Friday, 25 April 2008

The Lotus in the Jew

In my main Passover Sermon I looked at the relationship between contemporary Tibet oppression and our ancient persecution.

I was forcibly struck not only by the extraordinarily relevant title of the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, but also by the connection two of the most striking moments in his life and our own Rabbinic heritage.

The violence of oppression of a ‘nation apart’ as the hagada refers to the Jews is mirrored in the oppression of the Tibetans and the tale of the Dalai Lama fleeing his ancestral home and the home of his faith and nation to seek to construct an exile-based identity matched so neatly that of one of our own founding religious fathers, Yochanan Ben Zakkai.

The connection between the Dalai Lama and Yochanan Ben Zakkai was, at least to my knowledge, fist remarked upon in the lovely work The Jew in the Lotus; a tale of a group of Rabbis and Jewish educators who go on a visit to meet the Dalai Lama in 1990.

Some relevant texts are posted below.

We pray for the freedom of all peoples.

From Freedom In Exile: Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

The methods that the Chinese used to intimidate the population [in the Spring of 1957] were so abhorrent that they were almost beyond the capacity of my imagination. It was not until I read the report published in 1959 by the International Commission of Jurists that I fully accepted what I had heard: crucifixion, vivisection, disembowelling and dismemberment of victims was commonplace. So too were beheading, burning, beating to death and burying alive, not to mention dragging people behind galloping horses until they died or handing them upside down or throwing them bound hand and foot into icy water. And in order to prevent them shouting out, “Long live the Dalai Lama” on the way to execution, they tore out their tongues with meathooks.[1]

From Midrash Eleh Ezkerah: Yom Kippur Liturgy

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel begged for his execution to be the first and they shed his blood as if he were an ox and when his head was severed Rabbi Yishmail took it and wailed.

They flailed the skin from his face.

They took out Rabbi Akiva and lacerated his flesh with sharp-toothed combs and burnt Rabbi Chananya ben Teradion.[2]

Freedom In Exile – Fleeing Lhasa for Dharamasala

At a few minutes before ten o’clock, now wearing unfamiliar trousers and a long, black coat, I threw a rifle over my right shoulder and, rolled up, an old thangka that had belonged to the Second Dalai Lama over my left. Then, slipping my glasses into my pocket, I stepped outside. I was very frightened. I was joined by two soldiers, with them I groped my way across the park, hardly able to see a thing. ON reaching the outer wall we joined up with Chikyah Kempo who, I could just make out, was armed with a sword. He spoke to me in a low reassuring voice. I was to keep by him at all costs. Going through the gate, he announce boldly to the people gathered there that he was undertaking a routine tour of inspection. With that, we were allowed to pass through. No further words were spoken.[3]

Talmud Gittin 56a

Abba Sikra the head of the guard in Jerusalem was the son of the sister of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.

Yachanan sent for him saying, Come to visit me privately. When he came he said to him, How long are you going to carry on in this way and kill all the people with starvation? He replied: What can I do? If I say a word to them, they will kill me. He said: Devise some plan for me to escape. Perhaps I shall be able to save a little. He said to him: Pretend to be ill, and let everyone come to inquire about you. Bring something evil smelling and put it by you so that they will say you are dead. Let then your disciples get under your bed, but no others, so that they shall not notice that you are still light, since they know that a living being is lighter than a corpse. He did so, and Rabbi Eliezer went under the bier from one side and Rabbi Joshua from the other. When they reached the door, some men wanted to put a lance through the bier. He said to them: Shall [the Romans] say. They have pierced their Master? They wanted to give it a push. He said to them: Shall they say that they pushed their Master? They opened a town gate for him and he got out.

The Jew In the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz[4]

As [Rabbi Yitz Greenberg] told the story of the first-century sages, I felt the power of our being there, as Jews. Dharamasala as much as one can argue by analogy, is surely the Tibetan Yavneh. In this small Indian town, with no more than five thousand souls, lies the main hope for the survival of Tibetan Buddhism. And I could see – with a little squinting – the Dalai Lama and his leading abbots and monks as the Buddhist equivalent of Yochanan ben Zakkai and his sages.

[1] P. 136

[2] From Midrash Eleh Ezkerah Yom Kippur Litrugy

[3] Pp. 151-152

[4] P. 95

Let's hear it for Moses

Poor ol’ Moses doesn’t even get a look in a the beginning of Pesach.

I thought it might be interesting to cull some of the glorious Midrashim on him for study at the end of the Festival.

These are my own translation of material, largely, gleamed from a fabulous essay at the back of Menachem Kasher’s ‘Israel Passover Haggadah.’

1. Vayikra Rabba 1:3

Go and learn that of all the names that Moshes had, the Holy Blessed One only ever called him by the name that Batya the daughter of Pharaoh called him by. As it says and she called him Moses since she saved him out from death.

And not only that, the Holy Blessed One said to Batya daughter of Pharaoh , ‘Moses was not your son, but you called him your son, so too even though you are not my daughter I will call you my daughter as it says, these are the children of Batya (I Chron 4) Bat Yah.

2. Shmot Rabba 4

And when the Holy Blessed One said to Moses, And now go and I will send you to Pharaoh , he said to Him, ‘Master of the World, I can’t since Jethro has received me with honour and opened his house to me and I am as a son for him, and one for whom a door is opened is obliged to his neighbour. I can’t go without his permission. Therefore it states And Moses when and returned to Jethro his father-in-law. He went to get permission to go to Egypt.

3. Guide to the Perplexed 2:45

Moses didn’t only intervene in the disputes of his brethren, he would intervene for those who were part of the covenant and those who were not part of the covenant, whenever their hand was upon the lowest ones in society as it says And the priest of Midian had seven daughters who came to draw water but the sheperds drove them off. So Moses helped them and watered their flock. Even though he was at that time a ger – stranger and he had no-one to defend him he wanted to give his soul to rescue the oppressed from the hands of their oppressors and therefore he went to bring out the pursued from the hand of the pursuer and the Hebrews from the hand of the Egyptians. And since his heart was pure and strong and he was pure and strong and his eyes were pure to the point of not seeing wickedness or evil, the Holy Blessed One chose him as the shepherd of Israel.

4. Shmot Rabba 3, Midrash Aseret HaDibrot, Tanhuma Vayikra 3

Then Moses hid his face for he was afraid [yirah] to look at God. Moses said, ‘I stand before the God of my ancestors, shall I not hide my face?’ At that moment the Holy Blessed One said to him, ‘When I revealed Myself to you, you honoured me by covering your face. By Your Life! You shall survive 40 days and night with nothing to eat or drink, sustaining your self by the glory of the divine presence as it says Moses did not know there were beams of light from his face while speaking to God.

The Holy Blessed One looked in each and every generation and could find anyone more appropriate to receive Torah than Moses. And how did Moses merit being hatan Torah? Because of the humidly and awe within him. As it says Then Moses hid his face for he was awed [yirah] looking at God.

Since Moses fled from honour, honour pursued him to fulfil the verse A person’s pride will bring them low, but the humble will attain honour. (Prov 29)

5. Sifrei Behalotecha 91

And God spoke to Moses and Aaron and gave them a charge regarding the Children of Israel (Ex 6)

The Holy Blessed One said to them, ‘Know that my children, they are rebellious, they are wearisome- tarchanim, they are overly excitable. There is a condition for your leadership of them that they will curse you and hurl stones at you. And this lesson goes for every leader and judge, they need to suffer the torech of the community and bear it like Moses our Rabbi, for it is said of him as a wet nurse carries a suckling child

6. Midrash Tanhumah, V’era 5

And Moses and Aaron came [before Pharaoh] (Exodus 5:1)

Rabbi Hiyya son of Abba said, ‘This was coronation day, when all the Kings came to crown Pharaoh because he was the Emperor. While they were placing crowns on Pharaoh’s head, Moses and Aaron stood at the entrance to the hallway. Pharaoh’s guards told him, ‘Two elders are standing at the doorway’

Pharaoh asked ‘Have they got a crown?’ The guard replied ‘no.’ ‘Then let them enter last.’ When Moses and Aaron finally stood before Pharaoh he said, ‘What do you want?’ Moses replied ‘The God of the Hebrews has sent be to you to say, “Let my people go so they will serve me.”’ (Ex 7:16).

Pharaoh replied angrily, ‘Who is this GOD that I should listen to His voice. Doesn’t He know enough to send me a crown, rather you come with words.’

Rabbi Levi said, ‘Pharaoh then took the list of gods and began to read, ‘The god of Edom, the god of Moab, the god of Sidon, yada yada yada,’ and he said to them, ‘There, I have finished all my records and your god’s not on the list.’

So Moses and Aaron said to Pharaoh, ‘Fool, the gods you mentioned are all dead. But the LORD is a living God, Ruler of the Universe.’

Pharaoh asked, ‘Is he young or old? How many cities has he captured? How many states has he humbled? How long has he been in power?

They replied, the strength and power of our God fills the world. God was before the world was created and God will be at the end of the worlds. He fashioned you and placed within you the breath of life.’

What else has he done? Pharaoh asked.

They replied, ‘God stretched out the heavens and the earth and God’s voice carved out flames of fire,[1] God rips open the mountains and smashed the rocks.[2] God’s bow is of fire, God’s arrows are flames, God’s spear is a torch, God’s shield is the clouds, God’s sword is lightening, God forms the mountains and the hills; covers the mounts with grass, the heavens with clouds, God brings down the rain and the dew and gets the plants to grow and the fruits to ripen. God afflicts the beasts and forms the embryo in the womb of the mother and brings it forth into the light of the world.’

Pharoh said, ‘You are speaking lies, because I am the Lord of the world, and I created myself and the Nile, as it says, mine is the Nile and I made it (Ezekiel 29:3)[3]

7. Brachot 32a

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.

[1] (Psalms 29:7)

[2] (I Kings 19:11)

[3] Full verse – Thus said God, I am going to deal with you, Pharaoh who said “Mine is the Nile and I made it.’

Friday, 4 April 2008

Judaism and Human Fertilisation and Embryology


Ishah ki tazriah

When a woman gives birth


This week we are reading, in the Torah, the laws appertaining to childbirth.

And the papers (and certainly the pulpits of my Catholic colleagues) are full of the ethics of childbirth.

Parliament is debating the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill and Cardinal Keith O’Brian is using his Easter sermon to denounce experiments of ‘Frankenstinian proportion’ O’Brian considers the Bill ‘a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life!’


What’s a Jewish view of all this?

What a Jewish view on human-animal hybrid embryos?

Don’t think it’s still beyond the realm of science. Just yesterday Dr Lyle Armstrong of Newcastle University reported that Britain’s first hybrid embryos had been created and grown for three days.

Human DNA was mixed with animal DNA and then inserted into a hollowed-out cow egg. And electric shock then induced the hybrid egg to grow.[1]


Dr Armstrong, whose work is licensed by the HEFA, is now waiting for the Bill to be passed to learn whether he is to be allowed to extract stem-cell lines from these three day old hybrids, because with these stem-cells he might be able to make a contribution to diseases and injuries that, at present, spell utter disaster and death.


The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill bumps up against the greatest miracle of all, the miracle of the creation of life, and in doing so it bumps up against our dearest held conceptions of ethics and the nature of humanity.


What’s a Jewish view of all this?

One section of the Bill refers to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.

When embryos are created, for want of a better term, in a test-tube, Doctors have for more than 20 years routinely screened these embryos for more than 20 potentially life-threatening conditions.

The new Bill offers a different possibility – it offers parents with a hereditary disease or defective gene the chance to have one or more embryos created outside the body and tested for this defect before implantation.

The Bill doesn’t open a possibility for testing for gender or any other kind of ‘social’ issue but, and this is radical.

There is a Talmudic passage[2] that seems to acknowledge, at least in theory, a kind of pre-implantation genetic manipulation.


We need to go back to Genesis.

Leah has had six children, all boys and the Biblical text says veachar yalda bat

And after she gave birth to a daughter.

After what Rav Yoseph wants to know.

After doing some mental arithmetic comes the answer.

Leah, the Talmud assumes, knows that Jacob is to have 12 sons.

She knows that she has 6 of them.

She knows that both the maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah, have two sons – leaving only two left.

Leah knows, the Talmud suggests that if she has another boy that will only leave one boy for Rachel. Rachel would have fewer sons than the maidservants, and that seems impossible.

So she determines to have a daughter, and so Dina is born.


There is another equally odd, but equally pertinent text in Baba Metzia.[3] Rabbi Yochanan is one of the great beauties of the Jewish tradition. And, we are told that he would sit at the gates to the Mikvah and when the women would emerge he would say, ‘let them look at me and they will have children as handsome and as learned as I.’


Of course the science of these stories makes no sense to us enlightened folk. We understand mitochondrial protein synthesis. We’ve come a long way from the time of Leah and the time of Rabbi Yochanan, and these texts now seem a little ridiculous, but under their superficial naiveté lies a more profound approach which can help us with the sorts of advances that the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill places before us.


As a conceptual issue we do not have in Rabbinic sources an objection to playing God.


Rabbi Barry Freundel,[4] an orthodox Rabbi based in Washington reported that he was invited to give evidence to an Ethics committee ‘on the Hill’ together with a Cardinal. The Cardinal railed against some particular stance being discussed – ‘this would be,’ the cardinal said, ‘like making humans a partner in the act of creation!’

The striking thing, Rabbi Freundel reported is that this exact phrase – a partner in the act of creation – is Rabbinic. It is used in this much loved passage from Kohelet Rabba


It was taught; at the time a babe is formed in the womb of its mother it has three partners in its creation; the Holy Blessed One, its father and its mother. Its father implants the white that is in him – the brain, the nails, the white of the eye, the bones and the sinews. Its mother implants the red that is in him – the blood, the skin, the muscle, the hair and the black of the eye. And the Holy Blessed One, may God’s name be blessed, places ten things within him. And these are they; the soul, the spirit, the lustre of the visage, the ability to see and the sense of hearing, the speech from the lips, the strength of the arms and the legs’ ability to walk, wisdom, understanding, counsel and intellect and might. And when it comes to the time to pass, the Holy Blessed One, takes back His part and leaves behind the parts of the mother and father before them. And the father and mother weep.[5]


The human is the product of the combined shutafut – partnership between human and God, and while the Catholics see the notion of a human-divine shutafut as a terrible overreach of humanity, we, Jews, see it as inevitable but also as a challenge. How can we live up to our side of this shutafut – this transaction?


In Catholicism there is a religious goal of surrender. Even in the work of as radical Christian theologian as Soren Kierkegaard one can see the notion of the suppression of the human instinct, of, what Kierkegaard calls in Fear and Trembling a ‘suppression of the ethical.’ It’s not really a Jewish way.


Islam, the term itself means surrender, also has elements of this suppression of the self. One important image is that which states a person should ‘place himself in the hands of God by making himself like a corpse in the hands of a washer.’[6]

With the washers turning the body over and over to wash it, with the body hanging limply. It’s just not very Jewish.


Marx considered religion an opiate, he thought religion dampened down human creativity, human engagement, human struggle.

Again, it just doesn’t feel like he could have had even his own mother religion in mind.

Religion as abstention is not a religion I recognise.


We are not people to ‘down our tools’ when there is something to be done that could improve the world.


Stem cells offer extraordinary promise.

There simply aren’t enough donated human eggs available to be able continue making the progress we would want to, to save lives, to diminish the reach of death.


Vyarpo yirape ‘­and surely he shall be healed,’ says the Bible[7] in the context that has nothing to do with infertility or illness, but it’s enough for the Rabbis to create an overarching obligation to heal

Another verse, this time one which needs no fancy interpretation - You shall not stand by the blood of your fellow.[8] Healing is a command.


One might think that illness is divinely mandated, that infertility is divine punishment, indeed there are religious groupings that think these things, but they are not Jewish groups.


In my recent talk on medical ethics I cited a little known text from Midrash Temura which captures perfectly the core of a Rabbinic approach to healing, illness and medical advancement.

Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva were walking through the streets of Jerusalem when the were me by a sick person. He said to them, ‘what must I do to be cured.’ They told him, ‘do this and that until you are cured.’

The sick man answered, ‘and who afflicted me?’

‘They replied, ‘The Holy Blessed One’

The sick man responded, ‘you have entered into a matter which does not pertain to you. God has afflicted and you seek to cure! Are you not transgressing God’s will’

The Rabbis ask the man his profession, he is a farmer.

So they ask him why he interferes with the God-given state of his land by fertilizing and weeding. ‘Just as plants, if not weeded, fertilised and ploughed will not growth and bring forth fruit, so to the human body. The fertiliser is the medicine and the means of healing and the tiller of the earth is the physician.[9]


And this is about more than medical ethics, as important as these complex issues are, and I wouldn’t want to reduce them to a generalisation.

But I do want to address the broader issue, and that is what I call sleeves rolled up approach to life that typifies the Jewish soul.


We don’t sit and wait for destiny to unfold before us, meekly accepting the slings and arrows of fortune.

Yitgaber adam baboker kari, opens the greatest of all our law codes, the Shulchan Arukh

We are commanded to rise, each morning like a lion,[10] ready to engage with the world with all its complexities.


The Midrash teaches that a great many Israelites never left Egypt, they were too scared to leave.

They were waiting for something, some other kind of a sign, that would tell them it was OK to pack up and get out.

If you wait too long the opportunity passes.


As is taught in Vayikra Rabba, everything created in the six days of the Beginning needs further treatment: wheat can do with being milled, mustard with being sweetened.[11]


Life and death, blessing and curse have been placed in our hands.

It has been so ever since the time of the Garden of Eden, charged with responsibility, encouraged to work and tend the garden and everything in it.


We have to brace ourselves for the future, decide what is and what is not to be permitted, but we should never desist from the very radical notion that we are indeed partners in the act of creation.

Responsible for human failure, but also emboldened to believe in human success.



[2] Brachot 60a

[3] Baba Metziah 84a

[5] Kohelet Rabbah 5

[6] Lecture of Prof Ray Scheindlin, JTS Library Talk, 25 February 2008

[7] Ex 21:19

[8] Lev 19:16

[9] Midrash Temurah, cited in Feldman, Health and Medicine in the Jewish Tradition p.16.

[10] Shulchan Arukh OH 1:1

[11] VR 11:7

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