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    The name of divorce – Ki Tetzei

    August 30th, 2014

    "The Gett", 1907 painting by Yehuda Pen

    “The Gett”, 1907 painting by Yehuda Pen

    A section of this sidra deals with divorce procedures. The Torah calls the divorce document Sefer K’ritut, literally “a document of cutting off” (Deut. 24:1). For some reason the document is known as a gett.

    There is a grammatical explanation which I heard from Professor MD Goldman of Melbourne University; the Talmudic Encyclopedia quotes it in the name of the K’hillat Ya’akov of Rabbi Ya’akov Algazi.

    This view says that in Hebrew linguistics the letters gimmel/tet never come in that order, and if anyone tries to unite them the union cannot be sustained. Sometimes two human beings cannot sustain a marital union and need to be separated by a gett.

    The Targum Onkelos renders sefer k’ritut into Aramaic as gett p’turin, a deed of dismissal, so sefer in Hebrew and gett in Aramaic may be saying the same thing. Perhaps the word gett may be from the root h-t-t, to engrave.

    If we move from the academic to the human issue, it is important to note that most people who go through the difficulties of divorce are far from giving up on the institution of marriage as a whole. Almost all embark on a marriage to a new partner. The first marriage brought its disappointment and tragedy: older and wiser, the divorcee is far from being defeated. The divorce statistics are not the whole story.

    Remembering Amalek

    August 30th, 2014

    zachor amalekThis week’s portion includes the command to remember (Zachor) what Amalek did to us (Deut.25:13).

    In itself it is a highly significant and easily understandable command. Amalek tried to obstruct Israel’s progress through the wilderness, not by sending trained soldiers to fight the strong young men marching at the head of the Israelite column, but by targeting the weak and weary children and women who were bringing up the rear. No wonder we are told to remember Amalek’s nastiness. No wonder we must not and dare not forget.

    But then the passage tells us almost the opposite: “Efface the memory of Amalek from under the heavens”. How can anyone remember, and efface the memory, at one and the same time?

    The answer – distinguish between Amalek and Amalekism. Don’t be obsessed with Amalek the individual, wicked and brutal though he was. Look at the symbolism of Amalekism, an idea, a policy, a philosophy that stands in direct contrast to what Judaism and its Torah represent.

    The sages say that what Amalekism did was asher kar’cha baderech – not just that “he encountered you on the way” but (using the root k-r-r, to be cold) “he cooled your enthusiasm, he tried to eradicate your faith and sense of purpose”. He tried to deflect Israel from its morality and humanity. Amalekism is a threat to civilisation whenever and wherever it appears.

    A feeling for the law – Shof’tim

    August 23rd, 2014

    judgment gates shoftim paul hardyThe opening verses of the sidra (Deut. 16:18) seem almost unnecessary. They tell us to have judges and officers in all our gates.

    Of course the gate in ancient times was where everything happened. That’s where people met one another, where commercial transactions took place, where community business was transacted, where the judges held their sessions. A reminder comes in the Aramaic prayer of Yekum Purkan, said on Shabbat, which prays for the “judges at the gates”. People who had a problem didn’t need to go through a bureaucratic rigmarole in order to get a day in court. They knew they would find a judicial facility at the city gate, and no-one needed to feel that legal delays would deny them justice for lengthy periods.

    How can one suggest that such an important provision was almost unnecessary? Because such was the Jewish nature that no-one could imagine a community that had no judges. Did they need a law to lay down what was already instinctive? It’s not just that the administration of justice was one of the Seven Laws of the Sons of No’ach at the beginning of the Chumash. As SM Lehrman writes, “The Jew by nature is a law-abiding citizen”. Even without a verse in the Torah, our law-abiding instinct would have ensured that we had courts and a justice system. Even the antisemites know that law and justice are intrinsic to being Jewish.

    Prophets like yourself – Shof’tim

    August 23rd, 2014

    death of mosesThe Torah portion tells us that God will raise up prophets from our midst (Deut. 18:18-19). The Hebrew wording is, navi akim lahem… kamocha, “I will raise up a prophet for them… like you”. “Like you” basically means, as we learn from Rashi, “a fellow-Israelite”. Rashbam understands “like you” as “like Moses” – i.e. a prophet who will teach the Torah and not mislead the people.

    The Meshech Chochmah commentary adds a further element, that like Moses (called “the chief of the prophets”), any prophet appointed by God will be answerable to the Almighty. He will retain his own individuality, his own personality, his own capacity to comprehend and convey the message and recognise the needs of the people, but he will be a nobody without God. When Psalm 90 announces itself as a poem by Moses “the Man of God”, so any prophetic word or work will be valid only insofar as it clearly shows it is from God. The same must be said about a rabbi, any rabbi, in our own generation.

    In early 20th century America there were controversies about whether a rabbi had what was called “freedom of the pulpit”. Actually in traditional Judaism the pulpit can never be free. A rabbi is bound by his pledge to God and the Torah. A community must recognise that a rabbi who does his own thing is no rabbi. That’s one of the reasons why Judaism could not accept the claims of Jesus when he said he had personal authority – “It has been told to you such and such, but I say unto you (something different)”.

    Synagogues without spirituality – Ask the Rabbi

    August 23rd, 2014

    Q. I have often wondered why my synagogue is so active and busy but not in a spiritual sense. I feel more spiritual in my garden. Is there something wrong with me?

    rosh hashanah survival kit bookA. Possibly. Maybe you miss the sense of sanctity that comes from sitting in shule and meditating or looking around you and seeing the spiritual potential in every part of the synagogue and indeed in everyone present.

    But the fault can also be with your synagogue. If it makes busyness its top priority, is a mere community centre or concert hall and emphasises financial viability at the expense of piety, it has become a secular institution without religion.

    The American theologian Eugene Borowitz said, “Secular Judaism, which could not dominate American Judaism under its own name, now may do so under the auspices of the synagogue… The average synagogue and the large synagogue organisations do not redeem this situation by the example of their own religiosity… The American Jew may belong, but he does not believe much… There are countless creative reasons for avoiding God.”

    In your shule, does anyone secrete him- or herself in a corner and commune with their own heart, soul and mind, and God? Does anyone weep when they pray (indeed does anyone pray at all)? Does anyone cry out when they think of the pain of the world and say, “God, are Your ears closed and Your eyes averted?”

    Is your congregation deathly silent when the cantor performs and the choir commences its well-rehearsed responses? Is the rabbi a mere MC who announces the page, a book or film reviewer who gives smooth ten-minute op-eds… or a passionate prophet who says, “Thus saith the Lord”?

    Do they really let God into your synagogue or prefer to manage the world without the embarrassment of His presence?

    Maybe you should stay in your garden after all.