Tuesday, 2 June 2020

The Spirituality of Zoom




I’ve always loved the Priestly Blessing. As a child, I would run through the crowds of Rosh Hashanah and dive under my dad’s Tallis and peek out at the hooded figures on the Bimah. As a Rabbinic student I learnt the reason – so we would not be distracted by facial imperfection of those we gazed at. That reasoning made sense to me. Back in those ‘usual’ times. Before all this.

Nowadays, of course, we daven on Zoom, and the only thing to see is … the imperfection of faces. Actually, it’s not all bad. “I love it like this,” one regular shared, “I love seeing people’s faces when we daven together.”

The French philosopher-Talmudist, Emmanuel Levinas (d. 1995) devoted his career to the significance of encountering the face of others. He would have loved Zoom. For Levinas, the face of the other is the beginning of all ethics. Seeing another face, wrote Levinas, makes us doubt our own supremacy over the world. We see, in other faces, fragility and mortality and we are moved.

On Zoom, I see the face of a member who wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral of their father who died from COVID. He’s been coming every day to say Kaddish. There’s another member who is at home alone, for whom we’ve provided a tablet and WiFi connection. She’s here for a sense of community. Was that a yawn I saw on the third screen in from the right, fourth row down? On Zoom we are all imperfect together, sharing and staring at the imperfection of perfect human creation.

The Chassidic master, Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (d. 1827), prefigured Levinas in a teaching on revelation (Zera Kodesh, Shavuot p.40). He begins with a tradition of his teacher, Menachem Mendel of Rimanov – that the sound of revelation on Sinai was the sound of the first letter of the first of the Ten Commandments. That’s so good it’s funny – the first letter of the Ten Commandments is an Aleph, a silent letter. Horowitz goes on to suggest that Moses, therefore, experienced revelation not as a sound at all, but a vision; the vision of God’s face. After all, God does speak to Moses, ‘face to face.’ And the Divine face is that Aleph, with the constituent strokes of the Hebrew letter making up a nose and two eyes. Indeed, all be-faced humanity, carries the imprimatur of God on our face. This is the meaning of our creation in the image of the Divine. We carry godliness in our face, in our beauty, in our imperfection, and most of all in the beauty of our imperfection.

Sometimes, when I’m davening on Zoom, I gaze out at these faces, gazing at me; each of us in our little Zoom boxes. And it does feel I’m gazing at the image of God. It’s bloody awful, this lockdown existence. But it’s not all bad.

Dedicated to the New London Synagogue Zoom Shacharit Minyanaires

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Science and Religion – On the Eve of Shavuot




On Wednesday’s Radio 4 PM programme, former Cabinet minister Michael Portillo gave a critique of the Prime Minister’s appearance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee.

“For a long time, the government has been saying the government is being guided by the science. I hope we all know by now there is no such thing as “The Science.” It’s open to the Prime Minister to say, “I’m not going to accept your advice on 2 metres if the World Health Organisation says 1 metre, I’ll go with that.” The point the former politician was making is that decision-taking requires more than science, science presents options.
I was reminded of a moment on Radio 3’s Sunday Feature, ‘Writing Across Distance.’ Writer Dava Sobel shared her fear that “at the end of the lockdown, when immunologists have vanquished the coronavirus, we’ll relapse into disregard of the far larger [ecological]disaster in store.” Sobel read from Jane Hirschfield’s poem;
On the fifth day, the scientists who study the rivers were forbidden to study the rivers or to speak.
The scientists who study the air were forbidden to speak of the air.
And the ones who worked for the farmers and the one who spoke for the bees.
The facts were told not to speak and were taken away.
The facts, surprised to be taken were silent,
And now it was only the rivers that spoke of the rivers and the winds that spoke of the bees.

There’s a lot of science around, and it’s saving lives, and it will save more lives. But at the heart of the decisions that face us … none of us is purely guided by the science. For one thing, science isn’t designed to guide us. For another, a lot of science is complex and doesn’t translate well into guidance. But most importantly, and this is something scientists who hope to save our battered planet understand perfectly well, we make decisions based on psychology, social mores, ethics and a bunch of other invisible and unprogrammable parts of our psyche. And when scientific clarity comes up against these parts of our psyche – the invisible unscientific parts of our psyche prove dominant time and time again.

That’s where religion comes in. Religion is designed to guide. It’s designed to help us understand why chasing after immediate pleasure is not in our best interests. Religion helps us to care for things that are more important than self-interest. Religion is capable of moving us more powerfully than scientific papers or front-page journalism. For sure religion can guide in wrong directions, but it can also help humanity direct itself towards the decent and the good. I would claim religion have been the greatest force of turning towards the good in human history.

It’s this turn to a value beyond the immediate that is at the heart of religion. And for us, as Jews, it is revelation that is this moment. Revelation is the response to our lifting our hearts in search of something that means more than self-interest. Revelation contains our attempt to use the gifts of science for good, for peace and for security. It’s a battered world and a precarious one. But the path out of darkness is one we know to treat. It’s a path guided by the insights of science, but requiring also the illuminated of revelation.

Tonight, Shavuot begins. This is our moment to celebrate revelation. Join us for a Zoom Tikkun Leyl. I’ll be teaching, together with Rabbi Natasha, Chazan Stephen and Lester. 6:30pm in our normal Zoom service room. There is plenty of material on our FB page including my son’s leyning the Ten Commandments, Rabbi Natasha and I offering introductions to the Ten Commandments, liturgy from Chazan Stephen and tales and packs for youth to use.
Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Jeremy


Friday, 8 May 2020

On the 75th Anniversary of VE Day


I’ve been spending a lot of time, recently, on the phone to our older members. “What memories do you have of VE day?” I asked a sprightly (and doing quite nicely in splendid isolation) nonagenarian in the Shul.
“Oh it was great,” he replied, “we did all sorts of things you’re not allowed to do today.” I didn’t press the matter. I mean there are all sorts of things that aren’t allowed today.
Another shared, “I went to Trafalgar Square, by myself, I was only 14. I remember a lot of people and getting crushed in the crowd.” Ahh crowds.
Other members were celebrating, “But only in Hendon, my father wouldn’t let me leave Hendon for the celebration.”
“We were on a boat,” shared another member. She and her family had spent the war in Canada, and her mother, homesick and desperate to return, arranged berths on a cargo ship leaving North America on 30th April I a convoy, surrounded by smaller Canadian ships. “On the morning of 8th May, I remember all these little ships hooting and hooting. And then they all headed back home. At that point our rudder broke. The journey should have taken 10 days, we were at sea for a month.”
And other members weren’t really celebrating at all. One of our oldest members spent VE day on a military engineering course. For him, VE Day marked only the end of the war in one theatre. He was off to Benghazi, the North African front, after this ‘great day’ passed. Others, also, were not celebrating - at this point, no longer quite sure why. Was it exhaustion from the conflict or the sense the war was not yet over? "Perhaps the latter," one said.
The line, in my mind, was Churchill’s, from November 1942, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
The symbol of this time is the rainbow. We are waiting for the good news that we can come out of our claustrophobic arks, and back into the world we miss. But this epidemic isn’t going to end with a rainbow. There may come a little loosening of restrictions, heavily laden with counter-warnings. There will still, rightly, be much nervousness and tentative baby-steps, even after we are allowed out.
Our emergence from this time of darkness – when and as it will come - will not come like Noah and his sons emerging into a new world. Instead, it will come like VE Day for those who knew that the war was not yet won. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pause to acknowledge the heroic steps forward as they are taken. That was the best reason to head for Trafalgar Sq 75 years ago, and to celebrate this anniversary today. Indeeed pausing to celebrate the moments of joy as they come is perhaps the single best way to make it through this time - day by day - keeping our attention on the present. The sun is shining today. That's a good place to start.
In contrast to the utter horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, this lockdown is strange, rather than atrocious, even for those of us who have suffered, and I know many have and others will.
But for the mere gift of our survival, as a Jewish community on the other side of the Holocaust, I am deeply grateful and in awe of the courage and sacrifices of those who fought on the side of the Allies, on the European Front and further abroad. Their heroism inspires me today, as it inspires all of us. It is good to be alive. It is good to live in a democracy that despite its faults, values all human life. It is a blessing to be able to celebrate 75 years since the end of that awful tyranny. May we never again know its like.

Friday, 13 March 2020

Torah At a Time of Coronovirus



This ISN'T medical guidance. But sharing, partic for anyone who can't get to shul at this time.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Masorti, Modern- and Ultra-Orthodox




A teenage member suggested the following way of thinking of the difference between ourselves, a Masorti congregation, and our fellows in Modern- and Ultra-orthodoxy. I thought it worth a response.
  • Ultra-orthodoxy, they suggested, involved a commitment to Halachah coupled with sexism and homophobia.
  • Modern-Orthodoxy, in turn, involved a commitment to Halachah without the sexism and homophobia.
  • And Masorti involved none of the above.


Hmmm.

I don't quite see it that way.

Being Masorti – from the Hebrew word for passing down a tradition through generations – requires placing oneself in the unfolding history of Judaism as it engages with tradition and change. Masorti Judaism's greatest scholars have tended to be interested in questions such as this; how has Judaism changed as we have travelled through time and space?

Lee Levine – the great scholar of the 1st Century Judaism – looks at how Judaism changed from being Temple-based and Cohen-led and became Synagogue-based and Rabbi-led. He claims it’s impossible to ignore the fact that, living around Jews as the Temple falls, are Christians who are meeting in prayer houses led by religious leaders who became religious leaders not simply because their fathers were religious leaders before them.

Saul Lieberman – who studied how the Talmud fused together 500 years of oral argument into elegant, written documents – suggested that it’s impossible to ignore the fact that as the Talmud comes into being, Jews are living in a world heavily influenced by Hellenist (Greek) thought (logic and rhetoric). He shows how understanding the influence of Hellenism on Rabbinic development is necessary to understand how Rabbinic Judaism came to be.

Louis Jacobs asks the questions - how and why did Maimonides come to articulate 13 principles of Jewish theology when such a list had never been a part of Judaism. Never before, in Judaism, had the Aristotelian idea that God was the First Cause, been considered. Never before had Judaism invested such great effort in the claim that Moses was God’s most important prophet. Never before had Judaism claimed that the entire Torah was absolutely perfect; even claiming that a verse like “Timnah was a partner of Eliphaz” was as important as “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” It’s impossible, says Jacobs, to imagine such a list coming into being were it not for the fact that Maimonides lived in the midst of an Arab society that understood and valued Aristotle, claimed that Mohamed (not Moses) was the ultimate prophet and claimed that every word of the Koran was equally Divine.

So, if you are a Masorti Jew, you understand that there is no such thing as a pure and perfect Judaism. You know that Judaism is continually unfolding and developing as it moves through space and time. And this unfolding rhythm not only explains how Synagogue-based Judaism began, and Rabbinic-based Judaism began and Jewish theology began, but can also how Jewish law - Halacha - unfolds and develops. 

One example; Torah reading. In the first two centuries of the Common Era you would read your own Aliyah yourself. The Talmud is quite clear; if you can’t read your Aliyah yourself, you can’t have an Aliyah. If you only have one person in the Shul who can read, ‘That person stands and reads and sits, and stands and reads and sits … even seven times.’[1]

Over 1,000 years later the Shulchan Arukh puts it a little differently. ‘One needs to protest against one who doesn’t know how to read so they do not go up to read from the Sefer Torah. And if you need one who doesn’t know how to read (if they are a Cohen or a Levi and there is no-one else save them), if when the reader reads for them word after word, they know how to repeat it and read it from the written text they can go up. And if not, they should not go up.’[2] Yosef Caro (who died in 1575) sounds as if he is fighting against the notion that Torah reading could be done by a 'Baal Koreh' - a master-reader, on behalf of other people who don't prepare to read their own Aliyot.

Perhaps you can feel the change coming, as you read the Shulchan Arukh, even as Caro argues against the change to how we read the Torah today. Other Halachic leaders, even from before the time of Yosef Caro, make clear that the other option - having a Baal Koreh - was already an established practice. The Rosh (who died in 1327), explains, ‘The thing we do now – where the messenger of the congregation reads – that is so as not to embarrass people who can’t read.’[3]

Halacha is changing, and the cause of the change simply doesn't seem to be a change in the will of God-in-the-heavens, or a change in our understanding of God's will, revealed at Sinai. Rather this seems to be a story of how human beings responded to different values differently in different social and cultural moments in time. Yosef Caro, the Rosh and every religious leader since, have to make a decision about to whom to offer an Aliyah. Either we can keep a tight hold and only allow people who are properly qualified, or we can take a more inclusive approach and find a way to not embarrass people who aren't perfectly good (after all, who is perfectly good). Caro and the Rosh differ on this issue - that's OK, argument is good. But the Rosh’s position wins out in Synagogues across the world, and across all denominations – including the Ultra-Orthodox.

I could share, literally, thousands of similar stories about the reality of Halacha as a developing, living, organic thing; just like every other element of Judaism. Halacha changes over time and space because of social and cultural influence.

So where does that leave Masorti in its relationship with Ultra-Orthodoxy and Modern-Orthodoxy? 

Well, on the one hand, we are friends. At least we should be friends. And all Jews are bound up with one another, so I don’t want to be too rude, but …

This is the story of Ultra-Orthodoxy. They, just like Reform, just like Masorti, are responding to social and cultural change. When Modernity arrives, and Jews are given the opportunity to study in Universities where they might even learn how the Bible itself has a history and a development, the leaders of Ultra-Orthodoxy say, “No thank you.” They don’t want any of the offerings of Modernity. They want to put up a big wall and refuse to allow modernity in. They will even say that “Anything new is forbidden as a Torah rule.”[4] But that approach is radically new – never before had Judaism claimed that anything new was forbidden just because it was new. No Rabbinic Jew is recorded as suggesting that we should be living as if the Temple had just fallen! Saying, “No,” to modernity is just as much a response to modernity as saying, “Yes.” 

Claiming that they are doing nothing new (even if that is demonstrably nonsense), Ultra-Orthodoxy claims they are the only people keeping Halacha. But protecting an unchanging thing isn't Halacha. Halacha develops! [6]

Ultra-Orthodoxy declines to respond to new ways of thinking about gender and sexuality because they are stuck in a view of Halacha that is not the reality of Halacha. 

This leaves Modern Orthodox. My friends who are Modern Orthodox have a problem. They want people to think that they are doing things ‘properly’ – actually that’s what the word ‘orthodox’ means, literally – one right way of thinking about things. And it turns out that the people most Modern Orthodox Jews trust to judge whether they are doing things properly are Ultra-Orthodox. That means that even if Modern Orthodox Jews know that Halacha evolves, they have to be incredibly careful about doing anything about it. Because if they look like they are accepting that Judaism can change, they are in danger of crossing any one of thousands of red-lines the Ultra-Orthodox draw. And if they do that, they will find themselves excommunicated, or cursed or … there’s lots of really nasty language used. Again, the question of who should get an Aliyah will serve as a very good example of this issue. 

The Talmud[5] says that the reason women don’t have Aliyot is because it would be a disgrace to the honour of the community. 

Well, that makes some sense if you know that, in Talmudic times, the person having the Aliyah had to read it themselves (which I do), and if you assume that men are more important than women (which I don’t!). If you know this and accept that, then you would surely only want to offer Aliyot to men, and you would surely only give an Aliyah to a woman if there weren't enough men around who could read properly, and that would indeed be very embarrassing - for the men. But if you live in 2020, and you reject any claim that men are more important than women, then you have to believe that NOT giving Aliyot to women would be a disgrace to the honour of the community. That's why almost all Masorti congregations give Aliyot to women.

But giving Aliyot to women is a red-line drawn by the Ultra-Orthodox. That means that a person who identifies as Modern-Orthodox has a choice. They can quieten down and fall into line, or they can say they disagree with the Ultra-Orthodox conception of what Halacha truly is and risk excommunication. Most fall into line. Only a few, like Louis Jacobs, and the founders of New London Synagogue, have the courage to walk away from that whole system to pursue Judaism as they believe it truly is. Most Modern-Orthodox Jews believe the same things most Masorti Jews believe, but they don't want to say it too loudly, for fear that they will be told they aren't Orthodox at all. I can't help but wish all these Masorti-believing Orthodox-affiliating Jews would be bolder, and come and help make Masorti communities stronger. 

Most people identifying as Modern Orthodox wish to respond to new ways of thinking about gender and sexuality, but they are not willing to disagree with how the Ultra-Orthodox control who gets to say how Halacha should react to change. 

Here’s the big problem that faces Masorti. 
It takes too long to explain why we think we are right. There are simpler answers out there, and there are less courageous answers. But that doesn’t mean we don’t accept Halacha, even as we respond to new ways of thinking about gender and sexuality.

Here's the tricky thing. Not much of this much determines who is right in these divergent ways of relating to Halacha and modernity.  That's partly because it's not clear how to judge what 'being right' means. It might be that the Ultra-Orthodox view that concentrating efforts on keeping modernity away from Halacha is the best chance Judaism has of ensuring a Jewish future; with lots of kids and a willingness to exclude anyone who threatens conformity. It might be that Modern-Orthodoxy is right that walking a thin line between accepting change and not threatening the red-lines set by the Ultra-Orthodox will best guarantee a Judaism that can survive in a rapidly changing society. But I've never really been persuaded by arguments that the right kind of Judaism is the one that results in the most number of people committed to that view of religion. I know that numbers are important, but if the goal is to have the largest number of followers of one particular brand of religion, or another, maybe we should all become Muslim?



[1] Tosefta Megilah 3:12
[2] Shulchan Arukh OH 139:2
[3] Megillah, 21a 3:2
[4] A famous saying of the Chatam Sofer.
[5] Talmud Megillah 23a. I have a full treatment of this issue here. http://rabbionanarrowbridge.blogspot.com/2014/10/my-responsum-on-women-reading-from-torah.html
[6] The best article on this is Michael Silber’s The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition, available here https://www.academia.edu/1829696/The_emergence_of_ultra-orthodoxy_The_invention_of_a_tradition

Sunday, 16 February 2020

New London Synagogue - Who Are We?


We are traditional, egalitarian, open-minded and open-hearted.

Traditional in that we are inheritors of an extraordinary spiritual inheritance that we love, and we accept. That means the prayer services a almost exclusively in Hebrew, we read a full yearly cycle from the Torah. When there are questions about how we, as a community, should respond, we look to our tradition for direction.

Egalitarian is about more than whether women as well as men are allowed on the Bimah. It’s an approach to Judaism that insists that everyone needs to have equal opportunities to play a part in Jewish life. It’s about taking care of children with special needs, and ensuring the building is fully accessible. That said we should be proud of our recent decision on the role of women.

Being open-minded is part of our DNA. It’s not a heresy, in this community, to understand biblical criticism, philology and archaeology and to know that the Torah was not handed down in a single moment, but instead is a document that has unfolded through human hands for millennia. But more than being open-minded is an attitude to thinking about and understanding our lives, as Jews living in a contemporary world. We are not a community for those who wear intellectual blinkers.

Being open-hearted is an attitude towards the gift of life. It’s radically amazing to be alive. Gratitude should infuse everything we do, from the way the office is staffed to the way life-cycle events are celebrated. We live in a world that can depress. Shul should be a source of joy.

That’s what we are, that’s who we want to be. If you know anyone for whom this sounds persuasive, let me know.


Friday, 14 February 2020

Robert Frost and Revelation





Revelation by Robert Frost
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
 
I think we are done, don’t you, with the question of whether this is, or is not, the letter by letter, word, by word record of some divine dictation.
Long done.

There’s a lovely passage comment in the Talmud Yerushalmi that imagines Moses taking dictation from God on top of Sinai, writing away in black fire on a scroll of white fire, when, sweating from the heat of the fiery letters he mops his brow on his sleeve and some of the fiery ink rubs off on his forehead – and that is why the Torah speaks of Moses having horns of light – carnei or.
The sort of thing pictured by ... well everyone.
This is Jose de Rivera’s image
But this tale of the fiery quill isn’t meant to be taken literally.
It’s a poetic image.
And revelation is always going to come down to a matter of poetry

Light words that tease and flout ...
'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire

The greatest problem I have with the notion that this, all this, represents some letter by letter record of Divine dictation is not based on Biblical archaeology or Ancient Semitic philology or Higher or Lower literary Biblical criticism or fossil records or astral physics or anything like that.
The greatest problem I have with the notion that all this represents some letter by letter record of Divine dictation is theological. If the will of god, revealed to humanity, ultimately boils down to a bunch of letters placed in order, then the will of God ceases to be something infinite, touching the heavens, beyond human ken, and becomes instead something ultimately two-dimensional and all too simple for a true encapsulation of what is willed for our existence.

It’s more than the sort of theological problem that should be filed with the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. People die because other people think that the will of God is really encapsulated in a series of letters so that they can claim some kind of monopoly on an understanding of God’s will. They think they can know what God wants and it’s at that point that other people start getting excluded from being important in God’s eyes. Other people end up getting hurt, excluded, killed even.

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

‘Tis pity indeed if we make the mistake of thinking that God’s will is capable of being trapped by printing presses, ink scrawls of pixellated imagery. Revelation is poetic, not literal speech.

I know the letters, in the order in which they fall, are capable of revealing the most extraordinary truths about the nature of human existence. I love the stories; I live my life by these stories, and the commands and all of it. But that’s not because of the precise letter by letter nature of how these verses appear in the good book. It’s because of the way the letters open up something that is beyond the letters themselves. It’s not that the letters are the product of revelation, they are the symbol pointing to the reality of revelation; a reality that can never be pinned down, like a lepidopterist’s butterfly.

This is Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘ The nature of revelation is something words cannot spell, which human language will never be able to portray. In speaking about revelation, the more descriptive the term, the less adequate the description.’[1]

In other words if you make a point about something being literally revelatory, you fail to understand what revelation actually is – it’s beyond.
So therefore we are all, seeking after that which is beyond all letters. And the role of the letters becomes not encapsulating the will of God, but pointing instead at that which is beyond all letters.

To put it another way, in the words of the very Sidra we read today.
Vchol ha’am roim et hakalot – ‘All the people saw the thunder’
That’s impossible, of course, or rather it requires a blending, a bending, of sensory perceptions.
It becomes poetically possible as it is literally impossible.

Is this a little highfalutin, I’m sorry. But this is important. This is who we are, as a faithful, non-fundamentalist community.
Maimonides[2] puts it like this.

We believe that the Torah has reached Moses from God in a manner which is described in Torah figuratively by the term ‘word’, but nobody has ever known how that took place except Moses to whom that word reached.

Those words – the words that were heard on Sinai are not the same kinds of words I’m using today. That revelation is quite unlike anything I can articulate.

Or another Midrash. There is a tale of the way in which the letters of the Ten Commandments were carved into the Shnei Luchot – the two tablets Moses brought down from the mountain.
Rabbis hold that the carving went right through the stones and that it didn’t matter whether you looked one way on or the other way on at the letters
They still read the same way.
In other words they were nothing like the largely non-symmetircal letters we now know.
In other words it wasn’t written in the sort of letters we would consider letters.

One last example, my favourite.
From the  C19 Hasidic Rebbe, Naftali Tzvi Horotvitz of Rophshitz.[3]
What was heard on Sinai? Asks the Rophshitzer, ‘The sound of the first letter of the first of the Ten Commandments.’ Now that’s terrific. The first letter of the Ten Commandments is an Aleph. It doesn’t have a sound.

Or rather, maybe, it is the sound of a letter before there is noise, the sound that encapsulates all possibility of future sound, it’s the aural equivalent of a microdot in which contains all possible written information.

I’m trying to articulate an ambivalence, in the strict sense of the word – a simultaneous tug in two different directions – or valences.
On the one hand every revelatory text, every purported experience of revelation has to be tugged back down to its proper earthly station. By the time we, humans, are speaking about revelation it’s already gone.
On the other hand every text, every experience that point beyond itself towards something unknowable has to be cherished. These texts serve as pointers, a roadmap towards that which is beyond.
And the more these texts become used in this way, the more carefully and more profoundly their spiritual core is unpacked and used, in turn to point ever higher, the more important they become. They serve like spiritual ladders pointing away into the heavens. You climb them not to get to the top, but to be one who climbs, one who seeks out the heavens.

From the perspective of the heavens revelation works in the opposite way.
There is, somehow, some need of the Divine to disclose, to reach down, to share with us puny humans.
But as the information arrives it is whisked away, less we should find ourselves carrying too great a burden for our fragile human minds.
Those who claim to understand too precisely the will of God are dangerous, to themselves and others.
Frost again,
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
 
Are you still with me?
I know you don’t believe in the literal letter by letter version of revelation.

My hope, in giving this sermon is that you are with me in making two other claims.
I hope you don’t believe that what I’ve been trying to articulate is less profound, a sort of ortho-lite pseudo-faith. It’s not. It’s stronger and more holy than fundamentalism. It’s the very nature of what Jews, the most spiritually refined of Jews in any event, have felt about revelation and the letter by letter nature of this book.

I hope, equally, that you can feel, even if only on those fleeting moments, that there is something which is beyond, there is something all these letters and words point towards; not graspable, not capable of being turned into a plaything for humans to do their worse, but rather an invitation to turn towards the heavens and gaze on at the animating power of the Universe and the will for our existence.

Because a true Jewish sense of revelation exists in the middle of these two claims.

We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
 
Shabbat shalom



[1] God in Search of Man 184-5
[2] Perek Helek Principle 8
[3] Zera Kodesh Shavuot

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