Last weekend was the magnificent occasion of the ordination of seven new rabbis here at West London Synagogue. It marks the beginning of my 12th year in the rabbinate. When I joined the college there were three students in the year above me. Rabbi Neil Amswych (now serving in the USA), Rabbi Misha Kapustin (now serving in Slovakia having fled the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014) and Andreas Hinz. As many of you surely know, the reason I am not able to tell you where Andreas works is because he was murdered 15 years ago this week, just at the end of his second year of studies. Therefore, this sermon I am giving is in his memory, for the memory of the righteous is surely a blessing.
Our synagogue is openly and proudly supporting the Pride march today, when Rabbi David Mitchell will lead a group there after a special Pride service. Andreas was openly gay. In recent weeks, other parts of the Jewish community in the UK have become embroiled in a divisive argument over the discourse of a colleague with regards to gay relationships. Here, celebrating Pride, we show how much we hope we have moved on. Andreas, an openly gay scholar, was one of the most promising rabbinic students ever to grace the corridors of the Leo Baeck College. His murder stole from us his scholarship.
The first time I taught in memory of Andreas around his yarzheit it was also Parashat Balak, some 13 years ago. I’m going to introduce you to a couple of key ideas, which Rabbi Helen hinted towards in her thought for the week.
Let this sermon be a celebration of our interpretative community – our Reform approach to Torah, to living, to seeing the way our tradition can inform our actions to make the world better. We’ll leave the LGBTQi hate crime for the moment and the vicious attacks on rabbis in the Orthodox world. Let’s enter the world of Balaam:
How goodly are your tents Jacob, and your dwelling places Israel.
These words, uttered by Jews for centuries as they have entered into synagogues, first poetically inserted into the mouth of a non-Israelite prophet who just cannot escape his fate to bless and not to curse.
Now I want to take these words and elaborate on their interpretation in the Talmud to draw your attention to the ideas of privacy, by which I of course mean that I think we should all seek to live in a world where religion decreases its self-appointed right to comment on the sexual behaviour of two consenting adults. Secondly, I am going to argue that these words and their interpretation in the Talmud and by Rashbam the grandson of Rashi the French medieval exegete, remind us that the Jewish people in the State of Israel, may be read as akin to a shared courtyard and the Charedi world must therefore be compelled to not only allow space to denominations of which they are not a part, but must be compelled to pay for the support of those denominations.
But to my first point about privacy, which is really the beginning of our journey.
In the Talmud, Bava Batra 60s we read from the Mishnah that:
“A person may not open an entrance opposite another entrance or a window opposite another window toward a courtyard belonging to partners…”
לא יפתח אדם לחצר השותפין פתח כנגד פתח וחלון כנגד חלון
The text continues and then the Gemara asks:
מנהני מילי א”ר יוחנן דאמר קרא (במדבר כד, ב) וישא בלעם את עיניו וירא את ישראל שוכן לשבטיו מה ראה ראה שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונין זה לזה אמר ראוין הללו שתשרה עליהם שכינה
“From where are these matters, [i.e., that one may not open an entrance opposite another entrance, or a window opposite another window,] derived? Rabbi Yoḥanan says that the verse states: “And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe; and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). [The Gemara explains:] What was it that Balaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, [ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy]. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.” (bBava Batra 60a – Translation from the William Davidson Talmud available at www.sefaria.org)
That is to say, when we do not position ourselves to see into the privacy of our fellow’s home we enable the Divine presence to rest on us. This right to privacy is one of the clearest articulations of what we might call a ‘human right’ in early Jewish thought. We often think of Judaism as a religion of law and obligation, with the rights implied – thou shalt not murder implies a right to life, for example. However, here the Talmud is explicit in telling us that the right of not invading the privacy of our neighbour leads to certain requirements in buildings.
תנן החלונות בין מלמעלן בין מלמטן בין מכנגדן ארבע אמות ותני עלה מלמעלן כדי שלא יציץ ויראה מלמטן שלא יעמוד ויראה
We learned in the mishna: And one who desires to build a wall opposite the windows of a neighbor’s house must distance the wall four cubits from the windows, whether above, below, or opposite. And it is taught in a baraita with regard to this ruling: Concerning the requirement of a distance above, the wall must be high enough so that one cannot peer into the window; concerning the requirement of a distance below, the wall must be low so that he will not be able to stand on top of it and see into the window…(bBava Batra 22b)
In fact the right to privacy, discussed earlier, leads to the Talmud describing a situation in which one can compel one’s neighbour in a shared courtyard to contribute to the cost of building a wall for privacy because of potential damages in overlooking one’s neighbour.
But let’s look back at the original discussion of Balaam’s words in this case. The reason for the praise of Israel’s encampment was because no-one could see into the home of anyone else. Assuming the home was a small tent then I think we can assume that this particularly applied to the rights of a couple to be together in privacy. The modesty we’re talking about here was not the enforcement of certain dress codes but rather the duty for individuals to avoid their own eyes prying on others.
If this is the case then I venture to suggest that we have reached a time in our community when we can interpret this idea most expansively to say that it is incumbent on each and every one of us to mind our business when it comes to judging what consenting adults are doing in the privacy of their home. Providing it is not illegal nor endangering of lives, we have a religious duty to avoid peering into the bedroom and using sexuality for our own ends. Politicians, by the way, would do well to do the same. Personal relationships are the last bastion of power in religious communities, it is the area in which we can apply the greatest force of condemnatory rhetoric and we should therefore be exceptionally careful to avoid this. Rather we should celebrate loving relationships, stable homes and caring families. And that is what we should be encouraging to be the position of our co-religionists and those in all religions.
But I said I wanted to extend this interpretation into the compulsion of the Charedi world into not just passive acceptance but supporting non-Orthodox Judaism.
On the discussion of the Gemara (Bava Batra 60a) I mention above, Rashbam writes:
גמ’ וירא את ישראל שוכן – ראה היאך שוכנים ולפיכך אמר מה טובו אהליך וגו’ שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונים ומחנה ישראל כחצר השותפין דמי
“He saw Israel dwelling – Balaam saw how they dwelt, therefore he exclaimed ‘Mah tovu’ for no-one’s tent door faced the other. And the encampment of Israel is like a shared courtyard”
Listen to the claim here again, which makes sense since a lot of Bava Batra deals with that most tricky of questions that is how much I can make use of my property freely without impinging on my fellow and how we live in shared spaces together.
Rashbam suggests that the entirety of the encampment of the people of Israel in the wildnerness should be considered a shared courtyard.
Now I want us to stretch our interpretation here yet further and draw an analogy. It is not one of law but of narrative. If the camp of Israel is a shared courtyard then how much more so must the Jewish presence in the State of Israel be considered similarly. If the State of Israel is a shared courtyard, then certain principles apply. For example (e.g. bBava Batra 7b, 8a etc), all in that courtyard can be compelled to provide certain things, for example the walls, a porters lodge, and, by extrapolation to citizens of a town, the soup kitchen, the charity fund, the clothing fund, the burial fund, the maintenance fund and so on.
If you see the State of Israel as the Jewish people’s collective enterprise then the Charedi world, who let’s face it have received plenty of support from the State vis a vis support for the places of learning and avoiding army service, must be compelled to provide a public space for all Jews to pray in their own legitimate way. This is the implicit obligation in shutafut – in partnership. You can be forced to support that which protects me from something which would otherwise be injurious to me, or us. But not just injury, the basic functions of civil society can be compelled.
I’m not talking here about dense legal rhetoric. This is the principle of shared living. You want to be part of this society, the Israeli government should be saying, then you need to not just begrudgingly let happen but must demand that there is support for places for equal prayer at the State’s most holy places like the Kotel, support for rabbis of different hues in cities and towns, grants to places of study and synagogues, equal recognition of different Jewish practices with regards to marriage, divorce, burial and, yes, conversion. Netanyahu’s cowardly clinging on for power to maintain his government is driven solely by power but no vision, driven by self-aggrandisement but not bravery, driven by acquiescence to spurious ideas of Jewish authenticity but no celebration of 21st century philosophy.
So Balaam’s blessing tells us to ensure religions the world over (and including ours) honour the privacy of intimate relationships. And it also compels Jews in the State of Israel to live in partnership even with those whom they do not consider to be from within their strand of Judaism. And I urge you to write to His Exellency Mark Regev to tell him that is what you think with regards to the arrangements at the Kotel and the threatening conversion bill.
For as Micah tells us, in the Haftarah for our portion this morning echoing the words of Balaam with the phrase ‘Mah Tov’:
הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ
“God has told you, humankind, what is good and what the Eternal One your God asks of you: only do justice, love mercy and walk humbly/modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
Then we may live in a world where we can say:
Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov, mishkenotecha yisrael – How good are your tents Jacob and your homes Israel
Mah tovu ohalecha kol b’nei adam, mishkenotecha kol ha’olam – How good are your tents all of humankind and your homes all the world.
May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.