This is from Mondoweiss the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist hub. I know it is not a pleasant reading. But it is interesting. Read it again. Look what happens. Unfortunately it is a well known path.
You start with criticising “the occupation“. But what about the security and the lives of those Jews who live in the West Bank from generations? Well, you did not think about it.
Then you question the policies of the State of Israel; which is easy, especially because you do not live there. And the more you criticise the more all these talks about security of Israel seem misplaced.
You don’t hear many Israeli voices and Israel seems to over-react, always. And why? They have a strong Army, after all. To your eyes, Israel seems unable to do anything right. And it is such a source of embarrassment with your, mostly non Jewish, friends.
So you question Israel. Why do we need a Jewish State, after all. There is not a Quaker State. Neither a Methodist State. There are, well, some atheist and Muslim States and a whole Mormon State in the USA, but for some reason they are out of your picture.
So you question Zionism, because it is tribal. It does not reflect your “universalistic values”, that is the life style of you and your mostly middle class white European colleagues and friends.
And then this. You are thankful for antisemitism because, as a result, Judaism’s “genocidal impulse” is “fortunately” restrained.
It is a slippery slope. Worse, such a slippery does not start not from hate, but from real good faith and from genuine loyalty to Judaism. But not from a place of loyalty to the Jewish people.
Which after all is the problem.
We should avoid these companies.
We often praise the marvellous diversity of Brighton. It is an extraordinary tolerant city with a multicultural and very diverse population. Unfortunately this population includes a share of idiots and of anti-Semites, plus the various, numerous, intersections between the two groups. I had the non pleasant experience of meeting with one of those idiots during one of the lowest moments of the whole balagan regarding the Sodastream shop. He misunderstood, on purpose, the plurality of the Jewish religion, the existence of different denominations, in order to caricaturise our faith.
“Tell me” he reproached me with a bullying voice “what has an ultra orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem with 16 children have in common with a New York Rabbi who officiates same sex marriages?” Isn’t it funny how certain people, when they want to talk about religion, they only think of sex? Anyway, the tirade went on “You have nothing in common, apart from the feeling of superiority, the presumption of being a chosen people. Yours is not a religion, it is a racist doctrine!”
This idiotic anti-Jewish bully was obviously against Israel. He thought it was a racist colonialist State. And from the privileged point of view of his narrow mind he looked with suspicion to the plurality of Jewish culture, the fact that we Jews have lived everywhere, in two thousand years of history, but at the same time we have managed to keep our identity and have resisted assimilation. He really did not get the plurality of Jewish religion, which, admittedly, is somehow peculiar.
Christianity and Islam, the other two major monotheistic religions, have been founded by specific people; Jesus & Mohammad. These two guys have lived in specific places, in certain moments of history. And indeed, Christians and Muslims base their own religious calendar, the calculation of time, on the life of these two personalities. For the Muslims we are in the year 1438, because 1438 years ago their founder journeyed between two very important cities. According to the Christian calendar, this year is 2017 because… well, I don’t think I have to explain why.
But why are we Jews in 5778, beginning from today? You see, there is no historical event, or historical personality, at the foundation of our calendar. The Rabbis connect this day to the Creation. But the date of Creation is not in the Torah, so we have a difference of opinions whether Rosh haShana is the anniversary of the creation of the world, or of the creation of the human being. Again, that plurality of legitimate religious opinions which infuriates the above mentioned idiots and anti-Semites. “You Jews, you don’t even know what you are supposed to celebrate.”
Without taking into consideration these sorts of remarks, it must be said that it is difficult to connect emotionally and spiritually to a day such as today. It’s true, we do not immediately know what we celebrate on Rosh haShana. We celebrate Creation, the beginning of Time and Space. We do teshuvah. We try to close old disputes between ourselves. We put the foundations in order to become better people in future. In other words, we celebrate the passing of time.
And our society has a strange relationship with the passing of time. We live in a sort of eternal present. The vast majority of people portrayed in the movies, seem to be between 20s and 30s. Advertising clothing and food, which is the majority of adverts, targets consumers in their 20s. On TV everybody is young and few people get old. An eternal present indeed. Social media also makes you believe you live in an eternal present. There is no room for the past on Twitter. You just write down what you are thinking right now, what amuses you, what infuriates you, now, in this moment. Not so different on Facebook and Instagram. You write a few lines and take a photo of where and what you are doing right now, in this moment. Both these social medias have now introduced a feature call “My story” that is only a snapshot of usually ten minutes, in which you can tell about your past, but again, it is basically what you are doing and thinking right now.
On various social media’s timelines everything, no matter how far you go back in time, everything is written at the present tense. Contrary to a novel, and stories, and literatures, there is no past, only an eternal present. The feeling of displacement, of disorienting, is very deep. Life is not an eternal present. Our life, our real life is always different from that thing that is portrayed on TV and that we find in social media. In real life there is no eternal present tense. We fall in love, and then our love grows. We ourselves grow up, get old. Our children and grandchildren themselves, they grow up and change. No one remains a 20 year old forever. The contrast between real life and the eternal present which seems to be the time of contemporary life is frightening. Some take refuge by imagining an idealised past, when time did not fly, and people were more kind and respectful, more compassionate even and certainly more religious.
This sort of nostalgia for an idealised past is common to all religions and cultures, and our own it is not an exception. We all feel disoriented for the pace of contemporary life, and for this sort of eternal present. So you have English Christians who delude themselves that they can put the clock back to the Victorian times. And you have Muslims who tragically believe to the existence of triumphant Caliphate in the Middle Ages, (an historical nonsense by the way, never existed), which some of them want to re-instate.
So you have in our ranks, people who dream of a socialist Israel, whose inhabitants were all from Russia or Poland, and each evening danced the hora, after a day spent tilling the soil. While now, Israel is a leading start up nation, half of the population is of Middle Eastern background, and your average kibbutz is now more market oriented than many American companies.
There is another way of deluding themselves about an idealised past, to take refuge from the anxieties of the contemporary world. And it is figuring out an idealised Eastern European shtetl, where everyone was scrupulously observant of every kind of mitzvah, under the benevolent supervision of very pious and erudite Rabbis. Historians have long since demolished this idealised portrayed of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, which was more a creation of the author of Fiddler on the Roof than historical reality. But, yet, especially in the USA, the ultra orthodox push the global Jewish world towards that direction. They want to rebuild the shtetl, an idealised, never existed, shtetl, in the very capitals of the Diaspora, such as New York or London.
I am not lumping different phenomenon under the same category. I know that this nostalgia for the shtetl is different from the belief in the Caliphate, common among certain Muslims, or the nostalgia for the Empire in which certain politicians seem to indulge. But the psychological reasons, the driving factors that make people delude in these tales, are the same. Anxiety, fear, displacement. Need for certainties. Especially religious certainties. You see how these two extremes are related. The eternal present we are supposed to live in. And the delusion of an idealised past which is the refuge many people look for.
Is there an alternative? I believe there is. And Rosh haShana, shows us that there is. As I have said before, according to malevolent critics we Jews don’t know what we celebrate on Rosh ha Shana. Let me rephrase this malevolent observation. On Rosh ha Shana we celebrate several different things.
According to some Rabbis we celebrate the creation of the world, of space and time. Hence the Shofar, with his primeval sound. According to the majority of Rabbis we celebrate the creation of the human being, the one and only creature able to calculate time, to have knowledge of time, hence the act of sounding the Shofar, which only human beings can do. According to Jewish philosophers, on Rosh haShana we do teshuva. We focus on our own mistakes and try to improve and change and become better people. That is we help God to create ourselves, to make us more similar to the idea that God had in mind when the human being was created. Hence the custom of wishing each other Shana Tova uMetuka, good and sweet new year, may this process of repentance bring you to a more pleasant and sweet life. And to bring this sweetness into our houses we eat honey cake, apple and honey and sweet challah. Which are obviously tasty, but also they are symbols and good wishes for a better, sweet and tasty future.
That is, to me, the real alternative to the twin neurosis of the eternal present and of the idealised past. A living tradition which includes the magnificent history of the Creation of the Universe, the noble portrait of human nature as created by God and able to change and improve with the teshuvah. And, most important, able to look at the future with hope and sweetness; a sweetness that you don’t find on social media and a hope you don’t find in an idealised past.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, Rosh haShana 5778
I have to make a confession. I enjoy Jewish curses. I suspect I am not the only one.
We Jews have indeed quite an interesting relationship with curses. Many books on Jewish humour have indeed a hilarious chapter on Jewish curses, such as: “May God answer all your prayers, and then may He mistake your worst enemy for you.”
During my anthropology research among the Anousim in Northern Portugal, I heard this one: “May you own one hundred houses, each one with ninety rooms in it, and may you not be able to sleep in none of them because of convulsions.” I have read on the internet, that in the USA, Democratic Jews address Republican Jews with expressions such as “May you live to a ripe old age, and may the only people who come visit you be Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormon missionaries.”
I may not be an expert, but I don’t think there is another people who enjoy curses so much as we Jews! Why? Or, to put in another way: Why Jewish curses are different from all the other curses? (sorry, I could not resist).
There is certainly a prototype, a model, and it is in our Torah portion. “You will lose your house and someone else will sleep with your wife” (Dt 28:30) means that, before being hit by the curse, you were actually enjoying your house, probably a beautiful one, and have of course a good time with your wife, whatever this means. “Your ox will be slaughtered in front of your eyes but you shall not eat of it” (Dt 28:31) means that, prior to the event, you actually had enough wealth to have and upkeep an ox, and a good one, that is quite meaty. “A people you do not know shall eat up the produce of your soil” (Dt 28:33) actually means that you had been able to purchase a very fruitful land and actually enjoy its fruit, for probably some years.
The Torah says that these curses, which are all in this week’s Torah reading, will befall on the Jewish people if they do not follow the Torah. So says God. Notably, these Biblical curses have the same structure of the funny folk curses we find in books and web sites of Jewish humour. They are about having something, and enjoying it, and then all of a sudden loosing it, in a ruinous and probably funny way. In most cases you were satisfied but did not do the proper planning. You were not clever enough to take into account those bad events, and bad luck, that are always possible.
In a word, you have been complacent. And God has punished you for your complacency, you excessive trust in yourself, probably your arrogance.
We may ask whether these Biblical passages about curses are relevant in the contemporary world. We may be tempted to say they are not. The language is antiquated. We do not live off a slaughtered ox, and many of us are vegetarians or (in Brighton) vegans. The produce of the soil does not affect our savings or shares in investment funds. As for people enjoying our property and our wives, well, that is sexist to say the least. But if we look beyond the language, which admittedly may sound outdated, we discover that the structures of these Biblical curses is the same of the funniest curses of our folklore. And we can read these curses as a warning against complacency.
I would say that complacency can really become a curse, in the Jewish world.
There is certainly complacency towards the modern world, or modern values, or some people say Liberal values. There is a rush to get rid of allegedly the embarrassing parts of our theology because we feel they do not fit into the modern world. Take the recent example of Jewish status. We want to be egalitarian, to fit in into the modern world and so we get rid of the matrilineal principle, which actually for generations has empowered Jewish women.
On the opposite side, there is complacency towards Tradition with a capital T, the habit to follow certain customs without looking at the sources, without understanding why, only because we have seen someone else, usually Ultra Orthodox, to do that thing in the same way.
These are opposite examples of complacency that are actually killing the Jewish world. The moment you replace loyalty to Judaism with loyalty to Modern, or Liberal, values, then there is no reason anymore to remain in the Jewish fold. And when you keep on doing things, in Synagogue and at home, only because Tradition dictates us to do so, the next generations will not follow Judaism anymore. And that is a curse.
Is there a way to avoid these two curses? The curse of complacency, which in the end brings to deeming Judaism not relevant, and in the end to assimilation? I believe there is. And that can be found here in this Synagogue.
I have tried to summarise the ethos, the culture of our community with these two quotes you find in the Iton, the weekly Haftarah sheet which Liz puts together every week with admirable dedication. In this week’s Iton you can read:
“We need to retain the traditional character of our congregation as otherwise we may put ourselves outside the pale of Judaism. We are Reform Jews because we wish to strengthen Judaism”.
This was said by Rabbi Rosenblum, z”l, my most illustrious predecessor. And it says it all. We do not want to leave Judaism; we are not interested to go beyond the pale of Judaism. We want to strengthen our religion, our culture, and our faith.
And the second quote is by Gerald Burkeman, z”l, whom many of us remember for his dedication to the Shul and his wit.
“The attraction for the vast majority of the adults who belong to Sha’are Shalom, is that they can live their Judaism without diminishing its fundamental laws and with no feeling of guilt that they are not obeying all the 613 Commandments which God handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai”.
And that’s it. In its fifty year of existence, this building has been a place where Jewish faith and culture have been practiced and taught to the young generations, so that they may learn to live their Judaism without guilt, and inside the boundaries of the Jewish tradition.
In doing so, we have become the largest Synagogue in Sussex, the most thriving Cheder in Brighton and, as you will taste in a moment, the place where the best Kiddush is offered on great occasions like today.
So let’s celebrate!
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 9 September 2017
I am the Rabbi of Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Sussex. We have always been a Zionist stronghold. As I write in this moment I have in front of me the autobiography of Abba Eban: it has a dedication by the author to our first Rabbi, Erwin Solomon Rosenblum z”l.
Israel has always been a core element of our identity, as you can experience if you visit us on Shabbat Atzmaut, the Shabbat before Yom HaAtzmaut, or on Shabbat Yerushalayim, the Shabbat before Yom Yerushalayim. I am sure that our wardens in such a case will be glad to give you and your wife an alya, and I hope you’ll join us in singing HaTikvah at the end of the service. Yes, there are synagogues, Reform synagogues, in the UK, where Yom HaAtzmaut is celebrated, where Yom Yerushalayim is celebrated, where the fallen Israeli soldiers are honoured.
As per myself, I am proud to call myself a Zionist of the Revisionist persuasion. I graduated with a dissertation on Rabbi Louis Israel Newman, z’’l, whom your father Benzion Netanyahu knew well.
Before becoming one of the greatest scholar of Jewish history, your father of blessed memory was a nationalist Zionist activist. He was with other activists, the “Bergson Boys” they called themselves, in New York in 1940, and worked tirelessly to wake up American Jewry and to lobby in favour of military intervention in WWII.
And following that, they also lobbied in favour of the Zionist struggle for independence. Rabbi Louis Israel Newman, a Reform Rabbi, was close to that group. Your father’s Rabbi, Mr Netanyahu, was a Reform Rabbi.
Mr Netanyahu, I have always defended You and Your government in easy and less easy circumstances. I always have put effort in defending -among my colleagues- your reputation, the reputation of the Zionist movement, and the good name of Israel. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not. But my integrity demands me to do it.
Now I write to you in distress.
Few months ago a compromise was reached between the Jerusalem Haredim and the major Diaspora organisations. Such a compromise had been one of the many merits of your Government, and of the Chair of the Jewish Agency, Nathan Sharansky. It would have allowed Jews belonging the majority of the Diaspora Jews, like us, to worship at the Kotel according to our customs and minhagim, without separation between men and women.
At the moment we have access only to an area in front of Robinson’s Arch, an archeological site, removed from the sight of the Haredim: as if the sight of Jews different from them was offensive. We are, literally, kept at a lower level. This is not decent, neither respectful, as it has been acknowledged by scholars of civil and Jewish law. Therefore it was agreed to build an extended egalitarian area, on the same level of the ultra-orthodox’s. It would have a considerably beneficial effect on tourism and ion the attendance to State ceremonies, that take place in front of the Kotel, such as the yearly oath taken by the IDF soldiers at the beginning their term of service.
Jewish soldiers, Mr Netanyahu. Like the many who decorated the story of your family. Soldiers of the Army of the Jewish State. By the way, none of them is ultra-orthodox.
The new platform would have caused no harm to the existing situation. Haredi men and women can continue to worship as they like, men and women strictly separated, like in a mosque. Now this compromise, a decent and honourable compromise had been “frozen” by your government. The platform will not be built, we learnt. We will have to continue with the existing setting, where Jews belonging to the majority of the Jewish organisations are confined in a narrower place.
Nathan Sharansky has noted that this decision of yours favours one sector of the Jewish people against the majority of Am Israel. I agree with him. We know: your government, Mr Netanyahu, needs the votes of the Haredi parties, who are currently offering their support to the Left, and to the two States solution, if the Left is (they say) bold enough to abandon the Reform.
That’s it. There are in your government, in the Israeli Parliament, parties who are willing to do literally everything in order to damage us, the Reform, the Masorti, the Liberal. Is it decent to pay attention to these divisive voices? May I remind you that these people not only encourage their youth not to serve in the military. They also forbid their flock to take serious and productive jobs, and they encourage them to live out of benefits. That is taxpayers’ money, and Diaspora’s money! They perpetrate family’s abuses by turning to Rabbinic courts and not to civil courts. Are these the people you are working for, Mr Netanyahu? Or are you the Prime Minister of the Jewish State, that is of every Jew, including us? You have alienated Sharansky, a hero of freedom of thought and religion, one of the most inspiring Jewish personality, whose very name mobilised the Jewish people worldwide.
Mr Netanyahu, the Jewish people does not want to see the Kotel turned in an ultra-orthodox synagogue! The Kotel should rather be a symbol of unity, where different Jewish denominations are allowed to pray and worship according to their own customs.
In our Reform synagogue we celebrate every year Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the reunification of the eternal capital of the Jewish people. Now, you are telling us that we, and our children, are not welcome anymore in the very place where we turn our hearts in prayers and hope!
Mr President, I was born after the Six Day War. I am one of the first Jews born after the reunification of Jerusalem. We all owe to you, and to your generation, an enormous debt of gratitude. You belong to the generation who has restored the Hadar, the glory of being a Jew after centuries of oppression and humiliation and now I wonder, and I ask you, how is this political petty manouvering going to advance the cause of Israel and Zionism amongst the Jewish people?
Mr Netanyahu, remember that we are taught Kol Yisrael ara’vin zeh b’zeh, all Jews are responsible for each other and I ask you to show leadership and responsibility, for the sake of our unity.
Please, Prime Minister, repair your damage before it is too late.
Ki shekhet hu refesh. Because silence is despicable.
I want to begin today’s sermon with a very difficult word: polysemic. It comes from two Greek words: poly, meaning many and sema meaning sign, symbol. Polysemic means: which has many meanings. You find the word polysemic in the writings of literary critics and of social sciences. Religious rituals are by definition polysemic. That is because religious rituals have many meanings. Take for example the Seder of Pesach. Its first and most important meaning is the celebration of our journey; the journey of the Jewish people towards freedom and self determination.
There are of course many other journeys towards liberation. One of the most intense experiences in my life had been leading the Seder at Holloway prison, when I was a Rabbinical student, for a small group of Jewish inmates, plus two guards.
When the words “Today we are slaves, tomorrow we will be free” were heard, you could feel a palpable sense of hope around the table, which bound together, not only the prisoners, but also the guards. Prisons are a terrible place to work, and the guards were also hoping to be in another place, and yes there are prison guards who are Jewish. Later I was extremely moved when a lady, before returning to her cell, asked me to pray for her freedom and told me eagerly “I have a trial, tomorrow, Rabbi”. For her these words we say every year “Tomorrow we will be free” were particularly meaningful.
The narrative of Pesach is very powerful. Small wonder that other people have found inspiration in the story of Pesach. When my wife was in hospital to deliver Yair, I heard two of the nurses, both of African background, remarking casually that we must have been Jewish. Why? Because Jewish women deliver quickly, as it is written in the book of Exodus. My immediate reaction was like “Oh gosh, another bloody anti-Semite”.
But I calmed down as I remembered what is written in the first chapter of Exodus. Pharaoh had ordered the midwives to kill all the newborn Israelites but they were not willing to carry out the order. So, to protect the Jews, they said to Pharaoh that the Jewish women deliver too quickly; and that it is impossible to catch their children. For those nurses, the concept of slavery and the idea of a journey towards freedom were not only parts of the Biblical narrative, to which, I suppose, they are exposed to when they are in their church. They were from Afro Caribbean background. The slavery and the journeys to freedom were part of their lives, family memories if not, literally, life experiences.
As Rabbi, I am proud that our narrative provides words to other people, so that they can tell their own journey towards freedom. I am proud that other people find inspiration in our history. When other people learn from the Jewish people, this must be a source of pride for us.
Nonetheless, I was not exactly impressed by the publication of the “Jubilee Haggadah” edited by the New Israeli Fund. Its purpose is to support the national liberation of the Palestinians by encouraging the Diaspora to put the Israeli Government under pressure. So that it will end the Occupation of, and I quote, “West Bank and Gaza”. In the world I live in, the Israeli Army left Gaza in 2004, but these people clearly know more and in their world Gaza is still under Israeli occupation.
What upsets me is not the agenda. The New Israeli Fund has its own and so have the authors of this Haggadah, whose good faith I don’t question. They genuinely believe that peace in the Middle East, peace between Muslims and the rest of the world, peace all over the world, can be achieved by ending “the Occupation” tomorrow, by turning the West Bank and East Jerusalem into another Gaza, completely empty of the Jewish population, (I believe the German expression is Juden-rein).
I of course disagree. And I don’t think that it is up to the Diaspora to pressure the Israeli Government. Israeli voters are – I think – mature enough to decide on their own destiny and to assess by themselves whether this or that policy of their democratically elected government makes their lives more secure, or not. But of course the compilers of the Jubilee Haggadah are entitled to their own opinions.
Neither am I particularly shocked by historical inaccuracies such as stating that Gaza is still under the occupation, or that Jews are now free, (really? In Iran, for example?). Or writing that Palestinians are “in bondage” and all they do is “to yearn for freedom”, as if teaching that the Holocaust never happened can be called “yearning for freedom”.
All of this, and many other passages of this quite creative Haggadah, are inaccurate to say the least and they look more like a collection of badly written propaganda leaflets, rather than a Haggadah. But again, over the last week only, we have heard far worse. A former Mayor of London together with his supporters, (some of them, as you know, Jewish), compares Zionism to Nazism. Stories of the SS training the Haganah. Fantasies about a Zionist Hitler. Compared to the bigotry of Ken Livingstone, the fantasies of these well meaning activists are very minor details.
But, you see, that Jubilee Haggadah is so self-centred and self-righteous. While the Seder is a narrative of liberation. A liberation from internal habit, and from assimilation. On Pesach we resist to assimilate. Our houses are different from the one of our neighbours and we eat different foods. Being assimilated can be comfortable. Assimilation is attractive. But we get rid of even small traces of assimilation, of chametz, leavened food, which is a symbol of luxury and comfort.
Pesach is an internal process: we get rid of comfort and luxury deep inside our houses. We look into ourselves; we cleanse ourselves and our environment from traces of assimilation. But the authors of this Jubilee Haggadah don’t do anything of that kind. They elevate themselves above the rest of the Jewish people, they externalised their contempt against whoever disagrees politically from them: incidentally, that is the majority of the Jewish people and of the Israeli voters.
They take in no consideration of the security needs of the Israeli population, the amount of anti-Semitism which comes from the Muslim world and from the secular Arab nationalists, (including the Palestinian leaders), let alone the deep insecurity in which so many Jews still live in the Diaspora. This is not Pesach. This is exactly the chametz, which we get rid of before Pesach. Chametz, as we know, is a word which reminds us of hamas, a Hebrew word meaning violence and oppression. And this Hagadah is exactly like that. A piece of chametz: arrogant and violent in its self-righteousness.
It seems that after Pesach they will uncover on its web site a map of the world. On such a map, if you are interested, it will be possible to see where in the world a Seder had been held by reading this Haggadah.
I of course at the moment don’t know whether Brighton will be or will be not, a point on such a map of self-righteousness. What I know at the moment, by reading this Haggadah, is that this Seder will have only one theme. Its mood will be heavily influenced by this obsession with the occupation. And you will hear weird moral equivalences between Ancient Egypt and the Jewish State. Between Palestinians who are slaves now and Jews who were slaves in the past and now are… whatever.
This Haggadah makes me think of a very boring Seder. And to be honest, I am not even sure that such a Seder can even be called a religious ritual. Because it is so one sided. And it is certainly not… what’s the word? polysemic.
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, Shabbat haGadol 5777
The problem with the Torah is that it is not a book of history, neither is it a book of science, neither is it a book of poetry or a collection of legends. It is all of this, and maybe more.
Consider the diversity of its books. Genesis, the first book, is the story of a family, of the dynamics, of the relationships between parents and children and the sons and daughters, and of the conflicts internal to each generation.
In Exodus we find the beginning of the Israelites history: the escape from slavery, the confrontation with the oppressors, the birth of the Jewish civilisation, with the Giving of the Law on Sinai. It is the story of a people.
The Hebrew name of the book of Exodus is Shemot, “names”. It is the Book of Names; it lists the names of the many Jewish families.
And then we have Leviticus, whose Hebrew name is Vayikrà, “and He (namely God) called”. Where does the name Leviticus come from? It is a Latin word, which means “addressed to the Levites”.
In early Rabbinic times the book was known as Torat Cohanim, Torah for the Cohanim and for the Leviim who worked in the Temple. Hence the name Leviticus, because it was expressly written for them.
The problem is that these instructions are useless for the most of us, those who are not descendants of the Leviim or of the Cohanim. And even nowadays for the Cohanim and Leviim, these instructions are useless. Description and prescriptions for sacrifices compose large parts of every Torah portion of the Leviticus. But these sacrifices are to be performed only in one place, the Temple in Jerusalem, which is no more. So, speculating about the nature or the procedure of these sacrifices was, and still is, a purely theoretical exercise.
It is, let’s face it, quite an embarrassing and difficult topic. It always has been. Nowadays the idea of pleasing God by killing animals is justly looked upon by the majority of Jews as an abomination.
And it is not only a matter of animal rights.
Claude Montefiore, a great scholar, who was also one of the founders of Liberal Judaism, found the Book of Leviticus particularly uninspiring. He envisioned a time when Leviticus would not be read in Synagogue but rather replaced by passages from the prophetic literature, readings which are much more inspiring, according to Montefiore and his circle.
This may seem a very radical idea, but it is not that different from the very respectable academic theory according to which the book of Leviticus had been written in the seventh century BC, during the Kingdom of Judah, while the other book of the Torah came from a different source and is written in a very different style. So it is not weird to assume that Leviticus is somehow out of place in the Torah.
Probably the main problem with Leviticus is that one of its themes is purity, and we don’t like to talk about purity. A whole section of the book teaches the Israelites how to avoid uncleanliness, by observing certain rules on sexual behaviour, family relations, etc. and in this way to be ritually pure and perform sacrifices. It is difficult for us to see anything spiritual or inspiring in these rules about menstruations, and bodily excretions. So probably Montefiore was right, Isaiah and Jeremiah are more inspiring.
But classifying the nature in “pure” and “impure” is a universal human tendency. As I discovered in interfaith events, Islam has a system of classification of the reality very similar to Judaism: certain places are to be avoided, certain parts of the body needs to be ritually purified prior to the prayer, just like we do netillat yadaiim, before touching kosher bread, at least in the major holyday). Our Christian friends looked to us Jews and Muslims with a strange sense of superiority as if our religious practices were just superstitions; but we pointed out that, the categories of pure and impure were present in their culture too, for example they were clearly uneasy in talking about menstruation, while Jewish women and Muslim women usually were much more open, when meeting among themselves and men were not around.
In the last Century, totalitarian ideologies, such as Communism, aimed to replace religions with their ideology and looked at the Jewish concepts of purity and impurity as a superstition, a relic of the past, a source of frustrations and neurosis. But then, look at what happened? They tried to replace the human beings, the real people, the men and women with an abstract new kind of humanity, the homo sovieticus, deprived of religion, loyal only to the Party, (and not anymore to the family or to his people). In the life of the homo sovieticus the only culture was the Soviet culture, and every connection to any other culture (including the yddishkheit) was a sabotage of communism, and a crime against the State.
The homo sovieticus, this new human being created by the Communist system, and to keep the Communist system alive and functioning, was the Communist idea of purity. And every human being who did not conform to such an idea, to such a pattern, to such a model, was impure. Locked away in an asylum or sent to Siberia, in order to be re-educated. That was, as you probably remember, the fate of the Zionists under communism. They dare to feel a connection to Judaism, and therefore they were labeled as “impure” human beings and had to be re-educated.
You see: we cannot get rid of purity and impurity. They are probably categories rooted in the human psyche, as they are universal. We found them even in communism, an ideology whose purpose was to banish and to abolish “superstitions” of that kind.
As Jews we are blessed of having a Book where rules of purity and impurity are exposed. And from this Book we have developed rules, to cope with parts of human experiences that universally are a source of anxiety: births, death, and fertility. In difficult times, the practice of Judaism is an extraordinary source of comfort and support. Do you want proof? There are no homo sovieticus around anymore, while we Jews have endured for 2000 years.
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 5 Nissan 5777