Recent Lectures – Why Might We Keep Halakha? and Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?

The Honest Theology Project has been progressing in a manner that provides great encouragement for those of us interested in a thoughtful, honest and constructive form of religion.

The third lecture was given on February 7th 2016 and engaged with the questions of why we might actually maintain halakhic practice in today’s world and in light of our theological understanding.

It can be viewed here, together with an excellent Q&A session.

By way of taster:

The middle position, and perhaps the most challenging both to defend and to live by, is one that can see that sometimes and in some ways there is a need for submission and surrender. But that this does not mean that the aim is to thwart the flourishing of human wellbeing or to pollute its moral conscience.

We need not understand everything or always feel moved to observe, but nor must we always simply seek to negate our sense of self or suspend our ethical judgment. Living a life is a long and complex process, comparable perhaps to a complex symphony, and whilst perhaps some notes are primarily there to link between the more poignant and moving moments, they are nonetheless of tremendous importance, an essential part of the overall structure.

The fourth lecture was given on April 17th 2016, and asked ‘Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?’.  It was an attempt to probe the depths of the dangers of religious literalism, particularly as manifested in contemporary Zionism, particularly its religious varieties.

A sample of the opening reads:

Religion, as we have described it thus far, consists of an elaborate and complex web of metaphor, symbol and myth. It is laden with suggestions, hints and multi layered meanings. For a person to make good use of such a system, they must, amongst other things, have an awareness and sensitivity for symbolic language, for mythical representation, for rituals that are soaked in metaphoric suggestion. 

When people approach religion without this sensitivity, or worse, with a sense of anxiety or threatened-ness that they wish to dispel, then they will find therein a set of stories, teachings and ideas which offer them very concrete guidance and instruction. They may even find there sanctioned and legitimised outlets for their own violence and hatred, for their need to oppress and annihilate. 

If we are to embrace religion in any kind of public way, then I think we have a responsibility to provide a roadmap for how to use the symbols in constructive ways, how to curate the better readings of our myths and to highlight some of the more dangerous and explosive metaphors.

The lecture, together with a fascinating Q&A, can be found here.

Chag Sameach and do be in touch with any thoughts or questions.

Fighting Inequality is a core Jewish Value – Election 2015

This article appeared originally in Haaretz on 01/05/2015  - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.654494

 

The Jewish story begins when a privileged Egyptian prince becomes sensitized to the hardships inflicted on the local slave people. Finding the imaginative capacity to sympathize with them, he eventually decides to liberate this people, irrespective of the cost to his own wellbeing. The ultimate lesson he repeatedly bequeaths to us through his Torah is simple – our fate is bound up with those who are suffering.

It cannot be stated clearly enough: Judaism stands for justice, compassion and equality of opportunity.

So I am deeply perplexed when people tell me that the only legitimate Jewish choice in next week’s U.K. election is to vote for David Cameron’s Conservatives.

And this is not mere anecdote. A recent survey found that only 22% of Jews are planning to vote Labour, with 69% backing the Conservatives.

This is a recent development, for in 2010 the Jewish population was roughly evenly split, with Labour on 31% and the Conservatives on 30%.

The popular account of this is that David Cameron has been a vocal supporter of Israel and the Jewish community, whereas the positions of Ed Miliband have been, in the eyes of many, far less friendly. There is, however, no evidence at all that Labour would respond any differently to the needs of the community, as their previous track record more than amply demonstrates. And questioning Israeli policy is very different from delegitimizing or demonizing it, which Miliband has absolutely not done.

But this election is not about Israel, it is about Britain.

It is about a country where the shape of society is changing, where it is becoming increasingly unequal. And this is the fundamental question in this election: Is one happy about this or does one wish to change it?

Inequality is different from poverty. Helping those in poverty sounds like an optional good deed, and may well be something one does through private means and donations. Perhaps one feels that politics is not the arena in which to be charitable.

Inequality is to do with the distribution of wealth and opportunity in society, which can be measured and tracked statistically. And it appears to be moving in only one direction.

This structural issue is not something that any one person can affect through charity; it is something that only government has the power to tackle.

Only the state can counterbalance the indifferent neutrality of the market economy. Only the law can prevent people being dominated by powerful corporate interests.

And everyone is affected by inequality.

As shown in the 2009’s “The Spirit Level,” unequal societies do worse on nearly every measure. This is because inequality heightens the sense of competition and aggression between people, and makes us relentlessly insecure about the ways we live and the futures we can look forward to.

Inequality is what makes us uneasy when we worry about providing education and health care for our children, about the sorts of opportunities that await them.

The Conservatives have not really engaged with this, sticking to the tired mantra that wealth will somehow trickle down to help everyone.

It doesn’t.

Wealth, like power, has a tendency to concentrate. Once you have some, it becomes a whole lot easier to get more as demonstrated in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital.”

Having wealth allows one to make riskier investments, to employ economies of scale, to undercut the profit margins of competitors. It will often bring influence and access that create subtle but significant advantages.

The only way to tackle this phenomenon is to focus on taxing wealth, as opposed to income. This incentivizes work, whilst reducing the negative and demoralizing effects of aggregation.

This is where the idea of a mansion tax comes in.

There are certainly problems with the mansion tax. It is not clear, for example, why one should tax property rather than other forms of investment.

That said, it is nonetheless a step in the direction towards a society where more people have a chance, where one’s starting point in life doesn’t wholly determine one’s fortunes.

From a Jewish point of view, one could claim that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. In the Biblical vision, the entire nation’s wealth would be reset every 50 years, via the Jubilee mechanism. Everyone would start again with equal opportunities, whatever the misfortunes and errors of their fathers.

The mansion tax may not be good for Jews, but it certainly has good Jewish pedigree.

For the many Jewish voters in the Finchley and Golders Green constituency, a further twist in the tale finds Labour’s candidate Sarah Sackman to be a committed Jew and a lover of Israel. Sarah explains her own considered perspective by reference to a famous teaching of Hillel that her grandfather drummed into her: “If I am not for me, who will be for me. But if I am only for me, what have I become?”

She interprets this as charging us with a sense of civil responsibility, with ensuring that one’s politics never become solely about the protection of narrow interests.

And it seems to me that the community would do well to reflect on Hillel’s point. Whilst concern about Israel and the community are certainly admirable, if they are all we can worry about, then, truly, what have we become.

Moses didn’t turn up his nose at those less fortunate, but with courage and faith he managed to change the course of human history, in ways that have echoed and reverberated across the centuries.

To be a Jew is to demand no less of ourselves, and to rise to the challenge of in some small way perfecting our world.

Does Kashrut Breed Racism?

This post originally appeared in Ha’aretz on Sunday 28th September.    For those who don’t have a subscription, here it is:

On a recent trip to Israel my family and I arrived at our destination at around 11.15 P.M. Our hostess – whose house we would be renting – was extremely welcoming and didn’t seem bothered by our arriving even later than planned. She had gone to the extra trouble of ensuring that we would have food for breakfast in the morning and had even prepared a couple of salads for us to enjoy. It was a truly Israeli welcome in the very best sense.

But when she saw my kippah she was suddenly overcome with worry. ”Oh dear,” she said, “I think we have a problem. My kitchen isn’t kosher.”

I was quite taken aback by her presumption that this would be a deal breaker, and quickly re-assured her that we would manage, that we’d often holidayed in houses in France and Spain where there had been no question of the owners bequeathing us a kosher kitchen. She helpfully showed me where we might find some aluminium cooking trays, and seemed reassured that we would be OK.

The episode stuck with me, as I discovered that the divisions between Jewish communities in Israel can be wider than those where I come from. In some ways, they have become emblematic of something I noticed about Israeli society.

I was upset by my host’s feeling that her kitchen would somehow not be good enough for us, that we would look down on her house based on its standard of kashrut. As a Diaspora Jew, I don’t expect other people to consider my dietary needs: If I have a concern, I expect to attend to it myself. Kashrut is a personal and private matter, a practice that I keep to myself; not something I wish to broadcast through vibes of separateness, awkwardness and disdain.

Now, this may not be the classical view of kashrut. For many people and in many periods, the purpose of kashrut was to keep Jews separate from their surrounding communities. In ancient times it may have been a bulwark against idolatrous practice, and in more recent times it served to prevent interaction and assimilation with the broader populace.

That said, I can’t help but feeling that in today’s world things have changed.

In a country where Jews are in the majority and there have been alarming indications of racist undercurrents toward Israeli citizens of Arab origin it feels important to cultivate a Jewish mindset that is different from that embodied in “exclusionary” or ”ghetto” kashrut.

If kashrut is rooted in a sense of “us and them,” of “chosen and not chosen,” then it may, under present conditions, contribute to a dangerous and inflammatory state of mind. Fostering ethnic and racial superiority is always problematic, and, with the challenges Israel presently faces regarding racism, it is particularly unwelcome. Evidence of this social poison can be seen in the rise of anti-Arab group Lehava and in the protests at the recent marriage between Morel Malka and Mahmoud Mansour, encapsulated in the disturbing slogan: ”Arab watch out, my sister is not public property.”

It seems clear that an ongoing challenge to the Jewish-Israeli psyche is the transition from traumatized and persecuted victim to a mindset of sovereign responsibility and a civilised wielding of power.

Kashrut may feel trivial in the face of this task, but the manner in which it is embraced can play a key part in shaping psychological attitudes. If the aim of our kashrut observance is to erect barriers, to separate communities, to distance ourselves from other citizens, then our observance might indeed be contributing to the mindset of separation, both among Jews and between Jews and other Israeli citizens.

If, on the other hand, we embrace kashrut – as other voices in the tradition suggest – to refine our capacity for gratitude, to distance ourselves from violence and hatred, to overcome our tendencies toward indulgence and gluttony, then we Jews as the majority population in Israel might move in a more positive direction.

Freud famously understood some forms of religious practice as instances of obsessional neurosis, as answering a deeply human need to overcome anxiety. The anxiety of difference, of encountering those who do not share our history or values, who look unfamiliar or talk differently from us, is a major part of modern multi-cultural life, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

Whilst it might be tempting to respond to difference-anxiety by insisting upon ever-stricter regulations and adherence to kashrut, we should be wary of thoughtlessly falling into this pattern. Rather, we should engage the attentive thoughtfulness kashrut might cultivate, and make every effort to explore and overcome our anxieties about difference.

As a practical example, we might revise the legal status of Israeli Arabs with regard to kashrut. The status quo in Jewish law has been to view them as gentiles, which serves to limit consumption of their food produce. This may have been historically necessary to protect a Jewish minority, but a Jewish majority can be bolder, and find a new legal status that teaches greater respect toward Arab citizens.

Kashrut need not be a place where we express our feelings of being threatened. Positively encouraging Jews and Arabs to break bread together might help re-balance a society struggling to balance Jewish particularism with the universal ideals of Abraham and Isaiah.

It is my hope that the Jewish vision of purity of soul neither reveals nor encourages racist and xenophobic sentiments. We can and must find ways of retaining allegiance with our past that neither diminish our humanitarian sensitivities nor jeopardise our political aspirations in the present.

 

Why Bnei Akiva Needs Biblical Criticism

As it becomes increasinly clear to most of us that we need to be moving towards peace, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our thinking is open, flexible and creative.  Ancient Texts carry immense power and can be used, by all sides, in very dangerous ways.

The recent Bnei Akiva scandal raised some of these issues, but they really go deeper and further than just Bnei Akiva.

My thanks to the team at thetorah.com for embracing this piece and for helping me to substantially improve it.  I’d love to hear any thoughts.

http://thetorah.com/why-bnei-akiva-needs-biblical-criticism/

More on Limmud: A response to a friend…

A friend made some comments to me about Limmud, which provoked me to write a bit more on the topic.  This is over and above what I initially wrote for the Times of Israel on the topic.    It goes without saying that this response might equally apply to many others who have commented upon Limmud.  

My dear friend, I need to begin by apologising to any of my non-orthodox friends and colleagues who might have read what you wrote about their movements and their Rabbis. I personally find it deeply offensive and objectionable, I can only begin to imagine how it made them feel. Moreover, I can only square the disrespectful tone of your writing with all of your positive traits by imagining that you do not personally know any of the Masorti/Conservative/Reform/Liberal leaders of which you speak and have not spent much time in their presence. I personally consider many of them, both dead and alive, as deeply insiprational thinkers and human beings. Indeed, this abstract and unreal quality, rooted in a-priori ‘halakhic/hashkafic’ theory and intellectualised sociology, permeates your discussion of Limmud and makes it very difficult for me to know what to say to you. I have basically three words for you. Come to Limmud.
You will then see that it is not the dangerous monster that you and others seems to see it as. It is not a threat to the Jewish people, it is an incredible and unprecedented source and inspiration for Jewish creativity, renewal and regeneration. I will speak personally and state that there were times in my Jewish journey, when the clear air and open minded welcomingness of Limmud was the only Jewish atmosphere which I did not find to be claustrophobic and oppressive. This may be an extreme case, but there can be no doubt that Limmud has had a positive influence on the Jewish lives of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. The idea that people walk away from Limmud with their Judaism shaken and weakened, with their commitment diminished and stifled, has simply no bearing in reality. Again, come to Limmud. See the joy in people’s faces, the spring in their step, the life returning to their forgotten neshamot. You will see the true power of the Divine, the sense in which He attends to every place where his name is called and makes his presence known there.
Are there challenging sessions at Limmud? Yes. Is anyone forced to go to them? No. Is intellectual challenge a bad thing? Absolutely not. In my understanding faith is deepened through challenge, and Judaism as religion, culture and civilisation has absolutely nothing to fear from philosophical, historical, inter faith and inter-denominational challenge and argument. Judiasm is robust, it is strong, it is flexible and it has the internal resources to re-imagine itself through its own exegetical fertility. Rabbi Akiva was not rocked in the philosophical storm of the mystical orchard because he could interpret every crown of every letter in Torah, in a way that stunned even Moses himself. Interpretation is our lifeblood, not a threat.
You acknowledge that we could all bring our sources of support, and there is some truth to that. I’m interested in why we bring the sources we do, why some of our leaders choose to bring fearful, exclusive and excluding sources, sources which they claim show small mindedness and an aura of paranoid threatenedness. Why does that seem like the answer to the problems we face today? And what does it tell us about their conception of leadership?
But, let me say something about your sources. You dare to bring Maimonides, the heilige Rambam, as part of an argument against intellectual honesty, as a messenger of close mindedness?
I don’t even know where to begin with that. Maimonides was the philosopher and re-interpreter par excellence, and stated clearly in the Guide that if Aristotle had proven the eternity of the world he would have re-interpreted Genesis allegorically in light of that. The whole project in the Guide was to show how our traditions could weather any perceived threat, how they were rich enough to be an ongoing source of wisdom and moral improvement. Truth was truth, and as he said in Shemona Perakim, we should hear the truth from whosoever is blessed enough to speak it.
More generally, the medieval philosophers were excited by, well, philosophy. They believed in Truth, that it was the hallmark and stamp of the Jewish God – as the Talmud states in Shabbat – and that the idea of incompatibility between Truth and Religion was a confusion. Truth brings us closer to God, it’s part of the difficult and challenging journey that it is required of anyone who wishes to engage with the Divine. One may – following the Ra’avad in his critique of Maimonides- choose not to go down this path, but please do not pretend that such a person is taking the only Jewishly or intellectually defensible path.
Proposing that Torah and historical truth or philosophical truth are incompatible is not a statement of faith, it is a statement of faithlessness, and a surrender to the dangers of fundamentalist authoritarianism.
And it’s not just about philosophy. Bertrand Russell used to ask Ludwig Wittgenstein as he was agitatedly pacing his rooms “Are you thinking about Logic or your sins?”. Wittgenstein replied angrily “Both!”. The idea that we can be better people, that we can act with more clarity, more compassion, more integrity without welcoming the power of truth into the inner sanctum of our personalities is a non-starter. Whatever Freud may have got wrong, he saw clearly that truthful reflection and self understanding was the only path to overcoming the demons which threatened to destroy our personalities and our lives. And so did Rav Nachman, and the Kotzker, and Reb Yisrael Salanter and Rav Dessler. Not to mention the Rambam, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva.
Again, come to Limmud. Or don’t. Perhaps you do not fancy it. Well that’s fair enough, Limmud doesn’t proselytize, it doesn’t harangue people into coming. And, thanks to Dayan Ehrentrau and Rabbi Kimche, it doesn’t need to spend much on advertising either. But if you don’t come, if you don’t want to come, please don’t issue proclamations about what it is, about its dangers, about the destruction some of its most valued and well-loved teachers have brought upon the world. You do yourself a disservice, and you bring much more discord and pain upon Am Yisrael than is appropriate at this moment.

Continue reading

Mourning, not Melancholia – Tisha B’Av 5773

On Tisha B’Av we reflect upon destruction, upon trauma, upon loss.

While the rest of the world is light-headedly embracing the frivolity of summer, we cast our fishing rods deep into the sea of memory, revisiting the archetype of destruction at the bottom of our psyche.

Why do we do this – have the lessons of Jewish history not already sufficiently traumatised us, does not its apocalyptic mood hound us all too heavily as we try to experience the simple joy of life?

There is truth to that, but we mourn today not because we need more trauma, but because we have yet to complete what Freud called our ‘mourning work’.

To mourn is to register loss, to relinquish something, to know that we will never again be fully complete.  We are ejected from the womb, weaned from the breast, usurped in sibling rivalry and banished from the eden of childhood innocence:  our entry into the world is along a boulevard of ruin and loss.

So much is promised, and so much is taken away.  we are left longing, painfully so, pining to return to these earlier states, to the wholeness and fullness which defined them.

We might ask a different question: is the ‘mourning work’ ever complete, can we ever fully come to terms with such harrowing loss, can the vision of wholeness ever be totally abandoned?

In one sense, it surely cannot.

The personality that we build is in response to these losses, the cultures we erect serve to let us cope with the pain.  We work with the pain, we harness it, but we do not fully leave it behind.

It is a curious paradox, but the personality which is built upon hiding the pain, upon denying it, that will be the personality which promotes the persistence of pain, which gives it a constant source of life.  There is no elixir of eternal life like suppression; denial is the surest way to keep something vital and creative.

The personality or culture which acknowledges loss, which encourages consciousness of our incompleteness, of our desire to return to a greater sense of fullness, this is the personality which will be truly strong, which will be resilient, creative, sensitive and generous.  Pain, anger and resentment are slightly defused, it’s harder for them to get going when the loss is in full view.

When the sages visited the ruins of the temple, they saw foxes emerging from the Holy of Holies.  The source of life had become a playground for vermin, integrity and holiness supplanted by sly cunning.

The sages wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.  He had visited the site of trauma, the loss was in plain view, yet he did not experience it as paralysing or debilitating.

When the rabbis asked him to explain himself he responded by quoting the prophecies of Uriah and Zekharia.  Uriah prophecies desolation, whereas Zekahria has a vision of rebirth and regeneration. Rabbi Akiva emphasised that the two are intimately connected, that the existence of the former is what safeguards and ensures the latter.

Rabbi Akiva was embedded within the prophetic framework of loss, longing and hope, and the interplay between these was central to his vision.  By keeping one eye on the loss, he is more able to see the hope, and, perhaps more importantly, to connect with the joy.

Megillat Eikha ends on a strange note.  The whole book is a stage by stage dealing with loss, going through shock, anger, existential turmoil, soul searching and eventually, in the final chapter, crying forth in prayer.  At the end of that last chapter, there is an urgent plea:

‘Return us to you oh God, and we will return;  our days will be made new, like they were before’

The ultimate response to the loss here is return, a consciousness of return, an incorporation of the desire for greater completeness.  This neither denies nor suppresses loss, it rather tolerates it respectfully as one of our core aspirations.

It also hints at the impossibility of returning to the past, it will always be a ‘new’ past, a past re-acquired through creativity.

In the haftara of the day the onus is less on God and more on the people:

‘Seek the Divine where It might be found, call out to It when you sense Its closeness.’

Again, the yearning is placed at the centre, it is a creative response to the ravages of suffering.  It is a given that we will never entirely merge with the Divine, but it is also thought that it will be better to have a healthy object or address for our longing.  It should be one which will inspire us in the ways of truth, justice and love; not one which will fetishize specific aspects of an irretrievable past.

We yearn for the unreachable, but somehow that allows us to expand, to stretch, to grow. It enlivens us, filling our veins with oxygen.  It doesn’t cripple us with brooding and melancholia, doesn’t close us back in upon ourselves.  It doesn’t limit and stifle us, forcing us to live in a world of artificially limited emotional bandwidth.

The lovers of the Song of Songs are never fulfilled, and it was again Rabbi Akiva who insisted that this message was the Holy of Holies, that it was the ultimate religious lesson.  There is pining at the centre; unity for him only came in death.

Jewish life is littered with references to the loss of the temple, when we marry, when we build a home, the psalms we recite before grace after meals.  Shabbat too marks something of a loss, the cessation of the Divine hand in creation, the awareness that we have transitioned to maturity, that we have left the secure canopy that our parents provided for us.

Tisha B’Av is really the first day of Ellul, the beginning of the trajectory of intensified return which propels us through to the High Holydays.  As our seeking leads to scrutinising our personalities, we dedicate ever more creative energy to the memory of loss.  From destruction we create, from the horror we re-rekindle desire.

May this be the start of a year of profound rebirth, and may we be spared from further trauma whilst engaged in this task.

Money – Fetishizing the Future Shabbat 119

We encounter today a story which may take some of us back to our childhood:

Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat had in his vicinity a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers  warned the gentile:  ’Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat will consume all your property.’ 

So he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban.  As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water.  A fish then swallowed it.

The fish was subsequently hauled up and brought to market on the Shabbat eve towards sunset.

‘Who will buy this fish just now?’ cried the fish sellers.

‘Go and take them to Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat,’ they were told, ‘as he is accustomed to buy in order to honour the Shabbat.’

So they took it to him.  He bought it, opened it and found the jewel therein.  He sold the jewel for thirteen roomfuls  of gold coins. 

A certain old man met him and said, ‘He who lends to Shabbat,  Shabbat repays him.’

It certainly works as a nice story for the children, but I think there’s actually a whole lot more going on here.

In the character of the gentile , (I’m not sure why it’s a gentile, and I don’t really attribute much significance to it, surely there have been many Jews who would fit this mould!), we meet a man who is deeply anxious about his property, about his money.

This manifests itself in a variety of ways.  It is significant that he consults soothsayers in order to learn the fate of his fortune – he is caught up in the future, worried about the fate of his wealth.

He does not seem to be able to enjoy the benefits and luxuries that his wealth might proffer upon him in the present, his peace of mind does not seem to have increased in proportion to the size of his bank account.  Rather, he seems to be enacting that other dictum of the sages:

‘More possessions leads to more worry.’ (Pirkei Avot 2:8)

So he engages soothsayers and, more than this, he responds to their warning with credulity.  I want to say that this is characteristic of a mind that is ill at ease, that it responds to the most unfounded and paranoid of suggestions and treats them as hard fact.  Something about its lack of centring, about its lack of rootedness, means that it lacks contact and connection with the plain realities in front of it, with the starting point of hard evidence which the simplest of minds would readily grasp.  No, it is fragile, hallucinatory, and all too susceptible to the crazy doomsday whisperings of the unsound, to the tale of his undoing which arrests him.

Perhaps he is indeed haunted by such a sensation, he may in some sense be feeling that he is coming undone, unstuck,  and that this proclamation of such by the other is only a confirmation of what he has known for a long time, of the worm-like secret which has been eating away at him over the years.  He is perhaps unable to bear the burden of plenty, to live with the inequality that his wealth creates.  Something about it separates him from his fellows, and this alienation, this exile, has become for him a torment of soul shredding proportions.

Let us now turn to his response to the soothsayer’s warnings.  He decides that the best strategy is to sell all of his property and concentrate his wealth into one precious jewel.

On one level, this would seem to only be taking him further from any capacity to enjoy his wealth, to derive actual and material benefit from it.  In his determination to prevent someone else from stealing or obtaining his property, he has in a sense stolen it from himself; he has removed from himself any advantage of his affluence.

The concentration of the wealth into the jewel seems to symbolise a process of fetishization.  The jewel is of virtually no use, but it instead embodies a magical quality for its owner.  It is his superstitious response to the otherworldly prophecies he receives; he responds to the witchcraft with some sorcery of his own.

His money is in transit: the more he tightens his grip on it, the further it slips away from him.

And yet, with all of this paranoia surrounding his money, he exposes it in its totality to the slightest act of nature, to a gust of wind which removes his turban and blows it into the water.  One almost has to read an unconsciously wilful act of neglect here; he almost couldn’t bear the tension and was somehow desiring its end.  The death drive, with its magnetic force of dissolution, seems to have overwhelmed him.

In the character of Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat we seem to encounter someone of precisely the opposite nature.  The name by which he is known, Yosef Mokir Shabbei, might also be translated as Joseph-whose-wealth-was-Shabbat.  He holds Shabbat dear, he cherishes and values something which has a powerful impact on his soul and spirit, something which is very much tangible in the here and now.  He is not distracted by the future, he is not imprisoned by worry and a sense of impending doom.  He is bound to the moment, living in intimate proximity to the source of his joy.

The jewel comes to Joseph not because he is looking to get rich, not because he has bought a lottery ticket or invested in a spirit of speculation.  His wealth arrives because he has a reputation for sparing no expense, for using every last penny he has, in order to honour Shabbat, in order to enrich the day one with every possible delight.

He comes to wealth because he has no interest in looking after his money, in worrying about its future life.  He has a healthy relationship with his property, he understands that if it is not used, if it is not put to work in enhancing the finer and more sacred aspects of life, then it becomes empty, it becomes a tormenting and divisive fetish.

We notice that the first thing he does on obtaining the jewel, presumably once Shabbat was finished, was to undo its fetishization, to release its value into an abundance of gold coins which could then be spent, which could be used to bring better things, things of real value, into the world.

The soothsayers’ wording is particularly prescient, they use the term ‘akhil’, literally ‘eat’, to describe what Joseph will do to the gentile’s wealth.  He will re-translate it into something tangible, something nourishing, something which can actually enhance a person’s health and wellbeing.

The story ends with the observation of the wise old man that one who lends to Shabbat will be repaid by Shabbat.

On one level, this speaks of the difficulty in keeping Shabbat at a basic level, in the financial and career sacrifice that it seems to demand of us.  It is a non-trivial challenge to prioritise Shabbat when other demands are in the foreground, demands which whisper to us of the security and future benefit they will bring to us and our families.  Trust in Shabbat, he promises, and you will be repaid.

On another level however, he is speaking of the shift in perspective that Shabbat might offer us.  ‘Suspend your concern for the future, release yourself from the anxious worship of financial accumulation and embrace the life of the spirit, the immediacy of your desire.  Use this pause to connect and re-root, and all manner of surprising benefits will follow in its wake.’

As we said recently, Shabbat offers us a loosening of the soul, a release from the ordinary anxieties that separate us from our truer selves.  Money, and our complicated and tortuous relationship with it, can play a big part in this alienation, in the ways in which we fail to live in the present, we fail to be present, on account  of the future.

It is the perfect seducer, it begins with the promise of answering real and palpable needs, then at some point it takes on magical qualities, promising us everything the future has to offer, provided we make a Faustian pact against the present.

Eventually we might fetishize it, we forget why we wanted it, but we only know that we must have it, that it is all that matters.

It has perhaps never been harder to untangle ourselves from this web of confusion, never has there been an age where genuine value and monetary value have been so messily interlinked and amalgamated.  The theology of the market, whose collapse we are still struggling to really understand, has profoundly and disturbingly warped our thinking.

We can only hope that the experience of Shabbat, the joy in real and present experience that it offers, can help us to re-calibrate our inner scales somewhat, and that we can return to our lives a little more attentive to the right things, a little less haunted by what the soothsayers might threaten.

Let there be Peace – Shabbat 34 to 40

We are probably quite familiar with the three things the Mishna on 34a recommends that we say before Shabbat:

Have you given charity? (Issartem) Have you tended to the building of community (Eiravtem)?

Now let us light the Shabbat candles.

What we may not realise is that the Talmud expands upon this, emphasising a motif of peace which runs through it.

It starts by basing the origins of the practice in the following verse:

And you will know that your tent is one of peace, when you visit your home you will never sin.  (Job 5.24)

So the motivation of the practice is to ensure that we bring about peace, that we enact the prayer of ‘Sim Shalom’ within our own house.

Charity may begin at home; in the Talmudic worldview, peace certainly does.

We proceed with an inward movement, pausing to taking care of our external cares before our lens focusses back on the home, on the inner core, on the nuclear family.

We ensure we have given charity and paid our taxes, that our prescribed responsibility to broader society has been fulfilled.

We then focus on the closer network of community, and ensure that those bonds too have been sufficiently nurtured, that we are connected to those close to us, that our home is not an island in a sea of hostility.

Following that, we light the candles, transforming the home into a sacred space, placing within it an image of the soul, reminding ourselves that only through looking inwards might peace be achieved.

And we are told more than this, we are given not just the ritual tools with which to build peace, but also the language needed for this purpose, the manner with which it must be communicated:

Rabba bar Rav Huna said: Even though the Sages told us to mention these three things in our house before Shabbat, we must, nonetheless, be sure to say them pleasantly, with good grace, in order that they be accepted, that they are made welcome. 

Rav Ashi [living over 100 years later]said: I never heard this teaching of Rabba bar Rav Huna, but I behaved that way nonetheless, because it made sense to me. 

We must build peace, and we must do it peacefully, gently.

And this is not merely a pragmatic decision, it cuts to the core of where peace really begins.  It must first take root in the depths of our psyche, where its opposites – anxiety, unease, dischord – all too often reign.

There is no better way to calm these uneasy waters than an encounter with a person who radiates a genuine sense of deep and profound peace.  We all meet such people from time to time, and we are right to think that there is something miraculous about such encounters.  There is something  arresting about the way their deeply rooted calm,  an authentic expression of their being, without any trace of artifice, gradually seeps into our own psyche, easing and relaxing the tension in our soul.

Peace begins in the home, but to even get to that point, we must first work towards peace in our soul.

And I love the qualification in this teaching – Even though the Sages told us… – do not think that acting out of piety or rectitude absolves you from the need to embody peace, do not get hung up on your own righteousness, on your sense of superiority.  These attitudes, these moves towards some external validation of one’s truth, towards an objective justification of one’s being, are perhaps the enemies of peace.  They are the progenitors of a religion rooted in strife, in enmity, in difference, in demonising the other.

There are many senses here in which we are being guided inwards, in which only the long and difficult journey to our centre will yield the genuinely important result.

But my mind is not only on the inner tonight.

I am profoundly saddened by what is happening in Israel right now, by the loss of lives on both sides, by the way in which people are being forced to flee their homes in terror, the gentle rhythms of domestic life shattered by hatred and aggression.

We are not living in times of peace.

I am no military strategist, and I do not claim much expertise in political matters either, but I cannot stand by silently whilst this madness goes on.

We must return peace to the top of the political agenda, on both sides, for it is craziness to believe that either side can ever live in happiness without it.

We must concede that the Bible speaks sometimes in the violent language of military conquest, and we must accept some responsibility for maintaining this discourse, for allowing it to infect the thinking and discussion of our politics.

But we must move beyond it, we must see that the ultimate religious value is peace, that it is the enduring power for change in the world, the force that creates life, the spirit that breeds hope.

We must believe in peace and we must find leaders who know how to speak the language of peace, who do not feel duty bound to sound more aggressive than their opponents, who feel sure that they will be elected because they have exhibited greater toughness and bravado.

Again, these dispositions have their place, but I fear that our leaders are in thrall to them, seduced by their appeal, lost in their promise of power, both personal and political.  If peace has lost its grip on them, if they have not made space for it in their hearts, then we are in a truly desperate position.

I don’t know how the spirit of peace can be transmitted to every minor faction who might get their hands onto some rockets, I haven’t got a fully worked out implementation plan.  But I do know that if we don’t grasp how central peace is as a value, if we do not return it to the centre of our discourse and our personalities, then it will never catch on, its force will never be felt.

The killing cannot go on,  we need to re-kindle the flame of peace.

And let us not be complacent about this, let us all as individuals question quite how much work we are doing to ensure that we are a source of peace, that we have connected with peace in our souls and that we are able to transmit it to others.

Peace is our own problem, not one more way in which we are superior to our partners in conflict.

And let us not confuse peace with passivity; peace is strong, it is powerful, and the person who finds it can stand courageously in the face of a violence which will always eventually exhaust itself.

Ghandi springs to mind as an example of this, of the way that peace might be part of the battle against violence, a war against war:

 If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.

But it doesn’t just begin with the children, he too saw that it begins with ourselves, with the wars that are raging inside of us:

When you find peace within yourself, you become the kind of person who can live at peace with others.

How wonderful that the Talmud tried to teach us this two thousand years ago; how tragic that we seem to have so frequently forgotten it.

May this Shabbat be marked by the spirit of peace, may we welcome it wholeheartedly into our psyches and into our homes.  And may it spread from there to the rest of our world, bringing the senseless killing everywhere to an abrupt and lasting end.

May we meditate on the words of the prophet Isaiah, and be pained that all these years later we have yet to bring about his vision:

Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.

For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace.

What is Wealth? Shabbat 22-27

A theme of financial concern runs through these pages of the Talmud, made particularly explicit in the following question on 25b:

Who is rich?

We are given a variety of Rabbinic responses, and I’d like to reflect on them, and to link them to some of the surrounding passages.

First up we have Rabbi Meir’s answer:

Whoever finds peace of spirit in his wealth. 

At a first glance, this sounds very similar to Ben Zoma’s idea from Avot 4:1, that the rich person is one who rejoices in his lot.  And they are clearly coming from a similar place, they are both responding with the counter-intuitive notion that wealth is measured by one’s attitude, not by one’s possessions; by the spirit rather than the material.

That said, I think Rabbi Meir is perhaps less optimistic than Ben Zoma, perhaps slightly more conscious of the difficulty in always rejoicing in one’s lot.  He talks of one who is happy, who finds peace, Ben Zoma talks of an active imperative, of making an effort to attain happiness, that it is something which can be worked at.  Rabbi Meir is perhaps suggesting that one does need a certain level of sustenance, of financial security to be at peace in the world.  But the important thing is to remember that peace is the end point, that the wealth is a means to achieving that.

He may be suggesting that one needs to be especially conscious of the different emotions that accompany one’s differing material conditions, and to ensure that one is able to find a level of comfort wherein one’s worries actually abate and an internal sense of wellbeing comes to the fore.

When one does not achieve this, something has gone wrong, something has been missed.  There are many ways this can happen.

In some cases the anxiety which spurred one to generate the wealth, which was perhaps helpful in fuelling the work ethic, might still persist once financial success has been achieved.  It may in fact even get stronger; the challenge to attain a certain level of security might have been helpful in containing a person’s anxiety, it might have acted as a vessel for it, given it an outlet.  Without that yolk to harness it, without such an apparently urgent task to absorb one’s energies, one may find oneself quite lost, overrun with anxiety, eaten up by a mysterious restlessness, by a sense of unease and disquiet which don’t seem to have any intelligible source.

The anxiety must be worked on; one must find the level of peace to enable genuine enjoyment of one’s bounty.

In a similar manner, one may have been spurred on by envy or competition, which again might have served a certain purpose.  But if they are left untended once that purpose is served, once one has in some sense made enough, or made it onto the path towards enough, then they will again torment and undo a person.

Envy is a powerful toxin to the mind, a destructive hatred which can only bring misery and keep happiness at bay.

And being competitive, whilst less incorrigibly ruinous, and whilst more easily harnessed to constructive ends, can also be a major thorn in one’s side if it is left unchecked, if it comes to exist as an absolute force in one’s life.  If one is perpetually setting oneself up in opposition to others, if one’s sense of self is only secured through triumph and conquest, through perceived supremacy, then it is not really a sense of self at all.  It is a sense of not-other, of better-than-other, and perhaps a misplaced sense at that .

It is the mark of a being that is fleeing, searching, forever looking outwards for affirmation.  It suggest one is either unable or lacking the courage to look for that affirmation within, to learn to be intimate and comfortable with oneself.

There is another danger to prosperity, another block to it providing one with the contentment that it seems to promise.  This is the inability to have a sense of ‘enough’, to sense that one has reached a level whereby having more might be more trouble than it is worth.  ‘More’ can become a compulsion, something insatiable, something which unsettles the mind and makes peace an ever more distant prospect.

This consciousness seems to animate an earlier discussion on 22a:

Rav Yehuda said that Rav Asi said that Rav said:  It is forbidden to count money opposite the Channuka lights.

When I said this to Shmuel, he said to me:  And do the Channuka lights have such intrinsic sanctity? 

Shmuel seems to be assuming that if the Channuka lights did have sanctity, kedusha, that it would be understandable that their light would be incompatible with such a use.  Kedusha seems to be at odds with counting money, with the anxious weighing and measuring of one’s wealth.  Again, it is not the having of money that is the problem, it is the obsessing over it, it is the possibility that it does not bring one peace – nachat ruach – that it continues to torment one long after the battle is won.

The Divine Presence cannot come to rest with a person when they are forever concerned with how much they have, with how they stack up against their neighbours.  There is simply not room in such a mind, one is distracted and out of sync with peace.

The Gemara rejects Shmuel’s idea about Kedusha, and instead offers a different reasoning for the ruling:

That the mitzvot should not be disgraced in his eyes, shameful.

I think this is a more profound idea, that if one is using the mitzvah of Channuka to count his wealth, making the light of the miracle subordinate to one’s material hunger, then one has lost perspective on the meaning of the ritual, on the subtle sense of faith it embodies.

The light is the symbol of a spiritual uprising, of a battle for sanctity in the war of cultures.  It stands for our rejection of a culture which –as Nietzsche suggests – had become decadent and decayed through its wealth and success, which had thoroughly lost touch with its earliest lofty ideals.

The light is designed to bring peace to a household, to one’s soul; and if it fails to achieve that, if it becomes an instrument towards further anxiety and unease, then one has truly disgraced and shamed the mitzvah.  It has been defiled, corrupted.

So, that’s the first take on the meaning of wealth, Rabbi Meir’s view.

Rabbi Tarfon has a much more conventional take on things, one which requires considerably less thought and imagination:

Who is wealthy? – One who has a hundred vineyards and a hundred fields, and a hundred slaves to work in them.

Rabbi Tarfon was a wealthy man, but perhaps his comment is not as superficial as it might seem, perhaps he is trying to give an answer to that elusive question:  ‘Just how much is enough?’.

He is perhaps saying that there is an objective scale in play, and that one should know that at a certain point one may be overstepping a certain line and over reaching.  He might be trying to objectify greed, to give gluttony a measure.

Either way, we are probably tempted to take with a pinch of salt his famous injunction on 24b:

Rabbi Tarfon said:  One may only light with olive oil.

That’s nice if you can afford it.

I don’t want to get heavily into it, but it’s interesting that his views on wealth come shortly after a discussion on 23b about Pe’ah, the injunction to leave the corner of one’s field for the poor.  The concern there is to ensure that this remarkably progressive biblical idea is executed in a spirit of fairness, and that both landowner and pauper maintain their dignity through its enactment.

One may have a hundred fields, but with that comes greater responsibility, a greater need to be mindful of those less fortunate.

Following the opinion of Rabbi Tarfon, we hear from Rabbi Akiva:

The rich man is one who has a wife who embodies beauty in her actions.

Rabbi Akiva was more conscious than most of his dependence upon his wife, upon the faith, ambition and forbearance with which she supported him.  He sensed that all the money in the world was worthless if one didn’t have a house filled with warmth and peace, if one’s partner in life was dominated by envy and all too keen to turn against the other when things became tough.

The woman, for Rabbi Akiva, creates everything that is of value: the home, the family, the friendships and the fabric of community.  And she is also the source of specifically female wisdom and insight, of a maternal concern somewhat alien to men.

To be blessed is to live in the shadow of this, to be subsumed under its wings.

Last, and most prosaically, is the view of Rabbi Yosei:

Who is rich? – The person who has a toilet close to his table. 

Some suggest that he suffered from intestine trouble, and was expressing his needs directly.  Another view might be that he is defining wealth by utility alone, and emphasising this by reducing it to its most basic functionality.  Wealth in his eyes, is about being able to service one’s bodily needs when necessary, to conflate it into something more than that, into a measure of one’s worth or success in life, is to ask for trouble.  That path is an easy one to begin on, but it is a hard one to leave, a difficult illusion to outrun.  Better not to be seduced by it, to keep one’s eyes firmly on the toilet.

Four men, four visions of the possibilities and dangers of wealth.  In our affluent society, we might be particularly sensitive to these questions, and we might find ourselves particularly grateful for their encouragement to think about them.

Pyjama Talk: Cuddling and the Law Shabbat 13, 14

We touch today on the thorny issue of how a married couple may relate to each other whilst the woman is menstruating.

Let us accept that they may not engage in sexual intercourse.  I’m sure there is a fascinating history to this prohibition, which we’ll explore at some point, but let’s leave it for now.

What we are explicitly exploring on the daf is whether or not they may sleep together in the same bed.  We seem to rule out the possibility that they may do this in the nude, for we only even ask about the case where they are both wearing pyjamas.

As a first observation, I cannot but help but be struck by the Gemara’s initial response to this question:

Chicken may be placed on a table with cheese and we are not concerned they will be eaten together. 

Never mind what we are trying to learn from this comparison, I just feel that it sounds somewhat absurd as an opening gambit in this discussion.  We do not begin by asking about the meaning of physical intimacy in married life, about the importance of a man and woman maintaining a strong emotional connection at this difficult time of the month.

There is no attempt to consider the human cost of this sort of legislation, to query whether it is indeed appropriate to be legislating here at all.  A response in this vein might have been:

‘They may not have intercourse, that much is clear.  The ways in which they take responsibility for this matter is their business.’

We touched recently on the dangers of preventative legislation, of g’zeirot, perhaps here too that lesson might have been applied.

I understand that these observations may sound weak, that it might sound as if I have no familiarity or respect for what might be called ‘Talmudic Process’.

But I do have that familiarity, if anything perhaps I am too familiar with it, and I could easily have followed this legal discussion without noting the absence of any psychological or emotional meditations.

So I mention it, because for those of us engaged in the project of trying to bring out what is profound and insightful in the halakha, who wish to show that it is often a profound merging of lofty spiritual concern and concrete practical detail, it is also important to note where it may possibly be falling short of that mark, where it might be missing something important.  This is the role of the Oral Law, to ensure that textual record never drowns out the voices of humanity in the culture, that it always finds a way to accommodate worthy and progressive criticism.

Moving into the discussion itself, I was pleased to see that the Gemara made a valiant attempt to defend the ‘pyjama rights’ of the married couple, to assume that their intelligence and awareness would serve to defuse the ‘danger’ of the situation.

In the end however, it seems to come down on the side of prevention, based not on legal or psychological precedent, but on a strange reading of a verse from Ezekiel (18:6) which comes into the discussion out of nowhere.  The verse, which seems to be part of a general  ‘call to piety’ on Ezekiel’s part, mentions a married woman just before mentioning a menstruating woman.  And we are then offered this not terribly compelling piece of logic:

Just as the ‘wife of his neighbour’, they may not sleep together in their pyjamas, so too when his wife is menstruating, they may not sleep together in their pyjamas.

The flow of the argument doesn’t seem to work that well, we seem to move from a spirit of permission to a spirit of prohibition quite suddenly, too abruptly.

What I also notice is that we begin the discussion by asking the question of the wife – ‘is she allowed to sleep with her husband under these circumstances?’  There is something of concern for her, a glimmer of awareness that she might be going through a difficult period.

By the end, as we arrive at our morally driven conclusion, the question has become about the husband, what is the right thing to do for his purity.  The wife of his neighbour and his own menstruating wife become mere objects in the discussion, things to be avoided, and we are primarily concerned about not compromising his spiritual state.

It is this focus on the man that I don’t like, this idea that we view him as a being challenged by marriage, by his menstruating wife, tempted by her, needing to tie himself to the mast like Odysseus against the sirens.

Marriage works when it is a joint venture, when two people are able to be consistently and deeply mindful of each other, when they are properly aware of the reality of each other’s existence.  One source of problems is when separation and distance set in, when the other is viewed as the cause of marital or personal difficulty.

This move will always be the easy one: the blaming of the other, the assumption that we know what they think and want, the assertion that our own better nature would like to act properly, that we are being forced by the other to compromise and sell ourselves short.

It’s an easy narrative to feed ourselves, it vindicates our own purity.  But it destroys the marriage, the possibility of togetherness, of the joint venture, of the core partnership which might make life richer.

And this is where moralism becomes narcissism, or vice versa.  The move to separate ourselves, to retreat to our own world of inner purity, to extricate ourselves from our partner, our family, our friends, our community, in the name of some higher, more moral, calling.

I’m not saying it’s never necessary to do this, sometimes it is.  But it’s a risky move, a move we should probably always treat suspiciously, a move that should perhaps mostly be a temporary one.

For if a person cannot live in any of these relationships, if they are too pure for their world, then what is the content and meaning of their morality, in what sense have they sanctified their engagement with the world?

Put more clinically, we cannot be forever detaching, dissociating and withdrawing.  That is not the path to health, the direction in which a genuine ethic should be leading us.

This shift from ‘her’ or ‘them’ to ‘him’ can also be seen in Maimonides codification of this ruling.  It is to be found in the Book of Holiness, ‘Sefer Kedusha’, in the subsection on ‘the laws of forbidden relations’.

The matter is not about love, relationship, intimacy.  It is not about dialogue and togetherness.  It is about the forbidden, about personal holiness, about what a man may or may not do in his quest for individual salvation.  (By contrast, Maimonides’ Book of Love is concerned with Torah, with prayer, with God.)

The Gemara then presents two potentially dissenting voices, Rabbi Pedat and Ulla.

The case of Ulla is particularly interesting, we are told that:

When he would come from the house of study would kiss his sisters on their breasts. 

The Gemara is a bit flummoxed by this act of intimacy, by the love for his sisters and his unashamed expression of it.  It claims he is contradicting himself, for in another place he proscribes any acts that might bring a forbidden relationship closer to realisation.

I’m not sure there really is a contradiction, I think there is something enlightening here.  In certain circumstances, perhaps genuinely innocent ones, a great deal of physical contact may go on without anything illicit being stirred or brought to life.

In other circumstances, where something forbidden is in the air, is on one’s mind, the subtlest look or gesture can serve to bring the act closer, a few carefully chosen words may easily add fuel to the fire of the fantasy.

The case of Ulla shows us that it is hard to legislate in this arena.  What might in one time and place be completely commonplace and harmless might in other circumstances be provocative and inflammatory in the extreme.

I find this whole area very tricky, on the one hand the Rabbis are quite Freudian in their approach: ‘everything is about sex, don’t deceive yourself’.  On the other hand, they don’t seem to see the problematic side of treating sexuality as taboo, of foisting it onto the woman, of making it about individual holiness, rather than about related intimacy.

So, if I’m honest, I think there are big costs to their approach, there are large areas of these matters that need reconsidering, perhaps even just expressing differently, being spoken about more delicately.

But I also get that the sublimation being advocated here, for there can be no doubt that this is what motivates the disavowal of sexuality, is a potentially significant contributor to the energy underpinning the entirety of Rabbinic culture.  And it’s hard to imagine in any straightforward terms what an alternative culture would look like, what the effects would be on religious intensity and practice, what other knock on effects might follow.

It’s definitely easier to stick to the established law, to claim that the weight of tradition and history make it unimpeachable.  But I would never say that in a therapeutic setting, so why would I say it in an honest assessment of the culture, why would I think that the Divine is not capable of containing and absorbing my unsettling questions?

It’s weakness of faith that tries to quash questioning, and I don’t really get how that became admirable.

We just need to keep thinking about this stuff, to keep reading and debating and figuring out how it works in real life.

In case the feeling lingers that I’ve been too squeamish, that really there’s nothing in this Talmudic discussion that’s problematic or disturbing, let’s look at the story it ends with:

It once happened that a certain scholar who had studied much Bible and Mishna  and had served many scholars died in middle age. His wife took his tefillin and carried them about in the synagogues and schoolhouses and complained to them: ‘ It is written in the Torah, for that is thy life, and the length of thy days:  my husband, who read Bible, learned Mishna, and served many scholars , why did he die in middle age?’   No man could answer her.

On one occasion I [Elijah the prophet] was a guest at her house,  and she related the whole story to me. Said I to her, ‘My daughter! how was he to thee in thy days of menstruation?’ ‘God forbid!’ she rejoined; ‘he did not touch me even with his little finger.’ ‘And how was he to thee in thy days of white garments [after the cessation of menstrual blood]?  ‘He ate with me, drank with me and slept with me in bodily contact, and it did not occur to him to do other [engage in sexual relations].’

 Said I to her, ‘Blessed be the Omnipresent for slaying him, for he did not show adequate respect to the Torah!’

Really?  Is this what we think of God, that he spends his time killing people on account of their failing to keep up with the latest Rabbinic stringency, no matter how pure and far from genuine sin they might be?  Is this our theodicy, that wherever tragedy strikes there must be someone who valued marital relationship more than Rabbinic anxiety?

I prefer the silence of the Rabbis to the presumptions of Elijah the prophet.  Maybe they had suspicions about his sensual nature, but they were at least embarrassed enough not to suggest that this was the cause of his death.  I cannot begin to think of how the poor wife must have felt after Elijah berated her like this, making her share in the culpability for her husband’s death:  ‘If you hadn’t tempted him, forced him to lie with you inappropriately, demanded warmth and intimacy from him, then he’d still be here today.’

It’s a sick and heartless comment, but it is one that we risk repeating if we are not willing to approach these matters with sensitivity, with openness, with an awareness of their complexity.

In questions of sexuality we are indeed dealing with the most powerful currents in our nature, but we are foolish if we think that we can easily opt for the safe approach, if we think that blanket prohibitions – no pun intended – will be either effective or without cost.

To keep love alive, to allow the unexpected to grow in the soil of our relationships; these are the challenges we must sometimes defend.  May we be granted the wisdom and integrity to have insight in these matters, and may we retain the humility to see where silence might sometimes be our best response.