Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

SPOILERS included

Fauda is an Israeli television series first broadcast in 2015, about an Israeli undercover operation in the West Bank, specifically aimed at a wanted Palestinian terrorist. It’s now available on Netflix. Languages are Hebrew and Arabic and the actors are Israelis and Palestinians. The series was popular among both Israelis and Palestinians.

The characters are well developed so that no one is portrayed without humanity. Acts of kindness occur as well as acts of violence. The brotherhood of men at arms is shown to be sometimes profound and sometimes illusory. Many characters are vengeful, some hot-headed, some manipulative, some cautious. Many are driven by fanaticism and we can understand why. The antagonist is a Hamas leader whose innocent brother was killed – collateral damage – on his wedding day. The protagonist’s brother-in-law was killed brutally at the instigation of the terrorist. All the women are anguished due to the roles played by their loved menfolk.

I watched, on the edge of my seat, because, as with all good drama, it was easy to feel the fear and imagine the pain. One could feel pity, if not empathy, for the beautiful bride whose groom is shot by Israelis; the Israeli agent whose girlfriend is blown up in a Tel Aviv bar by the grieving widow; the Israeli captured by Hamas, the philanthropic doctor, the elderly sheikh who blesses the terrorists and is ultimately killed by the Israelis; the Israeli captain who drives the action and talks on the phone to his children about burgers and ketchup. At the soft centre of the story is a love affair between the Israeli protagonist and the Palestinian doctor who does not know that he is an Israeli agent. He seems to fall in love with her even while practising the deception.

The series depicts acts of brutality but also unlikely friendships across the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Are the handshakes and amicable conversations entirely specious? I don’t know, but would like to think they are not. After all, the production team and actors worked together on the most sensitive of subjects, with brilliant results and the series is a success on both sides of the divide.

It would be quite possible for Israeli viewers to see the Israeli characters as righteous and likewise for Palestinians regarding the Palestinian operatives This is to the credit of Lior Raz, writer and lead actor, who, with the rest of the cast, created rounded, realistic characters.

Fanaticism is always a topic of interest in fiction and drama, and also in our Tanakh. Who is more fanatical than Abraham, prepared to slaughter his son in obedience to God’s word? Fanatics fascinate, while their acts are questionable. Watch them from the edge of your seat but do not emulate them. Don’t emulate Abraham avinu, at least, not in terms of his fathering skills. In my view, Abraham’s finest moment was when he said ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth act justly?’ (Genesis 18:25) He was arguing with God, on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom, in case there were righteous people among those destroyed.

This Abraham is our father, not the problematic dad of Ishmael and Isaac.
In Fauda, both Doron and Abu Ahmad are motivated by revenge and their perceptions of justice, to the extent that they are not deterred by collateral damage.

There is always collateral damage and only three people got out of Sodom alive. It would appear that God did not find ten just people there to save. The matter is not alluded to after Abraham’s intercession.

May 2017

For a man who was slow of speech and meeker than anyone alive, this is quite a speech, where Moses addresses the Israelites on the last day of his life. Haazinu hashamayim meaning ‘Give ear O heavens,’ are the opening words of the penultimate sidra in our scroll. Moses does not speak of himself at all, except to say, ‘I speak’ and ‘I call,’ for this long poem which comprises his speech is a song of praise to God. Moses refers to God as Tsur, meaning rock, Elyon, meaning the highest and Avicha kanecha, your Father who made you. Many of the sayings in this portion are familiar from our liturgy. The poem invokes the infidelity of the Israelites, contrasted with God’s faithfulness and justice. The people of Israel are called Jacob and Yeshurun, meaning ‘the upright’ in the sense of upright morality, yet Moses accuses thrm of being wayward and provocative. Nevertheless, he says, God shelters them beneath His wings.

This poem in Deuteronomy 32, is called The Song of Moses. You might be reminded of Shirat ha Yam, the Song at the Sea, in Exodus 15, which is sometimes called the song of Moses and Miriam. There are other songs in the bible – notably the Psalms of David, but also Deborah’s song in Judges and Hannah’s in 1 Samuel. Jonah sings a song of praise inside the whale. The Song of Songs is an entirely poetic book of the bible, attributed to Solomon but Jeremiah also has a song book, much more mournful in tone: the Book of Lamentations.

Some of these songs do not mention the life and situation of the putative singer and would not look out of place in the book of Psalms.

The Song of Moses takes place on the final day of his life but these are not his last words. Like Jacob, he blesses the individual tribes before his death in a speech which begins with the words ‘Vezot ha berachah – And this is the blessing.’ After he has finished speaking, God sends him to the top of Mount Nebo and shows Moses the promised land, which he will never reach. Moses dies there on the mountain, and thus the fifth book of the pentateuch is brought to a close. On Simchat Torah, we shall be reading the last part of Vezot Haberachah, right at the end of Deuteronomy, as we conclude the cycle of Torah readings, before beginning again at once with Bereshit.

October 2016

Yom Kippur 2016/ 5777
For afternoon study at Sha’arei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue

While the Yom Kippur mussaf service is going on, there’s room for the whole congregation in one hall, but when we join the main service for Minchah, the numbers gradually increase so that, by the time Yizkor starts, both halls will be filled, more or less to capacity. People who, for one reason or another, leave the synagogue during the course of the day, tend to come back for Yizkor, the service for remembering the dead. Some have been bereaved this year, others in years past and some come supported by families, perhaps their children, most of whom, we might reasonably hope, have not yet experienced bereavement.

Mourning, loss and remembering play a great part in our lives, as does the certain knowledge that our own days are numbered.

The comfort of believing that we’ll be reunited with our loved ones after death is not available to many of us, these days, even though, every time we recite the Amidah, we say that God revives the dead,.

Our synagogue has a Minhag Group, open to all members, where all aspects of our religious customs come under discussion. One topic which came up, time and time again, because members raised the subject, was the way we handled bereavements and yahrzeits, in synagogue services, for example, before kaddish and in the form of notifications: community email and notice board. There was sometimes a question of which mourners would be named. ‘Father of member’s name,’ would be typical at a yahrzeit, but what if the member isn’t in shul for the yahrzeit? Or, he’s in shul, but wants us to mention that the deceased was grandfather to his children or grandchildren, who are not in shul? Usually, the shaliach tsibbur will read all the names gladly.

Is the feeling which makes the reading of names important different from the feeling that makes us erect a tombstone, light a yahrzeit candle or visit a grave?

Are these questions connected with memorializing, rather than grieving, or is there an overlap? Do social norms influence the way we remember? People sometimes weep when the name of their loved one is read out before kaddish, so it must happen that the respectful ritual of the yahrzeit interacts with the painful sense of loss.

How do we memorialize? With prayers, tombstones, donations; a newborn child of the family may be named after the deceased. We speak of those we have lost, look at photos, movies, voice recordings, if we have these mementos. We research history and genealogy. We value things which belonged to them and things they valued. We feel the loss and, if we lose someone close to us, our lives are never the same.

Psalm 103 tells us that life is short and lives are forgotten, sooner or later. We know this is true for us, as well as those who have gone ahead. How do we want to be remembered, if indeed we expect to be remembered? Some of us contribute to science, the arts, education or the well-being of humanity. Some of us have children. Some of us write wills.

At the Bafta and Oscar award ceremonies, every year now, they play a montage of images of those from the film industry who died in the past year. The names and professions are written underneath the smiling faces. Some are world famous, others are cameramen or costume designers, whose faces most of us don’t recognize. The music accompanying the montage of images adds to their poignancy.

There is a memorial fountain in Hyde Park to Princess Diana. Rabin Square, formerly Kings of Israel Square, in Tel Aviv is named in memory of Yitzhak Rabin. The very famous have airports named after them – not just Kennedy, De Gaulle, Ben Gurion, Indira Gandhi, but Marco Polo and Leonardo da Vinci, and also John Lennon, John Wayne and George Best.

There are prescribed prayers for entering a cemetery, including mechayah hametim. In the El Male Rachamim, we pray for the peace of the soul of the departed; that God will shelter them eternally and bind their soul in the bond of life.

Is the survival of the soul taken for granted in these prayers, or is it a liturgical convention, to speak as if death were not the end of life?

If we are not convinced of a supernal afterlife, is the nature of memorializing in this world even more important?

While I was writing this, an item came on the news about Jo Cox, the murdered MP, and the work she was doing to support a volunteer civil defence organization of neutral, unarmed Syrians, called the White Helmets. It was said that the White Helmets rescue people from danger without ascertaining who they are, or what side they’re on. It seems to me that, if they save lives, and Jo Cox effectively supported their work, that would be one kind of everlasting memorial.

By the next time I open this document, I have read that the White Helmet organization has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It has also been referred to by those who oppose it, as a wing of Al Qaeda. The truth or falsity of this assertion cannot make an iota of difference to the way Jo Cox is remembered. Or can it?

Can we even know what will be memorable, what will have a good outcome and what will be ephemeral, a candle in the wind, as they say, or a flower of the field?

As for ‘everlasting to everlasting,’ me-olam v’ad olam, we invoke it in our liturgy, but, for many of us, it’s just an expression, the poetry and metaphor of prayer.

In death as in life, good intentions can be lost and legacies compromised, but those we loved, we remember with love as long as we live.

milk and honey

I never take much notice of the Eurovision Song Contest, least of all the songs, but I sometimes watch the voting, with some slight interest in how countries often vote in clusters. The Balkan countries back each other and the Danes and Swedes seem to have a reciprocal arrangement, while the UK and Ireland give each other a bounce on the voting board, as if Gerry Adams had never existed.

The strange thing is that neighbouring countries are as likely to go to war across the border as to appreciate each other’s musical artistry.

I wondered how it would have worked in biblical antiquity. After all, the Ammonites and the Moabites were related to Terach, same as Abraham, and even the wicked Amalekites were descended from Isaac, via Esau.

As for the Canaanites whose land is spied out by Moses’ agents, would they bestow their douze points on the Israelites, or take revenge on them by giving everything to the Jebusites, the Amorites and the Hittites?

The spies Moses sent into Canaan brought back disheartening reports of giants inhabiting the land, but they’d noted that it was rich and fertile and they coined the phrase, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.

The word supposed to mean giants is Nephilim, fallen ones, suggestive of fallen angels, in other words, beings possessed of supernatural power. Everyone was afraid, except for Joshua and Caleb, who were convinced that they could gain the land by conquest. As usual, the people blamed Moses for bringing them out of Egypt, where they said they’d been better off. You can imagine how they would have been ready to give Egypt all their points in the North East Africa Song Contest.

The people were so rebellious that God said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me?’ and was about to smite them with a plague, only Moses pleaded with God, on behalf of the Israelites. God then replied ‘Salachti kidvareycha’ – ‘I have forgiven, according to your word.’

However, that generation of Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness and never reached the promised land, with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, who had not despaired or rebelled against God.

Joshua would go on to enjoy good relations with a Canaanite woman called Rahab, who sheltered Joshua’s Israelite spies before the Battle of Jericho, described in the book of Joshua. In Midrash, Rahab is a beautiful prostitute, or possibly an innkeeper, and these midrashic versions are quite romantic because Joshua marries Rahab, even though she’s a Canaanite. The people across the border – what are they, enemies or neighbours? And can they sing?

 

written on the day of an EU Referendum in the UK, 23 June 2016

Numbers 5, 1 – 16 Naso
‘Leprosy’, restitution and the law of Sotah

The word apologetics generally means putting a positive spin on a difficult scriptural text or religious doctrine. As I’m occasionally invited to introduce our Torah readings, I’m aware that it’s often quite difficult to justify what we read. Today, we’re looking at topics, which, in the lifestyle section of a modern newspaper, might be covered by health care, law and marriage guidance.

The three topics are all connected with ritual impurity. Those suffering from certain illnesses are sent out of the camp. The Hebrew word for the illness in question is Tsara’at, which used to be identified with leprosy. Anyone suffering from a discharge is excluded from the camp. It isn’t specified whether this is a condition of a sexual nature. Defilement by proximity to a corpse is a third reason for temporary expulsion.

The reason for sending ill people out of the camp is made explicit in verse three – that they should not defile the camp of the Israelites, where God dwells among them. Quarantine, easier to justify, is not mentioned, so one cannot assume that those suffering from uncertain contagious diseases are excluded as a measure to protect public health.

The second subject addressed in this Torah reading concerns compensation for damages. If one person wrongs another, the purity of the community is compromised until restitution is made to the plaintiff, or to his surviving relations, or to God, via the priesthood.

The word goel occurs, with reference to a kinsman receiving restitution from someone who has wronged his relative. Goel in our liturgy refers to God the Redeemer, but the word is sometimes used in biblical texts to refer to a person performing duties on behalf of his relatives. The concept of the goel as kinsman is central to the book of Ruth, which will be read during Shavuot. The role of the kinsman in this Torah reading is to stand in for a relative who is deceased or otherwise unable to receive compensation, so the kinsman becomes the beneficiary.

The commandments in this reading provide a blueprint for managing impurity caused by disease or death, impurity of betraying trust and now we come to the impurity attached to a woman suspected of adultery. Note that the suspicion of adultery is enough for the woman to undergo an ordeal before the priest. If the husband is gripped by jealousy, he is to bring his wife to the priest, for her to undergo the ordeal of Sotah. She is given so-called bitter water to drink, some kind of solution of water and dust. She is deemed guilty of adultery if, after drinking the water, she has symptoms of illness, apparently related to her reproductive organs, but, if she has no symptoms, she is acquitted. I’m sure this trial by ordeal will make you think of the actions taken against suspected witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These ordeals rely on God’s interventions, so that the suspect is acquitted or convicted by means of miracle.

The husband was required to bring to the altar an offering of barley meal, unaccompanied by oil or frankincense. As sacrifices went, this was rather basic. There is much commentary in the Mishnah and the Talmud, regarding the treatment of women suspected of adultery, in tractates entitled Sotah, which means, ‘the straying woman,’ and the Mishnah cites Rabban Gamliel, saying, ‘Since her deed was the deed of cattle, her offering is the food of cattle.’

Can it be that our Oral Torah is, in places, as disfigured by misogyny as our current social media? Probably yes, but misogyny may have been a default position in the ancient world. Look at Pandora. Look at Eve.

 

Sermon to Sha’arei-Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue on 30 April 2016

When I heard Ken Livingstone yesterday, doing the rounds of the news channels, I thought he must have gone too far, even for his admirers, and that he was bringing himself and his party into disrepute.

I underestimated the number of people seeking to justify Ken’s loose assertion that Hitler promoted Zionism in the early 1930s.

Like thousands of others, pro Ken and anti, I started googling the Haavara Agreement, which is readily found on Wikipedia and therefore cited by Livingstone’s online supporters, especially if they want to say – and they often do – that there is a natural affinity between Nazism and Zionism.

I wanted to get an idea from Jewish and Israeli historians of the alleged collaboration with the Nazis, and whether it was used for the purpose of aliyah, immigration to Palestine. I read that the Haavara Agreement allowed Jews to escape from Germany to Palestine in return for paying a ransom to the Reich. I read also that there were some in the Yishuv movement, which aimed at Jewish settlement in the land, who prioritized emigration from Germany rather than supporting an anti-Nazi boycott. They made choices which were either pragmatic or collaborationist, depending on how you look at it, but Jews who got to Palestine were much more likely to survive.

In a comparable way, the Jewish leaders of the wartime Judenräte, the Jewish Councils in the ghettoes, were forced to have dealings with the Nazis governors. How this worked varied from ghetto to ghetto. In Warsaw, the Chairman of the Judenrat committed suicide, rather than fulfil quotas for deportation, whereas the Chairman in Lodz strove to fulfil the quotas, arguing that those remaining in the ghetto would be allowed to live. With the advantage of hindsight, we know he was wrong.

It’s widely observed that at the present time, if someone wants to discredit Jews, the first and least controversial move is to discredit Zionism. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was the fashion to use racist pseudo-science against Jews and, then, in the twentieth century, Bolshevism, Capitalism and World Domination. Bolshevism has bitten the dust, but we are still accused of global domination through international banking and conspiracies. When I read about these Jewish conspiracies, I feel like asking why I’ve never been invited to one.

I must admit to using the key word Talmud in a Twitter search, which is asking for trouble. What comes up? Nothing about the kashrut of certain ovens for Passover use, you can be sure ( Bava Metzia 59b). Instead, antisemitic geeks cite passages from the Talmud which appear to promote all kinds of criminality and perversion. They sometimes show the text in Hebrew, which is a marvel since they often have inadequate command of English. Hard work goes into their posts and sometimes hard work goes into refuting them.

I am uncomfortable with the idea of hard work being necessary to refute Ken Livingstone or those others, who never admit that they or anyone is being antisemitic.

Yet I know that all history and all scriptures are in some way compromising. When violent passages in the Qur’an are cited to indicate the inherent violence of Islam, it cuts no ice. We have, and tend to reject, unenlightened passages in our own holy books. Even in our sidra today, Acharei Mot, there are far too many animal sacrifices for comfort.

For me, the crux of the matter is how to respond when moral ambiguities of Judaism or Zionism are highlighted by those who seek our harm, if indeed we should respond at all. It seems as if being well-informed about our own history and our literature ought to help, but information never seems to settle the questions.

I don’t have an answer but I think we can usually discern when somebody means us harm. If somebody hates a Jew because of the alleged massacre at Deir Yassin, or a Muslim because of ISIS or a Christian because of the Inquisition, then it isn’t because they’re well-informed. When Ken Livingstone cited the Haavara agreement, it was to put Zionism in the same ball park as Nazism, and not to disseminate knowledge.

Reading this through a year later, on 4 April 2017, I think I was too mild about Ken. Possibly I imagined that he might row back from his provocative statements. During the last year, he has made a crusade of voicing opinions about Hitler’s alleged sympathy for Zionism. It hardly needs to be said that Hitler first wanted Jews out and very quickly wanted them dead. Zionists wanted Jews out and alive, which, b’ezrat Hashem, we are.

Acharei Mot  Leviticus 16: 1 – 17

Ark-Covenant

The sidra is what you might call hard core Temple cult, involving animal sacrifices, incense and the prescribed clothing of the high priest. As far removed as this is from Judaism as we practice it, there is a very familiar component in the ritual, and that is the two goats which we invoke on Yom Kippur, the scapegoat and the sacrificial goat, whose life expectancy is even shorter than that of the scapegoat.

You will hear the word kaporet several times. This was the cover of the ark, adorned with two Cherubim, in the Holy of Holies, which the High Priest entered only on Yom Kippur. The letters of the word  kippur, atonement, are also in the word kaporet, and the linguistic connection may indicate a view of atonement as a kind of covering of sin. You will also hear the word parochet, a curtain in front of the ark, such as we have here, on the ark doors. It’s often translated as ‘veil’ and the kaporet often as ‘the mercy seat’.

The name of the sidra is Acharei Mot, meaning, ‘After the death.’  It refers to two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu , who died during their priestly duties, while offering the wrong kind of fire on the altar. Rabbinic tradition attributes this misadventure to some fault in their attitude, rather than tragic happenstance. Specifically, a midrashic commentary explains that they were drunk when they approached the altar.

The instructions which God gives Moses to impart to Aaron are a detailed blueprint concerning the conduct and procedure of the priests presiding over the altar, designed to protect them from the kind of sudden death which befell Nadav and Abihu. Whenever we read ‘God said to Moses, “Speak to Aaron,”’ we are not looking at a conversation between brothers, but at the laws concerning the priesthood, which is personified by Aaron, the first Cohen HaGadol or High Priest. There are requirements of dress, in fine linen, of bathing and of course, rules concerning the different animals for sacrifice: the young bull, the ram and the two goats, familiar to us from our Yom Kippur Mussaf service: the goat for the Lord and the goat for Azazel.

A lot is cast to determine which of the goats is destined for the sacrificial altar, as a sin-offering, and which is destined for the wilderness, and Azazel. These life and death matters are guided by the minutiae of ritual set forth in Leviticus, the priestly handbook. As the sons of  Aaron were killed by so-called strange fire while officiating at the altar, it was considered that there was an element of mortal danger in carrying out priestly duties. God’s words to Moses, to be conveyed to Aaron, are to ensure that there are no more fatal slip-ups in the execution of sacrificial practices.

We use the word scapegoat, which was coined by William Tyndale, translating the bible into English,  in the time of King Henry VIII. The word scapegoat implies blame or punishment, and the selection of two goats is typical of a binary system of sacrifice, suggesting opposing sacred and profane symbolism. We see such distinctions between the pairs of brothers in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob. Cain, Ishmael and Esau survive, like the scapegoat, but are sent away, into the equivalence of the wilderness.

A word about Azazel.

The most detailed accounts of Azazel are found in the apocryphal books of Enoch where he is identified as a fallen angel who teaches people to make weapons, jewellery, and cosmetics. Enoch is post-biblical but the author uses texts from Genesis and Daniel to create a detailed angelology, which is absent from the bible.

The medieval commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra, no doubt smoothing over a residue of polytheism in the biblical text, suggested that Azazel was a place name, a rugged mountain from whence the goat was pushed, but Nachmanides, taking the goat by the horns, commented that Azazel belongs to the class of goat-like demons of the desert, known via Mesopotamian mythology.

Midrash identifies the scapegoat (seir) with Esau who was called Seir, meaning  hairy, and whose descendants lived in territory called Mount Seir, named after him.

Azazel appears as a fictional character in Mikhail Bulgakhov’s Stalin-era novel, The Master and Margarita, where he is portrayed as an uncouth but somewhat benign demon in the service of Satan. Bulgakov latinizes the name Azazel as Azazello.

James George Frazer in his anthropological classic The Golden Bough, reported scapegoat-type rituals in Asia, Central and South America, East Africa and New Zealand.  Frazer considered  the rituals primitive, saying: ‘The notion that we can transfer our guilt or sufferings to some other being who will bear them for us is familiar to the savage mind.Frazer wrote  this in 1890 but the evidence of the last century and a quarter suggests that scapegoating is a ritual not confined to savage minds and that it is neither extinct nor dormant.

April 2016