Monday, 26 March 2018

Why Don't They Like the Jews? - On Passover and Refugees by Brian Bilston

I was invited to share the ‘Story of Passover’ at a local school. It had been fun; we’d done the frogs, the Matzah on the back and, ‘Let my people go,’ and I was taking questions as I was handing out the Matzah. First question, ‘Why did the Egyptians not like the Israelites?’ It was one of those kinds of schools. I pondered the question into the evening when I was honoured to play a part in the Taste of Refuge Seder, hosted at New London in partnership with the Separated Child Foundation. In a room full of New London members, volunteers from the foundation and refugees from the broadest range of battle-beaten countries we hid the Matzah and hit one another over the head with spring onions. I want to thank all the volunteers who made the evening such a success and acknowledge, pre-eminent among us, Angela Gluck. And then there was this exception piece of poetry from Brian Bilston;

They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way
(now read from bottom to top)

Perhaps that’s the thing about our experience of otherness - both our own and that of others. We can read it top to bottom and bottom to top. The messages of Pesach are perhaps ultimately twofold. Firstly that freedom is possible, potential exists, no matter how dark our experience of the present. Secondly no human should be enslaved, treated as a slave or even treated as any less worthy than any other human. We are not there yet.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Chad Gadya - Don't Mess With the Goat

There was once a goat, a kid goat, that my father bought for two silver coins, just one goat, just one goat. Or in the Aramaic - chad gadya, chad gadya.

And then a cat came and ate the goat
And the dog came and bit the cat.
So the stick came and hit the dog
And the fire came and burnt the stick
And the water came and put out the fire,
And the ox came and drunk the water
And the slaughterer came and slew the ox
And the angel of Death came and slew the slaughterer
Until finally the Holy Blessed One and slew the Angel of Death.
Just one goat, just one goat.

And thus ends the Passover Seder.
All the storytelling and celebrating and food, it all ends up in this a version of There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly.

I’ve been thinking about this goat for the past couple of weeks. A friend and colleague - the Rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue, has just bought out a Haggadah, and a very lovely thing it is too. It’s clear, has an excellent contemporary translation, it looks beautiful, it even has a full transliteration ... but no goat.

You get to the end of the formal part of the seder and there’s a note that some people sing songs at this point, but he’s not going to include them all. And he doesn’t include the goat.

Now I used to be the Rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue myself, and one of the things you have to get used to, when you used to be the Rabbi somewhere and then someone else comes along, is that they are going to do things differently from the way you did things. In general, I’m OK with that. But not the goat!

My memories of Seder are intimately tied up in memories of my grandfather of blessed memory - of course, right?, that’s entirely how memories of Seder should be tied up for all of us. And I remember my grandfather taking on the ever-lengthening verses determined to deliver even the very longest in a single breath, despite the bronchitis and the pleurisy and the pneumonia and everything that eventually caught up with him. And I remember the juddering intake of breath as he finally arrived at the ‘Dzabin Aba Bitrei Zuzei’ and I remember feeling that all was going to be alright in the world. And at that moment I would feel as if I had truly completed the Seder in all its prescriptions and proscriptions, and in that moment I would feel as if I had personally gone forth from Egypt.
Ah, dear Rabbi Adam, I wrote to him, I love the Haggadah, but what happened to the goat?

“You like the goat?” he responded as if I had taken leave of my senses. “Hardly educational, if fun. Perhaps it will make the next edition.”

Hmmm - you mess with the goat, you mess with my treasured memories of Pesach. He’s getting a copy of this sermon tomorrow.

It turns out we can date the arrival of the goat in the Haggadah with some specificity. These are a couple of pages from the famous Prague Haggadah of 1527. I went for the page where you start drinking the wine and dipping the Marror and breaking the Matzah - it’s always the dirtiest page in my Haggadot - and I’m delighted to see nothing has changed in some 500 years.[1] So the Haggadah finishes - and then there’s an extra page. And there, in a different script are the lyrics of the Chad Gadya, both in Hebrew-Aramaic and Yiddish.

By 1590 it’s appearing in the properly printed pages of Haggadot in Prague and elsewhere.[2] So it’s definitely older than that. Rabbi Yedidya Weil wrote in 1790 that he had “heard that they found this song… safeguarded and written on a parchment at the Beit Midrash Rokeah in Worms [dated to 1406]  and it was decided that it will be sung on the eve of Passover for all generations to come.” 

And there’s a C15 version of the song, in the back of a Jewish prayerbook belonging to a Jew from Provence. In that siddur, there is a rope used to tie up a cow - and the mouse eats the rope, and a cat eats the mouse and so on.

Some think that an even earlier inspiration is a famous Rabbinic text[3] which imagines Abraham being dragged before the local potentate, Nimrod, and commanded to bow down to Nimrod’s god - fire. But rain puts out the fire, teases Abraham, fine, says Nimrod, so bow down to rain, but the wind blows the rain away says Abraham, fine, says Nimrod, so bow down to the wind. And on that story goes. And that story goes right back to the Book of Jubilees[4] which is some 2,200 years old.

So we’ve been chasing down the Chad Gadya machine for really quite some time. Maybe it’s not just a kids’ ditty.

The Vilna Gaon, the greatest Rabbi of the C18, taught that the song was the story of the people of Israel. The goat is the promise of a special relationship with God, the birthright of the Children of Israel bought by Jacob from his twin brother Esau with bread - one silver coin, and soup - two silver coins. The cat is the envy of Jacob’s sons towards Joseph, the dog is Egypt, the stick - the staff of Moses used to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, the fire - the lust for idolatry, the water its extinguishing and so on until the Messiah comes.

I grew up with the interpretation that we - the people of Israel - are the goat, the two silver coins are the two tablets of the Torah, and each of the characters was an oppressing nation - the cat - Assyria, the dog - Babylon, the stick Persia and so on.

Yacov Emden, another of the greats of two hundred years ago, taught the song as the story of the soul, placed in our bodies and buffeted by the challenges of existence until ...
Until And then came the Holy Blessed One.

That’s the key line.
At the end of the chain of earthly destruction, God arrives.

That’s the difference between the song of the goat and the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Life, we know, is nasty brutish and short, and it doesn’t matter if you have faith or if you don’t; if you are a cat the dog is coming for you and if you are a dog the stick is coming for you and the chance of a happily ever after is vanishingly small.

And it’s easy to get beaten down by the relentlessness of the Chad Gadya machine. It’s easy to feel that nothing is worth fighting for, it’s easy to feel that the powers of entropy, decay and violence will conquer our best attempts at life and joy and hope. And the message of the There Was an Old Lady is indeed that that is the case.

But the message of this glorious song about the goat is that goodness is not defeated by, even, all the brutality of the world. The message of the song about the goat is that in the end even the Angel of Death is defeated by a God rachum v’hanun - merciful and graceful. God is stronger than Death. The force of goodness in the universe is more powerful than the force of destruction.

For me - now - long since my child memories stopped sustaining my adult engagement with my faith, the real lesson of Chad Gadya is neither that everything tends to ruin, nor that everything will turn out just fine. I know neither is true. The message of the Chad Gadya is that there is a possibility for a different way that is not about relentless violence, death and murder. The message of the Chad Gadya is that hope for mercy and grace is possible in this world.

I think that’s the same understanding of the great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite mountain, I am searching
For my little boy.
And Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our voices meet above the Sultans Pool
In the valley between us. Neither of us wants
the child or the goat to get caught in the wheels
of the terrible Had Gaya machine.

Afterwards we found them among the bushes
And our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or a son
Has always been the beginning
Of a new religion in these mountains.

The song Chad Gadya is about the possibility of escaping the Chad Gadya machine.
It’s about the possibility of there being meaning in this world beyond the experiences of biting cats, whacking sticks and the rest of it.
And I need that reminder. I need that as a reminder in a week when I will retell the suffering and the enslavement of my own people.
I need that reminder in a week where, God help us, there will be more pointless, gun-related killing in the United States, more needless deaths of refugees trying to escape their contemporary experiences of slavery and the rest of it.
I need the reminder of the Chag Gadya, Chad Gadya - I think we all do.
And I really hope it makes it into the second edition of my colleague’s Haggadah, and that this glorious millennia-old idea gets its moment to shine just before we all keel over with exhaustion at the end of a Seder, gloriously enjoyed by us all.

Chag Sameach, a wonderful Pesach
And Shabbat Shalom

Friday, 9 March 2018

Religion, The Easy Life and Beggars on the Streets of London

In a few moments I’m going to do something some of you will find a little scary.
I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.

Sorry - don’t worry, I’m not going to take you on a guided meditation or even ask you pray. I’m just going to ask some questions and I want you to feel you can answer without worrying about anyone else looking at you and thinking worse, or better of you, based on your answers.

So, I’m walking the streets of the London and I see this. 

We’ve all seen this, really so much of this, that it sometimes feels like the only way get down the pavement is to close your eyes to this.
But there’s this man - a human being - kneeling on the pavement with a sign - the sign says, ‘hungry, please help, God bless you.’ And he’s right in the middle between where I’m hurrying from and where I’m hurrying to.

And here are my questions. Don’t worry you don’t have to shut your eyes yet.
·       How many of you stop either all the time, some of the time, almost never, and absolutely never?
·       And for those of you who stop, how many of you share words, or money, or something else - maybe food.
·       And for those of you who don’t stop how many of you don’t stop because you don’t trust that this person deserves some of your hard earned money?

You got it, OK, I’ll repeat the questions, if you shut your eyes - no peeking.

I’ll get back to this shortly, but I want to look at something that happened in the Torah reading today. Because it’s a terrific illustration of one of the things that people who aren’t religious get wrong most often about religion.

The thing people who aren’t religious tend to get wrong is that they say religious people do religion because it makes it somehow easier for us. So the story goes, religion gives religious people simple answers, and we religious people abdicate our own sense of morality because we’ve replaced thinking for ourselves with ticking religious boxes.

Well it’s nonsense. I mean there might be some religious people who do that, and even some religions that do that, but it’s nonsense when it comes to Judaism.

Let me share how even the Bible itself knows that this is nonsense. It’s clear right from the verses Ariella shared so beautifully today. For weeks we’ve been reading about the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, how it’s going to be built, who’s going to build it, what’s going in it, what people should wear when they work in it. And finally, it’s ready. And it’s dedicated and ... nothing happens.
וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה, מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
לה  וְלֹא-יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה, לָבוֹא אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
And the Mishkan stays put. It only goes anywhere when God’s presence leaves.
The point is this, when God in the Mishkan, nothing human can happen.
God needs to leave for there to be any genuine human engagement.
It’s a pattern we see all over the Bible.

There’s a scene in the time of King David when the Ark of the covenant is being brought into Jerusalem and the cart it is being carried on stumbles and tips and this man, Uzah, runs to stop the ark from falling and gets burnt up by God for the sin of touching the Ark. David gets cross - Vayichar David, and refuses to bring the Ark back into Jerusalem until God calms down and stops being in the way of human beings doing the things that humans need to do with their lives. Too much God means no space for humanity.

And by the time the Rabbis get to work on what we now call Judaism, they understand this dynamic perfectly - more perfectly than the people who think that the role of religion is to be a substitute for thinking for yourselves.

So what is the point of religion, what is the point of this religion? Religion, this religion, peels back the excuses we all make for our failings. I mean, we all fail, all of the time, and then we tend to justify away our failings with all kind of excuses and justifications. Religion is a bit like having a really good psychotherapist with you all the time, whispering in your ear that you only did this that or the other because you hate your father or whatever. Actually, it’s not that spooky. Let me give you a much better example of how this religion thing works.

In a few weeks time we’ll read this verse - lifnei iver lo titein michshol, vayirata me-eilochecha, ani Adonai.
Don’t place a stumbling block before the blind, but fear your God, I am GOD.

Well the first part of the verse makes sense - don’t put a stumbling block before a blind person, because they can’t see it, but why add this stuff about fearing God.
Rashi, our most important Biblical commentator, suggests this;

Because in this case human beings don’t always know real intentions, whether we do things for someone’s advantage or disadvantage, so a person might be able to evade the responsibility for wrongdoing by saying: "I meant it for the best", To the Bible goes on to say, "But fear your God" God knows the secret thoughts.

Religion exists to make you uncomfortable, to make you second guess your own actions. Religion exists to pull you up to a deeper level of self-introspection than you might get to without a sense that there is a creator of the world who knows the inner workings of the kidneys and heart.


Actually this verse about stumbling blocks and the blind and what we really feel when we engage with people and try and evade the responsibility for wrongdoing by saying: "I meant it for the best" ...
This verse has a lot to do with the experience of passing people like this on the street.

I posted this on Facebook on my own feed and that of a Jewish discussion group I follow. I got comments saying, “well I never give money to people like this - they’ll spend it on alcohol, or drugs. It would be dangerous to feed someone’s addiction by giving them money to fuel addictions, a bit like putting a stumbling block before a blind person.” Well, that’s certainly possible. But how do you know, really know that you are really doing the best for that person, maybe there is something else going on in your kidneys and your heart that a bit of ol’ fashioned God fearing could sort out.

Maybe the guy who takes your money and spends it on alcohol which they drink at 10 o’clock in the morning isn’t an alcoholic. Maybe he’s just cold and miserable with his lot and wanted a can of beer to numb out the memories of how miserabl he’d been the last night.

Rabbi Shmelke of Nicholsburg an 18th Century Rabbi from Poland once said, "When a poor man asks you for aid, do not use his faults as an excuse for not helping him. For then God will look for your offenses, and He is sure to find many of them. Keep in mind that the poor man's transgressions have been atoned for by his poverty while yours still remain with you.”[1]

This is the real voice of religion, afflicting the comfortable, and demanding that we do more to comfort the afflicted.

Or maybe the guy isn’t really poor. Maybe he’s got nice clean clothes and a decent home to go back to and he’s just ripping you and me off with his pious way of sitting there, preying on our soft liberal tendencies and laughing his way to the bank

A beggar once came to the city of Kovna, in the 1800s, and collected a large sum of money from the residents. The people of the town soon found out that he was an impostor; he really was a wealthy man. The city council wanted to make an ordinance prohibiting beggars from coming to Kovna to collect money. When the Rabbi of Kovna, Yitzchok Elchonon Specter, heard about the proposed ban, he came before the council. He told them although he sympathized with them, he had an objection to raise. "Who deceived you, a needy person or a wealthy person? It was a wealthy person feigning poverty. If you want to make an ordinance, it should be to ban wealthy persons from collecting alms. But why make a ban against needy beggars?"[2]

Rabbi Chayim of Sanz had this to say about fraudulent charity collectors: "The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud."[3]

I’m getting these stories from a fabulous piece of work by Arthur Kurzweil who looked into the Treatment of Beggars According to Jewish Tradition - you can find it online, or let me know and I can send you a link.

“Don’t let the frauds stop you from giving,” argues Kurzweil, “the frauds will get their [just deserts soon enough]”

That’s the thing about religion - it makes a case that actions have consequences, even actions we think no-one else has spotted. God knows, and even if we can’t plot the cause and effect mechanism, strange things happen in the world. This next one comes from the Talmud - the greatest collection of all rabbinic teaching.

R. Hiyya advised his wife, "When a poor man come to the door, give him food so that the same may be done to our children." She cried, "You are cursing our kids suggesting they are going to become beggars!” But R. Hiyya replied, "There is a wheel which revolves in this world."[4]

It’s not easier to walk the streets of London believing that everyone, even the dirty smelly and frankly even the offensive beggars are created in the image of the same God who created you and me. It’s demanding in the most literal sense of the term. And there’s nowhere to hide.


So this is what happened when I encountered this the other day. Usually, I don’t stop. I don’t have good excuses, I just don’t stop. Sometimes I buy a copy of the Big Issue, I give some money to the New London Synagogue asylum seeker drop-in centre, sometimes I even go. But usually, I don’t stop. But when I saw this I stopped - and - this is how my mind went - I thought I had a sermon, so I took the picture, ducking slightly out of the line of sight partly to get a better shot, and partly because I wasn’t thinking of, you know, actually engaging with this particular person - I had places to go.

But in the moments between taking the photo and checking it to make sure I had something to wave around from the Bimah this Shabbat I decided to stop, and say hi, and give some money - in my mind I was buying a sort of ethical copyright to allow me to build a sermon from his poverty. His name is Mosi. He’s a coptic Christian from Egypt. That’s a narrative to think about for a Jew looking forward to Pesach. I told him I was a Rabbi and asked if I could use a picture in my sermon. He said sure. What would you have me say about what it’s like to be out here begging? I said, “It’s difficult.” He said.

His English wasn’t great and I’m not sure he understood me, but it’s difficult. It’s definitely difficult. Maybe that’s the point.

One last religious text, from the oldest collection of Rabbinic teachings we have, Pirkei Avot[5]
רבי טרפון אומר, היום קצר, והמלאכה מרובה, והפועלים עצלים, והשכר הרבה, ובעל הבית דוחק
לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל
Rabbi Tarfon would say, the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, but the reward is great and the Master of the House is calling. You don’t have to finish the work, but you aren’t free to desist from it.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Fun Unzer Alter Otzer - found here
[2] Ethics from Sinai,III,p.121 - found in Kurzweil, as above
[3] Darkai Chayim (1962),p. 137
[4] Shabbat 151b
[5] End of Chapter 2
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