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