Please Join Us - All Welcome
This week’s parashah starts with perhaps the most famous exhortation
in the Torah:
Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them: be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. (VaYikra 19:2)
This raises the perennial issue of the nature of holiness. It is discussed by the mediaeval philosophers and has major ramifications for
the State of Israel. Rabbi Yehudah
HaLevi (Kuzari) understood that holiness is innate not just to God, but also to
people, places and even languages. He believed
the Jewish people and the Land of Israel to be intrinsically holy, in
comparison with other peoples and lands. In
contrast, the Rambam (Moreh Nevochim) believed that only God is inherently holy. For the Rambam, holiness is not innate, but
instrumental – the Land of Israel offers the best environment (determined by
climate, resources, location, etc.) for practising Judaism’s lofty spiritual
goals. Similarly, the history,
experience and temperament of the Jewish people best empower us to pursue the objectives
set out in the Torah.
The Kuzari's view has largely prevailed and informs much of modern
thought about the role of the Jewish people and the contemporary state. Yet it can be dangerous if misapplied – a view
that sets one people or place as holier and somehow better than others risks fostering
a destructive sense of superiority and triumphalism, and encouraging people to fight the wrong
battles with the wrong people.
I believe that despite its marginalisation in recent centuries, the
rationalist, instrumental perspective of the Rambam should be re-examined; it
has important lessons to teach a modern, fractious Jewish state.
An important 20th-century philosopher who donned the
Maimonidean mantle in this respect was Professor A.J. Heschel. In his monograph, ‘The Sabbath’ he notes that
Holiness of the land of Israel is derived from the holiness of the people of Israel. (The Sabbath)
For Heschel, the laws and ideals of land, and, by extension, the
state, must reflect the moral values and spiritual aspirations of the Jewish
people: an ethical monotheism that recognises the divine image present in
every member of society and strives to bring blessing upon them all. The land’s holiness is not innate – it is a
reflection of the moral conduct of its inhabitants.
In Heschel’s later book, ‘Israel: an Echo of Eternity’, written
following his visit to Israel just after the Six-Day War, he adapts the answer
to the Kotzker Rebbe's well-known question ‘Where is God?’ (Wherever you let Him
God is no less here than there. It is the sacred moment in which His presence is disclosed. We meet God in time rather than in space, in moments of faith rather than in a piece of space. (Israel: an Echo of Eternity)
But if God is mostly encountered in time, rather than space, what of a
Jewish homeland, now the State of Israel?
It must certainly provide the Jewish people with a haven from persecution,
as Herzl intended. It must be a place where
Jewish life, observance and culture can flourish and where true Jewish ambitions
can best be expressed, as articulated by Ahad HaAm and later, in a more
religious iteration, by Professor Eliezer Berkovits. It must be a place where foreign influences
can be cautiously filtered and incorporated where appropriate, rather than
being the prevailing Weltanschauung, as they are in the Diaspora. And it must encourage and implement Messianic
aspirations for the Jewish people and for the world.
True to his Maimonidean leanings, Heschel explains the creative
potential of the land for the Jewish people:
For the Jewish national movement, therefore, the land of Israel was not merely a place where, historically speaking, the Jews had once dwelt. It was the homeland with which an indestructible bond of national, physical, religious, and spiritual character had been preserved, and where the Jews had in essence remained—and were now once more in fact—a major element of the population. It is here where the great works of the Jewish people came into being: the Bible, the Mishnah, the Palestinian Talmud, the Midrashim, the Shulhan Arukh, Lurianic mysticism. No other people has created original literary works of decisive significance in the land of Israel. The words, the songs, the chants of Jewish liturgy, which have shaped the life of prayer in both Judaism and Christianity, were born in the Holy Land.... It is not only memory, our past that ties us to the land; it is our hope, our future. (Israel: an Echo of Eternity)
Heschel also coined a beautiful phrase to describe the role and
aspirations of the State of Israel – ‘a rendezvous with history’, one which
must be constantly renewed and reinvigorated.
In a section of ‘Israel: an Echo of Eternity’ by that name, he demands a
The major weakness was to take the State of Israel for granted, to cease to wonder at the marvel of its sheer being. Even the extraordinary tends to be forgotten. Familiarity destroys the sense of surprise. We have been beset by a case of spiritual amnesia. We forgot the daring, the labor, the courage of the seers of the State of Israel, of the builders and pioneers. We forgot the pain, the suffering, the hurt, the anguish, and the anxiety which preceded the rise of the state. We forgot the awful pangs of birth, the holiness of the deed, the dedication of the spirit. We saw the Hilton and forgot Tel Hai.
The land rebuilt became a matter of routine, the land as a home was taken for granted.
The younger generation seeing the state functioning normally has the impression that this has been the case all along. They have no notion of the distress and strain, of the longing and dreaming of generations. The miracle of Israel became a state like all states, with neither mystery nor sacrifice permeating it. Habit is our downfall, a defeat of the spirit. Living by habit is the destruction of creativity. (ibid.)
My generation (I was born a few months after the Six-Day War) have no recollection of a time when one couldn’t
hop on a plane and visit Israel; when we visit Jerusalem, we need a tour guide, rather than a military vehicle,
to point out the Israeli-Jordanian pre-’67 battle-lines.
Yom HaAtzmaut is a great opportunity to consider the real potential of
the Jewish state and to ensure that we never take its existence – so long a
distant hope – for granted. Nor for that
matter, our responsibility to build a land and a state that truly reflects the values
of the Torah and the Jewish people – a life of holiness and a way of being that
elevates us and all of humanity.
The second half of this week’s parashah (VaYikra 11) is devoted to the laws of permitted and forbidden birds, mammals, fish and insects.
Today it is easier to observe kashrut than at any previous time. That’s not to minimise the challenges for
those travelling, at work meetings etc., but the range of products available, the
advent of easy-heat kosher meals and the growing societal tolerance to ‘odd’ eating
habits mean that a fully-kosher diet is more manageable than ever before.
Yet kashrut is also subject to more stringencies than most other areas
of halachah and is sometimes the subject of political turf-wars between
supervising authorities. That’s not to
say that I don’t support healthy competition: some duplication is a small price
to pay for competitiveness; yet it is noticeable that stringencies are less popular
in the areas of business ethics or gossip than in kashrut.
In a world where it’s easy to eat kosher, are we able to return to the
core values that kashrut observance was intended to promote? Actually, the Torah is not specific about the
purpose of these laws, leading some mediaevalists to assume that they were
health-related. Many thinkers, however,
speak of holiness as their goal, as indicated by the verses at the end of
For I am the Lord your God; you shall make yourselves holy and be holy, because I am holy. Do not pollute your souls with any creeping thing that crawls upon the ground. For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be God for you; so you shall be holy because I am holy... To distinguish between the pure and the impure and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten. (VaYikra 11: 44-45, 47)
Elsewhere, Rashi remarks that since it’s simple to differentiate
between a pig and a cow, a more subtle distinction is intended. On our verses, Rashi, citing the Talmud, notes
that the reference to the Exodus is intended to convey the importance of these
laws – should the Israelites be able to sanctify themselves through them, God
considers that it was worth bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. What is the self-sanctification demanded by
I suggest that the Torah expects us to recognise that eating –
fuelling our bodies – can be a base, animalistic and purely sensory experience,
or it can be an opportunity to develop profound sensitivity to our food, its
sources, what it means to eat and to those who may not be as fortunate as
we. Do we think before we eat? Do we think about the intricate chain of
processes that have made diverse foodstuffs available to us? If we are eating meat or fish, do we consider
the fact that our food was once alive, moving, feeling, breathing? Do we recognise the privileged existences we
have in comparison with the lives of so many who are less fortunate than
we? In short, does eating enable us to
become more sensitive, more in tune with our world and its complexities, or
less so; do we become more or less human when we eat? Do we live to eat or eat to live?
I support this contention from a curious gemara that seems to read one
of our verses out of context:
‘You shall make yourselves holy’ – this refers to pre-prandial hand-washing;
‘And you shall be holy’ – this refers to post-prandial hand-washing. (TB Berachot 53b)
Washing one’s hands before a meal is a ritual intended to foster
reflection and mindfulness. Before we
begin a meal, the Torah requires us to consider the import of what we are about
to do – this is ritualised by the rabbis as hand washing. Similarly, the less-familiar ‘mayim acharonim’
– rinsing the hands at the end of a meal – encourages us to contemplate the
significance of what we have just done.
These rules ensure that we are able to transform the act of eating into
a meaningful and sensitising experience.
Mindfulness and reflection are an essential component all meaningful
religious life. The kashrut laws, when
observed in their sprit as well as their letter, lie at the heart of Jewish
spiritual strivings, surely ample justification for the Exodus:
For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from the Land of Egypt
to be God for you; so you shall be holy because I am holy...
The Song at the Sea is prefaced by the phrase:
…they (the Israelites) trusted in the Lord and in Moshe His servant. (Shemot 14:31)
The equation of God with Moshe troubled early commentators. The Targum Onkelos renders the verse ‘they trusted in the Lord and in the prophecy of Moshe His servant’, whereas the mediaeval commentator/grammarian Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra rereads it as ‘they trusted in the Lord and that Moshe was his servant’! The almost complete absence of Moshe from the Haggadah is often cited as a deliberate attempt on behalf of the text’s authors to move the spotlight away from Moshe, the human intermediary in the story, and focus exclusively on God’s direct intervention in bringing about the plagues and the exodus.
Recent problems both in the rabbinic world and beyond naturally lead us to question the role of charismatic leaders and recognise the inability of their most devoted followers to accept that they may have erred. Of course, these issues are nothing new; indeed they are as old as Moshe himself. Let me first examine two famous, diametrically opposed visions of Moshe, both offered by Jews of rather different allegiances.
Sigmund Freud opens his final major work ‘Moses and Monotheism’ as follows:
To deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest of its sons is not a deed to be undertaken lightly-heartedly especially by one belonging to that people. No consideration, however, will move me to set aside truth in favour of supposed national interests.
Of course, this narrative is utter anathema to a believing Jew. Yet it raises important and pointed questions about how we view leaders in general and Moshe specifically. Interestingly, Freud himself is aware of the inadequacies of his own thesis; as he says in a footnote:
When I use Biblical tradition here in such an autocratic and arbitrary way, draw on it for confirmation whenever it is convenient and dismiss its evidence without scruple when it contradicts my conclusions, I know full well that I am exposing myself to severe criticism concerning my method and that I weaken the force of my proofs.
All of which makes one wonder why write the theory at all, given how successfully Freud undermines his own ideas.
At the other end of the spectrum, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov proposes a view that makes the ‘tzaddik’ virtually infallible:
Every ‘tzaddik’ in the generation is an aspect of Moshe – Messiah (Likkutey Moharan I:2)
Rebbe Nachman’s writings are permeated with this and similar ideas (he clearly regarded himself as the near-perfect ‘tzaddik’), a perspective on leadership that many of us likely find deeply worrying, as it can so obviously lead to abuse by a charlatan or his followers.
So is it possible to forge some
middle ground – to devise a model that produces leaders who are inspirational
role models yet accountable; capable of strong, assertive leadership, yet who obviously
share the frailties and is subject to the same temptations of other human
beings? Actually, one needs look no
further than Moshe himself for inspiration.
At the end of Rabbi Yisrael
Lipschitz’s commentary to Nashim, the author cites an un-sourced, rather controversial
midrash (it is missing from some editions).
Briefly, it tells the story of an Arab king who wanted to know about the
character of Moshe, the great leader who had brought the Israelites from Egypt
with signs and wonders. He dispatched a
painter to the Israelite camp in the desert to prepare a likeness of the great
man. When the painter returned with his
work, the king gathered his experts to pass judgement on the character of
Moshe; they universally agreed that he was a wicked man: arrogant,
mean-spirited and angry. The king
rejected their opinion and turned on the painter, assuming that he had been incompetent. Yet the painter insisted that he had painted
Moshe accurately and that the experts must have misinterpreted his character. Unsure who was correct, the king travelled to
meet Moshe himself and determined that the painter had depicted him
accurately. The king questioned Moshe
who admitted that all of the deficiencies that the experts had identified were
indeed native to his character, but that through a long process of self-development,
he had conquered them and transformed his personality. (Tiferet Yisrael to
Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14)
This midrash offers a new
perspective on Moshe and a model of sustainable leadership. The leader is human, yet is a role model of
self-development; he or she is immersed in Jewish knowledge and has developed
an understanding of the world through the eyes of the Torah that can be brought
to bear on individual and communal issues, yet is subject to the same lack of personal
objectivity and failings as other human beings.
We should not forget that according to Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, Moshe spoke
with difficulty precisely to remind the people that he was a fallible human
being – not the originator of the divine message, but merely its amanuensis
(Derashot HaRan 3)
Maintaining the right leadership
balance is a ubiquitous problem, but one that remains central to the Jewish
experience. Ernst Sellin, who influenced
Freud’s view of Moshe wrote:
The final and most important question for all research into the Israelite-Jewish religion will always remain: who was Moses? (Cited by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in ‘Freud’s Moses’)
Deciding who our Moses will be may
be just as important for us.
Near the start of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari (1:11), the king of
the Khazars asks his rabbinical interlocutor why God introduced Himself at Mount
Sinai as architect of the Exodus rather than creator of the world:
I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Shemot 20:2)
The rabbi (ibid. 12) answers that an experiential attestation (the
recipients of the revelation had seen God’s hand in Egypt) is more powerful
than an intellectual proof, which can be subject to refutation. This principle is important in understanding
the role of the Seder and its unique combination of ideas, rituals and
Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, a second-generation disciple of the Vilna
Gaon, reminds his readers throughout his ‘Yad Mitzrayim’ Haggadah commentary that
the concepts explored and promoted by the Seder – that God controls nature, that
He can choose at any moment to overturn the natural order and that He intervened
in Egypt to free the Israelites from bondage, thereby precipitating their independent
nationhood – are the very core of Jewish belief.
But, following the Kuzari, these ideas must seem real and not remain merely
in the realm of the intellect. This objective
may explain the Haggadah’s requirement that:
Even if we were all sages, all erudite, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, we would remain obliged to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt... (Haggadah, s.v. ‘Avadim Hayyinu’)
This is illustrated by the story of the five Roman-era rabbis:
It once happened that Rabbi Eli’ezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi El’azar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining [at Seder] in Beney Berak. They were telling the story of the exodus from Egypt all that night until their disciples came and said to them, ‘our teachers, the time for the morning Shema has arrived’. (ibid. s.v. ‘Ma’aseh B’Rebbi Eli’ezer’)
The Seder is not simply about acquiring information or even ideas, but
about experiencing them in ‘real’ time and space. It is unlikely that the rabbis discovered any
new information in the story, yet they discussed and relived the old tale until
This serves as a paradigm for all of Jewish life – Judaism certainly demands
of its adherents that they understand and internalise a number of profound beliefs,
yet it also requires us to actualise these beliefs within our very physical,
In a fascinating essay, Professor Eliezer Berkovits discusses the
function of mitzvah observance. He insists
Since man is neither only soul nor only body, but both joined together, both these constituent elements must be related to God, each in a manner adequate to its own nature. On the level of the soul, the relationship is spiritual and conscious, but it cannot be expressed in action; on the level of the body, the relationship has to become “materialized” in action.
These two expressions of the religious life are not meant to exist parallel to each other as the religion of the soul and as that of the body. The mitzvah is the union of the two... In its ideal form, the mitzvah is a deed; and, like all true deeds, it is of the spirit and of the body at the same time. (Law and Morality in Jewish Tradition, reprinted in Eliezer Berkovits, Essential Essays on Judaism)
Berkovits uses this typology to launch a stinging attack on Kant’s idealisation
of the separation of mind and body in religious life (citation from Immanuel Kant,
Religion Within the Limits of Reason):
It is comparatively easy to serve God as a spirit; the challenge is to
serve him in the wholeness of man’s earth-bound, and yet soul-indwelt, humanity.
Immanuel Kant once wrote: “The true
[moral] service of God is... invisible, i.e., it is the service of the heart,
in spirit and in truth, and it may consist... only of intention.”’ This, indeed, is the noble formula for the
historic bankruptcy of all “natural,” as well as “spiritual,” religions. The invisible service of God is the
prerogative of invisible creatures. When
man adopts such service for himself, he makes the dualism of his nature itself
a religion. He will expect Gesinnung
(sentiment) and noble intentions of the soul, and will readily forgive the
profanity of the body; he will have God “in his heart” and some devil directing
his actions. He will serve God on the
Sabbath and himself the rest of the week...
Contrary to Kant, Judaism teaches that man’s “true service of God” must
be human. It should be invisible, as man’s
soul is invisible; and it should be visible, too, because man is visible. It must be “service of the heart, in spirit
and in truth” as well as of the body. It
must be service through the mitzva, the deed in which man’s spiritual
and material nature have unified. It is
a much higher service than that of the spirit alone. It is the religion of the
whole man. (ibid.)
Seder, the annual membership ceremony of the Jewish people,
exemplifies this harmonistic approach and recommends it as a model for all ritual
throughout the year.
To accompany the recent debate mentioned here, there is an article in this week's edition of The Tablet, the international Catholic weekly. My contribution follows in the body of the post, and the entire article is below. It had been scheduled for a couple of weeks ago, but it was bumped by the election of the new pope!
An Orthodox Jewish perspective
Rabbi Harvey Belovski
‘We must ensure that we celebrate our differences rather than exploit them, and recognise that even the slightest unexplained gender distinction may seem insensitive and even alienating'
The Jewish world has always included brave and spirited thinkers who promoted equality of opportunity even in the most inequitable of times, reflecting a strong and authentic stream of ancient Jewish wisdom. Yet the same wisdom rejects the notion that we all have the same spiritual needs. Though this is especially unpopular in the realm of gender, failure to recognise difference prevents us from celebrating our innate strengths and risks robbing religious life of much of its subtlety.
The notion that self-awareness and perception of the world commonly differ between men and women is something that every adult experiences and grapples with in day-to-day life, even though it falls outside the ambit of "acceptable" beliefs for contemporary Westerners. These differences are not good or bad, but a reality; acknowledging them strengthens society. Of course, there's no "one size fits all" even within genders; Judaism recognises the uniqueness of each individual both before God and Man, and validates each personal spiritual quest.
From a Jewish perspective, religious practice is less about everyone fulfilling a fixed set of rituals and prayers, and more about gaining personal insight, sensing the magnificent presence of God, celebrating self- and people-hood, building a just society, and, through the holy books, understanding the ways and thoughts of the divine. Prayer, ritual and study are important tools in achieving these life goals, which are identical for both genders. Yet innate gender distinctions mean that men and women experience their relationship with the divine differently.
It is well known that Jewish religious life focuses on the home. It is primarily here, rather than in the synagogue, that traditional practices are properly experienced and Jewish values are transmitted to the next generation. In the home, as in most areas of Jewish life, men and women are afforded complete equality. However, in some aspects of public ritual, there is an obvious gender disparity in traditional Jewish communities. In Orthodox synagogues, most ritual performance, including reading from the Torah, is led by men.
These distinctions are rooted in a profound understanding of the genuinely different spiritual needs of men and women, yet play successfully to their shared need to commune with God; as such, they serve a valuable and timeless function. For example, Jewish worship incorporates the reality that men and women experience the socialising impact of group worship differently. The creation of a traditional prayer quorum (which is defined first by ten men and only then augmented by other men and women) forces competitive, often self-focused males, to regularly function as members of a harmonious co-operative, in ways that women often do intuitively.
However, while it would be a mistake to equate a religion, especially Judaism, with the conduct of its formal prayer services, as the public face of a faith, they are often assumed to characterise its attitude to important issues. In this context, I acknowledge that part of the gender imbalance in religious life may reflect the sharply-defined gender distinctions of the past, which are, perhaps, shaded by a hint of misogyny. The Jewish world, like all traditional faith societies, is innately conservative; this means that change happens slowly and only after much debate and careful reference to time-honoured sources and processes. Yet distinguishing genuine, ageless realities from some of these inequities and ironing them out where possible must be an important aspiration of every vibrant, forward-thinking religious society. It is a privilege to be part of that process in my own community - I have pioneered advanced Jewish scholarship for women for many years and I regularly guide communities on gender boundaries in ritual life - and encourage others to engage with it
So a cautious "yes": it is right, albeit within carefully-defined parameters, for religions to treat men and women differently. We must ensure that we celebrate our differences rather than exploit them, and recognise that even the slightest unexplained gender distinction may seem insensitive and even alienating. Sometimes, the greatest challenge is to struggle with the dissonance between tradition and modernity. Acknowledging nuanced gender distinctions benefits us all and, when treated with sensitivity, remains one of the great strengths of religious life.
Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski is the spiritual leader of Golders Green Synagogue in London. He is an orthodox rabbi, creative educator, organisational consultant and writer. See www.rabbibelovski.co.uk and @belogski
I am gradually moving my websites to the new Posthaven platform ahead of the impending demise of Posterous at the end of next month. This site (Belovski: A View with a Room) has already migrated, as have my Book Review site (yes, I know it's out of date - it'll be having a facelift in the next couple of months) and my Phd page.
At the moment, Posthaven is quite minimal and missing many core features - I can't yet make new posts that include audio and documents and I can't yet adjust the static pages (so some of the stuff down the side of this page isn't yet working properly - please bear with me), but I know that all this and more will follow very soon, as the founders have been responsive, responsible and generous with their time.
I plan to move my shiur/lecture site (Belovski's Shiurim) as soon as the media features are operational.
I'm confident that Posthaven is going to be an excellent choice for me.
I was honoured to be invited last week to participate in a debate hosted by Religion and Society on the subject of religious inequalities between genders. Moderated by the Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke, the other participants were Rod Thomas, Mary Ann Sieghart, Linda Woodhead and Fatima Barkatulla.
The details, videos and pocasts are now available here.
Update (25/03/13): Accompanying article in The Tablet now online; click here.
New York Visit 28/02-02/03
Congregation AABJ&D, West Orange, 01-02/03/13
Friday Night Oneg
Clarity and Complexity in the Pursuit of God
Shabbat Morning after Hashkamah
The Pope and the Nishmat Prayer: 1st-Century Intrigue
Shabbat Morning after Kiddush
Recovering a Censored Letter: Rabbinical Responses to the Balfour Declaration
Frankenstein, Choni HaMaagel and the Power of Companionship
Rashi and Rashbam: Colliding Methodologies
Yeshiva University Stern College for Women, 28th February