Sermon Notes 19/03/11 - Zachor and Purim

Purim, murders in Itamar and catastrophe in Japan

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

The past few days have been filled with tragedy: in Japan: first the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami which have destroyed countless thousands of lives, I have already posted a little about the unfolding tragedy in Japan here; we must continue to pray for the wellbeing of the survivors, for a successful resolution to the nuclear emergency there and to assist in whatever way we feel we can.

And then, in our beloved Israel, the despicable, unspeakable terrorist murder of the Fogel family in Itamar has shaken us all and our thoughts are with the surviving children and other family members.  On Parashat Zachor are we in any doubt that ‘in every generation they stand up to annihilate us’ (Haggadah) and that remembering the evil of those who will ‘destroy, eliminate, murder all the Jews, women and children’ (Megillah) is just as relevant today.

In the light of this, it is very difficult to be in the mood for Purim – it hardly feels like a time of celebration and victory, with Japan devastated and orphans mourning the victims of another senseless attack.  Yet how can we not celebrate Purim – which recognises Jewish survival throughout history, despite all the odds?

I suggest that what all of us feel at times like this is a sense of hopelessness – a fear that we are, in fact, subject to purely deterministic forces and random chance.  We are despair that nothing we do really makes any difference – if any of us just ‘happened’ to be in North-Eastern Japan last Friday morning or in the wrong house in Itamar last Friday night, we too could have been killed.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (commentary to VaYikra 11) explains that the laws of impurity governing human remains are intended to address precisely this issue:

The human corpse calls attention to a fact that is liable to foster the misconception that is called impurity.  For the fact is that, when a corpse lies before us, a human being has succumbed to the compelling physical forces of nature.

But the following is also true: The corpse we see before us is not the whole man, nor even his essence.  For man’s true being cannot be touched by the power of physical forces.

These are the truths that must be impressed upon the mind of the living person who faces the phenomena of death.  For whereas death brings to mind man’s frailty and his submission to the forces of nature, man must stand tall in the midst of the physical world, proud of his vital freedom.

The notion that we are subject to random forces entirely beyond our control engenders religious and moral torpor and is the antithesis of everything Judaism holds dear.  It is also the ideology of Amalek: Amalek ‘chanced upon you on the way’ (Parashat Zachor) and Haman cast lots to decide when to kill the Jews.  As such, while Purim (and Zachor) certainly remember the evil acts of our enemies past and present, it is also an affirmation and celebration of the most important religious idea of all: the rejection of determinism and randomness.  Of course, this leaves serious theological questions about the nature of calamity and the lot of its victims.  Yet while mustering the strength to celebrate will certainly be more difficult than usual, this Purim offers an unprecedented opportunity to affirm and celebrate the role of God, meaning and purpose in every moment of life.

A Jewish Response to Human Catastrophe

Brief thoughts on the Japanese Tsunami

Around a year ago, following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I wrote a piece for ‘Jewish Action’, the magazine of the American Orthodox Union, entitled ‘A Jewish Response to Human Catastrophe’.  Scarcely more than a year later, a colossal earthquake and tsunami have destroyed a large section of North-Eastern Japan, killing tens of thousands and ruining the lives of innumerable others.  The images defy belief – cars tossed about like toys, entire towns wiped from the face of the earth, huge ships thrown into buildings miles inland, passenger trains simply missing, presumably forever.

Much of what I said a year ago is tragically relevant once more.  Yet there is an additional dimension to the cataclysm in Japan – it has happened in an environment that looks like our own: Japan, unlike Haiti and others locations struck by recent disasters, is a developed, Western-style country.  The photos from the affected areas could have been taken in Manhattan or Cannes.  On previous occasions, we may have assumed that it couldn’t happen to us, perhaps unwittingly associating the disaster with more primitive and unprepared countries.  That self-deception is no longer possible.

There are many ways to assist the victims; one is through a fund launched by World Jewish Relief.

Rabbi in Israel - War in Gaza

In Israel during the Gaza operation

I am sitting in the National Library at the Hebrew University on the third day of a visit to Israel. I am in here to catch up with young people from my community who are studying at various institutions in Israel, but have dedicated today, the Fast of Tevet, to rest and to some private study. Yet instead, I feel motivated to write a short post about the atmosphere here. In the interests of brevity, here are a few points that have stuck in my mind:
  • Every minyan I have visited is saying a 'Kapitl Tehillim' - a chapter of psalms - after each service, every day, followed by a prayer for the wellbeing of Jews everywhere. For your interest, so far I have been to a shteibl in Meah Shearim, the minyan of a prominent Chassidic Rebbe, a religious Zionist Shul and the minyan at the Hebrew University library.
  • There is a hand-written note pinned to the door of the lift in the building where I am staying, advertising opportunities to send non-perishable food to soldiers in Gaza. Apparently, there are many such notices, as well as those volunteering to deliver the goods.
  • I spoke yesterday to the head of a 'hesder' yeshivah; some of his students have been drafted and he is expecting most of the rest of the yeshivah to be called in the event of a prolonged or expanded conflict. This is the vision of the 'hesder' programme: enabling its students to combine Torah learning with military duty.
  • I also spoke yesterday to a prominent so-called anti-Zionist rabbi who told me that he has encouraged his community to recognise what he called the 'miracle' in the south of Israel: the incredibly few casualties in the wake of 1000s of rocket attacks. He pointed out to me that while many in the Israeli media are observing that this is 'abnormal', that is insufficient - we must see the hand of God in this phenomenon.
  • How meaningful the additional prayers for the fast day seemed this morning; the primary purpose of a fast day is introspection - I found this rather more manageable than usual. These selichot also contain texts that were, perhaps, easier to absorb than usual: references to the siege on the Holy Temple and our hopes that fast days will be transformed into moments of rejoicing.
  • I was particularly startled by the word חמסנו - we have acted aggressively - which appears in the alphabetic confession said on fast days (every day in some communities). והמבין יבין.

I am impressed by the sense of calm and normality which seems to exist. Of course, for those with husbands or other family members in the IDF or who live close to the area of hostility, it must be a nerve-wracking time, yet Israelis have learned (sadly) to live normally, despite stress and uncertainty. But most of all, I am struck by the sense of unity and real care and fervent hope expressed by everyone here, of whatever stripe or allegiance within the religious community. I'm pleased that I've been here during this difficult time, as I've learned a lot of good things about Israelis and Israeli society.

May the hostilities end soon and the casualties be very few. May we also value the precious unity that this campaign has engendered and realise that it needn't take a war...

How The Torah Can Take On The internet

Technology and Judaism

Technology has always been seen as a challenge to religious societies and their mores. I recall a discussion with a visitor to my home: the topic of conversation was a man in full Hassidic garb he had seen standing in the street speaking on a mobile phone. What I thought was an interesting synthesis of old and new worlds my guest considered hypocritical for reasons he clearly felt deeply, but was unable to articulate. And a famous London rabbi who resisted the use of video cameras at weddings was once criticised in this very paper for being ‘an enemy of modern technology’! There seems to be a perception that technology and Orthodoxy don’t quite mix!

Recently, computers - and particularly the internet - have thrown up a range of issues that Jewish scholars have started to tackle. The most hotly contested of these is how to ensure that the internet is used safely. The plethora of pornography, nefarious chat-rooms, violence and hate that pervades the sinister side of the web has caused immense consternation in all civilised parts of society; it has encouraged Orthodox leaders to offer strongly-worded edicts to control its use. In many Haredi circles today, use of the internet for essential business use is reluctantly permitted, whereas home use is disallowed; there are residential areas in Israel where few homes have internet access. The exponents of this view feel that the dangers of internet use far outweigh its benefits, and that a ‘kosher’ home should, if at all possible, be web-free. This opinion is reinforced with powerful rhetoric and some quite draconian measures: a number of communities have even incorporated harsh internet restrictions into their school-entrance policies.

Yet leaders of other Orthodox circles have adopted a different view: they realise that the internet is a supremely useful tool that many find indispensable, and that banning it is unlikely to actually stop people from using it. An increasingly common perspective sees the internet as the greatest opportunity for knowledge-dissemination since Gutenberg, one that the religious world should embrace, while simultaneously taking robust precautions to avoid exposure to its disreputable and nauseating parts. This view is tacitly endorsed by the proliferation of Torah websites and other Orthodox internet resources.

But while the internet has occupied centre stage in recent rabbinical pronouncements, many other fascinating issues are raised by computer use. Over the coming months, in a series of occasional articles, I intend to address some of them. Among other topics, we will consider how Jewish law deals with modern intellectual property matters, Shabbat complications generated by internet use and some surprising consequences emerging from the growth in the availability of wifi.

The application of ancient Jewish sources to a modern issue is always an exciting opportunity for Torah scholarship, but the almost paradoxical meeting of the worlds of halakhah and state-of-the-art technology is especially fascinating. I never cease to be awed by the comprehensive nature of Talmudic and mediaeval sources: the corpus of Jewish legal literature contains a vast range of precedents from which any contemporary case can be decided, no matter how extraordinary. Of course, this process has existed since the earliest times and the current issues raised by computers are the successors of topics like protecting copyright, which was addressed many centuries ago by such luminaries as Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (16th century Poland). In due course, our subjects will give way to the next generation of conundrums; we can’t predict what they will be, but we can be sure that the halakhah contains the tools with which to handle them.

I believe that halakhah can deliver cogent and relevant answers to apparently unprecedented hi-tech problems and that this is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. The answers emerging from halakhic debate often seem to presage the conclusions that other systems of thought eventually reach by longer and slower means.

The little-understood willingness of rabbis, even of those of the most insular schools, to engage directly with every aspect of modernity is, potentially one of the greatest assets of the contemporary Jewish world, one that we should export to the rest of society. Torah scholars are absolutely dedicated to incorporating the very best achievements of the 21st century into Jewish life. Yet they are equally committed to taking vigorous precautions to ensure that negative aspects of technology (both the halakhically questionable and the spiritually damaging) are firmly excluded from Jewish society. I hope that this series affords a small taste of this tremendous resource.

Sources

Internet access in the home is only permissible if required for a person’s job. Computers without internet access will be required to have software installed which will prevent such access in order to prevent children from connecting them to the internet. Children of families that do not comply with the rules will be barred from school in order to protect the other children in the class. (Excerpts from internet ban of Lakewood NJ)

A computer is not a toy. It is a tool, like an electric saw. A blanket ban on home computers is as foolish as a blanket ban on electric saws. But it is just as foolish to leave an electric saw plugged in, out in your living room where there are children. Education is all about teaching our children how to use life’s tools. (Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen)

See http://frumnet.blogspot.com/, a blog devoted to discussing the future of Orthodox internet use.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

A First Response To The Tsunami Disaster

Responding to catastrophe

The unfolding cataclysm in Asia brought to mind a very brief Biblical quote – the words of sheer despair uttered by Judah to his disguised brother, Joseph. ‘What can we say?’

What indeed can we say about a tragedy of such unprecedented span? What words of philosophy or theology could even scratch the surface of the issues raised by such large-scale devastation and human suffering? Is this not disappointing? Would we not expect there to be an immediate and succinct Jewish explanation of the recent phenomenon?

Not at all. Actually, our inability or unwillingness to offer a response is, perhaps, the most Jewish response of all. Any justification would be trite, foolish and an affront to the victims. While the suffering goes on, we cannot and will not offer an explanation. As we would expect, the Jewish sages tackled this reality millennia ago. The great Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar warned us not to comfort the bereaved when ‘his dead lies yet before him,’ meaning that while the calamity is still in progress, consolation and explanations are inappropriate. That’s not to say that Judaism does not have profound answers to the greatest existential questions; it’s just that they are reserved for the dispassionate arena of philosophy, one far-removed from real tragedy.

Psalm 124 adopts the metaphor of ‘raging waters’ to describe an enemy attack. ‘If it were not for God when Man rose against us,’ sings King David, then ‘the water would have swamped us.’ The bitter irony of the tsunami disaster is that if it were not for Man when God rose against us, many thousands more would have died. The relief effort, while too late for uncountable numbers, is saving thousands who would otherwise have certainly perished. In this lies the beginning of a Jewish response to current events, in which ‘explanation’ is set aside in favour of the two classic alternatives of action and introspection.

Upheaval on any scale, from personal difficulty to global catastrophe, is greeted by the Jew as an opportunity for self-examination. It is important to realise that this does not make a judgement about the cause of the tragedy – it simply insists that a correct response will include introspection. We may never know the ‘reason’ such events occur within God’s plan for humanity, but can always identify much wrong with ourselves and our planet and then attempt to rectify it. At one end of the scale, it may be failures in our interpersonal relationships, at the other, the appalling imbalance between the haves and the have-nots of our world. Judaism expects us, at the very least, to be jolted from our complacency by events around the globe, to take notice and to recognise that all is not well with our lives and our society.

There is another aspect to this introspection, however. Very often we forget how incredibly fortunate many of us are. Whether in terms of health, security, wealth or opportunity, most in the West are living lives of comfort and affluence undreamt of just a few years ago. That much is obvious. But how many of us realise that the tsunami could just have easily struck the United States? Scientists are carefully watching the volcanic activity on La Palma in the Canary Islands. They believe that at some time in the next few thousand years (it could happen next week, although this is extremely unlikely), a section of the island, weighing 450 thousand million tons, will fall into the Atlantic ocean. This would trigger a mega-tsunami that would engulf the whole Eastern coast of the USA within a few hours. But it didn’t happen in the West – we were mercifully spared. The words of the important thinker Rabbi Yitzhak Arama are apposite. ‘The nature of water is to cover the land, and it remains in place only by God’s instruction.’ It may be a cliché, but events in Asia should be challenging us to value each moment of our comfortable lives. Together with our sympathy for the victims and our disbelief at their plight, we should experience a profound sense of gratitude for our own circumstances.

The natural consequence of these feelings and the flip side of Rabbi Shimon’s exhortation is that action and action alone is the correct response. For most of us, there is little we can do directly, yet we can contribute generously to the relief agencies trying desperately to help the survivors and the families of the victims. We should applaud their efforts and encourage others to help to the best of their abilities. This is a proper Jewish response. The signs in this direction are encouraging – many nations have pledged vast aid packages. And cooperation is in evidence, transcending political divisions and religious prejudices. Even the BBC reported Israel’s offer of a field hospital to Sri Lanka with guarded favour!

And we need to think and act before the pop-stars return from their holidays and the sportsmen resume their vulgar antics – for when they do, they will inevitably supplant the tsunami tragedy from the front pages of the newspapers and from the minds of their readers. If we do, perhaps a small ray of light will emerge from a horrendous calamity.

Based on a sermon given at Golders Green Synagogue on 1st January 2005, a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review