1. Every year at the Seder table we all notice that the “wise” and “wicked” sons use similar terminology in talking about the Pesach, but only the wicked son is rebuked. They both say something along the lines of “what does this mean to you”, without including themselves. Lots of explanations are offered, and the one that strikes the strongest chord with me sees the four sons as four generations.
2. The “wise” son is “clever” in a pejorative sense – a common use of the Hebrew “chochom” – he thinks he will make Judaism easy for himself by saying to his father – “tell me what the rules are but don’t bother me with the explanations – I’ll do whatever you do because I want to be ‘frum’ and stay within the exclusive social circle, but I don’t see the need to search for complicated explanations; just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”.
3. The problem is that his son is the “wicked” son in the sense of liking to challenge things: he says to his father – anything you can explain to me so that I can understand it, I’ll do – but anything that makes no sense to me, I won’t. For example, why can’t I use a light switch on Shabbos? But his father can’t answer that, because he never asked his father, because he never wanted to understand. Social conformity was the extent of his religious observance. So the “wicked” son rejects everything that does not have an obvious explanation, and practices those parts of the religion that happen to make sense to him.
4. So his son is “simple” – the word “tam” in Hebrew meaning closed or deficient: he has a limited menu to choose from because he is starting from the list that happened to make sense to his father, who rejected everything he couldn’t understand and whose father couldn’t explain the others because he never asked about them.
5. Which means that the next generation “cannot ask a question” – he cannot put together a coherent question to establish the nature and value of his Jewish identity, because all he has is a few cultural fragments that happened to survive the ravages of both the “wicked” and the “simple” generations.
6. From complete Jewish observance to nothing at all in four generations: and all starting with blind, meaningless observance. So we warn the “wise” son: but in what terms? He is about to make a fundamental error in Jewish observance, so we say to him something profound and meaningful, presumably? Apparently not. We say: “don’t eat after the Afikomen”, the final piece of matzah at the seder. Not obviously either deep, instructive or even relevant!
7. The Afikomen of the Haggadah is the Chad Gadya poem. Whatever differences there are in different Haggadot – and one of the key Seder rituals is comparing different orders and phrasings – every Haggadah around the world ends with Chad Gadya. This is the Afikomen that the Rabbis wanted to leave running around our minds at the end of the evening. And on its surface it is a children’s tale about animals and other things without any profound message at all.
8. The central feature of the Chad Gadya is the small goat that father brings home for the seder. This obviously represents the korban Pesach – the Pascal sacrifice.
9. The most superficial and selfish part of my mind looks on that simply as a good meal. The feline part of my nature – and cats are a byword for selfishness, and were one of the Egyptians’ gods for that reason – wants to look no further into the korban Pesach than a nice meal. So the cat eats the goat.
10. But there is part of my nature that can’t help thinking that we can do better than that as a religion, and that we need to look for something more meaningful. The canine part of my nature is looking for an ideal to sign up to and be loyal to. The dog has always been noted for loyalty, but without discrimination: like Bill Sykes’ famous dog, the dog will be loyal to whoever feeds it, whether he be saint or sinner. So the dog chases the cat away, looking for something better than mere selfish greed in my religious observance.
11. That’s a positive sign, but easily corrupted. The blind loyalty of the dog is open to being seduced by every kind of foolishness that religious mis-observance has to offer. The Jewish people at their least discriminating become easy prey for the latest meaningless chumras and frumkeits (stringencies and religiosities) and quickly become a parody of religion rather than a genuinely religious community. And generation after generation we reduce ourselves to spiritual bankruptcy through an excess of empty piety, and God is forced to step in and “punish” us, to bring us back to a desire to see through the superficial trappings of ritual and to reach for a genuine spiritual message in our religion. As the parent disciplines the child out of true compassion and care, the stick comes and beats the dog.
12. When human nature began its journey with good intention, however far it has been corrupted since, it responds positively to adversity. The stick arouses a spark in the dog of contrition and submissiveness, looking for a master who is worth following; looking for kindness and sensitivity that can be reciprocated. The Jewish people come back to God with their figurative tail between their legs, looking for something beyond the self-congratulatory complacencies of their earlier frumkeits. The stick has reignited the spark of real spiritual yearning in the Jewish soul – the eternal flame of Torah comes and replaces the stick, making it unnecessary and irrelevant.
13. That yearning makes me receptive to true Torah learning, which has been symbolised by water in Aggadic literature throughout the ages. The water of Torah – the purest liquid, sustainer of life, that always seeks the humblest and lowest place to occupy – quenches the spark of yearning and satisfies our thirst in a meaningful and constructive way.
14. The animal that drinks the pure water of Torah becomes loyal to God in a fully discriminating way: it has the strength and determination that is not distracted by superficial fancies because it has a deep knowledge and understanding of its true master. “The ox knows its owner”, as we recite from the prophet around Tisha B’Av every year – and our soul that has been through the journey from selfishness, through corruption, to contrition and learning, knows God in a clear and truly spiritual way.
15. But along comes that most destructive of animals: man. The “slaughterer” destroys other peoples’ spiritual ambitions and achievements for the sake of trying to make himself feel better about his own spiritual poverty. With a snub, an unkind word, or by making clever fun of someone else, we destroy their feeling of achievement and self-worth and send them back to the beginning. The same power of speech that created the world, is capable of destroying it in each of us when it is used destructively as it so often is.
16. The slaughterer feels a little better when he has proved to himself his superiority over the ox-like simpleton whose religious attainments were so easy to deride. He congratulates himself on his “cleverness” – the chochom who knows better than everybody else. But he and his victim both fall prey just as easily to the Angel of Death, who levels all, and sends them back to their Maker who restarts the whole cycle at His will.
17. And is that cycle doomed to continue without end? Will there never be a more permanent resting-place for those who seek spiritual comfort? Will there never be a “Next Year in Jerusalem” – an eternal atmosphere of peace and goodwill for the whole of humanity, living side by side in recognition of a single divine presence?
18. Of course there will. And it will begin when we break the vicious cycle ourselves, by supporting each other’s spiritual ambitions and helping each other to achieve what we cannot do alone: building on each others’ strengths, supplying each others’ deficiencies and strengthening each others’ weaknesses.
19. When the clever part of my mind – the “wise” son at the Seder table – is not satisfied with simply copying the outward rituals but wants to make sure that every religious observance is properly founded in understanding of a symbolism that enhances human sensitivity and encodes spirituality into human activity; when that happens, I start out on a religious journey that can join with yours to bring a Next Year in Jerusalem for the whole world.
20. So we warn the Chochom: don’t eat after the Afikomen. Make sure the ritual of the Seder table lingers in your mind when you leave it and changes who you are. If you walk away from the Seder table the same person who sat down – you may as well not have bothered to come. But if you walk away having released yourself from Egypt – having identified a particular constraint of the material world and released yourself from it – and the lingering taste of the Afikomen changes your behaviour on the way home, in your house, in the street, shop and office the next day, then we are starting a journey that is really necessary.
1. This week thousands of people in the UK, and hundreds of thousands world-wide, took part in what looks set to be an annual event to bring normally non-observant Jews closer to Shabbat observance and community participation.
2. What could possibly be wrong with that?
3. Nothing, except … that it may possibly give some people a misleading view of what Shabbat observance is about.
4. The Talmud records that if every Jew keeps Shabbat twice consecutively, the Messiah will come.
5. Why require two Shabbatot? The organisers of this week’s Shabbat UK will probably be able to testify to how difficult it is to engage lots of people to do it just once!
6. The point is, that Shabbat observance is not about the Shabbat day itself, it is about how our Shabbat influences the week that follows and is shaped by the week that precedes it.
7. To come together once a year to bake challos, try not to drive to shul, and invite guests to the Shabbat table, is all terrific stuff – excellent for the community, great for engagement, and simply a lovely experience: but it’s not Shabbat.
8. Shabbat is a continuum: on Friday night it reflects a softening retreat from the harsh realities of the previous 6 days (hence the word “boh” in the feminine singular in the Friday night prayers); on Shabbat morning it reflects a strength of purpose to concentrate on a day of spiritual re-charging (hence the word “bo” – masculine singular); on Shabbat afternoon it reflects a preparation for the 6 days to follow and connection with the endless series of 7-day cycles that are the essence of Shabbat observance (hence the word “bam” – plural form – even in those nuschaot which do not use the word “Shabbatot” at that point).
9. Shabbat is not a novelty, or a single event of high spiritual excitement. Shabbat is a way of life, a participation in a cycle that repeats itself endlessly and sublimely, irrespective of whether we keep it fully, partly or not at all. “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews”: this famous epigram is about Shabbat observance as an individual expression of a person’s unshakeable relationship with God, and not about Shabbat as an opportunity for community growth.
10. So a lovely idea, and a lovely occasion: but let people who have tasted it remember that they have not yet tasted the real thing – that will come if they put their ‘phones down and turn off the television and put away the car next week, and the week after, and the week after … And as the Talmud says, once all Jews have observed a week with a Shabbat at each end, enriched by spiritual preparation and crowned by spiritual fulfilment, then the Messiah will come; or, rather, he will already be here.
1. We read the story of the binding of Isaac yesterday as we do every year at New Year.
2. For years this story bothered me: what sort of a person is prepared to sacrifice his or her son to God, and what kind of God demands that sacrifice?
3. The Torah singles out the idolatry of Molech as particularly objectionable on precisely the grounds of child sacrifice.
4. So this may have been the tenth test of Abraham by God: but what was the point? To find out if Abraham was prepared to be barbaric?
5. I finally realised this year that the anxiety underpinning my issues with this story was simply “What if it had gone wrong?”
6. Of course, the Medrash says that Isaac’s neck was turned to marble so that when Abraham tried to show his real determination to do whatever God demanded of him, he couldn’t harm his son.
7. So Abraham was prepared to be barbaric and God had to stop him? Again, what kind of a person does that make Abraham?
8. I have finally found an answer that sort of satisfies me, at least for the moment.
9. If Isaac had died, Abraham would have stopped believing in God.
10. This was about Abraham testing God. As he said at Sodom – “cholilo lecho …” – it is unthinkable for the God I know to punish the innocent for the sins of the wicked. Here he is saying to God, if you make me kill my son to show my love for you, I will know that you are not worth loving.
11. Many rabbis have said over the years that Abraham did not expect to be asked to kill Isaac in the end. It would have contradicted Abraham’s entire conception of God as a God of justice and mercy. But until he put the knife to Isaac’s throat in response to the Divine command, Abraham may have believed that Isaac would not have been allowed to die: but he could not have known it with certainty.
12. The end of the test showed Abraham with absolute certainty that his earlier assessment of God’s ideals was correct, and that the values of justice, compassion and peace are indeed the foundations of our belief in and commitment to God.
13. So, as someone asked me at the table yesterday: why is this presented as a test of Abraham, not a test of God.
14. The answer is: the final test of Abraham was whether he was prepared to test God: was he prepared to set limits to his commitment to God, parameters to his belief, which he could not cross while remaining devoted to God’s service?
15. We read this story on Rosh Hashanah as we set out to forge a new relationship with God at the start of the new year: to remind us that our relationship must be based on underpinning values, which bound and explain our conception of God.
16. A person who will obey any command that comes from a religious book, a religious leader or even a religious vision, and never question or challenge it, is not a believer: he or she is an obsessive fanatic with no ideals or values underneath blind faith.
17. As Jews, our faith is not in God, but in the characteristics that He has taught us as Divine: the thirteen attributes of God are in the fact the parameters of our belief. When our religion tallies with the human instincts that are part of the Divine image in which we are created, we know we are on the right track.
18. Hopefully this will be a year in which religious people around the world will listen increasingly to the promptings of our sound human instincts, so that religion can become a force that unites us in getting the best out of our common humanity.
1. I attended an excellent shiur on the halochos of shemittah this afternoon.
2. The issues underpinning the controversy around the heter mechirah were carefully explained.
3. The conclusion was that for preference heter mechirah produce should be avoided in chutz la’aretz; but that it can certainly be relied upon if necessary, and should not be avoided at the cost of causing offence or creating divisions.
4. All fine so far as it goes: I would add one thing.
5. At a time when people are boycotting Israeli goods, many Jews in chutz la’aretz who want to show their solidarity for Israel will see buying Israeli goods as one effective way of doing that: and they will certainly want to rely on the heter mechirah for that purpose and will be pleased to know that without doubt they have solid halachic ground on which to rely.
6. Hopefully this year will bring peace to Israel and the whole world, and we will all be able to support every nation’s commercial endeavours in a spirit of universal harmony.
1. The Government’s proposal that students of GCSE Religious Studies would each have to show evidence of having studied two faiths has apparently united all faith groups in the UK in furious opposition.
2. What a shame.
3. In the Rosh Hashanah prayers tomorrow we repeatedly proclaim God’s kingship over the whole world – it is a universalist message, with very little about the Jewish people in it and a continual concentration on the challenges and opportunities of humanity.
4. All around the world today we see religion being used as an excuse for the worst kinds of evil (including that particularly dangerous and insidious evil – simple indifference to others’ feelings, needs and sufferings).
5. And all around the world we see that evil combated by simple humanity, expressing itself in a variety of forms and manners, some religious, some ethical, some pure – unlabelled – human instinct.
6. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy celebrates the universality of the human condition – its weaknesses and its strengths.
7. Why deny children the opportunity to do the same, just because they happen to be studying a GCSE?
8. This is not a proposal for compulsory religious education for anyone; merely a proposal that if your own religion is important enough to you to be worth basing one of your school qualifications on, and if you would like that qualification to be recognised in the form of a public examination, you should accept the public’s wish to enhance your citizenship potential by simply learning a little bit about what motivates some of the other human beings with whom you share the world, and with whom you share most or all of the characteristics that shape and drive your own spiritual journey.
9. Sounds like a good idea to me – and hopefully a recipe for a happy new year for us all.
1. I once heard that the more effort a person takes to conceal his or her greatness in this world, the wider the Gates of Heaven are thrown open for them b’yom haDin.
2. The Gates of Heaven are opened wide tonight.
3. The Dayan spent more effort than most people spend in pushing themselves forward in keeping himself back. He shrank from honour, from controversy, from ambition, from everything that is Moitzi es Ho’Odom Min Ho’Olom. For his part, he could have gone unrecognised and unknown and been perfectly happy; which is why he was known and sought after from every corner of the world, why his telephone never stopped ringing, and why he will be irreplaceable.
4. From the Dayan one could learn ahavas habrios. He loved every human being. He loved the weak, the broken, the silly and the ineffectual; and he even loved those who didn’t think they were any of those things. He had time for us all. His ‘phone number was on Directory Enquiries for all to see: and he answered his own ‘phone – you didn’t have to pluck up courage to get through a wall of secretaries or to explain your business; if you needed an ear and an answer, you got both.
5. From the Dayan one could learn sholom. He was always interested in people – but he was never interested in taking sides, or leading or supporting battles for anything. His infectious smile and laughter dissolved discord and united people in ahavas haTorah.
6. From the Dayan one could learn emes. He was afraid of nothing and nobody. If something was nonsense you were told it was nonsense. If something was wrong, no amount of discussion would make it right; and if it was right, no amount of pressure would make it wrong.
7. Boruch Dayan HoEmes.
1. As the date for this year’s Limmud Conference draws nearer, the Jewish community is able to put aside the distracting trivialities of past months – minor irritations like discovering that the rabbinate is completely unable to provide an effective system for investigating allegations of sexual abuse by rabbis – and concentrate on the all-important task of infighting.
2. The Limmud controversy is enlivened this year by two novelties. First, the new Chief Rabbi Mirvis has publicly announced his intention of attending. Secondly, in response, letters have been published by orthodox rabbis denouncing the event.
3. The fact that Chief Rabbi Mirvis has decided to go is hardly startling. Since he opened his term of office by declaring his wish to act for all kinds of Judaism – progressive as well as orthodox – he would have lost every shred of credibility that declaration carried had he refused to attend the main pluralist and inclusive event in the communal calendar. Nor does it require particular courage: it will make no difference to the chareidi community’s attitude to his chief rabbinate – when it suits them they will use him and when it doesn’t they won’t. (It probably won’t make any real difference to the progressive communities’ attitudes to him either; they will pocket the gesture and demand more, pushing him beyond wherever he draws his boundaries in order to assert their need for separate recognition by the secular authorities.)
4. The letters of condemnation are pretty futile too. With one exception, those that I have seen are very much in the “preaching to the converted style”, and do not even pretend to argue in a way that will convince anyone who needs convincing. The one exception is a modern orthodox Rabbi who has written a brilliant description of his personal attitudes to the event.
5. The battle – trivial, parochial and communally-self-absorbed as it is – has of course been lost years ago. Outside Chareidi circles, it has long been regarded as intolerant and bigoted to object to Limmud.
6. So perhaps this is a reasonable time to remember that Judaism has always been, theologically speaking, intolerant and bigoted. In human terms, Jews have always been – if they follow their religion – generous, humble and unlimitedly tolerant in their dealings with Jews and non-Jews alike. In theological terms, there is no room in orthodox Judaism for compromise, or for acceptance that any other religion or version of religion has any truth that is not also found in orthodox Judaism itself.
7. It is this theological intolerance that would lead many orthodox Jews to feel uncomfortable at an event that has pluralism and the acceptance of pluralism at its heart. They like their educational events to take place in an atmosphere of respect for orthodoxy as the only authentic version of Judaism. The presence of progressive educators being presented as equally valid sources of education and inspiration as orthodox rabbis would be enough to make many orthodox Jews feel profoundly uncomfortable.
8. All very bigoted and intolerant: but I wonder if the spirit of tolerance and generosity that prevails at Limmud (or so I am told) can find room to feel tolerant and generous spirited towards those of us who stay away because we genuinely believe that our religion requires us to be bigoted and intolerant? (Or is it, perhaps, infected with an intolerance and inverted bigotry of its very own?)