May 19th, 2013
The Bible says, “Of the making of many books there is no end” (Kohelet 12:12). These days the traditional print book is constantly challenged by electronic alternatives, but nonetheless there is an amazing output of the types of books we are used to. It is still uncertain, though, as to what makes a book different from a tract, a leaflet, a pamphlet.
The ancient rabbis defined a book in the light of a strange feature of this week’s Torah reading.
There is a little section comprising two verses made up of 85 letters and enclosed between the ancient equivalent of brackets. The verses are Num. 10:35-36. The sages said (Shab. 116a) that this section, and any piece of writing with 85 letters, is to be seen as a book to the extent that if, God forbid, there is a fire on Shabbat, a “book” of 85 letters can be saved from destruction.
In gematria, the letters of 85 – peh and heh – make up the word peh, a mouth. A book has a mouth; it has something to say; it is a self-contained utterance.
Obviously books differ in length and there are short books and long books. The distinction between a booklet and a book may be a modern problem which our ancient forebears would hardly have understood; for them a piece of writing was a book, period.
Now if we look at the content of this 85-letter section in the sidra there is something about its substance which explains why it is a “book”. Point 1: it has a beginning. Point 2: it is a self-contained connected story. Point 3: it has an ending. Point 4: it has a lesson to teach – there is a God, and whatever happens in history is directed by Him.
May 19th, 2013
Every professional, and certainly every rabbi, will feel for Moses when the great leader complains to God in this week’s reading that he is too tired and burnt-out to continue with his task (Num. 11:14-17). God’s answer to Moses is to select and train a group of assistants so that the work can be shared.
In an ideal situation any professional practice, including a rabbinic incumbency, can be improved if there is a team of trusted colleagues to share the responsibility. It doesn’t always work; it isn’t always practicable; it is sometimes simply unaffordable. But whether or not a team can be assembled, the leader has to learn how to plan his day and not get too bogged down in any one aspect of the task. If the leader finds he has no time to plan, to think, to relax – even to pray – he is not doing himself any favour.
It is interesting to reflect that in other faiths, clergy sometimes drop out because they have lost their faith. In Judaism, very few rabbis find they no longer believe, and in orthodoxy very few dropout because they can no longer keep the mitzvot – but what does produce a constant problem is fatigue and burn-out. The wise congregation will notice if their rabbi is showing signs of tiredness and they can tactfully give him the time and wherewithal to take a period of leave.
Unfortunately some congregations are too selfish and insensitive to help their rabbi, and in the end it is they who suffer.
May 19th, 2013
Q. Israel is buzzing with controversy about “core subjects” being taught at charedi schools. What is your view?
A. There are arguments on both sides. There must be a segment of the education system that is dedicated to the highest standards in Torah learning. The aim is not necessarily to produce rabbis but solidly committed Jews who know the tradition well, enhance and promote it.
At the same time there are charedim (women as well as men) who are aware that without a modicum of “secular” studies their employment prospects will always be limited. But it isn’t just for the sake of entering a trade or profession that I am in favour of all schools teaching “core” subjects.
There are ample precedents for religious leaders combining Torah with other disciplines: Maimonides was a doctor, Rashi had a vineyard, and some yeshivah heads have been mathematicians, lawyers, accountants. One of the great success stories of recent decades is the number of orthodox Jewish scientists. There is at least one yeshivah teacher who is a novelist. The members of the ancient Sanhedrin were experts in many sciences.
The synthesis of Torah with other disciplines is good for Torah itself. Actually, it is impossible to be an Orthodox Jew of any kind without a knowledge of other subjects – how can you, for instance, construct a sukkah or an eruv or work out the time of Shabbat without a basic knowledge of mathematics? How can you be a shochet or mohel without knowing anatomy and physiology? How can you assess whether food is kosher without a grasp of chemistry?
But more than this, every academic discipline helps you to be a believer. Geography and astronomy teach you the grandeur of the Creator. Every branch of culture shows you the potential of the human mind created by God. Physics teaches you precision, language shows you the value of words, ethics involves you in decisions about right and wrong…
I am so convinced that religion is enhanced by “core” subjects that I would even go further than the current plan. I would like the so-called “core” subjects not only to be compulsory but to be even broader than currently envisaged by the Israeli educational system.
May 14th, 2013
This week’s reading is the source of the priestly blessing, “The Lord bless you and keep you…”
The blessing is worked into other parts of the Tanach, especially Psalm 6, sung in some communities before Ma’ariv at the end of the weekly Shabbat. The familiar phrases are there: “God be gracious to us and bless us: may He make His face shine towards us”. There are some interesting changes, however. The original blessing focusses on “you” (“The Lord bless you and keep you”); here it is “us”.
Who is the “us”? At first sight we think it is the Jewish people, and we are certainly part of the answer, but the subsequent verses refer to “the nations”. Samson Raphael Hirsch comments, “Through the knowledge spread among the nations by the presence of Israel in their midst, all the nations will be brought to do homage to God… Then God shall bless us; then we shall have reached the goal of all our mission among the nations”.
Hirsch also points out that where the text says, “May He make His face shine towards us”, here we have “amongst us”, suggesting that whilst we start by asking God to turn His countenance in our direction, now we ask that His presence be seen in every aspect of our lives, in who we are and what we do, not only on our faces and outer appearance.
May 14th, 2013
In a number of British orthodox synagogues there was for many years no duchaning – public recital of the priestly blessing – by the kohanim on festivals. In most cases this “anti-custom” was only abandoned after a long period of protest by kohanim and members of the congregation.
At the Hampstead Synagogue in London (as I point out in my 75th anniversary history of the congregation) it took a ruling by Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie to ensure that any kohen who wished to duchan had to be allowed to do so. The “anti” argument was that the kohanim were not so froom – many were not Shom’rei Shabbat – and it would be hypocritical of them to purport to bless the congregation.
It was a strange argument since none of the kohanim concerned showed any reluctance to be called to the Torah as kohanim. It was illogical too since the Torah explicitly says in this week’s parashah that though the kohanim pronounce the words, it is God who blesses the congregation –and if He considers them fit to say the words who are they to complain?
The fact is that when the community relies on a person to assume a duty they can be as humble as they like, but if they proffer strange excuses for opting out it brings them, the community and the Almighty no credit.