Thursday, 10 May 2018

Written by Etienne Kerber

pizzaI do love pizza. And I do think pizza can help explain very complex spiritual ideas.

Let’s say that life is a margarita pizza coming straight from the oven. The dough is Napolitan, warm, thick, light and soft inside and crispy on the outside. The tomatoes are juicy and fresh. The mozzarella is generous and has melted next to the burning fire. And of course, Basil, it brings the green color and the sweet extra perfume to the dish.

When you are standing in front of that pizza, you can feel fragile, unarmed, torn. There is something driving you to eat it. An irresistible desire so powerful that it gives you vertigo.

And so is life. Life is sometimes so overwhelming we don’t know how to deal with it. Very often, at any age and every stage of life, we can wonder: Where to start?

However, if we put our minds to it, we can find a way to break in. Let’s grab a knife and cut a slice. And what seemed impenetrable now has a way in. Once we have a slice in hand, we can start eating the pizza. And in general, at least in my experience, it makes life much better.

This is the image that will help me explain the complicated first verses of Parashat Behukotai.

In the opening verses of this parashah, the Eternal one seems to make a deal with the Hebrews. If we obey the laws, we will not lack food, and our enemies will be defeated. This strongly resembles the verses we find in the second paragraph of the Shema.

Having been spiritually raised in Progressive Judaism, I have always been taught that those passages are theologically problematic, especially in the post-Shoah era. After what happened during the first half of the 20th century, where human cruelty hit blind humanity, how can we say that God will intervene like God does in the Bible? … Whether one is pious or not… And as a modern thinker, we can also ask who is pious anyway?

So, here we stand in front of these problematic verses of Behukotai, and deep down, it feels like we are standing in front of two paths.

The first one says: “forget about it”, this theology belongs to the past, we don’t need it anymore.

But the second one murmurs: Let’s embrace difficulty.

Indeed, if Torah is problematic, it makes it all the more exciting. And the answer I will propose today is easy: Don’t touch the verses. Change nothing. Accept the challenge.

Or more precisely, change nothing in the material world, because something does need to be changed. It is not the words but what is at the heart of the reading, what puts a living breath into the words, our interpretation of it.

Therefore, what is possible in front of problematic verses is using a non-literal interpretation. This allows us to renew the meaning of Torah, and bring to Torah and our spiritualties what we call in English renewal, and in Hebrew Hidush.

And here is a possible Hidush for those verses:

One option is understanding Rain, Food, and Victory as the benefits that come to us when we choose to live according to the rules of Judaism.

Let’s be extremely careful here. Progressive Judaism does not proclaim to sell a recipe for happiness. It is not because we observe mitzvot that we will be healthy, rich, and successful… But what can be said it is that Judaism can bring something just as important as air and water. Judaism, when practiced poetically and spiritually, can bring an essential element to anyone’s life, and this element is called meaning.


Let’s take a concrete example of the Jewish practice I have had in mind since the beginning of this derashah.

One of the strongest rituals in Judaism is Shabbat. And when we think about it, Shabbat’s first function is to come and break the week in two. On one hand, there is the Daily, and on the other, there is the Shabbat, the Kodesh, which means literally in Hebrew, what is set apart. Therefore, Shabbat allows us to create ourselves nothing less than a separated unit of time, or in other words, a slice of time.

This is where the pizza story and Torah meet.

Instead of using a knife, we use candles. And here we have it. Suddenly, once they are lighted, time stops. It is delimited, from Friday to Saturday night. The Shabbat is an accessible portion of time that can fit into one’s hand. Ready to be eaten. But wait a minute. I see you coming.

If pizza is often considered as fast food, real pizza is definitely not fast food. Any good pizza dough has rested for at least 24 to 48 hours. It was made with the best flour, with tomatoes filled with sun, a delicately handmade mozzarella, from Buffaloes living in very good conditions…  And once all the ingredients are placed together, the pie needs to be introduced in a proper wood oven. And cooked the exact amount of time.

Now that you know. Will you dare eating it while working? In front of a t.v screen or a smartphone? While walking on the street? Non! Ca n’est pas possible!

A proper pizza has to be eaten like Shabbat should be lived. It has to be enjoyed, appreciated, and shared in order to be honored properly and reach the profondeur of the moment we are diving in.

And it is not a matter of Law. It is just good sense. One can only be in touch with what he/she is doing if he/she is dedicated to what is being done, when it is being done. And it might mean that any kind of work should be stopped, tv and radio switched off and/or social networks as well.

Let the juice of the tomatoes melt with the one of the mozzarella. Let that exquisite liquid slowly penetrate the dough riding between your tongue and palate. And once that process is over, enjoy it, while it is slowly descending along your throat and all the flavors are echoing in your mouth. Yes, it is sensual and so is the imagery of Shabbat. We welcome the celebration singing Lekha Dodi “Come, my friend, the bride to meet, the Sabbath day in joy to greet” and very often, we add to it Shir Hashirim (the Song of Songs) the Hebrew Bible’s erotic poem. It describes two lovers’ feelings and thoughts through magnificent poetical images. Yes, all the senses are required in order to appreciate that Royal piece of Italian cuisine. And so should it be with Shabbat.

During a day within which, in the best case, no work is accomplished, and one is surrounded by the ones he/she cares for, every second, minute, hour, and moment should be appreciated fully. And here should come the reward. A few moments of deep happiness and fulfilment…

Therefore, who knows if this is what the Biblical authors had in mind since the beginning? Not the pizza, but the theology that was expressed at the beginning of our Parashah. We sometimes think ourselves modern, but judging from the complexity of the Biblical characters, something that did not change since Biblical times is the human soul. And it seems quite fair thinking that possibly, as it is the case today, not everyone was understanding Torah literally.

No matter which interpretation you will decide to choose, if this Shabbat experience is repeated, ritually, over weeks, months and years, then, what can be guaranteed, is that at some point, a certain form of meaning should appear. It might not look like what you expected to find, but who knows, it might come to you when you are sitting at home, eating a delicious slice of pizza.

Shabbat shalom!

Etienne Kerber LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.