Sermon Shoftim – Dragging faith back into the 21st Century

In R. Ishmael’s School it was taught: And like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:29): i.e., just as [the rock] is split into many splinters,  so also may one Biblical verse convey many teachings. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 34a)

I’ve been thinking a great deal about world events and the rise of intolerant and fundamentalist tendencies in religion and the abuse of religion for ulterior motives (mainly for power). But I’ve also been thinking about the radicalisation of textual interpretation that seemingly permits abhorrent and evil acts. In the hands of the charismatic, manipulative and wicked pseudo-religious leaders the vulnerable are persuaded to believe the text can say just about anything. Which is surely in contrast to the plain meaning of our Torah portion this morning and the role of leadership. Let me give you two examples of changing meaning or outright ignoring it:

1 – From the Bible to Prayer book with love

This is the period of introspection – Elul – the month that leads us up to Rosh Hashanah and the ten days of repentance. In one of our most famous texts used in our prayerbook for the coming holy days we read the 13 Attributes of God found in the book of Exodus, chapter 34.

But did you know that the prayer book almost completely reverses the meaning of the end of the phrase – and understandably. If you don’t believe me read it for yourself:

In the Torah the verse ends, “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty”

Yet in our machzor listen, “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will clear the guilty.”

As my teacher and former principal of the Leo Baeck College, Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet, writes, “when the rabbis chose this passage, they cut off the last two words, to give it the opposite meaning to that in the Bible.   Instead of v’nakei lo yenakei, God will not hold guilty people guiltless, they stopped at the first word v’nakei, suggesting that God holds everyone guiltless.   They made God even nicer.  An extraordinary example of rabbinic ‘chutzpah’.” (D’var Torah for Yom Kippur 2011)

2 – When do not becomes do – death of the author in the Talmud

There’s good precedent for this, reading the text so radically that it takes on the opposite meaning to the ‘plain’ sense. In a famous story in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) in which Rabbi Eliezer disagrees with his colleagues on an issue of purity, they argue and end up stating, ‘It is not in heaven’ that is the Torah is not in heaven. Which is to say, once God has given the words of the Torah, it is for us to interpret – the ultimate death of the author – and we can interpret the text so radically that in spite of God telling the majority of the rabbis they were incorrect in their interpretation the sages quote, “After the majority one should incline”. Which is the complete opposite of the meaning of the verse. They quote it to mean Rabbi Eliezer should follow the majority of his colleagues, but the verse says, “do not…follow after the majority to pervert justice.” (Exodus 23:2). Talk about ‘chutzpah’ – instead of a warning about being swayed by the majority the Talmud turns the phrase into a command to follow the majority.

Religious belief and behaviour, you see, can be forced to state anything using religious texts as the foundation. These were two ‘benign’ examples – yet it gives ample proof that even within our own tradition there is the possibility to make a text say what you want.

The Revelator is silent, long live the interpreter.

Now, in addition to my fascination with the 13 Attributes text at this time of year, I was also thinking about this issue because of a conversation I had this week. I’m not sure any door knocking evangelist has ever been accused of terrorist activity, or of the fascistic behaviour which we have witnessed with the rise of ISIS and other organisations like Hamas, so forgive the association. But this came to a head when, on my last day of holiday I sat down to peace and quiet at home…finally opened up my Talmud (I know I lead such an exciting life) got my dictionary and notebook to think through my preparation for teaching rabbinic students at Leo Baeck College, when the doorbell rang with the evangelist coming to give me a leaflet.

The encounter is familiar to you I’m sure, but I never let on that I’m a rabbi, which is unfair and fair in my opinion. In the course of our extensive conversation it transpired that my visitor believed that science can over-reach itself and that the story of creation must be true because it was written by Moses…to which he added, “No I don’t believe we come from monkeys.”

I opted out of the lesson in evolutionary theory – though last week my daughter was reading her book with me about the development of Homo Sapiens around 250,000 years ago. Even she can tell you we don’t come from monkeys but evolved larger brains, ability to speak, use of tools, change in posture and physical form from our predecessors such as Homo Erectus. We even excitedly talked about the news of the recent discovery about Neanderthals coexistence with Homo Sapiens – which was comforting for my daughter that there’s still lots for science to discover and we don’t know everything. She’s 4.5 years old. Perhaps I could have shared her book with my new friend.

Still he was adamant that one day in the creation story didn’t necessarily mean one day (as in 24 hours) – though why you would care what it means once you’ve opted to avoid rational thought I don’t know. So I set him a challenge. To go away, learn Hebrew and come back having analysed every occurrence of the word ‘יום’ (day) in the Torah and tell me how many times it is used to mean something other than a day (as in the time from one morning to the next).

The problem, as it becomes ever clearer to me, is that we can use our religious texts to mean whatever bonkers ideas we like (and my visitor just caught me at the wrong time) – in theory anyway, notwithstanding an extended cultural tradition of a mode of interpretation. But if I wanted to interpret my text to argue as a religious leader the killing of non-Jews is permitted in the name of Judaism, or raping, murdering and selling into slavery young girls to keep them from Western education in the name of Islam, or abuse the mourners at the funeral of an actor because he once acted a part in drag in the name of Christianity – I could, and of course I’ve only picked real examples and a small carefully chosen sample.

Us and Them

I don’t want to risk creating more hate but we need to accept that on the one hand it is ‘us and them’ – the extremists vs the moderates and the religious terrorising of populations is frightening today particularly with the abuse of Islam in places like Iraq – roundly denounced by the Muslim Council of Britain with whom the Board of Deputies release an unprecedented statement. And at the same time it’s us. The most powerful moderating force comes from within not from the outsider. If there’s a job for interfaith work it’s to make a stand against the extremist tendencies in all our faith communities – a sort of massive inter-intrafaith effort. We must once again moderate the religious extremist tendencies, even whilst we tackle the rising hatred in the form of Antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The enlightenment values which drove Liberal Judaism forwards – rationalism, universalism, humanism and personal autonomy must be combined with the most important normative interpretations of Judaism and other religions’ textual traditions: compassion, the sanctity of life, loving our fellow as ourselves, justice and peace. Enough talking past religious fundamentalists and extremists – we, all liberal religions, must set about making the case more persuasive and more persistent and drag, kicking and screaming if necessary, the world of faith back into the 21st century.

May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.

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One thought on “Sermon Shoftim – Dragging faith back into the 21st Century

  1. Laura Lassman September 7, 2014 / 10:42 am

    Thank you Neil for your timely call to action. Perhaps the gathering of liberal religions can fulfil Mattuck’s hope for the religion of the future (written in 1925)
    “There is also the desire which many feel for an escape from the animosities that religious divisions have brought and bring into the world. The desire may be true or false, good or bad, hopeful of fulfilment or without hope, but it is a real desire, an understandable desire, a worthy desire. As a hope it holds the beauty that attaches to unity, harmony, and peace.”

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