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    Milk & honey – Vayikra

    March 26th, 2017

    The ancient Cheder began its Bible curriculum with the Book of Vayikra, but even before this, a child’s first Hebrew lessons commenced with the aleph-bet written on a slate in honey.

    The children licked off the honey and got a sweet taste of Torah learning.

    Not very hygienic, but highly significant.

    It based itself on a verse from Shir HaShirim 4:11, “Your lips, O my bride, drip honey: honey and milk are under your tongue”.

    The symbolic dimension of Shir HaShirim sees the book as the love story of the Jewish people and their Torah and their land (and their God). Both Israel and the Torah are compared to honey and milk.

    Israel is “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8 etc.). Torah is honey, a sweet, pleasant experience. Milk is the basic food for nutrition. Being a Jew is not merely a vague feeling of identity, but a daily joy and inspiration.

    The Talmud says, “The world exists on the merit of the little children who study Torah”, which suggests that every day in every way a Jew must be a little child again and enjoy every letter of every page of Jewish wisdom.


    Making sacrifices

    March 26th, 2017

    Many occasions were commemorated in Temple times by the bringing of sacrifices.

    Some were individual: others were communal. The sacrifices marked sad experiences like guilt and the commission of sins, or happy occasions such as times of joy and celebration.

    The Torah explains the what and how of sacrifices but has little to say about the theological question of why.

    Actually the question has two parts, sacrifice as an aspect of joy, and sacrifice as an aspect of guilt and sorrow.

    In time of joy, a person or nation says, “God, Your blessing gave me success: I acknowledge Your gift!”

    In time of guilt and sin, we are not saying, “God, You made me sin, You caused my wrongdoing. It’s Your fault I am in this predicament!” That would be to abdicate all personal responsibility for one’s deeds.

    Instead, the message may be, “God, You told me what to do and I failed to obey. I realise that You were right and I was wrong. My sacrifice is a symbol of my regret, a token of my yearning to return to Your favour!”’


    Were we really slaves?

    March 26th, 2017

    We all acclaim the redemption from Egypt, but did the slavery really happen?

    No, I haven’t become a revisionist. My question is, were we really slaves? People all think so. Did the Egyptians degrade us? Certainly. Did the taskmasters give us a hard time? Of course.

    But were we slaves? Not if you know the difference between real slavery and the bondage that our ancestors experienced in Egypt.

    A real slave is a nobody. He is a chattel owned by his master. He has no rights. He can’t dream, hope, pray for release. He has no options. He can’t make decisions. His life is a relentless grind.

    Is this the type of servant the Israelites were in Egypt? Not really. Pharaoh and his taskmasters were certainly harsh and demanding, but no-one could take away the bondmen’s dignity. The Hebrews maintained four things and never abandoned them – their language, morality, identity, and faith. Life was hard, but nothing could sap their belief in God.

    When God told Pharaoh, “Let My people go!”, Pharaoh retorted, “Who is God?” But the Israelites didn’t echo the king’s defiant retort. Pharaoh tried hard to break their spirits, but they still believed in themselves, and in God, and the women were said to be even greater believers than the men.

    Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik (Reflections of the Rav, 1979, chapter 19), distinguishes between juridic (physical) and typological (moral and intellectual) slavery.

    The first category suffers because of the political system: his status is at issue. In the second category, it’s his mind and will that are crushed: the question is his psychology.

    Once the dash across the sea has concluded, a paradoxical thing happens. The Israelites march towards Sinai, but what awaits them? Not unrestrained liberty, but a new life of servitude – accepting God’s word and becoming His servants, constantly subject to the service of God.

    Rav Soloveitchik explains the paradox: “In surrendering to God, man truly achieves freedom. He is no longer tormented by psychologically depressing anxieties. He is bolstered by his faith in the transcendental orderliness of things and in God’s ultimate compassion”.

    Cross the generations to the time of the Holocaust, and encounter Victor Frankl’s concept of logotherapy, which says that a person with a value system is more likely to survive than one who believes in nothing.

    Historic parallels are never exact, but they are often relevant. In the Sho’ah the persecution was unprecedented and horrific, but the enemy could not break our spirit. Part of the evidence is the low numbers of Jewish suicides during those terrible years.

    Logotherapy says: if you have something to live by, something to live for, you will probably live. Even if you don’t, your life will still have meaning. When you have something to live for, all the persecution in the world cannot engulf or enslave you.

    What is the right word for our ancestors in Egypt? Not helpless drones or “slaves” but “bondsmen”, people held physically in a tight grip with little freedom of movement, but still able to maintain their dignity, their dreams, their minds, their aspirations.

    They were bondsmen. They were not held in “the house of slavery” but in “the house of bondage”.


    Women soldiers & Jewish law

    March 23rd, 2017

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 23 March, 2017.

    In 1991, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, hosted the international conference of the World Council of Churches. I was present as an observer representing the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Though refused permission to address a plenary session, I was able to engage in networking behind the scenes.

    One lunchtime I was in the cafeteria when an Australian conference delegate asked, “May I share your table?” I said yes and, glancing at her name tag, said, “I think you owe me one. It’s thanks to me that you are an air force chaplain!”

    Her appointment had been under consideration by the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services, of which I was the Jewish member. The five Christians on the committee were at odds about the proposal, not that they had anything against her personally, but some had a rooted objection to women clergy. It was I who broke the deadlock by proposing that any denomination be entitled to nominate for a chaplaincy appointment any minister in good standing in that faith group. Thus the Royal Australian Air Force got its first woman chaplain.

    Though we had no Jewish woman chaplains, we did, from at least the 1940s, have Jewish women serving in the Australian Defence Force. I don’t think any woman had consulted a rabbi before enlisting. I doubt that any enlisted merely out of feminism. They simply wished to serve their country.

    Nonetheless there is a Jewish point of view about women in the military. The Torah (Deuteronomy 20) considers the question of whether a newly married man with a wife at home can be conscripted for military service. Women were not thought of as soldiers. The Talmud says bluntly, “It is the way of a man to make war, not the way of a woman” (Kiddushin 2b). The men went to war; the women stayed home, often becoming young widows.

    But this is not the whole story. Deborah (Judges 4) helped to destroy the enemy, like Yael (Judges 4-5) and Judith (in the Apocrypha). These women operated with wit, wile and tenacity. The Mishnah says that in an obligatory war (e.g. to defend the Land of Israel) everyone must fight, even a bride from her chuppah, or marriage canopy (Sotah 8:7), though Judaism prefers women to have a more private role, saying, “The whole glory of the princess is inward” (Psalm 45:14).

    Nonetheless women did go into battle. An archaeologist relative has shown me that a significant minority of Bar Kochba’s troops were female. We have the names of those who held leadership rank in the struggle against Rome.

    The Sefer HaChinnuch says that the command to eradicate Amalek “applies to males but not to females” (Mitzvah 603). The Avnei Nezer (Orach Chayyim 509) distinguishes between a battle, in which only males take part, and attacking an individual Amalekite, which a woman can do. Sefer HaChinnuch itself (Mitzvah 245) allows women to help eradicate the seven Canaanite nations as part of the mitzvah of settling the land.

    Because of the prohibition of cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5), Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov says that a woman should not wear military uniform or carry weapons of war (Nazir 59a; Sifra to Deut. 22:6; Targum Onkelos to Deut. 22:5). Women were deemed too weak to carry arms, and it was feared that their modesty and dignity would be compromised in the uniformed military.

    In the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, No. 16 (1988), Rabbi Alfred S Cohen writes about drafting women soldiers. He finds across-the-board rabbinic objections to compelling women to serve in the Israeli military, quoting the Chazon Ish (Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz), who told David Ben-Gurion that Judaism would be morally endangered if there were women soldiers.

    On Deut. 23:1, Nachmanides warns that army life is unpleasant: Soldiers, he says, rob, destroy, eat forbidden foods, commit adultery, and indulge in “every disgusting thing.” Women would face the same risk, and might even invite or be subject to licentious behavior. Rabbinic authorities prefer women to stay behind the scenes and handle food supplies.

    Rav Soloveitchik says that in a war against the surrounding nations, women can be used to sabotage enemy installations. Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Ovadia Yosef allow women to bear arms on guard duty to save life (pikuach nefesh).

    Israel has compulsory military service for girls as well as boys, except for girls precluded by religious conscience. The Defence Service Law discriminates between men and women in regard to length of service, reserve obligations and circumstances of release, and allows women to volunteer for fighting units. In some views, women volunteers should not carry or use weapons.

    In 1995, the Israeli Supreme Court heard the case of Alice Miller v. Minister of Defense, Chief of Staff and Others. A woman who sought to be an air force pilot claimed that excluding her from the training course was sexual discrimination. The IDF argued that because women serve less time in the military and can become pregnant, neither they nor the nation would derive the full benefit from the expense of training a woman pilot.

    The court upheld the woman’s petition. Justice Dalia Dorner quoted Tennyson, “Man for the field and woman for the hearth; man for the sword and for the needle she” (The Princess, 2nd Song). The judge agreed however that women “should not be prevented from achieving their potential and aspirations simply because of their normal functions.”

    What about women chaplains, realising that chaplaincy does not necessarily entail bearing arms or being a combatant? Rabbinic authorities would almost certainly object for moral reasons, and also in the light of halachic considerations which we will address in due course. Maybe women chaplains could be appointed to serve female soldiers, who, I presume, would welcome this.

    In the Diaspora there are few Jews in the military. I am not aware of demands from any Jewish community for women chaplains, even in non-Orthodox groups which routinely ordain women. What would be the rabbinic response to a request for a woman chaplain? I am not sure what I might have done if the problem arose while I was senior rabbi to the Australian Defence Force. I would have sought halachic guidance and would have spoken to Christian women chaplains to ascertain what they do and how their sex impinges upon their work.

    From the halachic point of view there are two issues: the chaplain as pastor, and the chaplain as agent of religious tradition. Pastoral work requires personal skills that some women have and some men lack. This does not in itself preclude women chaplains. Counselors, mentors and moral guides are vital in a context that demands morale and stability. Women can clearly fulfill this role.

    The chaplain as agent of the religious tradition is more difficult. A woman scholar or teacher is no major problem. Some Orthodox groups permit female halachic decisors. What about women officiants? Speaking at weddings and funerals is not the major issue. I know of an Australian case of a brit milah at a military base, when the ADF brought from Sydney to Darwin a (male) mohel whom I nominated. The ADF was always helpful in meeting Jewish needs.

    The major question is about women as cantorial officiants (not just reading psalms or delivering homilies, but chanting worship services). In Jewish law the agent must have the same level of obligation as the principal. In this respect a woman is precluded by Halachah from being a shaliach tzibur, “the agent of the congregation.” There is also a ban on a woman’s singing voice during prayer, kol b’ishah ervah. We would be on shaky halachic ground if a woman chaplain’s duties included cantorial services.

    On the general question of whether – as a rosh yeshivah recently claimed – army service leads to a woman becoming less Jewish, my experience, admittedly limited to the Diaspora, argues the opposite. Jews in the military, both male and female, seem to feel more Jewish afterwards, not less.

    Facing foxhole crises often makes you more of a believer.


    38 labours & the 39th – Vayakhel

    March 19th, 2017

    Vayakhel begins with Moses telling the people that there are types of labour which God had forbidden on Shabbat.

    They derive from the types of work that were necessary in the construction of the tabernacle.

    By tradition there were 39 categories. The first 38 deal with creative activities which remind us of God’s work in creating the world. These 38 represent change from one substance to another. They represent what man does for himself and for his own benefit.

    The 39th, dealing with carrying, is different. It does not speak so much about changing but moving. Its theme is not so much what you do for yourself but what you do for society. The life of a community depends on how people interact and how they give and take.

    The Talmud reports that King Solomon and his advisers decided that the Sabbath required human beings to rest from the frantic pace of moving things out of one’s house to the public domain and vice-versa.

    Within the house members of the family could move things from place to place, for example from the larder to the kitchen and from the kitchen to the dining room.

    Only if there was an eruv could the wider context be narrowed so that the whole of a given area could be regarded as one entity and the people involved could be thought of as one family.