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    Science, belief & ethics – Ekev

    August 18th, 2019

    It’s a wonderful world.

    The Psalmist (104:24) says, Mah rabu ma’asecha – “How abundant are Your deeds!”

    Kant said there are two supreme wonders – the sky and stars, and the human mind and conscience. Emerson said, if the stars only appeared once in a thousand years, “how would man believe and adore!”

    The wondrous developments of human skill – include heart transplants, cloning and the application of stem cells, and so many more developments outside medicine.

    Yet science has also produced challenges to belief, to the extent that some people are sure that religion is finished forever. They say, “Science disproves religion! Science is the enemy of belief!”

    Their error is to confuse scientific fact with scientific theory.

    Scientific fact includes the circumference of the earth; temperature at which copper melts.

    The question is not the fact but how to interpret it… which leads us to scientific theory, a temporary structure that we might have to re-think. The Rambam points out that even those theories that last may be because God willed it so.

    The crucial thing is not scientific theory but the world of belief and ethics. Its realm is not science but humility, responsibility and purpose.

    Teilhard de Chardin says that evolution is not only physical but psychological and ethical. It’s not a question of how the material universe came into being but what stage of mental and ethical development we are at.

    The Torah says in this week’s sidra, “You are a holy people” (Deut. 7:6).

    Whatever our particular scientific interest, we have to evolve more and more into a holy people.


    Memory & menace – Ekev

    August 18th, 2019

    The sidra warns Israel to remember what God has done for them (Deut. 8:18).

    The alternative is that people will begin to think that whatever they have in their hands is the result of their own efforts.

    Another verse in the sidra says, one should never boast that kochi v’otzem yadi asah li et hachayil hazeh, “My own strength and power got me all this might” (Deut. 8:17).

    This boast is both a defiance of God and a threat to push Him out of the world.

    The 20th century should have warned human beings that without God no-one can be controlled or disciplined.

    The people who built the Tower of Babel thought they could manage without God and though the tower might not have physically crashed and crushed them, morally it is a grave warning that without God nothing and no-one is safe.

    Once you begin to think you’re a self-made person you are a danger to yourself and to everyone around you.


    A creative Deity – Ekev

    August 18th, 2019

    Last week’s reading introduces us to the Shema, the great declaration of faith that says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the one (= unique) Lord”.

    This week we encounter another Shema Yisra’el in D’varim 9:1. This Shema Yisra’el is another great pronouncement.

    We learn from last week’s Shema that God exists. This week we learn that He both exists and acts, that He is not a silent deity who slumbers in the background. He creates and does.

    The two elements – existence and activity – are behind the distinctive four-letter name which Jews never pronounce because of its sanctity.

    The name comes from the root hayah, to be. It is a combination of the simple (kal) and causative (hiphil) forms of the verb.

    It tells us that in worshipping God we should try to emulate Him by means of actions that enhance the quality of the universe.


    The Jeffrey Epstein case: The status of suicide in Judaism

    August 13th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on The Times of Israel blogs on 12 June, 2019.

    World attention has focused this week on the apparent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein and his deeds or misdeeds are not the subject of this article, but his apparent suicide is.

    To what extent Judaism condones suicide is both simple and complicated.

    Simple, because life is given by God and only He has the right to take it away.

    The Jewish codes insist that the body belongs to the Almighty, and no-one is permitted to harm, jeopardise or destroy God’s property. Genesis 9:5 says, “I will surely require an accounting for your life-blood,” and the sages say this includes a suicide (Bava Kamma 91b).

    The Ten Commandments clearly prohibit murder. Rabbinic commentary extends the prohibition to say, in Maimonides’ words, “He who kills himself is guilty of bloodshed” (Hilchot Avelut chapter 1).

    Deuteronomy states (4:15), “You shall carefully guard your life,” which makes suicide a serious transgression.

    Amongst the Biblical cases of actual or attempted suicide, a highly significant incident related in I Samuel 31:4 is that of King Saul falling on his sword when the Philistines were about to capture and kill him.

    One theory as to why the Tanach does not seem to condemn him is that a king of Israel is entitled to defend the dignity of the royal office. Another view is that as his death was imminent it was as if he were already dead, though not all the commentators believe that he did actually die at his own hand.

    In later thinking, even acts of suicide in times of severe persecution were not whitewashed. The usual ceremonies performed for the dead were, according to Jewish law, not carried out for suicides, and it was customary to bury them in a side section of the cemetery (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 345).

    That is the theory, but in practice the issue is much more complicated. It is true that for a long period suicide was stigmatised as a brazen act of defiance of God, to be treated with visible disapproval.

    But for many centuries the law has preferred not to apply a hard and fast rule but to delve more deeply into the suicide’s motivation and mental situation; in most situations the person is regarded as having acted under such mental and emotional pressure that he/she is deemed not to have made a responsible decision.

    The Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh De’ah 345:5) states, “This is the general principle in connection with suicide: we find any excuse we can and say he acted thus because he was in terror or great pain, or his mind was unbalanced, or he imagined it was right to do what he did because he feared that if he lived he would commit a crime… It is extremely unlikely that a person would commit such an act of folly unless his mind were disturbed.”

    It is interesting that Greece and Rome saw suicide as a crime. However, the Greeks gave the government the right to allow suicide in urgent cases; the Romans also saw suicide as a criminal act, particularly if it was meant to legal punishment, but they applied the law with some leniency.

    In Judaism the debate was not so much political or social but theological. Suicide defeated God’s purposes since He “created (the world) to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18).

    Life not only belonged to God but, as the first section of Genesis averred, it was good and had to be seen as such by every human being. Yet Job admitted (3:20-21) that “the bitter in soul… longs for death but it does not come.” Rashi asks, “Why does God give light to him that is in misery?” Amongst the rabbinic sages, Choni HaMe’aggel felt so lonely that he prayed to God to let him die, and God agreed (Ta’anit 23a).

    Nonetheless there were times when a person was under such pressure that taking his own life was a way of averting a grave evil. The mass suicides at Masada and other acts of self-sacrifice may not have been authorised but they were understood, and history calls them heroic and insists that they did not lose their place in the World to Come.

    However, Ahitophel, who committed suicide, is listed by the Mishnah amongst those who have no share in the next world (Sanh.10:2).

    A famous case involved Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradyon, whose death is recorded in the Talmud in Avodah Zarah 18a. When the Romans wrapped him in a Torah scroll and set fire to it, the rabbi’s pupils urged him to open his mouth, inhale the fire and hasten his death. He replied, “He who put the soul in the body is the One to remove it; no human may destroy himself!”

    Sometimes a person felt so guilty after doing (or believing he had done) a grave sin that he wanted to end his life, and some cases of suicide recorded in the Talmud arose out of circumstances of this kind. Others were so full of grief when a great man such as Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi died that they felt life was no longer worthwhile.

    These circumstances explained the wish for suicide but Jewish teaching remained adamant that people should work through their problems and not abdicate by taking their own lives, and Rabbi Ishmael believed that public condemnation of the suicide was in order at the funeral, though Rabbi Akiva refused to go so far whilst still denying the suicide a eulogy and the full honours of interment (S’machot chapter 2).

    The law arrived at the position that if a suicide, although still deemed a sin, could be understood as other than a deliberate act of defiance of the Creator, they were given the benefit of the doubt and the normal ceremonies were allowed.

    Pondering the suicide of Holocaust survivors, Elie Wiesel is said to have remarked, “Those who have looked at the ultimate darkness are no longer immune”. Is there not a philosophical difference, however, between the darkness that others perpetrate upon a person or people, as in the Holocaust, and the darkness and despair one somehow brings upon oneself?

    There were suicides during the Holocaust (e.g. the 92 maidens who chose death rather than dishonour: an incident reminiscent of a Talmudic story in Gittin 57b), but it seems surprising that there were not more. In Israel the suicide rate is one of the lowest in the world, again a surprising figure.

    In “The Echo of the Nazi Holocaust in Rabbinic Literature,” Rabbi HJ Zimmels writes of two opposing emotions amongst European Jews at the time of the Holocaust – pessimism and despair leading to suicide, and optimism and hope leading to a strong will to survive.

    The same conflicting emotions grapple within the heart, soul and mind of the human being who is in dire straits whatever the details. Suicide is one way out, but there is another – slowly, painfully, bravely working one’s way through the moment and holding on to life.

    It has always been difficult and complex and in today’s world it is probably worse. Problems of so many kinds confront us all, and often we can’t get off their backs or get them off ours. Judaism believes in life and its sweetness, but it is easy to find oneself in the complex of emotions that Zimmels describes.

    Suicide is sometimes an escape from a difficult situation. Pir’kei Avot says, “In a place where there is no man, be a man”… i.e. “Have the guts to face the music.”


    The second explosion – Va’et’channan

    August 11th, 2019

    Moses & Aaron with the Ten Commandments, by Aron de Chavez c.1675

    This sidra is the second time the Ten Commandments come in the Torah. The first occasion is Parashat Yitro (Ex. 20).

    Each version has its own occasion, its own ambiance.

    The first version is the explosive announcement which gives meaning and purpose to a newly emancipated people who have entered upon their destiny.

    The second occasion is more than a routine re-statement but, as it were, a second explosion.

    In between the first and second versions there have been many years of history.

    Little by little each one of the Ten Commandments has been whittled away.

    The people have forgotten God, they have served idols, they have taken the Divine Name in vain, they have forsaken the Sabbath, they have disrespected their parents, they have transgressed the “Thou shalt nots”.

    Now another new destiny is about to open before them with the entry to the Promised Land.

    If clothing fashions had been different, Moses would be telling them, “It’s time to pull up your socks!”

    No wonder that amongst the occasional differences of wording between the first and second versions, the commandment about honouring parents now contains the words (Deut. 5:16), “That it may go well with you”.

    Things will be difficult in the Promised Land in the years ahead unless the people rededicate themselves to their Heavenly Parent and the traditions of their earthly mothers and fathers.