Last Shabbat, we read Ki Tissa (including the golden calf story) and we celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of Lotte – here is my sermon:
Lotte, your davar Torah was a tough criticism of Moses and Aaron. According to you, Aaron is a crowd pleaser who leads without example and Moses is too quick to be angry. You definitely don’t pull any punches in describing Moses and Aaron and their failings; the way they and the Israelites are not exactly covered in glory as they build the golden calf. It may have been one of the first times in Jewish history that the leaders of our communities did not exactly give the impression that they were good at their task. But let’s not give our rabbis and lay leaders too much of a hard time…yet.
There is a section in the Babylonian Talmud, in a part known as Ketubot (Marriage Contracts) which discusses the responsibilities of men in various jobs to their wife and family. Sages, we are told, have their own responsibilities, with an expectation that they should not go off and study and become so consumed by their scholarly life that they forget duties at home. Unlike the Catholic church, rabbis have never been expected to live celibate lives.
There is, in this section, a series of stories that reflect rather poorly on rabbis (which my friend and teacher Dr Moshe Lavee first taught me at the Leo Baeck College): they forget their homes, or what their children look like, some travel away for up to 12 years. The series begins with Rav Rechumi:
“R. Rehumi who was frequenting [the school] of Raba at Mahuza (situated on the Tigris) used to return home on the Eve of every Day of Atonement. On one occasion he was so attracted by his subject [that he forgot to return home]. His wife was expecting [him every moment, saying.] ‘He is coming soon, he is coming soon’. As he did not arrive she became so depressed that tears began to flow from her eyes. He was [at that moment] sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him and he was killed.”
I’m not going to give you an extended commentary on this story, but note that the one day a year Rav Rehumi returns home is Yom Kippur – a day not noted for its personal intimacy. He becomes consumed in his studies to the neglect of his wife. On only one day he comes back each year and he forgets and it’s not exactly an inauspicious day – it’s possibly the most important ‘date’ in the calendar – pun intended.
We must not, lest you think I’m some kind of believer the non-natural occurring, read this story as a ‘true’ event, but rather a figurative warning to all: One tear, a single drop from the eye of one’s beloved brings downfall and destruction. Yes, leaders beware, if you become all consumed in your high and mighty duties, you might become unmoved by the human story, even of your own family.
Lotte, I thought of this story because it’s been in the news recently and because of your Torah portion. The links to your Torah portion because there are some direct comparisons we could make – a man travels up a mountain to receive Torah or on to the roof ecstatically studying Torah and tarries there for longer than is acceptable to those he leaves behind. The outcome is a shattering of worlds – the children of Israel build the Golden Calf and the forgotten wife’s tear brings the world crashing down. There is a critique of both those up high and those down below – if you’re gone for a long time, don’t give the impression you have deserted your duties; if you’re waiting below remember that your actions could have far reaching and long term effects.
But I said that there had been a news story that reminded me of this story.
It was about three weeks ago that Dr Ruth Calderon, a new member of the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) for Yesh Atid, delivered her maiden speech. Yesh Atid was a new party for this election and did incredibly well. Calderon has a PhD in Talmud from Hebrew University and is someone who has a wonderfully nuanced insight into the discourse within our sacred texts. As someone pursuing a PhD in a similar subject it was a particularly moving speech. The speech is powerful because of the palpable tension (you have to watch it on youtube), but also its substance.
Calderon began her speech by producing a volume of the Talmud, Tractate Ketubot. The one I mentioned earlier. Calderon delivered a remarkable speech teaching a text, Lotte the story that I just told to you, that moved the other Knesset members from her personal life, her connection to Zionism, academic life, religion and politics. One thing she said might seem unsurprising, to paraphrase: within political leadership it is vital to recognise that in this world sometimes both sides are right and, crucially, a sense of isolated responsibility can lead to disaster. In other words, if we both have a sense of responsibility for the same thing we should be extremely careful to avoid any wilful ignorance that we are alone – that is the way of destruction.
She described what she learns from this story:
“I learn that righteousness is not adherence to the Torah at the expense of sensitivity to human beings. I learn that often, in a dispute, both sides are right, and until I understand that, both my disputant and I, both the woman and Rabbi Rechumei, feel that they are doing the right thing and are responsible for the home…Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding.”
Calderon has a particular take on the story that, I think, was intended to create a dialogue in the Knesset and in Israel and it is that interpretation and expansion of its meaning that I think will speak strongly to members interested in thinking and talking about Israel. My experience of the conversation with members in many Liberal synagogues (not just at the LJS) about Israel is one that is deeply concerned for the present difficulties and the Jewish and democratic character of the state. At the same time, I talk with people who are eager to consider a better future for all Israel’s inhabitants and at peace with its neighbours – two states for Israelis and Palestinians in secure and negotiated borders is hardly radical. Frequently the anxiety I hear is that this vision feels, at times, desperately distant. It’s not that everyone in our community has to have the same opinion; just that if you share and uphold our Liberal Jewish values you are welcome to take part with us, listen and contribute.
Actually, I still have a strong memory in the last Liberal synagogue where I worked of being accused (by a visitor) of the sin that I was an enemy of the Jewish people. What horrendous thing had I done? In line with the value of open and considered engagement that I hold to be central to Liberal Judaism, I had hosted a conversation with a former high profile member of the Knesset whose views did not fit with those of my accuser. I was reliably informed that I was giving succour to antisemites – on the threshold of the synagogue where I then worked.
So Lotte, we return to leadership. If my information is correct, the person accusing me was, at the time, a prominent member of the Zionist Federation. He wasn’t a member of the synagogue, he was a leader visiting another community and he attacked me – his head was far up the mountain oblivious to me. That’s the same Zionist Federation in the news this week for excluding an organisation from joining its membership called Yachad. Yachad, a relative newcomer to the UK scene, is an advocate for Israel and for peace – frequently offering an outlet for Jews who want to be critical of the State of Israel and constructive too. It is, avowedly Zionist. So why its exclusion from the Zionist Federation, the ‘umbrella organisation for the Zionist movement in the UK’? It is unclear and they are protesting.
Yachad should probably be thanking the Zionist Federation (ZF) for its vote to reject them. They’ve received some important publicity in light of the vote and their supporters will not be swayed in their commitment to Zionism or Yachad. But then again, and here’s why this makes me think of your Torah portion this morning Lotte, the vote just goes to show the best of UK Jewish leadership–full of backbiting and recriminations: a superbly alienating world for our meagre community. Lotte you probably have many friends and family in our congregation who aren’t even Jewish and are wondering ‘why is this important’? Well it’s an example of, I think, the danger that Dr Ruth Calderon warns against in her speech. A speech to fellow leaders. A speech to civil leaders not religious leaders.
It goes to show that all leadership is perpetually in jeopardy of falling into the trap that Calderon describes: “…often in a dispute, both sides are right, and until I understand that, both my disputant and I, both the woman and Rabbi Rechumi, feel that they are doing the right thing and are responsible for the home.”
Jewish communal leadership is a marvellous thing is it not?! That’s why Calderon’s words of dialogue were important in defining an inclusive way to talk about how to build the future. It’s that or the idiotic and childish accusation that I’m an enemy of the Jewish people. The question for leaders today is surely where you situate yourself in these paradigms: inclusive dialogue – awareness of a shared sense of responsibility, or exclusion and rejection.
NB – Some of the materials used in this sermon were also used in my piece in the Jewish News on 7th March 2013.