Friday, 12 December 2008

Bad News For Rabbis

This seems very bad news not only for Rabbis, but Reverend clergy of all denominations. Something, surely, ought to be done. Hat tip to Stephen Greene

Chanukah and Putting the Fun into Fundamentalism

Article in the Jewish Quarterly Winter 2007  -  Number 20

The historical origins of Chanukah are dark, violent and a little too redolent of modern religious conflicts to make most contemporary readers feel comfortable. So what are we to make of the story behind the miracle of the one flask of oil?

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon investigates.

The winsome nature of modern Chanukah celebrations hides a spiritual truth about the Jewish approach to insurgent violence. The Maccabees’ grim and bloody triumph has been glossed over with a diversionary tactic in one of the most extraordinary rebranding exercises in religious history. Leave to one side the Maccabees, spun the Rabbis. They were a ruthless bunch of fundamentalists, who butchered their assimilationist fellow Jews with the same zeal as they fought their oppressors. They went on to have a poor and violent record as Governors of the Jewish state. Let’s celebrate the oil, say the Rabbis, not the fighting; sing of praise to God who bent the laws of physics, play down the role of the warriors. As a result of this Rabbinic whitewash we are left with an emasculated festival, no longer threatening to trumpet the violent and morally provocative insurgencies of ancient times.

Religious truth forms over time. Looking for balanced ethical and spiritual reflection in a time of war is unrealistic. What picture has emerged in the millennia following the Maccabean insurgency? Firstly, neither of the Maccabean books made it into the Hebrew Bible. They are perhaps a little late (around 100 BCE) but it is also reasonable to suspect that their military tone and nature may have assured their exclusion. Secondly, the religious festival Chanukah (‘rededication’), is not named after the Maccabees but after an act of religious service, another little snub to the notion that violence can be religiously celebrated. And what violence:

Mattathias had only just finished exhorting the people to stand firm in the face of the bribes and threats of Antiochus when an Israelite arrived ready to offer a sacrifice on the idolatrous altar. Mattathias ‘was filled with zeal and ran up and slaughtered’ the miscreant, at the same time he killed the king’s officer and tore down the altar. ‘Let everybody who is zealous for the Law and stands by the covenant come out after me,’ he called. And then, the first book of Maccabees relates, he and his sons fled to the mountains. In contemporary terms the Macabees are insurgents. They hide in mountain caves and launch themselves at mightier armies with little, other than faith, to safeguard their efforts. ‘How can we fight, few as we are, against such a strong host?’ one cavilling Israelite asks. Judas replies:

‘It is easy for many to be inclosed in the hands of the few, and there is no difference in the sight of heaven between saving through many or through few, for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the force, but strength comes from heaven. They come against us to destroy us and our wives and our children and to plunder us, but we are fighting for our lives and our laws. God himself will crush them before us and you must not be afraid of them.’ (I Maccabees 1)

The language is alarmingly close to  modern faith-driven insurgent rhetoric. Other parallels also leap off the page. The insurgency places a steep financial cost on the King, who is forced to re-finance to pay for the troop deployments. The King brings, into war, weapons at the very cutting edge of contemporary technologies – in Antiochus’ case fearsome elephants. There is even a ‘suicide bomber’: Eleazar Avaran, who seeing that ‘one of the elephants was armed with royal armour’, ran boldly up to it in the midst of the phalanx, ‘slaying to the right and left’ and ‘slipped under the elephant and stabbed it underneath and killed it, and it fell to the earth upon him and he died there.’ (I Maccabees 6)

Disquieting parallels emerge with contemporary allied forces. Two thousand years ago the King’s soldiers forced captives to eat ‘unlawful swine meat’ before unspeakable physical depredations are visited on them (2 Maccabees 7). Reading this ugly chapter in the light of the appalling treatment meted out at the American-run Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo detention facilities makes looking at comparisons between ancient and modern insurgents very tempting.

We live in judgemental times. We judge anything from ten-year-old children’s exam results to celebrity body-mass. Goodness knows what would happen if we were to turn our hyper-judgemental faculties on Judah and his cohorts. Before rushing  in, however, we should acknowledge that judging ancient conflicts from the comfort of twenty-first century armchairs is a deeply precarious exercise. Too much history has been lost, too many of the norms by which we might understand Maccabean responses are unknown. To be clear: I make no claim as to the relationship between treatment of Jews at the hands of Antiochus and Muslims at the hands of the various forces who now find themselves facing the Taliban, Al Qaida and their ilk. But, on the other hand, we can’t let the important differences between ancient and contemporary insurgency narratives absolve us entirely of the discomfort we should feel reading stories that underlie a festival so beloved in contemporary Jewish identity. So what are we left with other than a cute story about a flask of oil?

Here is the story of Chanukah as it appears in the Talmud, a document redacted some 600 years after the event:

‘When the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oils there and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against them and defeated them, they searched and found only one flask of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but it contained enough oil for one day’s lighting only. But there was a miracle and they lit the candelabra with it for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a festival.’ (Shabbat 21b )

Remarkably there is nothing like this tale in any more contemporary record of the festival. Even more remarkably the entire feel of the record in the Talmud is radically different to the tone evoked in the contemporary records. The Talmud gives the impression of an immediate re-lighting of the candelabra, just as the troops re-enter the Temple compound. I’m reminded of stories of then Israeli Army Chaplain Shlomo Goren arriving at the Kotel in 1967 and instantly sounding the shofar. But here is the story of what happened on the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev — the first day of Chanukah — in the contemporary record:

‘Then said Judas and his brothers, “Behold, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.” And they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. Judas chose blameless priests devoted to the law, they cleansed the sanctuary, removed the defiled stones, tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them. They built a new altar, rebuilt the sanctuary, the interior, consecrated the courts, made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the incense altar and the table into the temple … [the schedule of repairs goes on]… Thus they finished all the work and early in the morning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev they rose and offered sacrifice on the new altar and Judas and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days.’ (1 Maccabees 4)

Dedication — Chanukah — is not instantaneous. The war is long past and the 25th Kislev is the culmination of, surely, months of building and decorating all of which would have necessitated sophisticated supply chains. Forget the magic of eight days of flickering fire, the really odd thing about this story is that we are required to believe that those in charge of the rebuild forgot to order in oil.

The shift in emphasis is not an uncommon Rabbinic trope. There are many violent moments in ancient religious literature. But the Rabbis suck the oxygen away from these tales, depriving the military hero of the opportunity to crow about his victory. Violent passion is transmuted into a passion for Torah and the supremacy of the Divine. The Rabbis even turned soldiers of the tradition into scholars. The Book of Samuel commends David, the slayer of Goliath, as a brave fighter and man of war. The Talmud explains this means he knew how to argue his point in ‘the war of Torah’ (BT Sanhedrin 93b).

The almost childish nature of contemporary Chanukah celebrations masks a most adult coup de theologie and maybe celebrating this story of the oil allows us to celebrate, still, a festival whose contemporary resonance should otherwise have us shifting uneasily amongst the detritus of doughnuts and dreidels.

Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue.

Monday, 24 November 2008


A Keynote Lecture, delivered at NLS

Money: Uses and Abuses

Notes for a Keynote Lecture


Throughout history everyone else has been very quick to tell Jews what we feel about money.

In the Medieval period, Jews were often abused for being dilettantes, lazy for refusing to work on the Sabbath.

We were, of course, equally accused of being commercially obsessed – the lenders and financiers of and Medieval Europe, and part of this accusation morphed into the classic attack of modern antisemitism – that Jews control the banking sector, the money markets and so on.

Not of course that we weren’t also accused of being the driving force behind Communism.

So the Jew as capitalist, as communist, as economically deficient and as economically too-efficient.

Such is the lot of the Jew.

So what do we really think?


As ever, humour provides a clue.


A Rabbi, a Priest and an Imam are on a plane when one of the engines spontaneously bursts into flames.

Please, please, cries out the steward to the three clerics.

Do something religious to save us.

So the Imam prays in the name of Allah to be saved.

And the Priest prays in the name of Jesus to be saved and

The Rabbi starts a collection for fund to investigate why plane engines  spontaneously catch fire in mid-air.


We’ll come back to the notion of the benefits of money, but my sense is that a Jewish exploration into money should begin with this point.

Judaism rejects poverty. There is nothing noble, in the Jewish view, in being poor.

Destitution is viewed as a horror with a range of evocative, almost poetic, examples of legislation designed to put the brakes on anyone cruel enough to turn away from an impoverished fellow or, worse, propel, their fellow deeper into destitution

e.g. Deuteronomy 24

If a man is so poor that they have to offer their own cloak as a pledge to return borrowed capital,

You shall deliver him the pledge back when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his own garment, and bless you; and it shall be righteousness to you before the Lord your God.


And further

14. You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is of your brothers, or of your strangers who are in your land inside your gates;

15. At his day you shall give him his hire, nor shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it; lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it should be sin to you.


Unlike, say, the gurus of India, living on nothing and demonstrating their piety through their poverty there is one, and only  one story in the entire corpus of Rabbinic literature about a religious scholar who rejects the material world – the tale of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The Rabbi spends seven years studying day and night in a cave and, when he emerges he pours scorn on the honest labourers he finds when he emerges from his cave,  only for a Divine Voice to emerge from the heavens and send him back into his cave for another year.

A year later he emerges and this time recognises the honest labourer as a hero. As decent.[1]


Judaism begins form a place of considering money to be a good.

Necessary even for the perpetuation of Jewish life.

Ain kemach, ain torah – as it says in Pirkei Avot – without dough, there is no Torah.[2]

In the C11 the greatest of all Medieval Rabbis, Moses Maimonides writes a letter following the death of his brother. His brother had been a gem-trader, a businessman and his death strikes Maimonides deeply. He extols his financially minded brother’s virtues as one who uses their skills in business to do good.

But there is also an awareness of the, almost addictive quality of the pursuit of money for its own sake – the drive to consume.

Ain Kemach ain Torah - without dough, there is no Torah, but the saying continues, Ain Torah, ain Kemach – without the control of rules of Torah there can be no acceptable accumulation of dough – of money.


The notion of a control on unfettered desires is a classic part of the Jewish approach to all things, not just money.

Enjoyment of food is good, but the appetite needs to be curbed – by rules of kashrut.

Enjoyment of, how best to say it, thrills of the flesh is good, but needs to be curbed – only to be allowed in certain circumstances.

Enjoyment of money, then is to be allowed, but also to be controlled, fettered.


At the heart of this two fold approach to money are two Biblical notions, both of which appear in the context of the telling of the creation of the world.


The first suggests that the earth has been given to humanity to ‘dominate it and subdue it’ kivshua urdu.[3] This is the material world as a right, the right to exploit, the right to accumulate.

But the second notion suggests that we are placed in this world to ‘tend it and guard it.’ – l’ovdah ulshomrah[4]

This is the material world as a responsibility, a duty.

The first notion is an invitation to extract all the monies one can find in the world.

The second is a call to care, to be in balance with the world.

Such is, so often, the Jewish way.

Giving and restricting in the very same moment.


Connected to this is the call of the Sabbath. The resting on the Seventh day bit people tend to know. What often gets overlooked is that the fourth commandments uttered on Sinai opens ‘on six days you shall work.’ Sheshet yamin taavod v’asita kol melachtecha[5]

This is a command to labour, for gain.

‘Love work’ is advice given in Pirkei Avot.[6]

But the lust for money is ameliorated, softened, by the command to abstain one day in the week.

There are two reasons given in the Bible for observing Shabbat.

The first is that we rest because God rested in God’s extraordinarily triumphant material accumulation of things in the first moments of creation.

In other words we rest to remind ourselves that the material stuff of the world is not ours, it’s God’s and the phrase ‘Master of the Universe,’ a phrase that used to be applied to the great money maven of the financial markets  is a phrase that, really, only truly can be applied to God.


The second reason for observing Shabbat, found in Deuteronomy[7], is quite different.

We rest, according to Deuteronomy, to remind ourselves that

‘[we] were servants in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord [our] God brought [us]  out from there with a mighty hand and with an out-stretched arm.’

We abstain from the accumulation of material wealth on the Shabbat to remind ourselves that we are free.

This is the great paradox, and the great insight of Shabbat.

One might thank that a person can demonstrate their freedom by the unfettered accumulation of wealth, after all surely freedom means, free to do whatever we like.

But no, that is not the Jewish way. Instead freedom is demonstrated by an act of abstinence, restraint.

That is the paradox of Shabbat.

The insight of Shabbat is this.

Unless we abstain, unless we find a way to say to the appeal of money – ad can – this is enough, we are in danger of becoming enslaved to its charms, its glittery lure.

We know, from academic enquiry after academic enquiry, not to mention Beatles’ song lyrics, that money cannot buy love and happiness. Indeed money can bring only a desire for more money. More lust for accumulation.

And so the insight of Shabbat is this – we escape this trap, we break this addiction by abstaining from money, from accumulation for this one day in seven. And, in so doing, we become free not only from the servitude of the Egyptians, but also the servitude of our own lust for accumulation.


The Shabbat becomes a spiritual practice, we practice not letting ourselves be governed by our work, our desire to accumulate, the size of our bank balance.

It is a day for re-ensoulment, re-balancing, acknowledging our place NOT as Masters of the World, but its stewards, tenders and shepherds – God help all of us.


Like all the best ritual, and certainly like all the best rituals in Judaism, Shabbat holds two things together – the love of work, the understanding of the value of work, and also its own counter-narrative, its own protection from the unfettered charge of the desire to accumulate.


But there is, perhaps, an even better encapsulation of a Jewish attitude to money than the Shabbat, and that is the case of the Prozbul.

To the Biblical mind credit is good. Credit multiplies wealth, and that is known even in the time of the Bible.

The problem is that debt is not and too much debt can trap individuals in a cycle of poverty. That too has been known since the time of the Bible.

So the Torah offers a solution to the problem of the debt-trap.

The Torah mandates a writing off of all debt on a seven year cycle - shmittah.

It’s a great way of stopping anyone from falling too deeply into debt for too long a period, but it’s hardly an inducement to lenders to offer credit.

The Bible is aware of that the rule of the Shmitta might stop lenders from lending, so it warns, ‘Beware that there be not a thought in your wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing; and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin to you. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; because for this thing the Lord your God shall bless you in all your works, and in all that you put your hand to.’ (Deut 15)

But by the time of the First Century of the common era it appears that these stark warnings were not sufficient to keep lenders lending. The wheels of the financial system were grinding to a halt, the flow of credit so necessary to allow the poor to invest their way out of poverty dried up so (in the worlds of the Talmud)


Hillel instituted a ‘prosbul.’ For he saw people were unwilling to lend money to one another and disregarded the precept laid down in the Torah, ‘Beware that there no be a base thought in your heart saying the seventh year is coming [probably best not to lend to my fellow]’ (Deut 15) [8]


Not only is this, I think, the best example of a Jewish approach to money, it is also the classic example of Rabbinics – what it means not to be only a Biblically minded religious person, but a Jew engaged with Rabbinic Judaism.


She what is going on here?

So there is a very clear Biblical doctrine, enacted for a very clear and perfectly laudable reason.

But the system is not working. The injunction is meeting the reason for its existence.

So Hillel rides a coach and horses through the injunction.

He takes a clear Biblical injunction and renders it inoperable, or rather creates a giant loophole which the entire people of Israel are expected exploit to avoid the injunction.

And it is all done because the Biblical injunction designed to ameliorate poverty was instead trapping people in poverty.

For our purposes tonight the most remarkable piece about the Prozbul is that it concerns availability of credit – the smooth workings of the credit market.

The initial Biblical law is designed to protect the poor, but the Rabbinic intervention seems to be designed at saving the creditors.

After all before they had to write off their loans, now they can, by means of this Porzbul protect them even on the other side of the Shmittah.

It seems, in so many ways an extra-ordinary precursor of recent events in the international and national financial worlds.


In modern world we also have a system designed to protect the needy which is failing.

So the intervention comes in, and it is NOT an intervention aimed, at first glance, at the poor, it seems, at first glance to be an intervention aimed at saving the creditors who, it may well be argued are the people who got the poor in the mess in the first place.

In both cases we have the wheels of credit coming to a halt and in both cases there is action which, on first glance seems to be aimed at saving the lenders, but is clearly being driven by a desire to allow credit, once again, to be a force for good.

At least as a general observation –and I don’t want to be overly political - the interventions of both Hillel and of Governments and central banks around the world have to be right.

And the notion of the Biblical verses being rendered void and non-applicable, has an analogy in the way ‘golden rules’ of National and European economic management, so cherished in the past decade have been rendered void or ignored.

On this reading Hillel would probably have supported the partial re-nationalisation of banking structures, etc.

He certainly would have realised the need to ‘do something’

One does need to protect the smooth flow of the Capital markets because without credit – without money things will get far worse for the poor than would be the case without these interventions.


I think the world is turning. I don’t think the end of the world is nigh, but we are seeing a re-evalutaion of the role and place of money in society. It is, as Confucius might have said, an interesting time.

And on the subject of the contemporary and the immediate I would want to offer these thoughts in conclusion.


i)                    Work should be productive. Hedge funds are an important way of defraying risk, derivatives likewise. But somewhere along the line these values were lost under a drive for profit from fund managers looking only for the quick-buck. This is profit made not from increased productivity, efficiency of production etc. but rather as a gamble, a bluff or counter-bluff. These kinds of economic actions do no favours to the broader society and it was this kind of ‘investing’ that tipped a difficult situation over into an impossible one.

ii)                   We need a new way to measure value. The ease of measurement is, surely, the most attractive thing about money. We know that money cannot make a person rich, but it can give us a way of gauging if we are better or worse than our neighbour. However money is poorly used for this purpose. The most important things in Jewish life cannot be valued so simply. (the minimum cost of a wedding band is a ‘peppercorn’ it’s not supposed to be a test of how much we love our spouse)

iii)                 Jews don’t believe in the invisible hand. We do, of course, believe in God, but we don’t consider that a belief in God means the end of the necessity for human beings to be engaged, actively in trying to fix the world. Indeed we know that humans have often been needed to prevent God (or the natural way of things) from resulting in needless destruction and destitution.


Thank you


[1] TB Shabbat 33a-b


[3] Gen 1:28


[5] Ex 20:9

[6] Avot 1:10

[7] 5:15

[8] TB Gittin 36a

Friday, 14 November 2008

What Are We To Do With the Akedah?

Desire to not always be speaking about binding of Isaac but tale looms over the parasha. Difficult to avoid.


This week two men and a woman have been found guilty of causing the death of baby P; brutally beaten and attacked.

Mother in Manchester held under the Mental Health Act stands accused of killing her two sons.

Last week, right on Abbey Rd, walking back from shul, Police were clearing up after the shocking accidental death of Jack, a local boy, aged 6 killed in a car accident.


Accidents are tragc, but calculated infanticide is sometime else and yet, here, in our most glorious text we have an order for infanticide

So what on earth are we to do about the Akedah?


It is the nineteenth century Danish existentialist Kiekegaard who, I think, puts the case for finding a redemptive meaning in the Akedah most clearly.

For Kiekegaard, at the essence of the Akedah is the notion that we, as mere human beings, have to acknowledge the limits of our final grasp.

The whole point of the Akedah is to move beyond the realms of the finite, to move beyond the realm of human understanding.

As long as we use human, finite, reasoning, Kiekegaard states, we cannot fathom the Akedah. If we use human reasoning we have to charge Abraham with attempted murder.


We need recourse to faith as opening up a world that is beyond the powers of human reason, ‘no thought can master,’ says K.[1] ‘how God could possibly pleased with the action of Abraham, ‘no thought can master,’ how this act of murder bequeaths to the Children of Israel an inexhaustible pool of kudos we can use to demand – zochreinu bzikaron tov – God’s mercy even today. We need instead faith since, says K. ‘faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off.’


So Abraham, who is prepared to suspend his own morality, his own love of his child, his own dreams of a future for his seed and the nations promised to him, Abraham becomes a Knight of Faith, operating beyond the realms of human comprehension.


This is the theology of Job.[2]

God tests Job and Job protests that by any kind of human, rational, comprehensible, logic he can’t deserve the suffering imposed upon him and God’s response is to blast away Job’s pitiful human attempts to understand that which is beyond human.

God’s answer to Job is basically this -

You, pathetic human, can’t even understand the power of a volcano, an earthquake or even a lion’s roar and you want to double-guess the infinite mysteries of the Divine


So if we are willing to accept that there is a space, a realm of sense beyond the edges of human understanding, we can accept the Akedah.

We can find a way to believe that out of something so seemingly horrific there can come something good and holy.


This, for Kiekegaard is black and white. Either[3] Abraham is a murderer or we are confronted by a ‘paradox that is above meditation’ and since he is so loath to pass such a harsh judgement on a patriarch he, as a Christian, shares, he accepts the ‘paradox above meditation.’ It may be paradoxical to believe that religious triumph and glory come from death - from the command to kill, but that is precisely, says K. the meaning of faith.

And if we follow this it becomes possible to get something redemptive from the experience of the Akedah – the experience of a man commanded to kill his son. It is possible to say that the Akedah works, religiously, for us, as a tale, as liturgy.


Indeed, in many ways we desperately need this model to work. We, as Jews have a vast history of being taken, as the Psalmist says ‘like lambs to the slaughter.’[4] We need to find something redemptive in this tale of a man who wished to bring death to Isaac – bearer of the Israelite faith, otherwise all the actual deaths could be left unredeemable.


In the eleventh century, at the height of Crusader attacks on the Jews of Germany we have an extraordinary contemporary record, the Chronicles of Shlomo bar Shimshon. He details not only how many Jews were killed horrifically at the hand of the Crusaders but also how some Jews, knowing the Crusaders were coming took their own life.


He claims,

‘And Zion’s precious sons, the people of Mainz, were put through the ten trials, exactly like father Abraham, they too offered up their sons, exactly as Abraham offered up his son Isaac. There were 1,100 victims in one day, every one of them like the Akedah of Isaac son of Abraham.’[5]


Now I have no problem accepting the decisions of these victims of the crusades as holy, on hearing the advancing hooves of Christian soldiers, I don’t wish to double judge the impossible decisions they faced.

What however fascinates me is the way these poor, poor, souls grab tight to the story of the Akedah to give their seemingly pointless suffering some redemptive quality.

Rather than blame godless human thuggery for their demise, these victims of the Crusades attribute responsibility for their own deaths on God. It might seem almost blasphemous to attribute these human acts of savagery to God, but in the mind of the Mediaevals, because death in the name of the religion was redemptive in terms of the God-commanded sacrifice of Isaac, their own sacrifices – now deemed as equally God commanded, can also be redemptive.


There is, if we accept the Akeidah, a redemptive possibility in our own painful history of being slaughterwed.

Deeming the Akedah, despite all its problems, ultimately redemptive provides a sort of apologia for our suffering.

That may help too.


But it’s here that I start, again, to baulk.

The notion of finding something redemptive in the death, or near death, of some bearer of faith starts to ring bells that I don’t recognise as Jewish – Church bells.

Christians, of course, have far less problem in a divine command to slaughter a son, than Jews.

The death of a beloved son lies at the heart of Christian theology and, indeed, the Akedah features liberally in early Christian texts, texts like the Epistle of Barnabus.

Here, the sacrifice of Isaac, is read as a sort of redemptive pre-figuring of the death of Jesus.

And here it starts to be difficult to move beyond Kiekegaard’s own Christian faith, indeed at the end of the most important chapter of his major work on the Akedah, he embarks on a treatment of Miriam, the mother of Jesus who has to suppress her own feelings and ethics to see her son’s death.

And while its one thing for the Mediaeval Jews of Mainz, people who are under threat of massacre, to claim for a redemptive quality in death, in the Akeidah, for us, today, especially this week will not do.


Indeed the Jewish scholar of Jesus, Abraham Geiger, d. 1874, claimed that the whole notion of seeking redemption in the story of the Akeidah is of Christian origin. He called is ‘Akeidah Merit’ and found it inimical to Judaism.


And ultimately I am with Geiger.

I know it is too easy to attack the story of the Akeidah from a human perspective, (indeed the Rabbis put all the most incisive arguments against the acceptance of the Akeidah into the mouth of Satan – the conniving, niggardly, destructive spiritual force in all of us[6], but I nonetheless make this claim.


If I study, and study and study this passage and cannot find anything redemptive in it, I have to, at a certain point, believe that my refusal to accept its redemptive quality, is God-given.

I simply cannot accept that the role of human, created in God’s image, is to kick back in rocking chair and say, ‘well we just cannot fathom God.’


I don’t expect to understand every element of God’s ineffable plan for the Universe, but there are some things I refuse to redeem; child sacrifice being one of them.

I know that sometimes bad things only appear bad at first, and subsequently reveal themselves as blessings in disguise, but I refuse to consider a father binding his child and coming within moments of killing him capable of being redeemed.

I refuse to believe that, as Jews, we are supposed to let go of our revulsion, our deep discomfort with the binding of Isaac, despite the best inducements of K., Rambam and Rabbis before and since.


As Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote;[7]

“From the Jewish viewpoint – and this is one of its highest dignities – the ethical is never suspended, not under any circumstances and not for anyone, not even for God. Especially not for God. Are not supreme Reality and supreme Goodness one and co-essential to the Divine nature? If so, every act wherein the Good is put aside is more than a breach of His will; it is in effect a denial of His existence.”[i]


Jewish heroes are not supposed to submit to God’s demands if they appear unethical.

Indeed this is one of the greatest critiques of Noah.

God informs Noah that He (God) will destroy the world and the Rabbis are deeply disappointed that Noah did not oppose this divine dictate.

God informs Moses that He (God), so alarmed with the Golden Calf debacle, will wipe out the Children of Israel, and Moses successfully opposes this divine dictate. Indeed the Rabbinic re-imagining of the debate between Moses and God, up Sinai, is one of the Talmudic pieces that moves me most. I want to quote it in full.


And GOD said to me [Moses], ‘Go, Descend’ (Deut 9) What is meant by ‘Go, Descend.’ Rabbi Elazar said the Holy Blessed One said to him, ‘Moses, descend from your greatness. For everything I gave you was for the sake of Israel. And now Israel has sinned, what are you to me?’ Immediately Moses became powerless and he had no strength to speak.

But when God said, ‘Let Me alone and I will destroy them’ (Deut 9) Moses said “This thing depends on me,” and immediately he stood up and was seized with prayer and pleaded for mercy.

Mashal - To a king who was angry with his son and beat him severely. And [the King’s] beloved was sitting before him, scared to say a word. The king said, ‘Were it not for my beloved sitting before me I would kill you.’ [The beloved] said, “This thing depends on me.” Immediately he stood up and rescued him.

Rabbi Abbahu said: ‘Were this not a written verse, it would be impossible to say this. This is to teach that Moses seized the Holy Blessed One, like one who seizes their friend by their garment and said before God: Sovereign of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.

(Brachot 32a)


This is our task, to seize our friend – even God – by the tallit and not let go until they yield to the commands of a universal ethic.

Shabbat shalom

[1] P. 64

[2] Let me put aside, just at this time, the role Satan plays in the Book of Job.

[3] P. 77

[4] Ps 44

[5] Cited Spiegel p. 25.


[7] In his Anatomy of Faith  (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), pp. 130–52.

[i] Ibid., p. 147.

Friday, 7 November 2008

elect yourself Lech Lecha 5769

It’s a very old joke. Let me update it a little.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visiting Washington.

The president is showing him around the Oval office.

And there on the desk are three phones – a red phone, blue phone, silver phone decorated with a lightening bolt.

The red phone is for calling the President of Russia, says the president.

The blue phone is for calling the president of China,

And the silver phone – the one with the lightening bolt, is for when things get really complicated and I need to reach God.


And then, some months later, President Bush visited Jerusalem

And so Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was showing President Bush around his office and there, on the desk was the very same model of a silver phone decorated with a lightening bolt.


The American president was outraged.

‘We Americans make up a country of some 300,000,000 citizens. Of course I need a phone to get hold of God.

You are a population of some 7,000,000, what do you need the silver phone for.


Mr President, we may be only 7,000,000, but while your 300,000,000 million citizens are merely citizens. In Israel we have 7,000,000 citizens who all think they should be prime ministers. Of course I need a phone


Insight into a Jewish sense about how a person gets elected.

It is of course a good week to talk about getting elected.

Aside from the elections you might have heard something about on the other side of the Atlantic we read, this week, of the election of Abraham.

Vayomer Avram el Avram Lech Lecha,

It’s election week in torah terms too.


My question is this, how does Abraham know he got elected?

Image of the Bible is of a man heading to shops when suddenly  a great big hand comes down from the heaven and says – I want you.

To the Biblical mind God is upfront, in your face.

I’ve never had that kind of interaction with God.

I’ve never been called that way.

I don’t suppose any of us have. I don’t suppose any of us have been elected that way.


If all we were to have was the Bible

If all we knew about was election by Big Pointing Finger we would all know our place and that place would not be at the front leading a people, being the source and the inspiration behind a great and glorious nation.

If someone was to ask us if we were in charge our response would be, no.

No-one elected us official, no-one told us we were in charge.

You want to know who is in charge – Abraham, well he was definitely elected and since then, it’s gone a bit quiet, to be honest.


But, as Rabbinical Jews don’t just have the Bible.

Rabbis create a different narrative of Abraham’s election.


One Rabbinic comment, alive in the third century compares Abraham to a man wandering from place to place when he sees a building aflame. This sight strikes him wrong. How can it be that this building has no-one to look over it?’

At this point the owner leans out and said, ‘I am the owner of the building.’

And so too, Rabbi Isaac goes on to say, Abraham wandered through the ancient world asking himself, ‘How can it be that the world has no-one to look after it.’ And it was only at this point that God was able to call out to him, I am the one to look after the world. Walk with me.[1]


Different kind of election.

What makes the election possible is Abrahams wander - wondering, looking at the world and trying to work out how this world can be.

Abraham proves himself worthy. He steps up first. Then God comes to meet him.

The big had that says, ‘I want you,’ only comes down on those who have shown their desire to stand apart from the crowd.


700 hundred years later, around the year 1000 we have another retelling of the story of how Abraham gets elected. It’s from the teaching of Rambam, the arch-rationalist, the man who disliked miracles and would be have hated the notion of anyone suggesting God had an out-sretched arm, let along pointing finger.


According to the Rambam, from the moment of his weaning Avraham is roaming in his own mind, trying to work out the way of the world. - shotet b'dato – his wandering is an attempt to understand more.

The contemporary American Bible commentator Aviva Zorn berg describes Rambam’s Abraham as suffering from ‘vagabondary of the spirit.’

‘He had no teacher or source of knowledge,’ says Rambam, ‘he was sunk among the idol worshipers … but his mind roamed in search of understanding until hi achieve the true way and understood out of his own natural intelligence.’


It’s a powerful tale, but the single most remarkable piece is that it God puts in no appearance at all.

In the story of the Rambam God doesn’t come down and say anything and there is certainly no pointing hand.

In the story of the Rambam Abraham knows that he is elected because he believes he is elected, because he comes to  understand that he has a role to play in the history of the world, in the great narrative of his people.

He gets it himself.


So while from reading the Bible might think that get elected by a God who comes down from the heavens with a big pointy finger and says, I want you.

To the Rabbis you have to work it out yourself. No-one’s going to say to you, I want you.

You have to be ready to step up yourself.
This, of course explains why you get so many people in the State of Israel who think  they ought to be Prime Minster – which takes us back to the phone.


But there is something else.

The world desp needs people who are prepared to elect themselves.

Too many people duck their responsibilities, wait for someone else to put their head above the parapet.

Hard work being a leader.

Can’t always make the right decisions and if you are a person of profile you;ll find that people will look at the decisions you take and might criticise.

Just, Jake, as you did in your dvar torah today.

Abraham’s a leader, so his actions are open for investigation.

You are after learning something – that’s important too.


The most important thing is not to leave the future, the leadership – of anything, but certainly of Judaism, to anyone else.

You didn’t grow up here, you’re a new member, and now BM is going you could think of disappearing again and we might not know.

But I want to offer something different – be a leader.

You are smart enough, skilled enough, thoughtful enough, kind enough to make a great leader of the Jewish people.

You should give it a try.

And more than, that if you don’t step up, maybe no-one will.

Or more to the point.

If all the smart, skilled, thoughtful and kind people who could be leaders of the future of the Jewish people ducked it,

Waited for someone else to say that they wanted to lead, we would be in a real mess.

For the big pointing hand isn’t how Jewish elections go.

Jewish elections don’t even work the same way American elections go.

Jewish elections work like this – a person stops, thinks, realises that the future depends on them.
And decides to act, to lead, to commit.


And while the Jewish kind of elections might result in more Prime Ministers and Presidents than the United States Constitution would know what to do with, it is still, I think, a preferable system.


One last story.

A wise Rabbi is faced with a dilemma.

He is being taunted by a couple of troublemakers.

They come to him with a question with no right answer.

I have, one of them says, a bird in my hand. If you are so clever, you have to tell me if the bird is alive or dead.


The Rabbi can hear the bird chirping, so he knows if he says the bird is dead the boy will open his hand and the bird will fly away, proving him wrong.

But if he says the bird is alive, the boy will squeeze his hand shut, killing the bird, and again the Rabbi will be wrong.


The Rabbi responds with wise words,

‘I do not know, but the future is in your hands.’


Jacob, I offer this story to you, and I offer it to all of us.

Don’t wait for the big  pointing hand.

Elect yourself, be the difference yourself.

For the future is indeed in your hands.

Shabbat shalom,

[1] BR 39:1

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