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    What do I look like?

    October 12th, 2020

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report on 19 October 2020.

    Zoom shows me what I look like.

    In the past I hardly ever used a mirror, but I sometimes dipped into our family photo albums – an old people’s habit.

    I don’t take selfies, though my children and grandchildren take photos on their phones.

    It dates me to be analysed by my great-grandchildren, who can’t quite work out where I fit into the family.

    There was a stage in my aging when I had my portrait painted to mark my 30th anniversary at the Great Synagogue, Sydney. At that stage, the Australian artist Robert Hannaford painted an impressive portrait of me in white High Holy Day robes. We had a series of sittings at the Sydney Hilton Hotel.

    He was offered the option of painting me wearing black rabbinical robes, but said it would make me look like a magpie, so he chose white robes and tallit, skillfully introducing a suggestion of color here and there.

    The portrait is now at the Great Synagogue, with a copy in our Jerusalem home. The original was entered for the Archibald Prize, but it didn’t win – though it deserved to. It traveled around Australia; in Sydney my wife and I mingled with the people who were walking through the State Art Gallery looking at the prize entries and we eavesdropped on to the comments on my portrait (and on me).

    Years earlier, Walter Pidgeon’s portrait of my predecessor Rabbi Israel Porush (in black robes!) was also entered for the Archibald Prize – and it did win. The Porush portrait is also at the Great Synagogue.

    All these works raise the fascinating question of the Jewish attitude to portrait painting.

    The Decalogue appears to prohibit artistic images, though Maimonides limited the ban to sculpture and Rabbi Me’ir of Rothenberg allowed “portraits done in paint which have no solid substance (and cannot be considered idols or icons).” Sculpture was tolerated in some eras, enabling Prague to have a statue of Rabbi Yehudah Leib ben Betzalel, who is associated with the story of the Golem.

    Attitudes to portrait painting oscillated. Rabbi Ya’akov Emden reported that his father, Chacham Zvi Ashkenazi, refused to let his portrait be painted, though Emden himself stated that “there is no fear of prohibition” and the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London has portraits of Chacham David Nieto and other Chachamim.

    Jews’ College, the London rabbinic seminary, had portraits of former chief rabbis. Bayswater Synagogue lost an array of portraits to Nazi bombing though many works of Jewish art were stolen, despoiled or destroyed in the Holocaust.

    These days, both Israel and the Diaspora have portraits on display or in storage, including rabbinic gedolim. Cards of rabbis are collected by school children. Chabad homes accord pride of place to photos of the Rebbe. Sholem Aleichem said that an attractive face is worth half a dowry.

    Despite Hannaford, I can’t claim to have a particularly handsome face but, thank God, my mind still works. I don’t know much about dowries, but I can still manage to pay for my Rav Kav (the card used by Israelis to pay for rides on buses and trains).

    Days of joy

    October 5th, 2020

    Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the two days tacked onto Sukkot, share the Sukkot sub-title of Z’man Simchatenu, Our Time of Joy.

    It’s not hard to understand why Simchat Torah is a day of joy, but Sh’mini Atzeret is rather different and solemn.

    Its prayers for rain recognise that (in the northern hemisphere at least) the winter is around the corner with its colder temperatures and rainstorms. Without winter the year would be lopsided. Without rain the world would suffer and starve.

    The rain prayer was always taken seriously and the officiating cantor wore his High Holyday white robe.

    In these circumstances how can we call the day Z’man Simchatenu?

    Because rain is a precious joy, because God’s world is a thing of beauty, because we have the privilege of being alive to enjoy it.

    Using the sukkah on Sh’mini Atzeret

    October 5th, 2020

    There are seven days of Sukkot followed by the concluding festival of Sh’mini Atzeret.

    In the Gemara, there is a debate about whether this last day belongs to Sukkot or is a festival on its own. If it is a separate festival one need not eat in the sukkah that day.

    The Aruch LaNer thinks the issue has to do with whether one may add to the commands of the Torah. Hence eating in the sukkah on Sh’mini Atzeret might be to add to the Torah commands.

    Rabbi Yochanan who says that one may not eat in the sukkah in the Diaspora that day says there are two options – eating in the sukkah and thus “adding” to the mitzvah – or not eating in the sukkah and thus possibly reducing the mitzvah of the sukkah.

    Rabbi Yochanan preferred the second option since the possible transgression is not particularly definite or active.

    A siyyum for Simchat Torah

    October 5th, 2020

    The custom is to conclude the study of any religious book with a siyyum which celebrates the achievement and ponders the final section of the book.

    This year (indeed it would be appropriate any year) let us celebrate the conclusion of the Five Books of Moses by means of a siyyum on the final verses of D’varim chapter 34.

    • The chapter marks the end of the long career of Moses. The next book of Tanach opens with Joshua taking over the leadership. Why did Moses’ own sons not inherit the role? The Midrash explains that Joshua had earned the rank of leader by a lifetime of faithful service. The decision was made by God, showing that political leadership is not hereditary.

    • How old was Moses when he died (verse 7)? 120, i.e. 10 x 12, perhaps because each decade of his life was dedicated to the 12 tribes.

    • Why (verse 10) is Moses called a prophet? Not because he could predict future events but because he received the Divine message more clearly than anyone else and he conveyed it with passion.

    • Why does verse 12 emphasise how strong Moses was? When the people disobeyed the Torah, Moses was mighty and courageous enough to smash the tablets of the covenant because he thought Israel did not deserve them.

    • Why (verse 6) does nobody know where Moses is buried? To prevent it becoming a national shrine, and because, as the sages say in the Jerusalem Talmud, the righteous need no monument; their deeds are their memorial.

    Religion & the demonstrators

    October 5th, 2020

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 2 October, 2020.

    Demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s residence. Credit: Nettadi CC BY-SA 4.0

    Writing on the day after Yom Kippur, I have a wry smile about how Israel has let itself be torn apart by two camps: the pray-ers and the protesters.

    The pray-ers, who gathered in mostly outdoor groups to mark Yom Kippur, say that Israel without the right to pray is not Jewish.

    The protesters, who mostly gather at nighttime outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street, say that Israel without the right to demonstrate is not Jewish.

    They each think they are the more authentic Jewish group, one saying that Jewishness is people-centered, and the other that it is religion-centered.

    The fact is that they are probably both right. I suspect that Yom Kippur saw the borders between them break down.

    Some kippah-wearing religious people who suspect that others have dethroned God and distorted Jewish identity were actually seen at the Balfour Street gatherings, though presumably there are no statistics.

    The protesters who loudly clamoured that demonstrations were part of Jewish democracy, are partly advocates of a secular view that supposedly says that man can manage without God and the Bible, but they include some (again we don’t have statistics) who made their way on Yom Kippur to their local minyan.

    The fact is that religion and demonstrations have long gone together.

    Even the Bible reports demonstrations, including confrontations with God, not just with prophets and politicians.

    During my years in Sydney, I once did a series of radio programs for the Australia Broadcasting Commission under the title of “Confrontations with God”. I also addressed a conference of Australian naval chaplains on the same subject and left them bemusing whether a faith community has any right to shout at its God.

    The fact is that in the Jewish Bible, God and the prophets are insistent on the glory of the people.

    The fact is that our history constantly stresses Jewish peoplehood.

    The fact is that Moses is nobody without the Children of Israel.

    The fact is that the prayer book (especially the Psalms) not only has its private, personal prayers, but it is also full of national history and hope.

    The fact is that the people of Israel have every right to say, or not say, “We will do and we will hearken.”

    So why should it surprise us that demonstrators are often believers and pray-ers? That demonstrating does not rule out spirituality?

    Why do at least a section of the demonstrators sometimes – maybe regularly – pray? Daily and on Yom Kippur?

    Golda Meir answered when she was asked why she went to synagogue in Moscow, “I went to synagogue to be with my people.”

    Some Jews say, “This is what my parents did.” Others say, “I would feel bad if I didn’t keep Yom Kippur.” There are those who give the occasion a more personal tinge, who say, “I am not always certain that I have made the right choices in life, but Yom Kippur helps me to think it through.”

    Someone who prays on Yom Kippur (even an erstwhile demonstrator) may be a firm believer, sure that there is a God, certain that the world is in Divine hands (though anxious for God to step in and save His creation from destruction by COVID-19 or other menaces).

    That is why the Yom Kippur liturgy acclaims God and appeals to Him to show clemency to human beings when they have failed to meet their potential.

    Those who come to pray tell you sometimes (rather paradoxically) that they are atheists. Why do they put in an appearance and even say “Amen” when the believers are at prayer on Yom Kippur?

    The explanation given by Rav Kook is that they are really minds in search. They’re looking for truth, and they are thus rather more agnostic than atheistic.

    There are critics who say Rav Kook is dreaming and the people who claim to be atheists are not looking for an intellectual and spiritual position but have found one (without God) and are adamant ideological unbelievers.

    Franz Rosenzweig, who found Judaism in a Yom Kippur minyan, makes it clear that the day has a magic, and even if one cannot express that magic in words, the experience of Yom Kippur can turn a person into a quiet individual.

    Yom Kippur in its own way is a demonstration – a demonstration that we belong to the Children of Israel, and the Children of Israel belong to God. Those who come to pray find themselves saying to God Hineni, “Here I am,” and to the people of Israel, Shema Yisrael HaShem Elokeinu HaShem Echad, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”

    The pray-ers are really demonstrators; the demonstrators are really pray-ers.

    Yom Kippur this year was not just a demonstration for God but an attempt to recruit God to support a demonstration against Israel’s current political leadership.

    In the Torah the people shouted against Moses and Aaron, but God told them that their leaders were His choice and the rancorous words hurled at the leaders were also accusations against God.

    In today’s climate, Israeli political leaders probably don’t claim Divine authority but sometimes vox populi, the voice of the people, ought to be heeded.

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