“You were strangers” – when the universal bursts forth from the particular

Dear Wonderful Future Colleagues, Rabbinic Students

In the last semester of teaching at the Leo Baeck College, we spent several weeks learning together about the description of the ‘ger’ (the stranger – though probably more accurately, the convert) in Jewish texts of late antiquity.

We read, that the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael – a 3rd century (CE) text – is at pains to remind us that “YOU WERE GERIM (STRANGERS)”. In other words, remember that whatever I think about ‘the other’, probably applies to me too. Or to put it another way, be very careful not to call a stranger by a fault that you might have too. An aphorism for which we have many parallels today.

“You were strangers”. It’s been the subject of many posts with regards to the way that Trump has used the executive order. My future colleagues, we did not mean to set out to teach you a text that underpins almost everything about how the Jewish community reads textually its response to refugees and the other.

We’ve seen how the text we’ve used as our springboard for learning, the Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 58b-59b, a text that concludes with reference to 36 (or is it 46?!) warnings about the mistreatment of the stranger, knows that malevolence which begins with the words we speak, ends in death.

I didn’t think that the gates we would be seeking to open would be the gates of truth, righteousness and compassion. The gates of wrong, of tears, of prayer and of repentance, seem woefully insufficient.

We could not predict it. But I know that your thoughtfulness, integrity, strength and courage, qualities that will be called upon as rabbis, will remain resolute. Just as you have taught me a great deal in our learning together about the need for careful analysis and a clear moral path.

Chazak ve’amatz


A moment of pedagogical reflection:

I wrote this letter to rabbinic students who I had the honour to teach in the last semester at the Leo Baeck College. The interesting thing about rabbinic education is that we walk a delicate line between the academic rigour when learning Jewish texts and the applied reading of Jewish texts to weave a sense of purpose and meaning. What is more the Rabbinic role is changing, even since I was ordained 10 years ago. It used to be said that the Rabbi needed to be ‘Priest, Pastor and Prophet’. Our future colleagues will need to be resilient to these changes and strong in their sense of the purpose of the rabbinate.

When it comes to our textual tradition, I still think that the way in which we respond to the texts, through our critical understanding of their development and the evolution of the ideas contained in them, is powerful. Negotiating a way of interpreting our world and our texts in tandem is always a challenge and teaching this text, the goal was not to jump to how it could be applied – tempting as it was. We were focussed on the critical study of the text, the language, the history of the ideas, etc. But now I’ve read over and over again, Jewish voices bringing the ideas to bear of ‘love the stranger’ ‘you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’. All of this is valid and hugely important, and the rabbinic text has a subtlety that can be lost in ‘soundbites’.

What I find more fascinating is that though the sentiment is core to our literary tradition it has relatively little wider traction if you’re not engaged in Jewish sources or not Jewish. What it does is provide us with an interpretative world view, a vocabulary for articulating our particular perspective through our own unique literary heritage. Suddenly, the universal message from within our particular tradition, has an urgency that bursts forth. In that moment, the subtlety is also of value – since it betrays our own particular misgivings, psychology, communal anxiety and so on.

Sabbatical Update – stuck on King David (but also literature)

My discussion of David has been recurrent in the sabbatical posts (principally connected to my research). For some reason the allure of monarchical power is something I’ve not managed to escape from when I sit down to do research – and it’s not just that there’s never enough time to sit down and research!

As I’ve looked more at literary connections between David (and his family) and the Genesis narrative in rabbinic literature, it has become clear that the sages were sensitive to the very literary nature of the biblical text. It is a common practise to read rabbinic literature ‘out’ to the historical context in which it was created/composed, but before these historical, cultural theories are applied, we must also be conscious of hermeneutics – of exegetical strategies by which the biblical text could be read. In other words, before (or whilst) we jump to the world beyond the text we must also be sensitive to the text itself and the way in which it may be read. The two are not mutually exclusive – on the contrary, in a society (such as late-antiquity) in which orality has a big part to play in the transmission of ‘texts’ the inter-connectedness of the reader, the context and the text are always at work.

When it comes to the David, I have just spent some time reading about the way in which the Davidic stories (and the succession narratives) can be seen as deeply connected to the Genesis stories (and particularly that of Judah and Tamar). Notably, biblical scholars who regard the Genesis text as a text somehow generated from the texts, stories and experiences of Davidic monarchy. Judah/David, Hirah/Hiram, Shelah/Shlomo, Er/Na’ar, Bat Shua/Bat Sheva, Tamar/Tamar, Onan/Amnon – is just one example of the interconnected narratives (put forward by Rendsburg and discussed by others – but that is by no means the earliest discussion of the topic).

The two texts can then already be seen as intertexts (the textual historical debate of which came first to one side for the moment). Thus, the sages in their reading of the biblical text as interconnected is less surprising because we imagine they would undoubtedly be sensitive to the literary warp and weft of the text. What I am now questioning is where the connections are drawn and emphasised (both where in the biblical text and where in the corpus of rabbinic literature) and also where the surprises lie. And of course, Why? For example, the biblical text evidently has some intertextual play drawing motifs of Esau and David together – they are both described as אדמוני (ruddy) and both command a troop of four hundred men. The only time this connection seems to even be acknowledged is in Bereshit Rabbah (a midrashic collection from the land of Israel – and there, on the whole, it’s to differentiate David from Esau), yet the Bavli account of David’s 400 children as warriors riding at the front of the troops seems to echo one of the Bereshit Rabbah sources. My challenge is to see if I can connect the Bavli to Bereshit Rabbah to argue confidently for their relationship – as yet, this is only a suggestion.

If this all seems a little obscure to you – (leaving aside the playful characterisation of civic power in the least favourable terms as your arch enemy) let me put it like this: what I’m dealing with here is a way to think about the nature of texts, textuality and their function in the way we talk about life and things. It’s a kind of intertextuality which also sees the conscious and unconscious role of cultural forms (be it text in the written form or otherwise) in both being reused but also reshaped and reshaping the way we discuss the world around us. I’ll have to come back to this another time because it is complicated and there are those who have articulated the issues better than me whose books are sitting in the pile waiting to be read (hopefully before my next sabbatical!).