Thursday, 18 Mar 2010

Written by Leo Baeck College Vice Principal, Rabbi Dr Michael Shire

I feel paralysed these days. The news is so terrible that it feels like things are going, in the words of George Steiner, from pessimistic to apocalyptic. I am reluctant to watch the news and want to avoid the sheer burden of it all. The sense of injustice about Zimbabwe, the sheer horror of news from the Middle East, the anxiety about the future of Afghanistan , for treat anxiety buy valium online . It seems India and Pakistan have pulled back from the brink but now everyone is talking about war with Iraq. Can this really be the human condition at the beginning of the 21st century? We read about animal sacrifices in the Torah, how Israelites were commanded to bring all sorts of animals to the altar, to be cut up in parts, burnt and offered as a pleasing odor to God. And we are duly embarrassed at our ancestors, repulsed by this behaviour and glad that we have evolved beyond this savagery. And yet, how can we compare that to what is done today in the name of religion. Not animals, but countless human lives sacrificed on the altar of religion: Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Africans, Chechens, Kosovans. Is this the sacrifice that God seeks of us? Is this pleasing to God?Singular voices emerged in biblical Israelite society ready to challenge the religious rites of the day. The ancient Hebrew prophets – the neviim- spoke forth, often reluctant to take on such a role but ultimately infused with a passionate commitment to a moral law and the message of social conscience. Their prime role was to speak about the present and its consequences for the future and as such they were said to prophecy the future. They spoke up for the advancement of justice, peace and religious truth especially against those who devoted them selves to punctilious religious observance and yet led immoral lives and were blind to the moral abuses around them. For a prophet like Micah, the Priests and the people had failed to grasp the true nature of religion and the direction of God’s law. Isaiah asks what need have I of all your sacrifices. Your hands are stained with crime. Cease to do evil, learn to do good. Amos, the fiercest critic of all cries I loathe, I spurn your festivals. I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings. Rather let justice well up like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. I wonder:  where are those voices today? Where are our prophets able to speak out with moral authority in God’s name?

The concept of the Hebrew prophet – the Navi ended with the canonization of the Hebrew bible in the fifth century BCE and later Jewish rabbinic tradition later declared that prophecy had come to an end. Nonetheless others notably Josephus and Maimonides himself understood this type of moral prophecy to be ongoing or with the potential to return when God should call again. Individuals with a [forthright] capacity to express a search for truth and a demand for justice continued.  Those who lived out a prophetic role after the biblical prophets share, in whole or part, the characteristics of the navi.   Prophets such as Isaac Abravanel, Barukh Spinoza, Dona Gracia Mendes, Leo Baeck, Lily Montagu and Martin Buber echo the role of the ancient prophets by reluctantly coming forward, seeing what is true, speaking truth to power at great personal risk and calling out in God’s name to put right a wrong.  

We liberal Jews pride ourselves on living out a prophetic Judaism and we would regard some of our leadership as prophets of their age. Yet I fear that for many, this is no longer the case. We may state honestly that we are not halakhaic but that does not make us automatically prophetic. Our Judaism is still concerned with the rabbinic notions of asur and mutar; forbidden and allowed in Jewish practice rather than the sublime notions of individual liberty and dignity, democratic ideals and universal peace that are the great ideas that the Bible has contributed to the civilized world, especially through the words and deeds of the prophets.

[We have lost our will to lead with a prophetic voice.  We have lost hope that anything can change for the better. ]

And so we become paralysed and reluctant. How can we say anything in the face of daily outrages on all sides [in the regions of conflict around the world]?  Why should we commit ourselves when our families are relatively safe? The world is so politically complicated – how can we know what is right or fair or just? As we feel more and more isolated, it is precisely the time to become more engaged not less. Regaining the prophetic message is to open the possibility of encounter and negotiation yet one more time. We have to be dedicated to our task of peacemaking in as strong a way as those who go to war.
The word Vayikra – ‘God called’ is written in the Torah with a miniature aleph at the end of the word followed by the verb v’yidaber- to speak. The Midrash suggests that the small aleph indicates the word could be read ‘Vayikir’ without the aleph. VaYikir means to happen upon or encounter. Only when we encounter the other and meet in dialogue, can we be called upon to speak, to take on the role of prophet.  

Mark Ellis, an American Jewish Activist reminded the Rabbinic conference last year that though Jews perform many good deeds in the world, the Jewish people will be judged on how we treat the Palestinians. This is our particular trial and we will be counted for it whether we like it or not. It must therefore be our prophetic task, especially as Liberal Jews to take the risk, reluctant though we may be to meet, dialogue and be ready to be challenged by those who have suffered at our hands and now seek justice. In the words of one of the great modern Jewish prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.’ To do nothing is to abrogate our calling. For, as Heschel wrote in the 1960s, ‘the opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference’.

When things become pushed to the extremes, it is precisely then that we need dialogue; not less of it but more, more often, more intense, for more people, said Jonathan Magonet at the college’s annual Jewish, Christian Muslim conference last week. Regaining the possibility of encounter, of negotiation; that is the task that desperately needs to be undertaken. Martin Buber, in his address to the World Union for Progressive Judaism in 1951 said about the Jewish people; ‘religious realism peculiar to Israel is bound up with a demand that Israel fulfill God’s task on earth. This is where the prophetic protest sets in.’

That means to listen and recognize the truth in what we hear from the other side. It means to acknowledge the pain of others, even despite our own pain. And when the guns have finally stopped firing, this is what we will need to repair the human damage that has been done and build a vision of life together for the future.

Rabbi Dr Michael Shire
March 2010

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