Thursday, 27 March 2008

Embarrassment is all around.

First Tibetan monks embarrass the Chinese, right in the run-up to the Olympics. Then the Chinese respond harshly – a mere three days after the Americans remove China from a human-rights blacklist – an embarrassment for the Americans. The Chinese invite a select group of foreign journalists to see Lhasa for themselves and a small group of monks embarrass their political masters by chanting of their lack of freedom in front of the scribes.

And then there is been that embarrassment of the Independent Asylum Commission, making public the ‘shameful blemish on the United Kingdom’s proud history of fair treatment for those [including my own ancestors] who come here in search of sanctuary.’

The Rabbis teach (Talmud BM 58b) that embarrassment – malbish panim (lit. whitening of the face) is like shedding blood. A huge realm of mussar – Jewish ethical writing focuses on the terrible hurt inflicted by the embarrassment we cause.

Of course, embarrassment also prompts us to action, indeed it may be the best prompt we have to make our human lives worthy of the gift of our soul. Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests the following.

How embarrassing for man to be the greatest miracle on earth and not to understand it! How embarrassing for man to live in the shadow of greatness and to ignore it, to be a contemporary of God and not to sense it. Religion depends upon what man does with his ultimate embarrassment, embarrassment not only precedes religious commitment, it is the touchstone of religious existence … What the world needs is a sense of embarrassment. Modern man has the power and the wealth to overcome poverty and disease, but we are guilty of misunderstanding the meaning of existence.

Embarrassment – when it focuses our minds on the sufferings of others – is no bad thing. Indeed it might be the only thing that can save this fragile world. We need more of it.

Friday, 14 March 2008

A Day Like Purim

Lurianic Kabbalah and a swathe of Chasidic commentators equate Yom Kipur with Yom KiPurim – literally a day like Purim.

It’s a bold move.

Yom Kippur is about order, discipline and a sense that God will forgive our failings.

Yom Purim is about chaos, getting sloshed and a sense that wherever God is, you can’t find him in the Megillah.


At this time of year I’m ready for Yom Purim, I’m ready for truth and faith to be a little more complicated.

I’m ready for a Festival that demands I celebrate even when I can’t see God.


I had a conversation with a member this week where she threatened to leave the Synagogue because she, ‘didn’t believe in God.’ We talked. She meant she didn’t believe in the Yom Kippur God – the God who sprinkles fairy dust over transgressions and guarantees lottery health happiness and fortunes on the deserving frum.

I don’t believe in that God either.

Instead I believe – especially in this week of Yom Purim – in a fate that unfolds with the dependability of lottery – literally a pur – and a sense of holiness and decency that depends not on the laise majeste of a Divine accountant, but you and I; each of us eking out fairer, less hateful, less Amalek filled world through our own individual commitments and actions. And this, amongst the fun and games of next Thursday night and Friday morning is why it is worth celebrating Purim this year.


Shabbat shalom and Purim Sameach – a very merry Purim


Friday, 7 March 2008

In Memory of Those Killed in the Attack on Mercaz Ha-Rav Kook

I want to speak in memory of Yochai Lipschitz, Yonatan Yitzchak Eldar Yonadav Chaim Hirschfeld, Neriah Cohen Roey Roth Segev Pniel Avihayil Avraham David Moses Maharata Trunoch All killed in the attack on Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva on Thursday night. May their memoy be a blessing. I don’t want to spend to much time talking about what is so blindingly obvious. Plotting to get inside a religious seminary to open fire on a group of Yeshivah students, as young as 15, is terrorism. It is barbaric, inexcusable and awful. To fail to condemn this outrage is to condone it. The only religiously appropriate thing about this horrendous attack is that it comes in the month of Adar, the month of Purim, a time when, as Jews, we are sensitised to ever-present threat to our people. And Haman said to King Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are different from those of every other people; and they do not keep the king’s laws; therefore it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they may be destroyed;[1] And the rabbis of the Talmud took these weasel words of Haman and worked them over until they could be the mealy mouthed apologetics of any soneh yisrael – any hater of Israel – interested in justifying the spilling of Jewish blood. All the excuses, all the justifications, all the supposed moral equivalences, We’ve heard them all before. Heard them in the mouths of Nimrod and Pharoh, and Haman and the rest of them. We are a people apart. But that lessens not one iota of the divine image encoded within us. Our prayers and wishes for comfort are with the families. I don’t want to spend to much tell talking about what is so blindingly obvious. Instead I want to talk about an irony that, if it is even possible to say such a thing, makes the attack on this particular Yeshiva an even more appalling act of barbarism than we might realise from the pages of our newspapers or broadcasters lacking in a good Yeshivah training. Mercaz Ha-Rav, the Yeshiva subjected to the attack yesterday was founded by Avram Yitzhak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of what is now Israel. Rav Kook spent the first world war in London, at machzikei HaDaas before emigrating to Israel and founding the Yeshiva which still carries his name. Kook is one of the great lovers of humanity in our, or any faith. He once quoted the talmudic axiom that "one should embrace with the right hand and rebuff with the left". He was, he claimed, entirely capable of being a rebuffer, but since there were so many people in the world who were so good at rebuffing, he decided to concentrate on the embracing. I like that story. And this is what has been done to the Yeshiva that bears his name and the students who went to study in it. Rav Kook was a beautiful poet Expanses divine my soul craves.Confine me not in cages,Or substance or of spirit.I am love-sick –I thirst, I thirst for God,as a deer for water brooks.Alas, who can describe my pain,Who will be a violin to express the songs of my grief,I am bound to the world, All creatures, all people are my friends,Many parts of my soulAre intertwined with them,But how can I share with them my Light?[2] And this is what has been done to the Yeshiva that bears his name and the students who went to study in it. Rav Kook was a tremendous optimist, about human beings, about the nature of the world. The future will disclose the remarkable power of peni­tence, and this revelation will prove of far greater interest to the world than all the wondrous phenomena that it is accustomed to behold in the vast areas of life and existence. The wonders of this new revelation will draw all hearts exerting an influence on everyone. Then will the world rise to its true renewal and sin will come to an end. The spirit of impurity will be purged away, and all evil will vanish like smoke. [3] And this is what has been done to the Yeshiva that bears his name and the students who went to study in it. Rav Kook believed in the healing power of joy and celebration. Of course Rav Kook believed in penitence, teshuvah, but he never wanted us, Israel, to feel down-cast by the totting up of our various sins and failures. This piece is a little hard to follow but it captures so powerfully Kooks commitment to the importance of joy and belief in the passionate embrace of life. When one shrinks the will [Kook wrote], when one restrains the life­-force through inner withdrawal and the inclination to avoid any kind of sin, there is also a shrinking of the will for the good. The vitality of the virtuous life is also weakened. It turns out that the person suffers from the cleansing of his moral state the kind of weakness experienced by the patient who was cured from his illness through a strong current of electric shock. It may have eliminated the virus, of his illness but it also weakened his healthy vitality. [This necessary healing is a problem, for Kook, so he sets the times of penitence – the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in their calendrical context and says this] The penitential season is therefore followed by days of holy joy and gladness for the self to restore the will for the good and the innocent vitality of life. Joy is needed before penitence can be complete.[4] And this is what has been done to the Yeshiva that bears his name and the students who went to study in it. It’s not just about Rav Kook. There is a theory, advanced most articulately by the West Coast Professor of Talmud Daniel Boyarin, that sees in the entire discipline of the close detailed engagement with the texts of our tradition a desire to step back from the ways that other nations fought battles and settled disputes. Through the years of exile Jews fought their battles not with swords and not with power, but by spirit. The Rabbis even turned soldiers of the tradition into scholars. The Book of Samuel refers to David, the slayer of Goliath, as a brave fighter and man of war – ish milchamah. The Talmud explains this means he knew how argue his point in ‘the war of Torah – milchemet hatorah.’[5] But don’t think that the vision of life that emerges from this unviolent way of engaging in the world is in any way impoverished. The vision is vibrant and alive. It glitters with respect for the way different individuals, different people, different faiths even, would see the world. Rav Kook[6] gave an interpretation of a verse from psalms that is given a powerful treatment at the end of the Talmudic tractate Brachot. Shalom rav lohavei toratecha The verse is often translated as ‘great peace’ to those who love Your Torah, but Kook suggests perfectly accurately that the sense of ‘great peace’ would be better conveyed by ‘shalom gadol’ not ‘shalom rav.’ A better understanding of ‘shalom rav’ says Kook is ‘the peace of multiples,’ or ‘the plurality of peace.’ The peace of shalom rav, the peace of the lovers of Torah is no orthprax/orthodox monologue, but a vibrant dialogue of different opinions, different hues, different colours. Light, says Kook, contains a multitude of hues. In order to acquire a complete understanding we need to capture all of its various aspects and hues, we must not forgo a single talent or viewpoint. And if we find a contradiction, says Kook, well this is how wisdom builds a home. A wealth of opinions enriches wisdom and increases knowledge. And this is what has been done to the Yeshiva that bears his name and the students who went to study in it. As vile a hillul – as vile a profanation - as has been perpetrated against the Yeshiva that bears Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s name As vile a hillul – as vile a profanation - as has been perpetrated against its students As hard as it is to hear these news-stories and not want to hate. As hard as it is to look at those pictures and not want to just give up and walk away We cannot. For this would be to profane not only the memories of those killed, but also the memories of their Rav – the founder of their yeshiva. And we dare not profane these memories. We must strive to believe in the healing power of a love of Torah, a respect for all creation and, above all, the human beings with whom we share this world. I mentioned that this verse from Psalms – Shalom rav lohavei toratecha – The verse about the plurality of peace is cited by the Rabbis in the closing moments of Tractate Brachot. It is the first of a series of verse from psalms that, when brought together articulate the greatest wish, the only wish we could dream of, even in the aftermath of the attack of Thursday night. שלום רב לאהבי תורתך A multitude of peace to the lovers of Torah יהי שלום בחילך שלוה בארמנותיך למען אחי ורעי אדברה נא שלום בך למען בית ה' אלהינו אבקשה טוב לך ה' עז לעמו יתן ה' יברך את עמו בשלום. Let peace be within your walls and tranquillity within your palaces For the sake of my brothers and friends I will now say, Let peace be within you For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your good. The Lord will give strength unto His people, the Lord will bless His people with peace.[7] Cain yehi ratzon, bimheyra byameinu May it soon be so Swiftly and in our days, Vnomar amen [1] Ester 3:8-9 [2] ABRAHAM ISAAC KOOK-THE LIGHTS OF PENITENCE, LIGHTS OF HOLINESS, THE MORAL PRINCIPLES, ESSAYS, LETTERS, AND POEMS, translation and introduction by Ben Zion Bokser, preface by Rivka Schatz and Jacob Agus [3] Orot HaTeshuvah 5:8 [4] Orot Teshuva 9:10 [5] Sanhedrin 93b [6] Olat Riyyah 1:330-331 [7] Brachot 64:1
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