Thursday, 30 April 2015

Tales of Light and Darkness

The news of the horrendous earthquake in Nepal has punctured my week; as I know it has done for so many of us. My thoughts and prayers are with those bereft. Susan Neiman, in her book, Evil in Modern Thought, documents how the earthquake that struck Lisbon in the mid-eighteenth century can be seen as the starting point for the collapse of religious world-views that sought to claim there is indeed perfect order in the world. There is something utterly appalling in the loss of life and the misery and suffering of those left behind. In her book Neiman documents how Leibniz’s claim that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’ was exposed to ridicule in the aftermath of that quake, and it’s easy to feel bereft when facing the disasters of today. Of course the Bible’s itself finds earthquakes empty of redemptive possibility. Elijah is told to look out over a plate-tectonic rupture and is told God was not present in that moment. In the Book of Kings God’s presence is manifest only in a ‘still small voice.’ I suspect for us today God’s presence comes in the small moments of kindness, moments of possibility even amongst the destruction. I think that is why it is so important to respond to destruction with an act of Tzedakah – a charitable gift, these gifts, even of a few pounds are pinpricks of redemption amongst the darkness.

 

I’m proud our BM group of our Cheder responded, on the day after the quake, by organising a collection – funds were paid over to the World Jewish Relief Nepal Earthquake Disaster Appeal. And proud too of the responses of so many of our members who replied to share that they too have responded to this moment of darkness with a gift of hope, life and redemptive possibility.

 

In this week of darkness I’ve been lifted by a very different event, hosted at New London on Wednesday evening. We were approached to host an evening of music featuring the poetry of the great Arabic mystic Ibn Al-Arabi, and the great Rabbinic scholar and philosopher Abraham Ibn-Ezra. The event, organised by the Maqam Project at SOAS and Jewdas, was a marvellous success, most notable for the presence of 400 people come together to hear an oud player and his drummer provide accompaniment for poems a thousand years old sung in languages very few understood. Or maybe 400 people turned up to New London for a different reason. Maybe the real reason for the vast attendance was that we all wanted to celebrate the possibility of a connection between Jewish and Arabic culture, no matter how esoteric. Certainly that sense of connection was palpable at the concert. It was joyous and genuinely moving. In the moments between the last note of the concert and the warm applause there was a glimmer of light, possibility itself existed – another pinprick of light. After all the darkness, the loss of life, the earthquakes and everything else, it was special indeed to hear the still small voice.

 

To donate to World Jewish Relief’s Nepal Disaster Relief Appeal, please click [here - https://www.wjr.org.uk/]

For a short video taken at the concert, please click [here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xNOrJeDgX4&feature=youtu.be]

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

A Celebration of Arabic & Jewish Culture - at New London













What a great evening at New London.

Ed Emory from the Maqam Project of SOAS and the Jewdas team brought four wonderful musicians to the Synagogue to perform the poetry of Ibn Al-Arabi and Abraham Ibn Ezra.

A video of the final piece of the evening - and what an evening - is here.


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

On Aliyot for the Daughters of Cohenim (And Levy'im)

 

SAMS STANDARDS

Policy on Bat Cohen

 

Question:

As a community that gives first aliyah to cohanim and (otherwise) gives aliyot equally to men and women, which aliyot should the daughters of cohanim receive?

Also, does the marriage of a daughter of a cohen to a non-cohen, or the marriage of a yisraelit to a cohen, change matters regarding the aliyot that she should receive?

Also, what appellation should be given to a woman who is the daughter/wife of a cohen?

Finally, is there any difference between the law as applies for the daughters of cohanim and those of leviim?

 

Answer:

This is an untidy issue for Masorti jurisprudence. We are caught, as a movement, between one ancient tradition that gives special honour to a select few and the desire to honour all, a tradition that has ancient roots, but is also shaped particularly by a contemporary understanding of the role of women. Moreover, we are standing on thin ice in the search for Rabbinic authority on which to rely, the tradition not having dealt systematically with the issue of giving women aliyot until 1955.

 

The two leading treatments are by Rabbi Joel Roth in a paper accepted by the American CJLS[1] (which suggests that women should receive first aliyot) and a paper by Rabbi Raphael Harris accepted by the Israeli Vaad Halacha (which suggests they should not).[2]

 

The Cohen and the First Aliyah (As Applied to Males)

Mishnah Gittin 5:8 reads,

 

The cohen reads first, the levi after him and the yisrael after him, because of the ways of peace [mipnei darkei shalom].

 

By the time of the Shulchan Arukh it is settled that, ‘even if the cohen is an ignoramus, they still read first, even before the wisest scholar in Israel’ (OH 135:4). It is also settled halachah that one cannot call a cohen to anything other than the first aliyah, maftir or extra hosafot aliyot. The exception to this is in the case:

 

Where there is no levi in the Synagogue. Then the cohen who read first, blesses a second time in place of [bimkom] the levi. But you don’t call a different cohen, lest people say the first is flawed [pagum]. (SA OH 135:8)

This concern not to suggest that a cohen is flawed, or pagum, is an important feature in the laws relating to distribution of aliyot. The concern is so strong that the Mishnah Brurah even prohibits calling the son of the first cohen to read bimkom levi since one might think that the father married a divorcee or otherwise made profane the priestly standing of his own son (OH 135:29). There is, throughout the relevant material in the Shulchan Arukh and Mishneh Brurah, a concern not to embarrass anyone with genuine cohen lineage by giving them, or anyone else, an aliyah that might suggest otherwise.

 

The Rabbis use a number of verses to find scriptural authority for this claim. The most satisfactory claim is based on Leviticus 21:8, as understood by the Talmud Gittin 59b.[3]

 

And you shall make [the Priest] kodesh.

The school of Yishmael taught ‘make kodesh’ in all matters connected to kedushah. To open first [receive the first aliyah], to bless first [lead birkat hamazon] and to get first choice on the best portions.

 

Holiness, in a post-Temple Jewish world, becomes ‘going first’. This explanation stresses the connection between getting the first aliyah and avodat hakodesh – the work of the Priest in the Temple. The first aliyah, therefore, is some kind of zecher l’mikdash – a memory of the time of the Temple; however the extent to which this is the case will be addressed in more detail below.

 

The Status, Rights and Obligations of the Daughter of a Cohen

The child of any kosher marriage takes the status of the father, and this applies equally to sons and daughters. Mishnah Kiddushin 3:12 states:

 

Whenever there is kiddushin and there is no sin [in the coupling of father and mother], the child follows [the status] of the male [the father].

And who is this? This is a female Cohen, Levite or Israelite to a male Cohen, Levite or Israel.[4]

 

Therefore the daughters of a male cohen and a parent allowed to marry a cohen are considered cohanot (a Rabbinic term used, as we will see below, in the Mishnah).

 

But what does this mean in terms of the religious rights and responsibilities of the Priesthood? Rabbi Harris suggests there are no implications; that wherever the Rabbis discuss matters of cultic or ritual significance only the males are addressed. In doing so, he claims, they develop the androcentricity of verses regarding the Priesthood in the Bible. Numbers 3:15, for example, states:

 

Count the bnei Levi, according to their tribe and their family, count all the males from one month upwards.

 

It is clear that both sons and daughters of a male cohen are permitted to eat Terumah – special foods made available to the cohen and, as Leviticus 22:11 states, anyone born in his house. However, Rabbi Harris dismisses that this can teach us anything about aliyot since the right to eat terumah is entirely ‘relational’, i.e. dependent on her relation to her father and does not vest in the daughter in her own right. Certainly the way in which the Mishnah treats the daughter of a cohen’s right to eat other foods made available for the Priesthood doesn’t suggest her ability to eat them is in any way a special right that is her own.

 

The Thanksgiving offering and the Shlamim offering are light offerings … and they are eaten in any part of the city… The cuts which are raised up as a heave offering are eaten by Priests, their women, their children and their slaves. (Mishnayot Zevachim 5:5 & 6 conflated for ease of presentation)

 

Notice the classic Mishnaic triplet of women, kids and slaves. It leads one to consider that the religious idea driving the Mishnah is looking after those who cannot look after themselves (in the eyes of the Mishnah) rather than recognising any inherent holiness in the wife or daughter of a priest.

Mishnah Sotah 3.7 – while recognising the daughters of cohanim as ‘cohanot’ – nonetheless makes clear that daughters of cohanim have very different (and fewer) rights and obligations than their brothers.

 

What is the difference between a cohen and cohanot? …

Cohanot can profane their status [by marrying converts or divorcees], a cohen can not.

Cohanot is allowed to become unclean through attending the dead, a cohen can not.

Cohanot cannot eat kodshim [one category of foods given to the priestly class], a cohen can.

 

These texts and those like them leave Rabbi Harris inclining against upsetting the ancient primacy of the male-cohen in the context of receiving the first aliyah. Since, Rabbi Harris claims, the first aliyah is intimately related to Priestly service and since women didn’t do Priestly service, and especially since change might be perceived as controversial, he recommends shav v’al toseh – sit tight and don’t do anything.

 

How Close is the Relationship Between Temple Priestly Service and the First Aliyah?

Rabbi Roth suggests that if the contemporary rights and obligations of the Cohen were entirely contingent on being able to do Priestly service in Temple times one would expect that baalei mumin – those with certain physical blemishes who were prohibited from Temple service – would also be prohibited from the rights, and exempt from the obligations, of the contemporary cohen. But this is not the case. Baalei mumin are allowed to eat of the holiest sacrifices, they may officiate at the ceremony of the egel arufah, bless the people and must not defile themselves by attending on the dead.[5] This opens the possibility of the cohen having rights and obligations that are not contingent on their ability to do Temple service, but rather solely a function of their birth into the family of the sons of Aaron. This raises the question of whether the right to the first aliyah should be seen as such a right, or as a right contingent on the ability to do Priestly service.

 

Rabbi Roth has discovered a fascinating, and tragic, case which casts some light on this issue. A cohen, the victim of Nazi persecution, has been castrated. Can he get the first aliyah? Rav Oshri held that if there is no other cohen around, the man can since:

 

The elements of the priestly prerogative [including the right to receive the first aliyah] are not contingent on his serving at the altar at all, and even where a priest is not entitled to serve at the alter, as a baal mum, he nonetheless retains the sanctity of the priesthood and [he should be permitted to receive the first aliyah].[6]

 

All of which suggests that the right to the first aliyah is not as closely connected to Priestly service (and therefore is not as androcentric) as we might have thought.

 

When the Daughter of a Priest Marries a Non-Priest

Leviticus 22:12 states:

 

The daughter of a Priest - when she [marries a non-Priest] - should no longer eat the holy trumah.

 

We see a similar sentiment in the Talmud, Yevamot 87a, commenting on Numbers 18:19:

 

I have given you all these holy trumot, to you, your sons and daughters while they are with you.

Rava stated ‘with you’ only when they are with you [i.e. not ‘with’ anyone else].

 

This is very significant authority for the notion that a significant part of priestly rights, gained by the daughter of a cohen on birth, is lost on her marriage to a non-cohen. But it is too much to say that all the rights of the daughter of a priest pass on marriage. Some quasi-priestly rights persist.

 

Firstly we should consider the case of pidiyon haben – redemption of the firstborn. The ‘opening of the womb’ of a yisraelit woman must be redeemed by a cohen. However, if the mother was herself a daughter of a cohen (or levi) the child is exempt, regardless of the status of the father. Even the Talmud professes surprise at this.

But doesn’t the Bible say [we should consider the child] according to their families, their father’s house [a very common phrase, especially at the beginning of Numbers]. However Mar, son of Rav Yosef says the matter depends on the [status of the woman with the] womb. (Bekorot 47a) [7]

 

Secondly, there is the case of eating trumah bshogeg. If a non-cohen mistakenly eats trumah they have to repay to the Priest what they have eaten with a 20% additional fine (see Leviticus 22:14). But if the accidental trumah nosher is a Priest’s daughter who has married a non-cohen, she is exempt from the surcharge (Mishnah Terumot 7:2).[8] 

 

Matanot Cehunah – gifts to the Priests of the shoulders, cheeks and stomach – can also be given to daughters of cohanim even when married to non-cohanim. Ulla, one of the great Rabbis of the Talmud, specifically understood the relevant verse he should give them to the priest (Deut 18:3) to include women married to non-cohamin.[9]

 

The same is true of the first shearing of a sheep, also a priestly gift. As Rambam points out:

 

The first shearing is ordinary [hol] in every regard. Therefore I say that one gives it to the daughter of the cohen even though she is married to an Israelite, like animal gifts. It seems to me that one rule applies to both. (MT Bikurim 10:17)

 

When Rambam considers the first shearing ‘ordinary’ he makes a key point – namely that the right to these gifts is NOT connected to the ‘holy’ Priestly service (performed exclusively by males). This makes clear that there are some rights of the priest that can be considered ‘holy’ – i.e. intimately connected to Priestly service (and only open to men) while other rights can be considered ‘ordinary’, i.e. based on being born into a special family and, as such, a right that might apply equally to men and women. The question is whether the right of the first aliyah is a ‘holy’ or an ‘ordinary’ right accruing to the priestly line.

 

Rabbi Roth makes the claim that the right is ordinary; he claims that the collection of instances where the special treatment of a daughter of a cohen persists even post-marriage:

Makes it reasonable and proper for the Law Committee to decide that daughters of priests and levites be accorded the same aliyot that are normally accorded to priests and levites. This should be the case whether they are single or married. Their status regarding being called to the Torah should not be determined by the lineage of their husbands, but by their own paternal lineage.

 

The Teshuvot of Rabbis Roth and Harris

Rabbi Roth makes two claims: firstly that the right of first aliyah is ‘ordinary’ and not directly connected to temple service and secondly that there are enough priestly rights in the daughter of a Priest to allow us to consider that she should receive the first aliyah even after she has married a non-cohen.

With a certain amount of trepidation I am not entirely unconvinced by my teacher’s analysis, particularly as applied to a married woman.

 

On the connection between Temple service and the first aliyah, while the case of a baal mum is of interest, it does not, for me, trump the connection between Priestly service in Temple times and the notion of ‘going first’. (See the statement of the School of Yishmael, Gittin 59b discussed above.)

 

Moreover, while some vestiges of priestly rights do remain with the daughter of a cohen after her marriage, the examples cited above should be read narrowly and not as a general case. It is no surprise to see the focus on the ‘womb’ (mother) in the case of pidiyon ha-ben, particularly given other applications of this rule. The case of the accidental trumah nosher can be explained simply in terms of a concession to a reality – she used to be able to eat terumah, so if she makes a mistake in her married state there ought to be some understanding here. This leaves the issue of Priestly gifts, which is hardly a crushing precedent, certainly when compared to the far more general notion that a daughter of a priest who marries a non-priest is considered to have left the house of her father to join that of her husband.

 

I also have serious misgivings with the approach of Rabbi Harris. His claim that, in matters relating to religious ritual, there is no kedushah applied to the daughter of the priest goes too far, particularly in the case of the unmarried daughter. Furthermore, Harris’s recommendation, shav v’al toseh – sit tight and don’t do anything – is not a workable principle for a community where you have to make some decision about what aliyot to give women. It is wrong to claim that these women are not cohanot (at least until marriage) and therefore giving her a later aliyah is an affront and suggests a p’gamah or flaw in her priestly lineage, which I am unwilling to do. One could duck the issue by only giving such women maftir or hosafot (rarely distributed) aliyot, but this seems cowardly and is frankly unfair (might one even say an affront to darkei shalom – the ways of peace). That said, I consider Harris correct in claiming that the wife of a cohen has only a relationship to the cehuna and should not be considered a cohen in her own right.

 

Appellations

None of this has any impact on the name by which a woman is called to the Torah. The daughter of a cohen is to be called X bat Y Ha-Cohen, regardless of who she subsequently marries. The reason for retaining the marker ‘ha-cohen’ has nothing to do with the status of the woman; rather it is a reference to the father. We can learn this principle from laws relating to the writing of legal documents, such as bills of divorce.

 

In our lands [when putting the names of a husband into a get] we write X ben Y ha-cohen, or ha-levi. This is also the standard regarding the father of the woman, we write [X bat Y] ha-cohen, or ha-levi even if [the woman’s father] has become an apostate. (Kav Naki, Seder Ha-Get par. 24)[10]

 

The fact that this statement appears in discussion of a woman who has been married makes it clear that the daughter of a cohen retains the honorific in her name regardless of who she marries. We can also learn, from this focus on the father of the person, that a yisraelit who marries a cohen does not pick up an honorific on marriage.

 

Conclusion

I would like to chart a middle path between Rabbis Roth and Harris. Daughters of a cohen do have some personal connection to the kedushah of their fathers and they should therefore receive the first aliyah while they are ‘with their fathers’, i.e. not married. However, if they marry a non-cohen they should be considered to have left the house of their father and entered that of their husband. The wife of a cohen has only a relationship to the priesthood and her marriage should not impact on the aliyot that she should receive. I should also state that I have seen nothing applicable to the matter at hand that suggests that the wives or daughters of leviim should be treated differently to cohanim.

 

 

Halachah L’Maseh – Practical Matters

  • The unmarried daughter of a cohen should be eligible only for first aliyah (as cohen), maftir and hosafot.
  • The daughter of a cohen who marries a non-cohen shall be eligible for the same aliyot as her husband, [11] though she shall still be called to the Torah X bat Y Ha-Cohen.
  • The daughter of a yisrael who marries a cohen shall continue to be only eligible for shlishi and subsequent aliyot.
  • The same rules shall apply to the daughter of a levi. With the exception that the daughter of a levi who marries a cohen does not become eligible for the first aliyah; rather she should continue to receive second aliyah, maftir and hosafot.

 

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

St Albans Masorti Synagogue

July 2006

 

 



[3] The other attempts are based on Deut 31:9, 21:5 and I Chron 23:13, but they need not delay us at this time.

[4] This explains why the child of a female cohen and a yisrael is considered a yisrael

[5] See Zevahim 101b, Sifra Deut piska 208, Megillah 24b and Sifra to Lev 21:1 & 6 respectively.

[6] Responsa Mi ma-amikim 2:7, p.41. My emphasis.

[7] See Bekhorot 47a tosafot DHM Mar, MT Bikkurim 11:10, SA YD 301.18. My emphasis.

[8] See also Emor 6:2, 97d, which explains the reason being that the daughter of a Priest is not to be considered a ‘stranger’ to terumah even after her marriage to a stranger.

[9] Hulin 131b; see also Rashi.

[10] I am grateful to Rabbi Charles Kraus for providing me with this source.

[11] This would also apply in the case of daughter of a cohen who married a levi. She would be able to receive the second aliyah even though the daughter of a yisrael who marries a levi remains a yisrael. Cohanim should correctly be seen as a subset of leviim, not a different grouping. Therefore such a woman leaves the particular (the cehunah) and enters the general category of her husband (in this case the family of levi) in the same way that the daughter of a cohen who marries a yisrael leaves the particular (the cehunah) and enters the general category of her husband (the family of yisrael).

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Asylum Drop-In - A Pesach Call

Dear Friends,

 

Our sister synagogue, the New North London has, for the last 9 years, been carrying out heroic work at a drop-in centre for destitute asylum seekers, providing them once a month with hot food and clothing along with supermarket and travel vouchers. The service has been so successful that they are full to capacity and have now reached out to our own community to see if we might be able to provide a similar service for 80 clients who they can sadly no longer accommodate.

To do this we need VOLUNTEERS to commit to regularly preparing for the monthly event. This requires sorting through donations of clothing, cooking simple filling foods and collecting the vouchers for the clients. And we need other volunteers to come down on the day (to a venue in North London) to serve the food, distribute the vouchers and just chat with the visitors in a friendly environment over a cup of tea.

 

Amongst these volunteers we need a couple people to step up as COORDINATORS, taking a leadership role in overseeing this core group.

 

Lastly, this initiative is not expensive but it will take some funding. There are few overheads, but each client will be provided with £5 travel and £10 supermarket vouchers. We’re also looking for DONORS. We welcome pledges large and small. £15 per month will provide one voucher for one person.

 

This is a terrific time to be reaching out to the community – with Pesach’s messages of freedom and hospitality so timely. It would be so fitting to be able to provide a welcome to new strangers, the largest numbers of whom come from Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan and Syria.

 

If you have questions, please let me know.

If you would like to volunteer, might be interested in being a donor or even a coordinator, please let me know so we can forge ahead with this project.

 

Happy Passover

 

Yours,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

Monday, 30 March 2015

Slavery - Them and Us, Then and Now

Pesach comes closer

 

I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of a panel on freedom at New North London this week. The tales of oppression and bondage were heartbreaking. The notion that slavery is a thing of the past is absurd.

The question is –where are we in all this?

Hillel suggests the perfect balance, almost 2000 years ago. ‘If I am not for myself, then who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I?’

The most frequently articulated command of the Torah is the obligation to love or not oppress the ‘ger.’ The word – ‘ger’ – is often used today to describe a convert. But in the Torah it refers to an outsider to our society, someone who wants to be part of this society, but is apart from it. The insistence on paying attention to the ‘ger’ is surely due to the ease with which we look past the new immigrant, the asylum seeker and the like, especially if we perceive they don’t embrace every element of our societal values.

 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate there are between 3-5,000 victims of forced labour in the UK alone, let alone the cotton pickers of Ukraine, the domestic workers enslaved to debt-bondage in so many countries, and so many others. In a recent report they suggest that Forced Labour is the less an isolated crime, and more one extreme of a spectrum of labour abuses. These are abuses we can focus on, and act upon, or ignore in search of ever cheaper, ever less regulated goods and services. We live in a much more confusing world; the very terms ‘modern slavery,’ ‘forced labour,’ ‘human trafficking’ are awkward, conflated and confusing. But the message is clear. There are human beings, created in the image of God, who are being oppressed to produce for goods and services which we consume. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, speaking as part of the same panel as I, reminded us of the Jewish insistence on asking questions; at the Seder table most especially. It’s all too easy to consume behind a veil, not asking questions about how and by whom the things we consume came to be. It’s not good enough.

 

The verse that begins, ‘do not oppress the “ger”’ so often continues, ‘for you were “gerim” in the land of Egypt.’ Our own experiences, and not just the experiences of ancient millennia should sensitise us to the awfulness of slavery, in all its forms.

 

More information on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on modern slavery, in this country at;

http://www.jrf.org.uk/topic/forced-labour

Tzedek is a Jewish organisation working, among other projects, to provide fair trade employment possibilities in the poorest countries in the world.

http://tzedek.org.uk/ 

Truah, ‘the rabbinic call for human rights’ campaigns, among other things, for tomato pickers in Florida. The organisation has a Haggadah available for download at

http://truah.org/resources-91356/holidays/passover.html

 

 

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

New London Synagogue

0207 328 1026

www.newlondon.org.uk

@rabbijeremy

Sermons and other stuff on the blog

www.rabbionanarrowbridge.blogspot.co,uk

 

 

Friday, 27 March 2015

Shabbat Hagadol - that which justly belongs to the stranger

In the Haftarah we read on the Shabbat before Passover is this verse;

 

At that time I [God] will put you on trial for judgement. I will be a swift witness against you, against those who turn away from the stranger that which is their right.

 

That last piece is a little tricky, ‘turn away from the stranger that which is their right.’ The Hebrew is umatei ger

 

The ger piece is easy to understand.

The ger is the stranger, the outsider to a society. In Biblical times it was the non-Israelite living amongst the people of Israel. The thing about the ger was that they didn’t get access to the land.

The land was divided between the tribes of Israel – and if you had land you could take care of yourself. And if you didn’t have land you had to rely on the kindness of others.

The ger, the landless of Biblical times are perfectly brought up to date with some combination of those challenging words of contemporary political discourse. Biblical ger is the immigrant, the asylum seeker, the refugee, the economic migrant, the undocumented worker, the person who comes to clean your office late at night for £6.50 an hour, the person who is too scared to go to the police to complain they’ve been mistreated by their gang leader, or made to work in unsafe conditions or for inhumanly long hours because they don’t see the police as there to support them.

 

The Bible – this ancient document – and the prophet book of Malachi is dated to 2,500 years ago – knows all about these unseen, unsettled, undocumented, unlanded strangers. Don’t cheat the labourer of their hire – Malachi warns. Just like so many of the other prophets.

 

But here’s the thing.

What is matei ger? Actually no-one quite knows, and there are as many different translations as there are translators.

There is a passage in the Palestinian Talmud, Chagigah suggesting the word has something to do with turning away - mateh. You bring on God as a witness against you if you turn away from the stateless. The Hebrew word mateh which sounds a little like matei, but is spelt a little differently. Actually, that passage in the Talmud does something very special with the spelling difference. Matei is understood as mateh mimeni or matei turning away from Me.

You mateh or turn away from the stranger, God warns, you turn away from Me, God.

 

God’s on the side of the powerless, the landless. To turn towards God is to turn towards the edges of society, where there is no safety net and a person can just drop off into penury.

 

The great Biblical commentator on Prophets, Metzudat David says that this strange word matei  means justice. That which justly belongs to the ger. You bring on God as a witness against you for taking away from the ger what is justly theirs.

Now that struck me.

Matei ger – that which justly belongs to the stranger.

The thing is the stranger doesn’t have anything. The whole test of being a stranger is being landless, being without the most important thing a person could own – in the old days.

Maybe that’s precisely the point.

The ger has only the clothes they stand in, the food they are given, the result of the kindness they are shown.

Mistreating a stranger might sound like easy pickings. After all who is going to stand up for the undocumented among us, the asylum seeker who has been told they a have to go home.

But, Malachi warns us, God is watching.

 

And this stark warning comes in the Haftarah for the week before Pesach.

 

It’s so apt.

 

This is from the Book of Leviticus

The stranger who dwells with you – it sounds better in the Hebrew – hager hagar itchem – The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a citizen to you. You shall love them as you love yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

 

And now this story – of Passover, the whole purpose of this journey from slavery into freedom becomes apparent – it’s an ethical training in empathy.

It’s a training in knowing what it is like to be the outsider, the foreigner, the unloved, mistrusted, persecuted outsider.

And you shall love that person as you love yourself.

 

It’s the deepest moral lesson in Judaism.
Deeper even than the verse that often gets proffered – by luminaries as august as Rabbi Akiva or Jesus, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

You should love your fellow as you love yourself.

I admit, it’s a good verse. But what if you don’t consider the benefit scrounger your fellow. What if you only consider your fellow the person who was born with the same passport, or comes from a country at the same level of socio-economic development.

What if, God help us all, we got to chose who is and isn’t our fellow.

That, of course, is what the Nazi’s did. Their ideologue, Heidegger, thought that persecuting Jews was perfectly ethical since we weren’t really proper human beings. Thanks.

 

The Bible, of course, countenances none of that self-justificatory racism. Every human being, male and female, black and white, Jewish, Muslim, Christian or faithless, is created in the image of God, you oppress any of us and you oppress God.

 

But the ethical demand of the Torah isn’t merely that everyone should be treated equally.

We are bidden to focus especially on the ger – the stranger, the outcast.

The test of our humanity is how much we take care of the person it is most easy to offend, the least popular kid in the playground, the one who can’t speak English properly, or doesn’t know which football team to support, or doesn’t have the right kind of passport – so can be employed on wages, or with standards that would approximate slavery.

 

And it’s all to do with Passover – the ethics are driven by our personal experience of being that person.

Even if we are now comfortable in the country.

Each year we intone at the Seder night – bchol dor va dor hayav adam lirot et atzmo ...

In each and every generation a person should see themselves as if they personally went forth from Egypt.

We need to touch, each and every year, what it means to be the ger.

We need to remind ourselves of the test of humanity which is how we treat not our friends, not even our family members, but the one person we are disposed to like least.

 

So what should be done.

 

It’s Passover in less than a week’s time.

And there is plenty to do.

But I urge us all to find a time to find some tale of contemporary strangerness, and bring that tale to the Seder table.

You won’t struggle to find examples.

Cotton pickers in the Ukraine, sex-trafiked workers all over the place, domestic help imprisoned by debt structures. I met, this week, with one of the Chaplains at the detained asylum seeker centre in Gatwick – the place they take the most strange of strangers and keep them under indefinite detention for no crime at all – ‘they just want people to hear their stories’ he told me.

Tell that story.

We believe in the value of telling stories.

We believe in the value of asking questions about stories of slavery.

Even if we don’t know all the answers, especially if we don’t know all the answers, we believe in the importance of asking the questions.

Tell the story and ask away at the Seder.

 

And one other thing.

For the last nine years our sister Synagogue, New North London, has been running an asylum seekers drop in. It started with one ger. They are now up to 800 – too many for their space. The heroic organiser behind this incredible venture has turned to us, at New London, and asked us if we could find 20 volunteers to support an overflow venue, once a month in north London. The job involves packing and distributing clothes, food, travel vouchers and shopping vouchers. No special skills needed. Just a refusal to look away from the pain experienced by gerim; just a refusal to let our experience of being oppressed and enslaved into our contemporary consciousness.

We can do this.

There will be an email in the week.

Or drop me a note if you want to know more.

 

Tell a story.

Think about volunteering.

 

So we have a defence when the time comes when we are charged with turning away that which justly belongs to the ger.

So we can claim that our own experience of suffering has indeed made us better, inspired, within us an ethics and a commitment to justice.

So we can truly be proud of our journey from slavery to freedom – because we are not quite there yet.

 

Shabbat shalom

 

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Suppose there weren't four children - A Pesach Message

Suppose there never were four siblings who just happened to be different despite the parents’ best efforts to love each equally. Suppose it was four different parents. Suppose it was the parent who knew how to stimulate a child to the extent that they would stay rapt even while she explained the technicalities of what you can and can’t eat after the Afikomen. And there was the parent who would set the teeth of their child on edge, and the child wanted nothing to do with any of it. Then there was the parent who didn’t know so much, but could convey the singularly essential message that the Pesach story - ‘because of this that the Holy Blessed One did for me.’ Or finally the parent who, perhaps, was just too busy to stimulate any enquiry from the child at all.

 

Or maybe it’s the same child and the same parent and the Haggadah documents just different days, different moments. There are moments, in parenting, when I stimulate and moments, in parenting, when I push away - and the difference is less some objective difference between the subjects of my storytelling, and more my own ability to become share these narratives with grace and passion.

 

The question is - how do we tell our stories? Do we do so with the personal twist the Hagadah demands (‘Everyone is obliged to see themselves as if they themselves have left Egypt.’) Do we snap our way through a narrative, setting the teeth of those we encounter on edge?

 

It’s not really a question about Seder night where most of us can put on a good show for one night in a year. How do we talk about Judaism when there is no script? Do we turn those around us into Wise Children or Ones Who Do Not Know How to Ask? How do we talk about Judaism in the immediate aftermath of the French supermarket attacks, or the Israeli elections?

 

It’s not really a question about parenting. We are constantly engaging with those around us, tweaking and shaping how they see Judaism through the way in which we present ourselves and tell our stories; the non-Jewish work colleague, the office cleaner who may well come from some other ethnic minority, even the person we sit next to in Shul. Every story we tell shapes those around us – even when we don’t imagine we are telling a story at all.

 

Maybe there are primordially destined wise, wicked, simple and dumb members of the human race, but we make a grave error if we forget our own ability to shape those around us by our own behaviour; especially when it comes to the way those around us see Judaism, especially at this time of year. Tell our stories well.

 

A joyous and Kosher Pesach to all

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

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