Thursday, 20 April 2017

Parshat Terumah - The Sanctuary is a Woman

(Sometimes sermons are more and sometimes less written out. This one descends into note form, but is one of the things I've been more proud of, of late.)

The Mishkan - sanctuary, the place for the settling of Divine presence while the Children of Israel wandered in Sinai - is the single greatest focus of the Torah.
Beginning with Parashat Terumah there are ten consecutive parshiot dedicated to explaining why and how it was built and functioned ... and all this bearing in mind it takes the Torah a mere 10 verses to tell the story of the Tower of Babel.
For a Temple based religion this enormous concentration of energy on detailing the Mishkan makes a certain amount of sense. The Mishkan becomes the blueprint for the Temple, built, served in and protected in very similar ways. But when the Temple goes, when Rabbinic Judaism moves on - what do you do about all this discussion of Mishkan?

Perhaps most significantly the Mishkan becomes an archetype for contemporary Jewish existence, just as the Mishkan was X, so we today should be X and so on. This is Midrash - the Rabbinic drawing meaning from the ancient words of the written Torah into contemporary days. And here’s the surprising thing. One of the most significant tropes in Midrashic commentary on the Mishkan is the feminisation of the Mishkan. I’m going to share some of the Rabbinic material in Judith Antonelli’s Torah Commentary, In the Image of God.

‘What did Mishkan resemble?’ asked the Rabbis[1], ‘A woman who goes in the street with her skirts trailing after her’ - that’s a reference to the overhanging curtain at the rear of the building.

In describing the curtain at the front of the Mishkan, Rashi uses the analogy of ‘a bride with a veil covering her face.’ The stitching together of the curtains is compared to the attachment between ‘a woman and her sister.’ Perhaps most tellingly the Talmud[2] compares the poles of the ark, which pressed through and protruded beyond the covering over the Holy of Holies, to ‘two female breasts’ - that one drew the attention of Immanuel Levinas who considers that passage in his famous collection of Talmudic Readings.

Antonelli even brings an analogy from the Zohar which suggests that ‘all women stand in the image and form of the altar,’[3]

She creates what I think is her own parallelism between the Mishkan and this post-Temple Jewish existence reading the flour of the daily Minha offering, the blood from the regular sacrifices and the everlasting light that shone over the Mishkan as corollaries of the classic triumverate of Halachic obligations for which women were and are particularly associated - the flour for making Challah, the blood for menstrual purity - Niddah, and the light as the Shabbat candles. It’s a provocative Midrash; if the Mishkan, with its flour and blood and light, is the central organising pivot of the entire written Torah then these three contemporary Mitzvot of Challah, Niddah and candles become ever more boldly acclaimed as the centre of contemporary Jewish life.
There’s certainly truth in that. Growing up I was entirely unaware of the laws of Niddah, menstrual purity, but the other two obligations, Challah and Ner were indeed the cornerstones of my Jewish existence.

For Antonelli this womanisation of the alter, the Mikdash and all connected to it, points to the way; ‘the Mishkan maintained the cosmic purpose of the matriarch’s tents’ of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. It is a structure to allow the presence of the Divine amongst the people, that’s the comforting immanent aspect of the Divine understood as the Shechinah - a feminine noun of course, and related to the only one of the seven lower aspects of the Divine which is understood as the feminine. In the time of Mishkan and the Temple - this analogy suggests - the central space of Jewish life was feminine, God’s feminine aspect dwelt in a tabernacle designed as a woman to hold that very female kind of comfort. And today?

Should Rabbis like me make more a deal of the centrality of the female in preserving and fostering continued Jewish life, yes of course.

But when I read all this feminisation of the Mikdash I wasn’t only moved to celebrate the centrality of woman in this narrative of Jewish life. I was also troubled by this niggling concern.

After all, all these analogies and comparisons are authored by the very Rabbis who, on different folios of the very same books, will compare women to ‘a sack of blood’ or would suggest that anyone conversing with a woman is engaging in acts of a lewd nature. There are some wonderful moments of what we would now call gender equality, or human rights as applied to women in the Rabbinic canon, but these texts I love, written by men alive millenia before the term feminism was coined, are just not a feminist blueprint.

As touched as I am by the notion that entire apparatus of Mishkan is designed to highlight the role of women’s contribution to Jewish life there’s something else I feel when I consider these Rabbinic texts.

The purpose of the Mishkan is to be settled by God - penetrated one might even say. The Mishkan is the shell into which good stuff is poured. If one could imagine the Mishkan alarmed by what is to come at the moment of its inauguration perhaps the most obvious Midrash would borrow a phrase from advice Edwardian mothers would give their daughters on the eve of their marriage - ‘lie back and think of Sinai.’
Moses has personality, as does Aharon, as do his sons. They do things and say things and cause things to happen. The priests have what is referred to in gender-criticism as agency. They are the subjects of verses. The Mishkan is silent, it, or she, has no personality, it is the passive bearer of what is done to it, it is the slate on which the men draw. Perhaps, viewed this way, these Midrashim which imagine the Mikdash as a women with skirts - with breasts, become less a celebration of womanhood, and more discomforting, maybe these midrashim should strike us as voyeuristic, sleazy even, especially in the context of the totally male dominated worlds of discourse in which they arose.

Let me share another text from the massive Rabbinic corpus shared by Antonelli;
In Shmot Rabba[4] the Rabbis tell a parable of a King who’s only daughter was to be married to another King who intended to return to their own country to be with her. The father of the bride could not bear to part with his daughter, yet couldn’t prevent the husband from taking her away, so the father tells the husband, ‘Wherever you live, have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter.’

In this text the first King is God, the second is the People of Israel who marry the Torah and take her away from Sinai. God wants always to be able to be part of the wandering of the people and so ... the Mishkan. It’s a beautiful parable. But it also illustrates dramatically the blank nature of the woman - she is owned by the men and passed from one to the other, indeed forced to accommodate both her owners.
I wonder if there is something in the etymology of so many of the Hebrew words for male and female.

Male is zachar - the term in cognate languages form what my Biblical lexicon modestly refers to  as the ‘male organ’[5] Female is Nekeivah - literally ‘pierced.’
I’m not sure it’s helpful to take that particular linguistic idea any further.
But there’s a similar problem

Man and woman - ish ishah
Husband and wife - baal ishah - man becomes a master, the woman's true existence is revealed only in her marriage! Hmmm.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf that states that the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken.
Edward Spair that is who was born in Poland in 1884 whose first language was Yididsh.

With language like this, with cultural and history like this any surprise that when the male Rabbis of the Talmud discuss marriage they open their conversation like this;

‘A woman is acquired in three ways - with gold, with a document and with intercourse’ men, of course, aren’t acquired in the same way, not at all. Women, in traditional Jewish are passive, they are acquired, they don’t acquire. They lack agency. Their voices are not heard - they are even commanded to be silent in the presence of men, kol ishah evra, say the Rabbis - the voice of a woman is licentious.

Here’s the problem, the maleness of Judaism, the way in which women are the passive, silent vessels for the male active performative important stuff, is so steeped into Jewish history and life that it can’t simply be ‘got over.’

Needs to be a clearing of the decks for a different kind of Judaism that is much more committed to hearing the voices of all Jews - certainly the voices of 50% of the Jews who have never been seriously listened to. I am, this community is, by nature conservative. We don’t like wrecking balls applied to what makes us comfortable. But, when it comes to the historic absolute androcentricity of Judaism, I don’t feel there is another choice. We have to deconstruct. We have to overturn. We have to be bold in saying we welcome the active, vocal, performative involvement of women - or otherwise we remain the other thing - the male dominated and male dominating patriarchy which requires women to lie back and think of Sinai.

For those for whom that process is painful and uneasy, I’m sorry. But our future as a religion of rational contemporary value is at stake, for both our sons and our daughters. And even ourselves.

Shabbat shalom

[1] Shab 98b
[2] Yoma 54a
[3] Zohar II:102b
[4] Shmot Rabba 33:1
[5] BDB 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

A New Maggid for the End of Pesach

Arami Oveid Avi

The opening line at the heart of the telling of the story of the Seder doesn’t mean An Aramean tried to kill my father. For what it’s worth the Hebrew for an Aramean tried to kill my father is ‘Arami Ratza Lhaaveed et Avi.’

Arami Oveid Avi means my father was a wandering Aramean.
The authors of the Haggadah have pulled a fast one. They set the verse up to mean something it simply doesn’t mean with an introductory line about Laban, and so, in a moment, this verse becomes a verse about how in each and every generation someone has risen up against us to destroy us.

But the original meaning is clear, it’s been clear to every Biblical commentator who has ever commented on it. The verse appears at the opening of what is called ‘Parshat Bikurim’ - the section on the first fruit. At the time of presenting the first fruit to the Priest in the Temple a Jew would come before the priest, with their basket of fruit and repeat our story, as Jews - Arami Oveid Avi, Vayered Mitzraima, Vayigar Sham Bimtei Meiat - our ancestor was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypr, and dwelled there few in number - the rest we know.

The original verses refers to Jacob, Israel, who left Israel and went down to Egypt because of the famine.

In the Seder the original verse gets tweaked a bit to emphasise the ‘in each and every generation someone has stood up against us to destroy us,’ part of being Jews which may well, indeed be true.

But I want to retell the story of the Seder fixing this Rabbinic sleight of hand, returning this verse about wandering to be a verse about wandering. And I want to save my Rabbinic sleight of hand for another verse, at the end of this passage of the Haggadah. As if Rabbinic sleight of hand was a joker one can only play once.

One other element will also have to be part of my retelling of the Seder. I’ve been here - on this sceptre’d aisle for some time now. My great-grandparents arrived here. So to truly capture the essence of being a wandering soul I’ll avail myself of narratives from those whose wanderings are more recent than mine. So a seder where, in each and every generation we wander.
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
My ancestors wandered - we’ve become too accustomed to the fun parts of Fiddler on the Roof - the dancing with bottles on our heads, the chorus line ‘Tradition’ - but the reality was hard, even in the best of times, and the best of times where too few.

Here is the poem Simon Frug wrote in the aftermath of the 1903 Pogrom of Kishinev.
Streams of blood and rivers of tears, deep and wide they flow and roar, our misfortunes, great and timeless, has laid its hand on us once more.
Do you hear the mothers moan, and their little children cry? In the streets the dead are lying; the sick are fallen down nearby.
Brothers, sisters please have mercy! Great and awful is the need. Bread if needed for the living. Shrouds are needed for the dead.

Of course our ancestor, Jacob, left his homeland because of famine, not violence. But then in this strange contemporary world in which we live one so often seems bound up with the other.

Just this week the International Development Secretary Priti Patel visited the largest refugee camp in the world, Bidibidi in Uganda, home to some 280,000 refugees from South Sudan. They have no food, no water - or rather nothing that has not been brought in for them by development and care agencies. But the cause of their fleeing is violence.
וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל
And in that new land we helped. Jacob arrived in Egypt at the instigation of his son, Joseph, Second only to the King, the man who could understand the strange dreams, the man who could structure the famine-resilience effort that saved Egypt.

And in this new land we helped. As Jews we have much to be proud of. There’s a wikipedia page of British Jewish scientists, noting, the 14 Nobel prizes won, there Chemists like Rosalind Franklin - part of the story of the discovery of DNA, and Ernest, latterly Sir Ernest Chain, who discovered how to isolate and concentrate penicillin. I could have gone for the British Jewish comedians, the British Jewish captains of industry, the British Jewish heroes of philanthropy ... In this new land we have helped.

It’s not just the Jews. Refugees make contributions to the society in which they find themselves and not just in that demeaning phrase of doing the jobs no-one else wants to do. Refugees light beacons for everyone else; perhaps driven by the need to make something of their lives, perhaps driven by the insecurity that propelled them - us - to this country. I, for what it’s worth, have a theory that the way refugees make contributions in society after society, in generation after generation, is not just because of a drive, but because of the way our experience of being from outside allows us to see things insiders might miss. Being an outsider is a gift. A gift for the societies fortunate enough to open their arms to strangers who might speak with funny accents, who might eat funny foods and might do things differently from the so called ‘proper’ Brits.

You see we ‘soujourn’ - us wanderers. Again, I’m not so sure about the commentary in the original Haggadah that connects the phrase Vayigar Sham to a temporary relationship with the country in which we find ourselves. I think the better contemporary translation would be to suggest Vayigar Sham means we were there as ‘hyphenated’ members of society; both British and Jewish. Just as so many other wanderers maintain a hyphenated identity. It’s not that we are treasonous, it’s not that we are disloyal to our gracious hosts. It’s that we are more than one thing. As identity is these days.
וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

But it isn’t, this hyphenated identity safe. We are too easily scapegoated. Picked out for our difference.

And there rose a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph - it’s the saddest verse in the Torah. It reminds me of the life of Jews in 12C Britain. Here we were, unable to own land, working as merchants, financing the life of society in which we lived. And then the political mood changed and we were out. Not before 49 levies to raise money from us, and various other ignominies - In 1218, Henry III of England proclaimed the Edict of the Badge, making England the first European nation to require Jews to wear a marking badge. You do know we were expelled from here in 1290? Michael Prestwich in his book on the Life of Edward I records the, perhaps apocryphal tale of a captain taking a ship full of Jews to the Thames, en route to France, while the tide was low, and convincing them to go out for a walk with him. He then lost them and made it back to his ship quickly before the tide came back in, leaving us all to drown.

That story reminds me of the deaths of the 21 undocumented cockle picking immigrants who were drowned in Morecombe Bay. In each and every generation.

It’s not that the there haven’t been those who have risen up against us in each and every generation. But I wonder if reasons of economic short-sightedness and short-term political expediency have had at least as much to do with our experience of being sinned against than any of the more classic markers of antisemitism. Certainly it feels as if economic short-sightedness and short-term political expediency are at the heart of a contemporary response to refugee-seekers in this country today.

VaYaReiU - the Egyptians did evil - they did worse to us than we deserved. Hava Nitchachma, come let us get wise and see how we can turn this situation to our advantage, the Torah reports the Egyptians saying about us. I know, you can imagine some ancient anti-refugee political faction opining, setting the mood of a country against the hyphenated strangers in their midst. And so the abuse and the deprivations and even the murder came.

And still they come, from generation to generation and from place to place.
Until ...
God steps in.
יוציאנו ה' ממצריים--לא על ידי מלאך, לא על ידי שרף, לא על ידי שליח, אלא הקדוש ברוך הוא בכבודו.

"The L-rd took us out of Egypt," not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself!
"I will pass through the land of Egypt," I and not an angel;
"And I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt," I and not a seraph;
"And I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt," I and not a messenger;
"I- the L-rd," it is I, and none other!

So now I want to play my joker, the Rabbinic sleight of hand I’ve kept back for this moment.

As a child I remember this part of the Seder. All this ‘I’ and not something else. And, as children do, I misunderstood the Rabbinic purpose of all this ‘I’ and not something else. I thought it all meant that I had to see myself as if I myself had to be part of the redemptive story. I had to be part of rescuing the Children of Israel in each and every generation from the experience of oppression as the result of wandering.

Actually, I’m not so sure I did misunderstand my role in being a partner in the work of making the world a better place. That is, after all, the Jewish way. We don’t wait. We roll up our sleeves.

I remember one of my first Jewish teachers, Rabbi Laurence Kushner making a point about how we - each of us - are made in the image of the Divine. He asked us to hold up our hands. There, he said, you are looking at the hands of God.

Here’s my joker, my Rabbinic sleight of hand.
Let this verse - Ani Adonai - I God, come to mean that I am the one who partners with God to bring light where there is darkness and freedom where there is slavery. For when there is no ‘I’ acting, there is no God acting either. We have seen that too many times.
So this is the job.
To be the hands of God.
God has told us what to do - to love the stranger and refuse to oppress the stranger for we do understand the experience of the stranger in a strange land.
And all that is required is that now we act.

Brings me to welcome the support of the New London Synagogue Asylumn Seeker Drop In.

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