All posts by Jeremy

Naso

Was perhaps Spike Milligan supposed to represent a Nazirite when he emerged from a hole in the desert, jumping up and down, half naked, three-quarters mad and one whole funny in Monty Python’s Life of Brian

The rules regarding the conduct of the Nazirite appear in this week’s sedra, which is jam-packed with other themes, including the prosecution of the woman accused by her husband of adultery. The trial by ordeal brings to mind ‘prosecution’ procedures used to identify witches or other supposed malefactors in mediaeval Europe. To return to the Nazirite, however, he (or she, for women can also assume the role)  is a curious figure in Judaism. Once someone takes the vow, they become holy to God. This suggests that it is a virtuous act to take such a vow. However, the Nazirite must refrain from consuming wine, or indeed anything related to grapes. It is unusual in our religion to practice such self-denial. Indeed denying oneself totally the pleasures of life is seen as a wilful rejection of the gifts given us by God. The ascetic is a foreign concept in Judaism. Perhaps this is why the Nazirite vow was said by many rabbis to be limited to a period of thirty days. 

One of the most interesting examples of a Nazirite is Samson, and part of his story is sometimes read as the Haftorah accompanying Naso. Some rabbis say he was physically strong but morally weak. I think, though, that he was a tragic figure. He must have had spiritual strengths, since it says that God blessed him and that he was moved by God’s spirit, but he did clearly, too, have a weakness. I remember listening to and reading his story as a child. It was easy to think that his hair possessed some kind of strength imparting magic. But the real reason he became powerless before his Philistine enemies is because he broke his Nazirite vows, drinking and allowing his hair to be cut. And how holy could he be under the thrall of a treacherous lover like Delilah? Like other tragic heroes he ended his life with a dramatic act that somehow restored his dignity and greatness. 

Come along this Saturday at 10:30. Sharim Atilano will be leading us.

B’chukkotai

In one or two recent services, we have discussed the challenges of some of the laws appearing in the weekly readings when we examine them in the light of contemporary sensibilities. The rules of priestly purity, for example, are difficult to reconcile with our modern attitudes and policies regarding disability and difference. In B’har, however, we cannot but be taken aback at the enlightened, inspired spirit of the laws given to Moses to pass on to the children of Israel. In a world in which, throughout most, if not all, of history, people have striven with one another to create power and wealth and amass as much land as possible, the laws of the jubilee year are remarkable. Basically, they make it impossible for any single person or family to become the owner of a vast estate. The instructions not to exploit, humiliate or lord it over debtors and the poor share the same inspired, ethical spirit. 

B’chukkotai, continues in similar vein, reminding me of modern UK practice with regard to leasehold property. The parsha also anticipates the book of D’varim in its enumeration of blessings and curses following on from good or bad behaviour respectively. But enough from me, for, this coming Shabbat, we are in for a special treat in the form of Rabbi Maurice Michaels, who is coming to Cornwall to lead our service. When Rabbi Maurice took up his post in Bournemouth, he was described by the local Daily Echo as being an “inspirational rabbi”. Besides having a previous career in commerce and industry behind him, he has served, among other positions, on the Board of Deputies and as Chairman of what is now Reform Judaism. Several of our members have attended services in Bournemouth and I for one can vouch for his ‘inspirational’ leadership. 

Rabbi Maurice will also conduct, as I have possibly mentioned already, a special service to welcome Mai Jacobson and Roger Chatfield into our community. How can you miss such a promising Shabbat day?

Emor

Kedoshim, the parsha before Emor, is reminiscent of Mishpatim, which comes shortly after the Israelites have left Egypt, in that it delivers a whole raft of instructions and laws, all aimed at the creation of a just society and of a holy people. One of the laws in Kedoshim is as follows:

When you reap your land’s harvest, do not completely harvest the ends of your fields. (Also) do not pick up individual stalks (that have fallen). (Furthermore) do not pick the incompletely formed grape clusters in your vineyards. (Also) do not pick up the individual (fallen) grapes in your vineyards. (All the above) must be left for the poor and the stranger.

Now, if it were not for this law, we would have no Magen Davids today. We might have someone else’s magen, but not David’s. My reason for this outrageous affirmation is this. When Ruth, the young Moabite widow, came to the land of Israel, her mother-in-law, Naomi, sent her out to follow the threshers working on the harvest of the noble Boaz. Now, Boaz, a righteous and kindly man, mindful of the law quoted above, told his workers to drop enough ears of corn for Ruth to gather her own plentiful harvest. This kindness convinced Naomi that it was safe to tell Ruth to sleep at the foot of Boaz’s bed. Boaz learned of Ruth’s goodness both from her mother-in-law and from observing her and he decided to marry her, provided she were not claimed by her brother-in-law, according to levirate custom. And the rest is history, for David was Ruth and Boaz’s great-grandson. 

Of course, this is not a watertight case. There are many contributory factors that combine to forge our destiny, just as there are many ingredients, skilful measurements, cuttings, stirrings and other culinary acts to make a good cholent. And David might have been made in some other way. However, it is clear that laws and customs that encourage justice and kindness will almost certainly sooner or later produce something good, like a great king, for example. 

But I have gone on too long about last week’s parsha. This week is Emor, full of priestly laws, festivals and one or two other things. There is  treat in store, for, starting at 10:30,  Adam Feldman will be leading the service and Sharim Atilano will be delivering the derasha

Acharei Mot

Your mother, stepmother, sister, half-sister, aunt, granddaughter, sister-in-law and daughter-in-law are not relatives you should marry or have sexual relations with according to the instructions given through Moses to the Israelites in the sedra of Acharei Mot. We can infer from this that the same would apply to one’s father, stepfather, brother, etc. Following similar logic, all these relatives should not marry or have sexual relations with you. Personally, I have never been tempted to marry my half-sister, for all the affection I feel for her and, while one day, I hope to have grandchildren I am confident I won’t want to marry any of them. Animals are also forbidden partners. I can safely say that the very idea fills me with horror.

None of the above is problematic and for the vast majority, if not all, of our people has never been so. One’s neighbour’s spouse is more tricky, and there may have been some slippage here, even while the offending parties have realised that what they are doing is not right. More difficult for Reform and similar (and perhaps for some Orthodox) Jews has been the prohibition against relations with the same sex. We accept people’s right to make choices based on their sexual identity. The important thing is to respect and honour one’s partner, whoever they may be. How do we reconcile our belief and practice with what it says in the Torah?

Acharei Mot also deals with the Yom Kippur service, the slaughtering of animals and the stamping out of idolatrous sacrificial practices. There is much to consider, and our service leader, Pat Lipert, will make her own wise and considered choice of what to focus on and how. Our Saturday service starts at 10:30. This Shabbat will also be the last day of Pesach, so no leaven for lunch please.

Metzora

“Unclean! Unclean!” That’s what you would have had to shout out if you were struck by the leprous curse in the days of the Israelites. You would have also had to tear your clothes, grow your hair long and cover your face down to the lips. And then you would have had to leave your family and friends and go, alone, to live outside the camp. How terribly shaming and sad this must have been. The leprous curse was supposed to be the physical sign of a spiritual defect. However, the long description of how it was to be identified, the treatment and purification of the sufferer and their eventual rehabilitation under the jurisdiction of the priest, as described in Tazria and Metzora, is preceded by the law concerning the period of ritual uncleanness experienced by the mother who has just given birth. It is followed by the leprous curse affecting houses and clothes and the uncleanness of menstruation and male discharges. Surely, birth is no sign of sin, houses and clothes cannot be spiritually responsible and female and male discharges are merely natural processes. 

How are we to understand all this? The marking out of what is ritually clean and unclean is part of the architecture of the physical and spiritual worlds. There is the divine and the human, the holy and the profane, the ordinary and the extraordinary, sacred space and sacred time, a space where God draws us close and a space where we strive to draw Him close. There is humanity and Israel, heaven and earth, darkness and light. It is our job to negotiate our way within or through or round these many rooms. 

Well, that is just an idea, but for more ideas, prayer, song and conversation, join us this Saturday at 10:30, when Sharim Atilano will lead us along.