Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

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During the Kishinev pogrom in Easter 1903, a mob armed with kitchen and farming implements burst into the cottage of Yehezkiel the Presser. Approaching Yehezkiel with his hatchet raised, Bogdan took the time to ask him a question: ‘Who killed Jesus?’

Yehezkiel’s wife and daughters had climbed out on to roof and he hoped that they might make a getaway, so he played for time.

‘First of all,’ he said, ‘I think the answer to your question is the Romans. That Pilate, he was the one. All right, I know he wasn’t happy with the judgment. I know he went full Lady Macbeth with the washing of hands. You can blame the burden of governance if you like.’

Bogdan’s response came quickly as he swung his hatchet.

‘You killed Jesus,’ he said.

‘Here’s another thing,’ replied Yehezkiel. ‘The events you’re referring to, they’re not recent. By my calculations, they happened – what? Eighteen hundred and seventy years ago. Well, I’m fifty three, Bogdan. I wasn’t there. You know that as well as I do.’

‘Christ killer,’ answered Bogdan. ‘Child murderer.’

‘Believe me,’ Yehezkiel assured him, ‘I have every admiration for Jesus, whom you call Christ. It’s just a pity he didn’t write it all down himself because those biographers, you know, one of them says it’s Thursday and another one says it’s dinner time. Four evangelists, forty opinions. So I hear. But this was all far away, as well as long ago. Wonderful climate, they tell me, in the Holy Land. Not like Bessarabia. Brrr. The winter we had. Have you got cherries yet in your orchard? No? Well it’s early days.’

Bogsdan was now inches away. You might say that he eyeballed Yehezkiel but he was so much taller, he would have had to crouch to do any serious eyeballing.

‘Admit you killed Jesus,’ he advised Yehezkiel.

I’d be lying if I told you Yehezkiel didn’t consider saying it. Who knows? Bogdan might then spare his life. Or not. The point was, Bogdan had brought a crowd with him and Yehezkiel didn’t want to give them the wrong idea, so he said, ‘This I did not do.’

Bogdan then employed his hatchet so thoroughly that Yehezkiel had no opportunity to say ‘Shema Yisrael’.

He died. By some miracle, his wife and daughters got away.

*

You can no more say ‘This isn’t about Israel’ than Yehezkiel could say ‘It isn’t about the crucifixion’. Antisemites may be the adjudicators of what this is about.  You can say ‘The Romans did it and besides, I wasn’t there.’ You can say that Israel doesn’t bear all the guilt and besides, I’m not there.  Or you can say ‘Israel has all the power and bears all the guilt so I repudiate it.’ Historically, those who converted were allowed to live. If you are living and working in a milieu where Israel is considered the supreme evil, you might think that the right thing is to cut yourself loose from its rocky embrace.

You might think the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament and that converting is the righteous way. I’m the first to agree that the Christian scriptures are beautiful; well, second, if you count Yehezkiel; third really, because of Rabbi Lionel Blue. In the medieval disputations, there were Franciscan and Dominican friars who had started their education at the Talmud Torah but, following conversions, became fierce adversaries of Jews and Judaism.

Apostasy happens in modern times too. Israel Zolli who was the Chief Rabbi of Rome in 1945 was baptized and chose the name Eugenio in honour of Pope Pius XII, a controversial pope if ever there was one.

Renouncing and denouncing Israel is not like apostasy.  You can make a religious case against Zionism, as Neturei Karta and others have done.

This is where I get controversial. When you denounce Israel, Eugenio Zolli is watching with approval. Pablo Christiani and Nicholas Donin extend their ghostly hands to you. And maybe – but maybe not – Bogdan lets you live.

As for me, I’m a voter, like everyone else; the decisions of the Israeli government and the UK government are not my decisions  and not necessarily what I voted  for, but I want to be able to express pride in the two countries which are, in a sense, my two parents: England, the mother who bore me and Israel, the father who engendered me.

Rarely a day passes without someone – and very often it’s someone declaring their support for Mr Corbyn – without someone saying to me ‘But what about Israel. They did this and they do that and you’re complicit.’ It’s a fact that I’ve only ever been called a murderer since opening a Twitter account.

In one way, they are right. They say that this question of Labour antisemitism is all about Israel, and it is. In the way that the Kishinev pogrom was about the crucifixion, Labour antisemitism is about Israel. From their point of view, Zionism is the  πρῶτον κινοῦν ἀκίνητον or primus motor, the uncaused cause of many ills.

I don’t buy that.

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This blog has been almost entirely on biblical subjects, give or take a post or two. The less than catchy name of the blog, Neviim Tovim means ‘good prophets’ and is taken from the prescribed blessing before reading aloud in the synagogue a text from the prophetic books.

For the last year or maybe eighteen months, I’ve been observing some of the closed online Labour forums and reporting, mainly through Twitter on the copious antisemitism I see there.

Now I must cut to the chase and speak of Israel. I love Israel with all my heart but – or and – would not vote for anyone right of centre if I had Israeli citizenship and the right to vote there. Always a Labour supporter in the UK, I’ve hoped in each Israeli election that the left and the pacific doves would gain more seats in the Knesset. If I were Israeli, I hope I’d be supporting engagement with the moderates across the borders.

However I’m not Israeli but English and have watched, during the leadership of Mr Corbyn, an intense outpouring of demonisation and hatred towards Israel from supporters of the Labour Party and on online Labour sites. There is no respite from this outpouring, never for a day and seldom for an hour.

This week, the Labour leadership’s tweaking of the IHRA definition of antisemitism has been so controversial that all but four Labour MPs voted against the changes at their PLP meeting. A miracle occurred in that rabbis of all denominations came together to sign a letter in the Guardian, urging the Labour Party to drop the changes.

The amendments to the definition, as proposed by the Labour leadership, make it acceptable to equate Israelis with Nazis, to deny the right of Israel to exist and to demand a higher standard from Israel than from other countries.

The sixty or so stalwarts of Jewish Voice for Labour, also comprising Free Speech on Israel, have been accepted by Mr Corbyn as representative of Jewish opinion. They are fiercely anti-Zionist and dismissive of most of Anglo-Jewry’s fears of Labour antisemitism, which they say are based on a political agenda of defending Israel right or wrong. This agenda, they say, has caused Jeremy Corbyn to become the target of concerted Jewish action which, in their view, is designed entirely to silence criticism of Israel.

So we always come back to Israel, even if we are as ‘Meh’ about the Jewish state as David Baddiel declared himself to be.

On Labour forums, arguments run like this. Israel kills Palestinians for sadistic sport. They target children and pregnant women in particular.  They prevent goods from passing through to Gaza, thus causing starvation and genocide. They desire territorial expansion as far as the Caspian Sea. They suborn or bribe the governments of the West, especially the USA and the UK. They have secret lobbies in industry and they own international banking cartels.

It is some years since I studied the rise of Nazism and the reason why I am up to date with these theories is that I read Labour forums every day. These are sometimes closed forums and one has to assure the administrators that one is loyal to Mr Corbyn. Membership of the forums I currently belong to is around sixteen thousand. There are some larger forums than these, but I have been ejected, after disputing the above perceptions of Israel. Silence is golden.

Now, we come back to the matter of Jews. Rarely will the members of the groups express hatred of Jews as such. They speak of the influence and power of the Rothchilds, the Bauers, the New World Order, Bilderberg, Illuminati, the Elite, the Puppet Masters. They select Jewish individuals in public life, MPs, actors, celebrities and assert that they are paid propagandists for Israel. If one of these notable persons speaks of Labour antisemitism, they are said to be in the pay of Israel. If a member of the forum  disagrees, the response is that they are in the pay of Israel. If a member of the forum agrees with an MP like Chuka Umunna, who is very supportive of the Jewish community in our struggle against antisemitism, they are said to be paid Tory Zionist trolls. The animus towards MPs like Tom Watson and Jess Phillips is horrible to behold. Any politician who admits that Labour has a problem with antisemitism becomes a hate figure on the forums. This is even true of Jon Lansman who is less than ‘meh’ about Israel.

Esteemed figures on the forums are George Galloway, Ken Livingstone, Ken Loach, Chris Williamson, Dennis Skinner, John McDonnell (not as much as you’d think) and of course The Absolute Boy himself (as much as you’d think).

Memes are posted constantly, often displaying leaders like Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, accompanied by anti-Israel texts of uncertain provenance. Equally favoured are pictures of Jewish individuals with a quotation to the effect that the concept of antisemitism is a ruse used by Jews to gain unfair advantage.

Now, I’m working towards my conclusion and the one and only screen shot which will accompany this post.

On the forums, there are very many pictures showing human suffering, accompanied by texts explaining that Israel is the perpetrator. Images may be taken from newsreels around the world. Occasionally they are clips taken from feature films. The suffering person is always said to be a Palestinian while the one inflicting the suffering is said to be Israeli, or, on days when the members are particularly emboldened, Jewish.

No one likes to see such images and they arouse great anger on the forums. Comments get posted, likening Israelis to vermin, Nazis and monsters. Sometimes it is mentioned that they have had this capacity for evil since time immemorial: the Rothschilds and the Jewish bankers causing the two world wars for financial profit; Mossad managing the assassination of President Kennedy, the sinking of the Titanic, the slave trade and of course the crucifixion. The Israelis, you understand, because these Labour supporters are not antisemitic and anyway, someone will explain almost daily, semites are Palestinians and Jews are European colonialists – the Khazars.

At last came the straw that broke the camel’s back, where I’m the camel. There was a thread supporting the boycott of Israel on the basis of Israel’s unparalleled wickedness. I posted a link to an article about Israel’s assistance in the international operation to rescue the boys trapped in a cave in Thailand. I braced for the abuse which would follow.

It didn’t follow. The Administrators had deleted my link. It was not considered appropriate for the eyes of the forum’s members.

I did not question this. I keep fairly quiet in these groups; I keep my head down and I’m still there. I use the name Galil Perssimann. Watch this space.

 

 

GerizimDeuteronomy 27: 9 – 26  Ki Tavo

This event takes place towards the end of the forty years in the wilderness and in the last days of Moses’ life. Moses  prepares the Israelites for their new life after his own death, in the promised land, under the leadership of Joshua.

He then delineates a ceremony of blessings and curses which will take place after the Israelites have crossed the Jordan, at which time Moses will no longer accompany them. The leadership will have passed to Joshua. The tribes will be divided into two groups. Six tribes are to stand on Mount Gerizim, to the south, and pronounce blessings. The other six are to stand on Mount Ebal, north-east, and pronounce curses. The tribes sent to Gerizim are Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. The tribes who have the unfortunate job of presiding over the curses are Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali. The curses are spoken by Levites who anathemize those who make graven images; those who treat their parents badly; those who move a neighbour’s landmark; those who lead the blind astray; those who subvert the cause of widows and orphans; those who sleep with their father’s wife, with their sister, or their mother-in-law; those who have sex with an animal, those who commit physical assault in secret, paid assassins and those who do not adhere to these commandments.

There are twelve curses, matching the number of the tribes.

Mount Ebal is in biblical Shechem, now Nablus on the West Bank.

There are several questions raised by the text and not answered. Why are the curses issued from Mount Ebal, which later became the site of an Israelite altar, constructed from stones? Why are the blessings from Mount Gerizim, which later became the Sanctuary of the Samaritan sect?

Some commentators – Samson Raphael Hirsch for example – reasoned that Gerizim was fertile and Ebal rugged. In the thirteenth century, Nachmanides noted that as Gerizim, was to the south, it was at the right hand when one faced east to pray. It’s also suggested that the southern position of Gerizim placed it in the territory of Judah  while Ebal stood in what was to become the Northern Kingdom.

As for the Samaritan view of the sanctity of Gerizim, this is somewhat backed up by a passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls version of Deuteronomy, which says:

When you have crossed the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about  which I charge you today, on Mount Gerizim, and coat them with plaster.  And there, you shall build an altar to the Lord your God.

The verse in the Masoretic text, that’s the chumash you may have in front of you, and in our Sefer Torah, says:

And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. (Deuteronomy 27:4)

Then there’s the question of who were Samaritans. The name comes from Shomrim, meaning keepers or guards, just as the geographical area of Samaria is called Shomron in Hebrew. They claim descent from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and split with  mainstream Israelite observances by locating their sanctuary on Mount Gerizim. At that time, the period of the judges, the official sanctuary was in Shiloh. The Samaritans have their own version of the Pentateuch, written in a script resembling palaeo-Hebrew and containing mostly minor but numerous variations from our Masoretic text. We don’t know the age of the Samaritan pentateuch, but some of these variations occur likewise in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek Septuagint, so it’s old, perhaps from the time of the Second Temple. The Samaritans don’t count the prophets or the hagiographa – the Ketuvim – as scriptural. They just have the five books of the chumash.

Now there’s another question  without any definite answer, relating to this Torah reading. How were the tribes divided? What did it signify, if your tribe was doing the blessings from Gerizim or the curses from Ebal? It seems to me that the tribes doing the blessing, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin are the A list, with the possible exception of Issachar. Those standing on Mount Ebal are Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali. The tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher were  descended from Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. Reuben and Zebulun are the oldest and youngest sons of Leah. It is also interesting that the descendants of the Ebal tribes are less notable than the royal, priestly and messianic issue of the Gerizim tribes.

According to my counting, twelve curses are to be uttered on Mount Ebal and, as you will hear, a dozen times it is repeated that all the people will say Amen. Their peoplehood is expressed in the unity with which they accept the Torah of Moses and shun the ways which are forbidden, cursed. As you know, the word ‘amen’ is connected with the word for faith, emunah, but it has traveled a long way, as it appears in the Greek of the New Testament and is used in Muslim prayer with the same meaning. I find there is something a bit magical about the word Amen. Listen to it, as it’s repeated in out Torah reading, from Deuteronomy 27.

published in The Journal of Progressive Judaism, no 7, November 1996. Author: Gillian Gould Lazarus as Gillian Gould

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.


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