Seder and the Body-Soul Experience

Sermon Notes 26/03/13 - Pesach 5773

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 experience.

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 daybreak.

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, human world.

In a fascinating essay, Professor Eliezer Berkovits discusses the function of mitzvah observance.  He insists that:

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.

Sermon Notes 22/09/12 - VaYelech & Shabbat Shuvah

Torah as Poetry: Yom Kippur and the Song of the Soul

One of my favourite verses appears in this parashah:

And now – write this poem for yourselves and teach it to the Children of Israel: place it in their mouths, so that this poem will be for Me as testimony for the Children of Israel. (Devarim 31:19)

What is this 'poem'?  In context, it is clearly a reference to the epic song of Ha’azinu, which begins a few verses later.  In powerful biblical poetry, Ha’azinu offers a sweeping view of Jewish history, how God will always stand with us despite our many failures and a glimpse of the magnificent future that awaits us and our Land – it encapsulates the whole of Jewish reality and its aspirations.  In some Sefardi communities, children would be taught to memorise Ha’azinu, so that it will always be ‘placed in their mouths’.

Yet the rabbis also derive from this verse the last (613th) mitzvah of the Torah – to write a complete Sefer Torah (see Rambam Laws of Sefer Torah 7:1).  But if the Torah means to instruct us to write the Torah, why not say so explicitly?

I believe that the answer lies in a simple but powerful equation, that of the Torah with poetry – ‘this poem’ is the Torah, for the Torah is the song of the Jewish people.  It is not merely a code of law, nor even the record of the transformation of a remarkable family into an extraordinary people, but the song of our nation.

The words of one of the greatest Jewish poets come to mind.  Yearning for the Holy Temple, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi sings:

I am a harp for your songs… (Kinnot: Tzion, HaLo Tishali)

As Yom Kippur approaches, it’s time to reconsider the way we think of our relationship with the Torah itself, the lifeblood of our people.  Does it make us sing?  Does it make every fibre of our being reverberate with spirituality and yearning for a more godly world?  If the answer is not yet, then make this Yom Kippur the perfect time for the Torah to play the sweet music of our souls.

Sermon Notes - Shavuot 2012

Revelation, Multiplicity and Receiving the Torah

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

Shavuot is light on ritual but affords a weighty unique opportunity in our annual festival cycle to consider how a modern community understands its relationship with the Torah and Judaism itself.

The Talmud[1] mentions a perplexing aspect of the Torah system – the existence within it of conflicting views on almost every topic.  How, asks Rebbi Ela’zar ben Azariah, can a single Torah include ‘those who forbid, those who permit, those who invalidate and those who sanction’?  This question uncannily presages a modern frustration with Judaism – why can’t the rabbis agree with each other?  Rebbi El’azar offers a fascinating allegorical response – ‘make your ear into a funnel and acquire an understanding heart for yourself’[2] to accept what may be the most difficult facet of the Torah – its multiplicity.  A full and sophisticated understanding of revelation involves accepting that divergent, even conflicting, views can co-exist within a single revelation.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the Kotzker Rebbe, asks why the festival liturgy describes Shavuot as the time of the ‘giving of our Torah’ rather than the time of the ‘receiving of our Torah’.  He answers that only the giving is universal, hence its inclusion in a communal prayer; the receiving of the Torah, however, is an individual experience – the divine perceived through the lens of one’s own vision and perspective.  And while, of course, the Torah is not infinitely elastic, the voice of God is certainly heard differently by each of us.  It is only this that enables members of a modern and diverse community to be transformed by an ancient revelation, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the inspirational.

Professor A.J. Heschel notes that ‘A Jew without the Torah is obsolete’.[3]  It is neither synagogue attendance nor even observance which guarantee that our Jewish lives remain vibrant and future-proof, but Torah.  Yet Heschel points out that revelation must also instil ‘a new creative moment into the course of natural events’.[4]  Shavuot is not just the anniversary of Sinai; it is also the time of year at which we should affirm our belief that only an authentic, multi-chromatic Torah will be relevant for those grappling with the voice of the divine.

Respect for a range of equally authentic positions lies at the core of our approach to Judaism.  When the Talmud allegorises the ultimate reward of the righteous, it describes a ‘dance circle’ in the Garden of Eden: God ‘sits’ in the centre while the righteous dance around Him ‘pointing’ in His direction.[5]  A circle is a collection of points equidistant from a single locus; each dancer occupies a different position from the others, but all are equidistant from God.  The righteous perceive God at close quarters, while simultaneously authenticating the approaches of others.  And, of course, the righteous are not stationary – instead, they move around the circle, enjoying not just their own view of the divine, experiencing and celebrating the perspectives of each of the other dancers.



[1] TB Chagigah 3b

[2] Ibid.

[3] A Preface to the Understanding of Revelation

[4] The Moment at Sinai

[5] TB Ta’anit 31a

Sermon Notes 24/11/12 - Chanukah

Of Chanukah and Minority

If you’d have wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but…

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the war of the Maccabees over the Yevanim and the Jewish Hellenist, resulting in the rededication of the Second Temple and a period of limited Jewish autonomy.  In the liturgy we thank God for having handed ‘the mighty in the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure in the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, the evildoers into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah’ (Al HaNissim prayer).

The second phrase in this text refers to the victory of a minority over the predominant numerical and ideological forces at the time of the Chanukah story.  It also provides an opportunity to briefly consider the challenges of living as a minority - something Jews have experienced for most of our history.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a marvellous and insightful analysis of this topic, an excerpt of which follows.  It’s quite long, but it’s good!  I have retained the US spellings of the translation from the original German.

There is one other particular danger which is to be feared by a Jewish minority.  It is what we would like to call a certain intellectual narrow-mindedness.  This danger becomes especially acute the more closely a minority clings to its cause and the more anxious it is to preserve that cause.  We have already pointed out that, by virtue of its weak position, a minority depends for its survival on whether it can further and foster within all its members the spirit of the cause it represents.  In order to prevail, a minority must be wholly imbued with the truth for which it stands.  We have already noted that such intensive spiritual concern with its cause is the essential prerequisite for the minority’s survival and hailed this concern as the most significant advantage that a truth stands to gain when its guardians constitute a minority.

However, precisely such complete dedication to its cause may easily lead the minority into intellectual one-sidedness.  This may well stunt to a degree the development of the minority’s unique intellectual life.  Furthermore, it may make that minority incapable of representing its cause effectively to the outside world.  Thus such one-sidedness in a minority may do grave damage to the very cause that the minority seeks to preserve and to promote.  The richer the minority’s cause, the more will the minority treasure it.  But then it may easily come to regard all other knowledge in “outside” domains as unnecessary, or even as utterly worthless.  It may reject all intellectual activity in any field outside its own as an offense against its own cause, as an inroad upon the devotion properly due to that cause and an infringement on its prerogatives.

Such a one-sided attitude does not stop at mere disregard for other intellectual endeavours.  Once this attitude has taken hold in a Jewish minority, that minority will be unable to form a proper judgment and a true image of those intellectual pursuits which are not cultivated in its own ranks but pursued mainly by its opponents.  Then, as a result of simple ignorance, the minority will begin to fear that which at first it merely neglected out of disdain.  Consequently the minority will begin to suspect the existence of an intrinsic close relationship between these “outside” intellectual pursuits and those principles to which the Jewish minority stands in opposition.

Indeed, the minority may come to regard these “outside” pursuits in themselves as the roots of the spiritual error which it deplores in the majority.  Eventually it may reach a point where it will fearfully shun all intellectual endeavors other than those directly related to its own philosophy as an enemy of its cause and as a threat to the purity and loyalty of its adherents.  (Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol. 2, pp. 246-8)

Although written in the mid 19th-century, Rabbi Hirsch’s analysis describes some segments of the contemporary Orthodox world with astonishing prescience.  Interestingly, one thing that Rabbi Hirsch could not have envisioned is that this minority mentality might be imported into a modern Jewish state in which Jews, albeit not fully-observant ones, are the majority!

Returning to Chanukah, it is easy to see how the occasion has often been viewed through the lens of a triumphant religious minority seeking to build a high and impervious barrier between it and the predominant culture.  This casts Chanukah as a victory in a simplistic, ‘Yiddishkeit over Goyishkeit’ battle.

Yet, the very symbol of Chanukah teaches that it need not be like this.  Interestingly, the miracle of the oil was not the trigger for the institution of the festival, but actually a symbol of the ideological significance of the war.  The Temple Menorah, on which our Chanukah Menorah is based, represents the notion that all forms of human intellectual endeavour can be incorporated within a Jewish purview.  Its main lamp, also known as ‘Menorah’ and representing the Torah, stands in the centre, while the other six arms represent the “other” forms of human wisdom.  Note that the entire lamp must be made of a single gold ingot, the six lateral arms emerge from the central lamp and that only the wick at the top of the central lamp stands upright, while the other six wicks must face the centre.  These requirements indicate that all human wisdom ultimate originates in the same divine source and that the spiritual mission of the Torah must be the focus of all intellectual endeavour.

Indeed, failing to acknowledge the importance and value of the “other” may ultimately prevent Judaism from realising its spiritual potential.  Rabbi Hirsch continues by explaining that the minority:

…has cause to regard all truth, wherever it may be found on the outside, as a firm ally of its own cause, since all truth stems from the same Master of truth.  Finally, the minority should not regard all disciplines that are compatible with its own principles as enemies.  The cause represented by a Jewish minority is not purely theoretical but also involves the practical life of its adherents.  It demands the dedication of all aspects of life to the realization of its principles.  It can have real, true existence, only to the extent to which it can mold and dominate the most varied facets of everyday living…

Chanukah Sameach!