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    Justice & the altar – Shof’tim

    August 20th, 2017

    Two sidrot have names deriving from shafat, to judge.

    One sidra is Mishpatim; the other is this week’s portion, Shof’tim. Mishpatim deals with justice; Shoftim deals with judges.

    Every society needs a system of law. It also needs judges to administer the law. In both cases the aim is the same – to create social harmony in which every individual or group is respected and has a voice.

    One of the institutions that the legal system requires is an altar. From one point of view it is there as a reminder that all we do is seen by God. Humans don’t always notice what others are doing, but God sees it all and no-one gets off scot free if they are guilty of a wrong.

    A second reason why the altar is part of the rules of justice is that altars are places of sacrifice, and if there is to be justice in a community everyone has to be prepared to take a step back and forgo some of their pride.

    A greedy king – Shof’tim

    August 20th, 2017

    King Solomon, from a Bible card, 1896

    The 17th chapter of D’varim lays down laws for a king.

    One of his responsibilities is not to have too many wives, horses, or gold and silver treasures.

    The rabbis ask why he should limit his wives when the Torah does not prohibit an array of wives and the Mishnah Sanhedrin even gives a number – 18 – of wives whom he is entitled to have.

    The problem is that if he is so polygamous that he has wives in the hundreds or thousands he will concentrate too much on his personal pleasures and neglect the kingdom.

    What about horses? Surely a king needs ample cavalry! The sages explain that it is not his army that is the problem but his personal horses. Once again the question is whether he is more interested in his pleasures than his responsibilities.

    Much the same, of course, can be said of his material wealth, but it’s more than just a warning against indulgence. When he works out what the kingdom needs he will know what taxation to impose on the people; otherwise he will over-tax them and ruin the kingdom.

    A friendly rabbi – Ask the Rabbi

    August 20th, 2017

    Q. Which is better – a gregarious rabbi or one who is a loner?

    A. What do you mean by “better”? A rabbi who loves people and mixes easily creates a good feeling. But in some ways it makes rabbinic leadership rather difficult.

    To be “one of the boys” can put the rabbi in a bind when he really should stand aloof and be more judgmental but he knows this might affect his good relationship with people. That’s one reason why popularity can be a drawback.

    But looked at more deeply, aloneness is part of any form of leadership. Abraham is ha-ivri, the Hebrew, because by a play on words one can say that he had the courage to be on one side (eiver) of civilisation, the side that rejected idolatry and unrighteousness. His descendants, the people of Israel, are praised by the heathen prophet Bilam as “the people that dwells alone”.

    When you are a thinker you cannot always go where the crowd goes. Lord Jakobovits said that when Rav Soloveitchik wrote his classic, The Lonely Man of Faith, he was really writing about himself.

    On the other hand, the communal rabbi cannot cut himself off from the people. He must know and love them, care for them and feel their joy and their pain.

    The same Bilam who recognised Israelite individuality also recognised their communality as seen in the tents and dwelling places of Israel, the synagogues and schools that drew them together and made them a people.

    On Jewish showers and refrigerators

    August 17th, 2017

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 17 August, 2017.

    The hotelier who has apologised for telling Jews to take a shower before swimming and not to want constant access to the refrigerators probably still doesn’t understand the resulting accusations of antisemitism.

    The shower issue sends shivers through us when we recall how the word “showers” figured in the armory of Holocaust horror.

    “Take a shower” resonates frighteningly with Jews. It doesn’t merely say, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

    If that was all it meant, it would already be an insult to a people that was instinctively practicing health and hygiene long before the gentiles cottoned on to the risks of infection and disease.

    If being clean was all it meant, it would already show complete ignorance of Jewish practices that led the world in medicine and sanitation.

    But what it says to Jews in modern- day Europe is that antisemitism is alive and well and no-one, not even the gentiles, is safe.

    And there are further implications.

    In the last year or two the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has picked up an idea that former foreign minister Tzipi Livni has smelly feet and turned it into an anti-Israel slogan.

    Calling Livni “smelly” has nothing to do with her personal cleanliness or any other Israeli’s.

    It is a medieval antisemitic stereotype that would be comical if it weren’t so serious. It comes from the time when medieval Christendom had an obsession with the devil. Since Jews refused to accept Jesus, they were seen as the devil incarnate and accused of heinous crimes against Christianity and mankind.

    Jews were simply not human beings. When Shakespeare wrote about Shylock and asked whether a Jew had hands, feelings or dignity, medieval man thought the answer was “no”. Jews were depicted with demonic characteristics. They looked horrible and menacing and were said to have a stench which was only removed by baptism. It was said that “their ill smell before baptism arises from the sordidness of their habits.”

    This is what is echoed in the attack on Livni. It is all nonsense, but there are still people gripped by inherited prejudice who deem Jews inherently inferior, with evil genes which can only be eradicated if the Jews themselves are eradicated.

    One would think that after the Holocaust, everyone would know that prejudice has social, economic and political roots, and no-one would be stupid enough to repeat the old “smelly” accusations.

    But stupidity is hard to eradicate.

    And hoteliers who speak about Jews taking showers owe us more than a politically correct apology.

    What about the question of Jews using the hotel refrigerators? Presumably the problem is that Jewish travelers automatically take kosher food with them when they visit places where kashrut facilities are scarce or non-existent.

    Actually it’s not only kosher-observing Jews who often need access to refrigerators. Diabetics too have their problems. And celiacs, and others with a range of food problems.

    There are hotels that provide in-room refrigerators, but in hotels where this doesn’t (yet) exist it is surely good customer service to allocate refrigerator space to people with special needs.

    Yes, there are times when such facilities are abused, like the vegetarian hotel where I once stayed and found that a Jewish family had come with their kosher salami and demanded to keep it in the hotel refrigerator.

    But as a general principle, a reasonable hotelier will recognise that their guests have needs and requirements that have to be recognised and facilitated.

    If hospital wards can allocate refrigerator space to patients’ food (including kosher items), why can’t a good hotel?

    Free will & the Kotzker Rebbe – Re’eh

    August 13th, 2017

    Re’eh, the first word in the parashah, is in the singular.

    Three words later the verse becomes plural: “See (singular), I place before you (plural) this day blessing and curse” (Deut. 11:26). This verse is the basic Biblical source for the doctrine of free will.

    Why does it first address each of us as an individual and then as a community?

    The Kotzker Rebbe deals with the question in this way: every individual is challenged to apply his or her free will as an individual, not merely as a member of the group. No-one is a carbon copy of anyone else. What the other person decides has to be right for them but it is not necessarily right for me.

    Certainly, there are times when the issue involves my group identity – for example, when I have to respond as a Jew to something which integrally affects my Jewishness, but even then I do not have to be a clone of any other Jew.

    The sort of Jew I choose to be will be influenced by my upbringing, environment and commitments, but even if I decide to be similar to people of a similar type I am still a separate, unique person who might have my own nuance and idiom to contribute.