Shabbat Hagadol: Why do we care so much about refugees – what does Pesach have to do with it?

At our Melton class on Monday night with the Lyons Learning Project (which we are starting to recruit for a class next year – you should join me!), I was part of a recent discussion that focused on the question, why is it that the Jewish community is overwhelmingly engaged in issues of asylum seekers and refugees? And why was the end of the Dubs amendment, safeguarding children fleeing for safety, such a devastating blow to our hopes for protecting the most vulnerable refugees in the world? With the news of the chemical attacks this week and what looks like an escalation of rhetoric, if not on-going military power, in Syria this question is once again high up on the agenda. Why do Jews, probably disproportionately, care so much about these issues of social justice?
The answer to this can be found in the story told in Jewish households all over the world next week – the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt commemorated in the festival of Pesach. The festival of Pesach falls, this year, on the evening of 10 April 2017. Jews of all denominations and none, will find themselves sitting down to eat a festive meal and reciting the two most memorable phrases of Jewish liturgy. The first a universal invitation, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” and the second which captures an essential quality of Jewish identity, “In every generation, one is obligated to regard themselves as though they personally came out of Egypt.”
For many Jews, it is these twin imperatives which drive our interest in aiding the plight of others who are suffering. And, for the record, it’s not just the refugee issue but charitable work like that of World Jewish Relief in the Ukraine and East Africa. But let us focus our attention for a moment on one issue.
Not only do we regard ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt, but a very many of us will actually have refugees sitting around our tables at the festive meal; whether that is refugees from Nazi Europe, the Soviet era, Arab lands or other conflicts. We do not need our imaginations to know what it is like to be oppressed and to taste freedom – both the freedom from hardship, bigotry and antisemitism, and freedom to practice our faith, and the freedom of being in a sovereign State of Israel. Sitting down around my table alone will be descendants from at least two or three mass migrations of Jewish refugees from the 20th century. And instead of hardening our hearts – it’s not unheard of one immigrant group to be positively racist about any other immigrants – when we see human suffering our first response is ‘what can we do?’.
The call to invite all who are hungry to our table is an ethical imperative that we cannot ignore. Thirty-six times, the sages of the Talmud (one of our ancient texts) tell us, the Hebrew Bible exhorts us not to oppress the stranger, to love the stranger, to protect them. Why? Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. From our personal experience, we are commanded to think of the plight of others like us because they are not just ‘like’ us, they are us.
The Pesach festive meal has become a meal like no other, certainly in all of Judaism and, from my experience and knowledge, in any faith. It is a remarkable pedagogical re-enactment of the Exodus. In this experience, it absorbs the ethical issues of its time – be it antisemitism, labour rights, ethical production of food, anti-racism, the inclusion of the LGBTQ community or peace between Palestinians and Israelis. At the same time, it demands an inward journey, to recognise that we carry around with us the leaven in our hearts that makes us unmoved by the plight of fellow humans or impervious to a sense of the sacred. Perhaps everyone should, if not live the Exodus, ritually simulate and commemorate hardship to avoid a hardened heart?
In my work as part of this community’s rabbinic voice for social action, I have heard over and over again from Jews about their desire to make a difference and often it comes back to our Pesach story. Our programmes run at some cost and are completely dependent on the generosity of volunteer time and donations. Yet we are not reducing our involvement but expanding. Our call to say ‘Refugees Welcome’ on our banner is no lip-service. We are now seeking to be a partner in community sponsorship of a refugee family and to grow a refugee employment mentoring programme. At every turn, we have found individuals and partners in other communities, faith groups and organisations, with whom we can partner. We are not alone and we continue to learn how much stronger we are when we work together. And that is necessary because there are some enormous problems we face, like housing, the cost of programming for the most vulnerable in society, making systemic changes not just ‘sticking plaster’ solutions.
Pesach is a strong reminder for the Jewish community that in the midst of the greatest darkness, within a world that is changing at a rate faster than any of us can keep up with, there is hope. As we band together to work towards that hope, I have discovered that we carry that message of human goodness within us. The world may feel chaotic, but there is no need for despair. Every year, we sit down and invite all who are hungry to come and eat. Once again, this year, we will conclude our meal with the Jewish yearning that next year there will be no hungry and all of humanity will be free, safe and redeemed from the forces which oppress us. We know that will not happen by accident and it is our responsibility to be part of the change.

Frankenstein and Golem – Power, Redemption and the Human Condition

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol – the Sabbath before Pesach. It reminded me of the Great Rabbi Loew of Prague’s (the Maharal) extended Shabbat Hagadol sermon which is a preface to his Haggadah. One thing, understandably, that it does not mention (in fact nothing of the Maharal’s writing mentions) the deed most famously associated with the Maharal, ‘The Golem of Prague’.

I was reminded of this story as we finally took down a piece of my children’s artwork from the kitchen walls, preparing for the room to be repainted. It was something we had done together on Daddy day – when my children got to spend time just with me. We had got old boxes together and glued and covered them to make a robot – the picture we took down was the original plan! What would our robot do, I asked the kids, if it could do anything at all. First on the list was play games, it had a built in whisk to make cupcakes, a portable lego set and, the bit that I snuck in – its feet could turn into lawnmowers. But our robot was always a robot – even if we endowed it with improbable abilities to play. Nothing like a golem made from the clay.

So the story goes, the Maharal, who lived in the 16th century, was able to manufacture a beast from the clay of the River Vltava. The beast was called a Golem and a golem, unlike Tolkien’s, is a beast that is alive but cannot think – it has the breath of life in it but not the divine spark to create thought. It was on the Golem’s head that the Maharal placed the letters ‘aleph, mem, taf’ spelling Emet, or truth that led to the Golem coming to life and was it the erasure of the aleph, leaving the word ‘met’ (death) that put the Golem back to sleep. So, we’re told the Golem would do anything for the Maharal and his community in their time of antisemitism. As long as each Shabbat the Golem was put to sleep, all was fine. But one week the Maharal forgot to put the Golem to sleep for Shabbat and it went on a rampage. As the Maharal dashed out of the Altneushul in Prague to stop the damage, we’re told the community repeated the singing of Psalm 92 – the Psalm for the Sabbath Day – to delay bringing in Shabbat formally. This gave the Maharal just enough time to put the Golem to sleep for good. The story concludes, the clay from the Golem still sits in the attic of the Altneushul waiting for one day to be brought back into existence.

Now the Maharal of Prague was a great mystic, philosopher and educator and it just so happens that he was my ancestor. My family traces its history back several generations to the Great Rabbi of Prague. Which means that should I wish to endow any lump of clay with the power of life, I could. But I’ll save my powers until we really need them (!) – that’s the point really isn’t it.

The legend of the Golem actually is read back into the character of the Maharal. We don’t really know the origins though probably the Prague story goes back to the early 19th century. But we can be sure that the community were allowing their imagination to roam free in thinking what kind of protection from the forces of antisemitism they could bring into being. The Golem was just that – a protector, a robot, a powerful entity over which the powerless Jews exercised control.

I suppose, interweaving themes, it also makes sense that the clay was from the river Vltava which of course is the name of the river after which Smetana names his piece that contains the folk melody which ultimately becomes part of Hatikva – the national anthem of the State of Israel. And of course, Ma Vlast is used in the advert for Mercedes. What more proof can there be that the Golem was an answer to a community’s needs – the State of Israel and Mercedes.

It is truly fascinating to think of the Golem as a creation to help the community at its greatest time of trouble. To aid the powerless reassert their power. However, the legend probably post-dates the 16th century Maharal by 200 years. Of course around that time a different Gothic novel of humanity’s striving to act like God in creation was born from the pen of Mary Shelley. Literature and Poetry competitions have already started to mark the 200 years since the first publishing of Frankenstein. Whereas the Golem is, in a sense a reflection of the limits to cause the inanimate to live (since the Golem is never truly human), Frankenstein’s wretch is man becoming God. It reflects a desire to understand the most complex aspects of human knowledge, unfolding at the time, and humanity’s desire to master creation. The wretch of Frankenstein and the Golem of Prague.

In 1966, Gershom Scholem (probably the most important modern scholar of Jewish mysticism) wrote a particularly famous essay on the Golem of Prague and the Golem of Rehovoth. The essay was a dedication to a, then, supercomputer in Israel which Scholem named ‘Golem’. Once again the human aspiration for knowledge and power come together in the form of a computer.

The 19th century gave way to the 20th century and yet still we wish to create – possibly create something endowed with human spirit that will surpass us. Some 50 years since Scholem’s article we have advanced greatly.

500 years ago the Maharal was born.

200 years ago Frankenstein was written

50 years ago the greatest expert on Jewish mysticism wrote about the Golem ‘Super computer’, Gershom Scholem.

The point of all these stories and the expectations of each invention is that we will be imbued with the power to be God or at least Godlike. We will be able to create a living thing from something not living. And that thing will able to do our bidding. Of course that’s why such discoveries as the Higgs-Boson (which was nicknamed the God particle) are exhilarating and why Artificial Intelligence is of such fascination to us.

You see we haven’t lost that yearning, not just for the technological advancement, but to call those advances Godlike. It may have been just a nickname for the scientific work that took place, but it shows how the deep psychological insight of Mary Shelley 200 years ago is still something alive in our minds.

But you know the truth is, in the moments of love between a young couple about to embark on their journey as husband and wife together (as we witness today in synagogue); the celebration of new life with a baby-blessing (also today); these are the moments when we transcend our humanity and feel the miraculous presence of God. We don’t need to think of ourselves like God to be godly. To be godly we need to be draw on the nobility of being human – sharing in the beauty of love, that emotion that lodges deep in our hearts and is like an ever-giving fountain. Our world today needs many things, but golems and Frankenstein’s wretches are not them. We have not realised that the truth is, the key to our redemption will not come from things that we can build – though they may be ultimately important – but in human relationships, in the ideas, values, behaviours that are not things but realised in simple human interaction and shared life. Then our closing words of the Pesach seder will come into fruition and we will taste the freedom of a world redeemed.

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