2019 is a year of celebration and a chance in bringing South Africa together

Chaverim Yakarim

 I have been asked to share my sermon from last Friday via the AdKan with all of you. Please let me and/or ManCom know what your thoughts are on the subject, and please join the conversation.

Shabbat Shalom—Rabbi Adrian M Schell

Welcome back – and it is good to be back.

Summer in Johannesburg is – as we all know – a much quieter time, and if we decide to stay at home, we actually can use this quietness to reflect on the past and the future.

I did just this:

Last year was an important one, because of some of the historic milestones that were commemorated. The End of World War one, the 80th anniversary of the “so called” Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass in 1938, which marked the beginning of the Final Solution of Nazi Germany. And not to forget, there was, of course Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday.

2019 will be a year filled with those kind of remembrance days, too. In September we will mark the beginning of World War II in 1939, and in June we will commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. But most importantly this year, we, South Africa, celebrate the end of Apartheid and the first democratic elections in 1994 – 25 years ago.

This is a milestone in the younger history of South Africa and I am looking forward to it. For me personally, it is an opportunity to learn more about the history of South Africa, the different biographies of people whose lives I share, and it is my hope that I will understand more how South Africa’s multi-faceted society has tackled the many problems on the path of reconciliation. However, I think this year, is also a great opportunity for Bet David to examine our own identity within this larger context.

Last year, we started a discussion about the future of Bet David, our Vision for this congregation. Where do we see Bet David in 5, 10 and 25 years from now? And more importantly, what impact will we make as progressive Jews in the future? How can we keep our congregation significant for our members, for the Jewish community and for the society we live in.

The questions can only be answered, when we start thinking about our own identity right now. Where does Bet David fit in, in this post-Apartheid South Africa. What is our role in the reconciliation process that perhaps only begins now? What is our history, where did we fail, where did we match the principles of Judaism?

When I look at the congregation, I see a very diverse congregation, with members and worshippers coming from all kind of backgrounds, seeking here a safe space to encounter God and Judaism. I see people united and willing to shape the future for the best. But do I see everything, am I seeing the broken identities of some of you, the scars of the past, the open wounds that are not able to heal, yet?

Do we see them?

Friends, I am not an expert on reconciliation for South Africa. My biography is very different to yours. But I share with you this dream, this hope, this longing, to bring healing into our world. As a progressive Jew, as a Jew, as a human being, I know that we have the strength and the ability to work together to bring about this change—aiming for a healed world. I invite all of you to join me and ManCom in this effort.

Let us make 2019 a year of celebration and a real milestone in bringing South Africa together.

Shabbat Shalom

 

Because they lived, we will too

Chaverim—Beloved Friends,

 Normally, when Jews die, we recite a prayer: ‚baruch dayan ha’emet‘ blessed is the True Judge. It’s a way of saying: “the good and the bad they did, can pass with them — their soul is in God’s hands now“. When Jews are slaughtered by anti-Semites, however, there is a different prayer: ‚hashem yikkom damam‘ – may God avenge their blood.

It may sound awful to call for revenge in the wake of an attack. It may sound like a summons to continue the cycle of violence. Please be assured, that is not the type of vengeance we are speaking about.

The best form of revenge, in the face of people who want to destroy you, is to carry on living, more than ever. Nothing pains anti-Semites and haters more than to see the people they want to extinguish go on and thrive.

Last Shabbat we celebrated our Judaism proudly. We came together for our Challah Bake, we had joyful services, some of us went to the Johannesburg Pride, and on Monday we welcomed a new Baby Boy into our covenant with God. And this is exactly how we will carry on, being more Jewish. More visible. Louder. More different. More inclusive.

Last Shabbat was also painful, hurtful, and shocking. Not only have we, the Jewish people, lost members of our community, but humanity has lost—as in so many other terror attacks before—wonderful souls, human beings created in the Divine image.

In their honour, we will be more faithful, more humble, closer to God. Because they lived, we will too. We will outlive the anti-Semites, the haters, the racists. With our lives, we will avenge their blood.

– Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

 

Happy pride day Johannesburg

Chaverim—Friends,

 This weekend, Johannesburg is celebrating Pride day, and by that diversity in our South African society. While the legal position of people, who identify as LGBTI* in South Africa, is not bad at all (not only in comparison to other African states but also in  comparison to Worldwide standards), still many of the queer, gay and trans community suffer from great discrimination, social exclusion and marginalisation, often including physical and sexual abuse when people “come out“. It is happening in our neighbourhoods, in the countryside, and in our cities, and it is not only part of the reality outside our own circles, but also inside the Jewish community, including our own one.

As Progressive Jews, we recognise the Divine image in every human being. Human dignity doesn’t have limitations. As much as we do not discriminate race, social/economical background, and skin colour, we must also uphold the rights and dignity of every person who is identifying as Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Gay, Trans, Queer, Hetero, or even not within any of those terms. As early as in the Talmud, our sages have recognised at least 7 genders, teaching us that gender-identity is more than two options*.

It goes without saying … but I guess we/I have to say it again: This rabbi, our movement and our community, Bet David, has and always will welcome, respect, embrace and shower overflowing chesed (love) upon all, including people who are/identify as LGBTI*.

Happy pride day – Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

 *A handout with the teaching of the Talmud is available here: Handout More Than Just Male and Female The Seven Genders in Classical Judaism

 

Parashat Bechukotai – I will look with favour upon you

Chaverim, friends

It has taken the orthodox community in Johannesburg almost 3 ½ years to realise that Bet David has an openly gay rabbi. To be honest, I am not so sure if this news went around earlier, but to me it looks like that this became a topic in the wider – not progressive community of Johannesburg – only recently.

I am not sharing this observation with you all because I want to discuss my sexual orientation with you, but because of the way this discussion apparently has made waves outside of Bet David. Some of you have shared with me how your friends have expressed their “concerns” in this regard, saying that ‘being gay might be against the bible’.

Of course, this kind of argument is not new, nor is it only common in Judaism. My usual reply would be to counter such an argument with one of the following statements:

OK – so – now we are taking the words of the bible literally? Interpreting it word for word? Yes, let me ask you this:

  • Are you considering stoning your sons to death because they didn’t obey your instructions?
  • Do you intend returning the house you bought to its previous owner 50 years ago – of course, without asking for the any financial compensation to be paid?
  • How can you rightfully go to synagogue when you’ve had contact with a dead body? You know, killing a spider count, too.
  • The same applies to animal sacrifices and much more ….

The simple point I’m making is that one can’t just pick certain laws as absolute and eternal to point fingers at others, while declaring other mitzvot as not relevant or “flexible” when they touch your way of living.

Of course, the discussion often ends here. Not because the other person agrees or is convinced that having a same-gender relationship could be as holy as any other loving relationship, but because the sexual orientation discussion – particularly of a rabbi – might not be worth the full theological dispute.

For today, because of the Torah portion we have before us, allow me to go a bit further. The opening of our parasha says:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. … I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone … [and] I will look with favour upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain My covenant with you. [1]

Only some verses later, we read what is supposed to happen if we choose to follow a different path:

But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you … [and] I will set My face against you: …[2]

In beautiful language our Torah portion levels the playing fields, making us all equal while standing in front of the Torah/God. It also points fingers at each one of us, telling us that the Divine has presented us with a colourful set of ideas, concepts, values, rules, and commandments, and that we – every single of us – is expected to make a choice, to decide now, on the path ahead of us.

However, the challenge of this Torah portion is that it appears very limited in its options and it seems that we only got one of two choices:
Option A: to follow, or option B: not to follow. Each has its own set of consequences as stated above. The text doesn’t say, you might follow Options A, B, C, but not D, and perhaps E with some amendments.  We are given an ‘Either – Or’ choice. Take them all, or you are in breach of the contract, says the text.

Here is the real struggle we face when we take the Torah literally. No one, and I mean not one of us is capable of adhering to the biblical text in its literal sense. We know it, and I am sure the Torah itself knows it, too.

Still, it poses a terribly challenging question:

  • How can someone be Jewish in these circumstances?
  • How can someone be part of the Covenant with God, knowing that parts of the Torah come either as a challenge to their existence, or are even in clear contrast to one’s very nature?

Men and women alike, straight, gay, trans, old and young, families and singles, poor and wealthy, white or black, Reform, Orthodox or secular!

Assuming that we all agree upon the common dominator – not to reject the Torah, and that we cannot re-write the Torah

  • how can we follow God’s laws, especially the difficult and challenging ones, and at the same time being faithfully authentic to the way we live our lives?
  • How can we be true to our commitment to our Jewish heritage?
  • How can we end the fear that God might turn God’s favour away from us?

Rabbi Dalia Marx, in her article „Walking and Standing“, gives us a different perspective to understand this very challenging parasha by pointing out a wonderful interpretation of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a well-known Israeli intellectual:[3].

Looking at the third word of our reading – Im Bechukotai telechu, If you walk in My laws – Leibowitz brings our attention to the different character of the word „to walk“ (hei-lamed-chaf) in contrast to the Hebrew words for „to hold,“ (chet-zayin-kuf), or “ to stand,“ (ayin-mem-dalet). Using either ‘to hold’ or ‘to stand’ as the opening word of our sidra instead, would offer us a very different result in guiding us to understand God’s will.

Leibowitz explains that to follow the Torah is neither a static nor a passive endeavour, but rather an on-going process. The word Halacha – Jewish law –  means path, implying, that you have to walk – holech – and not stand still, in order to fulfil the religious obligations. The meaning of a commandment’s fulfilment is to carry it out, and to realise its potential.

Walking is not only a recurrent metaphor in our reading today. Elsewhere in the Torah, we have read that

  • Noah is praised for walking with God (6:9).
  • Abraham is the biggest walker of them all, covering many hundreds of kilometres in his dusty sandals. God commands him to get up, walk around the land (13:17), and walk before God and be blameless (17:1) and later Abraham is using his experiences of his journeys to challenge God in God’s plans
  • In Exodus, God walks before Israel in a pillar of cloud,
  • and in Deuteronomy, Moses promises that God walks before you; God will not release you nor will God abandon you.[4]

Chaverim, Friends, is it any wonder that Judaism came to associate its method of religious practice with walking, and that our movement is defined as a Progressive Movement, a movement that is not standing still in its interpretation of our Jewish heritage? Of course not. The Rabbis created this normative world of halacha to keep the Torah relevant for future generations.

In a wonderful Talmudic midrash, the Sage Ulla claimed that since the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One has no place in the world except for the four cubits of halacha [meaning the Talmud][5]. This may sound claustrophobic, but unlike the Temple, the halacha is not enclosed on four sides. It has boundaries, yes, but its origins stretch way back to the mystical beginning of time, and its destination remains beyond our imagination, open for new interpretations.

I like to think of the four cubits of halacha as the width of a path. A cubit is said to be somewhere between 40 and 60cm long, so a four-cubit path is 1,20 to 1,80m wide. It is broader than a regular path, but narrower than a proper road. It is just right for two people to walk side by side, engaged in an animated conversation.

The metaphor of walking and talking is a beautiful way of thinking of Jewish life. — Our religion has seldomly emphasised a solitary lifestyle or Jewish path. The image of someone going through life’s challenges without the support of a community, or struggling with a text alone, has never been the concept of Jewish learning and being part of the Jewish Covenant.

Walking on a path together with one another is a social, dynamic metaphor. And, never forget: God is available to walk with you — to walk alongside you. Religious life is a journey and not a road we must fear.

Yes, the section of blessings and curses in Parashat B’chukotai may at first seem to alienate us and detach us from God and our heritage. But, if we ‘translate’ it to our world of meaning, and when we read it in context with all the teachings of the Torah, we will understand what it means to walk with God.

The Torah demands that we do not avoid our responsibilities and our duties. We need to choose to do what is right, but also to be ourselves, to be who we are. Never forget that we all are created in the image of God, to be God’s partners.

Friends, following Abraham’s example, we have the right to say no when necessary … even to God. There is no way that we must tolerate injustice vis-à-vis ourselves and/or others. We need to choose life, and to live that life, always.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell
Shabbat Bechukotai 5778 / 12 May 2018

SAUPJ Biennial Conference – Johannesburg, South Africa

[1] Leviticus 26:3-9

[2] Leviticus 26:14-17

[3] Rabbi Dalia Marx, Walking and Standing, reformjudaism.org

[4] Cited after: DANIEL NEVINS, Walking together with God

[5] bT Berakhot 8a / Cited after: DANIEL NEVINS, Walking together with God

A place of hope and unity

Chaverim,

There are a number of Shabbatot throughout the Jewish calendar that have special names. The most familiar of these is probably Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Return, which takes place between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These special Shabbatot each serve a purpose, some historical, some still relevant today. On Friday evening begins Shabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat of Shekels. It takes place every year on the Shabbat before the month of Adar. It is named for a special verse of Torah read on this date which commands every Israelite to contribute half a shekel to support the sacrifices in the ancient Temple.

Now, the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE and, with its destruction, came the end of Jewish sacrificial worship. So, the notion of a half shekel contribution to The Temple is an interesting historical idea, but, beyond that, seemingly irrelevant to our 21st Century lives. And yet, there were several things about this contribution which still resonate today.

First, this was a shared responsibility. The obligation to give a half shekel fell to each and every Israelite, regardless of income. This shared tax must have led to a unique sense of unity and belonging among the Israelites.

Second, this money went to support what was considered the main institution which guaranteed the welfare of the Israelite nation. From the perspective of the Israelites, that half shekel tax was the first step to providing prosperity, safety and happiness to the entire nation … to providing hope for the future.

To have the official opening of our new Bet David campus this Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim, was a deliberate choice, because the two above mentioned values, which seem to be from another time, but will be hopefully continue to be the supporting pillars of our congregation. A unique sense of unity and belonging in which all who are part of Bet David enjoy the same rights and responsibilities. And Bet David as a place that provides hope for the future, a place where we grow together and strengthen our community and our Progressive Judaism.

On this Shabbat Shekalim, I pray our congregation will prosper in its new home and that everyone who seeks a place of peace, safety and hope will find it within its walls.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Howard J. Goldsmith )

Torah Reading

Shabbat Shekalim – Parashat Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1-24:18 – Reading: Ex 22:27 – 23:22 (Plaut p. 519; Hertz p. 315)

Haftarah for Shekalim: II Kings 12:5-16 (Plaut p.1451; Hertz p.993)