My leaving sermon from the LJS last Shabbat:
The girls have a story book, Tryannosaurus Drip by Julia Donaldson. It’s a sort of mix between an ugly duckling, weak character becomes hero fable. In the story, our eponymous character has a revelation through the classic plot device of seeing one’s reflection in a pool of water. And it occurred to me as studying this week’s parasha. Reflections in pools of water, in the absence of mirrors, is a centuries, or millennia long feature of a story. The most famous story perhaps is the story of Narcissus, which those of you classically trained will be more familiar with than me.
The myth as presented by Ovid is the most familiar, though there are earlier versions too. According to Ovid version of the myth, Narcissus’ parents were worried because of the extraordinary beauty of their child. As a young man, spurning the advances of Echo (whose voice becomes just an echo), Narcissus sees himself in a pond and he is amazed by the beauty of his own reflection. Once he figured out that his love could not be addressed, he dies.
Grasping at his own beauty in the pool, the unobtainable reflection (a visual echo) is a poetic undoing of the auditory echo of the spurned potential lover.
The obsession with aesthetics is itself not wholly surprising for the Greco-Roman world. Over the course of my sabbatical, I read a lot about how the aesthetic of the body in form and in speech was ‘read’ as offering a window into the personality of an individual. The pursuit of beauty, of aesthetic perfection is something which has had an influence ever after the Greeks developed their notions of beauty. And it only takes a little time reading about preening and plucking of body hair that one comes to appreciate that the 21st century is, in some ways, a caricature of everything that has gone before. It was only Tuesday that I walked passed women queueing to be, what I can only describe as eyebrow tortured, by thread held between mouth and hand of their torturer. And that was voluntary. By the way, synagogues are not free from their own aesthetic hang ups – but that’s for another time!
In my studies, I realised what great trepidation comes to be associated with the idea of beauty, amongst the biblical characters, in the mind of the rabbis. The bible is naturally aware of beauty – that it can be used by its possessor or cause the beautiful to be viciously victimised, but in a typical rabbinic manoeuvre, the attribute of beauty becomes even more dangerous and deadly. And beautification – adorning oneself out of an aesthetic is regarded as a non-Jewish habit, often accompanying the imagined link between sexual treachery and divine disloyalty. Fealty to God is accompanied by fealty to appropriate deportment and relationships.
So it is in this context that I became fascinated by King David’s beauty (and that of his doomed son, Absalom), though what led me to David was something else. David is described in I Samuel 16:12 as:
עִם־יְפֵ֥ה עֵינַ֖יִם וְט֣וֹב רֹ֑אִי
“With beautiful eyes and handsome appearance”.
Whilst Absalom is (2 Samuel 14:25-26):
וּכְאַבְשָׁל֗וֹם לֹא־הָיָ֧ה אִישׁ־יָפֶ֛ה בְּכָל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְהַלֵּ֣ל מְאֹ֑ד מִכַּ֤ף רַגְלוֹ֙ וְעַ֣ד קָדְקֳד֔וֹ לֹא־הָ֥יָה ב֖וֹ מֽוּם:
וּֽבְגַלְּחוֹ֘ אֶת־רֹאשׁוֹ֒ וְֽהָיָה מִקֵּץ֙ יָמִ֤ים׀ לַיָּמִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יְגַלֵּ֔חַ כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד עָלָ֖יו וְגִלְּח֑וֹ וְשָׁקַל֙ אֶת־שְׂעַ֣ר רֹאשׁ֔וֹ מָאתַ֥יִם שְׁקָלִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥בֶן הַמֶּֽלֶךְ:
In all Israel there was none like Absalom praised so much for his beauty, from the soles of his foot to the top of his head there was no blemish. And when he shaved his head, it was the end of the year that he would cut it because it was too heavy for him. He would weigh the hair of his head and it would be 200 shekels according to the royal standard.
This description of David and Absalom finds itself reappearing in the text that caught my attention, not in direct reference to the King and his household, but rather drawing on these motifs of beautiful eyes and long flowing hair. Unsurprisingly, the rabbinic world is highly cautious of what might come of someone with beautiful eyes and long flowing locks. What might they make of an aesthetically beautiful person, who is as if the descendent of the ancestor of the messiah.
It’s now we return to our story of Narcissus. Because the characterisation of late-anitiquity is often seen through a prism of Hellenism vs Judaism or Athens vs Jerusalem. Whether a view of reason vs revelation or philosophy and religion, or Greek culture (and its aesthetics and emphasis on the visual medium) vs Biblical culture and its emphasis on the auditory medium. This is a false dichotomy, it’s not that there aren’t cultural differences but that this view of cultures in opposition and decisively different is simplistic and rather specious. What we’re going to hear in the text that follows is the impact of likely interchange and intercultural encounter in the mind of the rabbis.
In one of the older midrashic collections, Sifre Numbers, we hear the following story of Shimon HaTzaddik (the righteous):
Simeon the Righteous said: Only once in (all) my days have I eaten a nazirite penalty offering. When one came from the south, with beautiful eyes and of handsome appearance, and with his locks arranged in curls. I said to him: why did you see fit to destroy this beautiful hair? He said to me: I was shepherding in my town and went to draw (water) from a well. When I gazed upon my reflection (in the well) my heart rose upon me seeking to remove me from the world. I said to it (my lustful heart): Wretch! How you pride yourself in what is not yours, in what is of dust, worm and maggot! Behold I will shave it off for the sake of heaven! I lowered his head and kissed him on his head (and) I said to him: May there be many like you carrying out the will of God in Israel and in you is fulfilled (the verse): “If anyone, man or woman, (explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord)” (Numbers 6, 2).
On this story, having drawn on some key obvious narrative differences between Ovid’s Narcissus and Simeon the Righteous’ Nazirite, Amram Tropper writes:
The shepherd’s story revolves around a onetime event wherein the shepherd was so overcome by desire that his passions came to threaten his very existence. In communion with his reflection, the shepherd not only rejected all potential lovers, but he repulsed anyone and everyone, God included. The shepherd’s trance is a caricature of desire and his obsessive self-centered behavior excluded even God. While Narcissus’s hubris is expressed in the social sphere of human interaction, the shepherd’s has an added spiritual dimension as well. Naziriteship, however, successfully extricates the shepherd from his trance by replacing his all consuming selfishness with uncompromising selflessness. Thus while the tragic myth of Narcissus cautions us to be mindful of fate’s inexorable retribution, the rabbis’ optimistic story illustrates the ongoing possibility of repentance and redemption.
However, just as the narcissism is viewed negatively, so too is excessive asceticism. The abstemiousness of the Nazirite becomes something that Simeon the Righteous approaches tentatively. His kiss only comes with a deeper understanding that the trance of the aesthetic of beauty has been overcome by the ritualization in the Torah. So now we’re faced with a middle ground that is not completely middle. In a sense, captivating beauty is dangerous, but forgoing pleasure and becoming the closest thing we get to a monk in Judaism is also regarded as of doubtful value. We exist in these worlds, this is our world – in fact it is startling what reading and exploring these cultural turns can highlight for conversation. I’ve already discussed the nature of aesthetics in the modern world – of physical beauty. But the popularist abstinences and neo-pietistic rejection of the all the trappings of image, materialism and pleasure are also very much part of our 21st century caricature. Is Torah and ritual really the antidote. Maybe not completely. But I do hope that perhaps our conversation about these subjects as Jews, with our sources might frame the discussions for ourselves – for personal self-improvement. I’m not talking about paleolithic, fasting diets or outright gluttony. But what happens when we encounter our culture from within the literary and oral milieu that has defined Judaism for generations.
I’ll be honest – that’s the conversation that I’m petrified that we might be at risk of losing. The thickness of our religio-cultural world is becoming thinner. We no longer have sufficient collective memory and we have too little in the way of textual proficiency. Liberal Judaism (well progressive Judaism actually) is in danger of being so thin as to be practically translucent. It’s not enough for our children to be able to say ‘ethics over ritual’ or ‘individual autonomy’ if there’s practically nothing behind the platitudes. I hope my new role at West London Synagogue will enable me to deepen and thicken our conversations as adults across the non-Orthodox world on issue of ritual, culture, identity, learning, and so on.
But now let me turn to the LJS. We are the flagship of Liberal Judaism. The oldest Liberal synagogue with 100 years of authenticity and history and a brilliant future ahead. A community of warmth and of caring where a commitment to what is right and good is always at the heart, even the council deliberations about money. Michelle and I, and our children, have felt, as I have said on a number of occasions, as if taken into the hearts of the congregation. I have never felt like I serve the synagogue, but that we’re on a journey together – sometimes the rabbis have something interesting to say or a path to tread and guide, but more often than not, we figure it out together. In Rabbi Wright’s hands and with the new recruitment of Rabbis Benjamin and Pfertzel I’m sure the journey will only continue to be richer and more interesting.
So, I would like to finish with a word of thanks to Senior Rabbi Wright, the former Presidents, Chair and council with whom I have had the privilege of working who steer this great community, in particular Willie Kessler who participated in our service this morning, Bob and Ann Kirk (the most generous and kind people who couldn’t be here today), Michael Hart and all the council members and honorary officers. The countless lay leaders and volunteers. All the LJS staff with whom I have worked who are incredible and the senior professional team too. Tim and the wonderful choir who have endured my sermons and who I am sure have prayed hardest in services that I’ll announce the right page (not that you’d be phased if I didn’t). Rabbi Dr David Goldberg, who has always been a great source of thoughtful challenge. And actually, I’d also like to acknowledged Rabbi Danny Rich and all at Liberal Judaism who provide the Synagogue with the resources and central support that enable rabbis to carry out duties. And finally all the members who have let me into their lives and given me the honour of serving as their Rabbi.
I asked our daughters what they would say this morning and I guess they’ll make the better public speaker, summing it up in two sentences – ‘thank you for the work, I’ll miss you’.
Shabbat Shalom and as we say in Hebrew ‘Lehitraot’ – see you soon, I hope. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen
(ps – thanks to two brilliant classically trained congregants for pointing out the ‘Naso’ pun that I make in the title of this post).