Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for October 2019

Notes for discussion at the synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur 5780

There are six prayer services on Yom Kippur: Kol Nidre when the sun has set, signifying the commencement of the day, the 10th Tishri,  then, the next day, the morning service, additional service, afternoon service, memorial service and concluding service. The concluding prayers are called Neilah, beginning with a hymn El Nora Alilah of which the refrain, in the translation in our Reform prayer book (Days of Awe 1985, edited by Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and Rabbi Lionel Blue), is

Help us to forgiveness Before the gates of mercy close. 

המצא לנו מהילה בשעת הנעילה

The author of the hymn was Moses Ibn Ezra, eleventh century, from Granada. He was related to and contemporary with Abraham Ibn Ezra, the biblical commentator.

Neilah means locking, so sha’at ha neilah is the hour of the locking or closing of the gates. The gates themselves are not mentioned in the hymn, but there may be a play on words, as sha’ah, hour or time, sounds somewhat like sha’ar, meaning gate.

The action of the long day seems to accelerate when we reach the hour of  Yizkor, the memorial service, and as we begin the concluding service, Neilah, there is a sense of hurry, of using the remains of the day, to complete our business of repentance, teshuvah and achieving atonement, kappara, which, despite fervent prayer, is not in our own gift.

Lest there be any doubt that there is limited time now to complete the task, we have the Neilah hymn, which reminds us that the gates of mercy are closing.

The sense of urgency towards the end of the Day of Atonement may be compared to the times in life when we feel we have a short time in which to accomplish a great task.

It can happen on the night before an exam or an interview, or the days before a baby is due, or clearing a home prior to the completion of a sale.

It can happen towards the end of life, when there is something to be accomplished before the gates finally close.

It can happen towards the end of life of another person, a loved one, when there is not enough time to say or do all that we want to say or do.

Towards the end of  Neilah, we often read a fable by Kafka, included in our machzor. Kafka’s parable is troubling as the doorkeeper finally closes the door in the supplicant’s face, telling him ‘No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since the door was intended only for you, and now I am going to shut it.’ Who is the man who locks the gate? A white-collar jobsworth from Prague or an angel guarding the gates of heaven? Does the closing of the gate signify the hour of death, or the limitations of mercy?

Those of us in the study group were all familiar with the Kafka story as it is in our prayer book, and some of us thought it was a depressing choice of text, so close to the concluding of Yom Kippur.

I had written a sequel which I read to the group and here it is.

*

His name was Shmulik, the man who waited outside the gate of the Law. He had come all the way from a small Bohemian town called Liberec where he taught at a cheder for little boys who called him Reb Shmulik. His wife had died and he had no children. He hoped to enter through the Gate of the Law and perhaps hear his wife’s voice again, as he had felt at a loss since she died. When he prayed, it was according to the rite but without kavanah.

When he first set eyes on the doorkeeper, he was intimidated by his height and breadth and by the massive furs, which made him appear even larger, but the doorkeeper, despite his unapproachable demeanour, was never threatening and Shmulik became less fearful as time went by.

‘Why is it,’ he asked, ‘that no one else has come seeking admittance?’

‘No one but you could gain admittance through this door, ‘said the doorkeeper, ‘since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.’

Older, frailer and more depressed than when he had started out on the journey, Shmulik returned to Liberec. It was night time when he arrived  at his cottage where he lit the one remaining candle and ate a beetroot which had somehow appeared on his work table. Besides teaching at cheder, his main work was making aprons.

At cheder the next day, Reb Shmulik was teaching the boys about Yom Kippur. He spoke about the shofar, and the ram caught in the thicket, in Genesis 22. One of the boys asked if Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice Isaac. It was a difficult question, but Reb Shmulik said ‘Abraham Avinu was always right, and so it turned out in this case, because of the ram in the thicket.’

A boy called Elisha, not known for good behaviour, called out ‘Not if you were the ram, he wasn’t!’ and some of the boys laughed. Others looked troubled and Reb Shmulik said, ‘If you’re ever worried or troubled by something you learn in this class, you can come and talk to me about it. My door is always open.’

That night, when Shmulik arrived home, there was a bright light streaming from his door. Thinking that he must have left it open by mistake, he hastened his step, fearful that someone had stolen the sewing tools or cloth he used, for making aprons. Arriving at the open door, he saw with trepidation the huge, fur-clad figure of the doorkeeper but, on this evening, the doorkeeper looked milder than usual.  With a courteous nod of his head, he held open the door and said, ‘The gates are never closed for ever.’ Then Shmulik went through the door, into the light.

Gillian Lazarus

*

During the morning service, at about midday, our rabbi had told us of the attack on the synagogue in Halle, and that there had been fatalities. That is all I knew until the evening, when Yom Kippur had ended. I read several reports and learned that two people were killed by the far right terrorist, one in the street and one in a kebab shop. I had thought that there must have been guards outside the synagogue, just as we have security guards but, according to news reports, it was the doors of the synagogue which thwarted the killer. Even using a grenade, he was not able to breach the doors. These were the gates of mercy and those who had entered them were saved.

Halle, Germany (CNN) A gunman pushed on the doors of a synagogue, fired several shots at a lock on the door, stuck an explosive in a door jam and lit it.

But he couldn’t get in.

The fact that the door held likely spared the lives of the dozens of people inside the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrities and politicians who received more than their share of toxic trolling recently campaigned with the hashtag #DontFeedTheTrolls to deny the online aggressors the audience from whom they garner a significant number of followers.

If someone in the public eye, with a following on Twitter of some hundreds of thousands, replies to an insult from a person with a relatively scant following, the interlocutor will reap some benefit from the exposure, even if they themselves become a target of abuse.

Fully on board with #DontFeedTheTrolls, I realized that, as a private person with a not very large following, I don’t have the same duty to mute or block my own trolls. Furthermore, there can be no question that, in their minds, I am the troll while they are battling for truth.

Besides this, it is very hard to ignore an offensive tweet, as innocent bystanders might suppose it to have a grain of truth. If I have twenty friendly notifications on Twitter and one which is insulting, sarcastic or misleading, the latter appears to me as if highlighted in luminous yellow and my impulse is to reply to it without delay.

Sometimes such a message is worded to elicit a response, the phrase ‘I’ll wait,’ commonly appended; or ‘What about Netanyahu?’ as if one may not speak of antisemitism in Europe while the Likud holds sway in Israel.

When someone’s argument is irrational or ill-informed, when they abuse my friends or me, when they send me a picture of a dead child, said to be Palestinian, and tell me that I have agency in the tragedy, I am tempted to give some kind of answer.

Away from the gladiatorial arena of Twitter, I forget, mercifully, which troll is which: they come and they go; they block me or I block them, or they go out to walk their dog or I cook a soup or everyone goes to sleep. Sometimes they are ultra-persistent.  I blocked one such person who was famously offensive and eventually suspended from Twitter. Some negative publicity came his way and I noticed that his tweets were attributed to a man of professional standing, who, when photos emerged, had a thoughtful, ascetic expression.

Today I see a person I’ve never noticed going full tilt against a prominent Jewish account, armed with the words ‘liars, fascists, cowards.’ The taunt of cowardice is an appeal for a response. ‘If you’re not afraid, why aren’t you willing to prolong this altercation?’

Sometimes, I try to think conciliatory thoughts about the numerous Twitter users who have called me a child-killer (their word for Zionist), an apartheid racist (their word for activist against antisemitism) or a troll (their word for the Other). I imagine it as a dry run for conflict resolution. How would Brexiteers and Remainers come to a truce if private citizens can’t tolerate each other?

Since writing the above, I have attended a Rosh Hashanah evening service where the rabbi’s sermon was on the subject of ‘lashon hara,’ roughly translated as evil speech, covering anything from gossip to slander. The rabbi referred to the malaise in Parliament of fiercely rancorous language, specifying Boris Johnson’s use of ‘humbug’ and spoke of the uninhibited abuse facilitated by social media, where participants, remote from the adversary on a keyboard far away, hone their skills in offensiveness.

As this is the season for repentance, I thought – as I often do – about my own trollery, when I’ve replied to a provocation with contempt, sarcasm or profane language.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I heard a different rabbi preach about the prevalence of hateful language in public life, also referring to the Prime Minister’s use of ‘humbug’. He spoke of the importance of guarding our words, so as not to do harm with them and cited a midrash, where angry words are compared to arrows, rather than swords. A sword may be withdrawn, but once one releases the arrow, there is no returning it to the quiver. He referred to the meditative prayer at the end of the Amidah:

נצור לשוני מרע ושפתותי מגדבר מרמה

My God, keep my tongue from causing harm and my lips from telling lies.

(Psalm 34: 13)

 The prayer continues with the words,

ולמקללי נפשי תדום ונפשי כעפר לכל תהיה

 Let me be silent if people curse me, my soul as dust with all.

This is harder to say or mean, as it no longer comes easily to compare oneself to dust. What form would it take in transactional analysis? ‘I am dust, you are not dust’ or ‘We are all dust and that’s OK’? The translation in the Reform prayer book dispenses with the word dust altogether, preferring ‘…my soul still humble and at peace with all’. Either way, those who aim high must aim low and the last will be first.

The purpose of the #dontfeedthetrolls campaign is of course much more pragmatic: choosing to be silent is better than providing a megaphone for trolls to spread their messages. The religious point of view is closer to an idealized version of Twitter Support: hateful speech violates the standards.

I continue to interrogate myself over my own activities on Twitter. Does my sarcasm transgress into cruelty and does my anger border on mania? If the best response to personal abuse is silence, does the same apply in response to verbal aggression against friends, relations, allies, spiritual leaders, respected public figures, and so on, or against minorities which are distinct from my own minority?

Kohelet said  עת לחשות ועת לדבר

There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. (Ecclesiastes 3:7)

The Preacher does not tell us how to speak, simply pointing out that there is a right time and a wrong time, but the rules against lashon hara, hateful speech, are well-attested.

As for balderdash and poppycock, when they occur, or baloney, hooey, hokum, moonshine, piffle or humbug, there is a time for these words too although the more conciliatory option may be to say, like Marge in the film ‘Fargo,’ ‘I’m not sure that I agree with you a hundred per cent.’

After an hour or so wading through antisemitic posts on Facebook Labour forums, making screen shots and displaying them on Twitter, it feels as if all the lashon hara is coming from them. This is not to say that the same doesn’t exist on right-wing forums.  It always did, hence my trust in the Left, in time gone by. 

This week I heard two rabbis allude to a Talmudic dictum (Arakhin 15b): hateful speech harms the person spoken about, the person speaking and any third party who happens to overhear it. True. What does it do to our souls, when we see and hear and repeat the acrimony that abounds on social media?

In 1873  the halakhist Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan published a work called Chafetz Chaim (which was also his sobriquet), on the subject of hateful speech, gossip, slander, lashon hara. Is there ever a time when it is allowed?

Lashon hara was sometimes permitted, based on the precept – ‘Thou shalt not stand by the blood of thy neighbour’ (Leviticus 19:16) – in other words, one should intervene to prevent harm, but the Chafetz Chaim had some provisos. One should speak from experience not hearsay and reflect on one’s words. One should first approach the transgressor privately; one should not exaggerate, enjoy schadenfreude or bring disproportionate harm to the transgressor.

The name Chafetz Chaim means ‘He who delights in life’. It is a reference to Psalm 34:13-14

יג  מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים;    אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב.
יד  נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע;    וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.

Who is the person who delights in life and loves many days, that they may see good?
 Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.

What would the Chafetz Chaim have made of social media? I feel sure he would never have fed the trolls. It’s no way to delight in life.



  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: I've approved your comment Jones, rather than trashing it. It seems to me a snapshot of contemporary online exegesis. Can you say something about you
  • Jones: You're just a typical white racist tory who has no problems with Windrush deportations or tory Islamaphobia. You get no support from the BAME communit
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thank you Joanne!