Reflections on Anti-Semitism

The following piece was written a few weeks ago, as worries about Anti-Semitism were starting to suddenly feel quite real.  It feels like it has abated somewhat, and it has been very encouraging to see all parts of society speaking out against it.  Let us hope that the warning has been heard, and the dangers felt by all.

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/anti-semitism-hope-or-despair/ 

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/

Exploring the Jewish Psyche – The Educational Challenge of Zionism

(This was originally presented orally to a set of Bnei Akiva parents on Shabbat 22nd June 2014 at Seuda Shelishit.  I was planning to develop it further, but current events, including the Bnei Akiva controversy, have made me feel that it is important to share with only minor editing.)

Over two and a half thousand years ago, in 597 BCE, the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar cemented his new found power in the Ancient World by conquering the land of Israel.  He overpowered the final remnants of the kingdom of Judah and installed a puppet leader in place of the Monarch.  Unwilling to heed the sober political advice of the prophet Jeremiah, the residents of Jerusalem launched a rebellion against the Empire and tried to free themselves from its grip.

There was no fairytale ending.  Babylon used the uprising as a pretext to show its fearsome power and to deter other provinces from rebelling in kind.  In 586 BCE they put Jerusalem under siege, attempting to conquer the city through starvation.  Men, woman and children perished in this gruesome episode; we can only hope that Lamentations was exaggerating when it says that parents were forced into eating the flesh of their dead babies.

As the people weakened, Nebuchadnezzar moved in for the kill.  The walls were breached on the 17th of Tammuz and the army entered the walled city.  Taking control and continuing the slaughter, they completed their rout through the symbolically charged act of defiling the temple and setting it alight.

As the Temple burned in the eyes of the remaining people, they realised in their humiliation that the dream of a republic in Judah had come to a close, around 400 years after King David had initiated it.   Their God would no longer have a home, their worship would no longer have a centre of focus, they would have nowhere to bring their offerings of atonement and thanksgiving.

A dark age of homelessness was beginning.

Unwilling even to allow the orphaned and bereft people to remain in their land, the Babylonians exiled them, taking many civilians – including the brightest and best – with them to Babylon, where they would be put to work in the service of the Empire.  For those who were willing to comply, there was the possibility of a decent life, with opportunities for power, influence and financial reward.  Some no doubt embraced this opportunity, leaving behind the heartache and nightmare that Judean history had become.  Memory was exchanged for membership in a new dynasty, and this willingness to adapt and change yielded favourable results.

For some however, moving on was not so straightforward.  One of the educated scribes and musicians of the time sat on the banks of Babel’s rivers and poured his heart into a paean to the lost world.  Taunted by his captors to provide entertainment with the songs of Zion, he found himself choked and unable, the mere thought of Jerusalem bringing him to tears.  How, he asked, could one possibly sing the songs of the Lord in a strange and alien land.  The music of majesty and splendour could not be recreated in the shattered world of exile, in the uncertainty and rootlessness of ruin.

Binding himself instead to his pain, nursing it with his creativity, he instead composed a new form of music, tragic and broken in tone, a hymn of exile which put loss and longing at its centre.

‘If I forget thee Jerusalem, let my right hand, the symbol and source of my power, be forgotten. 

May I lose the capacity for poetry and song, for music and joy, and may my tongue become stuck in the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember thee, if I fail to place the shadow of Jerusalem at the apex of my life, if I fail to recall her even in my highest moments of joy. 

Joy, indeed, has been stolen from me, perhaps in the future we will love and dance again, the happy voices of bride and groom will return to Judah, but for now it barely seems possible, our souls are frozen in mourning, our hearts devastated by their condition of despair.’ 

In that moment a new Judaism was born.  Not since Abraham bound his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, and lifted his knife to murder him, had the Jews had such a vivid sense that their national aspirations might fail to be realised, that the vision of a strong and powerful kingdom might not be their fate.  Moses, in spite of ultimate personal frustration, never doubted that the people would be a powerful Sovereign entity; David and Solomon inherited his vision of historic certitude and laid down the foundations for greatness.  Doubt was banished, their faith in God was strongly aligned with their faith in the triumph of Judaic Civilisation.

Indeed, one might say that Zionism was actually initiated at that moment in Babylon, for only as a lost homeland, as a place to which return was impossible, did the symbolic power of Zion take root in the Jewish Imagination.  From that point on, Jews would cast their mind’s eye towards the Promised Land and dream of happier times, of the return of Divine Protection, of completeness, wholeness and redemption.

But more than the hope of return, it was the sense of loss and incompleteness which had the strongest impact on Jewish civilisation.  We were a people with a full consciousness of our pain, chosen but apparently forgotten, Divinely empowered, and yet, by all worldly measures, utterly powerless.

Perhaps we hoped that in our commitment to remember Jerusalem we would encourage God not to forget us, to keep in mind the fragmented remnant of Israel.

We enacted our pain ritually, at every wedding we quite literally placed Jerusalem above our joy, singing these words – ‘Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim’ – in a variety of haunting melodies before shattering a glass underfoot.  This helped remind ourselves that something about us was broken, something distant and external, but something deep in our souls as well.

When we built a house we left a corner unpainted, for how could we lavishly decorate our own palace while the Divine presence remained homeless and exiled, whilst Its Sanctuary and Temple lay in ruins?

Another moment at which we paused to recall Jerusalem was at moments just like the one we are sharing now, at Seuda Shelishit, the third and final meal of Shabbat.

Shabbat, originally a day of ascetic restraint and even fasting, became for the Jews in exile a day of replenishment and rejuvenation, on the spiritual, emotional and even physical planes.  It came to be described as a taste of the world to come, a temporary refuge in time and space wherein weary and exhausted Jews could pause from their daily lives, a day with an otherworldly feel, wherein the anxieties and concerns of one’s routine could be briefly forgotten, wherein a greater sense of wholeness and completeness could be felt.

The day was welcomed in with enthusiasm and joy, a custom developed wherein people would go out to the fields to welcome the bride, a tradition which lives on in our singing of Lekah Dodi Li’krat Kalah, ‘come my beloved to welcome the Bride’.

But on the other side of Shabbat, as the sun hung low in the sky and the people sensed that Shabbat would soon be leaving them, a different mood set in.  The fullness and temporary sense of redemption would be replaced by the reminder that it must leave them, that the world they inhabited was far from perfect, that pain and longing were the more usual tone of their lives.

At this juncture of transition, a sense of tragedy would overtake them, and songs of melancholy and pining became the order of the moment.  In this mood the mind’s eye turned towards Jerusalem and felt a strong sense of solidarity with its state of ruin, with the sense that it was awaiting the return of its people and God, that it was a deeply unrequited lover.

Im eshkachaich Yerushalayim, If I forget thee Jerusalem, became the finale of this bittersweet medley, leading into psalm 130, which looked forward to the return to Zion.

I am sure I am not alone in saying that one of my strongest and most enduring Bnei Akiva memories is of sitting in a tent in Somerset, barely able to see the person sitting next to me for the darkness, and singing these songs at Seuda Shelishit: Veli’yerushalayim Irkha, Kol Be’rama Nishma, and culminating in Im Eshkachaich.

Jews stayed close to this sense of the tragic, and it served them well for the next 2500 years.

It is hard to sufficiently emphasise the paradoxical notion that this tragedy was the best thing that ever happened to the Jews.  There is a sense in which the entire purpose of the religion was to teach man that he is not omnipotent and invincible, to approach the world with a bearing of humility and respect, which might sometimes become awe and wonder.  It seems however that the temple and its offerings were not quite able to effect this change in the heart of humanity.  Excessive pride in military conquest and inflated arrogance at their own feats of building combined with the corruption of a ruling elite and the complacency of economic success.  All of this served to blunt any capacity for spiritual sensitivity and awareness.

The destruction of the temple however, the memory of crushing defeat and brutal humiliation, these seemed to sow a seed in Judaic consciousness which neither Moses nor Samuel, Hoshea nor Isaiah could effect through their teachings.

Suddenly an awareness was born that we are not entirely masters of our destiny, that we will always be subject to forces beyond our control, that pride and independence might be better replaced with gratitude.  An inner call arose for a more honest reckoning of all the ways in which we are thoroughly and helplessly dependent.

With this new attitude, the people’s ear suddenly learned to hear the words of their prophets and were able to better attend to the needs of the underprivileged and disadvantaged, to the widow, the orphan, the homeless and the wounded.

The tradition recorded many senses in which this new condition of brokenness represented a positive development in the religion:

There is nothing so complete in the eyes of God as a broken heart, said one Hasidic Master.

The Talmud tells us that following the destruction of the Temple the gates of prayer were closed, but that tears alone had the power to open them.

Or, as the contemporary Jewish prophet Leonard Cohen puts it, in every thing there is a crack, that’s how the light gets in.

Another contemporary Jew, Sigmund Freud, writes in his paper Mourning and Melancholia of the importance of a thorough and rigorous process of mourning, of how attending to our sense of loss can prevent the amnesia and arrogance which lead to depression.  One might say that only a Jew could have had this insight, that it is perhaps the singular summation of a profound and important undertone of our civilisation.  The Jew never forgot to mourn, never forgot that loss is a part of life, and that if it can’t be borne it will ruin us.

So, what has all this to do with Zionism and Education?

There is a sense in which Jewish Education began with destruction.  In the dying days of the second temple, around 69CE, the Romans had Jerusalem under siege and were attempting to starve the people into surrender.  The Jews responded as only Jews could , engaging in internal battles and strife.  These culminated in the militant mob, the Biryoni,  burning down the remaining storehouses of grain.

Witnessing this madness, this utter failure of leadership and responsibility, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the Pharisee leaders engaged in diplomacy with the Romans, managed to escape the walled city.  This required his faking his death and leaving in a coffin, a metaphor for his understanding of Judaism at that moment: snowballing suicidally towards its own death, and, to all external appearances, succeeding in self destructing.

Impressing the Roman Emperor Vespasian with his political acumen and foresight, Yochanan ben Zakkai was granted three wishes.  In a moment which sent Judaism in a radically different direction, which gave birth to the religion we now know and practice, he decided to give up hope on Jerusalem and to request, in its stead, permission to establish a small academy of scholars at Yavneh.

Judaism ceased to be a nationalist concern, centred around a temple with a corrupt ruling elite, and became a democratic culture with study and domestic practice at its core.  Suddenly everyone had access to the wisdom and rituals which might enable mankind to engage the Divine, even the humblest amongst them were encouraged to find a teacher and to learn.

Study was a form of nourishment, a way in which a spark of the Divine might find its way into the mind and soul of every individual, a furnace in which the personality and spirit could be refined and improved.  Zion and Jerusalem were lamented, but the religious imagination gradually transformed them into symbols and metaphors, personal ideals which might nourish a person on their own journey through the wilderness.

Freud, in Moses and Monotheism, comments favourably on this as an ‘advance in intellectuality’ for the culture, and even suggests that it had its origins in the prohibition against the formation and worship of physical images of God.  For as long as God is not physical, he must be grasped through the intellect, which will forever stretch our powers of thought and imagination.  Indeed, Yochanan ben Zakkai was perhaps suggesting that the Temple had become another idol, a failed attempt to concretise the Divine in space and time.

So the ideals of Talmud Torah, of the study of God’s Law and Will, are born at this moment in Yavneh, and probably had very little precedent in the earlier life of Israel.  The Talmud may mythologise King David as studying Torah all night long between battles, but we may permit ourselves the understanding that they were projecting their values back into the past.  It seems likely that by the time the great academies of Babylon had been established in 600CE, wherein study and meditation had become the supreme value in Jewish life, it would have seemed incredulous to them that King David could have felt otherwise.

Yochanan ben Zakkai is preparing the Jews once more for exile, for a different sort of life, one which will allow them to survive and grow in the different cultures they would inhabit and to make positive contributions to a broader society.  The universalism of Isaiah might once more triumph over the nationalistic narrowness of Ezra and Nechemiah, who had led the Jews in the early days of the Second Temple and had embarked on a quest for racial purity and exclusion.

For eighteen hundred years this culture of study and practice flourished, absorbing and influencing a wide variety of host cultures, sustaining the Jews and enabling them to lay down roots wherever their travels took them.

In the late nineteenth century, as Jews began to despair of diaspora life and started to dare to dream of an actual physical return to Zion, this culture of personal study and development was threatened.  Its symbolic code, its map of the interior world, borrowed as they were from the images of Zion, Jerusalem and the Temple, were suddenly thrown into jeopardy.

A burning question suddenly emerged – could the culture survive this re-materialisation of its objects?  The national religion of the Israelites had been transformed into Judaism through a process of de-Zionisation.  Could it survive a very material and literal re-Zionising?

Or, to frame it differently, Yochanan ben Zakkai had shifted the focus of the religion from the Bible to the Talmud.  How would we survive the return to the Biblical landscape, to the temptations of Biblical thinking?

The earliest signals were not good.  The majority of the early Zionists did indeed view the new movement as replacing any need for the pieties and tenderness of what came to be known as ‘the old Judaism’.  As well as the physical efforts and sacrifice to settle the land, there was a blossoming intellectual and spiritual renaissance amongst the Zionists, which largely ignored the rich inner world cultivated in the diaspora past.  Some amongst them viewed their project as a Nietzschean overcoming of Jewish weakness and victimhood, and found it difficult to even speak of the ravages of Jewish History.

Judaism was to be forgotten, and it would be replaced with the spirit of the Ancient Israelites.  Any sense of loss and incompleteness was banished, and a Secular Messianism,  a Nationalist Utopian vision took root in its place.

For the most part, the Jews of Europe viewed this as a straightforward alternative, one became a Zionist or one stayed religious.  There were, to be sure, pockets of support amongst traditional communities for the Zionist project, but there was little serious attempt to tackle the educational and religious challenge it presented.

One notable exception to this trend was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.  Born in modern day Latvia in 1865, he was recognised early on as a Talmudic prodigy and went to study at the radical and ground-breaking Volozhin yeshiva.  Even before he arrived in Israel in 1904, he was fascinated by the Zionist phenomenon, though he couldn’t quite agree with its self-understanding as a movement divorced from the Jewish Religion.

He was profoundly moved by the vision of young Jews jeopardising their lives to resettle the land of Israel, to drain swamps and endure hostility, to establish communes with an agenda of radical social justice.  They seemed to embody the best of the Biblical Spirit, and he could neither disdain nor feel threatened by this.

On the other hand, he was very conscious of what was being discarded by the Zionist movement, of the part of their heritage they were sacrificing.  He could see that in their youthful impatience, in their passion for accessing the spiritual through physical labour, they couldn’t begin to fathom the value of the Jewish life of their Diaspora ancestors, that it seemed petty, limiting, superstitious.

Familiar with the ideas of Hegel, he suggested that Judaism found itself at a moment of critical historical tension.  In a sweeping vision of Jewish History, he proposed that the Israelites of the Bible had been doomed to failure because their religion was always cultic and external, rooted in physicality, it had never found its way into their hearts, into the rhythms and textures of everyday life.

The long and difficult exile, fuelled by the sense of longing and loss, had allowed something deeper and richer to develop.  The challenge now was to bring these two worlds together, Biblical and Talmudic Judaism, the religions of the Israelites and that of the Rabbis.  If it could be done, then something beautiful and redemptive could be achieved, but it would be a struggle, and would require willing, effort and understanding from both sides.

Eventually becoming the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, Rav Kook’s ideas were appreciated and welcomed by many in Israel, from all the diverse strands of society.  But whilst he foresaw the challenges that lay ahead, his uniquely imaginative and inclusive vision were not granted to Israel for long enough, dying as he did in 1935, just as matters in Europe and Palestine were becoming critical.

Some of you may be surprised to hear me speak of Rav Kook as sensitive to this tension, for his name has become identified with the Settler movement and the branch of Religious Zionism which holds the complete Land of Israel as an unimpeachable and absolute value.  This right wing tendency would seem to be an instance of the powers of Zionism overcoming the patient spiritual discipline of Diaspora Judaism, of Messianic fervour erupting which leaves no place for the pining and humility which became the hallmark of Jewish Civilisation.  In our basic terms, it seems to priorities Zionism over Education, the Land over the Spirit.

But before we consider the tale of how his followers were seduced by the physicality of the Land, how it became – some controversially claimed – a new idol for them, a contemporary Golden Calf, let us consider its allure and appeal even to the most hardened secularists in the Zionist movement.

An illustrative moment here is the conquest of Jerusalem as part of the six day war in 1967.  Whilst we tend to remember the war as a glorious victory, which brought territorial gains and a resurgence of national confidence to the people, we sometimes forget the extent to which it was a battle for the survival of the state and its people.  With survival the first priority for the political and military leadership there were many among them who did not see any value in capturing the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites.  Yet other protagonists, particularly those who found themselves drawing physically close to the Old City, were suddenly overwhelmed by the notion of Jews returning to the Temple Mount, and found themselves helpless to resist its pull.

In a recent book describing these events and their aftermath, Yossi Klein Halevi describes the moment that General Motta Gur, who was leading the legendary Paratroopers,  first glimpsed the Temple Mount from a distance:

Motta sat on the ground and gazed at the walled city. It was a bright, cool morning, and the sun was on his back. The gold and silver domes of the Temple Mount glowed before him. He closed his eyes, as if in prayer. He was about to enter the Jewish pantheon, along with King David, who’d conquered Jerusalem and turned it into his capital; Judah the Maccabee, who’d purified the Temple after its desecration by the Hellenists; Bar Kochba, who’d thrown himself against Rome and lost the Jews’ last desperate battle for Jerusalem. Then came the centuries of enforced separation, landscape transformed into memory. And now landscape was re-emerging from dream, shimmering back into tangible reach.

His was not the only secular heart to melt on beholding this mythical vision.  As the first of the Paratroopers arrived on the Temple Mount they placed an Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock.  This was sacred Jewish ground, they felt, and they were going to pronounce it loudly.  It was only when Defence Minister Moshe Dayan saw the flag that he insisted they take it down, for he knew that this could bring the whole Middle East into the flames of a holy war.

But it was not only the Muslim world he should have  worried about, for within the Jewish world the re-unification of Jerusalem signalled the beginnings of national division.  It gave rise amongst some to a Messianic spirit, an absolutist overconfidence and impatient omnipotence which left no room, as it never does, for the more humdrum and domestic tasks of building a nation.  The vision of a people centred around a rich humanism, exemplifying the spiritual sensitivity cultivated in Exile, couldn’t satisfy the demand for the history-shattering total-redemption of the Messianic Imagination.

It was a case of Apocalypse Now, for the intentions of God had become clear to The Chosen.

Returning to Rav Kook, his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook became the spiritual leader of Gush Emunim, a Movement for the settling and retaining of the entirety of the Holy Land.  Coming from the opposite direction, my own Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital, emphasised a different aspect of the elder Rav Kook’s teaching, and emphasised the balancing of values, with the spiritual wellbeing of the Jewish people, anchored in the depths of the Torah’s wisdom, occupying a much more prominent role.

These splits didn’t happen overnight, but unfolded over the course of many years.  A watershed moment in its development was the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.  Rabin was the warrior turned peace maker, the Army Chief of Staff in 1967 who had dared to begin a process wherein territorial concession might bring about a new era in the Middle East.

The assassin, a religious Zionist former yeshiva student named Yigal Amir, had been goaded by a string of Rabbis of right wing orientation.  They had labelled Rabin a rodef, or a moser, one who endangers Jewish lives or betrays Jewish values.

Perhaps the darkest hour in Religious Zionist history, with echoes of those dark days of the Second Temple, the nation was threatening to fall apart.  I remember visiting the coffin in waiting of Yitzchak Rabin as it lay outside the Knesset for 24 hours.  I felt deeply self-conscious and uncomfortable in my kipa sruga, my knitted kipa, the identifying sign of the Religious Zionists.  As secular Israelis sat around candlelit vigils and shed tears, I felt the divide sharply, as an internal spiritual crisis, and also as a call for serious soul searching.

I remember feeling proud and relieved when Rav Amital was called by the new Prime Minister Shimon Peres into the Cabinet, and was tasked with rebuilding relations amongst the Jews, of promoting dialogue and understanding amongst both sides.

In spite of some successes, the tensions continue to this day, and it is deeply saddening that the current situation has only inflamed some of these antagonisms, and has seen the emergence of racism, hate, and vengefulness in some – and not only the religious – strands of Israeli society.  A perception of  the split nation has led some commentators to speak of a divide between the State of Jerusalem and the State of Tel Aviv.

But I am not here to speak about politics, I am here to speak about education, in as much as the two can be kept apart.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am interested in the kind of education, and of religiously oriented education in particular, which can promote a politics of healing and togetherness, which can bridge the rifts in the Jewish world and return us to the vision of Yochanan ben Zakkai.  He understood that the disagreements of scholars, the spiritual depths developed through the dialectics of study, could actually bring peace to the world, and could overcome the tendency towards infighting and self destruction.

But returning to our starting point, to our vision of the  young poet sitting on the banks of the River Babylon, I also want to resist the idea that all of education should become subservient to political and nationalist aims, however noble and conciliatory they might be.  Education is the legacy we bequeath to our children, and the milk with which we continue to nourish ourselves as adults.

It is the medium wherein we learn as children to approach the world with hope and optimism, but wherein we also come to terms with the inevitable disappointments and tragedies that befall us, with the sense that life will never be complete, that the Messiah might be perpetually delayed.

It is the nurturing environment in which we come to actualise the full potentiality of our talents and capabilities, but also the one wherein we accept that we cannot do everything, that we are not omnipotent, that our strength and daring will not be able to overcome all obstacles.

It is the fertile soil wherein we proudly celebrate the remarkable achievements of great individuals and civilisations, wherein we learn pride in our own endeavours, but wherein we also become acquainted with humility and gratitude, with the capacity to cope with disappointment.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott spoke of child rearing as beginning with a process of generating illusion followed by a phase of gradual disillusionment.  We need to fill children with love and energy and faith in the future, and in their earliest years we do this without reservation, hoping to securely anchor them in the world and ensure their psychic survival.

But at a certain point, the kindest thing we must do for them is to facilitate their disillusionment, their realisation that life is not a series of fairy tales, that whilst they might be mummy or daddy’s special princess, the world will not always be so abundantly hospitable towards them.  We offer them this gradual disillusionment to avoid the alternative: a sudden and catastrophic disillusionment in the future.

As Jews, in whom the spirit of the religion and of Zionism burn strongly, as creatures who inhabit a world of complex and intricate myth and legend, we are forever walking the tightrope between an excess and a deficit of illusion.  We may stroll through the streets of a rebuilt Jerusalem, yet in our minds and prayers there is a symbolic Jerusalem lying in ruins, an abandoned and forgotten widow.

There are no easy answers for how to walk this tightrope, and nor should there be, but it is my hope and prayer that through becoming conscious of this complexity, through exploring and engaging with the richness of our history and philosophy, that we might navigate it in a way which lives up to our tradition’s loftiest aspirations.

‘Lo alekha ha’melakha ligmor’ said Rabbi Tarfon, ‘the task is not yours to complete’, a powerful warning from a man who witnessed the destruction of the second Temple.  Not only should you not expect to complete it, but perhaps completion is not even the proper aim and endpoint, perhaps there must always be room for an enduring sense of incompleteness.

‘But’, he continues, ‘ve lo ata ben chorin le’hibatel mimena’, but neither are you free to desist from it, to abandon it, to forget about the project and engage in trivial pursuits which squander your gifts and resources.

Education never ends, neither the education of our children nor the education of ourselves.  May we be blessed to make a modicum of humble progress, finding space for the symbols of history and the realities of the present, balancing the demands of the nation with the spiritual development of the individual.  May our Zionism only serve to enhance our Education, and may our attachment to our nation and children only deepen our resolve to improve the world at large.

 

I wish to thank Professor Aaron Koller for some helpful suggestions, and Professor William Kolbrener for many discussions on these themes.  And, as ever, my wonderful wife Emily Simon, for everything. 

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.

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Repentance is Suffering – Rosh Hashana 5774

Towards the end of the first chapter of Hilkhot Teshuva, the ways of repentance, of return, Maimonides makes the following startling assertion:

Even though repentance atones for everything and the essence of Yom Kippur brings atonement, there are some transgressions for which atonement comes immediately and others sins which can only be atoned for over the course of time…

If a person violates in a manner worthy of spiritual excision or execution by the court and repents, repentance and Yom Kippur have only a tentative effect.  It is the  sufferings which befall a person which  complete the atonement. He will never achieve complete atonement until he endures this suffering, for concerning these transgressions the verse in  Psalms (89:33) states: “I will punish their transgression with a rod.”

The idea that our efforts at repentance will come to nothing unless we are afflicted by God with suffering seems very problematic:  it takes away the agency and creativity we tend to view as essential to teshuva, the sense in which it is an opportunity given to us, a compassionate breach in the strictly just fabric of the universe.

Is it possible to find meaning in such an apparently theocentric world view, one which seems to return religion to an infantilising reliance on the supernatural?

Thinking more naturalistically, there might indeed be an obstacle to any sense of teshuva which isn’t preceded by suffering.  Without suffering it seems hard to feel that we have done something wrong, that we have strayed, that we have acted without fidelity.  It is in the pain of suffering that we discover our error and failing, it is through a alienation and disorientation that we sense our falling short of the life we hoped to lead.

In suffering, something becomes conscious, our soul cries out and makes itself known to the rest of our body.  Pain bespeaks a discord between self and world, or, indeed, between what Winnicott called our ‘True Self’ and our ‘False Self’.  A harmony is shattered, something which operated smoothly suddenly functions with abrasive grinding.

Suffering does not then relate to a problematic and childish concept of punishment, but can actually help us understand the more sublime idea of revelation.  In suffering, a truth of our existence is revealed to us.  It may be hazy and unclear, shrouded in clouds of thick smoke, and it may take us a long time to work out exactly what that truth is, but suffering is the starting point.  It is the nexus between the natural and the ethical, the connection, if you like, between heaven and earth.

Suffering, however, does not come easily, or naturally.  We erect endless defences against feeling the pain of others, and a heavily armoured fortress against our own personal hurt.  To see that we have wronged another, to imaginatively step into their shoes is terrifying, not least because it disrupts our narcissistic self-image of being a ‘good person’.

Suffering then takes courage, we need to ready and prepare ourselves before we can suffer, before some truth might be revealed to us.

Part of this preparation takes place throughout the month of Ellul, as we plead through psalm 27:

Teach me Your way, O Lord, and lead me in a smooth path.

For Maimonides , the supplication here is that our ego not get in the way of our quest to return, that we not experience the blockedness which sometimes lies in the way of teshuva.  We ask God ‘remember your mercy and lovingkindness’ (Ps.25), all too aware of the fragility inherent in forgiveness.

And yet, I have a confession to make:  I do not feel well prepared for this Rosh Hashana.  The block is strong, the ego is tight, the narcissism is very well defended.  I have no idea what my return might look like.  I sense that I am distant, but the suffering is very vague, I am not able to interpret it, to glean meaning from it.  The thickness of my slumber has not yet been pierced by the cry of the shofar, my soul feels like it is underwater, heavy and directionless.  Swampy, sludgy; I am experiencing none of the lightness I crave.

Perhaps I should be glad not to be suffering acutely, but there is a thirst for something elusive, and I sense that some suffering needs to be traversed in order to arrive at it.  I pray for that burst of sudden clarity, not another clever idea, but a personal truth, a revelation of something of the self, an insight which will shift me, create an opening.

The Shulkhan Arukh reports a custom of fasting on the eve of Rosh Hashana, and perhaps its source is in a similar sense of panic, in a need to feel something real prior to our day of soul searching.

Psalm 27 ends on a similar note of ambivalence:

‘Lulei he’emanti lirot betuv Adonai…  – were it not for my belief in the possibility of seeing the Divine goodness…’

The thought is left without conclusion, there is no spelling out of what might happen ‘were it not’ for the possibility of grace, of an unexpected and sudden experience of clarity and unity.  There is simply a sense of fractured longing, ‘were it not’, of a soul clinging to a distant hope from beyond.

Perhaps this is all the preparation one can hope for, a reminder of distance, a desperate cry – again from Psalm 27 – that God not hide his face from us.

It is a paradox lost on many that in these moments of distance our appreciation of the Divine can be most real, that we make the most generous allowance for Its independence and elusiveness.

Perhaps this is not then the worst way to go into Rosh Hashana, a day as much about the majesty of God as about the weakness and frailty of man.  In our moments of being lost we have a sense of the magnitude of life, the complexity of it, its infinite and endless intricacy.  Here again, the Infinite becomes real, and the limits of our understanding confront us abruptly.

I pray that the majesty of the day – malkhiyot – act as an instrument of awakening – shofrot – such that there is a return and remembrance – zikhronot – which can move us and re-connect us.

May we return to the land of the living, and may the words of its book shed clarity on the suffering and confusion we endlessly experience.

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.

Darkness and Diversity – Channuka 5773

A seasonal piece on the importance of pluralism and diversity, written by myself and the great William Kolbrener, published in the Times of Israel: http://www.timesofisrael.com/kindling-the-lights-of-diversity/ 

Enjoy, and a happy Channuka to one and all

p.s. a special thanks to Mannie and Leonie Sher, who invited me to talk in their house about Channuka, which got the ball rolling on this one.

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.

Patience, Compassion and Love Shabbat 28 – 33

The pages are so rich at the moment, and I just don’t have the time to do them all justice.  Quite frankly, it’s frustrating as hell.  I’m going to try to talk briefly about each daf, with just a gesture towards of some of what’s going on there.

Shabbat 28

The Mishna (end of 27b) teaches that:

You may not light the Shabbat lamp with anything that comes  from a tree,  except for flax; and whatever comes forth from a tree cannot be defiled with the uncleanness of tents,  except flax.

I think the thematic linkage here between Shabbat and Death – as embodied by the ‘uncleanness of tents’ – is significant and profound.  Shabbat is connected to mortality, it is rooted in our limits.

It commemorates the completion of creation, and the end of the God’s intimate involvement in that.  From then on, he plays a smaller role, a less obvious role.

I wrote a little something on this a few years ago:

Let it remind you of the tragedy inherent in creation, that there is no longer a Godly hand guiding it but that we alone are responsible for its development and wellbeing.  Do not be overwhelmed by this, but do not shirk from the magnitude of the task.  The world will change and unfold, we can try to influence this or we can hide from it and prepare ourselves for the worst.  To reject this pessimism is the core of all faith.

To rest is to accept that we have limits.  This is not always an easy thing to admit, perhaps because it reminds us that we must die, that we are mortal.

And yet our mortality, the transient uniqueness of it all, is what allows for meaning in life, for precious and delectable moments.  We must try to make peace with our mortality, to see it as framing our life, as a reminder that life is a precious and fragile gift.

Shabbat 29

Davar she’aino mitkaven – If an action performed on Shabbat results in a unintended prohibited action, it is permitted.  The only limiting factor is that the prohibited action must not be guaranteed to come about as a result of the action.

The example given is of dragging a small bench along a muddy surface – any ‘digging’ or ‘ploughing’ that might come about is neither desired nor guaranteed.

Indeed, doing ‘work’ on Shabbat, creating a proper violation, requires each of the following conditions to be fulfilled:

(1) You are aware that you are doing the action

(2) You intend for the action to take place

(3) You are doing the action because you want the logical result to follow

(4) The action is constructive, not destructive

(5) The action has a permanent, rather than a temporary, effect

(6) You do the action in the normal way it is done

(7) Your efforts directly cause the action to take place

(8) You do the action using only those people necessary

(For more detail and further examples, have a look at the overview by Alan Goldman, from whom I’ve borrowed this listing.)

This is all important to know for its own sake, but it’s also important for an appreciation of how difficult it is to actually break Shabbat.

This is nice philosophically, Shabbat is a strong container, a rigid structure, we don’t need to be too fragile with her, she can hold us.

The practical ramifications are significant too – people seem to sometimes dream up ways in which a given action might be breaking Shabbat, and can thus generate a significant amount of anxiety.  The list seems to be telling us that it’s not that easy, that you needn’t worry about unintended actions, that keeping Shabbat should not become a new form of hysteria.

Shabbat is about peace, its observance should not makes us paranoid and fearful.

Shabbat 30

There is a crazy but beautiful piece of Aggadic Midrash here, which simply must be read, ideally with the Hebrew, to be appreciated.  The upshot, which has much more impact if you’ve read the whole thing (it utterly defies summarizing), is the following:

A lamp is called ‘ner’ and a person’s soul is also called ‘ner’; it is preferable to extinguish the ‘ner’ of flesh and blood [i.e. a candle] to the ‘ner’ of the Holy One Blessed be He [the life of a human being].

We learn from here that you may extinguish a light or carry out other prohibited actions to save a life on Shabbat.

In Yoma 85b we have the more literal reasoning of ‘va’chay bahem’ – ‘you should live by them’ – but believe me, it’s not a patch on this piece of Aggada, and I’m much the happier to have encountered this poetic piece of reasoning.

We also have the attempts to supress Mishlei (Proverbs) and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and some fascinating expositions to prevent that.

Shabbat 31

Hillel and Shammai.  I’m glad we already discussed this a little, it would be too upsetting to not discuss the significance of their differences at length.

And, having established Hillel as deeply humanitarian, as an embodiment of a Torah of Love, we can here spend a moment on his proto-Wittgensteinian insights into the limits of textual authority.

He was confronted with potential convert who only wished to learn the written Torah, not the oral Torah.  His response was as follows:

On the first day he taught him the alef bet [Hebrew alphabet].  On the second day he changed the letters and taught him the alef bet differently.

‘But yesterday you didn’t teach me this way!’ protested the convert.

‘And weren’t you then completely reliant on me, as you are now?  Rely on me regarding the Oral Law too, without it you are nowhere’.

A text has no meaning without a tradition of interpretation, without a responsible reader, without a subject sufficiently attuned to its spirit.

Hillel is showing, with a very 20th century proof, that every text requires a teacher, that every tradition requires mediation.

It seems to be utterly apt that we move straight from here to:

That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, the rest is interpretation.

There is text, there is tradition, and there is the guiding spirit.  We need all three of these, without any one of them we are lost, we are betraying what is Divine in the Torah.

Hillel embodied this, he was a man of patience, of peace.  The stories suggest he was virtually implacable.

Shammai by contrast was hot tempered, ill at ease in the world, never far from anger.

We learn from Hillel, we learn how to be, how to live.  We simply cannot learn these things from Shammai, such a character has not yet found its own way in the world, has not yet found a restful dwelling.

Shabbat 32

We have here the appalling and horrendous Mishna suggesting that women die in childbirth due to lapses in various observances.

One must ruefully note that in the continuation of the text men and children also have their moments of reckoning, that it is not just women who are the recipients of Divine Retribution.

I can only suggest that these explanations are offered in a spirit of love and compassion, in an attempt to bring meaning to forms of death that were much more common at that point in time than we could nowadays bear to imagine.

We’ve touched on this in the past, how some form of explanation, however gruesome, might be better than the abject nihilism which might be the alternative.

And ‘better’ does not mean ‘more true’, ‘more honest’, and certainly not ‘more beautiful’.  But the mind is a funny thing, and the idea that there might be some grain of meaning, hope or love behind things may hold, for some people, more appeal than the alternative.

Let us not presume to know until we have been in that place.

Let us put to rest our philosophical pretensions and righteousness and proceed with cautious humility before the horrors with which real people live.

We are warned here that one who speaks with vulgarity, without consideration, with flippancy has hell deepened for them, for:

The mouth that speaks perversity is a deep pit.

Thoughtlessness comes from emptiness, from a person living with a deep inner void, lacking a genuine connection to life.

It may take some faith, but it feels better to believe that these pages are not coming from such a place.

Shabbat 33

And so to Rav Shimon bar Yochai, a tale of zeal and fury.

(Again, read it; I can’t possibly do it justice here.)

On hearing the Romans being praised for building markets, he responds:

‘They only established marketplaces so that they could put prostitutes in them’.

Thinking psychoanalytically, this is a powerful statement.  Prostitutes are clearly quite close to the surface of his mind, he perhaps finds them to be an agonising and tormenting source of temptation.  He may not even be conscious of this, and it would be much easier to allay this threat to the personality by projecting it onto the Romans.  His susceptibility is vanquished, all perversion lies with the Romans, they are the source of corruption.

Unsurprisingly, the Romans didn’t take kindly to this remark, and were after him.

He fled, famously, to the cave with a carob plant outside where he hid for twelve years, learning Torah with his son.

When they came out, believing the threat to have abated, their furious zeal threatened to destroy the world – everything they looked at was consumed by the fire of their anger.

Rebuked by a heavenly voice, they returned to their cave, where they studied for another twelve months.

On leaving this time, his son still has a destructive streak, but Rav Shimon has mellowed somewhat, and is able to heal what the son damages.

We don’t know what changed them, but we are given a symbol of what helped cement the transformation.

Watching an old man gathering myrtle branches in honour of Shabbat, they asked him why he needed two bundles, why one would not suffice.  On hearing his explanation – one for Zachor (rememberance), one for Shamor (honouring) – Rav Shimon said the following:

‘You see, my son, how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel.’

With this their minds found peace.

After years and years of rage, of an anger he was perhaps not even aware of, of a righteousness driven by fury, by discomfort, by a fear of his own demons, he finally learnt to love.

He saw that the Torah is founded upon love, that there is something miraculous and Divine in the way it is observed with love.

Love was what he had struggled to see, and once his eyes beheld it, their capacity for destruction diminished.

It’s easy to talk tritely about these subjects, and yet, I do believe, with what can only be called faith, that we are only ever able to grasp a small fraction of the power of love, of the difference it makes in the heart of man.

We think we know ourselves, yet it is sometimes only after years of living with the darkness of anger and hatred that we realise how little love was in our heart; love for the world, love for the other, love for our self.

May the Divine wisdom and light help pierce the darkness, may the Divine Love enlighten our eyes and enable us to ‘live by them’.

Let us be like Hillel, implacably patient and boundlessly compassionate, and in that way let us live up to our calling as the lamp of the Divine, as something worthy of protection and grace.