Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Does Megilat Esther Prophecy The Hanging of Nazi War Criminals?

 


There’s a Devar Torah wandering around that associates the Ten Sons of Haman, who are recorded as hanging in the Megilah, with the ‘Ten Sons’ of Hitler – the ten senior Nazis who hung as a result of the Nuremberg Trials.

Google suggests a number of tellers of this ‘Devar’ including

Ohr Sameach - https://ohr.edu/holidays/purim/deeper_insights/3440

Rabbi Baruch Mellman - https://www.poconorecord.com/article/20100227/features/2270324

Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg - https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/life/faith/2015/03/04/purim-heroine-esther-prophesy-nazis/24273719/

And ‘Ollie’ from J-TV - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzaJZ0bGe0s

Wikipedia attributes the idea to ‘research’ conducted by  Rabbi Mordechai Neugroschel

I first encountered it yesterday in a message that came back from my sons’ school. The incredible Jewish informal education team (known as JIEP) managed to deliver Mishloach Manot to 3,000 home-bound students and in the bag with the edible goodies was this Devar Torah. And I applaud the delivery and the love of the team. But, oh my, did I hate the Devar. So I sent this to the school.

 

 

 

Oh my.

 

JIEP just pulled off a Mishloach Manot home delivery to every student in the school. That is incredible. What an inspiring and deeply touching way to symbolise the bond between students and the school, especially at a time when you as a team, and your students, must be missing the joy of a Purim celebration on campus especially. Thank you, thank you, thank you and hurrah.

 

Can I, however, share one thing. I had a look through the accompanying booklet and, forgive me, I hated the Dvar Torah. It was unattributed (Pirkei Avot 6:6) and I don’t want to be rude, but ….

 

I love Megilat Ester. What could be more inspiring than a tale of a young Jew living in a non-Jewish world who finds the strength to stand strong, even in the face of so much? But the Devar Torah chose to stress the importance of the prescient prophetic nature of the Megilah in predicting the hanging of the ‘Nuremberg Ten’ in the Hebrew year 5707. Well, I can enjoy a good Devar Torah suggesting the prescient nature of our sacred scriptures. But the message was demonstrated with reference to scribal orthography – big letter and small letters. Hmmm. Is the point that the revelation on Sinai included scribal orthography? Of course, scribal orthography has a history, I don’t know anyone who claims the scribal orthography of the Megillah is ‘MiSinai’ and it seems a strange thing to place importance on, not least since there are so many different Megillot with different letters larger or smaller than the letters the Devar Torah found to be so significant. And, yes I know the Gemarah about Moses, Rabbi Akiva and the Tagin but does finding attested Megillot with different sized letter make the Devar Torah weaker? Or the Megilah? Or the faith of my sons, your students?

 

Then there is the matter of the gematria. With a flourish the Devar Torah announces that the three small letters add up to 707 – which is true. And that the large letter, a ‘vav,’ thereby counts as a reference to the sixth century giving rise to Hebrew year 5707. Well, no. Just no. ‘Vav’ is never ‘5.’ I’ve spent time wandering through the gematria obsessed worlds of Chaim Vital and Moshe Cordevero and Baal HaTurim. And reading Vav as 5000+ is … well I’m not world’s greatest Gematria maven, but I’ve never seen it. So maybe ten future evildoers will be hung in the Hebrew year 6707, but I don’t suppose any of us will be around to see it.

 

And hang on (pause while checking Wikipedia), when exactly were these ten modern sons of Haman hung (putting aside the issue of whether the Nazis hung in the Nuremberg trial are indeed the sons of Hitler Yamoch Shemo)? The hangings took place on the 16th October 1946 which is … drumroll … in the Hebrew year 5708. In other words, in the language and theology of the Devar Torah, the prophetic prescience of the Megilah is wrong. OK, maybe the prophetic prescience of the Megilah accurately predicted the date when the ten Nazi ‘sons’ were sentenced to hang. Well … there were 12 Nazis sentenced to hang in the Hebrew year 5707. Herman Goring committed suicide rather than face the noose and Martin Borman was in absentia.  Does that make the Megilah less impressive? Does that threaten to weaken a love of the Megilah, or Judaism or God? If the wonderful Mishloach Manot came in a sturdy receptacle, the Devar Torah just felt like a wet paper bag.

 

Aside from being wrong and without scientific justification, I have a problem with the whole notion of placing this kind of emphasis on the prophetic prescience of the Megilah – especially when the Megilah is connected to modern sources of evil.

 

As Eliot Horowitz showed in his book Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, there is a direct connection between this sort of ‘Torah’ drawn from the Megilah and Jewish violence. This Devar Torah is just the sort of ‘Torah’ marshalled by Baruch Goldstein and his supporters to justify a massacre by a Jew, A JEW, at Hebron, on Purim 1994, or as we are now supposedly supposed to call it ותשנ'ד. Spurred on by just this kind of ‘theology’ and ‘exegesis’ Goldstein felt somehow justified in seeing the living image of sons of Haman before him in the Cave of Machpelah and shot dead 29 innocent humans created in the image of God. Cheerleading for prophetic prescience in sacred texts is one thing, but the Megilah is a dangerous text to be used in the context of modern evils – especially so tendentiously. I’m not suggesting that this is within a million miles of the intent of the author of this Devar Torah. But the Devar Torah is a strengthening of a ‘theology’ which leaves me utterly cold.

 

Hitler’s ‘ten sons’ were hung because of the exercise of justice and as a result of their own actions for which they rightly paid a price. They weren’t hung because of a gematria in the Megilah. I mean what if we really took seriously the notion that God did intend for our ancient Megilah to encode a secret message (one that could only be read post-hoc of course) that von Ribbentrop and Streicher and the rest of them would be hung some time in the mid-twentieth century? Does that mean that God was secretly moving chess pieces into position to ensure that Holocaust happened? Or does it mean that God had the Hashgachah and inclination to save the Jews of Shushan and encode an esotery into our ancient scripture but didn’t choose and/or wasn’t able to avert the murders of 6 million Jews under the Nazis? I mean the more I think about this Devar Torah the more I dislike it.

 

OK, rant over, thank you for hearing me out. And again, thank you and a huge hurrah and a happy Purim.

 

Friday, 19 February 2021

Remember This - Even When Tired



On the Shabbat before Purim – and this is the Shabbat before Purim – we read a passage reminding us of an attack on the Israelites,  “when you were tired – Ayef - and weary – Yagaya - and had no awe – Yirah - for God.” Amalek came then and, we are warned, Amalek will come again and again into our national future. Even beyond the point where God has given us rest from all the other enemies surrounding us.

 

Sure enough, in Kings we read of the battle between Saul and the Amalekite King Agag, and then, of course, comes Haman (boo) the Agagite.

 

In Chasidic thought Amalek becomes no longer a physical opponent, but rather a state of mind, the weakness that preys on our tiredness and weariness and our lack of Yirah – awe. It’s an interesting triplet. Tiredness, of course, comes to us all – it’s a function of sleep and effort and exists in the realm of the physical. If weariness is not to be identical with tiredness, therefore, it therefore becomes a more existential behaviour; giving up, not wanting to go on. And Yirah (for God) is entirely within the realm of the spiritual. Yirah is that which reminds who we are and our relationship with our Creator. Yirah reminds us how much we have to be grateful for. Yirah lifts us beyond our physical immediacy and places us before the Kiseh Cavod – God’s throne of glory. It becomes the force that can and should pull us away from existential torpor and give us strength, even in our physical tiredness. Its root is in the ability to turn our attention to that which is beyond our immediate physical need and tiredness. And Amalek is that which preys on an existential torpor grounded in a failure to realise we should be grateful.

 

Everyone gets tired, and these are surely the most wearisome of times, but we can’t allow our weariness to strip us of Yirah. In fact a little Yirah will give us strength even in the face of weariness. Feeling tired? Get out the house (if allowed), look towards the heavens, express gratitude. Feeling weary? Do something for someone else. Develop a sense of Yirah, particularly on Shabbat. Daven. Join us on-line or find your own way. Don’t lose Yirah, even when tired. Purim is coming.

 

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Weddings, Forts, Ports and Covid





There are reports from Stamford Hill of ultra-orthodox Jewish weddings which are taking place illegally, stupidly and frankly murderously. The reports fill me with shame and anger. As one of the millions, no billions, of us struggling to hold life and soul gently in these pandemic-riddled times, I'm appalled. The notion that, today, these weddings are taking place is stunning.
Except, I suppose, it isn't.
Somehow, these weddings connect to a web of related tendencies, less criminal and less dangerous, but nonetheless connected. Theodor Zeldin, in his remarkable book, The Hidden Pleasures of Life, writes that the clash of civilisations can be attributed to the difference between those who wish to live in forts, and those who wish to live in ports. Says Zeldin 'fort dwellers see that which is beyond their immediate control as a threat, they turn inwards and seek to erect ever greater barricades to repulse a world beyond. On the other hand, port dwellers look to that which is beyond as the origin of hope, creativity and growth'.
We, at New London, are a true community of Port Jews; inheritors of the attitude of our founder Rabbi who was excited by the possibility of new knowledge even if it felt dangerous. In turn, Rabbi Jacobs was an inheritor of an attitude towards the Enlightenment that drew Jews out of ghettos self-imposed and otherwise. But ultra-orthodoxy built its remarkable strength on a rejection of new knowledge and its leaders have ploughed rejectionist furrows with ever greater fervour for the past hundred and fifty years. This is the attitude that resulted in ultra-orthodox leadership pillorying university education in the late 1800s, bullying Rabbi Jacobs in the 1960s, and treating Israeli society as a pork-barrel. It is, of course, vital to understand that so many of those who are swept up by the fervour and passion of these positions are simply naïve, but at a leadership level there is venality. And it hurts.
I'm still feeling raw - two weeks and 5,000km away - as a result of the 'Washington Insurrection.' That deathly attack on democracy is also part of a similar pathology that refuses to countenance sacred cows being threatened and calls for higher and thicker walls as if forts are the best way to face a world that is always changing.
It's so easy to feel fort-longing, particularly as we retreat behind closed doors to keep this virus at bay. But ports are stronger than forts. The walls of Jericho fell, as all walls do. The survival of humanity is not due to exoskeletons or claws or fangs. Rather we have survived to this point in our history through adaptability and the ability to assimilate the new.
From behind our doors, in this necessary quarantine, we must hold fast to our belief in the values of living as port Jews. We must keep our hearts and minds open. We must challenge the appeal of a lapse into insularity when we find it ourself, and in others. As Rav Kook said, the new must be rendered holy, and there is certainly much holy rendering of the new to be done. But it cannot be beaten back. Onwards, onwards,
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, 12 February 2021

Three Scrolls



A bit of a pop-quiz, for those who like that sort of thing and partic for those for whom sight of even one Torah Scroll would be a treat.

 

There are four times in the Jewish year when it’s necessary to read from three Torah scrolls.

 

And one is this week. It’s the first of the special extra readings that path the way towards Pesach (darkness to freedom, everyone, it is coming). The first of this is Parashat Shekalim – get your census payment ready, we all need to demonstrate we are still here. So we read that together with the weekly portion, Mishpatim – a collection of rules opening with a section inspiring us to take the brave step out of confinement into freedom. Shekalim is read on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Adar, or on Rosh Chodesh Adar if Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, as it does this year. So a third scroll. And Rosh Chodesh? A celebration of the light of the moon re-emerging, even if its glow has been in retreat for a while.

 

What a Shabbat for looking forward with a gentle optimism. I know, not ‘there’ yet, but, there is hope, there is a three-fold chord of Torah to sustain us. As it says in Proverbs, the three fold chord is not easily undone. We can do this.

 

In our streamed service this Shabbat, bit of Mishpatim, bit of Shekalim and Hallel with Rabbi Natasha and I and special guest Angela Gluck.

 

10:30am www.newlondon.org.uk/digital

(Bonus points – don’t cheat now 😊) when are the other occasions we read from three scrolls.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Electric Transmission of the Reading of the Megillah

 

 

There is an obligation to hear the Megillah of Ester on Purim. Actually, the obligation is to hear it twice, evening and morning.

 

So, can you fulfil the obligation over Zoom?

 

The issue has received significant Halachic attention, as has related questions; can you amplify Torah reading during large weekday services, or respond 'Amen' to a blessing said over the telephone and other related cases.

 

The significant Sugya is in Sukkah 51b which discusses a practice of the Great Synagogue of Alexandria; a Synagogue so large that people at the back couldn't hear what was being said at the front. A flag system was used and when people saw the flag, they would respond Amen. This is called an 'Orphaned Amen,' (see also Brachot 47a). Rashi and Tosafot in Brachot state that this is acceptable since the people knew which blessing was being said, even if they didn't hear the blessing, but the Shulchan Arukh (OH 124:8) states that this only works for general blessings but that the specifically aural Mitzvot (e.g. Shofar and Megillah) cannot be performed unless sound is heard.

 

Then came the invention of electricity and specifically the possibility of using microphones and amplifiers.

 

The two modern approaches are articulated most clearly by Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minhat Shlomo 1:9), and Reb Moshe Feinstein (IM OH 2:108).

 

Reb Auerbach states that Halahcically significant hearing can only happen as a result of a mechanical process where the vibrations caused as a sound is produced are in a direct chain of causation with the vibrations that hit the eardrum. As such, electrical transmission of sound cannot be relied on. Auerbach's position - and he makes this explicit, acknowledging the pain this position may cause - means that hearing aids cannot be used during Megillah reading. If a person needs a hearing aid to hear, says Auerbach, they cannot fulfil these Mitzvot, and should not say the blessing.

 

In contradistinction, Reb Feinstein argues that sound is essentially a wave pattern, and since that wave pattern can be captured (by a microphone) and relayed (by a speaker), it is possible to say that a transmitted sound is the same sound as the produced sound. This would allow Mitzvot to be performed on the basis of transferred sound. He points out that the vibrating air molecules at the point of the production of a sound are never the same molecules as vibrate against our eardrum as we hear sound. Sound is always being transferred and relayed from one medium to another.

 

Rav Waldenberg (best known for his work in medical ethics) uses Feinstein's understanding in a position that supportive of a Rabbi who broadcasts the Megillah reading throughout a hospital so as to enable patients to hear it (Tzitz Eliezer 8:11). 

 

I find Feinstein's articulation of the nature of sound, at the very least, reliable in times of a pandemic. In fact, I think you can go further than this. And indeed we should.

 

I do not accept Rav Auerbach's analysis of the nature of hearing. Hearing is not a function of the eardrum, it is a function of the nervous system. All hearing arises as a result of electronic signals firing inside our nerves and brain. Feinstein has to be right that the central question is - are the signals that are being fired along our nerves the same signals that a Megillah reader would produce if we were indeed standing next to such a person? I find the Auerbach's position - which states that a person with a cochlear implant does not hear! - errant, as well as needlessly harsh. 

 

Of course, in an ideal world, a person should be in the same room as a Megillah reader, but I hold that this isn't the only way in which one considers Halachically reliable sound, this year, in the context of Covid.

 

At New London Synagogue we will have a Zoomed Megillah reading (also streamed to our www.facebook.com/newlondonsyn/live page. This system may be relied upon by anyone unable to personally attend a Synagogue in person.

 

See

 "Fulfilling Mitzvot Through Electronic Hearing Devices", Chaim Jachter and Ezra Frazer, Gray Matter volume 2 pp. 237–244. ISBN 1-933143-10-X

https://web.archive.org/web/20080511204358/http://www.yasharbooks.com/grayexcerpt2.pdf

 

Also, Rabbi Jeffrey Fox on the Auerbach position

https://roshyeshivatmaharat.org/category/distance-based-mitzvah-perfomance/?fbclid=IwAR2oFAnNrfNeBS_4_ZKzNppIWiaEsAeuBZy2aEj1B1qZZFP_1OIYY1jtmic

Friday, 4 December 2020

Two Kinds of Faith - Jacob and the Hasmoneans

 

 

It’s the week before Chanukah, and despite the revolutionary zeal … we don’t make a big deal about the Hasmoneans.

 

The Maccabean revolt, with Matityahu’s willingness to die rather than be forced to bow down to an idol, and Eliezer’s suicide attack on the mighty Seleucid armies don’t get much attention, even at this time of year. Rather, we tell a story about a fragile flame.

Historians, and we have a terrific historian joining us for our on-line salon on Wednesday will point out that the Hasmonean dynasty was a bit of a disaster, in the end.

All the zealotry didn’t work out, for our people.

Perhaps there was a sign that that would be the case earlier, much earlier, in this week’s parasha.

 

The parasha opens with Jacob splitting his family in two before going to meet his feared brother, on the basis that if one lot gets wiped out, there will still be something left. That doesn’t sound too confident to me, I mean, whatever happened to, “united we stand, divided we fall”?

Jacob even feels the need to remind God that the whole decision to go back and face the music was God’s idea,

יְ-ה-וָה הָאֹמֵר אֵלַי, שׁוּב לְאַרְצְךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתְּךְָ.

It was You, God, who told me, return to your land, the place of your birth!

 

Jacob doesn’t find this, being a patriarch thing, easy.

He’s duped, his attempts to have children with his various wives and concubines seem clumsy at best.

 

On the night before he meets Esau, of course, there is the wrestling with the angel, but just before the Torah says he sends everyone else forwards and heads back to be alone.

I can’t help reading the verse and wondering if, if he’s just having second thoughts about the whole thing. And he’s gonna run. Just like he ran before.

 

I once learnt this passage with a psychologist – they suggested that perhaps there was no angel, just a man wrestling with his own conscience. I like that. A man struggling to find the confidence to face a future that seems uncertain at best.

 

Jacob’s faith is not the faith of Abraham, so absolute he’ll offer up his own child.


It’s not the faith of Isaac, who could lie there on the altar and watch the blade come
towards his throat.

It’s the faith of a man who fears in the dark, who struggles to trust.

Maybe that’s the best way of understanding his renaming as Israel – it’s not that Jacob wrestles God, but he wrestles to find faith in God and mankind.

He makes it, he refuses to yield to the fear, but the feeling that comes through these remarkable verses is that it was close.

It’s not a given, that in dark faith will prove to solid and assuring.

The dark, the dark.

 


 

I'm feeling Jacob, a lot this year because I'm spending a lot of time, awake at night and feeling vulnerable. As some of you know, I suffer from a neurological condition, which can leave me suffering from up to five to 10 migraines a day. And they tend to come in the dark. And I hope you aren’t going to come up after this service and asked me if I've tried evening primrose oil or intermittent fasting or any of the rest of it, because I have and besides that's not the point of this sermon.

 

The point of this sermon is that I know what it's like to be awake in the middle of the night feeling vulnerable.

 

In the darkness, it's very easy to feel vulnerable. That's what it is to be a descendent of Jacob, better known as Israel. We are inheritors of a vulnerability who, despite our raw moments, refuse to yield to despair.

 

And, I think, it’s worth understanding that we don't call ourselves the Hasmoneans, we call our

The rabbis were actually very unsure about whether or not, Hanukkah deserved to be a valedictory occasion at all, with its fierce certainty.

The faith of the Hasmoneans feels unlike the kind of faith I believe in, a faith that is fragile and determined despite everything, rather than a faith that powers through obstacles in its certitude.

 

I found a remarkable Midrash on this verse, where Jacob returns to be alone, on the other of the river. In Tanhuma Yelamdeinu the verse, ‘Vayivater Yaacov Levado’ is matched to a verse from Moses’ last great song, way off at the end of Deuteronomy - Adonai Badad Yancheinu. Our narrative comes hard baked with an aloneness that isn’t just a function of who we are in the room with, but instead an aloneness of feeling that we can do this.

It’s fragile.

Fragile like the flame.

Not certain like the Hasmoneans.

 

Dark times, we live in.

Times that call for the sort of faith that refuses to buckle despite the sense of alonement,

The sort of faith that expects not certain victory, but instead, a call on our every resource as we refuse to yield.

May that be the faith we find,

For, just like the Chanukah miracle, that flickering, small vial of hope, is and has always been enough,

 

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, 6 November 2020

Shabbat in Lockdown 2.0

Ah, dear friends, I know there is an election going on 6,000 miles away, but scrutinising the minute-by-minute returns of Kenosha County doesn’t bring redemption, only nervousness. 

I know we are tense, saddened, angry and confused as we lockdown again, and the temptation to relook at the regulations to see just whether we can or should get away with a bubble multiplied by the childcare divided by the R number is greater or less than the …. arrgh. It’s been a challenging week. Time to unplug. 

 Please give yourself the gift of ‘Lehavdil’ this evening – the gift of rendering some time elevated, special, holy, other from the craziness of the workaday week. Turn the news streams off. Light candles. 

Say kiddush. Breathe. We are creatures of this planet, created with the divine spark within us all. We are here to serve and protect. Our duty is to love the stranger, our fellow and our Creator. Breathe again. Keep the news switched off. 

 Rabbi Natasha, Chazan Stephen and I are live-streaming from the building tonight. If you want to spend Shabbat in peaceful quiet at home, that’s great. If you want the sound and the songs of communal Jewish engagement at such a battered time, join us at www.newlondon.org.uk/digital.

I wrote before Rosh Hashanah about creating a mini-sanctuary for a screen set for Shabbat. Clear the desk, maybe lay a tablecloth, find something to cover the keyboard, check the computer is set not to power off. Use the full-screen viewing offering to limit distractions. Turn the computer from the paradigm of workaday stress into a vehicle to connect to that which is numinous and transcendent. With screens switched on, you’ll see us for a service at 6:30pm this evening, and 10:30am tomorrow morning. It will be, I hope, songful, playful, comforting and insightful. It will be a chance to come together in our faith at an atomised time.
And then … FIRE. At our Zoom Havdalah, 5:30pm Sat night, we are joined by fire artist Oscar Richards for a Havdalah you should not try at home. All welcome on-line. Kids particularly. We can return to the world of action engaged, infused with the values of everything makes the people we want to be. That is the gift of Shabbat. It’s offered freely, but it’s a gift without price. 

 Shabbat Shalom
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