Saturday, 28 March 2015

Exodus & Numbers: Who's counting this Passover?

When it comes to the Exodus we seem to love the numbers.

Our Passover Haggadah is full of numbers. In fact, full of arguments about numbers.

We gather our family and friends around the Seder table and recount an esoteric rabbinical discussion about exactly how many plagues the Almighty brought down on the heads of the Egyptians.

The rabbis debate back and forth, arguing first for ten, then 60, then 200 and finally Rabbi Akiba stops the bidding at 250. By which time Pharaoh must have been very glad to see the back of us. It all comes down to interpretations about the fingers and hand of God and various methods of linguistic and metaphysical multiplication. Go figure!

There's more number crunching in the book of Exodus itself as we attempt to count how many Hebrew slaves left Egypt. According to Exodus 12:37:
"The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from women and children."
The book of Numbers (appropriately) gives a more precise figure.
"These were the men counted by Moses and Aaron and the twelve leaders of Israel, each one representing his family. All the Israelites twenty years old or more who were able to serve in Israel’s army were counted according to their families. The total number was 603,550." Numbers 1: 44-46
According to the Jewish Study Bible, if you add in women and children you would reach a grand total of at least 2.5 million people. Googling I found a figure for the Egyptian population in 1250 BCE of 3 to 3.5 million. So no wonder Pharaoh was getting concerned about the growing number of Hebrew slaves in his land.

Further frivolous research reveals that marching ten abreast, and without accounting for livestock, the escaping Children of Israel would have formed a line 150 miles long. An impressive slave escape. No wonder Moses had trouble keeping them all in order.

For most of us these numbers don't add up to much. The documentary and archaeological evidence for the Exodus, including plagues (whether ten or 250), is somewhere between scant and non-existent. But none of that matters three thousand years later.

What matters is how the story of the Exodus from Egypt has marked Jewish behaviour and outlook throughout the generations in good times and bad.

Every year something draws us back to this story of a God who intervenes in human history on the side of liberation and justice.

In the past the numbers spoke for themselves.

In the turmoil of Russia at the start of the 20th century Jews were starkly over represented in radical movements for social and political improvement.

When the American Civil Rights campaign was at its height in the mid 20th century, Jews were right in the thick of it, showing activism and solidarity and losing their lives for the cause of African American liberation.

When the world finally opened it eyes to the injustice of apartheid South Africa, Jews were already in the vanguard.

But in the last fifty years or so something has gone awry with our previously reliable Exodus orientated moral compass.

When it comes to Israel and the Palestinians all that wonderful ex-slave mentality becomes a fraction of what it was. These days, when faced with the issue that should trouble us most deeply, the number of Jews showing solidarity with the oppressed takes a tumble. Instead, like Pharaoh, our hearts constrict and we become gripped by denial and self-justifying rationalisation.

They brought it on themselves
They are uncompromising and obdurate
They teach all their children to hate us
They prefer death to life
Our security must always be paramount
We won, they lost, let them get over it

It all looks like ethical bankruptcy to me. No numbers left at all.

As we come together to celebrate Passover in the coming days, I offer you some new numbers to consider. Try adding these to the traditional numerical debates we find in our Haggadah and in the pages of Exodus.

All of these figures are from one week in the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza) covering 17-23 March 2015. They were collected by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Israeli forces injured 21 Palestinians, including seven children, in various clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians. The most serious incidents reported in the West Bank, include an eight-year-old child who was seriously injured when a soldier, with his rifle, hit the child in the eye while playing in proximity to clashes in Al Khader (Bethlehem); three Palestinians, including two children (14 and 15 years old), shot with live ammunition in Silwan; and a man who was shot with live ammunition in the back during clashes at the entrance to Al Jalazun Refugee Camp (Ramallah). Another three Palestinians were injured during clashes with Israeli forces next to the Gaza perimeter fence, east of Khan Younis.
At least 21 incidents involving Israeli forces opening ‘warning’ fire into Access Restricted Areas (ARA) on land and at sea in the Gaza Strip were recorded this week, one of which ignited fire in a vehicle. Israeli forces entered Gaza east of Rafah and carried out land leveling on one occasion.
Israeli forces conducted 86 search and arrest operations and arrested 93 Palestinians in the West Bank, mainly in the Hebron and Jerusalem governorates.
In Area C of the West Bank, the Israeli authorities demolished 30 Palestinian structures for lack of Israeli-issued building permits. The demolished structures included five residences, leading to the displacement of 15 people.
Israeli forces uprooted 492 trees and saplings planted by Palestinians next to the Majdal Bani Fadel (Nablus), Bidya (Salfit) and Adh Dhahiriya (Hebron) villages in Area C of the West Bank, on grounds that these areas were designated as “state land”. According to official data, over 99 per cent of “state land”, or public land, has been included within the jurisdictional boundaries of the local and regional councils of Israeli settlements, built in contravention of international law.
Four Israeli settler attacks resulting in Palestinian injuries or property damage were recorded, including two stone-throwing incidents leading to the injury of a six-year-old girl and a woman; and the uprooting of 83 trees and saplings in the villages of Turmus’ayya and Deir Ndham (Ramallah) by settlers from the outpost of ‘Adei ‘Ad and the settlement of Halamish, respectively.
Israeli settlers took over a family house of a Palestinian family, consisting of three separate apartments as well as two plots of land, in Silwan (East Jerusalem), claiming ownership to the properties.

We choose not to see numbers like these that add up week by week and year by year.

When it comes to the Palestinian people, we are still trapped in the 'narrow place', in bondage to our own fears and prejudices.

It is as Rabbi Nehorai describes in this passage from the second century Mishnah:
"Only one out of five of the Children of Israel went out from Egypt. Some say one out of fifty. And some say only one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: Not even one out of five hundred."
Exodus & Numbers - choose the ones you want to figure out this year.

Hag Sameach!


If you found this post worth reading you may like these too.

'Occupy the Haggadah' from 2012 (a signature post for this blog)

'On the impossibility of Passover' from 2013 (Micah tries his hand at poetry)

'In Every Generation: How Passover locks shut the Jewish imagination' from 2014 (Group therapy)

And if you are on Facebook and you haven't done so already please 'like' my Micah's Paradigm Shift community page.

Friday, 20 March 2015

"Indeed" - Bibi Mk4 and the unraveling of the British Jewish consensus

The night before the election there was this exchange with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Interviewer: "If you are prime minister, a Palestinian state will not be established?" Netanyahu:  "Indeed".

One word and the British Jewish consensus was blown to pieces.

Three days later, after winning a comprehensive victory for his Likud party and a fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu had this apparent clarification for American television viewers:

"I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that circumstances have to change."

In Britain, if you are a pro-Israel lobby group like We Believe in Israel, or BICOM or the Zionist Federation you have a tricky time ahead. If you are leading our religious or communal bodies from the United Synagogue to Liberal Judaism and of course the Board of Deputies, then you are now in a very serious fix.

Here's why.

Bibi is back and this time he's telling the truth.

And don't be fooled by any apparent discrepancy between the two interviews.

When Bibi says "circumstances must change" he is in the realm of messianic times, that distant horizon when the moon and stars are aligned and all the Middle East is at glorious peace with itself. What Bibi means is that it ain't gonna happen on his watch. It's all of a piece with the stumbling blocks he put in front of John Kerry for a year but now Bibi is being honest about it.

Over the last few years it has been possible (just about) for Jewish communal leaders around the world, including Britain, to maintain the illusion that the Israeli government wanted to see peace and reconciliation with the Palestinian people.

Broadly speaking, this would be achieved through a two-state solution. Two states for two peoples, side by side.

This is what the British government wanted, what the rest of the EU wanted, what the United States wanted, what the United Nations wanted and what most Palestinians wanted. It's also the position supported overwhelmingly by British Jews.

That consensus has allowed the Board of Deputies to develop a policy on Israel that they can comfortably ask every parliamentary candidate standing in Britain's General Election in May to sign up to, so maintaining a broad cross party agreement on the issue.

The pro-Israel lobby groups in Britain have maintained the same two-state line. It makes everyone sound reasonable and fair and progressive and allows comfortable alignment with the Israeli government, all of the Westminster political parties and the vast majority of British Jews.

In reality things are not quite so straight forward.

When you scratch the surface of all this unanimity you quickly discover that there are vastly different ideas about what these two states should look like. Where would the capital of a Palestinian state be? What should happen to the Jewish Settlements and the exclusive resources that service them on the West Bank? How much control would a Palestinian state have over its own borders, airspace and internal security?

But to enable the consensus to hold together our communal and religious leaders (and the lobby leadership too) have deliberately avoided taking a clear public position on issues like the annexation of East Jerusalem, the expansion of the Settlements and the rights of Palestinian refugees. Instead of framing these issues as moral questions they have opted for tribalism. They have for decades abdicated ethical responsibility by saying that the brutal reality of a 50-year occupation is just detail to be negotiated by an Israeli government.

It's a strategy that has created the appearance of community cohesion even if it lacks moral backbone and disregards Jewish ethical tradition.

But with Netanyahu's new found honesty over the two-state solution the consensus in Britain is about to unravel. David Cameron might be happy to congratulate Netanyahu on his victory and overlook the racist tone of his campaign but Likud's return to power has just sparked a huge crisis in British Jewry.

The Board of Deputies' election manifesto is now at odds with what will soon be the official Israeli policy - no to two-states, or at best, 'sometime never'. The same crisis goes for the current positions held by our main religious denominations and even the British pro-Israel lobby groups.

The question they must all face is whether to acknowledge the difference and adopt a critical stand against the Israeli government or realign with Bibi and open divisions with the British government, the opposition parties and indeed most British Jews.

So expect to see turmoil in the ranks of the Jewish establishment, some soul searching among the rank and file and a clear fracturing of publicly voiced Jewish opinions on Israel. And about time too.

However, if you have not locked yourself into uncritical support for Israel and you have preferred to follow a Jewish tradition that has informed universal human rights and international law, then Netanyahu Mk.4 leaves everything looking very much clearer.

The next few years will be easy to navigate.

Without considerable external pressure, both political and economic, Israel will not stop Settlement expansion, will not dismantle the separation wall, will not give up an inch of the Occupied Territories, will not end the siege of Gaza. It certainly will not sit down and negotiate a peace deal that looks remotely just to Palestinian eyes. Why should it while the rest of the world allows its behaviour to continue without cost or consequence? And God help the children of Gaza if Hamas dares to fire any more home-made rockets in the general direction of the most powerful army in the region.

But with Netanyahu finally putting the two-state solution six feet under, that necessary pressure is on the way.

It will come from European governments and it will come from grass roots activists. The pressure will undoubtedly include boycotts, divestment and sanctions. And those activists will increasingly include Jews. Not self-hating Jews but profoundly disillusioned Jews. It will come from Jews looking for a new kind of Jewish leadership and hoping to protect their democratic and ethical ideals and rescue what's left of their Jewish heritage.

Mr. Netanyahu, thanks for showing us the way forward.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

A Jewish encounter with Easter

What follows is a short talk commissioned by the Methodist podcast NOMAD. Thanks to Tim Nash for asking me to write it. Happy Easter to my Christian friends and readers.

I can remember, surprisingly well, the thoughts and feelings I had the very first time I sat through a Good Friday Church service nearly 30 years ago. None of them were particularly godly. Most of them lacked any generosity towards my hosts.

Let me tell you why.

I was with my university girlfriend and we'd travelled back from Manchester to her hometown in Kendal in Cumbria. Anne had grown up in an Evangelical Anglican Church and she wanted to attend the Easter services with her mother and she invited me, her new Jewish boyfriend, along too.

I agreed to come, seeing it all as some kind of anthropological exercise, a social science trip to explore the tribe my girlfriend had come from. This wasn't an attempt at conversion on Anne's part, merely an introduction to her home and upbringing.

But in truth this was never going to be a dispassionate investigation on my part. I was carrying with me far too much cultural baggage.

Religious beliefs and family background had inevitably cropped up early in our relationship. It was too important to both of us to be left unspoken. We had already found much we could agree on. But Easter is at the very heart of the Christian calendar and despite all of the parallels with the story of the Hebrew Exodus, it has appeared to be where Judaism and Christianity are forced to part theological company.

I hoped our Easter trip to Kendal was not going to see our own relationship split asunder.

The idea of God existing simultaneously as a Father and a Son had always felt like an affront to  my strict Jewish monotheistic sensibility. The idea of a physical resurrection was also problematic but that had more to do with my modern scientific view of the world than with Judaism, which has its own accounts of biblical returns from the dead.

But at the time I remember that my biggest problem with Easter was not the the doctrinal divisions it created but its long-term historical fall-out.

For me Easter was not the joyful occasion it was to Christian worshippers delighting in the affirmation that 'He is Risen'. No, Easter was the annual disaster that created license for Christians to bring mayhem and murder to Jewish communities across Europe. All this was thanks to anti-Jewish Church teaching that went unchecked for nearly 2,000 years embracing both Catholicism and Protestantism.

The Jew as eternal 'Christ Killer' had been a mainstay of Christian education. The account of the Jewish religious elders passing judgement on Jesus, the Jewish mob outside Pilate's head quarters calling for crucification and of course that staggering unhelpful passage in Matthew that has the local Jews saying: 

"His blood be upon us and on our children. (Matthew 27:2425)

And none of this stopped with the Reformation. Actually, it got worse for a while. Here's what Luther wrote in 1543. They, the Jews, are a "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth." Cheers Martin! Another unhelpful Christian contribution to interfaith dialogue.

No wonder across Europe my ancestors locked their doors and hid during Easter Week. It was open season on the Jews. And all of this created the fertile soil that allowed Hitler to perpetrate the murder of a third of the world's Jewish population just seventy years ago.

So all of this was on my mind that first Good Friday service with its solemn telling of the Christian Messiah's final earthly hours.

In a perverse and mean-spirited way, I was sitting there, not just waiting to be offended, but secretly hoping it would happen. I wanted the vicar to say something crass and stupid, something ignorant and offensive to a Jewish listener sat in his pews. I wanted my prejudices about the Church to be confirmed.

In retrospect, I can see how my feelings were those of a righteous victim. Somewhere in my upbringing I had imbued the psychological survival strategy for any long-term oppressed group.

I had cultivated a feeling of moral superiority towards the oppressor.

This is how the mind-set works. And I will admit there is a touch of the Woody Allen school of righteous paranoia in what follows.

Okay, so you may be the powerful all conquering world religion but all the best bits you learnt from Judaism and your violent behaviour towards the very people who nurtured your Messiah brings you no credit and much moral debit. And if you keep bashing on about the Jews rejecting their Messiah I'm going to get pretty hacked off by your self-righteous arrogance. Since when did you corner the market in cosmic revelations? Oy Vey, I forget, that happened at the first Easter.

Sadly for me at the time, the vicar made no moral gaffes that I can recall. The communal Jewish rejection of Jesus was not a theme of the preaching that day. There were far better and more interesting things for him to reflect upon. As much as I tried, I couldn't find offence. In reality, at least in Kendal in the late 20th century, the problems were all inside my head. But of course that's a problem in itself.

As for the Easter Sunday service, which we also went to, it was the joyfulness that I found most off-putting. I obviously preferred my religion to be solemn and contemplative rather than celebratory. I couldn't understand why the congregation appeared quite so pleased with themselves and with life in general. I think this had more to do with personal temperament than with Jewish tradition, which undoubtedly does celebration quite well too.

Time to hit the fast forward button.

A Quaker wedding, four children and 30 years later, Anne, the university girlfriend, is my wife and I am now the Jewish husband of an Anglican vicar in North Yorkshire. I have had the privilege of attending a great many Good Friday and Easter Sunday services. I now find the Good Friday story utterly profound and deeply moving as an account of personal and universal suffering. My time with Christians of deep and loving faith has been immensely rewarding and nothing but positive. I have undoubtedly gained strength in my own faith through being a part of these worshipping communities. And, despite all of this exposure to Christianity, I remain happily, proudly, perhaps stubbornly, Jewish.

What has changed, is not only a deepening of my own faith in the God of my ancestors but a radical change in my attitude.

Long ago I decided not to allow doctrine or liturgy to trip me up when it comes to interfaith relations, whether institutional or personal.

We are all limited by our mental capacity to grasp the mysteries of the universe. And all we have at our disposal are words which mostly struggle to do justice to our spiritual condition.

While remaining comfortable in my liberal Judaism with its emphasis on an ethical and prophetic tradition, I've come to appreciate what Christianity brings to the human party.

While Judaism is hotter on justice, Christianity breaks more ground with love and forgiveness. While Christianity can get a little hung-up on sinfulness and the afterlife, Judaism likes to keep things firmly grounded in practical matters of family and community.

To me it looks like ecclesiastical swings and roundabouts.

And for our Sabbaths, both faiths take a formal moment to stop and rest and wonder at creation.

And in those moments, between our prayer book words and the communal singing, we are all wrestling with the same questions about the same human dilemmas.

How we frame our answers my be slightly different from each other but it's the questions that we should allow to unite us rather than letting the answers divide us.

But what about the really big stumbling blocks between Christianity and Judaism? The ones that come out so strongly at Easter time. Surely there's no way to ever completely square that religious circle?

A few years ago I was sitting in the chapel near the sea of Galilee built on the site where Jesus is said to have given the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the peacemakers and notice the plank in your own eye before the spec of dust in your neighbour's...and much more ethical brilliance.
I was thinking what a shame it was that Jesus and all his teaching is so 'persona non grata' in Judaism.

We've been forced to cold shoulder an outstanding and innovative Jewish teacher and social critic who was clearly steeped in Jewish law and liturgy.

Wasn't Jesus pioneering a post Temple movement of Jewish renewal based on prayer and ethics rather than temple sacrifice? In fact the same agenda rabbinic Judaism was to develop.

The Christian church is mostly to blame for this state of affairs. Jesus, and all he said, became Jewishly toxic because of the Church's persecution of the Jews. Both sides lost out in more ways than one. But the body count is rather higher on my side of the fence.

But there I go, getting all defensive and victim-like again.

When it comes to the 'Jewish Jesus' I'm more than happy to invite him home for bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese....and maybe some roll mop herrings. And I've found the theological links between Easter and the Jewish Passover, with their parallel themes of rebirth, renewal and liberation, fascinating to explore.

But how far can I go in my understanding of the 'Christian Jesus'? The one that dies on the cross for the sins of the world and then comes back from the dead to everlasting life at the right hand of God.

Well, perhaps I can go further than you might think. After all who am I to limit God's ways of working.

If God wanted to cast himself as an earthly human to make it easier to relate to Him, then what right do I have to limit the Almighty's room for manoeuvre?

Okay, so I have to adopt a more flexible approach to monotheism but aren't there visions in the Book of Daniel that sound suspiciously like a God who intends to send a messiah that clearly has metaphysical attributes. Christianity never seems to escape its Jewish roots...and quite frankly I'm happy for us to take the collective credit for all Christianity's best ideas! You owe us big time after all.

Easter, I can now see, is the moment when Judaism gets super-charged, repackaged and delivered to the world. It's a development to be welcomed.

But none of that has to make Judaism obsolete or superseded. The same goes for the world's other great faiths.

When I look at the world I see variety in everything. Trees, birds, Heinz soup, and of course human beings. God's creation is all about the majesty of difference.

So why, when it comes to religion, would we be so arrogant as to suggest that there is only one true way to the truth. 

Did God really have in mind Methodism, or Anglicanism, or Coptic Christianity as the ultimate and final manifestation of his will?  And which variety of those denominations was he thinking of? "Do it like the North Yorkshire Anglicans" He might say..."or wait for the lightening to strike!"

No, I don't think so.

I think God likes the variety and is probably slightly amused at our well-meaning, but bumbling attempts, to create the 'correct way' to worship him.

Except of course when we turn our distinctive and particular understandings against each other. Then, I suspect, any heavenly laughter stops abruptly.

Typically, the bad stuff happens when faith gets knotted-up with power and politics and particularly territorial nationalism. Local cultures and a poor reading of history usually have a role in the trouble making too. 

In Judaism you can see this playing itself out in the strand of Zionism that has become a form of extreme religious nationalism. It rejects, or at least sees as inferior, all other claims to the Holy Land. It certainly leaves no room for Palestinians whether they are Christian or Muslim.

All of which leads me to the issue I want to leave you with.

These days the question I think we should ask of ourselves, is this:

What is our theology of 'the other'? How does our world outlook find a safe and respected space for people who do not share our precise notion of the will of God?

I can understand your possible reservations at this point.

Our theology, doctrines and creeds may feel like strength, comfort and certainty. But they can turn out to be frighteningly dangerous, especially in our wired up digital global village where we all live, at least virtually, side by side.

For some, my question and its challenge may feel like a fairly easy task. For others it will require some theological heavy lifting, including some reinterpretation of holy texts.

Why not start with Easter though? Can you celebrate the risen Christ and still believe that I - or a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist friend - have an experience which is true and valid and not, at best, just a well-meaning mistake?

If you are struggling with this, keep asking why? What's getting in your way of seeing the spark of God in the face of your neighbour? Why do they have to change rather than you?

As a Jew I have finally reached a comfortable accommodation with the Easter story. I am no longer threatened by it. I no longer react with anger and resentment. Instead I see the power and value, not only in the story but in its Christian interpretation as well. I don't think you are wrong. I don't think you have made a mistake. God created a very big universe, I'm quite sure it is big enough for all of us.

Now, can we all say that of each other?

Happy Easter!