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The Meaning of Law - Roe v. Wade

1 July 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

In Biblical Hebrew, two words can be translated as ‘law’ – chok (חוק)  and mishpat (משפט).

What is the difference between a chok and a mishpat? The traditional answer is articulated in early Rabbinic Midrash. A chok has no reason behind it, and a mishpat has a logic which is entirely understandable to people. (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 44) In other words, mishpat is the type of universal law. People would have created it regardless of any religion. Chok is a particularistic law that is unique to Judaism only and has no practical explanation to it. 

In his commentary to Ps. 119:5, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained that the letter Kuf (ק) of the word chok could be interchanged with the letter Gimmel (ג) to produce the word chag (חג, “holiday”). Rabbi Hirsch noted that the root of the word chag means ‘circle’; therefore, to observe a chok is like to encircle or surround yourself with various commandments and laws and give us extra opportunities to develop ourselves positively.

To further develop Rabbi Hirsch’s logic, we need to look at any law and see its value for individuals, society, or the entire world. In other words, when a new law is introduced, it must be measured by its impact on the world. Why was it passed? To whom does it benefit? Who will suffer from it? 

A few days ago, The US Supreme Court voted to overturn the important Roe v. Wade decision. As the result of this decision, half of the states in the US are expected to introduce new restrictions or bans on abortion.

In their statement, Rabbis Rebecca Birk and Rabbi René Pfertzel, Co-Chairs of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors, write:

‘…ultimately, the freedom to choose abortion should not be about the outcomes, but rather fundamentally be about the right of a woman to choose.

‘Judaism has long held a belief and understanding that abortion is a permissible and sometimes necessary measure.

‘From as early as the writings of the Mishnah, we read that the “mother’s life comes before the fetus’s life”.

‘We believe that life is sacred and that the life and well-being of an existing life must be prioritised over the possibility of potential life […]

‘Liberal Judaism stands shoulder to shoulder with Jews in the United States and all those protesting and opposing this unthinkable return to the dark ages. We, and they, will not rest in the ongoing struggle for reproductive liberty.’

(You can read the full statement here)

As we begin Shabbat, let us hope that one day the world will be a place of compassion, trust and understanding in all aspects of life. Let us hope that all laws in this world will become a means to improve individuals and not restrict their freedom, fix injustices in our society and not create them, and make this world a better place for all.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Igor


Shabbat Balak

8 July 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

It was the counter-enlightenment philosopher, diplomat and writer, Joseph de Maistre born in 1753 in Chambéry, Duchy of Savoy, who wrote: ‘Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite’ – ‘Every nation gets the government it deserves.’

In similar vein, a passage in the Talmud (Arakhin 17a) suggests a double interpretation of this biblical verse from Psalms: ‘This is the generation of those who seek the Eternal One, who seek Your face, O God of Jacob’ (Psalm 24:6). The verse teaches us, says the Talmud, that the standards of the generation and those who lead the people are the same.  Yet who follows whom?  Does the generation follow the standards of the leader?  Or does the leader set the standards for his generation?  

De Maistre suggests that it is the nation that merits the leadership and not vice versa.  The Talmud sits on the fence quoting Rabbi Yehuda Nesia and the Sages disagreeing over the question of how high the moral bars are set for a nation or its leader.

There will, no doubt, be those in this country lamenting the loss of a leader they liked for his bumbling presence, for ‘getting Brexit done’, for ‘rolling out the vaccine’ against Covid-19 or simply for his personality. And there will be others expressing relief that he has resigned, urging him to leave Number 10 immediately, reminding us of the treacherous waters we find ourselves in after Brexit, the cost of living crisis, acknowledging the achievement of the NHS, rather than anyone else, in rolling out the vaccine programme, deploring the lies and deception, the dishonour brought to the government and to the people of this country.

Whatever your judgement of this Prime Minister, if he is still Prime Minister by the time this reaches your inbox, it is not the individual leader who is of any consequence, but the people of this country and their families.  It is the woman who is dependent on her local foodbank every week to feed herself and her children, the emotional courage it requires to acknowledge that she needs help, that her salary cannot cover her rent, her heating bill, and their daily living needs.

It is the child whose parent cannot afford a new school uniform for the new year, who must wear someone else’s hand-me-downs, who looks different from his fellow pupils because his shirt or his trousers are worn or of a different colour.

It is the young man, distraught and disorientated, who is left on a trolley for several days in A & E because no bed can be found for him in a psychiatric unit.  It is the homeless woman sitting on the pavement with a paper cup in front of her asking for money so that she can spend the night in a hostel.

It is the teenager who has arrived in this country seeking asylum, in a ‘removal’ centre near Gatwick Airport who is terrified of being put on a plane to Rwanda where he will know nobody.

And it is the volunteers at the foodbank, the lawyers working pro bono on behalf of asylum seekers, the teachers and nurses, doctors and social workers, all those driven by compassion and at the front line of working with those who suffer.

In my own work, I see that suffering comes in different forms and is expressed in different ways.  Leaders should not be above compassion and love. I do not believe that it is something you are necessarily born with, that you either possess or not.  We can learn compassion, as we learn to be other things in life.  It is, as some say, like a muscle that can be trained and exercised.  Listening to the stories of others, discerning and becoming aware of suffering, feeling pain on their behalf, being willing simply to be present for them, even if there is nothing material we can do to alleviate that suffering – all these things help to strengthen the compassion that makes for a more tolerable world.

Perhaps, as we awaken our own compassion for others, our leaders will become more mindful of the individuals they govern. And perhaps when a new leader is chosen for this country, her or his compassion for others will create, in the words of our Haftarah for this Shabbat, an environment of justice, love of goodness and humility in the hearts of all people (Micah 6:8).

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright


Broken Peace. Can radical extremism be an answer?

15 July 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

In times of economic and social instability, many people are tempted to take extreme and radical actions. Are radicalism and strong-hand solution the best answer? These are the central questions of this week’s parashah ‘Pinchas’.

This week’s Torah portion describes events that started at the end of the last week’s parashah. On the way to the Promised Land, the Israelites are seduced by Moabite women into serving their gods (Numbers 25). God is angry with them and sends a plague into the Israelite camp. Before Moses takes action, an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman into the camp to be intimate with her. When an Israelite zealot, Pinchas, sees this, he kills both of them. Despite the moral ambiguity of Pinchas’ actions, the plague stops, and Pinchas is rewarded.

This episode leaves many readers puzzled. How can Torah reward such a cruel act of violence? Does God support extreme zealous behaviour? Rabbis asked such questions in the past, and many did not feel comfortable with this story.

On the one hand, Torah tells us that Pinchas’ reward for his zealotry was a ‘covenant of peace’ (Numbers 25:12) and a ‘lasting priesthood’, (Numbers 25:13). On the other hand, the scribal tradition has an unusual visual interpretation of the story. In the phrase ‘covenant of peace’, the letter ‘vav’ in the Hebrew word ‘Shalom,’ peace, is broken. In most scrolls, it looks like this:

                                                         

Under normal circumstances, any letter that is broken or incomplete would invalidate the entire Torah scroll. However, the law requires every valid Torah scroll to have a break in the letter ‘vav’ of the word ‘Shalom.’

Rabbi Haim Ovadia offers two explanations for this. The first is that occasionally peace must be broken for a higher purpose, such as resisting a dangerous enemy. The second argues that peace achieved through violence will always be incomplete.

Sometimes we need to break the rules and make radical decisions. This week’s Torah portion reminds us that although it will bring peace and justice to people, such peace will never be complete. There must be another way.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Igor

 


Shabbat Mattot

22 July 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

‘The Sages taught: One who sees the sun in the beginning of its cycle, the moon in its might, the planets in their orbit, or the signs of the zodiac aligned in their order recites the blessing on seeing the wonders of nature and the universe: Baruch attah Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha-olam oseh ma’aseh v’reishit - Blessed are You, Sovereign of the Universe, Author of creation’ (Berachot 59b).

This is surely the blessing we should recite as we take in the wondrous images revealed last week by Nasa, the US space agency, from the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most powerful observatory in space.  The Telescope is described as a ‘time machine’, capable of taking us back to the beginning of time. 

The camera – the largest to go into space – captures infrared light that has travelled across the universe since the beginning of time, and allows us to see beyond the dust, gas and cloud that mask unseen galaxies and stars. 

What did the universe look like 13.1 billion years ago, a mere 700 million years after the Big Bang? What is the stuff that our sun and planet are made of – and that we, too, are formed from?  And can we learn whether there is life on other planets.

These images – because of their immense distance – allow us to go back in time: to see one star as it existed in 2018, four light years away; another as it appeared in the year 1380, 642 light years away, and light that has travelled across the universe since the beginning of time.

And the images of these galaxies, teeming with billions of stars are exquisite. No cinematic special effects could capture the magical and awe-inspiring nature of the heavens. Not even the majestic poem at the beginning of the Torah, the creation of the lights in the expanse of the sky, ‘spilling light upon the earth’ on the fourth day of creation, conveys the immensity and wondrous nature of this early universe.

Such images deepen that sense of wonder and awe and affirm the words of Amos who calls on the people to ‘Seek the Eternal One, and you will live…[the Eternal One] 

‘Who made the Pleiades and Orion, 
Who turns deep darkness into dawn 
And darkens day into night, 
Who summons the waters of the sea
And pours them out upon the earth….’ (Amos 5:8)

Yet, while in the heavens the space telescope captures the intricate and primal workings of the universe, here below we are burning up the earth in catastrophic ways, destroying so much of what we want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren and generations in the future.  We felt only a fraction, earlier on this week, of what millions of people experience in countries further south – parched ground, wildfires, destruction of the environment, ill-health and death.  

How are we going to solve the climate catastrophe before it is too late?  Imagine if we were somewhere a million miles away from the earth, in a small capsule attached to the James Webb Space Telescope and able to see our tiny, miniscule planet, spinning on its axis, with its one moon, its mountains and glaciers, rivers and seas, its forests and plains – our wonderful and precious blue planet.

Surely, we would argue, it must be easy to solve problems in such a small, compact space, a space that allows us to breathe, to bathe in its waters, a space that is protected by its atmosphere, and that provides us with abundant resources.  Surely leaders can speak to each other across the globe, they can put their heads together, change systems to make life more fair for all the world’s inhabitants and protect the well-being of the planet.

Perhaps the Webb Telescope will help us to change the mistaken belief that the earth is here for our use, so that we embrace the fundamental principle that we are here to care for and preserve the precious resources of the earth. Then the light that was born 13 billion years ago will continue to make its light years’ journey to earth, and future generations will recite the blessing that praises God, Author of Creation for the wondrous beauty of this universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 


Destruction and Responsibility 

29 July 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Owen Eastwood is a performance coach. In his career, he has worked with some of the best teams and groups in the world, including the Command Group of NATO, the South African Cricket Team, many corporate leadership teams, the best ballet, and the British Olympic team.

As a result of this work, Eastwood wrote a book, “Belonging: The Secret Code of Elite Teams”. In this book, he writes about the concept “Whakapapa” - a Maori word which embodies our human need to belong. Maori is the name of a native people in New Zealand, and Eastwood came across this concept while researching his ancestry. Whakapapa represents a powerful spiritual idea - we are all part of an unbroken and unbreakable chain of people who share a special culture. To illustrate this concept, Eastwood cites Vladimir Nabokov, who once said: "our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness". Although there is unknown darkness of the past and future, the connection with generations before and after us is crucial for the concept of Whakapapa. This light of the present moment is your spotlight and chance to honour the past and leave some legacy to future generations. According to “Whakapapa”, each generation is linked across the ages to its ancestors and descendants, and each has its opportunity to shine before the torch moves on.

Jewish people are in a three-weeks-long period of mourning, commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples. The Three Weeks start on the seventeenth day of the Jewish month of Tammuz and end on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. Both dates commemorate events surrounding the destruction of the Jewish Temples and the subsequent exile of Jewish people.

Periods like this have resonance with Nabokov’s quote. Sometimes our existence feels like a brief crack of light between many dark moments. It is easy to see Jewish history as an unending sequence of disasters and persecutions. However, Rabbis in Talmud remind us of the importance of hope for a better future.

Talmud tells a story about a group of prominent Rabbis walking in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. (Makkot 24b) When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. The others started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed.

Said they to him: "Why are you laughing?"

Said he to them: "Why are you weeping?"

After a lengthy discussion, Rabbi Akiva shared with his colleagues that the destruction was meant to happen, and this is not the end of the story. He could see the potential for a better future when others only saw destruction, suffering and devastation.

Another Talmudic story looks at the destruction from a very different perspective. Rabbis tried to understand what they did wrong and why this suffering fell upon them. In the famous passage, they came to this conclusion:

Considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness and did not perform the sinful actions that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed because of baseless hatred.

Sometimes we need to look inside to find the issue. We live our lives in the light of the present moment. This light is our spotlight and our chance to honour the past and leave some legacy for future generations. Let this legacy be of self-improvement, taking responsibility and becoming a better society.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Igor

Fri, 19 August 2022 22 Av 5782