Sermon Notes 17/11/12 - Toldot / Tefillah 4

תפלה: Mechitzah, Responsibility and Transformation

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here and here.

It is worthwhile clarifying the role of the mechitzah (separation between men and women) in our Shul.  In the 19th century, a group of influential Hungarian rabbis insisted that the function of a Shul mechitzah is to completely separate the men and women, ensuring that they cannot see each other.  These rabbis went as far as saying that a Shul in which men and women can see each other does not qualify as a place for Jewish prayer.  Many other halachic authorities rejected this view and determined that the mechitzah serves only to prevent social intercourse between the genders during prayer and need not be opaque.  This is the view of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and the one that is followed in all ‘modern’ Shuls, including our own.  Indeed, our temporary mechitzah, designed for the ‘New Minyan’, was built to Rabbi Feinstein’s specifications, mentioned in Igrot Moshe Orech Chaim 1:39-42.  While we work on redeveloping our Shul space, we will continue to discuss the style and design of the new mechitzah and how exactly we will use it to divide our prayer space.

In a previous thought on Tefillah, I referred to Professor A.J. Heschel’s concern about the great responsibility to create a meaningful experience that falls to those running communities:

Ours is a great responsibility.  We demand that people come to worship instead of playing golf, or making money, or going on a picnic.  Why?  Don’t we mislead them?  People take their precious time off to attend service.  Some even arrive with profound expectations.  But what do they get?  What do they receive? (Man’s Quest for God, p. 51)

Heschel, a genius from a Polish Chassidic background, was frustrated by the sterile prayer environment he encountered in mid-20th century Conservative America.  Thank God, our community does not resemble the one he describes, nor does it reflect the aspirations of any of us, yet overstated as it is, it’s worth reading.  (Note that where Heschel uses the word ‘Temple’, we would substitute ‘Shul’ or ‘Synagogue’.)

Has the temple become the graveyard where prayer is buried? There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray? There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?

Of course, people still attend “services”—but what does this attendance frequently mean to them? Outpouring of the soul? Worship? Prayer, temple attendance has become a service of the community rather than service of God. People give some of their money to philanthropic causes, and some of their time to the temple.

The modem temple suffers from a severe cold. Congregants preserve a respectful distance between the liturgy and themselves. They say the words, “Forgive us for we have sinned,” but of course, they are not meant. They say, “Thou shalt love the Lord Thy Cod with all thy heart ...” in lofty detachment, in complete anonymity as if giving an impartial opinion about an irrelevant question.

An air of tranquillity, complacency prevails in our houses of worship. What can come out of such an atmosphere? The services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy, and the soul of prayer lies in agony. You know no one will scream, no one will cry, the words will be still-born.

(I might add in jest – and you know that no one will hear you scream – RHB)

People expect the rabbi to conduct a service: an efficient, expert service. But efficiency and rapidity are no remedy against devotional sterility.

We have developed the habit of praying by proxy. Many congregants seem to have adopted the principle of vicarious prayer. The rabbi or the cantor does the praying for the congregation. Men and women would not raise their voices, unless the rabbi issues the signal. Alas, they have come to regard the rabbi as master of ceremonies.

Is not their mood, in part, a reflection of our own uncertainties? Prayer has become an empty gesture, a figure of speech. (ibid. p. 50)

This powerful passage requires no comment, other than to say that we’ve all been to Shuls that look like this.  Heschel effectively captures the sterility of the ‘someone in the middle will do it for you’ model.

On the topic of sterility, in the third verse of this week’s parashah, the unusual word(עתר)  appears in two different forms:

וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַידֹוָד לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יְדֹוָד וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

Yitzchak entreated God concerning his wife, for she was barren, and God was entreated by him, and Rivkah, his wife, conceived. (BeReishit 25:21:Translation – New Hirsch Chumash)

Real prayer is one in which the supplicant entreats God and, in response, God ‘allows’ Himself to be entreated.  According to a midrash, the word עתר means a hoe – a tool used to turn – transform – plants.  The message is clear – if we expect God to ‘transform’ Himself and respond to our prayer, we must first transform ourselves though prayer.

Sermon Notes 10/11/12 - Chayey Sarah / Tefillah 3

תפלה: Connection, Engagement and the Mind-Body Experience

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here.

This week’s parashah begins with the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Chevron as a burial plot for the patriarchs and matriarchs.  The word Hebrew Chevron comes from לחבר – to connect, and suggests a sensitivity to the co-existence of body and soul, something those buried in Chevron epitomised.  A midrash notes that the reward of those buried in the Cave was ‘doubled and redoubled’ (BeReishit Rabbah 58:8), indicating that in their lifetime, they lived complex existences – melding their physical and spiritual sides.  This is the very essence of Jewish life.  It pits Judaism against other religious systems, which either divide the two or disregard physicality altogether.

In his essay ‘Law and Morality in Jewish Tradition’, Professor Eliezer Berkovits explains that the soul and body must not ‘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’.  He continues:

Through the mitzva, man overcomes the dualism of his nature in the God-oriented deed.  In the mitzva, man is one; as a whole he relates himself to the one God.

This holistic approach must also be reflected in our approach to prayer, and again distinguishes Jewish prayer:

All my bones shall say, ‘O Lord, who is like You?’ (Tehillim 35:10)

Professor Berkovits explains:

Man’s situation requires that his very bones should be capable of “prayer”.  But this is only possible if prayer too becomes a mitzva, unifying body and soul.  It has to be a physical action, informed by intention...  The prayer of man should be human and not angelic.

For Berkovits, the ability to ‘unify body and soul’ defines Jewish religious experience and is best articulated through prayer.  Berkovits attacks Immanuel Kant, for whom ‘the true moral service of God is... invisible, i.e., it is only the service of the heart, in spirit and in truth, and it may consist... only of intention’ (Religion within the Limits of Reason).  Berkovits is certain that this approach produces what he calls the ‘historic bankruptcy of all “natural”, as well as “spiritual”, religions’ and assures his reader that human prayer that doesn’t fully engage the body and soul not only fails to qualify as a Jewish experience, but actually:

...makes the dualism of his nature itself a religion... 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.

Not only our hearts and minds, but our lips and bodies must sing and dance in prayer.  Jewish prayer can never be performed on our behalf by someone in the middle of the Shul; it demands of us that we participate, not watch, that we sing, not listen; Shul services are not concerts, although there is surely a place for them.  We must ensure that our Baaley Tefillah challenge each of us to engage our bodies and souls in a single experience, to lead us in inspirational tunes that all of us will want to sing.  Only this will enable us to be transformed, not merely entertained, by the tefillah experience, to be players and not spectators. Only this, not the bifurcated alternative, is Jewish prayer and only this will enable us to thrive as individuals and as a community, enlivening ourselves in the presence of the Almighty.

Having one minyan makes this challenging, as people have different ideas as to what the service should look like and in which style it should be led.  It’s made still more challenging as there are numerous local alternatives of every type and at every time, which are welcoming and close by.  One thing’s certain – if we offer a style of service that some favour, but a number of people don’t like, they simply won’t attend, something we can’t countenance.  Not offering an alternative also means only providing services that everyone, or at least as many as possible, find palatable.

We’ll get there, but it will take forbearance and good humour from all of us as we adjust to the new space and what works best there.

Sermon Notes 20/10/12 - Noach / Tefillah 2

תפלה: Standing before God, the Quill of the Soul and Participation

In last week’s instalment, I posed a challenge from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik:

1) When we go to Shul or pray at home, is our goal to daven or to have davened?

We ought to consider whether we view prayer as something to get out of the way – simply to meet an obligation, to be, as they say ‘yotze’, or if the process of prayer itself is a meaningful experience.  My favourite passage in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’ reads:

Prayer is basically an awareness of man finding himself in the presence of and addressing himself to his Maker, and to pray has one connotation only: to stand before God. To be sure, this awareness has been objectified and crystallized in standardized, definitive texts whose recitation is obligatory. The total faith commitment tends always to transcend the frontiers of fleeting, amorphous subjectivity and to venture into the outside world of the well-formed, objective gesture. However, no matter how important this tendency on the part of the faith commitment is—and it is of enormous significance in the Halakhah which constantly demands from man that he translate his inner life into external facticity—it remains unalterably true that the very essence of prayer is the covenantal experience of being together with and talking to God and that the concrete performance such as the recitation of texts represents the technique of implementation of prayer and not prayer itself.

I particularly like the last line of this excerpt, which insists that our services are a means to prayer, but not prayer itself.  Clearly, for Rabbi Soloveitchik, prayer is about the encounter with the divine, the moment of communion, the privilege of standing before God, something every human being should crave – it is not so much about outcome, but process.

2) Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch is quoted as saying:

הלשון היא קולמוס הלב והניגון הוא קולמוס הנפש

The tongue is the quill of the heart and music is the quill of the soul

Our prayer experience must be at once personal, yet shared and combine the ‘two quills’ – the tongue and the heart, allowing us to articulate our feelings, needs, fears and aspirations within the context of engaging, participatory, communal services.  Each of us is responsible for the atmosphere in our Shul, ensuring that it is welcoming, spiritual and purposeful.  As Professor A.J. Heschel remarks:

Ours is a great responsibility.  We demand that people come to worship instead of playing golf, or making money, or going on a picnic.  Why?  Don’t we mislead them?  People take their precious time off to attend service.  Some even arrive with profound expectations.  But what do they get?  What do they receive? (Man’s Quest for God, p. 51)

What we will ensure those attending receive is an opportunity to sing along in a joint, yet personal experience.  There is room in our community for different styles of davenning – from the traditional to the modern, but all Baaley Tefillah must bear in mind that fostering communal participation, principally singing, is vital.  This way, we can all enjoy a varied, unifying experience that leaves us moved and, hopefully, meets our ‘profound expectations’.

3) Turning to more prosaic matters, we will experiment with commencing the Shabbat morning service at 9.30am, with a slightly earlier start on special or longer services; the goal is to finish regularly no later than 11.40am.  It’s important that we don’t convey the idea that Shul and Shabbat are synonymous – even during the winter there must be time to enjoy Shabbat lunch and spend some time with family or friends.  Shul is a central and vital part of the Shabbat experience, but there is more to Shabbat than attending a service.

4) Finally, a challenge from the Rokeach (Eli’ezer of Worms, d. 1238).  He is supposed to have said that the most difficult daily challenge within a daily religious life is to pray with proper intention.  How do we relate to this?

Sermon Notes 13/10/12 - BeReishit / Tefillah 1

תפלה: Meaning, Experience and a Challenge

Over the coming weeks, our community will be in a transitional phase as we begin to recreate our ‘prayer space’ in the redeveloping building.  It’s clearly really important that we do this in a way that all of us can really enjoy the new space and so I’ve decided to devote this and the next few Shabbat-morning sermons to considering our prayer experience and what our expectations can and must be of it.  I plan to cajole, reprioritise and challenge to ensure we get this right, but this week, some basics.

1) What is the meaning of תפלה – the word most commonly used for prayer?

It is not request – that is בקשה, nor praise – that is שבח, nor thanks – that is הודאה, nor blessing – that is ברכה, nor supplication – that is תחינה.

תפלה is none of these and all of them.  Interestingly, the verb associated with תפלה is להתפלל, which is a reflexive form of the word פלל, meaning ‘judge’.  That renders תפלה as a process of self-judgement, or, perhaps, self-reflection.  In this vein, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, in his introduction to ‘The Hirsch Siddur’ notes that תפלה is related to הלל – to radiate or reflect rays, meaning that ‘while God is not visible to us, we perceive the radiations of His Omnipotence in the infinite evidences of wonder which permit us to find God’.  ‘Prayer’ – our תפלה – must enable us to reflect on our lives, their purpose and our relationship with God.  Rabbi Breuer continues:

תפלה requires that we imbue ourselves ever anew with the great truth and demands which must place their stamp upon our Jewish existence and consciousness.

In other words, תפלה must provide us with Jewish direction, peace of mind and renewed God-consciousness.

2) The Talmud articulates three early perceptions of prayer based on the experience of the Avot:

Not like Avraham, who saw the focus of prayer (the site of the future Temple) as a mountain, nor like Yitzchak, who saw it as a field, but like Ya’akov, who saw it as a house. (TB Pesachim 88a, paraphrased)

We should not view תפלה and connection with the divine as an insurmountable climb (Avraham’s mountain), nor as a straightforward, equally-accessible experience (Yitzchak’s field), but as a house that can and must incorporate a range of needs, feelings and complexities.

3) Finally, a challenge from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, who asked a question I often ask myself and I urge you to ask yourselves:

When we go to Shul or pray at home, is our goal to daven, or to have davened?  Think about it.

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 07/07/12 - Balak

When Less is More

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

Actually, I didn't give a sermon this week as my community had the privilege of hosting Professor Elliott Malamet from Toronto, who delivered three fascinating and thought-provoking talks - see here for details.

Yet the story of Bilam's donkey, which appears in this week's Torah reading, offers a further opportunity to explore the Rambam's approach to certain challenging biblical texts.

While it is almost universally assumed that the narrative describes an actual, physical event, the Rambam (Maimonides) asserts that it was a prophetic vision - i.e. it happened only in Bilam's mind but was not observable by an outsider. As he explains:

The entire [episode] of Bilaam's journey and the words of the donkey - all were a prophetic vision. (Moreh Nevochim 2:42)

Indeed, for the Rambam, 'everywhere that the appearance or speech of an angel is mentioned, it is always a prophetic vision of dream, whether this is explicitly mentioned or not... Know this and understand it extremely well'. (ibid.)

So, frustratingly for literalists, the Rambam contends that there wasn't a talking donkey in any 'real' sense. However, this appears to be contradicted by an explicit Mishnah, which sites the 'mouth of the donkey' within a group of specially-created items:

Ten things were created at twilight on the [first] Friday evening... the mouth of the donkey.. (Mishnah, Avot 5:6)

Since the other items in the list - including the staff of Moshe, the manna and tablets of the covenant - were clearly real, physical entities, this strongly suggest that the 'mouth of the donkey' - surely a euphemism for it actually speaking - was also 'real'.

The Chief Rabbi once suggested to me that the Rambam meant that Bilam's journey actually took place; when Bilam hit the donkey, he heard its braying as human speech. It may be that the capacity for this to happen at the right moment in history was created on the first Friday afternoon in history, allowing the Rambam's non-literalist approach to square with the Mishnah.

Rambam's certainty that human beings cannot detect angels, and consequently, the 'talking donkey' must have been a vision, is consonant with his insistence that nothing in existence other than God is inherently holy. It also fits with what I would term his 'rational minimalism', the contention that God is as economic as possible when He must interfere with the natural running of the world, something I've mentioned before here. In practice, this means that God uses the minimum intervention to achieve his desired outcome - in this case, since a vision could suffice to rebuke Bilam and demonstrate that he was merely a pawn in the hand of the divine, no more miraculous event needed, or indeed, could have, occurred.

This approach remains unpopular in a Jewish world that often assumes that 'more is more' both in practice and theory. I've noticed that many speakers (and, it would seem, their audiences), assume that if two stories can illustrate a point then eight must do so better. From this perspective, when dealing with theological matters, the more overt the divine intervention, the greater the God.

The Rambam's approach challenges the validity of this view. For him, only a God who can change the course of history with the slightest intervention is truly omnipotent - 'less is more'.

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 25/02/12 - Terumah

Celebrating Volunteering in our Community

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

This Shabbat we celebrate the immense contribution of our volunteers.  No community can function without those who give so generously of their time and expertise and we are especially blessed.  I think it’s vital that once in a while we thank them; they should never be taken for granted.

This week’s parashah is perfect for discussing this topic.  It begins with the call for donations to the Mishkan:

דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את תרומתי

Speak to the Children of Israel and have them take an offering for Me; from everyone whose heart motivates him, you shall take My offering. (Shemot 25:2)

The rabbis explain that the offerings needed to be voluntary and given with a full heart.  There are basic responsibilities – other offerings were obligatory – a kind of taxation, but when it comes to building the Mishkan, the donation had to be freely given.  Our volunteers don’t do things grudgingly, but freely give of their time with love and devotion.

The Mishnah in Avot notes that the world exists on three pillars – Torah, divine service or prayer and acts of kindness.  They are equated – the entire edifice of community is dependent on these three.  This is something that the Charedi communities do extremely well – creating huge networks of people, gemachim, and support projects to deliver voluntary services to people in their communities and beyond.   In Charedi communities, there is a real sense that one’s contribution is vital and that even if there are lots of Torah students, volunteers, or whatever, one’s own contribution is indispensible.  We are quite good at this but we still have much to learn.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the late-19th-century founder of the Musar movement was once approached by someone who claimed that he only had one hour a week available what to study during that hour.  Rabbi Yisrael replied that he should learn Musar, because that would enable him to realise that he actually had more than one hour free!

This sentiment applies to volunteering too.  I suspect that many people feel that they either have no time or are not well-suited to volunteering.  This is rarely true; adapting Rabbi Yisrael’s advice – if you were to meet our volunteers, and those who benefit from their involvement and you’ll discover quickly how you really want to volunteer and how much time you can make available.

One other point – while of course, volunteering enables the community to run smoothly, to provide services that might not otherwise be available and to assist individuals, anyone who does volunteer or is engaged in any other type of chessed will tell you another side of the experience – they gain at least as much themselves as the recipient from the experience of volunteering.  Conceptually, this is no surprise: the act of giving is itself something godly: Jewish life is guided by the principle that we 'walk in God’s path' by emulating Him.  Since God is the giver and we are the recipients, altruistic acts replicate the divine model, bringing godliness and satisfaction to those who perform them.

On behalf of everyone in the community, may you be blessed with success, good health and continue to inspire me and others.

Sermon Notes 18/02/12 - Mishpatim

An Eye for an Eye: Literalism and Traditionalism

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

Following the account of the Sinaitic theophany in last week’s parashah, one would have expected the text to describe the construction of the Mishkan, moving from the revelation to the means (the Mishkan) to keep it fresh in the minds of the Israelites.  Instead, the narrative is broken up by the Mishpatim, laws mostly governing interpersonal conduct.  Rav Soloveitchik points out that this interruption conveys an important message – sensitive, honest behaviour lies at the very heart of Jewish life; one cannot even contemplate building the sanctuary without first accepting the Mishpatim.

Rabbi Yishmael notes that ‘one who wishes to become wise should study the financial laws, for there is no greater Torah topic; they like an overflowing spring’. (Mishnah Bava Batra 10:8)  It remains customary for a child’s first tractate to be one dealing with financial responsibility, not ritual law.  These rules hone the intellect and ensure that honesty and care with the resources of others is absorbed by children from an early age.

The most well-known verses in this section describe what is known as lex talionis – the law of retaliation: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound’. (Shemot 21: 24-5)  For centuries, Jews were maltreated on the basis of a literal reading of these words, which assumes that we are revengeful, hateful people, whose law requires us to exact awful punishment from wrongdoers.  Yet the Talmud insists that the text actually refers to compensation for the lost limb (Bava Kama 84a); indeed, this has always been the approach of applied Jewish law.

As expected, Rashi cites the Talmud’s approach.  More startlingly, his grandson, Rashbam, known for his enthusiasm for the plain meaning of the text, also follows this view: in his critical notes to Rashbam, Professor Martin Lokshin observes that ‘Rashbam accepts the traditional reading of the text’.

In the 19th century, the validity of this interpretation was threatened by biblical criticism and a growing rejection of the authenticity of the Oral Tradition.  In response, commentators such as Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Meklenberg (HaKetav VeHaKabbalah) and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch sought to defend the traditional picture.  In what amounts to rather deft interpretative apologetics, each explains that the verse actually refers to compensation – i.e. the text means not ‘an eye for an eye’, but should be translated as ‘compensation for an eye for an eye’.  Meklenberg explains that in context, this is the only credible reading, whereas Hirsch demonstrates that the word תחת – usually translated as ‘for’, actually means ‘compensation for’.

Yet these readings leave a very obvious question – if the Torah means compensation, why does it seem to refer to retaliation?  An unambiguous text would certainly have prevented much misunderstanding and a great deal of persecution.  Is it possible to reconcile the literal meaning of the text with the traditional interpretation?

Seforno, writing around 1500, does just this.  For him, the text describes a theoretical ideal – in a perfect universe, the perpetrator of an injury should personally experience the precise consequences of his or her actions – in this case, the loss of the limb of which the victim has been deprived.  Yet the traditional reading recognises the reality that this cannot, in fact, may not, reflect actual practice, for various practical and ethical reasons.  As such, it is not necessary to distort the plain meaning of the words, which do in fact refer to retaliation; the traditional reading is not a translation of the words, but an interpretation, albeit one that represents the only valid practical application of the Torah’s law.  Indeed, it reflects the will of the divine within the confines of an imperfect world, beautifully harmonising the ‘real’ meaning of the text with an age-old interpretation.

Sermon Notes 28/01/12 - Bo

Of Darkness, Rationalism and Jewish Leadership

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

The last three plagues are described in the first part of this week’s parashah.  A controversial approach to the ninth plague – darkness (Shemot 10:21-23) – appears in the Torah Temimah.  This work, published in 1902 by Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein of Pinsk, comments on selected midrashim verse by verse.  Analysing a midrash which claims that the darkness was ‘as thick as a coin’ (see Yalkut Shimoni to Tehillim 105), Rabbi Epstein says the following:

Were I not afraid to produce an entirely novel approach, I would have said that the darkness was not in the air, but in the Egyptians’ eyes – a kind of cataract obscuring their pupils.  The rabbis point out that this cataract was tangible and was ‘as thick as a coin’. (Torah Temimah to Shemot 10:21, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)

Whenever a rabbi introduces an observation with the phrase ‘were I not afraid… I would have said’, he knows that what he is about to write will is contentious.  Indeed, some critics viewed Rabbi Epstein’s understanding as an unacceptable deviation from ‘normative’ interpretation; to this day, some ultra-conservative groups treat the entire work with suspicion.

In fact, Rabbi Epstein was merely following a well-trodden, but unpopular, mode of interpretation, one based firmly in the writings of the Rambam:

It is incumbent upon us to combine Torah and rationalism, to explain matters as naturalistically as possible.  Only when something is absolutely inexplicable by natural means, should one say that it is a ‘miracle’. (Rambam, Epistle on the Resuscitation of the Dead, section 2, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)

The Rambam means that one should only resort to a complex – supernatural explanation – of any event described in the Torah – when all simpler – read: naturalistic – explanations have been exhausted.  I would term this a Maimonidean version of Occam’s Razor.

While of course, the opportune appearance of targeted cataracts can only be attributed to divine intervention, Rabbi Epstein’s explanation minimises the miraculous nature of the plague of darkness by rationalising it as far as possible.  Apparently, this was something that Rabbi Epstein’s detractors found unforgivable.

This long-forgotten controversy highlights the tension between rationalistic and super-rationalistic approaches to Judaism that have existed since long before the publication of the Torah Temimah.  It lies at the heart of the radically different world-views of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari and the Rambam’s Moreh Nevochim – Guide for the Perplexed, and continues today.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the rationalistic approach to Torah interpretation and Jewish thought is in retreat and has gradually ceded to the super-or even anti-rationalism which now characterises much of Orthodox society.  This is evident in every area of Jewish life: the content of popular works; the adulation of leaders; the immense growth in segulot – spiritual remedies of the ‘give your money to this cause and you’ll find a spouse, have a baby, be cured of an illness, or make a living’ variety.

There are too many negative spinoffs of this phenomenon to consider in a short space.  They include the unwillingness to contextualise talmudic texts describing the observable universe and the subsequent rejection of the need to reconcile Torah with scientific discoveries, a naive, romanticised understanding of world history and a hagiographic approach to the lives of Jewish leaders.  All of these and others make some prevalent forms of Jewish life deeply unattractive to thinking people and mean that there is little opportunity for those already within the system to find answers to genuine questions.

But a particularly worrying consequence of the super-rationalistic approach is the manner in which leaders of some parts of the community are appointed and the uncritical way in which their performance is evaluated.  Sadly, rabbinical leaders are not always chosen because they have the appropriate qualifications, can identify with the lives and concerns of their charges and will fight for them.   And when they remain silent in the face of injustice, as has happened too often in recent times, their disciples are willing to attribute this to the rabbis’ higher knowledge or holiness rather than to a failure of leadership.   And while, of course, every system of governance can be abused by its leaders, Jewish leadership should be a beacon of good sense, fairness and transparency, not words one would immediately associate with some contemporary leaders.

A return to rationalism, a neglected, but bona fide Jewish alternative, is sorely needed, especially in Israel.  It’s not the answer to every problem the Jewish world faces, but it will go a long way to making authentic Orthodox Judaism more attractive to intelligent people, better able to face the social and intellectual challenges of living a religious life in a modern world, and, perhaps most importantly, more capable of producing leaders who will actually lead our communities. 

תורה תמימה, שמות י:כא

ומבואר במדרשים שהחושך כעובי דינר, וכלל הענין מופלא מאד, דמה שייך להתפיס שיעור ממשות בחושך, וגם צ"ע דלפי פירש"י שהיה כל משך המטל"ע כולו לילה ולא היה יום כלל א"כ נשתנו סדרי בראשית , וזה קשה מאד שהרי הקב"ה הבטיח לנח ולבניו ויום ולילה לא ישבותו.

ולולא מסתפינא להמציא דבר חדש מאד ה"א דענין החושך היה לא באויר רק בעיני האנשים, והיינו שהיה מתוח תבלול על אישון העין, ואמרו חכמים שאותו התבלול היה נמוש ביד וגם היה כעובי דינר, וניחא הכל.

רמב"ם, מאמר תחית המתים, קטע ב'

ואנחנו נשתדל לקבץ בין התורה והמשכל וננהיג הדברים על סדר טבעי אפשר בכל זה, אלא מה שהתבאר בו שהוא מופת ולא יתכן לפרשו כלל אז נצטרך לומר שהוא מופת.