes a vow is called wicked, even vows for charitable purposes are not desirable. It is well that a person not make many vows of self-denial.   Much quoted by commentators is the line from the Yerushalmi- "aren't the laws of the Torah sufficient; must you also impose upon yourself additional obligations?” The rabbinic project opposes individual acts of extreme piety. 

And what about children in the playground swearing ten fingers on the Jewish Torah, is that allowed? Does it count? In the Talmud, Rav Nachman says it only counts if you actually holding a torah scroll when you say it, then you are referring to the letters, the laws and the name of God written there. If you aren’t holding a torah scroll and you swear by the torah, it could just mean you are swearing by the parchment.  Although I never held a Torah scroll in the playground or anywhere ever until I was in my forties, as a child, my statement about ten fingers on the Jewish torah meant something to me and to the people I said it to.  It counted to us.  What matters is what we agree matters.  It’s about shared trust in a system we agree works. It still works that way.  

Strangely, as much as I learn about changes rabbinic law makes to torah law, in my imagination there is still no higher standard or less love and respect for this fantastic endeavour that seeks for us all to live well, to live fairly, to live in community, to seek justice, mercy and to walk humbly with god.  My trust in the system remains and I continue to believe that interpreted torah is the anchor for our best selves. Eiz Chayim hi she machazikim bah.  Ten fingers on the Jewish Torah, as I used to say.  

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Now we are here - Pesach

                                                      A prosperous Viennese family celebrates Passover . 
When my grandfather’s father died in South Africa in 1936, he left £850 to the great Yeshivot of his homeland in Lithuania.  His generosity was not unusual.   Before their destruction in the Shoah, students in the palaces of learning in Lomza and Telshe were fed and clothed by wealthy South Africans like him.  In their newly adopted homeland at the bottom of Africa, wealthy Jews supported local Jewish orphanages, old-aged homes and day-schools, but the bulk of their generosity went northwards, to the Eastern Europe of their youth. 
Instead of building new yeshivot in South Africa, they supported the old ones back home.   I have no idea why.   Maybe Talmud study was seen as a relic of the dark days of tsarist oppression that had no place in sunny South Africa.  So at school in South Africa, we learned Hebrew.  At home, we celebrated festivals.  At shul, girls sat upstairs and looked at boys downstairs.   In my day, no-one learned Talmud.  I was too young for its approach and subject matter anyway.   The Talmud is not for children, boys or girls.  Its pages are dripping with blood and semen, and I have read, among other things, of farting prostitutes and ejaculating rabbis.  We truly come from a long line of carnal and argumentative people. 
It’s a book for grownups who understand that life doesn’t always go your way, no matter how good you are and how hard you try.   No one is coming to save you. By the time of the writing of the Talmud, God had left the building, leaving us in charge.  It’s a tradition with no guarantees and no promises, and nobody is perfect, least of all Jewish wise-men in Babylon in late antiquity.  It seldom has answers, instead it has great concepts that don’t exist in English, but they should.
Here are five Talmudic terms that extend my experience of the world:  
The basic unit in the Talmud is a makhl├│ket. The English word is argument but that doesn’t capture the idea that a conflict can actually bind you to another person.   Taikoo means enough already with the contradictions and the arguments. Stop. Enough is enough. Leave it.
There is a wonderful legal category in the Talmud called Tar Omet or The right to be angry.  You don’t have the right to sue or seek recompense, but you have a God-given right to be angry.  That is all.  You don’t get money in recompense or an apology. You just get the right to be angry. The right to anger is a great thing to have.  Anger is a sign that reality isn’t how you want it to be.  You have a right to shake your fist at the sky. You have the right to shout as loud as you like, for as long as you like.  But then you have to suck it up and move on.  Hang on to anger and resentment and it will blind you from seeing new possibilities.  But it starts with recognizing that you have Tar Omet.
Nistapacha Sudhu means your field got washed away. It’s a figure of speech referring to the fact that sometimes stuff happens and it’s no one’s fault.   Sometimes bad things just happen. Sorry mate, bad luck.  Your field got washed away, bummer.   In our long history, there have been many instances of our fields being washed away, and I believe we are fully entitled to have Tar Omet, but we are here now safe and sound for the moment, in London, before Pesach 2017.
Hashta Hacha means now we are here.  I know this phrase because twice a year, at my parents Seder table in South Africa, we would drink four glasses of sweet, red, homemade wine and we would sing a strange song in Aramaic called Ha Lachma Aniya. Hashta Hacha is one of the lines in that song.  That song also contains the first line of Talmud I ever learned although I didn’t know it at the time: ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat’.  

“This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt
All who are hungry come and eat,
All who need come share Pesach
This year we are here
next year in the land of Israel
This year we are slaves
next year we are free people”

This is a strange song for a hundred reasons.  Least of all, it was only as an adult that I discovered that it is entirely possible to enjoy a feast without the accompanying guilt.   When I grew up, I discovered that not all cultures start their celebrations with an ancient song written in Aramaic about letting all who are hungry come and tuck in.  From what I’ve read, Christians don’t offer some enticing bread of affliction to their starving guests either.  The Poor at a Christmas meal would receive roast dinner.   According to Ha Lachma, the Jews will offer you a dry cracker.  It was a particularly strange song to sing in South Africa when I grew up.  There were so many hungry in South Africa back then, but it wasn’t us anymore.  We had lots to eat and lived in big houses with swimming pools.  Guilt and its handmaiden, self-righteousness, sat with us at the table when we sang ‘Ha Lachma’ in Cape Town, South Africa.  But it wasn’t always like that for my ancestors.   ‘Ha Lachma’ has been sung by generations of Jews at their Pesach Seders in good times and in bad, from Babylon to North Africa, to Venice to France to Germany to Eastern Europe.  We carry this set of instructions with us as we go.  This is our story.  This is what we must do. This is where we are going.
I think of my great grandfather as a boy at his parents’ Seder-table in a tiny town in Lithuania, land of repressive legislation, the Chmielnicki massacres and grinding poverty.  ‘Now we are slaves’ he sang.  ‘Next year we will be free’.  The following year, aged 14, he freed himself from the bonds of the Pale of Settlement and got on a boat with his older brother and went to South Africa.  He did well in the land of milk and honey, but as we know from our long history, your money can go up as well as down and past performance is no guarantee of future success.    
I have no idea where my children will say Hasha Hachta, if they will stay in London or immigrate, if they will be rich or poor, slaves or free people or if they’ll have Seders of their own where they teach their own children to sing Ha Lachma or if they’ll feel connected at all to this long and rich textual history that is so precious to me.  I can only hope, and as I’ve learned from the Talmud - Taikoo

Sunday, 6 November 2016

How to talk to someone you disagree with

Trump Tower was completed in 1983 with the help of 200 undocumented Polish immigrants 

We just read about the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:2 “they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another …come let us build  us a city, and a tower with its tops in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we will be scattered all over the world” ( JPS translation)
Here mankind in a valley decide to build a massive man-made structure and their efforts are thwarted by god who makes sure the people speak different languages and so they can’t understand each other anymore.

The Talmud, which is the source of all things wise and wonderful, considers this:  why were they standing in a valley if they wanted to build a tall tower?  (B. Sanhedrin 109a).  Why didn’t they give themselves the advantage that building a tower at the top of a mountain gives you?

And I think the answer is this. In a valley, looking up, you don’t think you know the whole picture. At the top of a tall man made structure, it’s easy to think you see the whole picture.

The Tower of Babel tells of this fundamental distinction.  Before the Tower of Babel, in a valley, we all understand each other perfectly.  There is no difference in language between what is said by one person and what was understood by another. There is perfect understanding and no gap between what you want to say and how it is heard, between speaker and listener, between writer and reader; there is no interpretation of a message needed.  There is always perfect communication.

Pre-babel, when one person said anything, everybody understood the same thing. But then, to stop us trying to get too big for our boots, god made us all speak different languages.  Now we wouldn’t be able to understand each other at all, and not just because I speak English and you speak Japanese.  There’s also the gap between me speaking as a woman and you hearing as a man or me as Jew and you as a Christian or me as a Hilary fan and you as a Trump fan or me as a Pro-choice fan and you as a pro-life fan, for example.    As much as I want it to be true, not everyone in this world sees things like I do western, liberal Zionist, feminist that I am. 

The best experiences I’ve had is when I’ve switched from post-babel standing at the top of the tower thinking the limits of my understanding of the world are the limits of the world, to pre-babel thinking which is a knowing that I don’t see the whole picture, I can’t see the whole picture and that no one else can either.  

For example, I didn’t know that different religions use the same word in different ways – I didn’t know until I listened to a Christian person on a long train journey once that the word faith in god for him is like an either/ or proposition. You do or you don’t.  To me as a Jewish person, it was more like trust; sometimes you feel it more or less than other times.  Who knew? it was exactly the same word understood in two completely different ways! I didn’t have to stop believing what I did and he didn’t either. It was a great conversation because neither of us where trying to convert the other, we were just saying what we understood in the valley.

And then there’s the god idea.  I’m not talking about a simple difference in signs like Adonai, or the eternal and infinite thing, or what will be will be, or Allah or Deo or nkosi as we say in South Africa, but what that sign signifies to each user is almost impossible to explain.  Any name we give god is not god.  To believe that what you understand by the term god is universal is definitely post-babel.   All words separate, including the word for god.  Every time we name god, we fracture the infinite and bind it to a separated form.  We can’t see the whole of the moon.

Happily, we can get back to the pre-babel place for an instant when we feel safe enough to talk honestly without being judged and when we listen to each other the same way.  When we listen not to argue or to wait for my turn to speak or to evaluate the other person, it’s when we listen seeing that this is the limit to my understanding and allowing for the separate space of the other person’s understanding. I’m not talking about self-denial; I’m talking about a movement of self-transcendence.

I tried it with my children once. One at a time, I listened to them without judgement or needing to correct them or to harp on about my agenda; I listened to them in a pre-Babel, whole-hearted way. And it was magical.

We can listen and talk like this to family, friends and even taxi drivers. We can get back to pre-Babel when we say and hear the Shma, when as a community, we all participate in the way I understand god - in the experience of listening and speaking as part of the whole, in solidarity, self-transcendence and in peace.

Potentially I could even enjoy a conversation with a Trump supporter, and really understand how they see the world without trying to convert them.  But it would have to start with neither of us on our lofty perches, and both of us in the valley.  Anything is possible.

Shabbat Shalom                                                                                                         

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Life is Change-Parashat Behar

I had a very strange childhood, probably very unlike yours.  I grew up in Apartheid South African and there was no TV and if you didn't like sports, there wasn't much to do except read.  My sisters and I pretended we were the Bronte sisters and we would recite poetry for fun.  One of the poems we really liked was this one by Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It felt like that in South Africa then to us.  It felt like we had to hold tighter, run away or hide.  Dialogue or change didn't seem possible then, but who knew that behind the fear, it was there all along.   

Although I still feel echoes of the Yeats poem occasionally, I see there’s another way to see life, rather than as a centre that cannot hold. 

Life is change.  Despite how it looks, it’s not frozen in time like frames in a movie.  It’s a slow gradual process powered by a force that we have no control over.   

That’s the theme in the portion we read this week, that life can change for any of us at any moment- you can be very rich and powerful,  and then lose it all, but always be kind because it could be you, and it was never really yours anyway.   I wonder about Donald Trump if he looks at his good fortune and believes he’s earned it and that he’s entitled to it, instead of seeing it as dumb trust-fund luck.

In our tradition too, there has been so much truth entitlement, and so much change -
From a tribe of whining ex-slaves marching around the desert for 40 years, receiving the Torah at Sinai, and finally getting to Israel, we build the first temple, it goes down, we build the second temple; it goes down too, all is nearly lost.  Good bye Essenes, Sadducees, proto-Christians, hello Pharisees.   We smuggle the essence out in a coffin, thank you Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, and then we write the Mishna, then some of us go into exile where we write the Babylonian Talmud.  In the Babylonian Talmud (and in the Jerusalem Talmud) many changes are made to the laws given at Sinai.  The Babylonian Talmud wins out.

Then some of us reject the Babylonian Talmud entirely, goodbye Karaites.  We don’t follow that line.  Our people take it with them along with the Mishnah and the Torah and march around Europe, Asia and North Africa arguing about God, faith and reason, Thank you Maimonides for making things so clear, although God knows you annoyed the believers in magic.

In the 18 century, we cross a very narrow bridge but the main thing is not to be afraid - thank you Rav Nachman of Breslov, thank you Hasidim.  Mitnagdim object to Hasidim and they fight like crazy.   I believe there were all kinds of battles going on in Germany too with the birth of the reform movement and modern orthodoxy as a response to that, and there is more fighting involved. But  unconcerned with the entire western European enlightenment, my line are the Mitnagdim from Lithuania who go to South Africa where we sang the national anthem Die Stem at school but we also sang Hatikva because later my people up North were assigned the state of Israel in 1948.  Anything is possible I tell you.

Many years after leaving South Africa, I stand here today with you.  I love it here, the people are lovely, the Kiddish is good and because from what I can tell, our rabbis are particularly outstanding people who see the big picture.  I wish it would stay like this forever, but I have no doubt there’s more change on the way, but we’ll be ok.  I have hope.

Like life itself that finds a way, Judaism is a living breathing thing that has evolved slowly. Halacha evolves at the speed of a glacier, Takana after Takana, adapting to life’s needs as it progresses, but it happens so slowly we don’t even notice. 

I think of the priests in the Temple that blew their trumpets at the end of Beit Hashoeivah, a fun-filled festival at the end of Sukkot that sadly we don’t have any more. It sounded like a blast.  The Mishnah describes how the priests blew their trumpets at the upper gate and then down the steps and then through the court of women, blowing their tekiah and truah all the while, and then on to the East gate where they said “our eyes are turned towards God”  

Those priests must have loved their procession and were probably not happy when it ended.  But it did.  Things took a different turn and we carried on the procession in a different way.  Our temple is no longer the literal temple encased in walls, and we no longer celebrate with harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets, but we keep finding new ways to sound the notes and proclaim our place in the scheme of things.   We don’t go backwards, we go forwards.  Our eyes are still turned towards God.

What doesn’t change in this Judaism project of ours?  What is the essence, the one core value?  The prime directive?  It’s something I think about a lot.  Here are some thoughts…

1.     Maybe it’s related to the full range of the human experience Jewish practise supports, from grief to joy to desire and to belonging
2.     Maybe it’s related to the power of the Talmud that holds a kingdom of conflicting opinions where no one human is allowed to own the entire truth.
3.     Maybe it’s related to emunah, the flickering experienced and felt trust in a force bigger than myself.   In this imagined place, any moment is suspended between two sky hooks, the creation of the universe in the past and the possibility of an ideal future that we help create. 
4.     One final possibility is suggested at the end of Behar, the torah reading this week, although I’m open to any other ideas.   The main thing is not to make any idols to worship and all the implications of human responsibility that radical monotheism demands.

Not to believe there is more god in some things than in others   
Or to believe your way has more god in it than the other ways 
That your land is more blessed by god than any other land 
That your good fortune is an indication of your special privilege, instead of seeing it as just on loan. 

Sometimes we get to be the ones who look after others and sometimes we have to be the one who needs a little help from their friends.  

This I know for sure, that in the moment of listening to another person without judgement, or being really heard by another person, and in the moment of love and surrender, I've felt part of the intact, infinite space I call god.  There is no action, no land and no language that is not part of that.  It is a safe, shared, sacred space.  It is a place of hope and possibility. 

It is the only centre that holds and goes on holding…the rest is just to point the way.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Shabbat Zachor 1941

There’s lots about this week’s Torah and Haftorah reading I don’t like – I’m not such a fan of the sacrifices discussed in the torah portion, and there is so much in the Haftorah story I find abhorrent. I don’t believe God told Samuel to tell Saul to kill the men, women and children and all their animals. I don’t believe bad things happened to those innocent children and the animals because god told his prophet to tell his king to authorise his soldiers to kill them. In front of the pyres of burning children, I’m not pointing fingers at god; I’m pointing fingers at humans. It's humans that need to learn to behave better, not god.

In fact, in the whole dividing line in Judaism between love of god and fear of god, I’m more in the former camp.  I’m more about the chesed or lovingkindness than the din or law. I prefer Hillel to Shammai, statutes to codes, the Talmud to the Shulchan Aruch.

But as I get older, I see there is great value to the law part too, to deprioritising your personal rights to eat anything anytime, to keeping Shabbat, and to sanctifying life.  The ultimate code of Jewish law is the shulchan aruch.  It was written in Israel, by Yosef Karo in 1563 and published in Venice two years later.  That means it was written just in time for the revolution of the printing press to carry it on its wings to small communities everywhere. There was probably a copy in my great grand-parents community in Lithuania. There was certainly a copy in my parent’s home in South Africa when I was growing up.  It has been the most widely consulted source of Jewish practise for the past 500 years.

Here are two laws from the Shulchan Aruch that apply to us today particularly:
“There are those that maintain that the reading of Parshat Zachor and Parshat Parah is a Torah obligation.  Therefore, people living in an area in which there is not a congregation are obligated to come to a place that has a minyan for these Shabbatot.  This is in order to hear these Torah readings that are Torah commandments.” (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 685:7)                                                                                                                        
And also
“A minor who has reached the age of ''Hinuch'' (5 or 6 depending) and he knows to whom one is blessing, and knows how to pronounce the letters correctly, may receive the Aliyah of Maftir on Shabbat and a Festival, except for the portions ''Zachor'' and Parah”

These laws are based on the assumption that it is D’oreita to read the Amalek section because it says directly “remember what Amalek did to you” It is a basic one of the 613 mitzvot. There is even the assumption in very orthodox circles that women are also obligated to hear these words.

It’s a really important law because it roots a long story of persecution, devastation and survival to the original story of persecution, devastation and survival.  It makes a certain aspect of Jewish history a joined-up story rather than meaningless, random sad stories.

Because we are commanded to remember, and we have been commanded for so long, via the laws of the shulchan aruch, and because of the power of the printing press, I can be sure that every year for hundreds of years back, Jews in Spain, in Germany, in Lithuania, in Poland, in Egypt, in Palestine, in Syria and in Iraq, men and women, heard these words, and the ones that survived Chleminicki and other pogroms, the blood libels, the expulsion from Spain and England and the crusades, were the remnant that heard these words and remembered the suffering of those who didn't make it out alive.  

We remember for ourselves, not for the dead.   

We remember to remind ourselves that any personal story of suffering can be mixed into a bigger story of suffering, and that there will be no unseen, unremembered suffering.   It gives shape to pain and comfort from the hope that while I won’t make it out of here alive, some else will.

Someone who didn't make it out alive was my great grandmother, Agnesia Steinman.  Yad Vashem records note she was murdered in the Shoah.  She was shot in the forests of Lithuania alongside her daughter, and four of her grand-children.   There is no documentary evidence of her last moment. No-one recorded her last words. It’s horrible to think that like for the millions that died in the forests and in the trucks, in the ghettoes and in the crematoria, her last moments in front of the guns with her family around her, knowing they were going to be killed, were  unseen and un-witnessed.

Instead, I prefer to imagine I go back in time, to 1941 before they were taken, to where she is standing in shul on Shabbat Zachor.  We stand together behind the mehitza.

I can see her strong, intelligent face listening to this portion next to me, and I put my arm around her and I say to her:

 “I will remember what Amalek does to you. Your suffering will be remembered, and because I am alive to remember, all will not be lost”