Friday, 30 January 2009

'See that evil [ra'h] should be before you.'

So says Pharaoh to Moses in one of the many confrontations between monarch and prophet that are a motif of this, and last week’s, portion. There is a Rabbinic tradition that whenever a Biblical verse commands ‘see,’ the Rabbis need to find a concrete object to which gaze is being directed. While ‘see’ in the Biblical sense probably functions in the same way as it does in English – ‘I see what you mean’ - the Rabbis incline towards the concrete.


Rashi suggests that Pharaoh is directing Moses’ attention towards a specific star; ‘There is a star called ra’h and Pharaoh claims, “I have learnt from my astronomers that this star is rising to meet you in the desert and it is a sign of blood and death.”’ This is Pharaoh’s prophecy and it explains why, in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle, Moses pleas to save the Children of Israel by saying ‘[God you can’t wipe out the Israelites] less the Egyptians will say that God brought them out with ra’h – under the power of this star.’ (Ex 32:12). Pharaoh cannot be allowed to win out. God, the teaching suggests, performs a volte face and the verse in Exodus 32 continues by suggesting ‘God turned back the ra’h’ – flipped over the predictions of Pharaoh’s astrologers and, in place of subjugation brings jubilation.


On the one hand it is classic piece of rabbinics, tying together mentions of the same word in different Biblical verses. On the other hand this comment alludes to a profound message of the Exodus narrative. Pharaoh thinks the fate of the Children of Israel is sealed in the stars, secure and knowable (at least by astrologers). Moses, together with God and the Children of Israel, are the proof of the possibility of the new. God transcends the heavens and can transcend the fate the stars predict. The essence of slavery (in a spiritual sense) is the perspective of Pharaoh – the evil star is fated, fixed and will come to pass. The essence of freedom is a belief that no matter where one finds oneself today, tomorrow brings new possibility.


I have spent the week in Israel where the country is limbering up for a general election. All four leading parties are campaigning under different versions of the same message - ‘We are strong, we will be strong.’ All three contenders for the office of Prime Minister are offering different versions of the same message that has driven Israeli-Palestinian relations for ten years. Meanwhile Palestinians are bedding in for more of the same. It’s a mentality of slavery for both peoples. We need a prophet. We need God to turn back the stars, flipping over the predictions of the astrologers. It’s a good thing to pray for and if has happened before, it can happen again.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Hate evil, love good, establish justice at the gates - A sermon on Operation Cast Lead

Odd isn't it how opening a page almost at random it will often fall on the very truth one most needs to hear.

I felt this this week in particular as in my Talmud study this week I came across a verse from the Book of Amos I hadn't though about before.

  שִׂנְאוּ-רָע וְאֶהֱבוּ טוֹב, וְהַצִּיגוּ בַשַּׁעַר מִשְׁפָּט; אוּלַי, יֶחֱנַן יְה-וָה אֱל-הֵי-צְבָאוֹת[1]

Hate evil

Love Good

Establish justice at the gate

And maybe God will be merciful to you


Let me take part of this verse in turn.

I want to apply it to the situation still unfolding in Gaza


Hate evil - שִׂנְאוּ-רָע

Couldn't be more clear to me that what Hamas are doing is evil.

Not only is their goal  - the destruction of the State of Israel – an evil goal, but the methods they use to meet that goal are despicable.

To launch rockets indiscriminately

To hide behind human shields,

To bully and bribe a people into supporting you through the ballot box so you can better wage war fro the streets and cities of Gaza.

All this is hateful.
And I hate it. - שִׂנְאוּ-רָע


Love Good רָע וְאֶהֱבוּ טוֹב

I believe Israel to be good.

Indeed I love Israel.

I believe in Israel's right to exist, right to exist in safe, secure borders.

I applaud the extraordinary steps towards building a nation that Zionists have taken these past hundred years.

I applaud the way Israel has looked to make peace with its neighbours, when it has looked, I believe Israel wants peace.

I love the good.

וְאֶהֱבוּ טוֹב

So far so, more or less, straightforward.


But this is not the whole of the verse.

The verse continues with this demand.

וְהַצִּיגוּ בַשַּׁעַר מִשְׁפָּט

Establish at your gates legal discipline - mishpat.

Now this is fascinating..

Relying on emotions is not, it appears, enough.

It is not enough for me to be swayed by my loves and my hatreds.

I need to modulate those emotional pulls, test these emotional tugs, challenge my own subjectivity with legal process.


Bible mandates that judges should not be swayed by the bribes of the rich.

Well that much is obvious, but it also[2] mandates that a judge should not incline to favour a poor person either.

The over-riding commitment, despite how I, or you, or any of us might feel – emotionally, subjectively – has to be to legal process.

It's not glamorous.

This subjugation of emotion to process.

It's much more fun to rant and rave, to overturn the tables of the moneylenders, but this is not the Jewish way.

We are, as Jews far more precise.
We cut loose far less easily, even if our emotions tell us that things should be clear.


Even in extremis,

Even in a time of war

Even when faced with our enemies.

Even when faced with enemies as revolting as Hamas.


We learn in the 5th Century Vayikra Rabba

Rabbi Jesse the Galilean states: "How meritorious is peace? Even in time of war Jewish law requires that one initiate discussions of peace."[3]

You can't just wage war, you have to wage peace also, work for peace, even in the midst of conflict,


Take this teaching of Philo, a Jewish writer writing in the first century


The Jewish nation, when it takes up arms, distinguishes between those whose life is one of hostility and the reverse. For to breathe slaughter against all, even those who have done little or nothing amiss, shows what I would call a savage and brutal soul.[4]


Judaism recognises the presence of the non-combatant, the person swept up in violence who is not responsible for the enmity that exists. Judaism does not countenance running away with ones emotions, even at a time of war, even when faced with hatred.


Perhaps nowhere is this made more clear than in the obligation, codified by the Rambam, regarding how to lay siege to a town.


. כשצרין על עיר לתפשה, אין מקיפין אותה מארבע רוחותיה אלא משלש רוחותיה, ומניחין מקום לבורח ולכל מי שירצה להמלט על נפשו,[5]

When you lay siege to a city to capture it, do not surround it on all four sides, rather three, and leave a place for escape for anyone who wants to save their soul.


It's a crazy way to lay siege, on three sides of a city only.

But it couldn't be clearer that there is a limit on the way in which Jews are allowed to wage war.


Jews are also commanded not to wreck a longer-term destruction on the city than is absolutely necessary.

This is the command not to destroy the trees surrounding a city when the city is besieged.


 [6]כִּי-תָצוּר אֶל-עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ, לֹא-תַשְׁחִית אֶת-עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן

19. When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by forcing an ax against them;


The verse is often used as an ecological call to arms, so to speak, but my sense is that it is more about helping a conquered city return to normalcy as soon as possible, not fostering an attitude of division and despair in a city beaten by Israelite military might.


וְהַצִּיגוּ בַשַּׁעַר מִשְׁפָּט

It is easy to get carried away in waging war.

It is easy to forget that human beings are made in God's image no matter whether they be Israelite or not.

The command is that we patrol our emotions, even in hating evil, even in hating Hamas and even in loving good, even in loving Israel.


In this week's parasha Moses is commanded to remove his shoes before the encounter with God at the burning bush.

My teacher, Rabbi Levi Lauer, suggests that maybe Moses is instructed to walk in bare feet in order that he will feel more pain as he takes on the Egyptians, spreading death and destruction in his wake. Shoes isolate us from whatever we trample over as we make our way through the world. Walking barefoot ensures we take extra care with every step. This is not a comfortable message. We live in a contemporary society that preaches spiritual comfort and prefers clear-cut solutions to messy compromises, but our world is too complex for such naivety. We must all learn to walk barefooted, in discomfort, in our wars if we are to find a way to respond to violent outrages while still preserving our spiritual identity, if we are to be ready to admit the importance of placing justice at our gates.


Let me be clear, and I was clear too last week, I am not a pacifist, Judaism is peace-loving, but Judaism is not a pacifist religion.

We know that hating evil may require a call to arms.

But I am terrified that we are going too far in Operation Cast Lead.

I am afraid we may be breaking the obligation to leave open a gap in our siege for those who wish to flee.

I am afraid that we are destroying the trees and moving the day when Palestinian children can be succoured by the fruits of their own endeavours, their own orchards situated – as they must be – side by side with Israeli farms.


There is a famous statement of Golda Meir that has often been applied to the work of Hamas and terrorists acting in the name of the Palestinian people.

We can, she said, forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we cannot forgive them for turning our children into killers.

That, of course is true.


But it reminds me of a different saying, a saying recorded in the 5th Century Bereishit Rabbah.

As Jacob hears that his estranged brother Esau is approaching the Bible tells us he was frightened and distressed.

The Rabbis have to know what difference there is between these two emotions.

We are told[7] Jacob is "frightened – lest he be killed; and distressed – lest he kill"


We must hate evil, love good and be terrified lest our emotions carry us away in our pursuit of war, we need to remind ourselves, our governments and the government of the State of Israel

וְהַצִּיגוּ בַשַּׁעַר מִשְׁפָּט

That even in war they must establish justice at the gates.

אוּלַי, יֶחֱנַן יְה-וָה אֱל-הֵי-צְבָאוֹת

And maybe God will be merciful to you


Shabbat shalom


[1] Amos 5:17

[2] Ex 23:3

[3] VR Tzav 9

[4] The Special Laws 4:224-225

[5] MT H Melachim 6:7

[6] Deut 20:19

[7] BR 76:2

Awkward Individuals

A highlight of the week, for me, was the opportunity to engage with my colleague, friend and mentor, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg over one of our favourite Talmudic passages. At the heart of our discussion about the text – the story of the Oven of Achnai – was a disagreement about how the text valued debate, difference, edginess and the voice of the individual.


The story is an argument between the massed ranks of the Rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer over a matter regarding ritual impurity. Eliezer is convinced he is right and calls on various miracles and even God to witness to his correctness, but the Rabbis insist on the power of the majority and carry the day. In the middle of the story God laughs seemingly delighted that ‘my children have defeated me.’ The Rabbis then seek to rub out any of Eliezer’s previous declarations and even to excommunicate their defeated foe, an act that results in mass destruction of harvests and, ultimately, the death of the senior Rabbi who watched the disagreement unfold.


Like all good Talmudic stories this tale evades simple explanations but one element is clear. No-one likes a smart-alec. No-one likes a person so convinced of their own rectitude that they embarrass the comfortable majority. I see Rabbi Eliezer as this kind of person. And the response of a majority to this kind of discomforting voice is often to attack not the argument, but the individual. In increasingly totalitarian societies the threat to the provoking individual increases to the point of danger. In many ways, of course, this is what happened to our founding Rabbi (who I am certainly not considering a smart-alec, perish the thought). He confronted a comfortable majority with an uncomfortable truth and was shunned. It is also what happens, in this week’s parasha, to Moses who turns to Pharaoh with the undeniable demand for individual liberty and freedom, which results in ever greater oppression being placed upon the shoulders of the Children of Israel.


Throughout history the Jew has often served as provocateur, smashing idols of deceit and holding up uncomfortable message before power. We have picked up Nobel Prizes and suffered pogroms aplenty because of it. Truth will do that but ultimately truth will win out. As a community and as individuals I would want us to value ever more carefully the dis-comforting voices that challenge our cosy view of the world. We need to create spaces for solitary provocateurs, truth-telling outsiders and we need to recognise that truth rarely comes comfortably packaged. It didn’t for Moses, it  didn’t for Rabbi Eliezer and it doesn’t today.


Shabbat Shalom,



Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Statement of the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism on our hopes for peace and safety in a time of war

The Conservative/Masorti Movement supports the State of Israel, its government and military, in its current operations to protect the citizens of Israel's southern region and offers our prayers and material assistance to its soldiers and their families. We lament Hamas’ unrelenting and finally intolerable barrage of rocket fire on Israel’s cities and civilians.  We pray that a leadership of the Palestinian people emerges that will honor a verifiable and monitored cease fire and negotiate an enduring peace.  We pray for peace. 


We particularly commend the many efforts on the part of our colleagues in the Masorti Movement and Schechter Institute to provide substantive and spiritual support for soldiers and civilians in areas affected by rocket fire.


When the Holy Blessed One created the first human being, God showed the human the Garden of Eden, and said: “See My works, how fine and excellent they are!  All that I have created, I created for you.  Consider this and do not destroy My world: for if you do, there is no one to set it right.”  Ecclesiates Rabbah 7:13


We believe that the task of humanity is to preserve God’s Creation and for people to live cooperatively.

Even a mighty hero, once the arrow leaves one’s hand, one can no longer make it come back. Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Shirah §4.


We pray for a speedy and effective end to this conflict.  We pray for minimal losses.

Whenever destruction of the wicked takes place, there is grief for them above.    Zohar Bereshit, I:57b


We know that God mourns losses on all sides.  Saddened by this war, we dedicate ourselves to help Israel speedily fulfill its mission to live with security and in lasting peace with its neighbors.

 But every person shall sit under their grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb them.  For it was the Lord of Hosts who spoke.  Micah 4:4


So may it be God’s will


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