giovedì 20 novembre 2008

Hayé Sarah


וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא אֶת־יִצְחָק. “And Rebecca lifted her eyes and saw Isaac” (Gen. 24:64).
I wonder what could have happened if Rebecca and Isaac had not liked each other.
The text conveys a sense of inevitableness. Rebecca appears on the scene exactly when Abraham’s servant has finished praying to God for the success of his mission: to find the proper wife for Isaac. And from the very first moment, Rebecca seems to be promised to Isaac. She has all the good qualities: she is gorgeous, attentive, welcoming to guests and strangers. She comes from, let’s say, a well-known family. In order to meet her future husband Rebecca even skips the leave-taking ceremonies that she is supposed to attend. When finally Isaac sees her, and she sees Isaac, Rebecca veils herself in a shrewd seductive move. And two verses later the two are already in the same tent, having (as my American friends say) a lot of fun.
From this story some commentators—Samson Raphael Hirsch, for example—took the opportunity to praise what they call “the Jewish marriage”: the marriage “made in Heaven”. That means: arranged by families, and where the mates’ individual decision plays a very limited role, because love is supposed to come only after the marriage, not before[1]. Rebecca’s family asks for her opinion once things are already settled with Isaac’s family. Nobody even asks Isaac for his opinion. Not surprisingly, he is able to love his wife only “in the tent of his mother Sarah” (Gen. 24:67); only, as Rashi says, when she became like his mother. There are a whole lot of examples of dysfunctional relations in the Book of Genesis.
Given these premises, one cannot but wonder what would have happened if either Rebecca or Isaac had rebelled against their families’ decisions and their love had never bloomed. Given the historical conditions, certainly none of them would have found another nice Jewish boy or girl to marry.
Linda Stern Zisquit, an American poetess who immigrated to Jerusalem in the Nineties, writes:
Had Rebecca not looked up
(…) there would have been no water,
no winding dream,
no tribe or unrelenting
portion of sadness
dispersed on (…) Jerusalem
and I would not have been promised
to gather them home. But Rebecca
saw him, and he loved her[2].
One could say: had Rebecca not lifted her eyes, there would have been no Jewish people at all. But she did, and here we are.
Falling in love, with all the consequences, is something beyond human control. It is like the time of death, or the result of the struggle to establish descendents—all themes our parasha deals with. The servant of Abraham knew it well, when he asked God הַקְרֵה־נָא, “send me a good chance” (Gen 24:12), to surprise us, the readers.
Indeed, the whole concept of Chance, good or bad, is inconceivable for those who believe in Divine Providence. Nehama Leibowitz points out that מִקְרֶה chance, Fate, was the core of Philistines’ religion[3]. The Philistines believed that a person’s destiny was “written in the stars”, that humans were ruled by an impersonal force, Fate, sometimes manipulable through magic, but ultimately indifferent to human will.
This belief goes against the principle of responsibility. “It was Fate”, “I could do nothing” means: “I am not responsible”, “it was not my decision”. Or: “I had to do it”. These are exactly the words we hear from those who remain bound to destructive, dysfunctional relationships, only to please, or to defy, their parents.
Was it just a Philistine thing? The confrontation between beliefs, ours in a personal, caring God and theirs in an impersonal Fate, is not limited just to the time of Israelite struggle with the Philistines. It is a contemporary thing. I am not thinking only of astrology, something I admittedly also indulge in—such a funny parlor-game. I am referring, for example, to the belief in the magical virtues of an impersonal force called the “Free Market” that is supposed to provide social welfare, economic development and even democracy all over the world. And in case the magic doesn’t work, in times like ours, we hear wealthy people saying: “It’s nobody’s fault” “There are no definite personal responsibilities” “It’s the system”. And those who, as a result of this bad conjuncture, are at risk of losing their savings or jobs, can only pray for the appropriate מקְרֶה
This is, let me say, totally un-Jewish. Our tradition commands us not only to look for responsibilities, but also to establish a society where the stranger, the orphan, the widow are not pushed to the margins. True, it also includes unusual stories of dysfunctional families from a long time ago, but it leaves us with the commitment to discover the connections between Ancient Middle Eastern sagas and perennial ethical truths that refer to the whole of humanity.
As each of us has come into the world due to the love of our parents, may we be able to build a society based on din ve-hesed, justice and love.

[1] Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah, tr. by Isaac Levy, Judaica Press, London 1996, vol. I, p. 412.
[2] Linda Stern Zisquit, “Posit”, now included in: Linda Stern Zisquit, Unopened Letters, Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale (NY), 1996.
[3] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), tr. by Aryeh Newman, Eliner Library, Jerusalem, (1986), pp. 239-243.

lunedì 10 novembre 2008

To bris or not to bris

Believe it or not, before beginning my journey to the Rabbinate, I did not have many contacts with the Anglo Jewry. So, before relocating here, I read something, and I came across a story that I would like to share with you today.
It is the story of Avrumele, born somewhere in Russia more or less one century ago, and immigrated as a child in the East End, where he grew up and became, you guess, tailor. He married Rivka, she too an East Ender of the same generation. Avrumele, now Abraham, was a trade unionist, and he also was very good at boxing. Somebody said he was in Cable Street that famous day of 1936. Avrumele has had his bar mitzwah –just because his parents wanted him to do, and those days teen agers couldn’t even think to say no to their parents.
Avrumele was a communist: an atheist, even if deeply Jewish. He and Rivka eat kosher - simply because the kosher butchery was close to home. They peppered with yddish expressions their spoken English. But, as I have said, Abraham hold the firm belief that God does not exist, that rabbis, priests, and noblemen started this business of God, only to maintain control over the people.
Now, you can easily imagine Abraham’ troubles when he learnt of Rivka’s pregnancy. Oy gevalt.
Please, don’t misunderstand. Of course Avrumele was happy. He was the happiest Jew, the proudest person in the world. And of course all his family was increasingly happy, and this just increased his gladness. But there was, you know, that problem. What is called a lifecycle ritual, the bris.
Bris is a religious ritual. And for a communist, like Avrumele was, religion is opium for the masses. But on the other hand, how to face the whole family, especially on Rivka’s side; they were so religious, somebody even a regular in the minyan of Fieldgate Street.
Avrumele revealed his thoughts to the comrades: and when somebody was saying that God does not exist, he countered that family, well, does exist. And if it is about avoiding unnecessary pain to a child, you can’t inflict pain to the whole family, breaking the tradition. When somebody was pointing out that it would have been a shame to raise a son like a goy gamur, Abraham/Avrumele answered that God is a lie, and religion is but another face of oppression.
Truth is that he did not know what to do, which decision had to be taken by a good father, by a committed communist, by a good Jew. And the more the delivery approached, the more the internal struggle of Avrumele increased. How to educate a son to be a good communist, one of those who should lead the proletariat to victory? Why mark on the flesh the sign of the covenant with a God that does not exist? To bris or not to bris?
The long, painful conversations of Avrumele about God became famous in the East End. They still are, even now, when most of the London Jewish population lives somewhere else. But Avrumele’s concerns are our own too. They go along the history of the Jewish people. We can easily guess that Avraham too, some centuries before Avrumele, faced similar dilemmas, when the events narrated in our parasha took place. The story begins when God reassure Avraham, who is ninety-years old: Anì El Shadai, I am El Shadai, walk in my ways and be blameless (Gen 17:1).
El Shaddai is usually translated as Almighty, but sounds more like: the God that is Sufficient, the God that is enough. There are of course several theological implications – El Shaddai means that there are no other gods; that no other divinity exists; that no other entity in the Universe is self sufficient. Everything that exists is created by the One and Eternal God, the El Shaddai. And there are, of course, existential implications: being God El Shaddai, the One who is enough, the One who maintains the world, Abraham should not fear: he can trust, he can walk in God’s ways. He can trust God’s Covenant.
But to a Hebrew speaker Sha-Dai means also: the One who says (the first letter, Shin, can be read as such): Dai! Stop! Enough of this! This is the prelude to the Covenant with the Jewish people.
There was already a first covenant between God and the whole mankind: it was stipulated after the Flood. God agreed not to destroy anymore the whole of creation, regardless how badly men could behave. But we humans never stop acting badly. Therefore God decided to establish another covenant: shaDai! I have had enough of this humankind. Walk in My ways, Abraham. And comes the embarrassing precept of circumcision, bris, a problem for our Avrumele, of the East End.
Such a barbaric act, such a tribal custom: a commandment that applies only to a tribe clashes clamorously with the universalistic message of freedom and justice that the same God, the same Tradition, the same story, charged us.
An unbelievably large amount of pages have been written on this topic, on this tension between the highest values like human dignity, duty of compassion and the trivial rules that govern the details of Jewish life. We live this tension each time we are addressed about Israel. Are we loyal to the whole humanity? Or are we more loyal to our tribe? And what happen in case of a war between Israel and, let’s say, Europe?
We know, of course, that these are stupid questions. They sound like when a child is asked: who do you love more, Mummy or Daddy? Of course we love them both. Of course we can’t be loyal to our Country if we are not loyal to Judaism, a set of values which includes a particular connection with Israel.
More: the only way we know to be loyal to our Country is through the loyalty to Judaism, which teaches us to respect the laws of the Country but not to make an idol of the ruling class. The only way we know to love humankind is to profess the faith commanded to Abraham long ago: Walk in My ways, toward yom ha-hu, that very day in which idolatry and oppression will disappear from the Earth.
It is a challenge. Abraham fell on his face when he heard El Shaddai commanding him that tribal rite: centuries after, some decades ago, that commandment caused so many troubles to a Jewish soul in the East End. Whose story, anyway, has a happy ending: Avrumele, the resolute communist, the committed atheist, became father of a daughter.
This way an answer was provided to his question: to bris or not to bris. When he received the news of the birth of his daughter, so the story goes, Avrumele was so happy that he immediately called his best friend and said: I have told you, not only God exists, but is a comrade too.

Shabbat Lech Lecha 5769
Synagogue Ne'eve Shalom, Hull.