This week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exod. 18:1–20: 23), contains one of the best-known pieces of Biblical literature: the Ten Commandments (first edition!).
As we learnt two weeks ago in Parashat Bo it was an erev rav: a mixed multitude (Exod. 12:38) which emerged from Egypt. It certainly contained Hebrew slaves but perhaps there were other enslaved individuals as well as freed prisoners, dissidents, opportunists—indeed anyone the Egyptians were momentarily pleased to see the back of!
These desperate people may not have known what awaited them but if escape from Egypt and across the Reed Sea were tough they now faced an unspecified period of wandering in inhospitable terrain—united by very little other than having been granted the gift of physical freedom.
With such potential for anarchy and chaos it should not be a surprise that Moses –and his father-in-law after whom the parashah is named– should concern themselves with good government. The appointment of competent officials (Exod. 18: 21–27), a basic constitution in ten clauses (Exod. 20:1–14), and a little pomp and circumstance (Exod. 20:15–18) including a place for ceremonials (Exod. 20:19–23) are the building blocks of any organised society, and thus Moses and Jethro are credited with transforming a bunch of no-hopers and the downtrodden into the beginnings of a successful nation.
This Shabbat is the 48th yahrzeit of Lily Montagu, who was a co-founder of Liberal Judaism in Britain. She was only 25 years old when she wrote an article for the Jewish Quarterly Review, the editors of which were another Liberal Judaism co-founder, Claude G. Montefiore, and the Orthodox scholar, Israel Abrahams. In her article Montagu called for changes in worship which might bring spiritual uplift to an increasingly apathetic and demoralised Jew in the pulpit.
Later in her life, Lily Montagu was one of the country’s first woman Justices of the Peace, helped found the National Association of Girls Clubs, and was active in the Women’s Industrial Council and the Anti-Sweating League (which was formed to improve the working conditions of low-paid workers). Despite being the daughter of the Orthodox Lord Swaythling, Montagu made a connection between her Judaism and those members of the contemporary society who had least control over their own time and destinies. Montagu observed that many Jews were employed in the retail and fashion trades in which Saturday morning work was obligatory for all. Thus she established the West Central Liberal Synagogue with its unique Shabbat afternoon services, a custom that still pertains today.
Just as there are no Hebrew slaves in Egypt so there are no Jewish piece workers in the garment trade today. But who might be the enslaved of our own society? There are asylum seekers who fear return to their country of origin; there are trafficked woman who are caught in a web of exploitation; there are abused children trapped in a conspiracy of silence; there are addicts ensnared in the cycle of the highs; there are the homeless gripped by temporariness; and there are the lonely confined by circumstances.
This past week I have had to think about those who are enslaved by the condition of their physical bodies. First, I was asked to make a statement on organ donation. Liberal Judaism has long advocated the carrying of donor cards in accord with the principle that we have an overwhelming obligation to pikkuach nefesh, the saving of life. It seems particularly sad that men, women and particularly children will die for lack of a suitable donated organ whilst rabbinic authorities debate the technicalities of death.
Second, I was asked to give evidence to the Commission on Assisted Dying, chaired by former Lord Chancellor, Charlie Falconer. The Commission was established to consider ‘what system, if any, should exist to allow people to be helped to die and whether changes in the law should be introduced’. The Commission members include parliamentarians, a disability campaigner, a Professor of Palliative Medicine, one of my local hospice Medical Directors, and the Revd Dr James Woodward, Canon of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Amongst all these experts and prominent persons I felt rather like an Egyptian soldier in the Reed Sea but, having been a hospital and hospice chaplain and like so many of us having supported family and friends during the dying process and at death, I did want to give my personal view that a religious Jew with a strong belief in the affirmation of life can raise questions of the ‘quality of life’, and that the desire to end one’s life is a moral possibility from a Liberal Jewish standpoint.
I accept that my view is a controversial one, but as Moses created new institutions for the nascent Hebrew nation, as Lily Montagu breathed a new spirit into Victorian British Jewry, what is Liberal Judaism if it will not offer new thinking in our time?
Rabbi Danny Rich
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.