Monthly Archives: August 2017

Aug 16

D’var Torah – Eikev

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam

A story is told:

Once there was a king who had a great flock of goats. He was very proud of this flock and the goats that made it up. One day, a stag appeared and joined the flock of goats. Of course, goats and stags are very different animals! The shepherds responsible for the flock were nervous to tell the king, worried that he would be upset to find his prize-winning flock corrupted by the presence of this very persistent stag. Yet, when the king was told he immediately felt affection for the stag and gave orders that the stag should have the best pasture available and that he should have a greater ration of water. The king ordered that none of the shepherds should ever beat the stag or even prod him with their staffs. The shepherds were baffled by the king’s reaction – and so they sent a messenger to the king to ask him why he was protecting the stag. The king then explained that the flock have no choice but to go along – but the stag chooses them. The king accounted it as a merit to the stag that he had left behind the whole of the broad, vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and had come to stay in a fenced-in pasture on the palace lands.

The Midrash tells this parable as a way of explaining a verse which we read this morning, Deuteronomy 10:19 – “You must love the ger for you were gerim in the Land of Egypt.” In the Torah’s conception, a ger is any person who is foreign, an outsider. As Judaism develops and the rabbis begin to redefine terminology, a ger becomes the way that we refer to converts. The midrash, of the stag and the flock of goats, is attempting to explain why it is that we are told over and over that God has a particular affection for gerim, converts. Whereas someone born into a Jewish family never had to choose to join the Jewish people, a convert has given up the ‘broad, vast wilderness,’ among the whole rest of the world to join the Jewish people.

Yet, we could look at Eikev, at this extended speech by Moses as he prepares to leave his leadership role and wonder – why does Moses make such a point out of the need to ‘love the stranger’ in this section of all places? We can learn part of the answer by looking at the context of the statement. The verse just prior reads, “God enacts justice for orphans and widows and loves the stranger, providing them with food and clothing.” Then we should read the next verse as, “You too must love the stranger.” So, we do what our Christian neighbours call imitatio dei: we imitate God by loving the stranger, the foreigner, the convert.

But – can we really command love? Respect, sure. Not to mistreat someone, sure. But, love? Maimonides observes something fascinating regarding this question. He notes that the Torah commands us to respect and honor our parents, and it commands us to obey a prophet… but it never commands us to love any of them. We aren’t commanded to love our parents, or our siblings, or our spouse, or even our children. Who are we commanded to love? Only twice are we told we must love: we must love God and we must love the convert.

Maimonides doesn’t tell us why this is, but if we’re willing to delve a bit into the mystics we can find an answer that I think may help us. Every word in Hebrew can also be a number, because the numerical system uses the same characters as the letter; the system of deriving meaning from the numerical value of words is called Gematria. Thus, God’s name is 26, Torah is 611, and ‘life’ is 18. The numerical value of ahavah, ‘love’ is 13. 13 is also the numerical value of the word ehad, or ‘one.’ Thus, the mystics understand that the true meaning of love is unity. To be ‘in love’ is to be ‘one with.’

The truth is, we can never truly be one-with our parents, siblings, partners, or children. Those relationships can be incredibly strong and have amazing unity, but their strength comes from the unification of two people, two perspectives, two bodies, and two lives. Yet the love we have for God is due to our identification with God. We are one with God because God is found in us and we are in God’s image. So too, all Jews, whether born so or converting to Judaism, are one with one another for they share the same covenant, the same responsibilities, the same blessings, and the same faith.

Thus, we must love the convert not because they are a convert per sé, but because they are a Jew. They are a Jew who has chosen to share in that covenant and those responsibilities. We must love the convert because we are all one people. Ironically, our love for converts must come from a recognition that it doesn’t matter whether someone was born Jewish or chose it – we are all one in our faith and our community.

Moreover, the second half of the verse points out that part of what makes the Jewish community one with the converts that join it, and thus requires love between them is their experience. “You too shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” One of the commentators on the Torah known as the Keli Yakar writes about this: “It says ‘you too shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,’ because anyone who hasn’t been a stranger in their lifetime cannot feel the stranger’s pain and cannot truly be concerned for the life of the stranger. But, someone who has themselves been a stranger knows the pain of the stranger and thus can apply the principle ‘do not do what is hateful to another.’”

Thus, it is not only our responsibilities and our choices that bind us together but it is our experience as well. Every Jew has known what it is like to be an outsider. For some of us we experienced that millennia ago as slaves in Egypt, for some of us it was last Thursday before we entered the mikveh. The point is this: the love asked of us, the caring shown by God, all of it is meant to diminish any perceived difference between the goats who have already been in the flock and the stag that joins it.

More than once I’ve heard someone say to me, “Oh, my partner converted so we’re a mixed-faith marriage.” No, you’re not. You’re two Jews, maybe who have had different paths, but now indistinguishable. I’ve heard sentences like, ‘Well he’s Jewish but she converted.’ Based on everything we’ve just learned – that sentence makes no sense. He may have been born Jewish, she may have chosen to become Jewish, but when we’re talking about their identities as Jews now, there is no “but” to that sentence: he’s Jewish and so is she.

This project of seeing all Jews simply as Jews doesn’t meant that we erase the various backgrounds and life-stories which have brought people to Judaism. There’s a blessing that in some versions of the traditional siddur one is meant to recite in the morning that thanks God for ‘not making me a gentile.’ Should someone who came to Judaism through conversion also say this? I don’t think so. It’s not true. God did make them a gentile and they chose to become Jewish. We cannot eliminate that difference. Just as the king is impressed with and interested in protecting the stag because it chose the pasture and the sheep, so too we shouldn’t ignore the fact that many Jews, many people in this room, have had full and fascinating lives outside of Judaism. We also cannot pretend that converts have no family simply because they have no Jewish family. To do so is to ignore and undermine the choice that was undertaken by them.

I look forward to welcoming new students for conversion here at SAMS. I know that we can be a community that models the values which our Torah teaches – which loves the convert the way that we are asked to love God — because we are, in some way, identical. I hope that we can always be a community which sees no difference between a Jew who can trace their lineage to King David and a Jew who can trace their Jewish life to three weeks ago. Whether we came out of Egypt in ancient times or the broader world in contemporary times, we have all stood together at Sinai and accepted upon ourselves the burdens and blessings of Jewish life.

Whether we are the goats or the stag, we are all in the pasture together. We must find a way to accept each of us as individuals, without diminishing one’s status as a Jew nor erasing one’s history as a gentile. We have to accept that it is perfectly possible, and perhaps even desirable, to have someone choose Judaism in the way that many of us never had to and that suspicion is not the reaction that should meet that choice; instead, it should be something more akin to wonder… a wonder that we have chosen each other, regardless of our backgrounds or our births and the hows and whys of our identities as Jews, to engage in the project of community and relationship building within a Jewish framework.

My prayer for us this week is that we all find time to reflect on love for a stranger– the stranger who is no longer a stranger but a part of our flock and should be considered as such always– with no reservation or hesitation.

Aug 16

D’var Torah – Vaetchanan

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam

In 1964, at Bell Labs in suburban New Jersey, two scientists were tasked with setting up and monitoring a new and highly-sensitive radio telescope. Basically a huge antenna, the telescope was originally designed to pick up radio waves which were being bounced off satellites just in the Earth’s atmosphere. When they turned the machine on and began to look closely at the data that was coming in – it didn’t quite make sense. They weren’t able to pick up anything other that a low, steady, rumbling noise which would sound to you and me like static. The noise was far louder than they expected, and as good empiricists would, they figured it was the equipment. The two men, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, climbed out onto the 6-metre wide disk of the telescope and found several families of pigeons nesting there. Assuming their avian neighbours were causing the mistaken results, they quickly relocated the pigeons and cleared out the nests.

Yet, as these stories tend to go, when they climbed back down and took another look at the data – that persistent static noise was still there. Penzias and Wilson didn’t realise it yet, but, they had just made one of the most significant scientific discoveries in the 20th century – a period which was amply animated by advances in science and technology. As they came to find out, studying the mysterious noise, vibrating at a consistent 7.35 centimetre wavelength – the noise they heard came not from pigeons, nor anything on Earth, nor anything in our solar system, nor even anything in our galaxy.

That quiet rumble in their headphones, it turns out, was nothing other than the radiation which had been emitted over 14 billion years ago when the universe was formed. A far cry from pigeon droppings, I’d say. What Penzias and Wilson discovered is what we now call the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) and it has allowed us to see far beyond what we previously thought possible. The data from that little hum heard in New Jersey allows us to get a glimpse into what the early life of the universe looked like. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize for their accidental discovery and science since has been forever transformed.

I’m thinking of the CMBR and of Penzias and Wilson today because there is a piece of the way that the Rabbis understand parashat VaEtchannan that has always bothered me. If you look at Deuteronomy 4:32, you’ll see, what seems to me, to be a fairly straightforward statement:

“For ask now of the days past, which were before you, since the day that God created humanity upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there has been anything as great as this thing is, or if any has been heard like it?”

Said in the context of Moses trying to convince the people of Israel why their story is so extraordinary, the verse itself doesn’t seem terrifically troubling. However, it’s used more than once in rabbinic literature as a proof-text for the exact opposite of what it plainly means. In the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 1:10), a rabbi named Bar Kappara inserts the word ‘not’ into the verse, making it “ask not of the days past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth.” He does this to teach that one may speculate from the day that time itself was created, but one should not speculate on what was before that. And one may investigate from one end of heaven to the other, but one should not investigate what was before this world.

Elsewhere, in the Talmud (BT Chagigah 11b) The Rabbis reasoned that the words “since the day that God created humanity upon the earth” in Deuteronomy 4:32 taught that one must not inquire concerning the time before creation. They reasoned that the words “the days past that were before you” taught that one may inquire only about the six days of creation. The Rabbis further reasoned that the words “from the one end of heaven to the other” in Deuteronomy 4:32 taught that one must not inquire about what is beyond the universe, what is above and what is below, what is before and what is after.

Clearly a theme emerges – there is an element of Jewish thought which seeks to use this verse to justify an anti-scientific approach. To limit experimental inquiry to only ‘certain’ domains is, stated or not, the aim of views like this. For some, this can seem like, in a broader fashion, an example of opposition to nature as a whole.

There certainly is a stream of thought in the Torah and in later Jewish tradition that fears nature. So obsessed with squashing any trace of Paganism, some part of the Jewish tradition went and over-corrected, downplaying the natural world, scientific inquiry and the value of experimental and philosophical understandings of our universe to the person of faith.

Perhaps the best-known expression of this sentiment is in Pirké Avot, the tractate of the Mishnah which deals with ethical concerns. There, (3:9) Rabbi Shimon is quoted as saying: “One who is walking along while studying [words of Torah] and interrupts their study and says ‘how beautiful is this tree, how beautiful is this field’—the Torah considers them as though they are guilty of death.”

For me, I simply can’t stand this tendency in some Jewish texts to devalue the natural world. As someone who has always been fascinated by science- and moreover, who sees scientific inquiry and theological speculation as going hand-in-hand, I find myself extremely frustrated by what seems to be a narrow-minded and parochial approach to the world in which we live, love and worship.

One of the first influences on me was Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who was one of the youngest physicists to be hired by the US government as well as one of the most brilliant mystics of the last hundred years. I take comfort in the fact that so many Jewish leaders have been people of science and medicine and that so many significant scientists have come from a Jewish background. Out of the 881 individuals who have received a Nobel Prize since 1901 when it began, 197 of them, or 22.4% have been Jewish. Meanwhile, worldwide Jews account for less than 0.2% of the world’s population. That incredible disparity, I don’t think, is due to some ethnic or genetic predisposition or intellectual gift. I think it comes from a culture and a religion which promotes inquiry, questioning, and learning.

If that’s so, we have to find another way to understand these rabbinic statements that the universe’s origin, or nature, or any reasonable subject of inquiry is undeserving of our attention. I once heard Rabbi Marc Angel explain the quote from Pirké Avot above in a way which I think can help us today to make sense of all this.

Where the Mishnah says that ‘one who is walking along, studying words of Torah, and interrupts their study to say ‘what a beautiful tree’ is guilty of death,’ Rabbi Angel suggests that we’ve emphasized the wrong meaning of the statement. What makes them liable, he says, is not that they comment on the beauty of nature – it is that they see that comment as an ‘interruption.’ Flipping the statement, R’ Angel reads it as a call to always see Torah and Nature as one in the same. The sin in the example is not the appreciation of the tree – it is believing, if only for a second, that the Torah that one is learning and the world they see around them are ever separate or separable.

If you were to look at the stars with a typical optical telescope, the space in between stars and galaxies appears absolutely empty. If, however, you calibrate a radio telescope antenna just right, you find that that so-called ‘empty’ space hides the still-blossoming explosion that accompanied the universe’s birth.

 

We must be willing to take the brave step of seeing our faith and our understanding of science and nature as one in the same. We cannot be afraid to conflate and relate science and religion. After all, once we finish the Torah portion which contains that contentious verse, we read the Haftarah from Isaiah who reminds us:

To whom then to liken God? Lift up your eyes and see: The One who created the stars, called them by name, by the greatness of God’s might and strong power each one appears. (Isa. 40:25-26)

 As people of faith, part of our process of faith must be to accept that God and nature, science and Torah, study and appreciation of beauty – are not separate things. In a week in which we recite the Shema in its original context – when we remind ourselves that ‘Adonai is our God, and Adonai is One,’ we would do well to remember that must mean God is to be found in both our faith and our follies. Whether the search for God comes from a deep sense of experience and theology, or we stumble upon an echo of creation scaring away some pigeons – the sound that we hear, carried from the farthest reaches of space and the oldest eras of time – is one in the same.

Aug 01

D’var Torah: Devarim/Tisha b’Av

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam.

A story is told:

In Jerusalem in the first century, there was once a rich man who threw a lavish party. He asked his servant to invite one of his friends to the party, a friend named Kamtsa. The servant, in error, went and invited a different man named Bar-Kamtsa who happened to be a great enemy of this wealthy host. So, unbeknownst to the host, the wrong man got the invitation – and worse still, the invitee was Bar-Kamtsa, his great enemy.

The night of the party arrives – it’s opulent and over the top, of course, and among the guests who show up that evening is Bar-Kamtsa. So, the wealthy host found his sworn enemy Bar-Kamtsa sitting at the party, enjoying himself.  The host demanded: “What on earth are you doing here??  Get out!”  To which Bar-Kamtsa responded: “Well, seeing that I have come, let me stay, and I’ll pay for what I eat and drink”.

When the host replied “No!” Bar-Kamtsa, trying to avoid a scene then said: “Listen, I’ll pay for half of the party if you let me stay!”

“Absolutely not!”

“Listen, I’ll pay for the entire party – just don’t humiliate me by throwing me out!”

But the host was adamant, and had Bar-Kamtsa physically ejected from the party.

Meanwhile, during this entire altercation – just off to the side, was a famous rabbi, and one of the leaders of the Sanhedrin, R’ Zekharyah. He witnessed this whole encounter, and whether paralyzed by indecision or unwilling to intervene, R’ Zekharyah stood by and let Bar-Kamtsa be terribly embarrassed in front of all the guests. Naturally, Bar-Kamtsa was incensed, and in particular, he felt betrayed by R’ Zekharyah, who had stood by and done nothing, even after preaching constantly about how important the Torah considered it not to publicly embarrass anyone.

Bar-Kamtsa said to himself: If this man is a leader of the nation, and he won’t even stand up for his values, than this is a corrupt nation that should be destroyed. Therefore, Bar-Kamtsa, who was very well-connected with Rome, went to the Emperor and convinced him that he should destroy Jerusalem and conquer the Jewish people.

It is through this story that the rabbis do two things: 1) they try and explain how it came to be that Rome was interested in conquering Judea, and 2) they offer some blame for who is responsible for the destruction that ensues. Obviously the history is not so simple – the Romans were interested in Judea for strategic reasons above all else and had been waging a slow campaign to try and bring the Jews under Roman influence. Simultaneously, the Jews were in the midst of a civil war. The Romans exploited these tensions to divide the Jews further, playing groups against one another until the chaos erupted into all-out warfare in the year 66. Four years later, on Tisha b’Av (August 30, 70 CE), the Romans succeeded in destroying the Temple in Jerusalem – marking the end of a thousand years of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and the beginning of two thousand years of exile.

An historical event that significant obviously can’t be attributed to the actions of one rude host at a first-century Jerusalem house party! So, assuming the rabbis were uninterested, as usual, in being historians – why do they tell us this tale, and, perhaps more critically, who indeed are they blaming?

On one hand, they’re obviously blaming Bar-Kamtsa and the insensitive party host who drove him to turn on his people. Yet, this story appears in the Talmud – a text written for rabbis by rabbis. I think perhaps it’s just as likely that the person they really seek to blame here is R’ Zekharyah. It’s he who is guilty of not stepping in to resolve the conflict and the hatred he saw in front of him. Rather than fulfill the role of a mediator, he steps aside, preferring not to get involved in the messy business between this man and his sworn enemy.

For the rabbis, I think that it is R’ Zekharyah’s actions which they seek to warn against. Something similar is taught in the Zohar, which attributes the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 to the hatred and shame with which Joseph’s brothers treated him over a thousand years before. The rabbis explain that it is sinat chinam, ‘baseless hatred,’ which led to the Temple’s destruction. Both our anonymous party host and Joseph’s murderous brothers are certainly guilty of baseless hatred. Yet the character of R’ Zecharyah remains – for baseless hatred is one thing, but indifference to that hatred’s effects is another.

Perhaps we can never stop infighting in the Jewish community. The civil wars that ravaged the first century community are not so different from those ravaging our twenty-first century community. Just these past months British Jewry witnessed R’ Joseph Dweck of the Spanish and Portuguese Community being attacked for the content of one of his lectures. Disagreeing on ideas and principles is one thing, but the escalation of disagreement into division is another. The so-called ‘Dweck Affair’ quickly devolved into name-calling, character assassination, and attempts at public shame. R’ Dweck, you see, gave a lecture months ago about inclusivity of the LGBT community in Orthodoxy and most of the British Orthodox world viewed his statements as heretical. We in the Masorti movement saw something similar in the ‘Jacobs Affair’ a half-century ago – none of this is new. Unfortunately, as every Tisha b’Av rolls around, we can find new and recent examples of sinat chinam, baseless hatred.

What perhaps we can change, what we should aim to change, is the response to that ever-constant factor which factionalizes and fractures our people. We can choose whether to be the bystander, as R’ Zekharyah was, or to intervene – not to respond with more hatred, but to mediate and calm tensions. Perhaps we should reconsider the Bar-Kamtsa story and these modern day affairs in light of who the real villain is: our own indifference. If we let others hate and shame and embarrass each other – we are doing worse than them. Particularly those of us, like R’ Zacharyah, who have some sort of power in a community. There is an extra responsibility heaped upon the person of privilege to step up and to stop the cycles of violence that create new Bar-Kamtsas every day. Outside of the British Sefardi community, few Orthodox folks stood alongside R’ Dweck or paused to ask for more civilised discourse instead of character defamation, thoughtful consideration rather than condemnation. And this certainly holds true for other worldwide issues of intolerance and standing idly by in the face of senseless hatred: recent declarations made by the US president to persecute and expel transgender members of the United States military, news articles filtering in from around the world that continue to shut the door on asylum-seekers, and the other hundreds of ways we see divisiveness embodied in modern society.

This Tisha b’Av, as we gather Monday night to read Lamentations and remember that day, 1,947 years ago when the Temple was destroyed – I hope that we’ll see our sufferings and the sufferings of our fellows as a call to action. We must do more than pay lip service to the destructive potential of ‘baseless hatred.’ We certainly must do more than eagerly point out all the other people who are guilty of it; we must examine it and root it out within ourselves and our communities. We must transcend it and have the courage to step forward from the edge of the room in that party we’re all sitting and stop the Bar-Kamtsas of tomorrow from being shamed and embarrassed. Maybe then we can be worthy enough to bring some peace to each other, and to the world.