#Shared Spaces, Shared Lives, Right to #Privacy and Other People’s #Modesty: On #Pride and in Memory of Andreas Hinz

Last weekend was the magnificent occasion of the ordination of seven new rabbis here at West London Synagogue. It marks the beginning of my 12th year in the rabbinate. When I joined the college there were three students in the year above me. Rabbi Neil Amswych (now serving in the USA), Rabbi Misha Kapustin (now serving in Slovakia having fled the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014) and Andreas Hinz. As many of you surely know, the reason I am not able to tell you where Andreas works is because he was murdered 15 years ago this week, just at the end of his second year of studies. Therefore, this sermon I am giving is in his memory, for the memory of the righteous is surely a blessing.

Our synagogue is openly and proudly supporting the Pride march today, when Rabbi David Mitchell will lead a group there after a special Pride service. Andreas was openly gay. In recent weeks, other parts of the Jewish community in the UK have become embroiled in a divisive argument over the discourse of a colleague with regards to gay relationships. Here, celebrating Pride, we show how much we hope we have moved on. Andreas, an openly gay scholar, was one of the most promising rabbinic students ever to grace the corridors of the Leo Baeck College. His murder stole from us his scholarship.

The first time I taught in memory of Andreas around his yarzheit it was also Parashat Balak, some 13 years ago. I’m going to introduce you to a couple of key ideas, which Rabbi Helen hinted towards in her thought for the week.

Let this sermon be a celebration of our interpretative community – our Reform approach to Torah, to living, to seeing the way our tradition can inform our actions to make the world better. We’ll leave the LGBTQi hate crime for the moment and the vicious attacks on rabbis in the Orthodox world. Let’s enter the world of Balaam:

How goodly are your tents Jacob, and your dwelling places Israel.

These words, uttered by Jews for centuries as they have entered into synagogues, first poetically inserted into the mouth of a non-Israelite prophet who just cannot escape his fate to bless and not to curse.

Now I want to take these words and elaborate on their interpretation in the Talmud to draw your attention to the ideas of privacy, by which I of course mean that I think we should all seek to live in a world where religion decreases its self-appointed right to comment on the sexual behaviour of two consenting adults. Secondly, I am going to argue that these words and their interpretation in the Talmud and by Rashbam the grandson of Rashi the French medieval exegete, remind us that the Jewish people in the State of Israel, may be read as akin to a shared courtyard and the Charedi world must therefore be compelled to not only allow space to denominations of which they are not a part, but must be compelled to pay for the support of those denominations.

But to my first point about privacy, which is really the beginning of our journey.

In the Talmud, Bava Batra 60s we read from the Mishnah that:

“A person may not open an entrance opposite another entrance or a window opposite another window toward a courtyard belonging to partners…”

לא יפתח אדם לחצר השותפין פתח כנגד פתח וחלון כנגד חלון

The text continues and then the Gemara asks:

מנהני מילי א”ר יוחנן דאמר קרא (במדבר כד, ב) וישא בלעם את עיניו וירא את ישראל שוכן לשבטיו מה ראה ראה שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונין זה לזה אמר ראוין הללו שתשרה עליהם שכינה

“From where are these matters, [i.e., that one may not open an entrance opposite another entrance, or a window opposite another window,] derived? Rabbi Yoḥanan says that the verse states: “And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe; and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). [The Gemara explains:] What was it that Balaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, [ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy]. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.” (bBava Batra 60a – Translation from the William Davidson Talmud available at www.sefaria.org)

That is to say, when we do not position ourselves to see into the privacy of our fellow’s home we enable the Divine presence to rest on us. This right to privacy is one of the clearest articulations of what we might call a ‘human right’ in early Jewish thought. We often think of Judaism as a religion of law and obligation, with the rights implied – thou shalt not murder implies a right to life, for example. However, here the Talmud is explicit in telling us that the right of not invading the privacy of our neighbour leads to certain requirements in buildings.

תנן החלונות בין מלמעלן בין מלמטן בין מכנגדן ארבע אמות ותני עלה מלמעלן כדי שלא יציץ ויראה מלמטן שלא יעמוד ויראה

We learned in the mishna: And one who desires to build a wall opposite the windows of a neighbor’s house must distance the wall four cubits from the windows, whether above, below, or opposite. And it is taught in a baraita with regard to this ruling: Concerning the requirement of a distance above, the wall must be high enough so that one cannot peer into the window; concerning the requirement of a distance below, the wall must be low so that he will not be able to stand on top of it and see into the window…(bBava Batra 22b)

In fact the right to privacy, discussed earlier, leads to the Talmud describing a situation in which one can compel one’s neighbour in a shared courtyard to contribute to the cost of building a wall for privacy because of potential damages in overlooking one’s neighbour.

But let’s look back at the original discussion of Balaam’s words in this case. The reason for the praise of Israel’s encampment was because no-one could see into the home of anyone else. Assuming the home was a small tent then I think we can assume that this particularly applied to the rights of a couple to be together in privacy. The modesty we’re talking about here was not the enforcement of certain dress codes but rather the duty for individuals to avoid their own eyes prying on others.

If this is the case then I venture to suggest that we have reached a time in our community when we can interpret this idea most expansively to say that it is incumbent on each and every one of us to mind our business when it comes to judging what consenting adults are doing in the privacy of their home. Providing it is not illegal nor endangering of lives, we have a religious duty to avoid peering into the bedroom and using sexuality for our own ends. Politicians, by the way, would do well to do the same. Personal relationships are the last bastion of power in religious communities, it is the area in which we can apply the greatest force of condemnatory rhetoric and we should therefore be exceptionally careful to avoid this. Rather we should celebrate loving relationships, stable homes and caring families. And that is what we should be encouraging to be the position of our co-religionists and those in all religions.

But I said I wanted to extend this interpretation into the compulsion of the Charedi world into not just passive acceptance but supporting non-Orthodox Judaism.

On the discussion of the Gemara (Bava Batra 60a) I mention above, Rashbam writes:

גמ’ וירא את ישראל שוכן – ראה היאך שוכנים ולפיכך אמר מה טובו אהליך וגו’ שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונים ומחנה ישראל כחצר השותפין דמי

“He saw Israel dwelling – Balaam saw how they dwelt, therefore he exclaimed ‘Mah tovu’ for no-one’s tent door faced the other. And the encampment of Israel is like a shared courtyard”

Listen to the claim here again, which makes sense since a lot of Bava Batra deals with that most tricky of questions that is how much I can make use of my property freely without impinging on my fellow and how we live in shared spaces together.

Rashbam suggests that the entirety of the encampment of the people of Israel in the wildnerness should be considered a shared courtyard.

Now I want us to stretch our interpretation here yet further and draw an analogy. It is not one of law but of narrative. If the camp of Israel is a shared courtyard then how much more so must the Jewish presence in the State of Israel be considered similarly. If the State of Israel is a shared courtyard, then certain principles apply. For example (e.g. bBava Batra 7b, 8a etc), all in that courtyard can be compelled to provide certain things, for example the walls, a porters lodge, and, by extrapolation to citizens of a town, the soup kitchen, the charity fund, the clothing fund, the burial fund, the maintenance fund and so on.

If you see the State of Israel as the Jewish people’s collective enterprise then the Charedi world, who let’s face it have received plenty of support from the State vis a vis support for the places of learning and avoiding army service, must be compelled to provide a public space for all Jews to pray in their own legitimate way. This is the implicit obligation in shutafut – in partnership. You can be forced to support that which protects me from something which would otherwise be injurious to me, or us. But not just injury, the basic functions of civil society can be compelled.

I’m not talking here about dense legal rhetoric. This is the principle of shared living. You want to be part of this society, the Israeli government should be saying, then you need to not just begrudgingly let happen but must demand that there is support for places for equal prayer at the State’s most holy places like the Kotel, support for rabbis of different hues in cities and towns, grants to places of study and synagogues, equal recognition of different Jewish practices with regards to marriage, divorce, burial and, yes, conversion. Netanyahu’s cowardly clinging on for power to maintain his government is driven solely by power but no vision, driven by self-aggrandisement but not bravery, driven by acquiescence to spurious ideas of Jewish authenticity but no celebration of 21st century philosophy.

So Balaam’s blessing tells us to ensure religions the world over (and including ours) honour the privacy of intimate relationships. And it also compels Jews in the State of Israel to live in partnership even with those whom they do not consider to be from within their strand of Judaism. And I urge you to write to His Exellency Mark Regev to tell him that is what you think with regards to the arrangements at the Kotel and the threatening conversion bill.

For as Micah tells us, in the Haftarah for our portion this morning echoing the words of Balaam with the phrase ‘Mah Tov’:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ

“God has told you, humankind, what is good and what the Eternal One your God asks of you: only do justice, love mercy and walk humbly/modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).

Then we may live in a world where we can say:

Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov, mishkenotecha yisrael – How good are your tents Jacob and your homes Israel

Mah tovu ohalecha kol b’nei adam, mishkenotecha kol ha’olam – How good are your tents all of humankind and your homes all the world.

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


Monsters of Absurdity

Here’s the poem I’ve referred to several times, sung by the amazingly talented Rona Kenan:

Legacies and visions

Moses is now at the tender age of 120 is conscious of his legacy, that’s why he sings his song we heard this morning. His is a life lived in periods of 40.

40 is a symbolic age. Presumably it also had a great deal of truth in the ancient world, of being a lifetime or generation. So Moses’ life was symbolically three lifetimes. He led the children out of Egypt. He received Torah at Sinai. He wandered in the desert for 40 years until reaching the edges of the promised land. Each would have been an accomplishment worthy of one person, but Moses leads through these three lifetimes. It’s Moses’ life that becomes the paradigm for Hillel the Elder’s life – who also according to tradition lives to 120.

In a wonderful twist, lately, modern Israelis have adapted the wish that we live to 120 on our birthdays. They now say ‘עד מאה כעשרים’ – may you live to 100 like a 20 year old.

Birthdays of significance – and I had a very dear friend who said that after ill health every birthday was significant and an achievement – they are time to think about what has gone and what is yet to be. And what, as Moses finds standing on the edge of the promised land in our last weekly Torah reading of the year – what we might not even see realised in our lifetime.

We’ve begun a new year of 5777 and in that curious syncopation of the Jewish year, our Torah reading is just catching up on the new cycle. So we’ve not let go yet of what was but we’re already striding through the days to what will be.

This year will be 100 years since the Balfour Declaration and 50 years since the Six Day war. After the Six Day War Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book ‘Israel: An Echo of Eternity’:

Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:3-4)

But that word will not go forth from Jerusalem unless all of us – Jews and non-Jews – have tasted profoundly the intensity of a waiting for the word. The burden is upon us Jews but we will not and must not do it alone. All of us must learn how to create in this dreadful emptiness of our lives, how to be illumined by a hope despite disaster and dismay.

The Bible is an unfinished drama. Our being in the land is a chapter of an encompassing, meaning-bestowing drama. It involves sharing the consciousness of the ancient biblical dwellers in the land, a sense of carrying out the biblical legacy. It is like the ladder of Jacob pointing to Jerusalem on high.

The State of Israel is not the fulfilment of the Messianic promise, but it makes the Messianic promise plausible. Even while our faith is fading, the power of biblical words, of biblical promise, is challenging, pursuing. Israel will abide as long as the power of the biblical word prevails.

The crisis in Judaism goes beyond the issues of creed and observance. Even if we could reach a consensus on theology and law, the question of the adequacy  of present-day ethics and observance would remain. Are personal observance and traditional study, are synagogue and Hebrew schools, attuned to the earnest wrestling with the issues of massive obtuseness and the dying of the hearts? Are customs and ceremonies, are services and sermons, an adequate antidote to the massive dehumanization, to the emerging monsters of absurdity? Is Judaism as presently understood equipped to confront the challenge of the world?

Genuine history is enshrined in our rituals. Yet ritual, loyalty, theology, remain deficient unless there is an ongoing responsiveness to the outbursts and to the demands of immediate history, of our situations.

The integrity of our lives is determined by seeing ourselves as part of the historic context in which we live. Failure to be open to the demands of our historical situation liquidates one’s own position of meaning. In order to be responsible, we must learn how to be responsive…The house is in flames and the clock ticks on…The ultimate meaning of the State of Israel must be seen in terms of the vision of the prophets: the redemption of all men. The religious duty of the Jew is to participate in the process of continuous redemption, in seeing that justice prevails over power, that awareness of God penetrates human understanding.” (Israel: An Echo of Eternity, pp. 222-225

The Balfour Declaration and the Six Day war are significant moments in the course of history of the young nation state, Israel. With the death of Shimon Peres we were reminded of how young the State of Israel really is. The land that Moses stood looking out towards in our Torah portion has held the dreams and imaginations of the Jewish people for millennia. At the table at Seder night at Pesach we conclude ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ on Yom Kippur we conclude publicly with ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’. “Look upon Zion, the city of our solemn gatherings; thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a peaceful habitation, a tent that shall not be removed, the stakes whereof shall never be plucked up, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken.” Said Isaiah (33:20). “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” wrote the Psalmist (Psalm 122:6) and “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” (Psalm 137:5). To paraphrase the poem of Judah HaLevi, the medieval rabbi and poet, given to me when I stood at the Kotel when we made Aliyah as a family, ‘we are in the east and our hearts in the uttermost West’.

Next Year in Jerusalem –  בשנה הבאה בירושלים

As I drove home from synagogue after Yom Kippur on Wednesday I listened to the latest instalment of ‘The Promised Podcast’.

The latest edition of the podcast was every bit the vision of Israel that I would like to hear about. After some discussions, the programme turned to Yom Kippur – and the three presenters wrote their own ‘al cheit’. The sins they felt they had committed – in a non-navel gazing, though slightly self-flagellating, kind of way. The presenters reflected on politics, on family, on the world, on insularity, on international affairs, on humanity. It was moving and beautiful and it was, I think, a Zionist dream.

Then one of the presenter’s daughter (Dara Efron) was invited to contribute. He’s in the USA at the moment on a sabbatical and had invited his daughter to pre-record a segment reflecting on the week. Here are her words:

“This past Monday, 4 in the afternoon, we unleashed our dog to go walk to the Yarkon. The Yarkon is a river, it’s also a great nice green park in Tel Aviv. And we were walking with friends from our congregation to do tashlikh…my favourite ceremony … And I was just caught by how many people were there enjoying their chag. Right next to us there was a man with his three year old kid on his shoulders and they asked us what we were doing and I explained and they also … did tashlikh. In the river there were tons of boats, kids in peddle boats, celebrating their birthday and rowers rowing … There were people juggling and people tightrope walking … Groups of people milling around and having fun, having picnics, groups of mothers and babies and cyclists and people blowing the shofar and everyone just having a good chag. So Chag Sameach – Shanah Tovah”.

How much more of a perfect picture of the brilliance of the dream. I’m talking that downright romantic image of what it could mean to be a Jewish and Democratic state. Where there is no problem in describing people marking Rosh Hashanah in the park with rowing, juggling, shofar blowing, dog walking and introducing a complete stranger to the ceremony of tashlikh. And tightrope walking. I always find my Rosh Hashanah is not complete with a tightrope walk. It was reminiscent of this time last year when I was in Israel and my friend’s son went to his circus skills club and worked on the trapeze to the sound of Bruch’s Kol Nidre.

It brought me back to the poem that I have mentioned now three times over this period – by the Poet Saul Tchernikovsky entitled ‘I Believe – Sachki Sachki’:

אאמינה גם בעתיד,
אף אם ירחק זה היום,
אך בוא יבוא – ישאו שלום,
אז וברכה לאום מלאום.

ישוב יפרח אז גם עמי,
ובארץ יקום דור,
ברזל- כבליו יוסר מנו,
עין-בעין יראה אור.

יחיה, יאהב, יפעל, יעש,
דור בארץ אמנם חי,
לא בעתיד, בשמים –
חיי רוח לו אין די.

And I shall keep faith in the future, Though the day be yet unseen Surely it will come when nations All live in blessed peace.

Then my people too will flourish And a generation shall arise In the land, shake off its chains And see light in every eye.

It shall live, love, accomplish, labor In the land it is alive Not in the future, not in heaven – Its spirit shall henceforth thrive

You see, what haven’t mentioned until now was that this poem – a humanist poem believing in the spirit of every person – is also unashamedly committed to the flourishing of ‘my people’ in the land.

This is a dream of a particular flourishing of the Jewish people, living in a world of peace.

Blessed Peace

But look, we’re not there yet and I’m seriously worried after the UNESCO resolution (comment by my teacher Jeremy Leigh) yesterday about the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock. The antisemitic resolution effectively ignored (even if it didn’t rewrite history) the Jewish connection to the land and Jerusalem. And I’m worried because this issue is the touch paper that has caused at least two rounds of serious violence against Jews, though all Israelis were caught up in it. You will remember the spark for the Second Intifada was (and I should add falsely) all laid at the feet of Ariel Sharon’s walk on the Temple Mount. And in recent years, rumours about Israel’s intentions have been used to fan the flames of violence leading to stabbings and attacks up and down the country.

Peace is not something that can be achieved in this way by UNESCO. And it won’t be achieved by denying our people’s connection to the land of Israel or effacing our yearning and spirit from the holy places. True peace will only come when our vision is allowed to live alongside the Palestinian aspirations and the universal vision.

Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:3-4)

Let us pray for that time and on our way there, let us marvel at the journey of our people, begun with Moses, and still unfolding before our very eyes so young and yet so old – of tightrope walking, juggling, rowing, dog walking, tashlikh and shofar blowing.