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    The Passover festival & the need for ritual

    April 18th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 18 April 2019.

    The festival of Passover appeals to perhaps every Jew.

    People who are never seen in synagogue ― except, perhaps, for weddings and funerals ― and who follow few if any of the regular practices of Judaism, somehow find themselves involved ― however grudgingly ― in Passover observances and even secretly enjoy them.

    Maybe it’s nostalgia, the recollection of the Passover foods, stories and songs. Maybe it’s because on Passover the family always got together and despite the occasional squabbles derived pleasure from the cross-generational company.

    It’s not the synagogue services that attracts them, but the evening home celebration known as the Seder (“order” or “procedure”).

    The deeper philosophical meaning escapes many people ― the Passover concepts of freedom of action and thought, the messianism that derives from history and feels the pull of destiny ― but the true appeal of the Seder is the comfort that comes of fitting into a ritual.

    The Seder is proof that human beings can’t live without ritual ― be it religious, sporting, professional or whatever. There is ritual at a sports match; ritual in court or in Parliament; ritual at the doctor’s or dentist’s or in hospital; ritual at a university lecture or debate; ritual, especially, in religion.

    Even in a rather secular age, and even in Australia which has been called “the most godless place on earth,” religion still has a hold, largely because of its ritual ― what some call the church’s “bells and smells.” People laugh at religious pomp and pretensions and even say that ecclesiastical robes look like the Queen of the May, but secretly they would miss the ceremonies if everything became drab and uncolourful.

    Those who oppose rituals and ceremonies, as the British rabbi and spiritual leader of the St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London, Solomon Goldman, once said, misunderstand the nature of human beings:

    If man were a completely rational being, guided and living by purely rational and moral impulses, then the (anti-ritual) argument might be valid, but man has body, senses, imagination, memory and feelings as well as reason. He is a creature of habit and associations as well as of logical motives. If a religion is to appeal to the whole of man it must satisfy his search for the picturesque and colourful, the beautiful, the stimulating, as well as the search for the true and the good.

    Defending the role of ritual in religion, Goldman went on:

    Religion is something more than an intellectual awareness of God, plus righteous living. Religion demands constant effort to get closer and closer to God, to achieve, as far as human beings can, a form of spiritual union with the divine. And religious exercises and symbols are important elements in achieving and maintaining such a sense of closeness.

    Ritual became entrenched in ancient cultures. The ceremonies featuring dead and revived gods symbolised the ebb and flow of the forces of nature and earthly history.

    There was a time when the “Myth and Ritual” scholars attempted to denigrate the religion of ancient Israel, but the Jewish biblical tradition refused to let itself be belittled and developed a pattern of rituals which gave credit to God as the Master of history and invested the biblical stories with ethical components that not only commemorated but inspired.

    Hence Passover looked at all three tenses ― the past, present and future.

    It internalised the past ― saying, “In every generation a person must regard themselves as if they themselves had been freed from bondage in Egypt.”

    It enriched the present ― saying, “It is our duty to keep the rhythm going.”

    It brought the future within grasp ― saying, “The way to bring about the future redemption is by acts of charity to the poor, love for the stranger and justice for the victim.”

    None of this is mere talk. It is ritualised. The critic might say it is play-acted. Whatever verbal judgment one uses, the fact is that these rituals clothe the ideals that create a just society. At the same time, they enhance one’s life and appeal to one’s heart.

    Back to Solomon Goldman. Speaking of Judaism, he said:

    However true it is of other religions that there must be a place in them for symbolism, it is still more true of Judaism, because Judaism is a way of life, a culture, a civilisation. It legislates not only for worship and morals, but for the whole living; and as such it must employ all the means of creating in its adherents habits, associations and disciplines of life.

    Religion without ritual would be dry and disembodied, lacking personality, colour, excitement and symbolism. Indeed, if rituals did not exist, they would need to be invented.


    What is the question?

    April 15th, 2019

    Mah Nishtanah, from the Sarajevo Haggadah, 1350

    Abraham Joshua Heschel said that our generation knows the answers but has forgotten the questions.

    With regard to Pesach we know that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, God redeemed them and took them out across the Red Sea to become a free nation, and we celebrate these events by observing Seder night and reading the Haggadah.

    That’s the answer, but what is the question?

    The question seems to be Mah Nishtanah. But there are at least two problems with this phrase.

    Problem 1:

    What do we mean by mah? Is it “What?” – i.e. “What is different about this night?” – a question. Or is it “How!” – i.e. “How different this night is!” – an exclamation.

    If it’s a question, the four statements that follow are answers and not questions. In other words, “What is different…? The fact that we eat matzah, etc.” That means that there aren’t four questions but only one.

    On the other hand, if mah is an exclamation, the four statements in Mah Nishtanah are illustrative explanations, and therefore there are no questions at all and nobody is asking anything.

    Problem 2:

    What do we mean by nishtanah?

    Most translators render it in the present tense, “Why is this night different?” or “How different this night is!”

    But nishtanah is actually not present but past tense from the root shin-nun-heh, to change or differ. The translation therefore ought to be, “In what way did this night become different?” or “How different this night became!”

    In that case the topic of discussion is not what we thought it was, the Seder procedure.

    What we are called upon to do is not to talk about the content of the Seder but the history of the Haggadah.


    The serious side of Chad Gadya

    April 15th, 2019

    Chad Gadya from the Szyk Haggadah

    Don’t be taken in by Chad Gadya.

    It’s not as ancient as people imagine, even though it is in Aramaic. It has no real connection with Pesach, even though it concludes the Seder ceremonial. It is philosophical, even though it looks and sounds like mere fun. It is messianic, even though it seems quite mundane.

    The song begins with a kid which was bought for two zuzim. The kid was eaten by the cat; the cat was eaten by the dog; the dog was beaten by the stick; the stick was burnt by the fire… and so on until in the end God Almighty appears and brings the chain effect to an end by destroying the Angel of Death and asserting His sovereign power.

    The first Haggadah to include it seems to have been as recent as 1590, though the idea goes back to the Mishnah (Avot 2:7), where Hillel sees a skull floating on the water and says, “Because you drowned others, you yourself have been drowned – and they who drowned you will finally be drowned themselves.”

    The Vilna Ga’on applied the song to Jewish history, identifying each of the characters with a person or age in Jewish history until in the end nothing remains but God. Emil Fackenheim pointed out that history – as poetically described in Adon Olam – began with God’s sole Presence and will end with God once more reigning alone.

    What Chad Gadya has to do with Pesach is questionable, though some see in it a hint of the paschal lamb.

    There are those who simply say that it is a nursery rhyme, written to keep the children awake and alert but adopted by adults to end the long Seder procedure with a triumphant crescendo.

    The truth probably is that the poet who composed the song was no comedian but a subtle philosopher. We don’t know his name. His theme was Cause and Effect. His maxim was that nothing just happens randomly.

    There may even be a hint of Darwinian Survival of the Fittest – with a devastating commencement and a decisive conclusion that totally contrast with Darwin.

    Chad Gadya starts with the purchase of a little goat. By implication the song asks where everything began. Its answer: “Father”, i.e. God. Nothing occurred or erupted by mere chance. There was an act of Creation. God brought the world and its inhabitants into being. He gave man free will.

    He said, “Man, I have given you a world. I have endowed you with the energy and ability to make something of the world and yourself. What now happens is up to you. If you are wise, you will follow my recipe of moral principle. If not, you will be responsible for your results. I will not dictate to you or force you. I will not intervene. But I will be there and when I am ready I will assert My control.”

    If we want a connection with Pesach, it must be that this is the festival that shows how low man can sink and how high he can rise. The despair and gloom of Egyptian slavery is everyman’s depth of darkness. The Hebrew yearning for freedom is everyman’s saving grace. Man can be pulled towards either pole.

    Pesach proves that breaking free and bringing the Messiah is possible. The Angel of Death can and will be vanquished and the Holy One, blessed be He, will have the last laugh and rule forever.


    Freedom, feardom, fairdom – concepts of Passover

    April 15th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on The Times of Israel blogs on 15 April, 2019.

    Passover, by Arthur Szyk

    Jews are a fascinating people. We have trodden the scene of history longer than any other monotheism, before most ideologies and faiths.

    We have seen nations rise high and fall hard: we ourselves were severely shaken by the Holocaust but burst into renewed life with the emergence of Israel in 1948. Difficult to define, our identity is an amalgam of ideology and experience.

    We believe in God but incessantly quarrel with Him; we have a religious culture but constantly weave in and out of belief, a messianic posture which we sometimes embrace and sometimes dismiss as mere dreaming. A fractious people, united in crisis: a small minority, occupying a large share of history. We wander – physically, intellectually – but feel lost if we have forgotten the way home.

    Especially is this true on Pesach. The Haggadah names four sons, four types: the wise, the wicked, the simple, the one that knows not how to ask. All make tracks for the tradition on this night, moved again by the old songs, sentiments, stories and symbols.

    The events behind Pesach are simple. The Hebrews were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt until Moses led them to freedom. When opportunity offered, they left in a hurry. Dough baked on boards on their backs and became matzah. They got across the Red Sea to evade pursuit, and finally reached the Promised Land. We joke about it, “The enemy chased us and we were near beat; we escaped from their clutches: so now let us eat”.

    On Passover we indulge in sentimentality, we wallow in nostalgia, we talk about people, we wonder what has happened to so-and-so. The big ideas hardly rate a mention. It is the festival of freedom, but it isn’t freedom that they tend to talk about.

    When I was a child in Melbourne, Passover services were presided over by the venerable Rabbi Jacob Danglow whose festival sermon always seemed to say the same thing, that it was a blessing to have freedom under the British flag. The bottom line never varied. In British countries one was free to live without hindrance or horror.

    Even so, Australia had its problems, and indigenous Australians enjoyed less freedoms than we did. I also discovered when I went to London as a postgraduate that Britain was not too perfect. But other countries were much worse, and in the 1950s there was palpable gratitude to have survived the evil of World War II and the Holocaust.

    What freedom did the rabbi have in mind? Presumably what the Talmud meant when it linked the Hebrew d’ror (freedom) with another d’ror (a swallow). Said the Talmud: freedom is like a swallow which can fly where it wants and settle where it wants, without interference or coercion. What I would have said as a child was the ability to run, jump and play. In time I learnt that there was such a thing as free will, the ability to weigh up the options and freely choose.

    In the first instance freedom is the ability and right to be oneself and uphold one’s own ethos. In this sense freedom goes with tolerance. I have the right to choose and so do you. “Love your neighbor as yourself” – the Golden Rule of Leviticus 19:18, endorsed by the New Testament – implies, “I hate to be hurt; I hate to see you hurt As I love and believe in myself, I also love and believe in you”. I say my way is the truth: you say yours is. I say my wisdom is better than yours: you prefer your wisdom. A paradox.

    How can both be right? The old story speaks of the couple who come to the rabbi with a conflict. To the husband he says, “You’re right!” To the wife he says, “You’re right!” The rabbi’s wife says, “How can they both be right?” The rabbi says, “You’re also right!” Yet this tolerance is ambiguity, not ambivalence. Ambivalence says I can’t make up my mind: ambiguity says that truth has many faces. How can we both be right when all options cannot be equal? That’s God’s problem. Solomon Schechter said, “Leave a little to God!” Leaving nothing to God is arrogant: leaving too much to Him is abdication.

    Whatever Jewishness is – religion, ethnicity or culture – a Jew is entitled to the freedom to choose the aspects he wants. But until the modern age – whenever that began – Judaism knew of no such set of options. There was no Judaism by Elimination that played down or rejected certain aspects and said Judaism was valid without them. Until the coming of modernity, Judaism was whatever amalgam it was. Now the options have changed. Believers have an ideology centered on doctrines and practices, whilst secularists manage without God and the synagogue.

    The debate rages: Is a Jew free to reject religion and still be a Jew? Haven’t the believers themselves curtailed their freedom by religious creeds and commandments? But believers say it really is freedom they are practicing. The discipline of religion gives it direction. Being free to choose God saves freedom from being aimless. Norman Lamm says in “The Royal Reach”, “A moral act is authentic only if it issues out of a genuine freedom of choice”.

    There are dangers in freedom, not only blessings. Freedom can lead to boredom. A French thinker writes about the culture of the picnic; the sort of freedom that is a waste of time and only leads to mischief. Despite beautiful words like peace and freedom, it actually brings new tyranny and bondage. In freedom you need to make decisions – and some people prefer their chains. On the other hand, freedom starts before it arrives: Ludwig Boerne said, “To want to be free is to be free”.

    Freedom is one of the Jewish ethical values. These values are said to be shared with Christianity in what is called the Judeo-Christian tradition. I am not sure there actually is such a joint tradition even though both religions (and Islam) have things in common.

    They believe in God but understand Him differently. They respect scripture but very on its exegesis. Ahad HaAm says Judaism is more pragmatic, Christianity more other-worldly. Judaism believes material things are good if used wisely; some Christians extol poverty. Judaism emphasises marriage: some Christians prefer celibacy. Judaism sees events more historically; Christianity is more apocalyptic. Judaism places more store on community, Christianity on the individual. Judaism finds atonement through personal effort, Christianity vicariously. Major differences concern Jesus, the Torah and the Messiah.

    But despite varying accents and emphases, we share an emphasis on ethical quality. What makes our ethics distinctive is that these are not simply the outcome of human experience but the will of God, freely chosen as our guide.

    Neither tradition can expect instant obedience but has to work through reasoned explanation. Others are free to turn a deaf ear and dismiss religion’s voice as outmoded sermonising. On the other hand religion has the freedom to continue to speak and warn. The discourse ought to be decent and democratic without anyone muzzling or murdering those they disagree with. In a fair-minded world all should be able to speak and live without fear. Passover teaches freedom, not feardom (did I invent that word?)

    What a tragedy it is that we lack a fair-minded world community. The UN has been captured by anti-democratic slogans and has made the world worse. Freedom doesn’t authorise anyone to blurt out mantras without first studying and acknowledging the facts. Freedom means fairdom (another word I have invented, but why not?)

    What sort of freedom is the best? It’s not a matter of which party advocates freedom but which is able, with the least interference with people’s lives, to create a climate of, political, economic, technological, medical, educational and social opportunity.

    Nero fiddled while Rome burned. That seems to be happening again. Populations are in thrall. People are on the move; no-one knows where home is or what home should be like. No-one is safe crossing a bridge or running in a marathon. Terrorism stalks the streets. Errorism has overtaken the media. Like the ancients who wept at their tent doors when evil was abroad, there is a paralysis of decision. Peoples and governments should uphold principle, but they’re scared to open their mouths. Rome is burning. Nero just weeps. It was all very well when St. Augustine said, “God, make me good – but not yet!” It’s too late for a “Not yet!”

    Passover with its message of freedom is too important to be merely a cosy family get-together. Heinrich Heine said, “Since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent”. That’s the level of discussion that should take place around the Jewish Passover table and wherever thinking people gather.


    Ten against ten – M’tzora

    April 7th, 2019

    Tzara’at (leprosy), the theme of this week’s reading, was once such a universally feared disease that the mere name sent shivers down a person’s spine.

    The leper, m’tzora, was identified by Jewish commentary with the motzi ra, one who spoke evil of others. Some commentators found that there were ten kinds of leprosy, each a different expression of the sin of evil talk.

    The Baal HaTurim, writing on the final verse of last week’s sidra, notes the symmetry between leprosy and the Decalogue – ten kinds of disease, ten commandments – and he says simply, “If people keep these ten (the commandments) they will be delivered from these ten (the types of disease)”.

    The person who lives by the Decalogue ls careful. There is a sense of humility in the presence of God, of respect for other people. It is when you become careless that you let your tongue run away with you.

    You harm others with words, and there is no longer harmony in society. You make promises but do not intend to keep them, and the community is at sixes and sevens. You gamble with the truth, and words mean nothing any more.

    The Baal HaTurim notes that nega, plague, has the same letters as oneg, enjoyment. They are opposites. The moral plagues that beset our society threaten the quality and enjoyment of life; the Ten Commandments are the antidote to the nega and help to create oneg for all humanity.