Friday, 5 September 2008

Dyslexic Torah and the Fundamentalism in Judaism

Dyslexic Torah


I want to give what I will always think of as a Louis sermon with a Jeremy twist. It's a Louis sermon because it is about who we are as a community and the places where we sign up to the tradition and the places where we distance ourselves to some of the human errors that have slipped into our glorious inheritance. And it has a Jeremy twist because I have dyslexia, more of which anon


It’s a sermon about how we try and touch what God truly wishes of us when we ourselves are human, and not only human, but humans not gifted the prophetic insight of a Moses or even the prophetic insight of a Jonah.


Indeed this is the very central problem of the parasha. And indeed the whole book of Deuteronomy.

You only need shoftim and shotrim – judges and police-officers to run a society when God no longer rolls in from the heavens to zap any miscreant personally.


It’s not the Book of Numbers anymore.

In the Book of Numbers, if there is an insurrection that needs to be put down, God sorts it out personally – as it were.

In the book of Numbers, if any kind of judgement is to be made the judgement comes with a divine imprimatur.

But that is now behind us.

We are now well into the Book of Deuteronomy.


Let me paint the picture.

Moses knows he is going to die.

He knows his unique form of leadership is coming to an end, so he is standing there, desperately trying to imbue a sense of decency and dignity on the people, some 1.2 million people arrayed before him.

And he is giving a great speech

We are witnessing one of the greatest attempts in the history of world religion, literature, to create a just society.


And part of creating and living in a society involves a suspension of personal autonomy.

You can’t do whatever you feel like and be part of a just and well-ordered community.

You can’t be a communally minded anarchist.

If you want to be part of a just society you have to give up some of your freedom to the society.

This, of course, is what the eighteenth century French philosopher Jacques Rouseau articulated so beautifully in the justly famous opening of this Social Contract.

‘Man was born free; and everywhere is in chains’


And so to this week’s parashah

8 If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault — matters of dispute in your courts — you shall promptly repair to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen, 9 and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, 10 you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place that the Lord chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you. 11 You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.

(Deut 17)


And if you happen to think that the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time happen to have made a mistake, you have to tough it out.

In other words once God has stepped back from the active role of judge, jury and executioner you are bound by the decisions of the appointed judges in your time.


What catches my eye is the notion that you have to obey the ruling of these human appointees yamim usmol. You must not deviate to the left or the right.


The early Rabbinic commentary, Sifrei, states ;

Afilu nirin be-eyneicha al smol shehu yamim o al yamim shehu smol, shma lahem.

Even if it appears in your eyes that what they have told you is left is right and what they have told you is right is left – obey them.


The Medieval great, the Ramban states

even it is pashut beyneicha because you know the difference between your right and your left, taseh kmitvotam, do as they command.


The Ramban goes on to refer to one of the great moments of tension in the Rabbinic period, the moment, recounted in the Mishnah (RH 2) when two witnesses come before Rabban Gamliel to declare that they have seen the new moon of Ellul.

In Rabbinic law this moment of giving testimony starts the clock, the clock that started for us this week – the inexorable arrival of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

These two witnesses come before Rabban Gamliel – the presiding magistrate of his day - and declare they have spotted the first signs of the New Moon.

Only for it to suddenly disappear again that night.

Moons, of course, do not suddenly disappear.

The witnesses have made a mistake and Rabban Gamiliel who should have spotted a problem with the testimony misses it.

And the rest of the Rabbis know Rabban Gamliel has messed up.

Edei sheker hen – They are lying witnesses, one of them says.

And Rabbi Yehoshua seems to be about to protest the incorrect calling of the New Moon,

And in that moment he challenges the authority not only of Rabban Gamliel but the entire Deuteronomic system, a system that seems based on getting the right people in the right place to make the right judgement and supporting that judgement, accepting it, right or wrong.

As another of the Rabbis of the Mishnah notes – ‘if we argue against the court of Rabban Gamliel, we argue against each and every court since the time of Moses.’


Shelach lo Rabban Gamliel.

Rabban Gamliel sends for the recalcitrant Rabbi Yehoshua, and commands the junior Rabbi to appear before him on the day Rabbi Yehoshua would calculate as Yom Kippur bmakelcha uveme’otchah – bearing his staff and purse.

On Yom Kippur – aside from the public embarrassment, Rabbi Yehoshua has to believe he would be chayav mitah – guilty of a sin deserving capital punishment if he appears in public carrying staff and purse on Yom Kippur.

You can feel the tension, it is as if the whole corpus of Rabbinic existence is about to topple.

And yet he comes, Rabbi Yehoshua turns up before Rabban Gamliel, staff and purse in hand.

He is received gracefully and the moment passes.


Afilu nirin be-eyneicha al smol shehu yamim o al yamim shehu smol, shma lahem.

Even if it appears in your eyes that what they have told you is left is right and what they have told you is right is left – obey them.


But there is something terrifying in this midrash, in this approach to what it is to live well in a society.

I am terrified by the notion that that the word of the priest, the Rabbi, is deemed to have divine imprimatur even if it is so wrong that left and right have been confused.


I cited earlier the Ramban, saying that even if it is pashut beyneicha because you know the difference between your right and your left do as they command.

It gets worse.

Don’t say, the Ramban goes on, eherog haish hanaki hazeh – how can I kill this innocent person. Aval tomar rather say so I have been commanded by the Master of command.


What the Ramban is saying, following from the Sifrei, is that regardless of what you think about the guilt or innocence of the man standing before you, if the judge says stone him – you stone him.


This is the sort of stuff that gives religion a bad name, a very bad name.

The problem is that two terribly powerful forces have coalesced.

The first of these forces is the force of Divine Will.

What God wishes of a person is a powerful force for good, certainly.

The second force is the force of societal stability.

Things that keep our communities strong are needed, societal stability is a good thing.

But when the force that provides for societal stability becomes conflated with Divine Will, that is when things get very dangerous.

That is when mistakes get made.

That is when innocent men start to die.

Indeed there is a word for the religious attitude that requires a suspension of critical faculties and that word is fundamentalism.


And so, when you hear of Jews behaving in a fundamentalist manner we should, perhaps not be so surprised.

In a world where God no longer acts as shofet and shoter – judge and officer – someone needs to take responsibility for societal stability.

And at a time when traditional forms of Jewish life feel so under threat it is perhaps no surprise to hear that there are Rabbis and the followers of Rabbis claiming the divine imprimatur when attempting to provide a bulwark for tightly knit, passionately committed religious communities.

When the challenges of modernity come knocking, what better way could there possible exist to guarantee the survival of a religious society than claiming that you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.


This is, of course, not the approach of our great founder, and I don’t like it either.

For there is another side to Judaism.

A side that rejects the suppression of our own sense of what is right and wrong.

A side that requires us to keep our own spiritual, ethical and intellectual faculties fully engaged.


The opening words of the Jerushalem Talmud, Horayot[1] is an attempt to understand the choice of imagery – left or right.

Yechol ­– you might in error suppose that the reason for this left, right phraseology is that you should follow an errant judge even if they proclaim left as right, or right as left. But that would be wrong, says the Talmud.

Rather our problematic verse should be understood as follows

you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you when the judges call something that is right, right and something that is left, left.[2]

Al yamim shehu yamim ve al smol shehu smol

In other words, as a religious demand, you are called upon to follow only just laws.

And the claims of the judges, no matter how learned, how long their beards or how many times in the past they have got a decision right, the claims of the judges need to be examined again, questioned, prodded, challenged.

Because, and this is the biggest truth of all, Rabbis can guess at the Divine Will, they – we, all of us - can try and puzzle it out, but ultimately Divine Will is beyond human ownership.

It’s too complex, infinite, ungraspable.

We cannot own Divine Will, even if we are sure of our interpretation.


And that is why Jews love to argue.

It’s because, ulitmatly, we don’t accept that story of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel represents the right way for Jews to behave.

We don’t believe in the suspension of powers of debate and challenge.


Ezo hi machloket bshem shamayim

What is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven[3] ask the Rabbis of antiquity

There is such a thing, of course, an argument for the sake of heaven – where would we be without argument.


And another Rabbinic text, this one from Bereishit Rabba – I could do this all day.

Kol ahavah sheain imah tochechah ainah ahavah[4]- 'All love that is not accompanied by criticism is not love.

Kol shalom sheain imah tochechah ainah shalom All peace that is not accompanied by criticism is not peace.'

Tochecha meivi lyadei shalom[5]

Reproach, the rabbis claim, argument, disputation brings us to a place of peace.


This is, I would claim, the truer voice in our tradition, the tradition of the pursuit of the divine will free of the need to ensure, always for the stability of the society.

This is the voice that speaks to me. The voice I love.

I believe in argument, disputation, reproach

And to be a person who believes in argument, disputation, means that you have to let go of a little certainly, increase a little the societal instability.

A religious life without fundamentalism is a little less secure.

Thank God.


If the problem of fundamentalism is a problem of the conflation of Divine Will and societal stability we need, to turn again to the French philosophers, what Montesquieu called the separation of power.


We need religious leaders who are prepared to challenge every claim made in the name of God, to test it against some of the other great rallying calls in this week’s portion.

Tzedek Tzedek tirdof - Justice, justice you shall pursue.

Vkeratah ehlehah leshalom – call out to your enemies in peace.

We need religious leaders, religious followers, heck, even irreligious non-followers, We need every human to bring every ounce of their god given talents sharpen and improve the claims of those of us who attempt to speak in the name of the Divine.


As my predecessor here, Rabbi Jacobs, lived and taught and wrote so powerfully, I pledge my own religious leadership at this special community never to hide behind the flimsy curtain of societal stability if it means calling left right, or right left, and certainly not if it means good people getting hurt. Indeed it may well be that there is something more important than knowing the difference between one's right and one's left. And that is knowing that you don't know. Knowing that sometimes the difference between right and left, so clear to so many, is acutally confusing - dyslxia rules K.O.


The world is too fragile and too dangerous for any religion to make a claim for inerrancy. Instead we must make calls for challenge, disputation and debate.

Since tochecha meivi lyadei shalom[6]

Reproach, argument, disputation brings us to a place of peace


Shabbat shalom.

[1] 1:1

[2] Reading the vav of yamim usmol as left AND right, as opposed to left OR right.

[3] Pirkei Avot 5:17

[4] Bereshit Rabba 54:3

[5] Ad loc

[6] Ad loc

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