Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for April 2016

 

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.

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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

 

 



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