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.

1 commento:

Spiccato ha detto...

Che bella storia :-)))