As a rule, we Jews do not do figurative arts. Artists who have tried to draw portraits of Biblical characters usually had a hard time to find models. They usually looked at the reality surrounding them at the time. And so, in Italian 18th Century haggadahs, Moses and Aaron are portrayed wearing the same clothing as Italian nobility. And on some Orthodox websites you can often find drawings representing the Cohanim and the Leviim working in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they look very much like the priests of the High Church.
Plus, and this is a serious inaccuracy, they are usually pale skinned, while Israelites at that time were most probably of a darker complexion.
Historical inaccuracies aside, this all makes sense.
These artists, who were often not even Jewish, worked with what they had at their disposal; they looked at the reality they saw surrounding them at the time. So you have Moses and Aaron who look like Italian noblemen, and the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem who looks like an Anglican bishop.
But to sketch the main character of this week's Torah portion, Balaam, it is possibly harder.
The Torah describes Balaam as a diviner, a magician who earns his living by cursing people or enemies: He has a high professional reputation, and we understand that his fee is also very high. He requests lots of silver and gold from his customer Balak, in order to curse the Israelites, whom Balak despises.
What is the equivalent of a professional diviner? Those artists who portrayed Balaam, were mostly Christians, and they painted him as a prophet, with fierce eyes and a long beard. I may have to double check but my impression is that that diviner, or failed prophet, was portrayed as a Catholic by the Protestants, and as a Protestant by the Catholics. In the years of religious wars, there were no professional diviners around but the two branches of Christianity had their reasons to see their opponents in that light.
And what about today? There are not so many contemporary portraits of Balaam and we still find it difficult to understand precisely what a diviner is. What is, indeed, the contemporary equivalent of one who is paid to curse?
One can think of the realm of politics, or of the whole problem of fake news. The contemporary equivalent of earning a living by cursing people may be sending fake news over the Internet, and in this way destroying the reputation of your opponent (a curse, indeed). We all know that Russia has meddled in American politics, (and who knows, perhaps the British politics too), creating fake news and spreading slanders and lies on social media.
It is an intriguing comparison and perhaps idea for a short story (feel free to quote me).
There is an important difference between a diviner such as Balaam and the professional slanderer, troll, or spreader of fake news.
Balaam, the diviner, was reputed to have had some extraordinary power. Not only could he bless and curse, he was in touch with divinities and various supernatural entities. That was his reputation and that was the reason why he was paid so much.
It worked like this. Do you hate someone? Mr Balaam, with tens of years of professional experience, will curse your enemy and evoke some evil gods to cause him harm. In Biblical times the existence of these entities, gods, spirits, or ghosts, who followed the indication of human beings, the sorcerer, were taken for granted.
But this was not the Jewish world, and this was not how things worked among the Israelites.
It is not by chance that there are almost no Jews or Israelites in this week’s Torah portion. It is about the Jewish people, and the Balak’s attempt to cause harm to them by employing Balaam, but neither of the two is Jewish. This Torah portion, about a sorcerer and a diviner, describes a world that is not Jewish.
The Jewish God is not like the godlets and the spirits that Balaam evokes. You cannot use the Jewish God against your enemies, to get rid of them or to cause them damage.
Balaam himself knew this and before setting everything in motion he warned Balak by telling him that all his expertise and techniques are useless against the people beloved by God.
To put it in a very intellectually and complicate way. The world of Balaam and Balak is about human beings, who use gods for their own purpose. The world of the Israelites is about God, whose sovereignty we human beings acknowledge in our prayers.
The other important difference is that Balak and Balaam have no morality. They use their gods to affirm their power, as an instrument or tool. We Jews accept the sovereignty of God, as a source of morality and we follow the Torah, which is a moral and legal code.
The difference between magic and religion is not just a difference of opinions. It is a difference of morality. Those who believe in magic and those who believe in the use of supernatural forces, do not believe in moral principle, such as that all human beings are equal, created in the image of God and as such worthy of dignity and respect.
In the last lines of the Aleinu prayer, we express our faith on that day, ba yom ha hu, when all humanity will recognise that God is one. We hope for a day when all humanity will be free and will follow a law of truth, justice and compassion.
I had a glimpse of such an era, the Messianic era if you like, a few days ago, when we spoke with Rev. Price, from the Alabama church that is twinned with our Synagogue's building.
His hope, and the hope of his community for a day when racism will disappear and all humanity will live under a law of justice is so similar to our faith.
They also have a fight against idolatry, against the followers of the barbaric cult of racist supremacy. It's not a secret that the racists of the Ku Klux Klan have their own ritual and ceremonies, precisely as a religion, and an idolatry barbarian cult, so similar to that of Balaam. It is the same cult, the same ideology, of racism and white supremacy that threatens our life and our freedom as Jews and as human beings.
May they not prevail and may their curses become blessings as it did in the time of Korach.
As a Rabbi I have learnt I must never shy away from difficult conversations. So here's a controversial subject: I never liked Pink Floyd. I find their music terribly unoriginal and their lyrics to me are boring and repetitive.
I know it's hardly surprising to hear this from the Rabbi that I am nowadays.
But back when I was a rebellious teenager (as all teenagers are rebellious, mind you) you had to love Pink Floyd. Teenagers are looking for their place in life, they always challenge boundaries and conventions, and Pink Floyd appealed to them all. This was because their lyrics were out of place and usually about drugs, another topic favoured by teenagers. When teenagers grow up, they look at their former self with nostalgia, but this is not a problem for Pink Floyd because a new generation of teenagers is beginning to enjoy their music.
Which brings me to ask the question: Does Pink Floyd ever grow up? Are they themselves, I mean the former members of the band, prisoners of their will to please the teenagers in the audience, by giving them what they want to buy with their parents' money? I ask such a question every time I come across the outbursts and statements by Roger Waters.
The last one was a tirade against Sheldon Adelson, a Jewish billionaire, who according to Waters controls the whole USA government. Adelson is a casino owner, and therefore the American Government must be chaotic, but I tend to think that the Foreign policy of the largest superpower is not dictated by a casino owner. Roger Waters then continues with the nowadays' favourite piece of anti-Semitic propaganda: that the American police have learnt from the Israelis a way to kill rioters. It makes perfect sense that American policemen must travel to the other side of the world to learn that they can kill a person by placing the knee on their throat. And then Roger Waters goes on by explaining that Judaism teaches that Jews are a superior race, entitled to establish a State on other people's land and in order to achieve such a repulsive goal, we are allowed, by our faith, to meddle in international politics and to randomly kill members of the Afro American community.
Yes, Roger Waters has issued an half-hearted apology, after the problems experienced by a UK politician who was also caught up spreading these lies.
But let's be honest. In a few weeks he will most probably share another variation of the same garbage on social media.
Remember, this is the Roger Waters who supported the BDS, the movement to get rid of the only Jewish State on Earth, to be replaced by some Arab entity, that will deny both you and me the possibility to move there and find shelter (precisely as it was in the 30s) if and when things become difficult for us here.
And this is the same Roger Waters who maintains that "the powerful Jewish lobby" controls the world of the media and his colleague musicians do not speak out against Israeli atrocities because of the fear of such a lobby. All from a man who earns 90 million US dollars last year, so apparently the Jewish lobby does not manage to starve him.
And this is the same Roger Waters that is obsessed by purity. In his representation of the world, there are the oppressed Palestinians, and the Jewish oppressors, sorry: the Zionists prominently among them, (but as you can see the two categories overlap frequently). Palestinians are candid and innocent, and if and when they recur to violence, it is because of the Israelis, who give them no other option. And Israelis are of course evil, worse than the Nazis, genocidal and thieves of other people's land.
This is the world according to a teenager. We have all been teenagers. I am sure many of us are too embarrassed to remember what we were like, (whether Pink Floyd existed or not at that time), but we remember how we struggled with the world, the many moments we felt the world could not get us, because we were good and candid and the world was totally evil and bad? And how pure we were, and our intentions and desires were. How corrupt the world appeared, hence, the desire for some of us to rebel to tear it down. This is the way Roger Waters perceives and frames the world. I am not sure any Palestinian is happy to play a part in the theatre of Roger Water's mind. I, as a Jew, certainly am not, because my faith does not like purity.
Take this week's Torah portion. It opens with a list of complicated rules and norms about ritual purity, to prepare cleansing water to remove the sins of the people. It requires finding and slaughtering a very rare animal, a parah adumah, a completely red cow. It must be slaughtered, the flesh burnt, and the ashes kept and added to the water. This water will be used to purify those who have been contaminated by being in touch with a corpse.
It is a particularly complex set of rules. It is about a very rare animal. The Rabbis in the Talmud will make the ritual even more complicated than this. The Midrash will tell us that in all human history there can be only ten completely red cows. Nine of them in the past, so we have to be very careful in case we see a red cow, and call the Rabbis, as they have to examine and see whether we can resume the ritual of purification.
Until then, and here is the teaching from Judaism, we are all impure. There is not such a thing as complete purity, absolute purity, absolute lack of bad thoughts and evil inclination.
Impurity is part of this world and we must learn to coexist with it, rather than, as teenagers who refuse to grow up, aiming to establish a realm of absolute purity. And, on the basis of such an aspiration, vent our immature fury against what we perceive as being an enemy, of course evil and immorality.
The words and the speeches around the conflict in the Middle East have turned us Jews and the Palestinians into puppets for sick ideological representations, quite often anti-Semitic, such as Roger Waters. But our faith warns us against the perils of this kind of dreams and representations.
It's time for the pro-Palestinian camp to leave their anti-Semitic fantasies aside, and eventually grow up.
KORACH THE POPULIST
Donald Trump will probably be remembered as the first Biblically illiterate president in American history.
American presidents used to know their Bible. Obama and Reagan quoted generously from the Prophetic books. Both of them thought of themselves as warriors against Evil.
Jimmy Carter, before and after his presidency, was a Bible teacher at a Sunday school, which is a good example to mention when we try to recruit teachers for the Cheder, such as look at what a wonderful career may await you.
Donald Trump loves to be photographed with a Christian Bible in his hands, but he does not know the difference between the Old and the New Testament. Which raises serious questions on his reliability, because he took the presidential oath precisely on the Bible.
But apart from that, everybody knows that there is a long standing relation between Bible and American culture, which makes the gross ignorance of Donald Trump particularly remarkable.
Jonathan Sacks once noted how often the Bible is mentioned or referred to by English and American democratic political writers, as opposed to the French and the Germans, who got rid of the Bible and ended up in totalitarian regimes.
In popular culture, do you want to see how the Bible is important for the Americans? Look at the Hollywood movies!
Tens, if not hundreds, of Hollywood movies based on Biblical stories have been produced and directed in the history of American cinema. I know some a Rabbi (American, of course!), who checks the filmography before writing the sermon on the week's Torah portion. He wants to be sure that his understanding of the Biblical stories does not differ from the one that the congregants are familiar with.
But this week such an exercise is not needed. This week's Torah portion is Korach, and Korach is not a favourite topic for American movies, or movies at all.
Korach is, the text is clear, a noble man. He belongs to a prestigious family, and he can track his family tree with accurate precision.
His sons wrote Psalms that are actually part of the liturgy. Think of someone who went to Eaton like his father and his grandfather and you have the idea of whom we are talking about.
Despite coming from such a privileged background, Korach talks as a democratic leader, as a "man of the people".
The Torah portion opens with the description of Korach's challenge to Moses and Aaron:
“You have gone too far! All the people are holy, all of us, and the Lord is in our midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above?”
Which in a way makes perfect sense: it's true, every Israelite listened to the Revelation on Sinai, every Israelite escaped from Egypt thanks to the Divine Protection.
So why then, is Moses schlepping them around for years?
Who gave Moses and Aaron the power to lead the people, and the authority to rule over them?
It makes sense, I mean, at first reading.
But consider the context: the supposed "man of the people" is a privileged aristocrat. And, very importantly, he does not say what's wrong.
Commentators and Rabbis brought about many suggestions of possible arguments that Korach may have used to challenge Moses.
My favourite is as follows: "why do we have to put a mezuzah on the door, a small parchment with Hebrew text? I already have plenty of Jewish books in my home!”
Which is very sophisticated, you see.
It makes me think of those Jews in academia who know a lot about Jewish culture. They are the ones who have entire Jewish libraries in their houses! But as regards practicing Judaism... well, they just want to be like all their other colleagues; they do not want to put too much on show to the outside.
Anyway, this is Rabbinic speculation.
The point is, to say it in contemporary terms, Korach was making a big fuss only for personal ambition. Because he wanted to replace Moses and Aaron, and take the mantle of leadership from them, conveniently forgetting that Moses had been appointed as a leader not by "the people" (whatever this means), but by God.
There are not so many movies on the story of Korach, so you're excused if you do not feel familiar with the plot.
Let me remind you how the story develops and ends.
Moses consults with God, and then tells Korach to stand before God.
The next day, God appears to the whole community.
Remember: Korach started his rebellion claiming exactly that: God is in the midst of the people, all the people are holy, and God speaks to all the people.
Moses instructs the community to move away from the tents of Korach's followers.
And then the earth opens and swallows the rebels, their households, and all Korach's people.
Another interesting detail: Korach wanted to elevate himself over the leaders and he ends up deep down, in a literally inferior position, and there he dies.
In Rabbinic interpretations, Korach has become the symbol of the controversies "that are not for the sake of Heaven" as we have read in Pirkei Avot.
That is: all the disputes, the battles and the political fights picked up for personal ambition and not for the sake of the common good.
The Rabbis construct an opposition: between disputes such as Shammai vs Hillel, which is "for the sake of Heaven", in which both of the sides aim for the truth.
And disputes such as Korach, which are driven only by personal ambition.
But this distinction is clear in theory! At a practical level, in any political career, in any political confrontation, the line between personal ambition and sake of the common good is never clear as the Rabbis like to think it is.
Populism, the presumption to speak "in the name of the people", is a temptation for every politician.
Populist rhetoric and assumptions can be found both on the Left and on the Right.
Think of how often we have heard politicians on the Right telling that "the people" were fed up by experts and that it was time to listen to the voice, and to follow the directives of the alleged "ordinary man".
Then came the pandemic and we all learnt we have to trust scientists and experts!
Or think of how often, from the Left, we have heard the claim that "the people" are always right. We know what this "people" means: not us, the Jews, because we are not properly English, but members of another people, and our loyalty to Israel makes us indeed traitors of "the people", indeed.
This brings me to think about the movement, “Black Lives Matter,” which we see progressing in the USA and on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Is it a populist movement? A collection of rebels with no purpose other than to cause trouble, like the followers of Korach?
We may be tempted to say yes, that it is. Just look at the way they defy the rules of the lockdown and the social distancing that we are all to follow.
But on the other hand, the movement has serious reasons to exist.
For me and you the sight of a police officer is a source of relief, we feel safe and grateful.
Do not take it for granted. That was not the same in Germany, less than one century ago.
The sight of a police officer was not a cause for relief, for a Jew!
And this is now the case for many members of the Afro American community, and perhaps of the Afro British community. When they see a white policeman, their feelings are different from ours. And these days we may learn the reason for such distrust.
I opened this sermon with my personal profession of faith in the good of the American society, in the Biblically based idea of covenant among the different communities.
I think Europe can learn from such an ideal and perhaps we in the UK are in the best position to learn, because we also live in a Biblically based democracy.
Precisely for this we should not allow populists like Korach to take the lead, to become spokes-person of that movement, to build their own career.
This may happen if we do not listen and if we dismiss their legitimate quest for justice
Populism is harmful to all the society.
As in the story of Korach we all risk being swallowed down, and to lose the common ground which keeps us together.
May this not happen.
May we be able to listen and take sides.
Not only the cheesecake!
Let us talk about Shavuot. I know it has just passed but I think we should think about Shavuot a bit more, because -unfortunately- it is not the most observed or well-known Jewish holiday.
First of all, there are no symbols; no tangible, material, items that we can associate to Shavuot. On Rosh HaShana and on Yom Kippur there's the Shofar. On Pesach the Seder, with all the items we have on the table. On Chanukah there is the Chanukiah, and we light one candle each night etc.
What do we have on Shavuot? Cheesecake! Of course we all love cheesecake and I am sure that after this Zoom service we will help ourselves generously of a portion, but you can eat cheesecake all year round, (I actually do), without thinking of the actual meaning. That is because there is not a commandment to eat cheesecake on Shavuot, like there is a commandment to eat matza on Pesach, or to fast on Yom Kippur.
So, Shavuot is a bit of an enigma. A holiday we don't know much about.
There's another reason. Let us not forget that we in the UK, and in the Western world we live in a Christian or post Christian, civilisation. In this part of the world the calendar is largely Christian and the holydays are Christian. And we Jews like to observe our version of the Christian holydays, or at least we like to celebrate as close as possible to the time when the majority of our co citizens celebrate. They have Christmas, we don't have Christmas, but we have Chanukah. Both days when children receive presents, and we engage in an unhealthy festive diet They have Easter, and the related bank holiday, we have Pesach: both family holidays, or at least moments when the families get together. These holydays do not always fall on the same day, but often in the same period.
There is not a Christian equivalent of Shavuot. Actually, without having a look at the calendar it's easy even to forget that there is a day called Shavuot.
But then, there is a deeper reason whey Shavuot is so unfamiliar to many of us.
So let's do a bit of a recap. On Shavuot we celebrate the Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. And this is what we celebrate on Shavuot. This is, by the way, the reason why we have been awake all night, or as much as we managed, to actually study Torah, to reproduce the emotion and the feelings of our Israelite ancestors when they received the Torah.
One may ask at this point, (and indeed somebody asked for real), what is there here to celebrate? The Torah, the Law, is a set of commandments and precepts. A list of things we have to do and a list of things we must not to do. What's there to celebrate?
This is the kind of question that is easy to hear in a Christian civilisation, because according to many Christians, Judaism is a set of laws, precepts, and instructions whose only result is to turn the life of a Jew into an obsession. What's to celebrate in all these laws and precepts?
According to the Christian worldview the only liberation, is when the Jews reject this Law, an oppressive and outdated law, and become Christians!
I think the Christians get it wrong.
Because Shavuot is not only about law, it is also about freedom, but a particular kind of freedom, that we do not like to talk about. A freedom, that I would call, of the mature human being.
Let's get back to Pesach. There is a connection between Pesach and Shavuot. We have been counting the days of the Omer, fifty days, beginning from Pesach until Shavuot, which was yesterday.
Pesach is the festival of liberation from Egypt. Pesach is the foundation of Shavuot. First you have Pesach when that group of slaves escape from Egypt. Then they wander in the desert, and this is a wandering that we remember during the days of the Omer. And then the Israelites receive the Law, the Torah.
The process can be understood if we think to the maturing of the human being. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, on Pesach, they were like children, like new-borns. Think of how important children are during the Pesach Seder. One can argue that the whole festivity is built around children. The freedom that the Israelites enjoyed on Pesach is the freedom of children, who believed they could do everything - and indeed they also committed a serious transgression, They built the Golden Calf, and worshiped it, because they thought it was legitimate, just like children who still have to learn what they can and what they cannot do.
When they received the Torah, on Sinai, the Israelites received another kind of freedom. The freedom NOT to do. The child wanted to do everything, wanted to eat everything, wanted to touch and possess and quite often destroy everything. This is what the Torah is about; teaching the Israelites, to this group of former slaves that have been wandering lost in the desert that they can say no. They can say no to certain foods, they can avoid certain kinds of (self-harming) sexual relations, that they can make choices, moral choices, in their own life and in their life as a society.
This is the reason why Shavuot is somehow difficult for us to grasp. We do not associate freedom with the power to say no, to make choices. We think that freedom means having access to everything, being able to use everything, having the power to use everything, and perhaps to use everyone. But this is the childish meaning of freedom.
On Shavuot we celebrate the freedom of the responsible human being, and our maturity as Jews to make choices and to act as mature human beings. It is a great and empowering meaning.
And, as you see, it's not only the cheescake!
I call for empathy!
I know it may sound strange, coming from me, but today, 29 Iyyar 5780, the day after Yom Yerushalayim, I am calling for empathy towards the "anti-Occupation" activists.
Yes, those militants who have made a habit, on social media, of attacking, harassing and bullying Zionists or generally speaking pro-Israel people. I ask for empathy.
Because they lead a very sad life.
Look at their biographies. It's all public, on their Twitter timeline.
They are eager to let everyone know which school they went to and when they got engaged. the last time that they visited Israel (or "Palestine"), usually long ago, which sort of vegan roast they had last Sunday. And of course when they left the Labour Party because they could not cope anymore with the antisemitism of "some" of their comrades. Do you think it's a happy life? Of course, it's not!
Being thrown out from an organisation, being forced to leave because you are Jewish...is always a painful experience. Even more for those who have joined that organisation precisely because they are Jewish, as it is often the case of these "anti-Occupation" campaigners: and we all know what they mean by "anti-Occupation".
I am not being sarcastic.
The pain that these folks experience is excruciating. They had thought that the Labour Party had become their spiritual home. They had thought the time had come for a politics, based on Jewish values such as social justice (and no others, I concede). What a trauma it must have been, feeling rejected!
There is another thing one can see on the timeline of these activists, "anti-Occupation", or as they fancy to now call themselves "anti-apartheid" (and we know what they mean).
How eager they are to be readmitted with honour in the Labour Party.
How intense is their longing for a place, which they felt gave them the opportunity to be relevant, to do something (and they really believe it)?
How wonderful it was to be engaged, together with other folks of the same age and social class. But these comrades were not Jewish. It turned out they were antisemitic. Can you imagine the shock? You almost hear them crying, and stomping their feet: "But I thought we were friends, comrades!" What a sad spectacle, given that they are almost all in their 30s...
Just to be clear: I am not talking about long-standing Jewish members of the Labour Party.
I know they had suffered bullying and harassments by the hand of these "anti-Occupation" newcomers militants, more than anyone else.
I am not even talking about reasonable people, Jews or not, that have been able to see something good in Jeremy Corbyn (which I was not).
I am talking about those "anti-Occupation" militants, whose main focus of activity is opposing Israel, "as Jews" obviously, and on social media mainly.
Those militant want one thing more than anything else: being readmitted to the Labour Party, possibly with honour
Many of them indeed believe that antisemitism in the Labour Party was only a passing disease, and that now, the therapy has been found.
Others are persuaded that their comrades now miss them so much that they are on the point of begging them to come back.
This is the reason why these folks argue on social media.
Not because they want to be exposed to the points of view others, as well as those of the people who inhabit their bubble. Not because they are looking for a civilised conversation. They are not.
They are on social media purely because they want to prove to their former comrades that they are Jews, yes, but good (meaning acceptable) Jews!
They are violently confrontational. They quickly switch from the bully, "I'm going to report you for racism!" to the passive-aggressive, "Why are you hurting me, showing off that Israeli flag?" They can also be, frankly speaking, pathetic: "in all these years I have been treated as a nuisance..."
These are certainly not features of civilised conversation, because these "anti-Occupation" campaigners are not interested in a conversation. They want to be seen by others and prove that they are Jews of the good kind, not Zionist (or not too overtly Zionist).
They want to prove they are properly qualified members of the tribe of the post-Corbynista Leftie fringe that still remain in the Labour Party.
And they call names such as "Fascists!", "Racists!" Or "Right-winger! " which in their environment is the worst thing ever. No one told them, that Jewish Conservatism has a long and prestigious story, which includes intellectual giants such as Raymond Aron and Lucy Dawidowicz.
These names, and tens of others, mean nothing to them. Their world is in black and white and the range they consider 'Jewishly acceptable', is impressively narrow. If you are a not a Marxist, then you are Far Right.
A full repertoire of slanders and offences is systematically employed against whoever dares to dissent from the "anti-Occupation" set of beliefs they profess.
And they use the full repertoire hoping that their former comrades will see how good they are and how different they are from the rest of the Jewish community,
It's a terribly sad sight. Indeed we are talking about unhappy people: Jews who want to be accepted in an antisemitic environment, a place where antisemitism is not sanctioned properly (actually, it is still under investigation).
And I wonder. Is it worth it? Who wants to be the whiteboard where these folks project their frustrations and their dreams of being welcomed back with honour? Who wants to be the tool for yet another "anti-Occupation" militant, eager to show off how acceptable he is (or she is, but usually is a he)?
I came to the conclusion, that it is not a good idea to help these desperate people prove to their former comrades, that they are Jews, yes, but they also tick all the proper boxes on the left column.
I speak from experience. I myself have noted how pointless the Twitter exchanges with the "anti-Occupation" folks are. How rapidly their aggressive language escalates. How condescending to violence, and violent their posturing is. How little the difference is, in attitude, and perhaps in ideology, from the radical anti-zionist, from those who explicitly say they want to destroy Israel and replace it with a kind of Democratic People's Republic (of Korea).
I have realised, I had become a tool for their self-affirmation and that I was not learning anything from these conversations and exchanges. Now I block them.
In the 90s I used to work as a DJ. I became friendly with the manager of a security firm, a warm-hearted Palestinian man. Once he explained his job to me, in a slightly accented Italian, which I still remember. Here's the English translation: "If you keep the troublemakers outside, you can have more fun inside". It's a simple principle that I have learnt to apply to my life on social media, and I invite every Zionist to do the same.
The power of tradition
There was this Jewish lady who was a fabulous cook. Her masterpiece was the brisket and it was really the best brisket in the world. She had learnt the recipe from her Mum. She had the habit to cut one small slice on both sides before putting the brisket into the oven. She learnt to do this from her Mum, whose brisket was equally as fabulous. And her Mum had learnt the recipe, including cutting the slices, from her Mum. That was the tradition in that family, and that was the recipe.
One day the daughter in law, eager to please her newlywed husband decided to investigate the family culinary wisdom that went back to Mum, and then to Grandma, to discover where this tradition of cutting slices from the brisket came from.
And so she discovered that, when Grandma was young, her oven was very small, so the brisket had to be cut in order to fit. And the tradition remained, and was passed down through the following generations, even when they could afford a larger oven.
You know, tradition!
That is, more or less, what happened with Lag baOmer. Its origins are indeed unclear. There is one passage in the Talmud about a plague that ended on such a day, a plague that took place, allegedly, in the time of Rabbi Akiva, several centuries before.
The brief note in the Talmud mentions thousands of dead. The problem is that such a remarkable event is not recorded in any other source, and the passage is probably a metaphor. The Talmudic passage is indeed about punishment for those students who did not respect each other. A contagious disease is a very fitting image to describe what happens when competition destroys the cohesion among students.
The holyday is not mentioned in the Torah. That very little and unclear Talmudic passage is the only reference to Lag baOmer in Rabbinic literature.
Apart from that, all the customs and the traditions associated to Lag baOmer originated in the 16th century, in Zfat (Safed) a city in Northern Galilee where quite a few teachers and practitioners of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah moved to after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.
The Kabbalists of Safed used to go, several times during the year, and usually in small groups, on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai. They believed that Shimon bar Yochai was the author of the Zohar, the most important text of Jewish mysticism. and that his souls were somehow around. This tomb is in Meron, not so far from Zfat.
Because on Lag baOmer one is supposed to learn about cohesion among students, and on this day all the students of all the various schools of Jewish mysticism in Zfat went together on a pilgrimage to this holy place. And they engaged in the activities that had become part of Jewish mysticism; davening in the open, dancing, and socialising in various ways.
Bonfires were lit (and still are) because the mystical intuition and insights of the Kabbalah are often compared to fire.
Because the Talmudic story is about students, the tradition for children to have their first haircut on Lag baOmer was established, as a first haircut is a rite of passage towards maturity.
And because Lag baOmer is time for joyous rite of passage, the custom of celebrating marriages on Lag baOmer was also established.
All these customs and traditions, which the ‘frum’ people believe are very old, are more recent than they think: they date back four centuries and not thousands of years.
Books were composed and printed especially for these gatherings. More or less like the benchers we have nowadays. These books of mysticism had colourful stories, inspiring tales of miracles, and obviously instructions for rituals etc.
Here's the funny story, which resembles that well-cooked brisket I mentioned before. One of these books, then copied by four or five others, narrates the marvellous life of Shimon Bar Yochai, the alleged author of Kabbalistic works, and it has a printing mistake.
It appears that Lag baOmer is not only a day to celebrate the celestial wisdom of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai but also his actual departure towards heaven. And so the legend of the death of Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, on Lag BaOmer was born. Because of a printing mistake!
The legend is believed in Kabbalistic environments because somehow it ties up all the different traditions and customs observed by the devotees of the Kabbalah on Lag baOmer. And there are thousands of them, and nowadays they celebrate in the same chaotic and ecstatic way that has been done for centuries in the outskirts of Meron. As weird as it is, they celebrate on the anniversary of a death, which is a bit unusual for Orthodox Jews, and for all the Jews.
We live in the Diaspora, and not many Jews in the UK practice traditional Kabbalah, like the people who this year have tried to find their way to Meron, despite the Corona virus pandemic. And by the way the police have arrested 300 of them! So Lag baOmer is observed in a diluted form. In Israel they do bonfires, here we do barbecues, (which we have done a few times with the Cheder) but this year because of the pandemic, we just did a study session, which was much more boring than ecstatic dances around a bonfire, but at least we do not exclude women!
I find the attempt to circumvent the ban of the police, with the result of placing themselves in danger infuriating. So I do not want to sound benevolent towards the Ultra-Orthodox people who wanted to celebrate Lag baOmer in full swing.
But I understand their feelings.
You see, the Omer is a time of mourning. A time when joyous celebrations are forbidden. The severity of the prohibition varies; in some places music is forbidden in other places it is not; some people avoid buying new clothes; other do not eat meat (except on Shabbat), and many males do not shave etc. The Omer is the time between the liberation from Egypt and the Giving of the Law; it is a time of spiritual uncertainty. It is natural to associate mournful events with the time of spiritual uncertainty.
But when the end of the uncertainty is in sight, and Shavuot approaches, the desire to celebrate in anticipation is a human understandable psychological need.
Again, I am not trying to justify the craziness of being in Meron for Lag baOmer this year. In case it was not clear, I think that there is a serious lack of historical foundation for such a celebration.
But think about it. While living secluded in our houses, and forced to stay home because of the pandemic, we are in a sort of Omer, when real parties and full celebrations are forbidden. However, we are still not able to see the end, the celebration, the Shavuot.
Yet, sometimes we take a break and we bend the rules, because we pretty much would love to see the end of this seclusion time.
It's human psychology.
Precisely because of human psychology, and of the need to break free, Lag baOmer is such a popular holyday in certain sectors of the Israeli religious world. Not because there are serious sources at its basis. There are not.
Endangering yourself to follow a tradition is just not particularly smart. And we Jews are supposed to be smart!
ABOUT THAT OCCUPATION
Up until 20 years ago, every Italian male citizen had to serve in the Army. That was the rule. University students like me, usually ended up being civil servants and others, the majority, had to wear the uniform. For some mysterious and bureaucratic reasons, those friends of mine, from Northern Italy who served as soldiers, were sent to Alto Adige/South Tyrol.
If you like skiing, Alto Adige/South Tyrol is a wonderful place because it is where the wonderful Dolomiti Mountains are.
But if you know a bit of history, things are complicate. In Alto Adige there are two different populations: the German speaking, the Tyroleses, and the Italian speaking.
Long story short: in some parts of the region the Tyroleses are the majority so to them the Italian troops were occupying their region.
So, my friends had to serve as soldiers in a place where the majority of the population regarded them as the occupiers. This place is not Palestine.
In Alto Adige problems began around WWI, the same time as the Balfour Declaration. Prior to the war, the region was part of the Austrian Empire, like Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire.
After the war, which the Austrians lost, like the Ottomans did, the Empires were dismembered. So, Alto Adige, or South Tyrol was annexed to Italy.
During WWII many Tyroleses, very upset by what they consider Italian occupation, became fanatic supporters of the Nazis, (like the Palestinians). Because of this, their plight was not taken into consideration at the end of the war, when the borders were all drawn up. Austria brought their case to the United Nations, who then debated the matter for decades.
To this day many of the Tyroleses still regard themselves as victims of an occupation. They may have a point, because over the years, many dispossessed Italians have been encouraged to move to Alto Adige, to settle there. That was at the same time when Jews immigrated to then Palestine. Both the migrations continued after WWII. In the aftermath of the war, many Tyroleses had to return the land, and sometimes the buildings, that the Nazi had given to them as a reward for their support.
You see, it was a very complicate situation; a native population who claim that their lands were stolen by newcomers. Those newcomers, in some cases not so new at all, were born there.
The land belongs to a Country, Italy; but another Country, Austria, disagrees. The United Nations are still debating about it. It's not the Middle East, but it looks like the Middle East.
Part of the German speaking population resists their own ways, by setting up political parties. But there are radicals, extremists, and when I say extremists I mean terrorists, who enjoy the support of at least 20% of the Tyroleses and at certain times of Austria.
From 1956 to 1988 more than 300 Italians were killed in Alto Adige, most of them soldiers. Buildings belonging to Italian families were torched and terrorists detonated bombs against dams, or powerhouses.
That was the reason why so many Italian soldiers were sent to serve in Alto Adige. To protect the local Italian population and to make a point towards Austria: "this is Italian land, we are Italian soldiers, let the United Nations deal with that".
So, while I served Italy in an office of a City Council, Italians of my age were mounting the guard outside military barracks. Not a nice job, since the local teenagers had the habit of throwing stones which they learnt from their families.
In the Middle East that was the time of the Intifada and indeed some of those teenagers enjoyed shouting "Intifada!"(with a German accent). They knew that any defence by Italian soldiers could become an international case, just like in Palestine/Israel.
The sight of the insurgents was not pleasant. Here are the words of their favourite song: "In my nice and beautiful Country / every German shoot an Italian". And they sang it in your face.
The officers told the Italian soldiers every day: "we are here to keep things calm, not to retaliate"; sometimes soldiers, people like me, managed "to keep things calm". Other times they did not.
Sometimes Italian soldiers were ordered to raid houses of terrorists and their families. Sometimes they had to patrol villages close to international borders, in full gear and with weapons at the ready.
All of it, without being professional soldiers, but rather conscripts. I think you would agree with me that it was a difficult job. Like that of Israeli soldiers serving in the Territories.
Fortunately, things have now changed in Alto Adige. Terrorism has calmed down. The European Union persuaded Austria to cease protecting terrorists and there are now far less Italian soldiers in Alto Adige, (and far less customers in local cafes and bakeries, which apparently the Tyroleses now regret).
Sometimes I think of the stories my friends told me; the stones thrown by teenagers; the Germans staring at you with arrogance; the fear of terrorism beginning anew. What was that sound? A bomb? A machine gun? Fireworks? And what are they celebrating now? Another slaughtering of Italian soldiers of some decades ago or a new one?
None of my friends were happy to serve in Alto Adige. Even the most military oriented, who loved to watch Rambo movies, did not like to go there.
We all knew the historical background. We were taught it at school. We knew it could be considered an occupation, so we understood the Tyroleses’ feelings.
We all knew that losing the family house because of international politics, and without any compensation, leaves wounds that remain across the generations.
But I also wonder, what would have happened if some prominent member of the Italian American community had criticised the occupation of South Tyrol.
Think of this. Francis Ford Coppola (the movie director), or Justice Anthony Scalia, or Nancy Pelosi (Democrat MP) who decide they are against the occupation of South Tyrol. And they speak publicly, and write articles, and give interviews, to make their strong opposition to said occupation as publicly as possible.
What would have happened? Would peace have come more quickly if some famous Italian American had explained to the media how he or she feels betrayed by Italy?
(Can you imagine Liza Minnelli of Frank Sinatra talking about betrayal...)
What would have been achieved with tirades about "Italian values" or "Catholic values" betrayed by Italian soldiers in South Tyrol; by the Italian Government who does not want to end the Occupation; by the Italian voters who continue to support that corrupt Government and that immoral occupation? It's hard to say what would have been achieved through such a posturing.
Because it did not happen. No one in the Italian Diaspora gave a voice to the opposition to the Italian occupation of South Tyrol, which by the way the locals have all the reasons to call it as such.
Nonetheless now the problem has been, if not solved, at least managed, things have calmed down. There have been negotiations led by people who actually live, worked and served in the Army there. Not by Italian philanthropists living abroad.
Italian Americans, who live in America, know that one should not judge his fellow unless he or she has been in the same place.
It's a principle from Pirkei Avot (2:5, p. 707 of our prayerbook). A Jewish principle. How surprising that it's ignored by prominent personalities in the Jewish Diaspora.
Matzah is probably not the tastiest food in the world but I am pretty sure that it is not prepared with blood from Christian children.
An Italian painter known for having frescoed some church seems to have a different opinion.
In fact, a few weeks ago he uploaded his latest work on social media. It was a depiction of the so-called martyrdom of Simonino of Trento.
Simonino was one of many children who died at a time when infant mortality was high. But the Jewish communities were accused of his murder.
During the period of Easter, Jews were accused of killing and torturing Christian children in order to collect blood and prepare unleavened bread.
Families were tortured, forced to confess to horrors never committed and sentenced to death. Other times a mob stormed the houses of the Jews who were left most of the time defenceless. Entire communities have been expelled and their properties confiscated.
That of the accusation of ritual murder is a terrible story, which unfortunately begins here in England in 1144 with the case of William of Norwich, and the legend has continued to be told for centuries.
Simonino di Trento in 1475 is the most famous case because the story became known all over Europe, for the first time thanks to a very powerful medium: the press.
Sometimes it is recycled by Islamic preachers; the legend of the ritual murder is mainly Christian. It was probably brought to Islamic countries by Catholic missionaries.
The origins and the spread of this legend have been studied and analysed.
Many scholars have noted that the legend of ritual murders was the cause of many assaults on Jewish communities in times of crisis. It is no coincidence that the preachers who spread the legend came from bourgeois families, economic competitors of the Jews in Medieval Europe.
During this time the nobility offered the Jews protection (their business associates), while from the lower classes there was a healthy scepticism towards the bloody legend. It was the middle class competing with the Jews who spread the dark legend.
Another point that has been noticed: the legend of the ritual murder was based on rumours, and spread in times of crisis.
The painter we are talking about is a case in point. In far-right circles, the kind of environment he belongs to, fake news circulates uncontrollably and many believe all kinds of bizarre conspiracy theories. Of course, in these legends, we Jews are always the main puppeteers.
As for the economic crisis, unfortunately it’s here already. The Far-Right circles are already making a list of Israel's crimes, a list that obviously includes the pandemic. These people believe that the virus was created in order to weaken the Chinese competitors.
So this anti-Semitic painter decided to take advantage of the economic crisis and the search for scapegoats to bring back into circulation, among the many anti-Semitic legends, the bloodiest and the most linked to the Catholic imagination.
It went wrong. Prestigious cardinals condemned his scribble and its author will not receive work commissions anymore.
I will not claim that the article I published in Jewish News aided anything. Much more authoritative voices than mine made themselves heard, to stop the resurgence of the hateful legend and then the Italian Church intervened promptly.
It is very important that the Catholic Church condemned the spread of the legend because, as I said, the legend of ritual murder has a strong Christian component.
In the history of the Jews who kill an innocent child, it is easy to see a new edition of the history of the crucifixion.
Many of the preachers who advertise this legend also accused the Jewish community of exclusivism, of hating the rest of the world, of feeling superior: all accusations later recycled by anti-Semites and anti-Zionists.
In this week's parasha we read the famous commandment "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).
According to our Masters, "loving your neighbour as yourself," means wanting the same things that you want for yourself for other people.
There are more mystical interpretations that we read in this commandment; the obligation to recognise that our neighbour was created in the image of God, like us and therefore we must love our neighbour because we love God.
Although the prevailing interpretation is the paragraph, that we find in our book of prayer, on pg. 169, the list of the mitzvot (.....), of the practical commandments that sometimes I happen to read as a passage of study.
Our Tradition recognises that loving one's neighbour is a very complicated thing, therefore "it provides us with a series of practical indications on what it means to love, respect the father and mother, visit the sick, celebrate with the spouses etc. etc. "
For Christians, the commandment "love your neighbour as yourself" is read and interpreted as the declaration of universal love, without boundaries towards all human beings. A commandment above the capabilities of normal man. Since the believer cannot follow him, he becomes a sinner.
In some cases the idea of building a society based on universal love has actually led to totalitarian states, where negative feelings were prevented by police force. And perhaps, precisely because the idea of loving the whole world is so impossible, Christianity has developed a series of useful sacraments to absolve the believer of the guilt for not having being able to follow these high moral standards.
The search for people to accuse, because they persist in rejecting the message of universal love, is part of the same picture.
It is therefore very positive that Christian voices were raised against such a bloody legend.
When ancient legends come to the surface, it is good to know that we still have friends and allies.
In times of fake news of collective hysteria, it is not at all little and there is enough to be grateful for.
Own your time, because you are free. So says the Rabbi.
I am going to be; now this is a difficult word, countercultural. We Jews have a reputation for being self-conscious and over anxious. We laugh at jokes like the Jewish telegram: "Start worrying, Details to follow". But you know what, courage is also a Jewish value, and we tend to forget that.
Think about our progenitor and model, Avraham. It takes a lot of courage to do what he did, to leave the comfortable existence in the city of Ur, and begin his journey towards a land never seen before, only because God had commanded him to do so - by the way without threatening any punishment if he did not.
We all exist; I mean we are all Jews because of that act of courage, of that middle age man, many many years ago. And so are Christians and Muslims, other monotheistic religions.
And of course one can find countless examples of courage and heroism in the history of the Jewish people, in WWII as well as during the history of the State of Israel.
Courage IS a Jewish virtue. I would say there is a specific kind of courage that we celebrate, or we are invited to think about, on Pesach.
Which is, indeed, the first commandment that the Israelites, as a people, received from God? In chapter 12 of Exodus, immediately after the plagues, the people are commanded to celebrate Pesach, with these words "This month shall be the first of the months for you lakhem" (just to clarify, the beginning of the Jewish year is still on Rosh ha Shanah, in the Fall. This New Year in the Spring, first of Nisan, was to count the years of reign of the kings in Ancient Israel).
The Israelites mark their transition from slavery to freedom, by marking a New Year's Day, a festivity which is lakhem, for them. This is a deep and profound teaching, because slaves do not own their time, free people do.
Slaves cannot decide what to do with their time. Their time belongs to their masters and they have no ownership of it, neither authority nor the possibility to decide what to do with their time. While free people, and free human beings, own their time, they, or rather we can decide what to do with it and sometimes even afford the luxury to waste it.
This is the deep and profound teaching enclosed in this little small word, lakhem, for you. Now that you are free people, your time won't be that of the slaves, who belong to their masters, it will be your time.
It's a powerful message, and certainly a difficult one, and as such it needs to be repeated at least twice a year, on Pesach but also as part of the regular cycle of Torah readings during the year. It takes courage to venture into the desert like Abraham, and to venture as a group on a similar journey towards the Promised Land, but to be able to do this, to have such courage, such a Jewish courage, you must own your time, you must be a free person, not a slave anymore.
And now let me ask you one question. Do we own our time, during these days? Now that we are self-isolated, in quarantine and confined inside the safe boundaries of our homes. Are our days like those of the slaves in Egypt? One day after the other, always the same, with no end in sight, with no structure, no commitment, no freedom, no choice. Repeating one day after the other. I reckon the danger is there. It begins with a sort of complacency, today I can avoid shaving, or taking a shower, or changing my clothes, after all I am here by myself, who's going to complain.
Either if you are retired, or you now work from home, the social conventions do not work anymore, there’s less pressure, less need to show a nice part of yourself, to answer, to comply.
Yes, once my shift is over, I should do this, I should do that, but why now, where's the urgency, let's postpone a bit and be more indulgent, just another couple of hours on the couch in front of Netflix etc. etc. Before you realise, your days lose their structure, there are no societal demands anymore and every day looks like the other. With no end in sight. Like a slave.
Here's where prayer helps. Your days can acquire, a structure, a rhythm, if you pray three times a day (or even only once) in short, if you introduce a daily habit at a precise time. I can tell you, out of experience, that bringing yourself in front of the computer screen with Zoom open and a prayer book in your hands helps you to get out of that psychological trap of boredom and passivity in which we all seem to fall into during these days of quarantine (and by the way if you do not have a prayer book at home let me know, I'll teach you a trick to be able have it).
As a conclusion of this sermon I want to mention Rabbi Robert Rothman, z''l, an extraordinary teacher and Rabbi who passed away few days ago. As you perhaps remember I have received the news of his death just few minutes before the beginning of the 7th day Pesach service.
Rabbi Rothman knew how to use his time. He was born in 1931 in the Bronx, from a dynasty of mitnagedim (students of the Vilna Gaon). His immigrant grandfather was a rabbi but he went for another profession, because America was not kosher enough. Young Rothman went to yeshiva, then to Yeshiva University, received ordination as an Orthodox Rabbi, then he became a psychotherapist and then moved to the Reform Hebrew Union College, and was ordained as a Reform Rabbi. That was his background. Meanwhile he managed to learn to play the drums and work as military chaplain in Korea. And then, as a Rabbi, he gave the first sermon against the Vietnam War (and the chair of the synagogue was a military subcontractor!), marched with Martin Luther King, set up the first Interfaith council in Rye, New York, volunteered as chaplain of the firefighters and of the police, went to the Soviet Union smuggling siddurim, and returned to Moscow to give the first sermon after the liberation from Communism, in the same synagogue, but this time with the police to protect him and not to take note of what he was saying. This extraordinary man, when retired, used to spend part of his time in Italy, helping the local Reform Congregations and being a constant pastoral presence in the life of many of us.
I was on the point of giving up with my dream to become a Rabbi when I met Rabbi Rothman. Having then shadowed him I learnt so much. Like never be afraid of talking politics from the pulpit, (which he did, even when it was dangerous or just not popular, as synagogues could be classified as political associations and then lose part of their tax exemption - that was in the Reagan years). But not on Yom Kippur, because on Yom Kippur people do not come to shul to hear the last column of the Guardian, or the New York Times, (he obviously said New York Times), rather to find the courage to measure up themselves against their own moral standards, honestly, and the strength not to condemn themselves for failing to do so.
And so Rabbi Rothman on Kol Nidre used to go down from the bimah, and to give his sermon walking around the shul, between the pews, looking at his fellow Jews in their eyes, with a friendly face, to support these souls in the journey that was about to begin. To encourage Jews to look into themselves, with honesty and be strong enough to forgive themselves, and finally let go, because that was the time of the year, and that time belongs to us.
Because we are free people, and because there is a time for everything.
Over the last few days I have studied, the incredibly profound writings of Joseph Soloveitchik, where I have learnt, or even better re-learnt this powerful teaching about the time of the slaves vs the time of the Jews, that is of the free human being. I have devoted hours of my time to study the writings of Soloveitchik, in memory of Rabbi Rothman who (obviously) had attended his classes at Yeshiva University.
And so, even though I cannot walk around the pews of the shul right now, I want to invite you to make good use of your time, as Jews and as free human beings and to join our virtual minyanim during the week.
It's an invitation from your Rabbi, in the name of a beloved, deeply admired, great teacher, Rabbi Robert Aron Rothman, may his memory become a blessing.
HUMMUS AND MORALITY
Hummus! Who does not like hummus?
Do you eat hummus during Pesach?
Come on, you know the answer. If you are Ashkenazi and want to keep the tradition you grew up in, of course you do not eat hummus during Pesach, because hummus contains chickpeas, and chickpeas are legumes, kitniot and everybody knows Ashkeanzi Jews do not eat kitnyot during Pesach. While if you are Sephardi you do eat kitnyot, legumes, during Pesach. Your Passover diet is more varied and therefore you can eat hummus during Pesach. Bon Appetit!
But according to some opinion we should NOT eat hummus throughout the year, especially if said hummus is an Israeli produce. Why? Because it is a cultural appropriation.
Sociologists and scholars, (who by the way made their fortune largely in Western universities), explain that cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture.
Hummus is an Arabic recipe, and they folks maintain, that we Jews should not have it on our plates, because it is not part of our original culinary culture.
Can I say it? It's all nonsense.
Hummus is not Arabic food, (and by the way it's on the table of Middle Eastern Jews since immemorial times), it is also, now, thanks to Israeli businessman and entrepreneurs, well known and appreciated all over the world.
Cultural history, be culinary or otherwise, is all about "appropriation".
Think about it. The story of Pesach is a Jewish story; Pesach is a Jewish holiday when we celebrate our liberation as Jews from the slavery in Egypt. It is an essentially Jewish holiday, based on a Jewish narrative, which is all about us Jews.
Except that it is so inspiring that it has been taken as a model by countless movements for liberation of many other minorities. The most important example is the Afro American community. They are literally children, or grandchildren, of slaves. In their churches and religious services are the stories of slavery and freedom, of Egypt and Israel, which are evoked through hymns and prayers. A full genre of music has been developed, Gospel.
When I listen to some Gospel songs, I personally do not feel I’m a victim of cultural appropriation. On the contrary, I am proud that my own history, my own culture becomes a source of inspiration for someone else.
There's one thing we should not forget about the story of Pesach, though. It's great to read the words "Let my people go", words from our Holy Book, inspiring many good fights and worthy causes.
But there a specific Jewish context.
In Biblical times, gods and divinities were local, nationals. It was a polytheistic world. People worshipped different gods, according to the place they lived in.
Every god had power and authority in his own land. Rulers and kings derived their power from the gods themselves. Outside the boundaries of their kingdom, gods had no powers.
Pharaoh knows that he, and his gods, had no authority beyond Egypt. For this reason he did not want the Israelites to go in the desert where neither he nor his gods had any authority.
The Egyptians thought they could abuse and oppress the Israelites because the Egyptian gods, (and Pharaoh as their guarantor), gave them the power and the authority to do so. The Israelites were regarded as powerless, and enslaving them was possible and legitimate because, so the Egyptians thought, the Israelite God was not effective, like "not working" inside the boundaries of the Kingdom of Egypt.
The God of Israel, our God, is different; God rules all over the world and not only in a specific Country; God requires morality and protection of human life, and human dignity, everywhere in the world, and not only in His own dominion.
For this reason it is particularly meaningful that Moses wanted to lead the Israelites into the desert, because the Jewish God, as opposed to the Egyptian gods, rules and has power everywhere, including the desert, which for the Egyptians was inconceivable.
The Jewish God does not only rule all over the world. He also demands moral behaviour from everyone.
The story of Exodus, in its proper, Jewish, context, has a specific starting point. It does not begin with the plagues: Dam Zfardea Kinim...: we indeed list them during the Seder, but not at the beginning. Neither does it begins with the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, an episode that it is not included in the Haggadah at all.
No, the very beginning of the story of Exodus is when the midwives refuse to carry Pharaoh's order to kill all the Israelite males. That is inconceivable in the Ancient Egypt. Disobeying the order of Pharaoh who was nonetheless god himself, it was impossible even to think of.
Why did the midwives refuse to kill the Israelite babies? Because, so the Torah says, for "fear of God".
The narrative of Exodus opens up with the conflict between the order of Pharaoh and the fear of God. The two midwives chose the latter over the former and a new era in history begins.
That first generation of Israelite males will experience the passage from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the journey towards the land of Israel, from desperation to hope. They were born because the midwives, Shifra and Puah, chose the fear of God over obeying the order of Pharaoh and of the local divinity.
In a way, we live in a similar time. The same people who blame Israel, or the Jews, for cultural appropriation, because we dare to put hummus on our table, live in a word of relativism, where each tribe, each culture, each nation, has its own god and its own morality and no opinion can be expressed, except acceptance and support. In a way, it is still the time of Egyptian slavery, a time of relativism and plurality of gods that are revered and worshiped according to the tribe they protect and rule upon. When we deal with people who think that polygamy, or FGM, are acceptable practice, because -hey!- it's their culture after all and we cannot judge, we deal precisely with the same mind set of antiquity.
That was the mind set challenged by the midwives, out of fear of God, of the Jewish God. That was the beginning of Exodus, and the beginning of our history as a people, united by a common destiny and by faith in a universal morality.
This is what we are celebrating during these days. Either with hummus or not!
It's the dawning of a new era?
There is one reason why we Reform Jews are uncomfortable with the Book of Leviticus and with Torah portions such as the one that we have just read, and it is this: the Temple.
We do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and in some prayer books even the references to Jerusalem have been diluted.
To be honest, we are not the only ones. It is safe to say that many Orthodox, or more traditional Jews, do not take the references of the Temple literally, but consider them as metaphors as the end of religion wars. They do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple, but rather, like us, for a future of peace and reciprocal understanding.
Of course we Jews mourn in our prayers the destruction of the Temple. But how many of you were in Synagogue, sitting barefoot on shiva chairs, last Tisha beAv, in August? Very few. We do not mourn the destruction of the Temple properly. Through the centuries of Diaspora and Exile, Judaism has reinvented itself, synagogues and shuls have replaced the Temple, prayers have replaced sacrifices, Mr Cohen and Mr Levi do not exercise their services in the Temple but rather they earn their living like all of us. Rebuilding the Temple and returning to the Land of Israel were not among our priorities.
True, there have always been Jews living in the Land of Israel, but for centuries the majority of the Jews worldwide had tried to adapt themselves to the life in the Diaspora and make the most of it.
Contemporary Zionism, the movement for the self-determination of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, had been a minority among the Jews people, for many many years. Things have changed dramatically only with the growth of European anti-Semitic forces which have literally forced many Jews to emigrate to Israel, sometimes quite reluctantly.
Jewish life has been compared, over the last decades, to a circle with two centres, Israel and the Diaspora. Israel is the centre of the Jewish world, where the State calendar is Jewish and where Hebrew is the official language. But Judaism as a culture, and as a religion, has blossomed in the Diaspora, thanks to synagogues, Jewish schools and Jewish institutions.
Think about the history of our Synagogue, At the time of its foundation, several families pledged to offer money so it was designed as the magnificent and strong building that it is, with the stained glass windows we all know. For the generation of our founders the centre of Jewish life was the Diaspora. But then the Six Day War erupted and many of the resources that were destined here went elsewhere, to support Israel and to guarantee its survival.
It is one among many examples of what it means to be part of this circle with two centres, Israel and Diaspora. They complement each other, although a certain tension is always there. Everybody with Israeli relatives knows it well, often they tell you "why don't you move here, why do you want to continue to live as a minority?"
So, to sum up: Judaism has been centred around the Temple, then the Temple was destroyed, the Jews went all around the world and the centre of Judaism became the Synagogue. Then some Jew who, generally speaking, did not like going to Synagogue, started moving back to Israel but without rebuilding the Temple, and we have been living in this situation for a while.
The Destruction of the Temple had been a catastrophe, to be sure, but it has also been a revolution, the beginning of a stage of Jewish life that has lasted for millennia. So now what?
I think we are probably at the beginning of a new stage in Jewish history. These innovations we have been forced to adopt, streaming services, moving classes on line, where possible, have been discussed at length, in this Synagogue too, but there was a general reluctance to embrace them. We decided, because of the pandemic, we had no alternative. But you know what? These things are here to stay. Even when we will return in our building in Palmeira Avenue, I think we, like many other Synagogues in the world, will continue to stream services. We have reached out to a larger number of congregants, and among them people who cannot move from home and precisely for that reason are in need of a spiritual community to connect to.
I used to daven alone three times a day. Now I daven via Zoom and there is always someone else there, which means that without the service on line they would probably not daven at all. When we will return in our Synagogue I don't think I will stop connecting via Zoom, to people who cannot come to shul
The same goes for classes. I used to give classes to a small group and now people from London join in; the audience is larger.
There is a different sense of closeness. When I chat with people via Skype it is always less formal, more relaxed, more open. We see each other's environment. Our community experiences a new sense of connection when we do Havdalah, and it will be the same when we will have our Seder on Thursday.
This technology, that we have had to embrace, because of the pandemic, is changing our religious life.
To be clear, I think that synagogues will continue to exist. Nothing replaces the feeling of actually being in place, shoulder to shoulder with other fellow Jews. But a larger number of Jews will be reachable, plus we will have the chance to see each other more often, and to support each other more effectively, just by being in contact as we are doing now.
There is nothing good in a pandemic. But there was nothing good in the destruction of the Temple, either. We have a date in the calendar to mourn it but nonetheless, Judaism reorganised itself after the destruction of the Temple, and it was able to build a circle with two centres, something impossible from a logical point of view. But we do not do logic, and this is the secret of our survival.
May we continue to be non-logical and more technological, and see you at the next virtual minyan, or at the Seder, or the Havdalah, or... did you notice how many more opportunities we have, now?