Gaza and Shavuot: Accepting Torah in its Totality (Sermon at Hampstead Shul, First Day Shavuot 5778)

On the minds of many of us today will be the events of last week in Israel. It is always tempting for a rabbi to shy away from difficult and controversial issues but my community is entitled to hear my religious perspective on this difficult subject, for what is worth, so I will not shy away from it. It is relevant to reflect on these matters not just because they are topical but because we accept Torah on Shavuot and should consider its fundamental values and scope.

 Last Monday was described by Prime Minster Netanyahu (in fairness, perhaps before he was fully aware of the events taking place on the Gaza Border) as “a glorious day” because of the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. I also heard some in the religious community, including people whom I greatly respect, refer to last week as “a good week for the Jewish people”. I don’t agree with either assessment.

This is not because I believe that Israel acted wrongly. As the week went on, it became increasingly clear how little choice Israel had in the way it defended our Gaza border. It is frustrating that, as is often the case, Israel’s hasbara or “public relations” was not more effective and that Hamas was initially allowed to paint a picture of a supposed massacre of unarmed protesters, but the truth came out subsequently from Hamas itself that the great majority of those killed were its own terrorist members or Islamic Jihad members intent on breaking through the border and killing Israelis. Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded British Forces in Afghanistan, visited the Gaza Border and did the job that perhaps Israel itself should have done earlier in explaining clearly why the IDF’s strategy was necessary and justified.

But last week was still a bad week for the Jewish people for obvious reasons. First, deaths on the Palestinian side of the conflict that are brought about even through legitimate self-defence deepen hatred and enmity and move the goal of peace which we desperately need to attain for our own people further away.

Second, while like many of us I do not care what anti-Semites or anti-Zionists think, it does matter what decent non-Jews think of Israel, and there are very many of them in the UK and around the world. Rav Yehuda Amital zt’l never tired of reminding us that the centrality of the concepts of Kiddush HaShem and Chilul HaShem in our faith means that we must strive for the Jewish people and the Jewish State to be seen by decent non-Jewish people as exemplars of morality. So if Israel acts in legitimate self-defence but is made to look as if it isn’t, that is a bad week.

Thirdly and most importantly: when Jews have to kill even enemies and even in self-defence, that is a bad week, not a glorious or a good one. Had Lord Jakobovits zt’l been alive, he would doubtless have reminded us, as he often did in his lifetime, that we derive the notes of the Rosh HaShanah Shofar itself from the sobbing of the mother of our sworn biblical enemy Sisera over the loss of her son. That is the level of ethical sensitivity that is demanded of us as Jews. In an earlier biblical episode, when Esau is approaching Jacob with his army of four hundred men, the Torah tells us vayira Yaakov me’od vayeitzer lo, Jacob was very afraid and distressed. Why both “afraid” and “distressed”?  Rashi, citing the Midrash, famously answers: vayira shema yeihareg, vayeitzer lo im yaharog hu et acheirim – Jacob was afraid for his own physical safety, lest he be killed, and also distressed lest he come to kill others.  Yet the term vayeitzer lo, “he was distressed”, is stronger than “vayira” – “he was afraid”. The great medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag) suggests that Yaakov was more concerned that he might have to kill others than that he may be killed himself – in what would have been a battle of legitimate self-defence.  Because the sanctity of all human life is a supreme value of the Torah.

There is a wider point here that is very relevant to Shavuot, zeman matan torateinu, the season of our acceptance of the Torah. We face many dangers in the Jewish world. One of them is the deeply disturbing bifurcation between a religious “right” focused on the details of ritual observance and a religious “left” interested in ethics. But it should go without saying that ethics is central to the Torah. Concern for the sanctity of human life should not always have to be expressed only by organisations such as Liberal Judaism and Yachad. That is a perverse situation. The more Orthodox a synagogue grouping, the more it should express broad ethical concerns, not the less.

It is a disaster for the Torah if we restrict it to ritual observance without ethics. It is also a disaster to restrict the Torah to a generalised ethics without the distinctive ritual observances that give Jewish life its unique texture and which are central to Jewish survival. So on Shavuot, let us aim to accept the Torah in its glorious totality.  We can and must have it all. Let us embrace Torah’s whole range: ritual and ethics, punctilious Shabbat observance and compassion, strict kashrut observance and honesty in business and interpersonal dealings, love for the State of Israel and deep concern for all human life.

 

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Trump and Jerusalem

President Trump’s announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital warrants a balanced response rather than the euphoria with which it has been greeted in some parts of the Jewish world. At one level the announcement is welcome:  Jerusalem is and has always been the capital of both Israel and the Jewish world, and it is regrettable that most of the international community fails to recognise that fact. It would be appropriate, too, if the world acknowledged that religious freedom for Muslims, Christians and Jews alike in Jerusalem since 1967, under Israeli control, has thrown into sharp relief the shameful situation under Jordan between 1948 and 1967 when Jews were not permitted to access the Western Wall and synagogues such as the historic Hurva, blown up by the Jordanians in 1948, were left in ruins.

But an announcement by Donald Trump is an announcement by Donald Trump. It is extraordinarily foolish to think that a man who, for example,  equivocated about racist violence in Charlottesville and only days ago re-tweeted extremist right-wing material is a reliable friend of the Jewish people.

The main story of religious significance in Israel last week was the report from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics that in 2016, 1.8 million Israelis were living below the poverty line – 22% of the population, the highest proportion in the developed world. The right time for euphoria  will be when all of Israel’s citizens enjoy economic stability along with real peace and security.

The OU Statement on Women’s Communal Roles

For what they are worth and with all due respect to the distinguished authors, I have two observations  regarding the internal logic of the OU’s recent rabbinic statement on women’s communal roles and women clergy which I have not seen addressed in the many responses I have read:

  1. Page 6 of the statement states that “there are frequently societal trends which run counter to the ethos of the Torah”. Quite clearly, the authors are referring, inter alia, to feminism. Yet pages 13-16 of the statement largely encourage the expansion of non-clergy roles for women in Orthodox communal life. But the reason that such expansion is (blessedly) so prominent on the communal agenda and indeed in the concrete reality of the Modern Orthodox world is in large part attributable to feminism. The feminist impulse which at least in part motivates the expansion of women’s roles in the Modern Orthodox world is rooted in a commitment to human dignity, equality and justice, values perceived by most Modern Orthodox Jews as anything but counter to the ethos of the Torah. The OU statement claims that “Communities depend, and have always depended,  upon women’s participation in a wide array of critical roles, both lay and professional, that are wholly consistent with Torah’s guidelines”. The “have always depended” here is surely inaccurate. Some of the roles encouraged by the OU statement – for example “teaching ongoing classes and shiurim” or “serving as a visiting scholar-in-residence” (p. 13) or “”serving as a synagogue staff member in the role of community educator or institutional scholar” (p.14) were hardly widespread even as recently in Jewish history as nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. These wonderfully positive phenomena in Modern Orthodox life have developed and quickly accelerated at least in large part because of feminism and because of the increasingly equal treatment of women in Western society as a whole.  I wonder if even ten years ago the distinguished authors of the OU statement would have referred to these expressions of the expansion of women’s communal role in such positive terms. To oppose such phenomena as women community educators now would place rabbis at total loggerheads with the vast majority of the Modern Orthodox community, something of which the authors of the statement are well aware. But if feminism “run[s] counter to the ethos of the Torah” then these phenomena should be opposed.
  2. Note 12 on p. 5 of the statement quotes the famous statement of the Chafetz Chaim advocating women’s  Torah study. The text on p. 5 notes “the Rav’s expansion of this endorsement”. The Chafetz Chaim, Rav Soloveitchik and others initiated a revolution in women’s Torah study which continues apace to this day because of a deep recognition of altered social reality (this is explicit in the passage quoted in n. 12: the Chafetz Chaim contrasts “times past” with “today”). Instead of appealing to Rav Soloveitchik as an exponent of metaphysical essentialism to distinguish between men and women (p.11 of the statement), why not follow his lead, along with that of the Seridei Eish and other gedolim, in recognising that the most important factor in addressing the issue of women’s communal role in Orthodoxy is not the supposed evils of feminism, nor an untenable apologetics of “equal but different”,  but a real grasp of the social realities of equality that are one of the nobler features of our society.

 

FAITH WITHOUT FEAR: UNRESOLVED ISSUES IN MODERN ORTHODOXY

 

 The following article appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 15th October 2015.

My new book, Faith Without Fear, is about Modern Orthodoxy. The definition of this term is of course subject to debate, but I believe there would be broad consensus among thinking adherents of the ideology that it includes the following central features: an appreciation of the enormous religious significance of the State as well as the Land of Israel, a commitment to enhancing the role of women in religious and communal Jewish life, openness to secular studies including the humanities, and a determination to integrate our current scientific understanding of the world with traditional faith rather than reject that understanding (the theory of evolution being a key case in point).

Traditionally in Judaism there is a type of fear which is an integral part of faith. This is what is known as Yirat Shamayim, “fear of Heaven”, a keen sense of awe and reverence before God.

I have written Faith Without Fear because I feel that too often, Modern Orthodoxy is affected by a different and unhelpful kind of fear. To be sure, the intellectual world of Modern Orthodoxy boasts much excellent scholarship and lively debate. But we also need to have the courage to frontally address the huge challenges posed by modernity.

The issue to which the longest chapter of the book is devoted is a key example. Despite a very recent upsurge, far too little attention has been paid overall to the issue of Torah min Hashamayim, Torah from Heaven. Orthodoxy, including Modern Orthodoxy, has tended to shy away from this issue for at least two reasons. First, the theological stakes are very high. The idea of Torah as Divine Revelation is one of the most fundamental principles of traditional Judaism.  Secondly, attacks on the concept of Torah from Heaven are rooted in parts of the academic world and in disciplines and vocabulary foreign to the vast majority of Orthodox people and in particular to Orthodox rabbinic scholars and leaders. In the UK in particular, a third factor is the spectre of the “Jacobs Affair” of the 1960s which still haunts Anglo-Jewry. I argue in my book that avoiding the issue is intellectually dishonest and no longer even feasible in a world in which we can access the conclusions of academic biblical scholarship via a few clicks on Google. I argue in the book that our tradition contains resources which allow us to be both intellectually honest and to develop a view of Torah from Heaven which may be unconventional but is still Orthodox, and which, unlike the views of thinkers such as Rabbis Louis Jacobs and Zev Farber, does not involve accepting what is known as the Documentary Hypothesis.

Faith Without Fear deals with other issues too. There have not been enough Orthodox rabbinic voices putting forward the view that feminism is essentially positive. Although feminism is of course a complex and varied intellectual phenomenon, it includes as central components ideals which are key to a Modern Orthodox understanding of Judaism, such as the fundamental equality of men and women and the importance of human dignity and justice. The book argues that the prevalent kinds of apologetics around this issue are unsatisfactory. Instead, male and female halakhic scholars need to work to develop the Halakhah as it pertains to women in a way which is substantial but which is also gradual, responsible and faithful to the halakhic process, allowing the community to sense continuity rather than rupture with the Torah observance of past generations of our people. There have been extensive, positive developments in women’s roles and opportunities within Orthodoxy in recent decades, and there are many more to come.

The book also addresses topics which tend to be far less widely discussed but which are both intrinsically significant and also help to shed light on the fundamental nature and commitments of Modern Orthodoxy. These include Modern Orthodoxy’s complex relationship with Jewish mysticism, and the nature of its hopes for the messianic era. Chapters are also devoted to the status of Modern Orthodoxy and its key ideological competitor within the Orthodox world, namely Haredi Orthodoxy, as heirs of pre-modern Jewish tradition, and to the question of Modern Orthodoxy’s wider perspective on faiths outside Judaism and on the doctrine of chosenness.

Faith Without Fear advocates faith with courage. Intellectual openness is a sign of strength. Evading important issues or shutting down debate about them is a symptom of weakness. Modern Orthodoxy needs to become a morally and intellectually fearless interpretation of Jewish faith for contemporary Jews committed to classical Jewish tradition.

 

Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy is now available in paperback at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Faith-Without-Fear-Unresolved-Orthodoxy/dp/0853038996