Cubism and the Seventy Faces of Torah

Last week a Picasso painting sold at the record price of $160 million. The cubist painting “Women of Algiers” was auctioned off by Christie’s in New York to an anonymous buyer for $20 million more than its $140 million pre sale estimate.


This news item caught my eye not because I am in the market for expensive art but because I recently returned from a trip to Madrid where I became reacquainted with some of Picasso’s most famous paintings, in particular “Guernica” which hangs in the Reina Sofia museum. While Cubism is only one of Picasso’s diverse styles he is credited, along with the French painter Georges Braque as being the creator of this unique and radical early twentieth century style.

Cubism is influenced by such early twentieth century discoveries as the x-ray and radio wave. Cubists were inspired by these hidden dimensions and sought to portray them in highly unconventional and often disturbing ways. In short, cubists portrayed reality as consisting of multiple angles and dimensions simultaneously. Such art is not to everyone’s liking but one cannot deny the sheer force of its expression.

As I viewed some of Picasso’s pieces I began to reflect on a well known midrashic adage:

“There are seventy faces to the Torah.”

The full context of the midrash is a discussion about the offerings of the tribal princes at the inauguration of the tabernacle. The midrash picks up on the passage that describes each prince offering a silver mizrak, or drinking bowl. The midrash says:

“The wine [contained in the drinking bowl] symbolises Torah. Just as the numerical value of the Hebrew word for wine (yayin) is seventy, so too does the Torah have seventy faces.”

While first appearing in midrash rabbah (Numbers 13:15) the concept has its antecedent in an earlier Talmudic passage:

“Behold, My word is like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that shatters rock!” (Jeremiah 23:29)

“In the academy of Rabbi Yishmael it was taught; Just as a hammer shatters rock into many splinters, similarly may one single verse [of Torah] be split into many interpretations.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 34a)

As it becomes apparent to anyone who studies Torah, every passage, verse and even word lend themselves to multiple interpretations. This multiplicity is captured in the phrase “seventy faces” of the Torah.

How are we to understand the multifarious nature of Torah?

There are two ways of approaching this.

One way is to see the multiplicity within Torah as an invitation for each individual to seek the interpretations that best sit with them. Universalists, for example will gravitate towards interpretations with a universal bent while particularists will be drawn to interpretations of a more particularist nature. The same goes for mysticism and rationalism or any other perspective that one come to the text with. This way of understanding the purpose of the Torah’s seventy faces is given expression in the blessing one recites at the very end of the amidah prayer in which we ask the Almighty to give us “our share” in His Torah. The implication being that each individual has their own particular share in, or perspective on, the multi-dimensional Torah and they are invited to discover it within the vast range of available rabbinic interpretations.

Talmudic argument

But I think there is another, more challenging way to understand the Torah’s seventy faces and that is as a form of intellectual cubism. The Torah’s multiple meanings are not there for us to choose from but rather, as when looking at a cubist painting, to hold in awareness simultaneously. It is too facile to reduce Torah to any particular perspective or outlook. Is the Torah universalistic or particularistic? The answer is it is both. Rationalist or mystical? Again, both. Does the Torah celebrate personal autonomy or conformity? Both. And how could it be any other way? If the Torah is mind of God it must by its very definition contain multitudes.

Perhaps this is what the midrash is getting at when it derives the seventy faces concept from playing with the numerical value of wine. A connoisseur of fine wine will tell you that what makes for an excellent quaff is the complexity of flavours all hitting the taste buds at the same time. Cheep wine delivers a simple, easily identifiable flavour. Its in the rarer stuff that one finds complexity.

For those seeking simple answers the Torah of seventy faces can be challenging, discomfiting, disturbing even. Yet for those who want to be awakened to new perspectives and broader intellectual horizons, for those who want to glimpse the limitless nature of the divine as it is manifest in Torah, for those who can appreciate complexity, encountering the seventy faces can be truly exhilarating.

Shavuot is an ideal time to cultivate an appreciation for this most extraordinary gift. For a Torah that provides so much more than simple instruction and easy answers, but rather provokes, stimulates and seduces those who carefully study her ever changing seventy faces.






A Meditation for the Eighth Night of Chanukah

For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people (Isaiah 60:2) 

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.(Isaiah 9:2)

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Almost every day of Chanukah this year we have learned of horrific atrocities committed across the globe in Sydney, Peshawar, Iraq, Syria; the terrorising of civilians, the murder of innocents, the degradation and enslavement of women.  The one element that binds these acts together is that they are committed in the name of God and religion. People of pure faith are repulsed not just by the reprehensible actions committed by Islamist fundamentalists but by the fact that they defile faith itself by appropriating sacred language and symbols  to serve their nefarious and profane objectives.

Long ago the Rabbis were aware of just how destructive religion and religious symbols can be when aligned to nationalism, power and personal gain. The Hasmonean family that featured so prominently in the Chanukah story as heroes and liberators, quickly descended into corruption and violence while masquerading behind the pious symbols of the priesthood. For this reason the Talmudic rabbis, when framing the festival of Chanukah, deliberately sidelined the great Hasmonean military victories choosing instead to focus on the miracle of the pure oil. They had seen what happens when faith is aligned with power and deliberately drew attention away from this aspect of Chanukah. Faith, they seem to be saying, is represented not in the firestorm of military conquest but rather in a silent flame lit in purity and contemplated with humility.

Perhaps this is why Jewish law insists that one may not derive any personal benefit from the light shed by the Chanukah flames. In the liturgical passage customarily sung immediately after lighting the Menorah we say of the Chanukah flames:

And we are not permitted
To make any other use of them,
But to look at them,
That we may give thanks and praise to Your great name

To make personal use of the sacred flames even for something as innocuous as reading by their light is to betray the sacred. Religion must never be appropriated for our own personal needs. Pure faith, like the stance we assume before the Chanukah lights, demands silence, awe, humility and gratitude. Murder in the name of religion is the extreme end of a spectrum that begins with infringing on the sacred by bending it to our own needs.

As we celebrate the last night of Chanukah and hope of shedding some light in our dark world we would do well to contemplate the purity of our faith. Is it gentle or aggressive?  Humble or arrogant? Does it cause us to look up to others or look down on them? Does it lead to greater love and tolerance or hatred and intolerance? Does it make our world bigger or smaller? Are we using religion to further our own agendas; be they personal, social or national or are we standing in silence and awe  before the sacred?

Faith born of humility can transform our world for the better.  Like the flickering flames of the Menorah, such faith enables us to see God’s world and all that is in it in a softer, gentler and more flattering light.

The Limits of Language: A Rosh Hashanah Meditation

blowing of the shofarThe highlight of tomorrow’s service and the central ritual of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the Shofar. Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon famously listed ten different reasons for this Mitzvah. These range from the trumpet-like sound invoking God’s coronation, to the more human sounds of sobbing or crying apparent in the Shofar’s plain notes which are the result of the deep introspection undertaken on this day.

The Hasidic masters build on the theme of crying and explain that the deepest form of human expression transcends language. The call of the Shofar then represents the deep inner call of the human soul calling out to God as the Psalmist put it: “deep calling unto deep.” The idea is that on Rosh Hashanah we gain access to, and so are able to express, our soul’s deepest yearning for God and its expression as captured in the sobbing of the Shofar, is wordless.

This powerful idea always resonated with me but it was given particular poignancy in 1988 when as an eighteen year old Yeshiva student I had the privilege of spending Rosh Hashanah in Crown Heights and praying with the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.

It was his custom to blow the shofar for the first set of thirty notes while another Ba’al Toke’ah sounded the notes during Musaph. I can recall the scene as though it were yesterday. I stood in a packed synagogue amongst thousands of Chassidim. One could hear a pin drop as the Rebbe ascended the Bimah and put the Shofar to his lips. The sound that emerged was the most haunting I had ever heard or heard since. His notes were not a triumphant blast but an ethereal sound that one had to strain to hear. If there was such a thing as a sobbing soul it would sound like this. To this day I yearn to hear such soulful notes on Rosh Hashanah and I find the self-confident, clarion blasts of most Shofar blowers to be deeply discordant and I am invariably disappointed.

While the Hasidic masters emphasised the wordless nature of the soul’s longing, that is to say the soul’s reaching out, something I heard the other day gave rise to a thought that perhaps the non-language of the Shofar also travels in the opposite direction. That somehow it reaches in to the soul transforming our perception of reality.

I was listening to Radio 4 in the car on Thursday night and the Jamaican poet and writer Kei Miller was talking about how language shapes one’s perception of reality. As an example he took the word “scroop” which denotes a scrapping or rustling sound of material sweeping along the floor. “How,” he asked, “can you hear your bride’s dress as she walks towards you if you don’t know the word scroop?”

I wonder if the sound of the Shofar is meant to take us back to a primal, pre-language state on Rosh Hashanah. So much of what we experience in life is mediated through the words we routinely use that it becomes almost impossible to experience reality in new ways, to see the world through fresh eyes, to genuinely be surprised, to experience awe, wonder and gratitude. By using the word “sunrise” to capture the moment when night gives way to day we objectify, capture and contain an extraordinary moment, and in that containment we impoverish it. We create a common currency for what otherwise might be an intensely powerful subjective experience.

The same is true with human interactions. When we meet a person for the first time we immediately – and subconsciously –  try to fit them into our existing vocabulary (the person is kind, clever, insincere or arrogant) but in doing so we limit our own ability to be truly open to what could be an entirely new perception of another human being.

This can also  be true in our relationship with God. We inherit a rich metaphorical vocabulary which we invoke when thinking about, and when praying to God. Yet this vocabulary is by definition severely limited.  The notion that God can be captured in terms like Father or King becomes problematic if those become the only terms in which we can conceive of the infinite Creator.

Language is useful to help us make sense of our reality but it can also severely limit our perception of reality and inhibit fresh perspectives.

So could the Shofar, that primal pre-language cry, be telling us to suspend, at least for a crucial moment, our language-shaped reality?  Could it be leading us through the threshold to a renewed reality? Is it a coincidence that the Shofar is sounded on the same day that Adam and Eve were created? When on that first day of human life Adam names all the animals using his God given ability of language to shape and so to experience his new reality?

Could the Shofar be telling us that in order to experience the world anew, we need to suspend our old vocabulary for only then can we begin to fashion a new vocabulary and thereby form a new reality, a new existence, a new world?

I believe the Shofar points us in this direction. It urges us to step beyond the comfortable signposts of language, if just for a moment, so that we can encounter reality starkly without reference to pre-existing frameworks. In the moment we transcend language we plant the seed that will give rise to new language enabling us to enrich our perception of reality, deepen our relationships with others and open up new possibilities in our quest to connect with the infinite Creator.

What is Ethical Finance from a Jewish Perspective?

The following is my keynote address at the Interfaith Ethical Finance Roundtable.

Houses of parliament across River Thames

The Interfaith Finance Roundtable was held at The House of Lords on the 24th September 2013. It was sponsored by the Islamic Finance Council in association with the Arab Financial Forum (AFF) and the University of Cambridge inter-faith program. Other keynote addresses were given by The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Sheikh Ruzwan Mohammed.

Good afternoon,

Rather than talk about the specifics of ethical finance from a Jewish legal perspective I think it would be more beneficial and illuminating to describe the underlying philosophy that undergirds its many emergent laws. Laws address circumstances and as circumstances change so too does the application and interpretation of law. However the underlying Jewish philosophy and value system is the bedrock upon which all subsequent law is built and so with only twenty minutes allotted to this presentation. I would prefer to describe the general Jewish value system which gives rise to numerous laws.

So what is the Jewish value system that undergirds ethical finance? I think it is the same value system that undergirds all of human behaviour and it is brilliantly, albeit cryptically, set out in the following mishnaic teaching. The Mishnah is the first recorded book of Jewish law redacted by Rabbi Judah the Prince in the early part of the third century Common Era. It’s a lengthy passage so, in the interest of time, I will read only the most pertinent part.

A human being creates many coins from the same die and they are all identical; the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed is He, coins all people from Adam’s die and not one looks like another. This is why every person must say ‘The world was created just for me (Mishnah, Chapter IV Sanhedrin)

As I said the mishnaic langue is terse and so let me explain what it means.

Ancient coinage carried the imprint of the sovereign; a human head. The Mishnah observes that despite the production of thousands of individual coins, the head imprinted on each of them is identical since they are all minted from the same die. The Mishnah contrasts this with the human phenomenon that no two people look alike. The conclusion drawn from this is that in the same way no two people share an identical outward appearance so too it must be that not two people share identical inner qualities either. There are no duplicates. Each human being is a unique creation, an original. And not just during one’s own lifespan but in historical terms as well. There never was another you nor will there ever be another you. Given how unique we each are the Mishnah concludes that we must each say/believe that “the world was created just for me.”

However there are at least two major problems with this teaching:

Firstly, in theoretical terms it’s extraordinarily narcissistic. How can a religious text teach such self-absorption? One would expect a core religious text to promote humility, awareness of one’s own limitations, the notion that the world does NOT revolve around me. And instead we get a text that emphasises the exact opposite.

Secondly, in practical terms what is the likely outcome of EVERY individual thinking this way? If every person woke up in the morning believing that the world was created just for them what kind of world would we end up fashioning for ourselves? Some might argue that this is exactly the world we are currently living in and it is precisely because too many people wake up in the morning believing that they are at the centre of the universe!

The truth is the mishnah is making the exact opposite point to what it appears to be making at first glance. The mishnah is not giving one licence to take from the world with impunity but rather to give to the world out of a deep sense of responsibility.

Because each of us is unique we each possess the unique opportunity to contribute something novel to our world and to society. The Mishnah is trying to combat a nihilistic tendency in which the individual despairs of making any real difference because he is so insignificant. The Mishnah address this first with rich imagery pointing to the fact that no two people are alike and then by persuading the individual to think of the world as though it were created just for him – to make a unique contribution that no one else in human history can and will make.

In other words the Mishnah asserts that each of us possesses a unique purpose to be fulfilled with our lives. In this context “The world was created just for me” implies the world is waiting for my unique contribution.

The holocaust survivor and great humanist Victor Frankl was aware of this truth when he wrote in his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning” that:

Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it

This foundational idea, that every human being has a unique purpose to help shape our world is at the heart of Judaism and it is captured in the phrase Tikun Olam – which means to repair our fractured world. What does this have to do with ethical finance you might ask? The answer is everything. Ethical finance is Purpose-driven finance.

Let me explain.

Throughout human history there has always been a tension between rights and responsibilities. I think it is fair to say that prior to the enlightenment the emphasis was on responsibilities or duties at the expense of individual rights. Post-enlightenment the bias has turned in the other direction, and this is certainly true of the post-modern world we currently find ourselves in. The discourse of politicians, educators and moral philosophers revolves around finding the right balance between Rights and Responsibilities so that whenever one pole is dominant they react by pulling society in the other direction. The result is that we vacillate wildly between these two poles and this is not constructive.

The financial world in particular finds itself caught between these two poles. Many bankers assert their right within a free-market society to maximise short term profits regardless of the long term cost – provided it is within the letter of the law. They in turn are challenged by, amongst others, groups like the occupy Wall St Movement that invoke the language of responsibility. Responsibility beyond the letter of the law; responsibility to community, to the planet, to future generations.

The problem with this discourse is that it is a conversation of the deaf and that is largely because given the choice between right and responsibility most people prefer to assert their right. Responsibility, at least, in our post-modern individual-centric society is not something most people instinctively relate to. And that is why the only effective way to maintain it is through legislation.

But what if there was a third way? A model that combined both right and responsibility?

I contend that this is the Jewish model of purpose. Embedded in the mishnah’s teaching that we each have a unique purpose in the world is the notion that we have both a right to discover and articulate this purpose as well as a responsibility to do so.

By shifting the discourse from responsibilities to purpose, I believe we can get behind the defensive stance of those who don’t want to be told by outsiders what their responsibilities are because they are afraid that these responsibilities will erode their rights. Even if some could be convinced of their responsibilities there is little joy or enthusiasm in addressing them. At best it’s seen as a price to pay for the right to remain in business. After all the term used to describe addressing responsibilities is to discharge them. We discharge our responsibilities but we fulfil our purpose. The challenge of purpose speaks to us on an entirely different level. It touches our being in a way that responsibility cannot. Deep down we all crave for our lives to have some greater purpose. We instinctively recognize the insignificance of our all too brief lifespan and we want to know that our lives mean something. A.J. Heschel a great twentieth century rabbi, philosopher and human rights activist wrote:

Sophisticated thinking may enable man to feign his being sufficient to himself. Yet the way to insanity is paved with such illusions. The feeling of futility that comes with the sense of being useless, of not being needed in the world, is the most common cause of psychoneurosis. The only way to avoid despair is to be a need rather than an end. Happiness, in fact, may be defined as the certainty of being needed. But who is in need of man?

Ethical finance is purpose-driven finance. One is that enables the financier to contribute something purposeful to society, to the environment, to future generations. Purpose-driven finance, if done correctly, avoids the compliance-based box ticking of responsibility, or worse the hollow, opportunistic, synthetic CSR, and in its place unleashes a positive, proactive drive to fulfil potential and to be a blessing to others.

In typical Jewish fashion I conclude with a story:

Once, a man came to see the great Hasidic master Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

“Rabbi” the man sobbed “I have so many problems. I need to marry off my eldest daughter but I haven’t enough money for the wedding. The landowner from whom I rent my tavern is pressing me for the rent which I can’t afford. My youngest child is ill and I have no access to a doctor. Oh Rabbi, pray for me!”

The rabbi sat in silence for several minutes, resting is head in his hands. Finally he looked up at the poor man and said “my good man stop thinking about what you need and start thinking about what you are needed for!

Ethical finance, from a Jewish perspective, is just that. A financial system operated by those who think a little less about what they need and a little more about what they are needed for.








The Challenges and Opportunities of Change: A Sukot Meditation

Etrog (citron) on a branch

It was the coldest day of the year. I was in Leeds waiting for the train back to London. Despite several layers of warm clothing I was shivering uncontrollably. A friend who I was travelling with stood next to me wearing nothing but an open-neck shirt, a pair of jeans and sandals. “Aren’t you cold?” I asked in amazement? “Of course I am” he replied. “So why don’t you bundle up?” “Its winter” he said as if talking to a child “in winter it’s natural to be cold and it’s no use trying to fight it.” Given my own pathetic attempts to stave off the chill I had to admit his point wasn’t entirely without logic although it wasn’t enough to convince me to abandon my heavy coat and join him in shirtsleeves.

And while I still believe in trying to mitigate the harsher elements of seasonal change by dressing appropriately I have come to the conclusion that in so many other areas of life trying to reverse or suspend change is an entirely futile exercise. All one can do is accept and adapt.

This is particularly true of relationships.

If I think back of what it was like to hold my first child in the weeks after his birth I recall a vulnerable passive infant who couldn’t survive a day without our care. I was the giver, the source of life, the protector. It’s an extraordinary feeling when you realize how much a tiny life depends utterly on you; it’s awesome and exhilarating. Yet as any parent knows this stage does not last forever. Within a couple of years your helpless infant has grown into a rambunctious toddler constantly pushing boundaries and asserting his independence. Move on several years and your eight year old no longer wants you to hug and kiss him at the school gates. Before he is even in his teens he will gradually stop confiding in you. He no longer thinks of you as the font of all wisdom and at times, he frankly thinks of you as an idiot. And then come the teenage years where he will simply stop talking to you, sometimes for weeks on end, although he appears perfectly capable of conversing with his friend’s parents.

And here is the thing of it. It’s not personal. Its natural and you were a fool to think otherwise. Especially when you behaved no differently to your parents, as did your parents to their parents. It is a pattern that stretches back to the dawn of human history. It is a pattern of inevitable change and we resist it at our peril. All we can do is learn to roll with it.

The same is true on the other side of life when one detects change in one’s parents as a result of aging. For a child this can be an extremely distressing period in life. A parent who the child always perceived as strong suddenly appears frail. A parent who was always decisive unexpectedly becomes hesitant and uncertain. A parent who was always the giver now becomes the receiver. And what makes this change in a parent so much more distressing than perceiving change in one’s child is the implication that one day we too are destined to change.

Nothing remains the same for any length of time. Life is constantly shifting and moving beneath our feet.

And while on the surface this is a rather depressing thought, it needn’t be if we learn how to embrace change and unpack its blessings. Because with each painful change comes the opportunity for new growth and new possibilities.

The tender protective feeling a parent has for a newborn baby will eventually be replaced by a different, but no less powerful, feeling of pride when hearing one’s child speak his first words, or seeing him take his first steps. And as these precious moments pass they will be replaced by new moments ushering in new milestones producing new feelings of joy, pride and happiness; a Bar Mitzvah, graduation, marriage, grandchildren. Similarly on the other side of life the pain of witnessing one’s parents aging, getting weaker, more vulnerable can be tempered by a tenderness and honesty previously unknown. Unspoken feelings, buried resentments, unfulfilled expectations all have a way of surfacing and resolving themselves against the backdrop of a rapidly emptying hourglass when one realizes the truly important things in a relationship.

Every new stage in life consists of pain and joy, beauty and dread. The challenge is to accept the present, to celebrate it and make the most of it while it lasts. Those who are able to do so successfully experience not just a fuller, richer present, they are also able to look back on past moments with sweeter memories that no amount of change can ever dislodge.

Accepting change in this way is one of the central themes of the Jewish Festival of Sukot.

During this festival we recite a special blessing over the etrog (a type of citrus fruit.) The Bible calls this fruit pre etz hadaar  (ie the product of hadaar trees.) The Talmud identifies this as the etrog, which unlike seasonal fruit, continues to grow (Hebrew ha-dar) through all seasons. Hadaar also means beauty in Hebrew and so the Talmud relates the notion of beauty to the ability to weather change and to grow from each new moment and experience.

The festival of Sukot inspires us to live mindfully in the moment and to unpack its inherent blessings for as long as the moment lasts and then to do the same with the next phase of life when it comes.

The bible calls Sukot zman simchateinu the festival of joy, for only by embracing change and living in appreciation of each moment one can achieve a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction.

Reclaiming God: The need for a developed theology

There is a telling scene in Joseph Heller’s great American classic Catch 22 where the idiosyncratic Colonel Cathcart asks his chaplain to come up with a prayer to recite before sending the men on bombing missions. The chaplain suggests a number of somber psalms which the colonel angrily rejects saying “Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God? I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can.”

I confess that as a communal rabbi I often felt a little like that hapless chaplain. While I was certainly encouraged to discuss religion I was not expected to talk about God. My congregations were not unique in this regard. If someone were to survey the content of rabbinical sermons over any length of time they would undoubtedly discover a dearth of theological reference and reflection. Why this is so is not entirely clear but theological inhibitions are not restricted to the pulpit. Traditional Yeshivot do not devote any serious time to the study of theology and an Amazon search with that word will bring up less than twenty titles by Jewish thinkers in contrast to the hundreds of similar works by Christian scholars. One of the effects of this lack of a developed and sophisticated theology is that many otherwise educated and knowledgeable Jews bear archaic and simplistic notions of God  that do little to sustain serious religious commitment in an increasingly complex post modern world.

Yet it wasn’t always this way. Judaism has a rich tradition of theological reflection. Rabbis from the Talmudic era through to the nineteenth century Hasidic masters constructed the most compelling and bold theologies that helped to under-gird Jewish life and ritual through some of the most trying periods in history.

The thing about theology is that perceptions of God are, by their very definition, intensely subjective and prone to change from individual to individual and certainly over time. The Midrashic sources are particularly alive to this idea and one of the finest illustrations of such thinking is found in Pesikta Rabbati (Piska 21) commenting on the revelation at Sinai:

Rabbi Levi said that God appeared in many guises, to this one [He appeared] standing, to that one [He appeared] sitting, to this one [He appeared] as a youngster and to that one [He appeared] as an elder. How so? When God appeared at the Red Sea to wage war against the Egyptians He appeared as a young [Warrior] because it is only proper that a battle be waged by a [strapping] youth, yet when He revealed Himself at Sinai to give the Torah to Israel he appeared as an elder for it is only proper that the Torah is taught by a [wise] elder.

Rabbi Levi is not for a moment suggesting that God objectively changes but rather that our perceptions and experiences of Him change depending on circumstance. The God our ancestors conjured up in their minds as they watched Pharaoh’s mighty army cast into the sea was undoubtedly a young vigorous warrior God whereas the God they experienced at Sinai was a hoary headed law giver imparting words of timeless wisdom.

On the surface this sounds strikingly similar to the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes who argues that our anthropomorphic conceptions of God are culturally relativistic:

But mortals consider that the gods are born, and that they have clothes and speech and bodies like their own. The Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black; the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair. But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the work that men do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.

Yet unlike Xenophanes, Rabbi Levi is not suggesting that God’s appearance was merely an illusion and that objectively speaking He was not apparent at the Exodus or at Sinai. What he appears to be saying is that God qua God is inscrutable and that they only way humans can perceive him, if at all, is through the experiences in which we feel His presence. God’s presence was indeed felt at the Red sea and at Sinai it is just that one’s experience of His presence is culturally relativistic. Since such encounters are essentially human experiences they are perceived in human context. God himself however transcends all definition and is in no way limited by our finite perceptions.

This fluid approach to the human perception of God helps explain His many different appearances in The Bible. Isaiah the aristocrat beholds God upon a throne, Amos a rural sycamore farmer perceives God as having a deep sense of empathy with the poor and Hosea understands God’s complicated relationship with Israel in the context of his own dysfunctional marriage.

Sometimes the Talmudic rabbis were nothing less than daring in the way they chose to perceive God as the following passage in Talmud Berachot (7a) demonstrates:

It was taught: Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha related, one time I entered the Holy of Holies to place incense in the innermost place and I saw God, the Lord of Hosts, sitting on a throne exalted and high. And God said: ‘Yishmael, my son bless me.’ And I responded, may it be Your will that Your capacity for mercy overwhelm your capacity for anger, that Your capacity for mercy overshadow Your attributes [of Judgement,] that You behave mercifully towards all Your children, and that, for their benefit, You go beyond the boundaries of judgement.’ And God responded by nodding His head in assent.

The notion of a needy God requesting a blessing from a mere mortal is extraordinarily counter-intuitive if not subversive. Human beings normally request God’s blessing, not the other way around. Yet the context in which this story is first told is crucial. Its intended audience lived through the Roman destruction of the temple. These broken refugees would not have experienced God as the mighty warrior who rescued his persecuted people in the book of exodus but rather as an angry God who abandoned his people to the cruel Romans. Rabbi Yishmael’s story emerges against this backdrop and conjures up a God full of pathos in need of his children’s love and blessing, a God who listens when his children urge Him to control His anger.

A generation later Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, student of the martyred Rabbi Akiva, invokes a similar theology by asserting that when the Jewish people are in exile, God too, so to speak, is in exile ( a motif that is given much attention by the nineteenth century Hasidic masters.)

Nowhere is this theological plasticity more apparent than in the Selichot liturgy recited on High Holidays as well as on fast days. The central prayer in the Selichot is a passage from Exodus (34: 6-7) in which Moses seeks atonement for his people for the sin of the golden calf. The original text in the bible reads:

The Lord, the Lord, A compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and good faith, keeping kindness for the thousandth generation, bearing crime, trespass, and offense, yet he does not wholly acquit, reckoning the crime of the fathers with sons and sons of sons, to the third generation and the fourth.

However in the liturgy the last verse is cut short so as to read: ‘Yet he does wholly acquit’ so that instead of conveying the message that God does not wholly acquit the sins of the fathers it conveys the exact opposite. Here is a striking example of a verse whose original depiction of a vengeful God no longer resonates with those responsible for constructing the liturgy and so they adjust it accordingly.

Theology does not just impact liturgy it also influences the development of Jewish Law.

The Talmud (Bava Metsia 59b) describes a heated debate between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues over the status of a particular oven which he deemed kosher and they disagreed. After failing to convince his colleagues through logical debate Rabbi Eliezer resorted to invoking the supernatural:

Said he to them: ‘If the halachah (Jewish Law) agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place [….] ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ [….] Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline. R. Nathan met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’


The point of this tale is that God does not get a veto in the halachic process. He is, so to speak defeated in contest with his children. This is quite extraordinary given the fact that halachah purports to be God’s will. In this paradoxical story God’s will is actually to be overruled by his children so that what they end up deciding de facto becomes God’s will. This theology has had an enormous impact on the way Jewish law has developed. Using this story as a backdrop successive generations of rabbis freely subjected Jewish law to rigorous intellectual analysis knowing full well that the outcome of their endeavors would be God’s will.

Theology therefore is central to Jewish religious life. Our concept of God has a direct impact on the way we practice Judaism and on how Judaism develops. Jewish law never develops in a vacuum. It always plays out against a theological backdrop. A theology that conjures up a stern, demanding God will invariably give rise to a stringent interpretation of Jewish law. A theology that understands God as compassionate and tolerant will give rise to more flexible interpretations of Jewish law. Similarly in prayer, a particularistic God will invoke prayers exclusively for the Jewish people whereas a universalistic God will elicit prayers for humanity as well.

I was always amazed that in all the rabbinic interviews I have had in my career I was never once asked what God I worshiped. I was asked many questions about specific halachic positions I might take; on women’s issues, on Zionism, on inter-faith and on intra-faith matters and yet the simple question of ‘who is your God?’ would have obviated the need for most of these questions. That is provided those asking the questions had a developed sense of theology which sadly few have.

If we are to advance a Judaism that is compelling and relevant to the majority of thinking Jewish adults today we need to move beyond the simplistic and uni-dimensional concept of God that is taught to children and to develop a theology that captures our experience of God in an increasingly complex world. We need a theology that takes account of such issues as evolution, biblical criticism, feminism, universalism and pluralism. We need a theology that reflects the reality of the State of Israel and Jewish power rather than one that echoes Jewish victimhood. The cost of not continuously renewing our theology is to allow a growing rift to develop between God and our lived experience, rendering God irrelevant.

Judaism gave the world the gift of monotheism. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to ensure that it remains more than a cultural artifact. We need our rabbis, educators and thinkers to engage deeply in questions about God and His place in our world so as to shape a powerful, relevant and compelling God-Conscious Judaism for the 21st century.




The Tragic Deflation of Language and Symbols

Recently a Haredi IDF soldier sued a cartoonist for defaming haredim who serve in the Israeli Military.  The picture which has been widely circulated on the internet depicts a bearded IDF soldier crashing through a wall in pursuit of wide eyed terrified little Hardei children. If you look closely you can see that the soldier is attached to a string that is held at the other end by a hand belonging to someone who stands outside the frame of the picture. The implication is clear, the few Haredi soldiers who do serve in the IDF are nothing more than puppets on a string being pulled by the surreptitious hand of the secular State. What is also abundantly clear, is that the soldier is cast in the role the dreaded Khaper of nineteenth century Russia. The Khapers literally ‘snatchers’ were Jews who colluded with the police of  Tsar Nicholas I in snatching innocent Jewish children to serve under brutal conditions in his military for a minimum term of twenty five years. Many of the victims who were torn from their families and communities were never heard from again. The Cantonists, as they were called, are the subject of one of the darkest periods in Jewish history. 


This is not the first time Haredim have exploited some of the most harrowing images of collective Jewish history for their own political causes. It wasn’t all that long ago that scores of Haredim in Israel donned yellow stars and concentration camp garb to highlight their “victimisation” by secular Israelis who by implication are cast as Nazis. And it’s happened yet again only recently when Rabbi Shalom Cohen of Yeshivat Porat Yosef publicly condemned the National Religious  knitted kipah wearing Jews  as “Amalek” the biblical foe of the Children of Israel and the prototype of all Anti Semites to follow.


This trend is disturbing for two reasons.


The first is that it precipitates a deflation of language and symbols. When I was a kid Nazis were demons, Tsarist colluders were cruelty itself and Amalek was the embodiment of Evil. As a result of Haredi misuse these terms and symbols have become cheapened. Does it matter? It certainly does because language and symbols are important ways in which we convey history. When they no longer mean what they used to mean it undermines our collective memory. The very image of a ruddy cheeked, well fed Haredi child wearing striped pyjamas and a yellow Star of David on a balmy Jerusalem night undercuts the potency of real holocaust era photographs to convey the horror of that period.


The second thing that is disturbing is how this trend excludes other Jews from Judaism by equating them with Judaism’s sworn enemies. And once this begins the exclusion zone gets broader and broader. A year and a half ago the Haredi concentration camp garb protest implied that secular Israelis were persecuting the Jewish people and by implication not really Jewish themselves. Now we have Rabbi Cohen with his Amalek comments extending the exclusion to Non- Haredi Orthodox Jews. The Haredi Cartoonist has gone even further to exclude fellow Haredi Jews who serve in the IDF. It’s only a matter of time before various haredi sects start denouncing each other in the same way.


Perhaps if Haredim insist on staying with the holocaust theme they would do well to read and reflect on Martin Niemoller’s famous poem “First they came for me.” Hopefully they will get the message before they have excluded from Judaism all other Jews who are different from them. At the very least they should take note of Avtalyon’s dictum: “Sages, be careful in what you say, lest you incur the penalty of exile and find yourself banished to a place of evil waters, where your disciples who follow you may drink from them and die, with the result that the name of Heaven will be profaned.” (Mishna Avot 1:11)