Thursday, 25 July 2013

On Rebirth and Rosh Hashanah - Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan

A little odd to be posting on RH in July, but copy deadlines for Rabbis come early.

This is something for a reading pack that will be available at New London come 5/6th September, available now for anyone who wants to get in the mood early,




My favourite talmudic tale of rebirth comes from tractate Baba Metziah. Shimon, son of Lakish is a bandit, a gladiator, with blood on his hands who one day spies an effete blond figure bathing, presumably naked, in the Jordan River. Shimon leaps in after .... well it turns out to be Rabbi Yochanan. The great Rabbi stuns the gladiator into forgoing his violent ways and Shimon becomes a 'great rabbi' - now known as Reish Lakish - one of the greatest. The pages of the Talmud are full of observances of Reish Lakish detailed, learned and integral to everything that Talmudic Judaism represents. But the story, on this page of Baba Metziah, skips ahead, long into the future, and continues with what, at first sight seems to be a purely technical debate.


Rabbi Yochanan and the ex-gladiator debate the point at which various metal implements; swords, scythes and daggers, are completed. Rabbi Yochanan considers this takes place as the metal comes out of the furnace. Reish Lakish thinks it is after they have been plunged into the water. Rabbi Yochanan defers in favour of Reish Lakish, 'after all a bandit knows his tools.' But this apparent act of humility backfires terribly. Reish Lakish is 'weakened' by what he understands as a terrible insult and quickly passes away. Rabbi Yochanan is bereft at the loss of his study partner.


To understand what could hurt Reish Lakish so deeply you have to realise Reish Lakish understands the question about these weapons of violence as being a question about himself. He was a weapon of violence, fully formed, but capable of profound change by being plunged into the water. He wants Rabbi Yochanan to acknowledge that change is still possible, even if the physical form of the object is already set. But Rabbi Yochanan fails to realise how this matter is, for his study partner, existential. He thinks Reish Lakish is disagreeing with him because in his past he wielded knifes. But this is not why Reish Lakish disagreed with his master and he’s deeply wounded by having his past dragged into his present at the very moment he was asking to be acknowledged as having changed. As the mentor deems his student no more than the bandit he once was, the student’s entire sense of self is stripped from him.


This is how rebirth works. At a certain point in life, maybe, we undergo change. We emerge from some profound experience feeling reborn, new, different. And then we re-enter the world. We want to be taken seriously in our new life. We take our transformation seriously, we try to pull off this new life with integrity, but there is a weakness in our armour. We know we can be stripped of all this rebuilding in a moment by someone treating us as we once were - and the more important that person is for us, the more terribly all our efforts can be annulled. It's something I thought about a great deal in my first years as an ordained Rabbi and in my first years at New London. It's something I think about when I consider the journey of many in our conversion programme. It's something I know many of us face, and fear.


So these are the lessons I learn from this Talmudic tale of rebirth;

Change is possible, Reish Lakish was a great Rabbi, I am also a Rabbi, we are all capable of change, we all change.

Change takes effort to pull off, rebirth demands integrity and commitment.

But those of us who are reborn are fragile in our new skin and those we love and respect most have the greatest ability to rip, from us, our new sense of self.

Maybe more than the teachings of a brief tale related in Baba Metziah, these are the teachings of this whole Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur season.


Some Books for the Summer

I like, at this time of the year, to share some books of Jewish significance that might be of interest to anyone with a little extra reading time over the summer. The good news is there are some terrific newly published books or Jewish interest I’ve been reading. The bad news is that I am serving, this year, as a judge on the 2012-13 Wingate Jewish Book Award, and it doesn’t feel right to recommend anything on the 40+ list of books currently bowing down my bedside table.


‘The Spinoza Problem,’ by Irving Yalom is just over a year old. It’s an imagined work that tells the story of two historical figures, Benedict Spinoza, in 17th Century Amsterdam and the Nazi ideologue Albert Rosenberg. Yalom, a well-known psychoanalyst unpacks these two extraordinary lives in what is his most Jewish book.


‘The Humans,’ by Matt Haig, isn’t a Jewish book at all. It’s just a wonderful book about what it means to be a human. I’m no big fan of science fiction – but this story of an alien who comes to earth to tidy up after a Professor makes some new discovery that could give humans far more power than, according the aliens, we should be trusted with, is joyous and warmly insightful. The alien arrives assuming that humans are violent, dangerous and not to be trusted and over the course of the book falls in love with the messy vibrant reality of human existence. Jews are allowed to be interested in messy reality of human existence, no?


Ruth Wisse is Chair of the Yiddish Department of Harvard University. Her new book, ‘No Joke’ is a tour de force journey through Jewish humour, particularly in the golden age of Yiddish literature. It’s not academic, but does delve into how Jewish humour came to be this way. Wisse ‘demonstrates how the benefits of Jewish humor [sic.] are reaped from the paradoxes of Jewish life, so that Jewish humor at its best carries the scars of the convulsions that brought it into being.’


And one last book that I suspect will be on the reading list of the Wingate judges next year – ‘The Marrying of Chani Kaufman’ by Eve Harris has just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  I haven’t read it, yet.


Happy reading to all the people of the book.



Friday, 19 July 2013

On Law and Justice - Rabbinic and Civil Legal Approaches

I’m just back from the inaugural meeting of the Masorti Lawyers group, and it was great to see so many New Londoners there. Sir Michael Burton, known to lawyers as a High Court Judge, and known to me, ahem, as my father-in-law and I were debating the nature of Law and Justice from religious and secular perspectives.

For Mr Justice Burton, to give him his official title, law is not really about justice. It’s about the application of the law. The civil law is the law, is the law. And that’s why I left civil law having spent 3 years studying the thing at Cambridge. I want a legal system that is not opaque. I want a legal system I can look at and see through to the values it codifies and controls. I want to look at a legal system and see the justice - the holiness. The classic tale is told of the poor widow with many children and no money who holds a straggly chicken before the Rabbi, ‘Rabbi is this chicken kosher?’ The answer, of course, has something to do with the chicken but also something to do with the woman – that is to say that Judaism doesn’t dream of an objective purity of legal clarity. It dreams of a genuine engagement with human beings and their individual circumstances, as they stand before God. Certainty is not, I argue, a religious legal goal.

But what of the need for economic certainty in ‘arms’ length’ corporate contractual dealing? Indeed that that is surely important, but for so many centuries it was a meaningless dream for Jews, living in exile, subject to non-Jewish law which, for so much of this time offered no such certainly to Jewish money lenders and the like, tolerated at best and kicked out whenever we proved ‘too expensive.’ But more than that is the religious idea that there is nothing, on earth, more important than humanity and human dignity. There is no transcending the human in search of some other value – such as certainty – Judaism prefigured the great Kantian categorical imperative of not treating any human as a means to another end with its claim that human beings are created in the image of God. Ultimately there is no legal principle more important than human ethical behaviour. Jewish law means nothing if it is not just. If you are interested in future meetings of the Masorti Lawyers group, please drop me a line.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy


Monday, 8 July 2013

The Best Blessing I Know

A new Rabbinic colleague, on the eve of her ordination, asked for blessings for her journey ahead.


The best I could wish to share is this stunning piece from Brachot 17a.


‘When the Rabbis took leave from the school of R. Ammi — some say, of R. Hanina — they said to him: May you see your requirements provided in your lifetime, and may your latter end be for the future world and your hope for many generations; may your heart meditate understanding, your mouth speak wisdom and your tongue incite song; may your eyelids look straight before you, may your eyes be enlightened by the light of the Torah and your face shine like the brightness of the firmament; may your lips utter knowledge, your reins rejoice in uprightness and your steps run to hear the words of the Ancient of Days.’


Once upon a time – a long long time ago, I stuck this blessing up on the walls of the Bet Midrash at JTS.

Anyone know if it is still there?


(Other guerrilla posting at JTS – Rabbi Chaim Weiner’s Teshuvah on recycling/geniza photocopies of Shemot, put up in the photocopy room of the JTS library, is that still around)


Post a comment to let me know

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Heresy of Ibn Ezra

In my mind I knew the opening commentary of the great Biblical commentator, Ibn Ezra, on the book of Devarim which we begin this week.   I thought I would double check and, without the book itself, I flicked on the phone and loaded my app - I have Ibn Ezra on speed-dial! - but the comment wasn't where I thought it was.   How odd. I Googled around and yes, my memory was right, but the publishers of my favourite Biblical commentators’ app had deleted this particular comment.   Heresy afoot!

The problem is this.   The opening of the Book of Devarim states,   'These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan [River], in the desert.'   On the face of it this verse seems to suggest that its author was on the Israeli side of the Jordan river, having left the desert, or at the very least on the other side of the river from the side where Moses was when he spoke 'these words'.   In other words this verse looks like it was written after Moses had died.   Heresy indeed.  


Looking to a great commentator like Ibn Ezra one might hope for an solution to this dramatic problem.   Instead Ibn Ezra makes matters worse.   He cites a number of other verses which also, on a straightforward reading, seem to post-date Mosaic authorship, for example the verse in Genesis 12 which states, 'and the Cananite was then in the land.'   The author of this phrase seems to be living in a time after the expulsion of the Cananites from the land, again, after Moses' death.   And having cited a run of such verses Ibn Ezra signs off gnomically, 'If you understand [these verses] you will know the truth.'   Heresy abounds.  


It is possible to turn this commentary and each of the verses it refers to into a theologically acceptable narrative - much as one could suggest that dinosaur bones dating back millions of years are not proof of a world far older than the Torah would suggest, but instead a test, set by God, to catch out those lacking in true faith - but that is a path I find entirely without merit.   Instead it does indeed look like Ibn Ezra is accepting post-Mosaic authorship of parts of the Torah (certainly Spinoza thought so).   Did this make Ibn Ezra someone who didn't care for the holiness of the Torah ?   No.  Did it make Ibn Ezra a heretic ?   Not really, I would argue, though clearly the producers of my app have some doubts.   Instead this is a commentary which validates the place of sense over dogma.   And that's a perfectly Jewish way to read the Torah.

Shabbat shalom

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