Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for April 2015

Leviticus 24 begins with God’s words to Moses concerning the ner tamid – the eternal flame – and the show bread. It was the duty of Aaron and the priests to keep the lamp burning perpetually. The bread was laid out as a symbolic offering while the priests burned frankincense, and they would eat the bread before the new batch of loaves replaced them on the following Shabbat. These are called everlasting statutes, חקת עלם, an expression not used for every commandment in the Torah. It is said particularly of commandments associated with the priestly offices in the Sanctuary or with the observance of the festivals.

We adhere to them to this day: here is our ner tamid above the aron hakodesh, and, in the Kiddush Hall, the equivalent of the show bread, our challah is waiting for us.

Reading on, we come to the difficult narrative about the son of Shelomith, which involves blasphemy and a stoning.

All I said to my wife was, ‘That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.’

This quotation is from the Life of Brian, the stoning scene, which may owe something to our Torah reading where a certain man gets stoned to death.

In The Life of Brian, the stoning scene was a widely recognized biblical reference, although not everyone will have connected it with the precise verse from Leviticus, in the sidra, Emor:

Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him.

The story is this: an Israelite woman called Shelomith had a grown-up son, fathered by an Egyptian. He fought with an Israelite man and, during the fracas, blasphemed, cursing God’s name. No halibut was involved. Moses ruled that the whole community should stone the man to death.

We don’t know the man’s name or exactly what he said; neither do we know the name of his Egyptian father. We do however know that his mother was Shelomith and his Israelite grandfather was Dibri of the tribe of Dan, so it is worth having a closer look at these names. The anthropologist Mary Douglas noticed that Shelomith is connected with the word for retribution, Dibri with law-suits and Dan with judgment. This interpretation treats the story as an allegory, conveying the lesson that there is punishment for cursing God.

Mary Douglas’s interpretation makes good sense when we read the continuation of God’s words to Moses, and see that there are judicial penalties for murder, damage to persons, property and animals, the punishments being of varying severity, depending on the offence; an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Midrash offered interesting interpretations of the Shelomith narrative. It was suggested that the Egyptian father was the same Egyptian taskmaster killed by Moses. Shelomith was so called because she was excessively free and easy with passing men, always addressing them with the words ‘Peace to you’ which is a play on the name Shelomith, connected with shalom. Likewise, the meaning of Dibri is associated with speech, and Midrash says that Shelomith was too talkative.

One midrash interprets the fight as being between the son of the Egyptian and members of the tribe of Dan. He wanted to pitch his tent among them, on the grounds that his mother was of the tribe of Dan, but they excluded him. They told him: ‘Scripture says: ‘The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of his father’s house’ This puts forward a very negative view of the Danites, isolating the protagonist and driving him to despair. Moses also is depicted in the midrash as siding with the Danites, because the man was considered a mamzer, ie born of an adulterous union.

As it happens, the verb ‘to stone’, רגם, and, in other instances סקל, is not the same as the word for a stone in an non-verbal context, which is אבן. The meaning of the biblical verb to stone is connected with pelting or hurling.

Moreover, there are several different Hebrew words which are translated as blaspheme in English language bibles; they are all connected with cursing, in the transitive sense, where someone or something is being cursed.

In this country, the UK, the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished as late as 2008. You may remember Mary Whitehouse bringing a successful private prosecution against Gay News in 1976. Prosecutions for blasphemy tended to target freedom of expression in controversial literature or plays. Blasphemy as a crime was about words rather than deeds.

In our own time, talk of blasphemy or of stoning is associated with extreme, intolerant and violent penal systems, yet here is an account of it, in our own scripture. What can we do with it? Or what can we take from it? Perhaps just this: that speech is an act which generates consequences, and contemptuous speech, directed against people or against God, can be a potent weapon, causing injury or desecration. This is why we have laws against libel, slander and incitement to violence or hatred.

It goes without saying that the only place for stoning with stones is on the set of The Life of Brian.

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siddurim

My mother and father, whose parents immigrated to Britain from Russia and Poland, belonged to a secular, leftish generation of East End Jews, witnesses to the rise of fascism, the Battle of Cable Street, the war in Spain, and then World War II.

When I was growing up in the fifties, I saw the inside of a synagogue only when my numerous cousins were bar mitzvah, or got married, but never at yomtovim. Later, when I too got married, it was in the West London Synagogue at Upper Berkeley Street.

Thus I was an adult of twenty-four when I first walked into a synagogue, on my own, to join a Rosh Hashanah service. The morning prayers were well underway and I was held at the door till the conclusion of the Amidah, so when I entered, it was the moment, numinous and affecting, of Avinu Malkenu, which I was hearing for the first time.

The service was printed, with many diverting typos, on ring bound folders, because the machzor for the High Holy Days, Days of Awe, would not be published until 1985.

For more than forty years, the liturgy of Reform Judaism has carried me, through almost every phase of the life cycle and through the roller-coaster of faith and doubt. I have spoken the prayers and the prayers, often so meaningful as to make me weep, have spoken to me.

They speak to me still, but not so vibrantly as before, or perhaps I should say, not so convincingly. The translators are profoundly attentive and innovative in matching the traditions of Judaism with the zeitgeist of contemporary reality, but there are some difficulties in the very marrow of the language.

I find there are unresolved problems about, for example, chosenness, the return to Israel, the Creation, the Exodus and God the healer. I believe most of us have difficulties believing what we say on these topics, whether we are reading them in Hebrew or in English. The language is no longer gender specific and we ask God to bring peace upon all the world, in addition to Israel. We do not say col b’nei adam, ‘all the sons of men’ which excludes women and girls, but col ha-olam, ‘all the world.’ Very significantly, we say ‘And in your eyes, it is good to bless Your people Israel with the strength to make peace,’ instead of the former translation, ‘Blessed are You Lord, who blesses His people Israel with peace.’ In both siddurim, 1977 and 2008, the Hebrew is unchanged, with the earlier translation representing a literal match. The 1985 Days of Awe machzor has the same: the male God, the Lord, blessing His people Israel.

Over the years, I have heard many acceptable explanations of the difficult terminology. God chose us for responsibility, to lead ethical lives and adhere to a fair number of mitzvot. God heals through the hands of physicians and through the comfort and kindness we show to each other. Israel, when we name it, is not necessarily the modern State with disputed borders. The Creation and the Exodus are part of our inherited mythos, part of our identity as Jews and not our documented history.

Nevertheless, aspects of the liturgy, connected with the topics I mention, have become something of a stumbling block for me, during prayer and I make the inference that others have similar experiences. The conundrum for me is that I cannot decide whether we should, in our translations, make more changes or fewer changes. The literal and conservative translations of earlier Reform prayer books still strike me as poetic, sometimes more aesthetically pleasing than the forced name ‘Sovereign’, always addressed in the second person, to avoid gender specificity.

Possibly, the more poetic the words, the more we can come to terms with the gap between what we say and what we mean. We may mean something ineffable, and then the words will never do more than approximate our meaning.

At other times, we mean something which can indeed be expressed in words and the words of the prayer books have seemed just right, expressing my thoughts mi-ma’amakim, from the depths; from the depths of my soul, in which, apprised of Descartes’ Error, I do not precisely believe.



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