Jewish Origins Explained Without Reference to Revelation: A New Approach

Preface

The next few blogs will be dealing with the above indicated title. You may ask yourself why so. Certainly not in order to persuade anyone to understand Judaism as I do! I am not a Jewish missionary! However, from conversations with fellow congregants I have become aware that there are Jewish persons who, similarly to my understanding of Judaism, reject the supernatural elements in our faith but decided to maintain their Jewishness in terms of adherence to Judaism and membership in a synagogue congregation.

Now the question arises: is it possible to maintain one’s Jewish faith while jettisoning belief in a supernatural God as the Torah and TaNakh (Hebrew for Bible) present this God to us? Clearly this is impossible without one’s necessity to rethink Jewish origins and religious development.

In the following essays I will try to convey to folks who wrestle with this issue that yes, indeed, it is possible to remain a Jew, to read certain faith affirmations in the siddur without being a traitor to one’s faith, or a hypocrite. Jewish history and its resulting faith can be understood without one’s having to make intellectual sacrifices. One can be an agnostic (a person confessing lack of absolute knowledge, the preposition “a…” meaning without) or an atheist, (a person living one’s life and belief system without the biblical God).

Introduction

On the Jewish high holiday of yom kippur the Day of Atonement (in October 2013), during the worship service, after one of the Torah scrolls had been taken from the aron hakodesh, the holy Torah ark or holy Torah closet, there arose something like a collective gasp emanating from the congregation. Three Torah scrolls tumbled from the Torah shrine’s open doors with one of them partially unscrolled, touching ground and being slightly damaged.

Catastrophe! What next?

Why is such an accident considered a disaster? Because the Torah (the hand-written Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses, (Genesis through Deuteronomy), is the centerpiece of Judaism without which the Jewish religion could not exist. Without the Torah and a minyan, (an assembly of a minimum of ten Jewish adults), public worship cannot take place according to Jewish tradition. Torah is the greatest treasure the Jewish people possess. Torah is referred to as etz chayiim, a “tree of life for those who hold on to it.” As a sign of contrition for having let this happen the tradition calls for a congregational fast of 40 days.

One of the earliest mentions of this practice is found in a responsum (a rabbinic response to a question submitted to a rabbi or a body of rabbis by a congregant or a congregation) of Rabbi Israel of Brunna (present day Brno, capital of Moravia in the Czech Republic, 15th century). According to this responsum the fall of a Torah scroll is something for which one must repent not just as an individual but by the congregation. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (18th century) known as the CHIDA explains that by fasting, the congregation repents for the lack of care and respect which allowed the holy object to fall. The tradition of 40 days of fasting is derived from the time that Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for 40 days while receiving the Torah from God, without eating or drinking. Even though in our time this quasi command is not exactly followed – the times they have changed! – people will perform alternate practices of teshuvah (repentance) such as offering monetary gifts to the synagogue or fasting a shorter length of time than 40 days. To have let this happen was a deplorable sign of disrespect for the Torah that demanded repentance as ordered by Jewish minhag or tradition.

Our synagogue leaders decided, rather than calling for a congregational fast, to use the following weeks for special education sessions concerning Torah, its origins, history, values and sanctity.

It was to be my honor to initiate this special educational unit by giving one or more sermons on Shabbat morning on the subject of Torah.

And so I did. My first sermon dealt with how the Near Eastern tribe of the Habiru developed into a theocratic nation presided over by Israel’s second king, David, around the year 1,000 BCE, something I want to deal with in the following essay very briefly. This was followed by a session dealing with David’s and king Solomon’s reign and the initial formation of Torah as the religious and civil constitution, as it were, of the so-called newly formed United Kingdom. It is here that my reconstruction of Israel ‘s history offers elucidations of much that has been puzzling to thoughtful Bible readers. I might add that my understanding of the beginnings of this first version of Israel as a geopolitical entity shows some resemblance to the formation of our country, its Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Before we go any further with this we need to agree that Judaism as well as Christianity teach that their respective religion’s origins came by way of revelation from the biblical God. So, for instance, as the Torah scrolls are about to be returned to the Torah ark, one of the congregants holds up high the partially opened Torah scroll for everyone to see its written text while the congregation chants in Hebrew, “This is the Torah that Moses set/placed before the people Israel [al piy adonay] by order of the LORD , through Moses.”

Note: The literal translation of the Hebrew in italics above is an idiom that reads “according to the mouth of.” When LORD is found written in English Bibles as used here it stands for the four sacred letters Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh usually transliterated as Y-H-W-H and representing the name of God as revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush. The tradition calls for the Torah reader to pronounce these four letters as adonay, the Hebrew word for “LORD” in 1st person plural possessive form or actually “my lords,” followed by a verb or adjective in singular. (More about this a bit later when we will discuss Judaism’s only faith affirmation, called the shema.)

It follows that the words “set, placed, given” in this literary context are synonyms for “revealed.” Based on this text sung in synagogue and found in many other biblical places that deal with God’s spoken conversations with Moses, the Torah was given to Moses for the purpose of its transmission to the people Israel in order to serve the people as instruction and guidance for life, as well as religious law. It follows that the word “Torah” when translated into English (or any other modern language) needs to be translated as one of the three nouns given above depending on the literary context in which it is found. Let me mention here that one of the gross errors found in the New Testament where reference is made to a Hebrew Bible text, the ever repeated translation of the word “Torah” is given as law.

It could be said that Torah in an ultimate sense is not just about religion but represents guidance to a way of life as, allegedly, demanded by the biblical God.


Note: Please direct your comments or responses to my e-mail, waziff at aol dot com. Thanks.

Pesach: History, Myth and Meaning

Pesach, the Hebrew name for the Jewish holiday of Passover has come and gone and now offers me an opportunity to discuss its historicity, its mythological elements and its possible meanings for us moderns, as I understand it. It is in the Book of Exodus, the second book in the Hebrew Bible, that the story of Pesach (so called from here on) is told. For me, it is the Pesach story and the subsequent liberation and the Exodus (Latin for departure, in Hebrew yetziyat mitzrayim) from Egypt of the Jewish slaves that represents Judaism’s “root experience.” Given the fact that Christianity is Judaism’s religious offshoot and, as such, appropriated its antecedent Jewish history, Pesach is also Christianity’s foundation, witness the fact that the first part of every complete Christian Bible consists of the Hebrew or Jewish Bible containing the Book of Exodus. The Hebrew name of the book is shemot, meaning “names,” deriving its name from the first significant word in the first sentence of that book.

I have often been asked whether the Pesach story within the Exodus narrative is historical. Without going here into fine details, my response has been YES, albeit with a qualifying remark suggesting that as is the case with much religious literature, related events having an historical kernel, are often exaggerated and mythologized. Considering the time of origin of Exodus which in all probability is the middle of the 13th cent. BCE, this should not surprise us. The same kind of exaggerations are found in Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and other Middle Eastern religious stories. This said, we should not be surprised to find that the Jewish liberation story falls into the same literary milieu. This is not to suggest, however, that the Jewish story’s center, the liberation of the Jewish slaves, is not historical.

Remains, however, the question why what is described in the Bible as an incredible and therefore allegedly miraculous event is nowhere mentioned in Egyptian history of which we have plenty of documentation in terms of ancient monuments, wall, sarcophagi and papyrus inscriptions. One possible answer to this question might just be the ancient Middle Eastern rulers’ reluctance to make known to future generations their countries’ defeats, political mismanagements or miscalculations.

The fact is that Egyptian history nowhere mentions the Jewish slave’s departure from Egypt and thus their liberation from slavery. Given the number of slaves liberated, as indicated in the Book of Exodus having been six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children (Exod. 12:37) suggests that the total number of Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt was somewhere around one million eight hundred thousand people, considering three persons per family. This is an enormous amount of slaves in view of the total population of Egypt at that time having been estimated at only three million people. It is highly unlikely that 3 million people were able to maintain a slave population of say 1.8 million!

This problem’s solution has been found to lie in a possible mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “thousands” – alaphim in this particular literary context. Without going into the technical linguistic details here, scholars suggest that the number of slaves leaving Egypt was closer to 5,000 than 1.8 million.

Egyptian records consisting of correspondence between border guards in the eastern Nile Delta where border fortifications have been excavated, call for reinforcements to stem the flight of Egyptian slaves toward the land of Canaan. Could some of these slaves have been the Hebrew slaves referred to in the biblical story? Probability points in that direction. Based on this correspondence, the numbers of fleeing slaves in the low thousands make much more sense than the hundreds of thousands the biblical narrative suggests.

At the light of the above it can be concluded that the kernel of the Pesach/Exodus story is historical.

There is no need to dwell in any length on all  the miraculous elements in the Exodus narrative. Leading up to the actual departure of the slaves, there are the Ten Plagues, culminating in the death of all the firstborns in Egypt while the Jewish slaves’ children are saved when God himself slays the Egyptian first borns (Exod. 12:29). The parting of the Reed Sea (proper name for the body of water called in the Bible the Red Sea) is another alleged miracle from above, saving the fleeing Israelite slaves from the pursuing Egyptians. Rivers of ink have been spilled trying to explain what happened and Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematographic depiction of the miracle is, while admirably done, not very persuasive.

Is Israel mentioned anywhere at all in Egyptian historical writings? The answer is YES. On a victory monument of pharaoh Marneptah (1213 – 1203 BCE) discovered in 1896 at Thebes, also called the “Israel stele,” the hieroglyphs in line 27 are translated as “Israel.” The name Israel on the stele is mentioned as one among other enemies of Egypt, now defeated. The literal translation of the line reads, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;” It is not clear just who this Israel was or where it was located. The text does not correspond to any such defeat mentioned in the Bible.

Let us now reflect upon the meaning of Pesach and Exodus.

In short, it is a celebration of freedom. Slavery of any kind has no legitimate place on earth. For religious people the mandate to freedom for every human being comes from God and the book of Exodus is the locus of this mandate for Jews and Christians.

As is the case with parables and legends both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, careful reading of the texts brings out contradictions and elements that do not make sense. This kind of literature was written millenia ago and our criticisms are often anachronistic. Had we lived “then,” we probably would have believed just as those ancients believed. This said, I am suggesting that parables and legends first have to be understood within the cultural context of their own time and secondly only in terms of how we, in our time, understand them.

The Haggadah our family used this past Pesach (The Concise Family Seder by Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch) suggests that the essence of Passover is a message for the conscience and the heart of all humankind about “the deliverance of a people from degrading slavery, from cruel and inhuman tyranny… of the tyranny of poverty and the tyranny of privation,

of the tyranny of wealth and the tyranny of war,

of the tyranny of power and the tyranny of despair,

of the tyranny of disease and the tyranny of time,

of the tyranny of ignorance and the tyranny of [skin] color.”

And so, although it is the unnamed Pharaoh of old who is the tyrant of the Haggadah, it is not he alone of whom we speak at the Pesach seder. There are other tyrants and other tyrannies from which and from whom we need liberation.

To make myself clear, let me give you two widely disparate examples of what I mean by “liberation.” I had a cousin in Haifa, Israel, who had never learned to drive a car. He yearned to be independent from his mother or father having to “sacrifice” some of their time to take him around. Requesting that I intercede with his Mom on his behalf, I did just that only to have the experience of speaking to a wall. Aunt Steffi’s response to my words was, “I would not be able to sleep knowing that George is out in a car by night. I would not have a moment of peace knowing that he is exposed to danger on a highway. The answer is NO. I never will allow George to get a driver license.” You, the reader of these words, should know that my cousin George was only two years younger than I! As I see it, this was a mother’s selfish tyranny from which George needed to come free to become a mature adult..

One other example should explain what I mean by Pesach’s invitation (or is it a mandate?) for us to liberate ourselves from acquired intellectual imprisonment. By now it should be clear to any Jew in this our great country that our “Number One” leader is not only a racist, a misogynist, a white supremacist and also a malevolent cretin. And yet there are organized groups of Jews who support and follow him. In my quest for understanding this phenomenon, I fairly recently asked a Republican friend how he finds it possible to remain a Republican, given the fact that his party has sold out to the devil. His response was, “I vote Republican because the Jews in the south have always voted Republican.” I regretted hearing this because this kind of answer is not an answer from a responsible Jewish citizen, in my opinion.

The examples range from the ridiculous to the very serious. Pesach is a time for responsible reflection, preferably within the physical context of fellow Jews, on issues ranging from the private to the communal. It is also an opportunity to get to know each other as we share our lives’ complexities with friends in an effort to better understand and to grow toward responsibly lived Judaism and so also toward responsible country and world citizenship.

If this past Pesach helped you in such a direction , I am happy for you. If it did not, make sure next year’s celebration will.

Lack of love or lack of solid education?

Congratulations, Mr. Trump! You did it again. Thanks to special council Mueller’s recently released report, a 400 page document that at the time of this writing still has not been released to the public who paid for it, and thanks also to our newly appointed attorney general Mr. Barr who insists that a sitting president cannot be indicted and who, rather than releasing the whole document to the American people, decided to release his four page version of a summary of those pages to the public, Donald Trump comes out of two years of investigations of “Russia Gate” smelling like a rose to his political base and to the ethic-deprived Republican Party. No wonder! A morally corroded Republican government finds nothing wrong with its leader who might just be a moral cretin, as David Brooks, the Opinion Columnist of the New York Times (Feb. 28, 2019), suggests.

Will the population clamoring for the release of the entire report be responded to affirmatively? If so, how long will it be before this happens? Who knows? But if so, how will we be certain that important parts of the text will not have been deleted by a process similar to the famous Nixon tape erasures?

It is difficult not to become cynical about the goings on in Washington with a US president “desperate for approval,” blind to criticism thanks to his narcissism and insistence on living in a self-created unreal world. One is inclined to pity this creature were it not for this creature’s malevolence that is ruining not only our country but planet earth.

Having gotten the above off my chest, I return now to David Brooks’ excellent article in the New York Times referred to above. In this piece Brooks expresses wonderment about “who didn’t love Donald Trump?” Brooks continues with, “I often wonder who left an affection void that he has tried to fill by winning attention…He has turned his life into a marketing strategy…His desperate attempts to be loved have made him unable to receive love.”

This kind of apology for our president and his deeply flawed behavior is tantamount to reading a tearjerker. David Brooks whom I admire as a fine Opinion Columnist, in entering the professional domain of psychology with the above mentioned article, has overstepped his competence, in my opinion. This said, I am not suggesting that the article does not contain material worth reading.

As an educator for the last fifty some years, I find Trump’s thuggish behavior which is totally unbecoming of a US president, rooted not in his having suffered from deprivation of love but rather from his lack of a sound holistic education and from his having been brought up in a surrounding of wealth from his earliest years, with a silver spoon in his mouth. The man does not understand a fellow human’s suffering. He is incapable of experiencing compassion. My purpose in what follows here is not an effort to discover in detail Trump’s failed educational development but rather to lament the decline of the quality of higher education in our country in recent years or even decades.

To be more specific, I attribute Trump’s a-morality or immorality to his having been deprived of an educational experience that could have provided him with a well rounded personality by means of helping him acquire at least a minimum knowledge of philosophy, best found in the classics and in subsequent similarly oriented literature. Needless to say, it is in philosophy we encounter minds and voices engaged in critical thinking, a discipline tragically absent in much of our population, as also regrettably absent in our president.

Trump has boasted about his lack of necessity to read. His alleged innate natural intelligence and knowledge suffices for him to make judgments and decisions that impact not only the US but our planet. It is quite possible that this narcissistic attitude and behavior may have already caused irreparable damage to our living sphere. The point of no return may have been reached and crossed and the future of the planet may have already been determined. All this because of one man’s ignorance and self-love. It makes me shudder!

Back to our educational system. The engine that promotes and drives the demise of the study of philosophy which, of course, includes the study of ethics is career-ism. Our nation and all other nations need an educated citizenry. While making a decent living by means of specialized skills is absolutely necessary and while schools providing such skills to our citizenry are provided in our educational system, it is critical also to provide for these folks an education in the humanities so that our population be an intelligent and humane population and not a nation primarily preoccupied with how best to make money even at the expense of hurting others or, in the president’s words “how to make a deal” in the art of which he considers himself to be the unsurpassed master.

It is depressing to learn that a small percentage of students in liberal arts colleges and universities take courses in philosophy. Permit me at this point to become personal. I studied mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, after immigrating to the US. The engineering curriculum is heavy and demanding. I flunked the course in thermodynamics and had to repeat it, coming out of the second attempt with a measly grade of “C.” Subsequent to graduation I worked for General Motors Corp. for six years and earned several US patents in automotive-related design.

The greatest impact on my educational life, however, were not courses in metallurgy or differential equations. What changed my life by setting it on a course of pursuing truth was an elective course in philosophy, two semesters, taught by professor Samuel Stumpf, a Jewish philosopher who opened to me new vistas on life. What he did for me was to help me ask the important questions, answers to which I may or may not have received until now when I just passed year 92. It is most important to ask the right questions, the Jewish tradition teaches. It is questioning that leads to a life of satisfaction. Needless to say, some frustration is part of such a questioning life as well, but I vote in its favor and have taught my students accordingly. No regrets!

I venture to say that it was not lack of love that formed Trump into the miscreant he is. Trump represents the person who has no education but for his alleged ability “to make deals.” So far his deals have been tragically counterproductive, in my opinion. Only the future will tell whether I am right.

It is, of course, true that there is no direct connection between say ancient Greek language and culture, on the one hand and steady employment and good income, on the other hand. But higher learning has the potential of leading a person into knowledge, understanding and wisdom, the Jewish education triad, a universally acknowledged path to being a humane human being and thus a critically necessary component of a democratic society. There is such a thing as the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake! I do not deny the importance of utilitarianism and the learning of skills that enable one to make a decent living. I appreciate very much the availability of plumbers and electricians, policemen and trash collectors, not to mention dentists and physicians! To be a creative society, abstract learning is critically important and the path toward such learning is contingent on how our educational system inculcates in our young generations the love of knowledge.

My wife and I recently witnessed on TV the abysmal ignorance of some American college students about their own historical tradition, let alone philosophy. It was embarrassing to watch how on two occasions reporters randomly interviewed students on the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and at Texas Tech. This is not the place to quote the many questions asked and answers given. One of the answers, representative as it was of many other similar responses, was so ridiculous that it deserves mentioning here. The question asked was “Who won the Civil War?” After a lengthy pause the student hesitatingly ventured his response: “Americans?” This kind of a fiasco cries out for an explanation: how did this and similar students succeed in enrolling into prestigious schools of higher learning, to begin with? Surely these randomly chosen students did not get there by means of parents having bought their admission, as has been discovered in some recently discovered cases! Enough said!

It would be unjust to blame our president for this and other examples of our deeply flawed educational system,. On the other hand, it must be said that having a president of such an abysmally low intellect and no ethical acumen who in absence of a teleprompter seems to communicate by means of no more than 300 to 500 words, often repeated three or more times, certainly is not an inspiration or role model for aspiring college students.

That an education that is driven primarily by careerism without emphasis on philosophical content incorporating ethics can lead to an a-moral or worse, an immoral society, should be clear. In my opinion, we are finding ourselves these days sliding down a slimy and steep slope toward a conscienceless society, a threat to us and our planet.

It is high time to listen to one of our great Jewish teachers from the faraway past, rabbi Tarfon: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world] but you are not free to desist from it either,” (Pirkey Avot 2:16).

Good luck!

The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction, Essay #5 (final)

Scholarship generally agrees that the institution of the ancient synagogue was shaped by larger social, material, cultural and religious contexts. The impact of the surrounding culture on the Jews in the Greco-Roman and Byzantine worlds was significant. We can be certain that no area of Jewish life was immune to these influences which were of an infinite variety.

The Jewish people never possessed an independent architectural tradition. The exhibits of miniature replicas of synagogue buildings from various periods in Tel Aviv’s museum of the Diaspora shows that each was constructed and decorated in the style of the predominant culture of that time. The exhibit shows that it was almost impossible to distinguish a synagogue from a non-Jewish edifice by looking at its exterior only. This is further corroborated by a rabbinic tradition where it was debated whether one was guilty of an intentional or unintentional sin by bowing before a pagan temple, thinking it was a synagogue (Tb Shabbat 72b).

It is very likely that the Jews of the Diaspora worshiped in the vernacular. In a well known document published by Roman emperor Justinian dated from 553 CE it is stated that Jews read the Torah in Greek. Furthermore, “those who read in Greek shall use the Septuagint tradition which is more accurate than all the others.” The Yerushalmi (Talmud of the Land of Israel) preserves a story about two rabbis entering a synagogue in Caesarea in the 4th century where they heard the worshipers reciting the shema in Greek. One of the rabbis wanted to stop the service right then and there but the other suggested that it was better for these Jews to pray in Greek than not at all (Y Sotah 7, 1, 21b). It is generally thought that in the Galilee and in Babylonia, on the other hand, prayer and some sermons were delivered in Hebrew. The targum, i.e., the translation of the liturgy into Aramaic, the lingua franca of the land at that time, is well known to have been used to help the Jews understand Torah texts. A few Aramaic prayers in the liturgy have been preserved to this day as, for instance, the Kaddish.

The sanctity the Palestinian synagogue acquired must be seen as a sort of transfer of this attribute from the destroyed Jerusalem Temple. It also developed naturally as a counter-balance to the ubiquitous presence of pagan places of worship that were considered sacred. Undoubtedly it was also the presence of the Torah scrolls housed within the synagogue building that contributed to the synagogue being seen as a holy place. Possible also is that the growing Christian interest in Palestinian holy places may have influenced Jewish attitudes of holiness attributed toward their own place of worship, the synagogue.

The variety of artistic and architectural forms that have been alluded to in previous essays points undoubtedly to the influence of Hellenization. There is evidence that suggests that this influence was not uniform. Large cities along the coast of Roman Palestine with their cosmopolitan culture show this effect to have been stronger there than in rural areas. But even within urban areas there was diversity, with certain synagogues being more and others less receptive to non-Jewish influences.

What were the uniquely Jewish characteristics of the ancient synagogue? The orientation of the synagogue was one of these, as was pointed out elsewhere. Pagan temples and Christian churches almost always faced eastward, toward the rising of the sun. Synagogues outside of Israel were oriented toward Israel and those within Israel toward Jerusalem. Prayer was directed toward Jerusalem. While the stone benches in synagogues were generally on either two or three sides of the building, the fourth wall faced Jerusalem and it is this wall that contained either a semi-circular niche or the aron ha-kodesh, housing the Torah scroll(s).

The artistic representations consisted generally of Jewish symbols, ethrog, lulav, shofar and incense shovel, the latter being a reminder of the incense sacrifices burnt on the incense altar in the Jerusalem Temple. Very popular was also the seven-branched menorah, appearing in various forms and shapes, sculpted into walls and appearing in mosaic floors. A departure from these specific cultic objects was the Jewish adoption and adaptation of the zodiac. While Christians generally did not depict religious scenes or symbols, the cross being definitively banned from such use, a number of synagogues such as Beth Alpha, Hammat Tiberias and Sepphoris did not shrink from depicting religious artifacts such as Torah shrines and biblical scenes containing persons in their mosaic floors.

It is worth mentioning also that while in the Byzantine church there was a strict division between groups such as clergy, laymen, laywomen, catechumens, etc., such divisions were unknown in the ancient synagogue.

I would have liked to report here that the status of women in the ancient synagogue was equal to that of men. This, I regret, was not the case. Woman’s place was seen primarily as domestic and was often discussed in rather disparaging and uncomplimentary terms. Josephus writes: “The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man (Against Apion 2, 201). Paul in I Cor. 14:34 expresses similar sentiments about women. History, on the other hand, reports notable exceptions regarding some Jewish women’s societal status: the Hasmonean Queen Salome, Queen Helena of Adiabene and Beruria, wife of rabbi Meir. These are examples of Jewish women who became powerful in the politics of their time and were known for their intellectual and religious achievement in society. These and lesser known women’s remarkable achievements, however, were not the rule either in Jewish society nor in the surrounding Greco-Roman circles.

It can be said with certainty that women attended worship in synagogue. Both Paul of Tarsus and also Philo write about the presence of women in worship. Some rabbinic sources, as well, speak of the presence of women in synagogue. Among the Christian Church Fathers it is the rabid antisemite John Chrysostom (4th cent.) who claims that the synagogue is a place of abomination because men and women gather there together (Adv. Jud. 3,1-2, 7,4).

For a long time it was assumed that women sat in a separate section in synagogue. Based on archaeological findings, however, the claim now can be made that women in the early synagogue did not sit separately from men. No archaeological or documentary traces have been found suggesting a separate synagogue area designated exclusively for the seating of women.

Did women play a role in the ancient synagogue’s ritual? Did they lead in prayer, preach sermons and read from Torah? Only one text in the Tosephta (Megillah 3:11-12) addresses this question. Unfortunately, this text is ambiguous. The statement reads: “Everyone is included in the counting of seven [people to be called up to read from the Torah on Shabbat], even a woman, even a child.” This is followed by, “One does not bring a woman to read to the public.” The ambiguity and seeming contradiction of these sentences following each other lead us to a dead end.

Much more could be said on the subject of women in synagogue as for instance on their altruistic roles and their various support functions within the institution. Chiselled inscriptions on synagogue pillars and texts in mosaic floors witness to women’s contributions to the richness of synagogue life. To my disappointment I did not find that women played any kind of liturgical role in the synagogue. Their role in synagogue was supportive but liturgically peripheral. This by no means suggests, however, that their role in synagogal life was negligible.

Summarizing this very quick excursion into the reality of the ancient synagogue a few final reflections are in order. What strikes me most is that the synagogue was all inclusive. Communal needs were met within its framework and the synagogue reflected the community’s wishes in its physical appearance, its functions and leadership.

Jewish elements existed alongside elements taken from the surrounding world. Rather than damaging what was uniquely Jewish, the resulting amalgam strengthened Judaism. The inclusivity also made it possible for Judaism and Jewish life to survive the many crises it was forced to undergo. The strong communal and religious dimensions shaped Jewish concern for society at large and, in my opinion, provided Judaism with the ability to be in some ways society’s ongoing conscience.

Having personally experienced Christian church-dominated life for twenty-two years, it pleases me enormously that Judaism, via the ongoing presence as community, guided and led by synagogue, is not hierarchy dominated, let alone governed. Every willing Jew has the opportunity to actively participate in Torah and Haftarah readings, in sermons, prayers as well as in Jewish community-led activities that participate in or interface with non-Jewish activities. And it is, of course, in such activities that both the importance and joy of the “synagogue-as-people” lies.

For Gail and me the term synagogue evokes feelings of home and family. This is how it has been for most Jews for millenia. May it remain so in the future! Something to be thankful for.

Note: The preceding mini-essays were written with the help of prof. Lee I. Levine’s magisterial book The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. I am also greatly indebted to prof. Herbert Gordon May (z”l) who not only encouraged my research of the ancient synagogue in graduate school but had me join him on a lengthy research trip through much of the Middle East in the late 1960s.

 

For all those who search for God and have not yet found him.

Shabbat, two weeks ago, I heard a remarkable sermon by Justin, our rabbi. He introduced it by saying that this time he would be sharing his “theology” with us. I am not aware that he ever gives a title to his sermons but were I to give a title to that sermon it would be “Beware of Jewish hubris or chutzpah.” I told him afterwards that I had been waiting for this sermon for 26 years – the number of years that Gail and I have been members of this congregation.

It takes courage to say what he said, namely, if I understood his words correctly, that it is chutzpah to think or let alone say that our faith is superior to other faiths. It is chutzpah to think or let alone say that our service of God is superior to that of non-Jews. It is chutzpah to think or let alone say that we know more about God than other religions. To think and to voice these kinds of attitudes is proof that our thinking is flawed.

Who are we Jews to make such statements given that we are an infinitesimally small portion of the world population? How is it that we have come to such a conclusion? According to the rabbi, this thought pattern of superiority has been handed down to us by our rabbinic predecessors who voiced this flawed mode of thinking for centuries.

I must make a confession: I am always appreciative of being honored by an aliyah, but the words of the blessing before the Torah reading tend to stick in my throat because of their intimation that we Jews are a “chosen” people.

I once shared this feeling with a rabbi-friend who suggested, “Why don’t you say instead of asher bachar banu mikol ha’amiym, “chose us FROM all the peoples,” asher bachar banu im kol ha-amiym, meaning, “chose us with all the peoples?” While “from all the peoples” sounds to me like a lot of chutzpah, somehow with all the peoples” does not quite make sense.

I always appreciate the honor of an aliyah but I am stuck with this portion of the blessing which goes against my belief.

But my problem is even more deep-seated than what concerns these few words.

As a Holocaust survivor, thinking just about daily about the murder of the Six Million among whom were fourteen members of my family, can I say the opening words of every b’rakhah as well as those of the Amidah, barukh atah adonay – Praised are you Adonay? And then continue honestly proclaiming, haEl haGadol, haGibbor vehaNorah, El Elyon– the Great, the Powerful and the Awesome God, the highest god?

The late Elie Wiesel suggested in his writings that during the Holocaust the “onlookers” who saw the tragedy and did not raise a finger to protest, let alone to stop the slaughter, were just as guilty as the perpetrators of the murders. I totally agree with Eli Wiesel. Now this raises, of course, the frightening question about him who, in the Amidah and in many other biblical texts, is called “great, strong,and awesome.” We encounter in English Bible translations the word el-shadday, translated as “Almighty,” as a title and an attribute of God. After the murder of the Six Million, the frightening question arises why this almighty God did not intervene, but let the smokestacks of Auschwitz belch out the smoke of hundreds of thousands gassed and cremated innocent persons.

In short: was the God whom we worship the most guilty of all bystanders by letting this tragedy and many other tragedies happen?

Who is this God, really? What kind of god is he? Or, is there such a god at all?

I have been chasing after the reality of the biblical God pretty much all my life long because I want to know!

The fact is that we know nothing about this God, just as the prophet Isaiah wrote in Isa. 55:8-9:

“for My thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways, says Adonay. for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.”

This said, I would think that all human speculations about God, preceding Isaiah and following Isaiah’s pronouncement, are human words and human characterizations of this very God. They are guesses – they are human responses to human feelings about events we humans are unable to explain at the present.

Renown Rabbi Jehudah heChassid or Judah the Pious of Regensburg who died in 1217 during the time of the deadly Crusades, in his beautiful shir ha-kavod or “Hymn of Glory” that in some synagogues is sung when the Torah scroll is taken from the aron ha-kodesh, proclaims:

“Without having seen you, I declare your praise:
Without having known you, I laud you and your ways.
They have imagined you, but never as you are;
They tell of your deeds, to portray you from afar.”

This, in my opinion, is precisely what you and I are trying to do here: we imagine and we portray from afar.

And this is precisely what the folks and practitioners of other religions are doing as well and honestly so. So, it is very much wrong to see ourselves as specially favored to know and to do better. Doing so is chutzpah.

Having heard these my words, you may wonder, what I am doing here in this Jewish congregation. So let me explain.

I am here for several reasons.

  • I believe in community and especially in Jewish community. The term synagogue, a Greek word, means (lead-together) and this means “community.”
  • I love the people of this community, past and present, – who have been providing for Gail and me a spiritual home and all that goes with it, namely friendship and fellowship and care.
  • I love the Hebrew language which I have taught for decades, the language heard in this place very often .
  • I have made peace with the words I do not believe-in because they are beautiful and well-intentioned words, albeit fallible and flawed.
  • I am able to use the word “God” with all its adjectives FINALLY again, and it is here that enters my theology I want to share with you.
  • I love Judaism because of its teaching-values which I admire and consider indispensable for the ongoing life of our planet. So – -when we sing al-shlosha devarim haOlam omed, al ha-Torah, veal ha-Avodah veal gemilut chassadim, “The world stands on three principles: on Torah, on work avodah (which in Hebrew also means worship), and on good deeds,” I believe this with all my heart and try to live by these values.

But this change in my attitude became possible thanks to my many years of study and reflection on biblical and other so-called holy texts. I finally arrived at the conclusion that the term GOD is really a metaphor for these great Jewish values that I admire and try try hard to live by, the greatest of which is LOVE which I consider to be a synonym for the word God.

Now a few words about God and LOVE.

How do you and I define God and love??

If I were to ask you individually how YOU define God, I’d probably receive as many answers as I would ask people – perhaps a few more, because we are Jews.

Now if I were to ask you to define LOVE, I’d also receive many answers, And this makes sense, because all I would receive are definitions couched in human words.

It is virtually impossible to define either Love or God by means of words because words are unable to express all that the nouns”God” and “love” contain.

How do you express with words an emotion like the breaking of your heart when you stand at the grave of a beloved person or when I see on TV the little skeletal kids in a coma or dying of starvation, say in Yemen? This kind of experience makes my upper chest to physically contract – cave in – to the point that it hurts physically.

How do you describe with words the laughter that wells up in you? How do you describe in words your sexual attraction to a person? How do you explain your fear standing by the bed of a person fighting for her life?

There simply are no adequate words for any of these emotions.

But does that mean that the lack of our ability to adequately express our feelings or emotions suggests that these emotions are not real? I do not think so and I am sure you probably agree with me. In fact there is nothing more REAL than these feelings that well up within us on such occasions.

What I am suggesting then is that the word G-O-D or the word L-o-v-e are realities that defy description and definition.

Neither one of them are NOUNS! Grammatically – YES, of course. In their truest and deepest sense – NO!

Here then is my theology —

The word GOD is a metaphor. It expresses for me the values of Judaism. When I say adonay , I do not think of a person or some embodied spirit. Instead, I think of the biblical values such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” which have come to us from our ancestors in the faith, to be shared with the rest of humanity.

The words “God” and its synonym “Love” – are not static expression. Words can never convey what they really mean. They have to be lived and only by living them can we hope to transmit their life-giving richness to others.

And so, in my opinion, both Love and God, while grammatically nouns, are in their deepest and truest sense verbs.

Love and God-liness is something you do.

Shabbat shalom!