Rabbi Andrea's Sermons
"Male and female created He them"
This is a story from the days before the Internet, in the 80s. Not the Stone Age, but almost. It's the story of a group of teenagers, among them myself, who one day saw the much feared and quite authoritarian Principal of the Teachers' College on the bus.
They were about to say "Hello!" -or rather: "Good Afternoon" when they realised that he was reading a pornographic magazine (believe it or not, pornography was a thing even before the Internet; there were magazines).
That Principal had a reputation for being an authoritarian and quite a violent type. Also, he was famous for a lesson that he had given as a substitute teacher in front of a predominantly female class, as Teachers Colleges were and still are in Italy.
"What is today's subject?"
"Philosophy. Mister Principal!" answered the girls.
"And which philosopher are you studying at the moment?"
"Aristotle, Mister Principal".
"Very well", said the Principal, who thought he could master any subject. "Let's talk about Aristotle's Logic. Let's begin with the difference between subject and object. In sexual intercourse, man is subject because man gives. While the woman receives. Therefore, the woman is an object".
That Principal was a frightening character; not one girl laughed like that sentence deserved to be treated.
That late afternoon on the bus, no one among us kids, and students from another school, were surprised to discover that "The Principal" was an avid reader of that kind of magazine, where women are literally transformed into objects.
The problem is that the rough summary of Aristotle's thought given by that disgusting character was accurate.
For Aristotle and other great Greek philosophers, the woman is a passive entity in the bedroom and political life.
They openly theorise that women are too emotional to take part in public life, which cannot be trusted because they are unable to make rational decisions or understand what is good for the polis, the city. It is, therefore, better for the good of all, that women let themselves be guided by men.
Thus wrote Aristotle, in his wisdom (for lack of a better expression). And his thought was well received without criticism by medieval philosophers, Arab and Christian (all males).
I don't know how many among them shared the passions of "The Principal" for pornography.
But they certainly helped create legal systems where women were literally reputed less credible than men. A culture that still survives, despite being -on paper- a thing of the past.
Over the last week, the news was full of reports of violence by men against women.
And I happened to wonder to what extent we Jews are also responsible for creating a culture and a mentality whose consequences people still suffer from now - but especially women.
I also found myself asking this question because this week's parashah is about the Creation of the man and the woman. Or rather, it contains two different versions of the story of Creation, probably the work of two other authors.
One is the famous story of the Creation of Eve from Adam's rib. Here the woman is supported and helps the man. This is in the second chapter of Genesis, just before the story of the serpent.
But another version of Creation's story is hinted at succinctly in the previous chapter Genesis 1 v.27.
"And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them".
Traditional Judaism cannot accept that the authors of the Bible are different human beings. The stronghold of Orthodox Judaism is that the Torah has been dictated by God to Moses. In the Middle Ages, the Jewish philosophers engaged in a great exegetical effort. A lot of energy was used to bring these two different versions of the Creation story into an agreement.
The general opinion of the commentators is that this first Creation, in which man and woman were created at the same time, is the moment of the Creation of the human soul.
According to the Rabbi, every human soul has a male component and a female component. That about two thousand years before Carl Gustav Jung,
The next moment - the story of Eve and the story of the serpent - is when man and woman are created physically, with the different physical characteristics they have.
In fact, after trying to challenge God, they realise that they are naked and that they have a body.
This second story of the Creation of the woman is more famous than the first. We may think that it is the main narrative.
But if we pay more attention to the text, we can see that in the first story, when human being created male or female at the same time, that are made in the image of God.
Here we find the famous expression "betzelem Elohim" in the image of God. A statement that sums up all of Judaism.
The man can claim to have been created in the image of God when he is a male part and a female part, or when he reckons that he has a male part and a female part.
And as the great philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik explains, this first human being is endowed with a soul, that is, with the ability to understand the abstract laws that govern the Universe, that is to put himself in a relationship with God.
To this human being, male and female at the same time, the power is attributed to creating and dominating the rest of Creation, classifying and naming.
This (male and female together) is the human being described by the Psalmist as "slightly inferior to the angels."
This human being has the attributes of dignity; he/she reflects the majesty of the creator. In other words, only when the human being knows that he has a male part and a female part, then he can share divine responsibility and collaborate with God to make this world better than he found it.
Of course, I am not arguing here that Judaism is devoid of patriarchal influences. There are, in Rabbinic literature, problematic expressions or worse, like that of Aristotle.
This is probably because of the Diaspora, of living in regions where Greek culture was dominant. But it is important to keep in mind that there is not only the patriarchal perspective within our Scriptures in our sacred books.
There are other narratives as well, like the one I just outlined. And they allow us, if properly considered, to advance our normative, and our culture in a more egalitarian and less patriarchal direction.
I want to be bolder. I even suggest that our culture, thanks to this understanding of the relationship between male and female, has a lot to teach to the general society, in times when too many women are still considered objects.
One of the most fascinating places in Israel is the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. It is the resting place for the most outstanding leaders of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. There you can pay honour to the memory of Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and others.
There are exceptions: Ben Gurion has been buried in the Negev. From his tomb, you can see the desert, a region that will blossom one day, according to the Zionist dream.
Menachem Begin wanted to be buried elsewhere, on the Mount of Olives, next to his wife Aliza and the two Irgun partisans executed by the British in 1947.
All the graves of Zionist leaders have a common trait: a stark, essential simplicity. A stone with a name and a date. Nothing more. They are pretty different from the massive monuments full of decorations and depictions that you find so frequently on the graves of European political leaders.
On the tombs of Zionist leaders, there are no descriptions of their deeds.
What a contrast with Communist dictators. The embalmed body of Mao Zedong is exposed in a massive mausoleum built of the central Tien An Men square in Bejing.
Lenin's body, equally embalmed, is kept inside another impressive mausoleum, in which Stalin also was buried until the 60s. Then they moved Stalin's body elsewhere, next to other personalities of Russian history. Fidel Castro rests under a gigantic white boulder (they wanted to be sure that he would not come out ...) with the name Fidel engraved on it.
The irony is that these characters, who have dedicated their lives to equality among human beings, want to stand out when they are dead. They have spent their life trying to eradicate the belief in the afterlife. They have built mausoleums that are meant to endure eternally.
Even more striking is the contrast with Moses.
We don't know where Moses is buried. According to the Torah, when Moses felt that the last moment was approaching ascended on a mountain, nobody knows precisely how and where he passed away.
Neither we know-how. The verses of the Torah that describe the death of Moses are a bit obscure, and some commentator points out that perhaps Moses did not die of natural death.
Therefore, it is not possible to organise any pilgrimage to the tomb of Moses, as it happens to the graves of saints in the Middle East or of political leaders all over the world.
Moses dies alone. Far away from the people, he had led until the Promised Land was in sight. And we don't know where he's buried. No one knows.
But this does not mean he's forgotten. Quite the opposite, as we all know. Indeed, we remember Moses every time we read from the Scroll.
There is indeed a Biblical verse towards the end of the Torah (Dt 33:4) that, by the way, before COVID, we used to repeat every week -as it is part of the Torah service.
Torah tziva lanu Moshe. Moses left us the Torah.
And here, ladies and gentlemen, we begin to see the difference between Moses and other political leaders.
Zionist leaders have left to the Jewish people and to all humanity: the rebuilt state of Israel, a bastion for protecting the Jewish people against the repetition of persecutions.
Communist leaders instead have left monuments, a testimony of their cult of personality and perhaps a way to hide the crimes committed in their name.
The legacy of Moses is undoubtedly different. Moses has left to us the Torah, something which endures more than any statue or any grave.
But pay attention to the way the verse continues: "Morasha Kehillat Yakov".
The translation in the prayerbook is somehow misleading:"heritage of the community of Jacob".
If we want to be precise with wording, the proper translation of heritage, like "an item that has been inherited", is Jerusha.
So what is this strange word? What did Moses leave us?
Those familiar with the Hebrew language know that in Hebrew when you want to transform a noun into a verb, you add to the root of the word a suffix, this letter Mem.
Mem is the letter that transforms a static item into a dynamic entity. This way, the Torah, this inheritance that was left to us by Moses before he disappeared, becomes something that is in motion.
And of course, we ask which sort of movement are we talking about.
The answer is in the first passage of Pirkei Avot: Moses received the Torah on Sinai passed down to Joshua, and from Joshua to the elders, and from the elders to the prophets, and to the prophets to the Sanhedrin and so on. I can devote a sermon to each of these passages among the generations, but I will spare them for another time. The important bit is the last: "The say three things: rais many disciples".
So now we understand.
The Torah is a Morasha, an heritage, and not a Jerusha (like, say, a real estate building) because it is transmitted through the generations via teaching.
The Torah is not simply something that comes to us after it was left to us by Moses before his solitary death. The Torah has been handed down to us to be studied and interpreted. The study and the teaching of the Torah, of its values, principles, and rules, is how we honour Moses's memory.
Teaching Torah replaces practices such as the pilgrimage to the tombs or other ways by which people honour saints and political leaders. (and make no mistake: Moses was a political leader!)
Passing on the Torah from one generation to another, through the sacred mission of teaching, is the true monument built by the Jewish people in honour of Moses, much more resistant and lasting than any stone, any tomb, any mausoleum.
This is what ensures the survival of Judaism to this day, as we repeat every week when we prepare to open the Scroll on which the Torah is written and then engage ourselves in the sacred work of recitation, study and commentary.
Which we Jews continue to do.
September 11, 2001, was a beautiful sunny day in Milan. Like every morning, I was in the library of my university, busy with my PhD dissertation.
I'm not sure how I realised that people were leaving the usually crowded reading room.
Internet wasn't a big thing in Italy back then. Still, there were a couple of terminals accessible in the library's main reading room (next to the catalogues). From there, I learnt of the terrorists' attack's, trying to find my way through a group of students huddling around the computer.
I did what other people did. I went home. Walking towards the bus stop, I passed by Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, which at that time of the day was always crowded; not that day, though. There were only small groups of tourists, one of whom tried to watch the news on a TV inside a shopping window.
But as I said, it was a beautiful sunny day, and it was difficult to see through the glass. One of the tourists -an American- asked me what was going on. I had told him, "Do you remember the twin towers? They are not there anymore".
In the evening, we had the choir rehearsal for our synagogue. Rosh ha Shana was one week away. We met in an apartment, and of course, the TV was on. A young Israeli said that he had seen that Palestinians were celebrating in the Territories. They were offering sweets, but some cab drivers refused to take the sweets and cursed the happy crowd. An elderly lady said she had just been on the Twin Towers last Summer; their daughters' cruise to NY was a gift for the wedding anniversary.
Psychologists explain that one of the most common reactions to shocking events is denial, pretending that nothing has happened, and keeping on with previous commitments. We decided to do that. So we spent the evening rehearsing El Norah and other masterpieces of the Sephardic liturgy while ice-cubes were melting in the jugs of fruit juices. It was, as I said, a very hot day.
I saw other rationalisations, other narratives, emerging in the following days. We need narratives. When we face events that we cannot understand, our minds build a story. Such a story helps us to figure out the why -why did it happen- and the possible outcomes; there is nothing more terrifying than uncertainty. We human beings need to tell ourselves that we know what is going to happen and that we are prepared, at least to a certain extent.
The narrative I saw materialising around me was as follows: September 11 was an attack by Muslims against the West. Muslims worldwide have all the good reasons to be upset against America, against the Western world, because of colonialism, "Orientalism", Islamophobia and -above all, what's-happening-in-Palestine.
I heard such a narrative from several people, usually literate, academic colleagues, or people who, like me, considered themselves liberals. It was thrown at me, for example, during informal conversations -on the bus or around the coffee machine. I remember as if it was today how I felt speechless and exposed, how quickly I looked around the room. I realised I was the only Jew, the only person in the room with some emotional connection with Israel. And the expectation, or worse: the assumption, that I shared a narrative which assigned to Israel, and to Zionism, a share of guilt for what has happened on September 11.
It got worse. At that time, I was like many citizens of Milan, an attentive listener of a community radio and its program based on unfiltered telephone calls. And I heard several listeners call revealing what they had heard from Arab newspapers and friends: that on the morning of the 9/11 attack, no Jew has shown up to work. They have been probably informed in advance that was the unspoken, or sometimes openly spoken. The Israelis knew it. The Jews knew it (or have been informed). That is, the Israelis and the Jews were complicit. I could not share with anyone the fear that I felt because of the quick spread of this legend. So small, so little it seemed my fear; if compared to the pain and to the tragedy of the New Yorkers, of the Iraqis, and of course of the Palestinians. I had adopted the mindset that the suffering of the Jews is never a serious problem; there is always someone who has it worse (and quite often by the hand of Jews).
Even more terrifying was another narrative I found myself exposed to. It went this way: Americans had it coming. They are so arrogant; they impose their so-called culture on the rest of the world, they are nothing but colonialists, and now "the peoples" rebel. Sorry for the casualties, but that's inevitable.
I am actually quoting from the person who told me this narrative; he was my barber. And, of course, you do not engage in a political discussion if you are sitting on a barber's chair and the other guy has a sharped razor in his hands. But especially because the other two or three customers were nodding in agreement.
I have known this barber guy since we were teenagers. He was not a leftist; quite the contrary, his family were quite nationalist. He himself, in the 80s, was in love with Reagan's America, a deep believer in individual freedom and a virulent anti-Communist. He was so enamoured of America that he had abandoned the Italian passion for football and embraced the all-American basketball.
But evidently, in 2001, America was no longer the cultural beacon it was two decades before when we were schoolmates. Now he reacted with a kind of pleasure at the thought of American citizens suffering. Now he wanted the Americans to be punished. And the other young gentlemen who that day were waiting for a haircut shared his feelings and newfound worldview. According to which we Jews are, of course, on the side of America. A Country we probably run.
Fast forward twenty years. Today, and for us Jews, things are not that changed. If anything, they got worse.
Israel is still portrayed as a source of the problems between Islamic Countries and the Western world, if not the main source of problems. Never mind if a growing number of Muslim Countries have now established diplomatic relations with Israel. They are, probably, the wrong kind of Muslims.
Conspiracy theories abound. And they have a growing number of followers. Conspiracy theories are pure nonsense; think to Q Anon or the Flat Earth-ist. But sadly, there is never a shortage of people eager to discover powerful and small cabals of intermarried families who rule the world. And even when a conspiracy theorist does not speak openly of a Jewish plot, we know what his audience think of us.
But even more worrying for us Jews, especially the talks- which we also hear from conservative politicians - about the end of democracy, the references to liberal elites, narrow circles of privileged rootless cosmopolitans, and powerful bankers.
We know where this language leads. It may not be explicitly anti-Semitic, but it depicts an enemy with the same evil traits that for centuries have been part of the antisemitic repertoire.
This is the cultural atmosphere ushered by September 11. A poisonous mixture of ingredients that were around already, perhaps since the end of the Cold War. September 11 was the event that put all these ingredients together, creating the poisonous atmosphere which we feel around us today.
I wish I could conclude this sermon with words of hope and optimism, but it seems to me too difficult. Today in Kabul, they will actually celebrate the war against the Western world and against all the Western world stands for, including our existence as a free people.
I have no prescriptions other than the duty we have in the West to welcome refugees from that part of the world and to prepare ourselves for a long-term confrontation with a part of the Islamic world and -perhaps- China which will likely be similar to the Cold War.
But as this Shabbat, we are halfway between Rosh ha Shanah and Yom Kippur. We are preparing ourselves to give an account of our spiritual failures, our mistakes, and what we can do better for the future.
I invite you to pray more; to come more to synagogue, to keep more in touch with our community, and, if possible, to spend some time studying our tradition.
A cultural tradition that once a year invites you to look inside yourself honestly, admit failures, and commit to being a better human being is the best antidote to fanaticism and violence. And this is precisely why insecure and violent people are so afraid of them. But as for us, let's not be intimidated.
I wish you Shabbat Shalom and a very Jewish Jewish New year.
YOU SHOULD LEARN HEBREW
You know, you should really learn Hebrew.
It is such a wonderful language; it allows to express so many different nuances in such a poignant way.
Take, for example, the first line of this week's Torah portion.
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם
Atem Nitzavim hayom kulekhem
"You are standing today, all of you".
Moses addresses the Israelites, assembled on the bank of the Jordan River, before entering the Land.
He speaks: "You are standing here, and you are about to enter a covenant with the Almighty. He will grant you safety if you will proper observe the Law that has been given on Sinai.
"Atem Nitzavim" you are standing;
it is an interesting expression. If you are familiar with Hebrew prayers, you already know another verb that means "to stand", Laamod (the root of the Hebrew word Amidah, standing prayer).
Why does the text say Atem Nitzavim, rather than Atem Omdim, (from Laamod)?
Why this verb and not the other?
There is a very subtle nuance, a small yet important difference in the meaning of these two verbs.
In English they are both usually translated with the same word, "standing". La'amod means: to stand by yourself as a single individual.
And indeed, the Amidah prayer is a prayer that we address to God as individuals, with our personal feelings, supplication, request.
In Orthodox services, the Amidah is usually read in silence first. Each worshipper deals with God privately, in his or her own way, and then the prayer is repeated as a sort of catch-up.
While Nitzavim means to stand as part of a collectivity, as a group: indeed our Torah portion continues in this way: "your chiefs. your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the men in Israel..."
That is very timely.
It actually describes an essential concept of the theology of Yom Kippur.
When we apologise, we ask for forgiveness we go through an alphabetic list of sins "Ashamnu Bagadnu Gazalnu etc".
Such a list may include sins we have not committed, but we apologise nonetheless.
Why? Why should I apologise, confess sin and ask for forgiveness for a transgression I am actually not responsible for?
This is basic Yom Kippur theology. We are responsible anyway for a transgression committed by other Jews because we have not been able to stop or to dissuade the sinner from the transgression.
Kol Israel aravim ze la ze, Every Jew is responsible for each other; I believe we have all heard this expression at least once.
There are in our history, in the history of the Jewish people, so many beautiful examples of this Netzavim feeling, this "we stand as a community" feeling.
I'd like to share with you one of these, the story of Milton Rubenfeld.
Milton Rubenfeld was a pilot who flew for the Royal Air Force and U.S. Army during World War II,
And later he became one of the five founding pilots of the Israeli Air Force in the Israeli War of Independence. It is widely believed that Rubenfeld and other volunteer pilots changed the course of the war.
When World War II broke out in Europe, Rubenfeld wanted to fly combat missions; however, the United States was not yet in the war. So he decided to fly with the Royal Air Force in England. When the United States declared war on Germany, Rubenfeld signed on as a pilot with the U.S. Army.
After WWII, in 1948, he joined the tiny Israel air force, whose existence had been kept secret.
On his second mission, in May 1948, after attacking positions on the eastern front, Rubenfeld's fighter was hit.
He managed to fly it to Israeli territory, bailing out over the Mediterranean Sea.
The problem was that the Israeli Air Force had not only been a secret to the Egyptians:it had also been a secret to Israeli citizens.
Thus, the inhabitants of a moshav nearby assumed that Rubenfeld - who was swimming in the Mediterranean- was an Arab pilot.
Rubenfeld knew no Hebrew and knew very little Yiddish, so to convince them he was Jewish, he shouted the only thing he could remember: "Shabes, gefilte fish! Shabes, gefilte fish!", while bullets were flying all around him.
Now think about this. A Jew who is unfamiliar with the Jewish tradition but nonetheless volunteered to join the fight against the Nazis even before his Country is actually at war.
He actually put his life at risk not one but two times during the Israeli Independence War. And then finds himself shouting the name of the most common Jewish holyday and of the most common Jewish food, to have his own life saved,
All of this when other Jews are shooting at him because they don't believe that the Jewish State has an Air Force like any other State.
This exemplifies the Nitzavim state of mind, Of being part of the Jewish community and the Jewish people, even when you think you know very little of Judaism.
Even when other Jews do not recognise you as one of them, and mistaken you for one of our enemies.
This is quite an extreme example. Not everybody is a Milton Rubenfeld, an air pilot and a war hero. Neither we have to be.
Think to the continuation of the Torah portion "the elders, the officers, all the men, the children, the wives, the stranger that lives in your midst, those who chop wood, those who draw waters..."
It is a list of all the social classes, from the highest -the elders and the chiefs- to the lowest -those who do the menial works. Regardless the social status, every Jew is part of the Netzavim moment, every Jew is part of the covenant, every Jew is responsible to other Jews.
The High Holydays are coming, and this is something we have to ponder about.
Chatimah Tovah everyone (and Shabes! Shabes! Gefilte fish!)
In 2001 Leo Baeck College hosted an interfaith talk with Dr. Faisal Bodi in a moment of its history that hardly can be considered inspiring. Dr. Bodi is a Muslim journalist. Also, he believes that Israel has no right to exist. According to a column he published in the Guardian (where else), the audience had no problems with his perverse belief. [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/jan/03/comment.israelandthepalestinians]
That was long ago. Obviously, things have changed since then; although the Jewish State is not a popular cause for some Leo Baeck College students currently active on social media.
Dr. Bodi went a long way since that talk. He had some problem with the BBC because (which is something...) his views on the Middle East were reputed too extreme.
Now, Dr. Bodi's writings are hosted on the website of the "Islamic Human Rights Commission", "a non-profit organization -according to Wikipedia- "aligned with the Islamic Republic of Iran based in London".
This is past history, one would hope. Although I still wonder whether one can say that "Palestine has no right to exist" in that renowned learning institution. But I digress.
Unfortunately, it is not past history the leniency with which Islamic extremists are treated in some sections of the Western world.
We have seen terrible images from Kabul; we look forward with fear and anxiety to the future of Afghanistan; we know that that Country is about to become a Disneyland for terrorists. Yet, who is to blame for the rise of the Taliban, one of the worse theocracy of the 20th Century? '"The Americans", we hear. That is the Western world, that is us. We dared to impose "our" democracy to that part of the world -which apparently does not deserves it (this is the implication). And they have rebelled against the colonialist enterprise. We are admonished that Muslim fundamentalism, or "radicalization", is mainly a consequence of colonialism. Or it is a punishment for Western arrogance. A Western fault. Our fault.
And as regards the Taliban? We are told last time that they came to power, the civil wars ended; that under their rule there was no corruption, while during American "occupation", crime was everywhere. One must acknowledge, we are told, that the Taliban proved to be effective in keeping order. After all, not so many Afghani men and women protested at the time, which must mean it was good for them.
Unfortunately, this leniency towards radical Islam, the self-blaming, for the Americans (and the West)... are about to return en vogue. I can easily foresee that many of us will be annoyed or enraged, or worse. Well, bear in mind that our irritation is nothing compared to the suffering endured by the Afghan population: to which the media won't pay much attention, of course.
There's another leitmotif that is about to return, and it is worth paying attention to it. We will hear, and perhaps the opinion has already been expressed, that there is not much difference between Zionism and radical Islam. We will be lectured that the former (those bloody Zionists) has caused the latter as a form of defense.
Those poor folks! They see the suffering of their Palestinian brethren, and what can they do to defend themselves? Of course, they feel the urge to leash some woman or to stone some infidels! It's so human! It's a natural reaction, completely understandable. Islamism, so the saying goes, is the only means for the Muslim masses to restore their dignity.
You've heard the reasoning, right? And it continues this way.
Judaism and Islam are similar. They are both patriarchal and misogynistic religions whose followers are equally dangerous and intolerant. Look what the Jews do when there is no one to restrain them. Look at what happens in places such as Meah Shearim or Gateshead! As far as I know, in neither place, people are beheaded, and in no ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, women are leashed. Haredi Jews do not force their children to watch public executions. If anything, because public executions do not take place where ultra-Orthodox Jews live. And this is obviously a minor detail for those keen to notice the similarities between Zionism and Muslim fundamentalism.
Call me an Islam-phobic. We will have to face these idiotic arguments a lot of times in the future. So I want to point out an important difference between Judaism (and I mean all the forms and the denominations of Judaism); and Islam, as it is practiced by fundamentalists such as ISIS, the Taliban, or the Iranian regime.
We believe in the dignity of human beings, regardless of religion, status, or social class. They do not.
And the proof can be found in a passage of our Torah portion and in the way the Rabbis have interpreted to make it relevant.
It is not in the part of the Torah we have read today. Allow me please to recapitulate it briefly. Deuteronomy 26:5 -10. The declaration that the Israelite farmer had to give while bringing to the Temple the bikkurim, the offer of the first fruits. "My father was a wandering Aramaean etc...." we are familiar with that; we read on Pesach.
There was a problem for those illiterate Israelites who could not remember the formula accurately.
The Rabbis treated this problem as a paradigm for a larger problem: "what can we do to facilitate the participation to religious life for those lacking education?. This problem remained after the destruction of the Temple when sacrifices and offerings were not anymore part of Jewish religious life.
The Mishnah explains that it was up to the Kohen, the priest, to recite the declaration if and when the farmer did not remember it. The farmer would then repeat word by word.
But what happened then? The less educated farmers stopped bringing the fruits at the Temple because they did not want to be embarrassed by the public exposition of their poor education!
Therefore it was instituted that, whether the farmer knew or did not know the formula, the Kohen always recited the declaration first; and the farmer, rich or poor, literate or illiterate, always repeated.
All of this to preserve the dignity of those who could not read or memorize a one-paragraph declaration
This is, by the way, the reason why -as a rule-, even if you're able to read directly from the Torah, from the Scroll, it is the Rabbi or, in our case Steve, the Baal koreh, who does the actual reading. This is done to preserve human dignity, and how could we not, in front of the open Scroll, the holiest and solemn moment in any ritual of the Jewish religion.
I would like to call your attention precisely to this. On the high value that human dignity has in our faith. It is precisely to preserve the dignity, not to embarrass the worshipper, that in every synagogue, from the ultra-Orthodox to the ultra-liberal, the reading of the Torah is carried by one individual only, while those who are called read only the blessings.
Now compare this to the Taliban; practice to ambush the worshippers at the exit of the mosque, with a centimeter ruler in hands, and to measure the beards to check whether they were grown according to the precepts of the Qoran. And if it was not, the poor Muslim is publicly humiliated, or worse: beaten, on the door of the very mosque he's just been in, to pray.
This is probably not the major of the crimes committed by the Taliban. Still, anyway, it speaks volumes about what they think of human dignity, and more generally, about how they practice their religion: through humiliation and prevarication.
Let me stress, many of the victims of these Talibans' crimes are Muslims themselves. We should never fail to make the important distinction between Muslim fundamentalism and the rest of the Muslim world.
But, equally, we should never leave unchallenged crass generalization according to which there's no difference between us Jews and the violent theocratic ideology of the Taliban.
The differences are very visible, and we should never be tired or ashamed to talk about them.
Their faith is not like our faith and does not deserve to be treated with leniency.
Korah & Mr Levi
This week's Torah reading looks out of place in a Reform Synagogue.
It is about the obligation of the community to maintain the Levites, who worked in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
We Reform Jews do not share the enthusiasm of other denominations for the Temple, let alone for the efforts of rebuilding it.
And what about the Levites? According to this Torah reading, the Israelites must subsidise them with offerings because their job is to work in the Temple. This, frankly speaking, looks nonsense. We do not do sacrifices and do not see any reason to support the priests and the sacrifices with our taxes. Let Mr Levi find a real job.
Why then, do we read in the synagogue, a piece of text which seems to have nothing to say to us? As always, the answer is: look at the context, in our case, at the whole Torah portion.
This week's Torah portion (of which our reading is the last part) is Korah, the story of a serious challenge for Moses. At the beginning of the Torah portion, Korah, a man of the tribe of Levi, attacks Moses violently. Korah and his band of followers asked Moses and Aaron why they placed themselves above the rest of the community, "for all the people are holy," he said. Everyone heard the Commandments at Mount Sinai; Everybody was there when the Revelation happened. Why does God only deal directly with Moses? Why does Moses want to keep his relationship with God to himself? This is wrong because "all the people are holy".
The confrontation ends in favour of Moses: the earth opens, Korah's people are swallowed up and a giant fire consumes his followers. God reasserts His power and the predilection for Moses by causing a plague that annihilates thousands of Israelites.
The message is clear: do not question God's choices
OK, but what does Mr Levi have to do with it? What is the connection between the rebellion of Korah and the duties of the Levites?
After the Korah's rebellion, the Israelites feared that God may continue with His rage and inflict other punishments.
Now that Moses' authority has been re-established, the Israelites are afraid that no human being (other than Moses) will be allowed to approach the Tabernacle, the tent inside which Moses deals directly with God.
Therefore the Almighty appoints these two groups of people, the family of Aron (the Kohanim) and the tribe of Levi (Levites), with the special task of taking care of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan and all the holy items that are needed there. But, and this is the trick, Kohanim and Levites are not privileged. On the contrary, the Levites are the only Israelite tribe that will not have a share of land once the people will settle in the land of Israel. They are tasked with responsibilities by God; hence their livelihood will depend on God. Before the tragedy of Korah, all the offerings were given directly to God. Now a part of the offerings will be given to the Levites. It is as if God gives parts of his income to those who work in the sanctuary.
Mr Levi takes his salary from God.
Korah belonged to a noble family, and -despite the rhetoric- his rebellion was driven by personal ambition, as it is often the case when a leader boasts of being "a man of the people" and that "all the people are holy". He wanted access to the direct relationship with God, which Moses enjoyed. He saw it as a privilege. As a result, his people will have to learn that it is rather a responsibility.
Quite a difficult message, nowadays. How often do we hear the words of Korah ("all the people are holy!") in the political realm. It's so easy to see things in black and white and humanity as if only the privileged and oppressed exist. (And of course, like Korah, place yourself in the camp of the oppressed). Reality is far more nuanced. Reality demands that we learn that there are responsibilities, and this is -in Biblical times and today- a very difficult message to learn.
Two kinds of humility
There were 3 Rabbis in a taxi. One says to his colleagues: "I have thought about it, and I have come to the conclusion that I am the humblest person in the world".
The second rabbi says: "Sorry my friends, I have to disagree. I have considered the matter, and I came to the conclusion that I am the humblest person in the world".
To which the third Rabbi replies, "Rabbis, even I usually do not talk about myself but I have to say that I have considered the matter seriously, and I came to the conclusion that I am the humblest person in the world".
At this point, the driver, who is obviously Jewish, says: My most esteemed customers, I happened to have overheard your conversation, and I must say that, after long and serious consideration, I came to the conclusion that I am the humblest person in the world".
To which the three pious and religious men scoff and comment: "What does this guy know about humility!"
The story was told to me by Ivor Sorokin, and it came to my mind when reading this week's Torah portion, which has a passage (Numbers 12:3, if you want to check) that explicitly states that Moses was very humble, more than any person in the world.
Now, humility is a tricky matter. How is it possible to compete in terms of humility? The winner cannot boast and if a person is really humble, should avoid the competition totally. Or leave the victory to someone else.
The commentators of the Mussar school explain this strange expression: "the most humble person on the earth" with a story.
On Yom Kippur, there is this Jew in shul who weeps for the whole duration of the service. He cries out “Oh my God, I am such a terrible person, I am such a bad Jew, how many transgressions I have committed during this year, how can God forgive me...". The individual next to him is obviously impressed by such a -guess what- humility.
Then the Jew is called up to the Torah for the third aliyah. After a while, he returns to his seat, and he is visibly upset. He says: "I cannot believe it; they gave me only the third aliyah. They gave the second to that nothing of a Jew, did you see? Don't they know who I am? How dare they offend me in such a way? On Yom Kippur, of all days!"
Besides being funny, this story says a great deal about an important distinction. The teacher of the Mussar school explains that there are two kinds of humility: humility towards God and humility towards other human beings.
Let me explain: if we compare ourselves to God, obviously, we feel that we are nothing, that God is everything, and we are naturally humbled. By definition, God knows more than human beings. God is more powerful, wiser, more knowledgeable, etcetera.
It is more difficult to experience humility, or to feel humble, in relation to other people. In human relations, there is always an element of competition, and it is hard to avoid its impulse when we consider what other people achieve or are able to do.
When we think of God, we all feel humble. Less so when we think of other human beings.
This distinction explains the passage we are talking about: Moses was truly humble because he was humble in his relations both with God and with human beings.
Humility nowadays has become an even more tricky subject. In the public dominion, in the realm of communication, humility is very trendy. It is almost a requirement. For example, it is common to put on social media and in regular emails the four letters IMHO, an acronym for "in my humble opinion", following which usually one can read very rude and offensive sentences. I mean: there is almost a pleasure to show yourself off in terms of humility, to display how humble you are, and immediately after this, to hit your opponents by hitting where the self-esteem relies on.
We actually live in an era almost defined by victimhood; every category of human beings, every group, no matter how great or small, have some wounds to display; in politics as well in the society at large, the more you show off, with humility of course, how bad you've been treated by everyone, the more political points you score. The story of the Rabbis in the cab who compete about who is the most humble is a funny story. Less so is the reality when different groups compete among themselves about who is more entitled than others to call themselves, humbly of course, a victim.
And it is even less funny when you notice how this profession of humility and victimhood go together with the justification for violence. We have seen it over the last few days in the streets of London. In the name of the poor Palestinian victims, who cannot even talk because the Zionist-owned media deny access to the media, Jews are now physically attacked and/or forced to hear proclaims such as "your daughters will be raped, you will be beheaded" and the like.
This is, unfortunately, where we are now. The competition of victimhood has brought us to a place where the norm is violence, verbal and often real, But humility should not be the pretext for the violence of groups who pretend to be tired of being, indeed, humiliated and then take revenge hitting at the first "oppressor" they bump into, who, quite often is a Jew.
For this reason, it is worth considering how the Mussar school deal with this concept of Moses' humility.
Moses was humble in his relationship with God; he could have access to God at every moment during the wandering in the desert, but rather he did it at appointed times.
With literally God on his side, Moses could achieve and win every possible confrontation. It actually happened a couple of times when God really helped Moses. But as a rule, Moses dealt with other human beings in a very humble way: giving them time, listening to their voices and opinion.
This is the true meaning of humility. Being able to listen to other human beings, to make room for their voice and perspective, to consider other narratives – be it in politics, government, racism, Middle East...- equally worthwhile and important as our own.
I cannot say I have seen this happening over the last few weeks. I really hope that, now that a ceasefire has been reached, humility and dialogue will prevail. It's difficult to be the humblest person on the Earth, but learning to listen should be far, far easier.
Reasons for close reading
These days, Rabbis are expected to avoid certain topics, but what can I do, I have the reputation of a trouble maker, and I am doing my best to keep it, so I will spend a couple of words about a very embarrassing topic.
The so-called Reverend Louis Farrakhan and his followers.
Farrakhan is an American Muslim leader who preaches a bizarre version of Islam. He enjoys undeserved success among social justice warriors, writers, actors, popstars.... Farrakhan preaches that slavery in America has always been a Jewish business, that it was run and managed by Jews, and that mainly Jews benefitted from it.
Historically speaking, this is complete nonsense. At the time of the slave trade, Jews were excluded from the major economic enterprises. Therefore the involvement of Jews in the vile business was very limited, and very few Jews benefited from selling and buying human beings.
You're welcome to surf the excellent database on the web site of the University of Liverpool. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/search/ You'll discover how many English benefitted from the slave trade (in Brighton in the 19th century, there were a dozen families, good Christian families, who owned shares of plantations in Jamaica).
But on the whole, in all England, very few Jews owned slaves or benefitted from slavery.
People believe in all sorts of things, such as that vaccinations cause autism. The Apollo mission had been staged under the direction of Steven Spielberg... And unfortunately, people believe in antisemitic legends spread by the so-called reverend Farrakhan and -as we know- by some Far Left politicians on this side of the Atlantic.
But it must be said that in certain parts of the Torah -for example, in this week's Torah reading [Lev 25:47ff]- there seems to be some basis for this antisemitic nonsenses.
I am talking, of course, about the distinction that we can track in the text between Israelites and strangers (that is, between Jews and Gentiles) regarding slavery. This seems a situation of two different rules for two people living in the same land (or apartheid, as some anti-occupation obsessed may say).
As we have read, when a Jew becomes a slave of a Gentile, family and relatives are expected to redeem their relative (because he is "flesh of their flesh"). It is as simple as that: the very human and understandable inclination to rescue a relative who has fallen in disgrace. Nothing particularly racist. But Farrakhan and others see here a piece of evidence that Judaism condones slavery. They use this text to "prove" that Jews aim to subjugate the Gentiles and to keep the non-Jews in a state of unending slavery, while focusing on the freedom and redemption of Jews only.
It should be said that the ancient Israelite society was not 18th Century Jamaica. It was not an economic system based on plantations where human beings were bought and sold, families split, and slaves were considered disposable objects.
A close reading of the text shows that what it is translated as "slavery" was, properly speaking, indentured servitude, a form of labour in which a person agrees to work without salary for a specific number of years for debt repayment. In other words, when one Israelite could repay a debt, he was forced to work for free - until the debt was repaid. Indeed the text mentions the case of "the slave who redeems himself", something which did not happen in the plantations in Jamaica!
Historical accuracy is not the forte of Farrakhan and of his followers. They have this weird reading of the Biblical according to which the Gentiles are oppressed, and the Jews are oppressors. "Look at this passage of Leviticus; the Jews only help each other; certainly, they do not rush to the rescue of the Gentiles!"
Why is this antisemitic fantasy so persistent, even if it contradicts the Biblical text itself? Good question, thanks for asking. I will answer in a moment; first, let me raise another subject.
Why, for millennia, have we Jews read this passage in the synagogue? It does not refer to a legal system that was familiar to the readers. In Christian and Muslim Countries, Jews did not benefit from indentured servitude.
Guess what? The answer can be found if we look closely at the text. First of all, if we continue the reading -as we have done today- we see [Lev 26] that the Torah warns us against idolatry, making idols, worshipping idols and the like.
Second, the text repeats more than one time that the Israelites are God's servants. That is - in case it was not clear- servants of God, not servants of man.
All the norms that protect the dignity of the Israelite slaves are grounded in this principle: you, the Israelites, are servants of God, because God has liberated you from Egypt because you must serve Me, not other gods, or idols, neither another human being,
I think that here we begin to see why antisemitic legends about Jews and slavery continue to circulate nowadays, despite the absolute lack of evidence, archaeological or otherwise. The society in which we live is dominated by this idea of being free, completely, free, absolutely free. We keep in high consideration the idea of having no obligations towards anyone, no commitment, just casual relationships with no attachment of sort.
And where does it end up? To a world of individuals, of absolute loneliness, to the absence of any sense of community and of belonging. Call it idolatry, the idolatry of absolute freedom.
Or call it more properly slavery. Because the slaves have no family, no permanent relations, their Master can break every relation at any moment. Anyway, this idea of absolute freedom, which leads to absolute loneliness, is the opposite of what Judaism teaches. Our Torah portion repeats over and over that the Israelite, the Jew, must not aim to be free, but rather to be a servant of God.
It is quite ironic how self-professed atheists, who claim to be free from any religious obligation, are often very superstitious.
All the Italian atheists I know believe that the sight of a priest, or worse of a nun, it's a bad omen. And have you noticed how many atheists believe in colourful nonsenses such as Chrystal healing, or worse in conspiracy theories such as QAnon?
Monty Python and the Meaning of Stoning
Every time I read in the Torah the stories about stoning; I think of a true masterpiece of Biblically based cinema: The Life of Brian by the Monty Python. If you don't know what I am talking about, do yourself a favour, Google the title, find it somewhere and watch it all; you won't regret it. If you know the Life of Brian, you also know what I am talking about. That is because of the famous stoning scene. This guy had committed the sin of pronouncing the name of God. And he is therefore condemned to death via stoning. The crowd was so eager to punish the sinner and end up stoning even the High Priest who was reading the sentence during which the High Priest had mentioned the Name of God. Bigots, fanatics: this is how the Monty Python portrayed the Israelites living under Roman occupation in nowadays Israel. That scene is clearly inspired by our Biblical reading of this week which is also about a transgressor guilty of blasphemy, and punishment via stoning. The Life of Brian is one of my favourite movies, and I never found that scene particularly offensive. The movie is equally irreverent against every religion, Christianity included. Nonetheless, one must add, that Monty Python evoked a nasty stereotype. One of the cornerstones of Catholic antisemitism is the idea, according to which the Jewish Law is harsh and cruel. A favourite motif of Christian painting is the Jewish mob, intoxicated by the desire to punish every transgression, harshly violent, with no forgiveness. There is a word for this. and it is a bit complicated, but bear with me. Supersessionism, also called "replacement theology". It is a Christian doctrine that asserts that the New Covenant, all centred around love and forgiveness, has superseded, that is, replaced the "Old Covenant" which God made with the Jewish people and was centred around the Law. In other words, they say, our Torah is outdated; it was created only as a premise for the New Testament. Why then do we Jews continue to exist and do not choose to enter into the New Covenant and become Christian? Because here comes the answer, we are fanatic and perverse, (like the crowd in the Life of Brian); or because we are mad, mentally unstable, and our psyche has degenerated. As you see, it does not take that long to move from sophisticated Christian theology to stereotyping about Jewish neurosis. And then to crude antisemitism, the kind of Nazi propaganda about Jewish mental diseases. Having said all that, the Biblical passage we have read is highly disturbing. There is this poor fellow, son of a mixed marriage, (father Egyptian, mother Jewish), who is quarrelling with a group of Israelites. He says the wrong word, the Name of God. It's a transgression, for sure, but they don't know what to do. Technically, the prohibition of pronouncing the name of God applies only to Jews, and we don't know whether this guy was considered Jewish. Probably not, hence the quarrelling. So they took him into custody. And then God commands to kill the man via stoning. Stoned for the sin of blasphemy. Monty Python loved this story. Many Christian preachers and theologians love this story. And perhaps in some corner on the Far Left, today, they are mourning this half Egyptian/half Jewish. He was the first victim of Israeli racism, or, as they say nowadays "othering". But I would rather ask a question. What is wrong with blasphemy? Why is it such a serious transgression pronouncing bad words next to the Name of God? In certain parts of Italy, this kind of swearing is commonplace, almost folkloric. It is certainly rude and not polite. But why should one deserve to die for this? Does God care? Does the Almighty pay attention to words uttered by little creatures like us human beings in moments of rage? Now, this is neurotic: conceiving God as an ever-punishing despotic Power who does not forgive even the smallest of the transgressions... Let us think differently. Let us assume that this is a story meant to teach us something, and not the account of an historical fact, of something that really has happened. After all, who says that the Torah is a book of history? It's not. Why is blasphemy such a serious transgression? In a memorable shiur, Soloveitchik explained that the blasphemous person does not offend God. He humiliates the human being. Because humans are created in the image of God. So, whoever curses God, curses those whom God has created and that is us, human beings. The punishment is inflicted on a sinner whose "Jewish status" is unclear. His Father is Egyptian, his Mother an Israelite. Still, he schmooses and socialises mainly with Jews: he is in the Israelite encampment. The Israelites themselves don't know what to do. They place him in custody because it is not clear whether the prohibition of naming and shaming God applies to someone who probably does not believe in that God. He has an Egyptian family with which he perhaps shares values and beliefs. The blasphemer teaches Soloveitchik and destroys the divine image rooted in every human soul. This is the reason why his transgression was so serious. The episode is not a long one: just 5 verses (Numbers 24:11-15). But see what comes after? Look, v. 17. The prohibition to strike - not to strike your fellow Jew, but to strike every other human being. This transgression, too, is punished with death. I don't want to enter into the thorny subject of whether these laws and rulings have ever been effectively in place. Historians and archaeologists disagree. According to the prevailing opinions, this Law (stoning for the sin of blasphemy), has never been implemented or put into practice. The prohibition against cursing God, denying dignity to human beings, is in the Torah a premise, expressed as a story. Then the text returns to be normative and not narrative; it lists other prohibitions, first and foremost the prohibition to strike your fellow human being. The succession of paragraphs reminds us that every strike - every abuse- starts with denying humanity. First you deny that the other human being is like you, I mean like us, created in the image of God. And then you feel free to strike, to cause pain, to inflict violence. I, of course, continue to enjoy Monty Python and to be cautious in Interfaith activities. The supersessionist (and antisemitic) theology is still around. But meanwhile, I also read (and I invite you to read) this troubling story in a different way. To read it as a reminder of what happens if we forget that other human beings are like us, created in the image of God. When this noble Jewish teaching is forgotten, then we condemn our enemies, and ourselves, to death. We cease to be human, like the blasphemous individual whose story we have just read. It still happens, and it happens too often. May it happen no more, may we be able to learn, and may all humanity choose life.
Love and (how to) hate
You should learn Hebrew. You really should. For a number of reasons. For example, to talk about love; or to say it in a better way: to talk about the difference between love and hate.
This week's Torah portion includes the very famous commandment, "you shall love your neighbour as yourself". Despite what you may have heard, it is not an innovation included in the New Testament. It is Jewish, and you can find in Leviticus 19:18.
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ
And if you want to better understand what love is, just look at the context, in the same verse: "You shall not take vengeance against the sons of your people".
לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ
In the commandment about love, there is a prefix, the letter lamed. Which means "toward". The sentence can be translated this way: "you shall feel love towards your neighbour" or "in the direction of your neighbour".
It is very direct; it's not mediated.
While the relation of hate is described with the help of a fascinating and somehow mysterious preposition: אֶת. As every grammarian knows, the preposition אֶת introduces the object of the verb. Like: "you will not hate אֶת your people".
Those who know Torah have been looking into the text and have discovered this: every time there is some variation of "to hate" (like "to destroy" "to reproach" "to take revenge"), there is always this אֶת preposition between the verb and the object.
Why? Scholars have been scratching their heads around this problem and have some hypothesis, but I am more interested in what can we learn from this.
Love is always direct, not mediated. While hate is mediated. The object of hate is always introduced by this small proposition אֶת which is composed of the first and the last letter of the alphabet aleph and tav. Why?
One fascinating explanation is that these two letters represent the speech, the faculty we human beings have to talk about.
Hate is always expressed with words: a declaration of war, an insult... While love is direct, love does not need words. I mean words of love are fine but not always necessary.
This is a fascinating explanation, but there is something even more profound. This difference between the two verbs tells us something about which kind of hate we are allowed to feel.
We are not allowed to hate anyone completely. We can hate a part of a person. We can feel bad at something a person has done, but not against a person as a whole.
Figure out this small proposition, אֶת as a part of the personality of our enemy.
It can be big; אֶת is the first and the last letter of the alphabet, encompassing the whole alphabet.
It can be small: after all, it is a very short proposition. The main point is that our feelings, our bad feelings, are not directed against the whole personality of anyone but only against a small part.
This is extraordinary. First of all, the Torah doesn't forbid us to feel hate. The Torah does not command us to feel love and only love and pleasant, peaceful feelings. We are allowed to have our share of bad feelings.
They must be addressed against something that somebody has done; they must not be addressed against a whole personality. There are actions that are hateful; there must not be persons who we hate.
On the surface, we may think that hate is just the opposite of love, but it is not. Love is direct, love doesn't require mediation, love is addressed to all personality, not only to a part. On the other hand, hate is a human feeling, and the Torah teaches that it must be addressed to specific parts; and not to the totality of a human being.
And here, I want to be extremely personal.
As you know, I am one of the few Reform Rabbis who over the last few years has not hesitated to talk about Arab antisemitism. This synagogue has been the first in England to observe the commemoration of the Jewish communities from Arab Lands on November 30. Even before the day was inscribed in the official calendar of the State of Israel, we commemorated these victims during our service.
It is safe to say that it was not a popular choice. I have been violently attacked on social media. They even called me a racist: think about it: they call you racist because you want to talk about antisemitism... In certain environments talking about Arab antisemitism, is a taboo subject; you can do it only if you blame Israel in the same sentence (another nonsense).
The results? Because you cannot talk about Arab antisemitism, the whole experience of Sephardi Jews is completely erased. There are no English Mizrahi students at Leo Baeck College. And try to commemorate the victims of Arab antisemitism among certain Progressive Jews: Good luck with that.
It is a sad state of affairs. I won't hide that it has caused me deep suffering being told that mentioning the victims of Muslim led pogroms in Iraq or Libya (not to mention places such as Hebron) was detrimental to interfaith dialogue. I had to keep silent.
As much as they pride themselves on being inclusive and pluralistic, Progressive and Reform synagogues are dramatically failing to include Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.
As you probably know, months ago, the Board of Deputies commissioned an enquiry on the inclusion of non-Ashkenazi Jews. Among the recommendations of the report just published, you can read something very specific addressed to Reform synagogues. We have been told that we have to be more welcoming and inclusive towards Sephardi Jews. Commemorating the end of Jewish communities from Arab lands on November 30 is highly recommended.
Let's get back to the differences between love and hate or, to be more precise to what hate is in the Torah.
And let me ask a question: do we hate the Arab Nationalists and Islamists that have caused the end of Sephardi communities and have murdered Jewish children, for example, in front of the Rome Synagogue in 1982? Well: the answer is no!
Of course, we want justice. But we also celebrate the new era of good relationships between the Jewish State and the Arab States that has begun. Arab anti-Semitism exists; it is tolerated too much by governments, by the Western public opinion and sadly by many Jews as well.
But we do not make an equivalence between Arab antisemitism and Arab culture or Arab people. We want to change a part of Arab culture; we don't want to destroy the whole Arab world.
And I think that commemorating the victims of Arab antisemitism is a necessary step to build a better future.
I really hope that many other Reform synagogues will join us in writing this page of history, to honour the memory of Sephardi Jewish martyrs from Arab lands.
May this be God's will.
Transition, transition... today is all about transition.
The transition of the world from the COVID pandemic to the post-pandemic era.
The transition of the UK from membership of the European Union to a post-Brexit world.
And for us Jews, the transition from Pesach to the post-Pesach part of the calendar.
For example, in some tradition, among Jews of Moroccan background, this transition is marked by a festive meal. On the evening the last day of Pesach, Moroccan Jews sing, pray and of course eat hametz, leavened food, particularly muffletta, a kind of pancake.
In Italy, as soon as the last day of Pesach is over, we rush to the restaurant for a well-deserved plate of spaghetti or a pizza, while the home is still kosher-le-Pesach.
A British Jewish friend of mine celebrates the end of Pesach with a pint of beer - which he has conscientiously avoided for all the seven days. Traditions vary.
But it is not only -or not mainly about the food.
In the opposition between matzah, the unleavened bread, which is our main food during the days of Pesach, and hametz, the leavened food to which we return to once Pesach is over, there is a spiritual dimension that is worth exploring.
Matzah is food without time. You do not let it leaven. It is baked suddenly as soon as the dough is ready. You do not need the help of the time to prepare matzah. And once it is ready, it does not deteriorate with time.
I am not suggesting you taste last year's matzah; it may not be healthy. I just want to point out the very important feature. Matzah is food without time.
While hametz - bread, pizza, pasta... beer! - is food produced with the help of time.
You need to give time to the dough to leaven, to expand, to transform itself (and the space around it). And even once it is ready, there is usually an expiration date; bread, for example, deteriorates very quickly; in a few days, it changes its nature, and you cannot eat it anymore.
This points to a very profound concept.
On Pesach, when we live on matzah, we live in a dimension without time. During the Seder, we tell each generation of Jews that as if they themselves were slaves exiting from Egypt and then liberated. We know it's a story that happened many many years ago, but we re-enact it as if it was present day, happening in the time we live in. As if we were contemporary to the events. Most of the events are narrated in the present tense: We say, "Why IS this night different from all other nights?" - We say IS and not WAS. On Pesach, we recount the miracles, the plagues as if they were happening now, right in front of our eyes, as if we were actually living and witnessing all these miracles.
On Pesach, we live, we pray, we study as if God was present to us, and for our benefit was performing all these miracles and wondrous deeds.
We are supposed to see, just as our ancestors saw, actions of God, such as the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians.
Not by chance, the reading of the last day of Pesach is the Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, the opening of the Red Sea, which we recite in such a majestic tune. The crossing of the Red Sea was the last stage of the exodus from Egypt, the last miracle that all the people of Israel saw and lived through. As we have re-enacted the liberation during the Seder, so we have re-enacted today the parting of the sea and the triumph of God over the chariots and the soldiers of Pharaoh.
But then Pesach comes to an end. We return to the regular time, to the leavened food, food which has been produced with the help of time.
We do not benefit from the presence of God anymore. The time of miracles is concluded, and we return to live to our ordinary lives.
What can we do about that? How can we deal with living in a secular time, remote from God's presence, once the time of the miracles is over?
The traditional answer to such a question is prayer. Every time we say the Shema, we remember the exodus from Egypt and the miracles.
Daily life, the life during weekdays, can be ordinary and trivial. Certainly -as a rule- it does not inspire us holiness and miracles. That is why we have prayers three times a day: in each prayer, the memory of the exodus and of the miracles is revamped somehow. We need to repeat them often.
I know which sort of objections comes at this point "Rabbi, but I have no time to daven three times a day" or "I tried to join the minyan, but it is so boring, just people mumbling quickly I don't understand the words, I cannot join, it is so uninspiring". I am a Reform Rabbi, and I acknowledge the truth of this. I totally understand. I could deal with all these objections in a proper way. I am always happy to tutor congregants of the basics of Jewish prayer so that joining the service can be spiritually rewarding. But that's not the point.
The point is that there is another way to keep the memory of the exodus from Egypt alive, during the post-Pesach time.
Which is Shabbat.
Shabbat also is -we say when we do the Kiddush- "zekher yetziat Mizrayim" memory of the exodus from Egypt.
That is because, on Shabbat, we remember we are free, entitled to rest. But also because Shabbat happens every week, even if we do nothing to prepare for it.
It is a creation of God. Even if we do not prepare for Shabbat, nonetheless, every week, we have the opportunity to reinvigorate the connection with other Jews, with our community and its history rooted in that series of miracles that accompanied our liberation.
Shabbat is, of course, different from Pesach. Pesach is about miracles, and Shabbat is about rest.
But: during the week, our lives are so busy and packed with commitments, having the chance to slow down once a week, together with family and friends, really, really, can be a true miracle. So let us make it happen!
Ladies and gentlemen: Leviticus, or, in Hebrew, Vayikra. Perhaps the most boring, or anyway the least exciting, of the five books of the Pentateuch.
There is nothing in Leviticus that compares with the fascinating family dynamics of which Genesis is about.
There is nothing, in Leviticus, majestic and inspiring like the story of the Exodus from Egypt or the giving of Ten Commandments.
Instead, we have, as the reading for this week, the norms regarding sacrifices, especially animal sacrifices. Hardly an inspiring reading, especially in this day and age.
We don't like animal sacrifices. Even those of us who are neither vegan nor vegetarian agree on the principle that unnecessary suffering to animals must be avoided. We all agree that sensitivity and empathy towards animals is a Jewish principle, a Jewish value, meaning something good. We all want to banish or limit animal suffering.
We don't see the religious value of killing animals and (literally) shedding their blood on the altar, as prescribed by the Book of Leviticus.
Of course, the Rabbis tell us that we don't do that anymore. Because to perform sacrifices, you need the Temple. The Temple is not there anymore. This is a good thing because of the absence of a physical, material Temple emphasises spirituality and compassion.
When we have all learnt how to lead a more compassionate life, and we build a society upon the values of love and compassion.... that is when the Temple will be rebuilt. Not because of some crazy bearded guy taking a walk close to a mosque in Jerusalem.
So, of course, we have to be kind to each other and towards the animals, so that the Temple will be rebuilt, but there won't be any sacrifices. This is what I call "standard Liberal Orthodoxy".
The "non-Liberal Orthodoxy", or ultra-Orthodoxy, also preaches that the Temple will be rebuilt with love and compassion. They say that sacrifices MAY resume, but animals won't suffer. Don't ask how this is possible that animals willingly accept to be sacrificed. You don't ask questions in the non-Liberal Orthodox world. We'll know the answer when the Messiah comes.
Whether you like or dislike the Orthodox approach, liberal or not, one thing is clear: when we talk about animal sacrifices (and a large part of Leviticus is about animal sacrifices), we talk about animal suffering; and when we talk about animal sacrifices we also talk about the Temple; and guess what: we hate both.
Our discomfort with sacrifices has, I believe, a more profound reason; the topic makes us uncomfortable for something more profound than Israeli politics or animal suffering. I'd like to explore these motivations.
First of all: what are sacrifices about? Ramban explains the matter in its introduction to the Book of Leviticus.
In the last chapters of Exodus, the previous book, we read the description of the building of the Mishkan, the portable altar which the Israelites carry in the wilderness. We have read how the Divine Glory, God Himself, fills the Tabernacle and dwells among the Israelites during the time of their wandering.
The Presence of God is a serious thing, and wandering in the desert is a risky situation.
Ramban talks of the danger that the Divine Presence may leave so that the Israelites will be left -literally- wandering in the desert without direction.
It is a real fear. At this stage, the Israelites are a bunch of former slaves that have escaped to freedom. They are in the process of becoming a people. It's like a process of maturation; they are like children that are becoming adults. They internalise rules, laws and boundaries. As children, they are sometimes afraid that the parents may leave them if they misbehave.
This is the role of the rules for the sacrifices. Knowing that it is possible to perform sacrifices, to donate something to God to expiate for our transgressions, either voluntary or involuntary, is a source of emotional and psychological balance
Sacrifices are a means for repentance. You've done something wrong? Well, OK, it happens.
But you, meaning your nature, your personality, is not wrong, it is not evil. By sacrificing a part of your belonging by donating it to God, you paid for your mistake. You’ve learnt and now you can return to the community.
In the Jewish worldview, you never stop belonging to the Jewish community, even if you transgress. There is always a way to amend, and a means to expiate and to set things right.
This is the principle: you can mend your mistakes; your mistakes do not define you; you are something more than your transgressions; you can be better. You can change: precisely this principle is unpopular today, or shall we say countercultural.
Transgressions today are dealt with in a very different way. I am thinking of the phenomenon known as "cancel culture": the idea that a "safe space" can be created simply erasing the presence of the transgressor, or in theological terms, of the sinner.
It's not surprising that cancel culture was born in the USA. That country was founded by Puritans, and, although their religious history is much more nuanced than that, the Puritanical communities were based on the assumption that sinners must be banished permanently from the community.
The Puritans were religious people; they knew that their ideal community was a utopia; they knew that such a utopia was not for this world.
Contemporary cancel culture and the idolatry of "safe spaces" is a secular phenomenon. Its supporters, unfortunately, are aiming for the here and now.
They believe that the world can become a better place by banishing permanently those who transgress. Those whose souls are tainted by sins such as "patriarchate", "toxic masculinity", "colonialism", and, obviously, "Zionism."
Don't get me wrong. Every culture needs its own spaces, and everybody has the right to feel safe. Synagogues can be considered a "safe space" for us Jews, where we know we are the majority, where we do not have to explain our culture and our rules (unless you are the rabbi: in such a case explaining these rules is precisely your job). During these months of the pandemic, we deeply felt our need of physical Jewish safe spaces, of synagogues.
So, yes, we all need safe spaces. But our culture, Jewish culture, the foundation for our spaces, acknowledges the right to be wrong and provides a path for spiritual change and for improvement. Such a path is built around the rules for sacrifices, of which we have read one sample today; verses that teach us that there are different levels of guilt; different kinds of sins and other situations, e.g. in terms of social class. The sacrifices required to the poor, to the Biblical equivalent of the working class, are always less financially onerous. God knows, the Rabbis teach, that those who did not have the means to study and to learn deserve more compassion and empathy, even when they transgress.
This is what is missing in today’s cancel culture; empathy towards the sinners and the transgressors. Perhaps, of all things, they should learn more about sacrifices in the Bible and Ramban.
Or perhaps, just learn to listen.
Just a boring lists?
Let's face it, this week's Torah portion, Vayakhel- Pekudei, is frankly speaking, boring. Its main topic is the construction of the Mishkan (or Tabernacle), the portable earthly dwelling place of God, used by the Israelites during their wandering in the desert until the conquest of Canaan.
A large part of this Torah portion is just lists. A list of metals such as gold and silver; a list of precious materials: oils, spices incense; a list of artefacts and furnishing: the table, the lamp-stands...; and then the detailed description of the clothes of the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, which seems challenging to wear: a heavy breast place, a linen vest adorned with stones. Even the expenses are recorded: how much gold, how much silver, how much copper etc.
Making sense of such verbosity is a challenge. Commentators read these passages searching for moral insight. For example, Hirsch points out that the Tabernacle's copper came from mirrors donated by the Israelite women. This means that items usually associated with vanity and frivolity, to something which by definition does not last (the image of a human face mirrored) can become part of the holiest, most enduring piece of work; the construction of the dwelling for the Almighty.
It's a fascinating approach. There are several moral articles of this kind, but I must confess I find it sanctimonious.
The basic assumption is valid. Every human soul's trait (or every part of the human psyche) can become a source of evil or a source for good. It's up to us to choose, and we must feel free to choose and act for the good, even when we watch ourselves in the mirror, an action that we often associate with vanity and frivolity.
The problem is that such a classification of the human soul's various qualities, of our impulse and tendencies, sounds judgemental, and nobody likes to be under judgment.
So: thank you for mapping my soul, thank you for making a list of my qualities, thank you for telling me that even when I look myself in the mirror, I can have inspiring thoughts and think to holiness, but my main problem is (and I don't think I am the only one to ask such a question): what the hell is holiness?
We are not wandering in the desert with the portable altar, carrying the dwelling of God. In those days the answer was easy. Do you want to know what holiness is? It is where God dwells. Look at the Tabernacle, which is holy because of God - you know, our Boss- when and if He decides to stop by for a visit, He dwells there, and there He speaks with Moses.
Nowadays, there's no Mishkan, and there is no one around who can answer our question anymore. So we have lost the idea of sanctity. Not only do we not know what it is, and how to figure it out, we have even missed the words. We don't know how to describe holiness. Do you want to embarrass a religious person - of every religion? Ask him or her to explain what sanctity is. The answer will most likely be clumsy, something difficult to relate with. Or it will sound incredibly authoritarian, such as when we think of "Holy Men" or "Men of God".
Indeed, we often associate sanctity with being judged, and we mix up "sanctity" with "authority".
Sanctity has become a synonym of sanctimoniously, of being judgmental, authoritarian. Perhaps a kind of spiritual bullying.
If we want to understand better the sanctity of the Mishkan, which the building of was a collective enterprise in which all the Israelites took part, we have to look better into the text. We ought to compare it to another cooperative building enterprise that took place sometime before—the building of the Golden Calf: when Moses went up to Mount Sinai and left the Israelites. The episode, I think, is pretty famous. They worshipped and proclaimed, "This is Our God, this is the God of Israel". Then as we know, Moses went down from Sinai, saw what was going on and – well, let's say he was not happy.
The comparison between the construction of the Mishkan, which we have seen in our Torah portion, and the building of the Golden Calf is very profound. There, when the Israelites built an idol, a replacement of God, they act unanimously. The verbs are all in the plural. The subject is always ha-am, the people. They take the most private, personal items, golden rings, earrings, jewels attached to the body and throw everything in a basin to melt together. These are the materials the idol was built with. There is no individuality, no singular personality; they all act as a unified entity, as part of a mass. Not as persons, not as individuals.
Whereas in the account of the construction of the Mishkan, there are names of artists, such as Bezalel and Oholiab, there are men and women, and different offerings carefully listed, as they speak of other persons.
The Israelites offer their precious belongings that are carefully listed. They do not throw their golden jewels in a sort of bowl to melt them together.
In short: when the Israelites built the Golden Calf, the idol, they acted as subjects of a totalitarian State. When they make the Mishkan, they act as free and independent human beings.
Perhaps this is sanctity; something that makes our personality, every part of it, welcome and celebrated. A place, a spiritual place, I mean. A place where this sense of inclusivity and community is uplifting, and nothing is excluded, and no one feels excluded.
And idolatry is precisely the opposite: when we are stripped of a precious part of our identity, and they are melted together, and we end up prostrating ourselves, that is, renouncing our individuality, our dignity and our freedom.
In a few weeks, we'll celebrate Pesach, the Festival of freedom. Think about this: to describe freedom is almost as difficult as to describe sanctity. But to feel freedom, and to feel sanctity, that is something we all do.
I wish everyone good luck in the holy work of preparation to the Festival of Freedom.
Today is Shabbat Zachor "Shabbat of Remembrance”, the Shabbat before Purim.
We have read the two verses from Deuteronomy, describing the attack by Amalek against the Israelites. That is because of a tradition from the Talmud according to which Haman [boooh!], the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek.
Haman and Amalek are two different kinds of people.
Amalek was a nomadic tribe, like many at that time. They were very territorial; they assaulted the Israelites for no particular reason other than hate, pure hate and a desire to erase our presence from the face of the Earth. There were no reasons for Amalek's assaults. They didn’t want to steal our belongings. They did not want to kidnap women and children and sell them as slaves, (as nomadic tribes in the desert often did, at least in literature). They were not driven by greed or by a misunderstood will to survive. It was pure, savage, barbarian hate.
Haman [booooh!] seems to be a much more sophisticated guy. He was a minister at the court of one of the most powerful kings of that time. He knew how to speak, how to dress, how to captivate people. He was manipulative and subtle. A very cultivated person, not a savage. But the kind of hate that Haman nurtures against the Jewish people is the same as Amalek: unreasonable, ferocious and gratuitous, with no reason. Yes, he disliked Mordechai, but how quickly Haman moved from opposing one individual to planning genocide. There was clearly some hostility in his soul already and ready to come to the surface at the first pretext.
The Rabbis link these two individuals and establish a genealogy of evil that goes back to Esau (Amalek is portrayed as a descendant of Esau).
What do the Rabbis want to teach us by constructing such a genealogy? That antisemitism runs in the family. Not because there are families out there that pass the genes of antisemitism to each other. Rather: that antisemitism is a matter of education. It's a set of prejudice and stereotypes that is part of the general culture, and comes to the surface at certain points in history, quite often unexpected.
Antisemitism is an undercurrent—a set of images, prejudices and perceptions that become popular at certain points in history.
One example: at a time when plagues and pestilences were common, the Jews were accused of spreading the contagion. Why? Because in Christian mythology, Jews hate the Christians and profit from their deaths. Generally speaking, Jews led a healthier lifestyle than the Christians and went to the mikveh regularly, while some branches of Christianity did not have personal hygiene as a spiritual duty. In times of pestilence, it could happen that Christians died more frequently than Jews. That was seen as evidence of Jewish conspiracy, which Jews were forced to confess with torture.
Fast forward to 2021, and you have the BBC that -as last week was forced to acknowledge- spread a similar rumour: Israelis want to murder the Palestinians through the use of COVID, And how? By denying them vaccinations and medical care, which is not true and -let me repeat it again- the BBC itself has been forced to admit it was a lie.
You see? The prejudice is the same: Jews hate the non-Jews, especially the most vulnerable and for this reason, spread viruses, pestilence and contagions. It has been widely believed in Christian Europe and it is reformulated in the secular world we live in.
There are several other examples. If you look at the way news from Israel is reported by the media, you can easily see an undercurrent of anti-Semitic prejudices and legends.
We are familiar with the descriptions of Palestinian children slaughtered by Israeli soldiers. Most of these stories turn out not to be true: the alleged child often is a teenager; he was attacking the soldiers with stones or worse; thank God he has not been tortured but only immobilised (and shouting in front of the cameras of CNN). The legend according to which Jews torture and kill non-Jewish children dates back from the Middle Ages. People believed it in the past, and today people believe that the Israeli Army is not an army like any other, but a sadistic institution that serves the interest of "Jewish supremacists" that is us, and our plans to subjugate the world, beginning with Palestine.
The myth of the lobby that uses the power of money to subjugate the Governments, to force them to do the Jews' interests? That was already shouted on the squares of Italian cities during the Middle Ages, by preachers and friars, at a time when the local rulers were in debt with the local Jewish moneylender. International banking was the dominion of great Christian dynasties, but this was not visible for the mob who assaulted the Jews after the preachers' sermon. As an aside, the local rulers found their debt cancelled after the Jews were burned. What a curious coincidence.
At this point, I should probably explain that Israel is not perfect, that it has its faults and that this Rabbi does not want to censor anyone.
I should reassure that it is possible to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic and, as the Americans say: ya-dah ya-dah ya-dah or blah blah blah. You got the idea.
But I won't, because I am a bit tired of stating the obvious. And it seems obvious to me that criticising the Country where you live is an elementary right. Israel indeed has a very vibrant vocal and critical media system. In fact, their Prime Minister is criticised every day, even when his name was Ben Gurion, his Party had 40% of Parliament, and his trade union ruled the economy in an almost Socialist way. But one thing is to criticise the Country where you live, pay your taxes and serve in the Army. Another thing is to voice your criticism from the comfort of your home, judging from afar and expressing your criticism in front of an audience that is fed with lies on a daily basis, and for which the Jewish State is always wrong. Don't tell me that talking of antisemitism is a way to silence the critics of Israel because it is not.
And because today it's Shabbat Zachor, when we Jews reflect on how antisemitism threatens us in every generation, we are commanded not to forget about that. There's a time for everything, and today, the Shabbat before Purim, it's time to think about antisemitism, not about international politics.
And we think about antisemitism by retelling the story of Purim.
And we wish the anti-Semites the same destiny as Haman. Boooooh! .
Shabbat shalom and see you on Purim.
Last Shabbat, following the conversation with our MP Peter Kyle, I went on Twitter to drop him a line to thank him. Being the mensch who we all agree he is, Peter Kyle had already twitted how thankful he was for our hospitality
But here you go. There was a reply.
It was a tweet by the "Brighton BDS campaign" -you know, the local chapter of the organisation who advocate the destruction of the only Jewish State in the world. They say it is for the good of the Jews, obviously, so don't you dare to call them anti-Semitic.
With the usual menacing language, and as usual protected by being anonymous (thanks to Twitter) these activists, addressed Peter, with the usual brutality, demanding a public statement in support of some Palestinian activist due to be sentenced in three days.
Which, you know, makes perfect sense.
After all, doesn't it happen for every religion? I mean we all see that, every time a British MP visits a mosque, some activists demand a public statement about human rights in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. (I am being sarcastic: this does not happen). These are the same people who scribble "Free Gaza" on Synagogue walls. Which again, makes perfect sense. Don't you remember how many Anglican churches were defaced with similar graffiti during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at the time of the Falkland war? Of course you don't, because it did not happen.
Only we Jews, only our community, have the privilege of being targeted in relation to international politics. Only the politicians who set foot in a synagogue are then demanded to condemn a State thousands of miles away.
I think it's complete nonsense.
First of all, I cannot see how the living conditions of the Palestinians can improve, by putting pressure on the Jewish community and, because this is what these thugs are doing, ingenerating in the senior members of our community the memories of the Kristallnacht, when synagogues were vandalised and Jewish owned business boycotted, (then, again, because Jews were accused of being loyal to another Country). These "anti-Zionist" attacks are most likely to achieve the opposite effect, which is to persuade us further that we need a Jewish State for our own survival, to take refuge if things go bad. So, dear self-appointed pro-Palestinian fighters, you're behaving as idiots (what a surprise).
But why do they continue to attack us in this way, even if it is clear to see that it is so counterproductive and nonsensical?
It is, I believe, partly our responsibility. Or, to be more accurate, the responsibility of the Jewish world, (unfortunately some of the Reform and Progressive), that buy into a narration according to which Jews, or at least young Jews, are not Zionists anymore. They do not feel a particular connection with Israel, and are embarrassed by the Israeli Government and the like. This narrative is a fraud. No one in the Diaspora likes Netanyahu, (and he does nothing to be liked by the Diaspora), but only fools and lunatics want to replace Israel with a State where Jews will be a ghettoised minority like in contemporary Syria, (which is the plan of the PLO, by the way). And even less support fringe groups like Naamod, those of the Kaddish for Gaza, that for the record has no official membership and whose presence is mainly on social media, obviously on the side of Brighton BDS and similar enemies of Peter Kyle (and of us).
And as per the alleged uneasiness of young Jews with Israel, I think we should take into consideration how difficult it is on certain campuses for those Jews who dare to express their support for Israel. The SOAS has recently been condemned to repay a Jewish student, whose mental health was seriously damaged by pro-Palestinian extremists. What I'm saying is that among young Jews there are always debates about Israel, but certain positions at the moment cannot be expressed without consequences. So we are left with the impression that fringe groups such as Na'amod, JewDas or Yachad, (recently caught red handed to inflate the number of signatories on a petition for them), speak for the majority of British Jews. They are but a group of people in their 30s, not so young anymore, managing a multitude of accounts on social media.
Let's hope that the acceptance of the IHRA definition of antisemitism will change things for good so that other voices will be allowed to speak out.
Anti-Semites, such as those who harass Peter Kyle on social media or vandalise our synagogues, should not be left with the impression that with their bullying they are "achieving something" that is intimidating us Jews and forcing us into silence on campus and elsewhere.
Nonetheless, they continue to encourage vandalism, (or worse), against Jews on social media and elsewhere. Even if they know they are not going to achieve their goals. And why? I believe the answer is: religious hatred. They may call themselves secular or even atheist, but they are betrayed by the anger they pour against the symbols of the Jewish religion and, above all, by their total, complete, hopeless lack of will to negotiate. Politicians negotiate and look for compromises. When there are conflicts regarding territory and pieces of land, the politicians find themselves around a table with a map and proceed to draw lines on the map, they partition the land between States and political entities. This kind of approach has been experimented in the past in the Middle East. But it is completely rejected by the violent thugs whom I am talking about, who do not want to divide the land and protest and cry and shout that the whole of Palestine (including Israel) will one day be "liberated" and ethnically cleansed. It is a religious, fanatic, fundamentalist approach, not a political one.
What is religious hatred? What does the fanatic want? I believe the word is: conformity. These anti-Semites attack us and want to replace Israel with a so called secular Country, (which in reality would be another Arab dictatorship; or a fundamentalist entity like ISIS). That is because they want a world without religious differences and without organised, self-determined cultural minorities, like us. In the end, you know, I am sorry for their own insecurity: for fanatic Marxists, the existence of a minority that refused to be assimilated is deeply threatening. It's deeply distasteful to witness such an insecurity becoming rage and be poured against good willing public personalities, of every background, who work hard for the good of society, like Peter Kyle and thank God a number of others, in all political parties.
When you face this kind of extremists it's hard to keep your temper. It's generally difficult to be a reasoning, measured person in front of extremists who shout and cry all the time. But it is precisely what the Torah commands us to do; and the politicians who stand up against this sort of extremists are precisely the politicians we need.
Food and commandments
I want to talk about a very spiritual, highly sophisticated, extremely important Jewish subject: food.
Jewish food is a paradox. We Jews have many rules regarding food. The list of foods we cannot eat is quite long. One would think that, in a culture where such a strong emphasis is placed on prohibitions, there was not such a thing as good food, tasty food, food to enjoy.
Wrong. As we all know the strict dietary restrictions of the Jewish Law has allowed the blossoming of our extraordinary rich culinary culture.
One of the reasons that make the experience of Jewish food so rich is that it is connected to the calendar. Matzo balls are delicious, but we love them more on Pesach. Who does not love cheesecake, but wait for Shavuot to have the best. Chicken soup is great all year round, but best on Friday night. Etcetera. Such a connection to the Jewish calendar can be very specific. Last Shabbat, when the Torah portion was about the defeat of Pharaoh's chariots, we Italian Jews had Pharaoh's wheel on our tables, a sort of round pie. Wait for the end of the pandemic and Sara will share the recipe.
Jewish food not only puts us in touch with our faith, but it also creates our community. From a very Rabbinic, normative point of view: when we eat as a group, we can fulfil the mitzvah of benching more completely. We can say the tzimun, the opening "Rabotai nevarech". But even if you don't want to bother yourself with the intricacies of Jewish law, think about this: being part of the Jewish people, or of the Jewish culture, means spending time with other Jews variously related to you, around the same table often discussing a serious topic such as how terrible were the fish balls last Friday and whether the Israelis have eventually learnt how to prepare a proper Gefilte Fish.
Food is such an important element of Jewish culture that it's often the first things that non-Jewish people learn about us. Last week on a Facebook group about local history, someone posted a 60s photo of the Goodmans Deli, a true landmark of Brighton Jewish history. The comments were fascinating: so many Hoveians remember Goodmans Deli fondly and were familiar with the place and the people. Yet, at the same time, it was (and I am quoting) an "exotic place".
This is the relationship we Jews have with the non-Jewish majority. We are familiar; we are the oldest cultural minority in Europe, yet we are also "exotic," following different rules and coming from a faraway place.
Ah, yes, the place. Last week, a hate storm erupted in the Guardian's comment section, because anti-Semites who hang around that part of the political spectrum did not digest, (sorry, could not resist), the publication of the last masterpiece by Claudia Roden "the Book of Jewish Food". Among the delicacies that embellished that comments section, you could read sentences such as "Would you have brought a German recipe book during the WWII slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people?"…. Show us the Palestinian version. I guarantee it'll be more authentic and FAR more popular." "No, thank you, I do not eat stolen food from the original owners, Palestinian."
Which is a peculiar way to address the job of a daughter of Jewish refugees from Egypt, like Claudia Roden. The hate was expressed is such violent terms, that even the Guardian thought it was too much and shut down the comments page. But anyway, as you see, there are folks out there who believe that we are thieves. We steal food from the Palestinians and that our culture, culinary or otherwise is never authentic.
Yes, anti-Semites have Jewish food. Or, to put it a better way, even the existence of a Jewish food culture enrages our enemies. In medieval times, Jews in Europe were second class citizens and forced to live in restricted urban areas, the ghettoes. There were taverns in ghettoes, often visited by Christians; the fascination for the exotic Jewish food is clearly not a recent phenomenon. The Catholic Church did not like these interactions across the religious divide. The Inquisitors used to impose fines to discourage the pious Christians to visit these Jewish places (a medieval version of the BDS movement...). Still, traditional Jewish taverns and bakeries continued to exist for centuries.
And for centuries anti-Semites have targeted Jewish food as one of the most visible features of Judaism, and of Jewish life.
As I have said before, Jewish food is defined by a certain set of rules, that define what we can eat, what we cannot eat, how can it be prepared and also when it can be eaten.
And the same is true for Jewish life. Yes, of course: one is Jewish because he or she is born Jewish or has converted to Judaism and the status of Jewishness cannot be taken away, once you are Jewish that's it. It’s for life. But being Jewish means very little if you do not do Jewish, if you do not put your Judaism in practice following the mitzvot, the commandments, which make it possible to live a Jewish life that is inspired by Jewish values.
You cannot be Jews without the commandments, either you choose to follow them or not. The commandments, the mitzvot, begin to appear in a systematic fashion, as explicit commandments by God to the Israelites, in this week's Torah portion. The Israelites have left Egypt, they are no longer slaves and they are beginning their journey towards the Promised Land, they are beginning to become a people with its own Law. Precisely these laws and these precepts make the Jewish life worth living. They look like a compilation of prohibitions and regulations, some of which are obvious such as "you shall not murder", others difficult to follow, such as "you shall not covet" and then many peculiar and specific ones, (such as the commandment to the Cohanim to dress and act modestly when working at the Temple). But when you try to live your life according to these rules, then your life becomes much more meaningful. The same for Jewish food: the dietary restrictions seem to be a patchwork of obvious rules, difficult rules, and very specific rules. But when you put them together and prepare your meals accordingly, you realise how beautiful and inspiring our culture is, so centred around the concept of community, and how varied and tasty definitively is. Jewish food is great, observing the commandments is great and Judaism is a wonderful thing.
Shabbat shalom and enjoy your meals.
Last week a friend urged me to check out the comments of an article in Jewish News. Jewish News is quite a local publication. It rarely attracts readers who live beyond the M25, and its articles usually get a couple of comments each. This one was different. There were more than tens of comments.
It was an interview with Ruth Posner, retired actress and Holocaust survivor. The commentators were anti-Semites. Italian anti-Semites, as my friend pointed out, and as it was evident from their Facebook pages.
Think about this: there are people who live in Italy and spend their time on the Facebook page of a local English Jewish publication. They post stuff such as "oh, she is a good actor, is she?" "Did you fake another million dead?" "When will we see a Memorial Day for Native Americans, Japanese WWII victims, Palestinians... oh, so