AllCommentaries by Roger Eden
Introduction ...................................................................................................................................... 2
Genesis 6.9-11.32 Parshat Noah plus the Haftarah of Isaiah 54.1-55.5 .......................................... 4
Genesis 12.1-17.27 Parshat Lech Lecha plus the Haftarah of Isaiah 40.27-41.16 .......................... 6
Genesis 18.1-22.24 Parshat Vayeira plus the Haftarah of Kings II 4.1-4.37 ................................... 8
Genesis 23.1-25.18 Parshat Chayei Sarah plus the Haftarah of Kings 1.1-1.31 ........................... 10
Genesis 25.19-28.9 Parshat Toldot plus the Haftarah of Malachi 1.1-2.7 ..................................... 12
Genesis 28.10-32.3 Parshat Vayikra plus the Haftarah of Hosea 12.13-14.10 .............................. 14
Genesis 32.4-36.43 Parshat Vayishlach plus the Haftarah of Hosea 11.7-12.12 ........................... 16
Genesis 37.1-40.23 Parshat Vayishev plus the Haftarah of Amos 2.6-3.8 ..................................... 18
Genesis 41.1-44.17 Parshat Miketz plus the Haftarah of Kings I 3.15-4.1 .................................... 20
Genesis 44.18-47.27 Parshat Vayigash plus the Haftarah of Ezekiel 37.15-37.28 ........................ 22
Genesis 47.28-50.26 Parshat Vayechi plus the Haftarah of Kings I 2.1-2.12 ............................... 24
Exodus 1.1-6.1 Parshat Shemot plus the Haftarah of Isaiah 27.6-28.13 and 29.22-29.23............. 26
Exodus 6.2-9.35 Parshat Va’era plus the Haftarah of Ezekiel 28.25-29.21 ................................... 28
Exodus 10.1-13.16 Parshat Bo plus the Haftarah of Jeremiah 46.13-46.28 .................................. 30
Exodus 13.17-17.16 Parshat Bashalach plus the Haftarah of Judges 4.4-5.31.............................. 32
Exodus 18.1-20.23 Parshat Yitro plus the Haftarah of Isaiah 6.1-7.6 & 9.5-9.6 ........................... 34
Exodus 21.1-24.18 Parshat Mishpatim and the Haftarah of Jeremiah 34.8-34.22 & 33.25-33.26 36
Exodus 25.1-27.19 Parshat Trumah and the Haftarah of Kings I 5.26-6.13 .................................. 38
Exodus 27.20-30-10 Parshat Tetzaveh and the Haftarah of Ezekiel 184.108.40.206 .......................... 40
Exodus 30.11-34.35 Parshat KiTisa and the Haftarah of Kings I 18.1-18.39 ................................ 42
Exodus 35.1-40.38 Parshat Vayaqhel/Pekudei and the Haftarah of Kings I 7.40-8.21.................. 44
Leviticus 1.1-5.26 Parshat Vayikra and the Haftarah of Isaiah 43.21-44.23 ................................. 46
Leviticus 6.1-8.36 – Parshat “Tsav” .............................................................................................. 48
Exodus 13:17-15:26 – Parshat Beshalach ..................................................................................... 49
Exodus 18:1-20:23 – Parshat Yitro ................................................................................................ 51
Leviticus 9:1-11:47 – Parshat Shemini........................................................................................... 52
Leviticus 12:1-13:59, and 14-15 (a double portion) – Parshot Tazriah and Metzorah.................. 53
Leviticus 16.1-18.3 and 19.1-20.3 a double portion – Parshat Aharei Mot and Kedoshim ........... 55
Leviticus 21-24 – Parshat Emor ..................................................................................................... 57
Leviticus 25.1-26.2 and 26.3-27.34 Parshot BeHar and Bechukotai ............................................. 58
Numbers 1.1-4.2 Parshot BaMidbar and Hosea 2.1-2.22 ........................................................... 60
Numbers 4.21-7.78 Parshat Naso and Judges 13.2-13.25.............................................................. 62
Numbers 8.1-12.16 Parshat Beha’alotcha and the Haftara of the Prophet Zechariah 2.14-4.7 .... 64
Numbers 13.1-15.41 Parshat Shelach and the Haftara of Joshua 2.1-2.24 ................................... 66
Numbers 16.1-18.32 Parshat Korach and the Haftarah of the first book of Samuel 11.14-12.22 .. 68
Numbers 19.1-22.1 Parshat Chukat and the Haftarah of Judges 11.1-11.33 ................................. 69
Numbers 22.2-25.9 Parshat Balak and the Haftarah of Micah 5.6-6.8 .......................................... 71
Numbers 25.10-30.1 Parshat Pinhas and the Haftarah of Kings I 18.46-19.21 ............................. 73
Numbers 30.2-32.42 Parshat Mattot and the Haftarah of Jeremiah 1.1-2.3 ................................. 75
Deuteronomy 1.1-3.22 Parshat Devarim and the Haftarah of Isaiah 1.1-1.27 .............................. 77
Deuteronomy 3.23-7.11 Parshat V’etchananen and the Haftarah of Isaiah 40.1-40.26 ................ 79
Deuteronomy 7.12-11.25 Parshat Eiqev and the Haftarah of Isaiah 49.14-51.3 ........................... 81
Deuteronomy 11.26-16.17 Parshat Re’eh and the Haftarah of Isaiah 54.11-55.5 ......................... 83
Deuteronomy 16.18-21.9 Parshat Shoftim and the Haftarah of Isaiah 51.12-52.12 ...................... 85
Deuteronomy 21.10-25.19 Parshat KiTitsei and the Haftarah of Isaiah 54.1-54.10...................... 87
Deuteronomy 26.1-29.8 Parshat KiTavo and the Haftarah of Isaiah 60.1-60.22 .......................... 89
Deuteronomy 29.9-31.30 Parshot Nitzavim & Vayilech and the Haftarah of Isaiah 61.10-63.9 and 55.6-
5 6 .8 .......................... ............................................... ............................................... ......................... 9 1
Deuteronomy 32.1-32.52 Parshot Ha’azinu plus the Haftarah of Samual II 22.1 22.51 ............... 93
Glossary of Biblical Hebrew .......................................................................................................... 96
The Bible consists of two main books, often published separately. The Old and New Testament. The Old
Testament is an ancient history book of the Jews, one of the most literate and most ancient of texts humans have
ever produced. The oldest part is the first five books of Moses. All Synagogues will have parchment scrolls
which contain these first five books and each week they will read a portion (parshah in Hebrew). There are 50
such portions, so that each week the scroll will be wound forward ready for the next week. The reading of the
parshah is the central part of a synagogue service. After New Year there is a festival called Rejoicing of the
Torah when the scroll is wound back to beginning.
Many will know of the Jewish coming of age ceremony called a Bar Mitzvah. Every society appears to have
developed some coming of age ceremony, but typically Jewish, a Bar Mitzvah involves no trial, no test of
strength cunning or skill, other than literacy. The boy becomes a man, by taking the central part of the Sabbath
prayers and reads the parshah from the Torah in front of the congregation.
These commentaries were originally published on the Internet as a weekly commentary.
The major story within the five books is of a slave rebellion, where upon becoming free, they do not then decide
to enslave others, nor to take revenge, but create a blue print for how an ethical society should work. They
realize that being free, means acquiring obligations, that rights are only a consequence of obligations. They also
understand that freedom is not an absence of servitude, but a burden of responsibility to their fellow human
beings. These are lessons much of the world is still discovering three thousand years later.
Whilst modern schisms and increase in secularity have reduced interest in anything “religious”, the Torah is
remarkable for its human centred approach.
Many of our very modern values, are derived from the Torah. It was only a few Centuries ago that the English
stopped the absolute rule of “Divine” Monarchs (who ruled with the authority of God), by decapitation. The
French escaped despotic monarchs even more recently. Yet the ancient Hebrews were wary of any Monarchy
three thousand years. They never had divine or absolute rulers. Another factor of monarchy was (and is)
primogeniture, the concept that the first born inherits the wealth and power of their father. The prophet Saul,
when asked to anoint a king, warned of the dangers. In fact there is no case of primogeniture in the Torah,
Adam is a younger twin to Cain, Isaac is the younger half brother of Ishmael, Jacob is the second son of Isaac
(whose older brother “sells his birthright for a mess of potage”), Joseph becomes the second most powerful man
in the known Universe of the time, although he is an 11th son, Moses is a younger brother of Aaron.
Although there is much concentration today on the times of the Jerusalem Temple and the development of a
Priesthood and associated ritual, this was a relatively brief period in ancient Jewish History. It would be some
Centuries after the end of the Torah before Jerusalem was to come into the orbit of the Jewish State. There is
also much controversy about priest hood with possible evidence even in the Torah itself of editing to maintain
the descendents of Aaron as inheriting priestly status. This was especially important as clearly the children of
Moses (who might be revered because of the eminence of their father), were born to a non-Jewish mother.
During the 6th Century BCE, when quite possibly the 5th book of Moses (Deuteronomy) was written (Hosiah in
the Old Testament section on Kings writes of “re-discovering” this 5th book), Judaism began to develop away
from a priest hood and into the more modern form of Rabbinic Judaism, by the elite who were taken to Babylon
after the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.. Given that the style and the facts mentioned in
Deuteronomy, could not have occurred in the time of Moses, that the text is Moses uncharacteristically giving a
two hour speech (he stammered and hence had previously used his older brother Aaron as his mouthpiece) and
that Hosiah‟s text on “re-discovery” can be dated almost to the day, gives rise to the suspicion that at least this
book was written in the 6th Century BCE.
Although priestly worship and the Jerusalem Temple were re-introduced, Rabbinic Judaism had been in
development for 600 years by the time of the Romans, Herod and Jesus of Nazareth.
Babylonian Jewry produced an immense work, a shelf full of volumes called the Talmud, and to this day
remains one of the largest body of ethical commentaries anywhere in the world, and one of the earliest.
Around the 6th Century BCE the World saw a flourishing of ethical systems, Buddha, Confucius and Lao Tsu,
the Upanishads, the start of the Greek flourishing of Arts and Science and the Hebrew Prophets. Quite why so
many systems flourished with no connection between them remains a mystery.
The Torah has some quite unique properties compared to other similar texts, but one stands above all others.
There are no role models. Every “hero” is fallible and human and has flaws. Compare this to Christianity,
Islam or Buddhism, where each have a “perfect” human being as a role model. The role model idea is common
to almost every system but entirely absent from Judaism. One of the most ancient of clichés, is that Moses does
not get to the promised land.
In Judaism everyone must obey their own conscience, and cannot rely on the behaviour of someone else as an
explanation for their own. This ethical approach is reflected in the modern Israel Defence Force, which is (I
think) the only army in the world, where a soldier can be court martialled for obeying an order. As in all other
armies he will also be court martialled for disobeying, There can be no excuse “I was only obeying orders” and
this becomes a very moral system based on ancient Jewish heritage. There are quite a few soldiers serving
prison sentences for obeying orders they should have risked refusing.
Many commentators have observed that ancient traditions had ethical codes and make comparison with
Hammurabi and others, ye this appears to be the first to make law unequivocal, a law that applied to everyone.
The modern concentration on obligations to God at the expense of obligations to human beings results all too
often in tragedies and barbarity.
A final word on language differences. Semitic languages are based on a system of root ideas,, which are
typically three letters. Rhythm and cadence add to meaning. Much of the beauty of English is in the precision
of words. With one of the largest vocabularies in the world, there are only two words with the same meaning.
Much of the beauty of Semitic languages is in being concise and precise. A sentence in Old Testament Hebrew
will have half, sometimes one third of the words of its English translation. The Old Testament starts with the
phrase “In the beginning”, or “breshit” in Hebrew.
Other differences include a lack of capital letters and no proper nouns (all proper nouns in English have capital
Letters). This leads to a number of impossible translations, such as Moses having horns and depicted as such on
the famous Michelangelo statue. In fact the root is anything that points, in the dual form it is horns, but in the
plural form it is rays (of light).
Perhaps the most famous mistranslation is “Son of Man”, a translation of the Old Testament prophecies of
Isaiah and Job. The Hebrew is “ben adam”, literally “son of adam”, the biblical term for a human being. We
are, by biblical definition, all sons and daughters of adam. The phrase “Son of Man” cannot be rendered in
Hebrew or Aramaic and therefore could not have been translated from them
Perhaps, given the lack of Proper Noun, the very concept of God is a misunderstanding of the ancient Semitic
idea, as there is also a common noun god or gods.
In Hebrew only the plural word “Elohim” exists, not as a special case of other gods. There is also the curious
English rendition of the unpronounceable YHWH. The deity of Semitic language is not an identifiable being,
more of a construct in one‟s head. In Judaism this leads to a human centred text (where people argue with God
– and win). Perhaps the later Islam was influenced by the Western linguistic development, it too has a role
model. Judaism depends on your conscience, where else is God but in your head, how else can you act
ethically? Not for nothing do the Jews call their system “halachah” – a going forward. This is an attempt to
keep it in a forward direction.
Genesis 6.9-11.32 Parshat Noah plus the Haftarah of Isaiah 54.1-55.5
Noah is the name of a righteous man who together with his family was saved from the destruction of the flood,
by building an ark (from the Hebrew word “taiva” meaning a boat or container) filled with representatives of
each living species to survive.
As with the opening story of the creation of the world, this passage can also be neatly split into two and both
strands then tell almost the same story. In each case the story is repeated twice but with some different facts.
The evidence suggests that there were two different traditions which a third person has edited into one. The
most obvious feature in this story, is that one strand talks of animals “two by two” in the ark, whilst the other
talks of seven pairs of animals. When the flood subsides Noah sacrifices animals, an impossible event if there
are only two of each. In the same strand, god regrets what he has created – hence the flood, but the priest who
edited and synthesised these traditions had a different view of god and certainly one that would not express
regret. Also priests depended on being needed to conduct ritual, of which regular animal sacrifice was the most
beneficial – the priest gets to keep part of the animal. The priestly editor was either sloppy, or intentionally
weaved both strands with their discrepancies, perhaps because they were so entrenched amongst the two peoples
of the time. Usefully for the editor, one of the strands suggests only two animals, making a sacrifice by Noah,
who was righteous but not a priest, impossible. No doubt the priestly editor wanted to restrict all references to
sacrifice until Aaron and his descendants establish a priestly caste.
We may ask ourselves why keep two traditions? Possibly because the exodus from Egypt was of a subset of
Hebrews who rejoined their ethnic brethren already in Canaan. More likely the later Northern Kingdom and
Southern had slightly different tradition, which the priestly editor sought to combine.
The Flood appears in many of the local cultures of the time, but only this talks of an ordinary human and his
concern with righteousness. From this story we derive seven “Noahide” laws which are understood to apply to
all humans – as opposed to 613 commandments which are supposed to apply to Jews. On this basis Jews
generally did not proselytise. The seven commands are: the establishment of justice, refrain from blasphemy,
idolatry, adultery, shedding blood, robbery and eating the flesh of a living animal. Note that four out of seven
refer to relations with other people, one (the last) refers to some ancient practice (of cutting flesh from a living
animal), whilst two relate to god, no mention of worship or ritual.
Two traditions arose from Judaism, Christianity followed by Islam. Both introduced a pagan practice absent
entirely from Judaism. The worship of a human being raised to divine proportions. In the Tanakh there is no
“perfect” being, all are fallibly human. Whilst god remains an abstract concept – essentially one that can only
exist in your head, then we can collectively relate to the idea. Whilst we have difficulty in fully trusting each
other, it makes sense that in our collective and shared experience there should be a higher authority than
ourselves. We “externalise” what is really a shared experience in our own heads. When we reach some mode
of behaviour which enables us to trust how the other behave, the concept can get back to where it belongs – in
our heads. The attractiveness of Judaism is that it allows such a development to take place, the concept of god
never has “flesh”, there is no conjecture on the nature of god, but much concentration on how humans behave in
given circumstances. Naturally when civilisation was less civilised than today, much of this was expressed as
though god were an external concept. The ultimate in trust, is that I won‟t interfere with you, and you won‟t
The difficulty with both Christianity and with Islam is that they have personalised god through a human being.
With Christianity a Jew becomes god, although Jesus himself would have been horrified at that idea. In both
cases, humans cannot develop, cannot think for themselves, because whatever Jesus or Mohamed said is the
word of god. There can be no free thinking, no development of human social justice, the aim is to emulate the
values of some previous “perfect” human beings, socially just or not. For both Christians and Moslems it is an
imperative to impose the values of their god/person on everyone. Tolerance of any other system is rarely
practised. Unfortunately we see this trend in Judaism with the cult of Lubavitch elevating worship to a divine
human being, and only values he thought of, are important to them.
Contrast this with Judaism as it developed over millennia, no imperative to convert, an obligation on all to
develop a system of their own social justice – but no specifications, and no “perfect” human being to worship
(which is surely idolatry).
The tragedy of September 11th showed us how many Moslems feel about imposing their values upon us, whilst
American Christians inflict violence on abortion clinics and their staff. I have no doubt that in both cases they
feel passionately. They are horrified at our behaviour, and believe they are saving lives. Passion and revulsion
cannot justify interfering with others. That is the bottom line, and that is worth passionately fighting for, do not
do to others what you would find hateful if done to you. That is Tikkun Olam. (Note the Christian opposite, do
unto others as you would be done by). Then people can choose, then we develop our true potential as mature
human beings. That surely is what we call Humanism, and surely only through Judaism do we really see it
develop throughout the history of human beings.
Notes for this weeks parshah
When the flood waters subside, in 40 days or a year, depending on which strand you read, Noah is so relieved he
gets drunk naked in his tent. His son Ham (ancestor of the Canaanites) finds him and does nothing. His other
two sons cover his nakedness. The Canaanites are cursed by Noah, even though they did not logically exist at
the time. Still he was drunk and as the Hebrew saying goes, enter the wine, exit the secret.
For those interested in Gematria, the Hebrew game of assigning numerical values to letters and seeing
coincidence, the numerical value of yayin (wine) and sod (secret) are the same (both come to 70 when
multiplied out!). Must all be true then!
Genesis 12.1-17.27 Parshat Lech Lecha plus the Haftarah of Isaiah 40.27-41.16
Lech Lecha.means go forth from the opening statement “get thee forth….unto a land I will show you”. This
parsha introduces the Patriarch Abraham.
Many ancient local archives of clay tablets have been found, confirming much of the culture of the Patriarchs.
Whether genuine history or myth, it can be firmly dated to the middle Bronze Age. Taking just the
archaeological finds near Kirkuk, we have similar patriarchal names, contracts, attitudes to inheritance and to
women and wives as we find in the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There are similar events to the story of
Hagar. Most were not acceptable by Jewish practice that we see in the developing Torah. Their inclusion by
biblical priestly editors who would have found it strange by their standards, lends credence to the tribal
memories, even if they are a composite of many individuals and recollections.
When religious Jews pray they talk to the god of Abraham Isaac and Jacob. Although Moses may have given
the Torah, Abraham is credited with founding ethical monotheism, by Jews, Christians and Moslems. He did so
by asking questions, thinking and overthrowing the idols of his father Terah. We should remind our religious
brethren that Judaism started by asking questions, not giving answers. It is that practice which today is kept
alive only by Secular Humanists, continuing the tradition and apparently demonised for it by religious people.
Abram (as he was originally called) engages in ethically questionable behaviour both with his wife and with his
wife‟s slave woman. He leaves the land he has been promised to go Egypt, where he will meet strange and
powerful people and he says to his wife: “Everyone seeing you will you find you beautiful, and if they think you
are my wife they may kill me, so tell them you are my sister, I may benefit from that”.
There is no word from Sarai herself in agreement to this, and indeed Pharaoh takes her for the night. Upon
discovering that Sarai is actually Abram‟s wife Pharaoh is embarrassed and indignant. Abram walks away
compensated with cattle. This is another of the “doublet” stories arising from the editing of at least two
traditions, Abram later repeats this with another king.
Abram is also concerned that he has no heir from Sarai, who was barren, so Sarai offers him her slave girl Hagar
with whom to sire a child. This appears to be a common practice of the time. When Hagar is carrying the heir
to the tribe and fortune (part of which was exhorted from Pharaoh on false pretences) she obviously finds it
unnecessary to continue to act with deference towards Sarai. Affronted, Sarai connives with Abram to have
Hagar abandoned in the desert, where she gives birth to Ishmael the ancestor of the Arabs (in their tradition as
well!). What are we to make of Abram's ethically questionable behaviour? Nahmanides likewise condemns our
forefather Abram. For this medieval commentator, Abram was guilty of placing Sarai in a morally compromised
position. In his private life, Abram is not beyond reproach, but he did aim to introduce ethical principles and
they have developed to this day.
Do Arabs still have a grudge to this day as a result of the myth of Ismael? Perhaps that is myth, but the Koran
tells at length about the Jewish community of Medina, how Mohamed was sure they would accept his
revelations. When faced with a choice – you are with us or against us (the same choice given to Moslems of
today, not much of a choice!), the Jews of the time sided with Mohamed‟s enemies. This is doubtless a rather
accurate historical episode of about 600 AD. There are now over a billion Moslems, many illiterate, and the
only literature they have, is learnt by heart from the Koran. Like Chaos theory which suggests that the flapping
of a butterflies wing in Brazil could ultimately be the cause of Tornado in Taiwan, who knows the effect of the
behaviour of each and every one of us. Certainly the Jews of Medina could not have predicted today. Today
there are no Jews anywhere in Saudi Arabia, although their presence predated Islam, according to the Koran.
We are all fallible, and we can make many mistakes, but the concept of considering our actions, of thinking
every morning that by the end of the day we will have made some contribution to improvement, however small,
is what the Abraham myth tells us.
Using your wife and maidservant as Abraham did, reflects what we can also read in Tablets found at Tel Harari
from about 19th century BCE, from Kirkuk about 16th BCE, and quite a few others. Once again there is a
difference. This very human man, very much part of the culture of his time, was nevertheless concerned with
making the world a better place in which people can live together.
Times have changed, yet we still don‟t have much in the way of an ethical system which we all share.
Amazingly almost everyone seems to be born into the “one true system”. Surely that system “works” because
you can trust your own group in preference to others. Doesn‟t this suggest that Hillel hit the nail on the head –
“Do not do to others what is hateful to you”. What better basis on which to trust others. There aren‟t many
systems other than Secular Humanistic Judaism which provide such an elegant solution. We also have a
complete ancient culture to support that simple philosophy.
Genesis 18.1-22.24 Parshat Vayeira plus the Haftarah of Kings II 4.1-4.37
Vayeira .means “and he appeared” from the opening statement “And the Lord (Yahweh) appeared before him
in the plains of Mamre.
Traditionally the Hebrew form of the word Yahweh is read as Lord. It is any case written in a way that is not
pronounceable as a word in Hebrew (and also fits with the prohibition on using the name of god). The
Anglicisation of the letters leads to the English word Jehovah. I have used it here because this word and its
alternative Elohim (literally meaning gods – a plural word!) gives the clue to at least two original traditions that
have been woven into one text. Many of the stories are told twice, often using one appellation or the other.
We have a number of stories in this rush through early history. In just four parshot of the first book, we have
already covered two thirds of the overall time scale. Even now there are many episodes in this one parsha.
Sarah is promised a child long after menopause. Abraham is promised that he will be the Father of a great
Throughout all these events is the enfolding story of the covenant. Abraham agrees to be bound by ethical
behaviour towards others. He surrounds this with culture and ritual to constantly remind himself of how he
should behave. In principle this has been adopted by much of the world. Jews, Christians and Moslems pray to
the god of Abraham, and many secularists aspire to a set of humanistic rules. He is no paragon, very human and
realistic, expressing doubts and fears, but ultimately faithful to the principles he adopts.
In the meantime there is the problem of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham demonstrates a surprising early
humanistic approach, bargaining with god that the towns should not be destroyed because there might be 50
righteous people there, who should not suffer because of the sins of the others. He continues to bargain in small
increments down to one. In this story god acts as we might feel in the darkest recesses of our minds. The sort
of feelings Freud describes as the id. However it is the conscious adult human being who establishes how to
behave, and not god. The most likely candidate for the god of this story is Abraham‟s base emotions, he was
battling with his own conscience.
Of course Abraham was morally indignant about the towns. To reinforce why, one father manages to escape
with his daughters. They are concerned that there is no man left with whom they can conceive to carry on the
family name, so they get their father so drunk that they can lie with him and conceive and he does not realise it‟s
his own daughters. The descendants of this union become the Moabites, a future enemy of the Jews.
Hagar is cast into the desert with Abraham‟s first born son Ishmael. Then we have a repeat of last week‟s story
concerning Sarah being presented not as a wife but as a sister. In this case King Abimelech takes her for the
night. Lest we rush to judge by our standards of today, this would appear to have been common practice, it is
mentioned on clay tablets from the 19th to the 16th century BCE. Taking a man‟s wife was quite taboo, but
killing him to possess the wife was common.
The parsha ends with the binding of Isaac. Much has been written about this episode. Surely it does not make
sense, how could god demand of Abraham the sacrifice of his only child. This perverse test of fidelity would
make sense were it an initiation ritual of some evil cult. Abraham‟s action is so out of character for the man
able to argue with god about Sodom. But if you don‟t believe in a god, then is there any rational sense to this
My personal interpretation is that child sacrifice was probably more prevalent in ancient human society than we
would like to admit. As such this is a powerful allegory. Simply declaring you think it‟s wrong isn‟t going to
convince anyone. Conscientious Objectors in World War 1 were shot, vilified or imprisoned, although many of
us think they were right, and at the very least entitled to their view without prejudice. Even recently in the UK
the 300 or so “shot at dawn” in front of their comrades were refused a pardon, in spite of an overwhelming vote
and revulsion at those past actions. Families still carry the stigma. How would communities four thousand
years ago react to the maverick bringing calamity by not following the custom of sacrifice?
There is an altogether more cynical interpretation. If Sarah was twice offered to a foreign king to protect
Abraham, it is surely possible that relations did occur. Even today it would be common to claim “nothing
occurred”. What would Abraham‟s attitude have been to the pregnancy? Could he have been sure that he was
the father? They had been trying to have a child for many years. Modern couples sometimes resort to adoption
only to find that when they actually receive the adopted child, pregnancy ensues. Thus it could have been with
Sarah, after Hagar becomes pregnant. This could also explain why Abraham, in the dark recesses of his mind,
harboured negative feelings towards a son called Yitschak (he who laughs). Was the world laughing at
Abraham? He had enriched himself through the custom of presenting his wife as his sister and then
embarrassing the “adulterer”. Could Abraham let his rich inheritance fall to someone whom all his
contemporaries might suspect was not his own? The issue of Sarah conceiving at the age of 90 is a fantasy that
is also out of character with an essentially human and otherwise realistic story. Could this have been inserted
simply to remove the pregnancy in time from the dalliance with Pharaoh and Abimelech? Although Abraham
harbours negative feelings (as have millions of men in similar circumstances), he eventually comes to love the
child as his own, whatever the facts. Facts are that up to one third of children born today in the West are not the
biological children of their mother‟s husband. Perhaps this story is a simple reflection of something quite
common, although we still do not come to terms with it.
Halachah, declares that a father is the person married to the mother. That overcomes the appalling modern
practice of biological paternity testing, with all the vindictiveness involved and lack of consideration for the
child. Abraham could not admit to non-paternity four thousand years ago, is this a subtle allegory concerning
how he feels, and overcomes his base feelings?
Note how we can consider these stories from so many different angles and with so much relevance to us today –
we are after still human beings as were they. That‟s the beauty of an ethnic culture that emanates from realistic
stories, not one based on impossibly perfect – divine? – humans.
Genesis 23.1-25.18 Parshat Chayei Sarah plus the Haftarah of Kings 1.1-1.31
Chayei Sarah .means “the life of Sarah” From the opening passage “And Sarah was 127 years old, and died in
Kiriat Arba which is in Hebron”.
In the parsha last week there were many events, but here there are only two. Abraham buys the cave of
Machpelah as a burial place for his family. His son Yitschak (Isaac) meets his future wife Rivka (Rebecca).
The purchase of the cave conforms very much to the customs of the period (early Bronze Age, as we can read in
clay tablets of the time, as well as in the Torah). Abraham is a stranger in Canaan, and requires special
permission to own the land. The ritual, the contract and the payment are scrupulously recorded and has the ring
of truth about it, even if this is a collective tribal memory rather than a specific event. Hebron is still there, it
was there that David was anointed King. Hebron was consecutively conquered by the Greeks, the Romans, the
Arabs, the Mameluks and the British. In 1266 the Jews were forbidden to pray there. In 1588 Ottomans
massacred much of the Jewish community. In 1929 and again in 1936 the Arabs massacred much of the tiny
Jewish community. From 1948 to 1967 the tenuous Jewish presence that had been held since biblical times, was
broken when the Jordanian Arab Legion banished the remaining Jews. They returned after the 6 Day War of
1967. Visiting this place, one is tempted to ask where are the Canaanites, the Edomites (from whom the cave
was purchased) the ancient Hellenes, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Franks, and all the others who so
gloriously conquered. They no longer exist, their languages, cultures and peoples have vanished, leaving only
the traces of archaeology. Hebron and Kiriat Arba stand witness to the tenacity of the Jews, who have somehow
survived whilst other peoples have appeared and vanished many times over.
Some Jews have again settled in Hebron since 1970 whilst others have created a settlement on the outskirts
called Kiriat Arba. Hebron has some 100,000 Arab residents. Most Israelis are quite prepared to give up a four
thousand year historical connection, a symbol of Judaism that predates biblical Israel (and Islam and even the
Arabic language), in return for Peace with their neighbours. We Jews have the aspirations of our neighbours
forced down our throats on a daily basis. Respect for our feelings, for the feelings of many secular Jews
immersed in their heritage, who see Hebron as the birth place of their nation, yet willing to see it part of a
peaceful Palestine, appears to be totally absent. Why does sensitivity not count only if it‟s Jewish?
The parsha ends with an unusual biblical phrase “and Yitshak bought Rebecca into “his mother Sarah her tent””
(hoOhelah Sarah). Here was man whose father had cast out the mother of his half bother whilst she was still
pregnant, and who had harboured thoughts of sacrificing him, whilst his mother had given birth to him after
years of being barren. This is a recipe for one screwed up kid, negative feelings towards his father, an
overprotective mother. Just the sort of guy who judges every woman by the impossible standards he has of his
mother. Yet the relationship of Isaac and Rebecca works, they fall instantly in love, and the curious phraseology
of her entering his tent, allowing for some confusion that this isn‟t just his tent, but also where the spirit of his
mother is still alive. The final sentence is “Isaac was comforted after his mother‟s death”, suggesting that he
was still somewhat distressed at that stage. The entrance of Rebecca into his life helped him overcome his grief,
and she was clearly able to replace Isaac‟s mother, something that understandably defeats many women in
similar circumstances. Altogether a rather touching love story, and once again so fallibly human.
Abraham had been very concerned that his son should marry someone from the same ethnic background, rather
than a Canaanite, amongst whom Abraham has settled. Rivka comes a long distance from the original place
where Abraham started his journey. Sad to think that today ethnic backgrounds prevents socialisation and
understanding. Even in the great melting pot of the United States, people proudly put their ethnic sub-set first,
introducing themselves as “Italian-American”, African-Americans describe themselves as such, whilst original
inhabitants are labelled Native-Americans. On a recent visit to Birmingham Alabama, I met people of all
colours, but was assured that there was no social interaction outside of the work place, and this was quite rigidly
enforced by all sides. It‟s no different between Jews and Arabs, the two sides make little attempt to get to know
The ethnic situation has changed very slowly in four thousand years. We have a modern issue with confusing a
policy with the private life of the individual with whom the policy is associated. Think of the odious
investigation and publicising of the gruesome details of President‟s Clintons weaknesses. It was on this basis
that Hitler was democratically elected, his private life appeared to be reasonably harmless. People try to
denigrate our heritage by pointing to the private behaviour of the individuals such as Abraham. If such issues
had been edited out, it would have ceased to human, and would certainly have been fantasy, then it would be
more difficult to establish itself as a foundation for developing humanism. It is so, because it is so human – hey
even god is the most fallible of the humans in these stories.
We are proud of our democratic and liberal societies, yet we still suffer from an ethnic divide and less than half
the electorate actually vote. Is this connected with the slowing of humanistic development? In some ways does
not modern society both enable us, but at the same restrict our ability to reach our full human potential?
Genesis 25.19-28.9 Parshat Toldot plus the Haftarah of Malachi 1.1-2.7
Toldot .means chronology or generations, sometimes translated as history, from the opening passage “this is
the story of Isaac”, also translated as “ these are the generations of Isaac”.
Yitschak (Isaac) is somewhat of a colourless figure, and in spite of the name of the parshah, nothing much is
really told about him.
This section is really about his twin sons Esav (Esau) and Yaacov (Jacob), more specifically about Jacob‟s
devious behaviour. Esau is something of a man‟s man (will my female readers please excuse the description, it
surely summarises well, and should cause no offence?). Esau was born “hairy and red”, and grew up to be an
outdoor man, skilled in hunting. He was the first born twin.
Jacob is his mothers favourite. Not away for days hunting game, but in the kitchen tent, cooking red lentils and
Briefly then, Esau returns hungry from a hunting trip, and finds Jacob cooking lentils, and famished asks to
share the food. Jacob offers to share the porridge in exchange for his brothers inheritance (as the first born he
inherits and becomes the tribal leader to whom all owe some allegiance). A four thousand year old cliché – sell
your birthright for a mess of pottage!
Isaac upon his death bed, asks for Esau to hunt and bring him some game, in exchange for which he will provide
his blessing, which meant confirming his will and inheritance. Rebecca connives for her second son Jacob to
receive the blessing, cooking a meal of lamb, dressing it up as venison. The implication is that Isaac asks for
pieces of game meat, but she sends Jacob in with a complete meal of wine bread etc. Jacob complains to his
mother that Isaac although blind by now, will not mistake him for his twin who is hairy. Rebecca places some
sheepskin on Jacobs neck so that Isaac will be fooled into thinking this is Esau. Isaac is suspicious (right feel,
wrong voice), but gives his blessing in any case. When Esau returns the deception is revealed, but Isaac insists
that he can now only provide a lesser blessing.
This relates to real History. The inheritance question is told on tablets of other peoples from the third
millennium BCE. Here is a quotation from one such clay tablet “….when Nashwi dies, Wullu shall be heir…
should Nashwi get a son…” and goes on to try and cover all the permutations. The young kingdom of David
(well it was young relative to surrounding kingdoms such as Edom) conquers Edom and rules it for some two
hundred years, eventually Edom regains independence during the reign of Yehoram. The Torah story tells Esau
of Jacob “you will break his yoke from your shoulders”, as indeed did Edom after two hundred years.
We often refer to some other peoples as being especially close to us. Headlines such as “Our fellow Christians
(Jews, barbarians, please select as appropriate) Or our brother (again select)…. Or our kith and kin (kith my
arse as one headline put it), and so it was with the ancient Israelites. Their “kith” were the Edomites. A fellow
Semitic people with a similar language, culture and customs; not strangers, such as perhaps the Egyptians. The
Hebrew word “adom” means red, and Edom comes from the same root. Hence the frequent use of red (lentils,
red skin of Esau), as an analogy of these twins with the Hebrews and the Edomites
The entire story is analogous to the Israel/Edom relationship
We have many modern day parallels, the Presidency of the United States, recently being contested by two
people, whom, to outsiders at least, appear indistinguishable. The choice seemed to involve quite a few
shenanigans on both sides. Once the choice has been made however, this very equal support between the
“twins” is quickly forgotten, and the Presidents leadership has been tested early and the trauma of September
11th unites the nation behind him.
The Torah in general does not hold back from presenting people as having evil within them. It openly talks of
honest mistakes, evil intentional acts and general human fallibility. In reading the Torah should we conclude
that humans are inherently and irredeemably evil? That after all is the conclusion of Christianity. Where
Christians, Jews and Humanists have a point of agreement, is that we have an inherent capacity for good.
Christians think that “salvation” is only achieved through an irrational belief, whilst Jews think you can and do
make such a choice throughout your life, manifesting mainly in your relationship to others. (Relatively recently,
Rabbinic Judaism copies Christianity, in thinking salvation only comes from creed rather deed, it is only the tiny
fraction of aware Humanistic Jews, who keep the ancient tradition alive, although it is actually the guidance
most Jews adopt, Judaism is about deed!). We absorb this concept of deed from the Torah.
Had the Torah been hagiographic, Hollywood style, good is anything the hero does, and the hero always wins,
neatly avoiding having to think what is good!, always representing the heroes as flawless, it would have lacked
the humanistic potential, lacked the message showing there is always a choice for good, and everyone can (and
should) make it. Without that message, on what basis would you hold people responsible? Why would you
punish? (In one Hollywood satire, a character remarks “this film should be more like real life”, many crassly
want it the other way round – good deeds only in fantasy land!) Real people have anxieties, experience
jealousy, crave praise, can be devastated by the odd misunderstood remark, desire revenge for offence they have
taken – but not necessarily given, have low self esteem, feel vulnerable and compensate by coveting what
belongs to others; and these are just some of the features of the well behaved amongst us. The entire
development of human civilisation flows from the recognition of this potential for good and evil. Those who
criticise the Torah (often those very learned) because the heroes are fallible forget that their modern values (by
which they denigrate the Torah) only developed because of the insights of their ancestors who wrote the Torah.
If it had been written as a Hollywood script, with “goodies” and “baddies”, the former always ultimately
winning, would the Torah have influenced people to develop civilisation?
Genesis 28.10-32.3 Parshat Vayikra plus the Haftarah of Hosea 12.13-14.10
Vayikra .means “and he called, from the opening passage “and Isaac called Jacob blessed him, commanded
him and told him not to take a wife from the daughters of the Canaanites”, (amongst whom they were living).
Most of us reading this have been brought up in a society where the predominant religion is some form of
Christianity. We will be familiar with the precepts of the meek inheriting the earth, that it is easier for a camel
to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven, and that, when slapped, one should turn the
other cheek. A rather socialist and pacifist set of principles.
Vayikra tells the story of Jacob and how he sired 12 sons who become the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. The
story also establishes principles that are the very opposite of those lofty Christian ethics. Jacob‟s story is closer
to the actual society and values we have today, a form of ethical self-enterprise.
Jacob had allowed his mother to talk him into cheating his elder twin, Esau, out of his birthright (inheritance),
and wishing to avoid his twin‟s wrath, travels back all the way to Mesopotamia, from where his mother and
grandfather came. He lives with his uncle Laban, and aspires to marry Laban‟s second eldest daughter Rachel,
making a contract that he will work diligently for seven years, after which he will marry. “Behold, in the
morning, Jacob finds that it is the eldest Leah he has slept with, and not Rachel”. This is a rather lame excuse, I
am sure that after seven years, I would know with which sister I had slept, well before morning. Neatly Laban‟s
“subterfuge” has married off his elder daughter first, and given Jacob an excuse to stay another seven years, to
get the second daughter as well. In the end he stays 20 years, obviously very worried at Esau‟s reaction should
he ever meet him again.
Marrying two sisters is surely difficult, but especially so when you hate one and love the other. They remain
envious competitors for Jacob‟s affections throughout. Leah has the advantage of producing many children, but
Rachel is loved. Each wife resorts also to offering her slave girl as a concubine to keep some advantage, so the
12 sons actually have four different mothers. The name of each has a meaning, Leah‟s first born is Reuben
meaning “see, a son”; Rachel‟s first is called Joseph (Yosef, meaning “he will be an addition”). Rachel
eventually dies giving birth to her second son and asks that he be called Ben-oni (son of my suffering), but
Jacob ignored her request and calls him Benjamin (Bin-yamin, son of my right hand).
Jacob has worked diligently for Laban and receives “wages” in addition to the sisters as wives. The two men
agree a contract in which Joseph will receive those of the flock that are speckled or white, which at that time
were few in number. Jacob carefully controls the breeding of the herds so that they become the majority. Their
“contract” was one of mutual advantage, intended to enrich them both, although Jacob exploits the terms to “pay
back” for being cheated in marriage. There is a spirit behind the letters of contracts on which trust is based,
adhere to the letter and ignore the spirit and you lose trust. Modern religion tends to be scrupulous in observing
the letter of the law, whilst studiously avoiding the spirit. Laban paid for his deviousness, even though Jacob
stayed within the terms of the contract.
The 12 brothers have one sister who is raped by a local king, who then asks to marry her. They agree that the
king and his town will join their family, but ask that the men be circumcised. After the operation they exploit
the men‟s weakness to assassinate them. No “turning the other cheek” here.
Jacob and Laban‟s contract was about them enriching themselves to mutual advantage, no concern about “rich
men having difficulty entering heaven”. Also not for them any respect for the meek inheriting the earth.
It‟s a paradox, Judaism appearing to be totally at ease with the values of modern capitalism, whilst Jews
throughout history thrust themselves in the forefront of any fight, on behalf of any group, for social justice.
Christianity is inundated with values supporting the poor, the meek and the downtrodden, yet throughout history
it has very firmly supported autocracies that oppress those people.
The Jews limited the power of their kings from the earliest, over three thousand years ago, Christianity provided
the main rationale for the absolute rule of divine kings up to less than three hundred years ago. Jews abandoned
an autocratic priesthood two thousand years ago, Christianity retains it to this day (although with much curtailed
power). There is no Muslim country ruled by anything other than dictatorship.
That‟s the paradox of following a creed. It bears little resemblance to the deed. Not difficult to explain.
“Turning the other cheek”, lauding being poor, and promising reward in some unproven afterlife, are wonderful
ways to get people to acquiesce in their oppression. No wonder Christianity spread throughout the slave society
of the Roman Empire, and eventually becoming the rulers themselves.
As it always was with Judaism, it has to be about deed, and we have to judge ourselves and indeed everyone
else, on deed, on the way they behave. We should judge a system of values, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam,
or whatever, not on it‟s creed, not on it‟s spirituality, not on any text, but on the behaviour of its adherents.
Only then should we examine the text to see how it might have influenced people to behave in a way of which
we approve. I might “believe” in any thing, almost however absurd (although to be honest I have the privilege
of not understanding what it means to believe something irrational), but anything that might lead to better
behaviour, would be welcome. It is no surprise therefore, that it is the Humanism that developed from Judaism,
which leads to good behaviour. People don‟t kill in its name, they care about society, justice, freedom and all
the other values to which so many appear to be concerned, although their behaviour tells a different story. Does
it not seem that the Church throughout history to this day, is the ruling class at prayer, in spite of what their
By the way, Jacob and Esau reconcile and are affectionate when they eventually meet.
Genesis 32.4-36.43 Parshat Vayishlach plus the Haftarah of Hosea 11.7-12.12
Vayishlach .means “and he sent”, from the opening passage “and Jacob sent messengers before him .to Esau
his brother in Edom”.
There are three main stories in this weeks parshah, Jacob reconciling with his elder twin, the rape of his
daughter Dinah by the King of Shechem, and the death of Rachel.
Jacob had cheated his brother and was very apprehensive when they eventually met 20 years later. He offers
great riches to placate Esau, but finds that they have both mellowed and aged, and in any case want to share a
good relationship. Of course the Hebrews wanted a good relationship with their ethnic cousins the Edomites,
whom Esau represents in this story. Jacob also adopts the new name of Israel.
In the rape of his daughter, some of her brothers deceive the rapist (the king of Shechem) and then massacre his
people. However this story of the acquisition of this ancient town by massacre, has a different telling, when
they purchase a parcel of land and we assume acquire it peacefully, legally and without violence. Possibly
further evidence of the editing and weaving of two different traditions into one story.
Jacob had two wives and two concubines, the first wife Leah, bearing him 6 of his 12 sons. The death of Leah
is not recorded, but clearly Jacob is remorseful at the death of Rachel and builds an altar in her memory.
Jacob is clever and cunning and uses these skills to enrich himself at his Uncles expense, clearly feeling
vindicated because Laban had cheated him with the promise of Rachel as a bride. He has been dishonest with
his father, his brother and his Uncle, and continues to display resentment to his first wife, mother of six of his
sons, because he wanted her sister. He appears however to have disapproved of the actions of his sons in their
vengeance on the people of Shechem.
Would you consider Jacob an unsatisfactory role model? I‟d like to explore that view.
We Jews are known for a specific type of humour. Sadly one aspect has been denied to us by the advent of Fax
and e-mail – the reading of the Telegrams at Weddings, Barmitzvahs, cancellation of engagements and other
simchot (occasions for joy).
Permit me one last shot on this subject as an observation to this weeks parshah. The playwright Alan Bennet
was heard dictating a Telegram to the Telephone operator, and wished to sign off as “Norwich”. The operator
protests “but Sir, you are not in Norwich but London”. Alan explains that this is an acronym, playing on the
place name, but the letters stand for “knickers off ready when I come home”. Again the operator protests, “but
isn‟t knickers spelt with a K?”. Alan responds that in a perfect world perhaps we would sign off as “korwich”
but might it lose some of the humour?
Isn‟t the lack of perfection what makes it all so exciting, what makes endeavour worthwhile and what opens the
door for humour?
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe was asked about his attitude to Hell, his reply was that he was already there, living
in Brooklyn. I have many disagreements with the Rebbe‟s views, considering that he has hijacked Judaism into
a “creed before deed” cult, copying Christianity. On the issue of Hell I can identify with him. The effort is with
this – imperfect – world. There is nothing else.
We have had some expression of intense views suggesting that the Torah is an imperfect document, an
unsuitable basis for our ethical behaviour, inaccurate as history, simple folklore and mythology and not unique
Somehow we Jews, representing less than one quarter of one percent of the worlds population have been thrust
on center stage for millennia. The Torah itself forms the introduction to the texts of Christianity and of Islam,
representing about half the world.
Yet it is unique in its very imperfection. Unique in being history told in the way it was then, there are few other
documents of ancient history to compare with the Torah. It may lack the rigour of evidence and fact of modern
history, but it‟s a lot closer than any other document of such antiquity.
Islam has a perfect man in Mohamed, and every Moslem has a religious duty to emulate some of the life of
Mohamed in the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) where they adopt the clothing and behaviour of their idol.
Christians go a stage further and their idol is not just a man but also god, and those wishing to be “more perfect”
adopt his celibate lifestyle. These concepts are not limited to Theist philosophies, Buddha is also an example of
a perfect human being, and their monks adopt a lifestyle emulating that of Buddha.
The complaint is that we have no-one to emulate, no role model, yet the complainants fail to grasp the
sophistication of that very imperfection. Not a single one of the Torah or Tenakh characters are role models.
They are courageous, clever, cunning, and often dishonest. They don‟t always win. That description applies to
almost any character, not just Jacob. King David is another good example.
It is the very humanity, the very fallibility of the heroes, the reality of the people that makes it the bedrock of
developing ethics. The critical word is development. It does not give us the answers, but the ability to see
ourselves, and our own development.
Are there examples of perfect texts which have resulted in improved behaviour? Do we consider that the texts
and examples of Mohamed or Jesus have led to ethical behaviour of which we approve? Perhaps we have
examples where people have not just “adopted” the UN Declaration of Human Rights (hasn‟t everyone one?),
but where do people live by it?
I shall examine further the “sophistication of imperfection”, but finish this week on the thought, that far more
Jews have some sketchy knowledge of the Torah than of the Talmud or any other works. Also that Jews mainly
in secular fields have been eminent, in many periods of history. Take just the last Century, and the worlds
intellectuals will discuss Darwin, Einstein, Freud and Marx. Three of the four are secular Jews, when Jews in
general are less than one in four of one percent of the worlds population. Empirical fact, Jews centre stage,
disproportionate eminence, most with some background in Torah. Maybe there is no connection?
Genesis 37.1-40.23 Parshat Vayishev plus the Haftarah of Amos 2.6-3.8
Vayishev.means “and he lived (or sat)”, from the opening passage “and Jacob lived in Canaan the land of his
One of the more famous stories from the Torah is that of Joseph. First born of his father‟s second wife Rachel,
he has many elder brothers. Then primogeniture was the rule, the first born becoming the head of the
household, the clan chief, which should have been Reuben. Joseph boasts of dreaming that the others will bow
down to him and coupled with the fact that he is any case his father‟s favourite, arouses the jealously of his
The brothers react by selling him to passing traders who sell him onto the Egyptians, where he becomes the
household slave of Potiphar, chamberlain to Pharaoh. He is described as “saris” which means courtier or
chamberlain, but also eunuch; a requirement of those in the service of Pharoah, hence the dual meaning of the
biblical word “saris”.
Jacobs coat (of many colours as the musical claims) is dipped in blood by the conspiring brothers and brought to
their father, to convince him that Joseph has been taken by a wild animal.
In Egypt he proves himself to be clever, perceptive, imaginative and an ambitious manipulator, he will become a
minister and statesman. In the meantime Potiphars wife (her husband “saris”, probably an eunuch),
understandably lusts after this virile young slave. He was tempted, but refuses, thus causing her to feel scorned.
She reacts by accusing him of molesting her, and he ends up in prison, where again he interprets, accurately as it
turns out, the dreams of other prisoners.
The story of Potiphars wife reminds me of a TV discussion with a group of intellectuals and a very drunk Oliver
Reed (the late actor) about sexism. He suddenly blurts out that the problem with women is that they never
forgive you if you f*** „em. A Psychiatrist in the group quickly retorts, “I think they never forgive you if you
The Pharoahs Akhenatan and Meneptah are known to have had senior ministers who were foreign Semites
(Meneptah‟s was called Ben Ozen, a very Hebrew name meaning son of my ear, one who listens), and the tale
of brothers betrayal can be read in a papyrus of 1225 BCE. There is some historical accuracy to these stories, as
there is to the fact that these Hebrews were already settled in Shechem, modern day Nablus, and the Jews had
continuous presence from the 3rd millennia BCE until 1948.
This Patriarchal family is rather dysfunctional, but unusually for the time, meritocracy rules. Joseph is
presented as the most able of the brothers, and in spite of being almost the youngest, achieves a position of
eminence to which they would not even aspire, entirely through his own talents. Primogeniture is discredited,
an important message then (witness Solomon‟s son) and now.
Today in Israel we see many similarities, a country very divided, almost dysfunctional in the relationship
between secular and religious, Israeli Arabs and Jews. Talented younger people in many of the political groups,
denied access to real positions of power, because “primogeniture” rules, and the leading families insist on
choosing from amongst themselves. Netanyahu could not rule partly because he is an outsider to the ruling
circle of his own party, and they opposed him.
Last week I introduced an unusual concept, that of the sophistication of imperfection. Let me digress for a
moment and ask you to consider a friend with a problem (you have none?), say someone who is always,
needlessly arguing with their partner. Do you say the obvious – stop doing it? Does that help? Do you explore,
that maybe it is their own self esteem, does that help? Perhaps you bear patiently their troubles over many
years, and eventually with gentle guidance, you hope they will sort it out for themselves. You probably realise
that it is not their intellect, but their emotions (and perhaps their maturity) which have to change. Rational
arguments will not achieve that. People go into therapy to develop emotionally, and they are prepared for years
Piaget introduced the concept of psychological development that could be objectively measured to demonstrate
the process of a maturing human being (some of his tests are very elegant in their simplicity, we can all do them
with our children). We recognise that we develop emotionally into maturity as well. Humans are such
complicated organisms that we have the longest process of maturing of any other living species.
At school children earn credits and debits in various ways. They learn through the reward system (not always
explicitly, often a simple smile or raised eyebrows does the trick). However many of the world‟s “perfect”
systems also offer debits and credits, only the problem for followers of Jesus, Mohamed, Buddha and others, is
that you can only cash them in when you‟re dead! That way the suicide bomber never gets to find out whether
their action was a debit or credit, nor do the rest of us.
Far from presenting any perfection, the Torah shows an unfinished maturing process. The people, the society,
the concept of god, develops and matures as the story evolves. It shows the constant struggle to develop and
mature, and applies that not just to the individual, but to the family, to the society and to the ideas that society
adopts. There is no claim that this is a completed process. (Unless you believe in an almighty god, and these
are his very words, curious if so are the words of Jesus, Mohamed, Mormon….).
We have reached a stage where we take responsibility for ourselves, and create a society where we defend the
freedoms that enable us to take that responsibility. Indeed we are at war at this very moment to defend those
freedoms. We have yet to take much responsibility for each other. Some of the responsibilities of growing up
are not always palatable to the immature. They revolt against authority. This is one of a plethora of reasons
behind anti-Semitism, a revolt of those who wish to remain with debits and credits that can only be cashed in at
death, avoiding the need to keep growing up, to be responsible for more than just themselves. They all see the
wisdom of the Torah, but rework it to make it more palatable, more attractive for us all to remain “young and
It is worrying that mature adults retain the system they learnt at school of debits and credits. Not surprising that
they can only be redeemed in a fantasy life after death.
The Enlightenment brought the realisation of an absent deity. Even many committed theists accept the absence
of a deity, at least in the everyday affairs of humans. Religions, upon realising they no longer control the
maturing process regress to the fantasy concept of a “perfect” world. Even the Jewish religious establishment
grabs this “deathline” (well it cannot be a “lifeline” – can it?), preparing for redemption by a Messiah, rather
than concerning themselves with the world around them.
Unfortunately the Secular join this reaction, becoming unwitting allies, criticising the texts that led gradually to
the Enlightenment, because of the very imperfections that point to, and enable the maturing process.
Difficult to grasp perhaps, at the sophistication of a text which demonstrates a slow maturing process for both
individuals and for Society. At least this helps us to see the magnitude of the task for Humanistic Judaism. Do
we realise what we have grasped?
Genesis 41.1-44.17 Parshat Miketz plus the Haftarah of Kings I 3.15-4.1
Miketz. means “at the end”, from the opening passage “And it came to pass at the end of two years that
Pharaoh dreamed a dream”
It is very Politically Correct to make excuses for uncivilised behaviour and to grant special “rights” to people
who have suffered previous trauma. We hear that the Moslem world is angry with America, as though this
provides some explanation for the events of September 11th, also that we should conclude from those events,
that they have a right that we put effort into greater understanding of their world. The Jews have been victims
for most of their history, yet they have tended not to behave badly nor to plead for special treatment as a result
of their victim-hood. We must be very politically incorrect!
This week we have a story of one such victim. Joseph was thrown into a well by his half brothers, at the age of
17, then hauled out and sold to slavers. He ends up in prison due to the false accusations of his master‟s wife.
A rather traumatic set of events, almost guaranteed to engender a harsh attitude to life, to the world, but
especially to his brothers. Whilst in prison he gains a reputation for interpreting dreams, comes to the attention
of Pharaoh, whose dreams he explains as signifying seven years of excellent harvest, followed by seven years of
famine. Pharaoh is so impressed by this young Hebrew he appoints him Chief Minister, with the task of
managing the good years to conserve enough to survive the lean. Joseph is given the Egyptian name of Zafnat-
Paaneah, marries an Egyptian aristocrat, and is appointed second-in-command of the most powerful country of
the world of that time. (Not so fanciful, from Egyptian sources we know that around this time the Egyptian
provincial governor of Shechem is complaining to Pharaoh of a Hebrew called Labya, The High Commissioner
of Pharaoh Akhenaten was a Hebrew called Yanhamu and Menephtah‟s Martial was Ben Ozen).
Zafnat-Paaneah arrived as a slave in a foreign country and certainly managed to pull himself up by his
bootstraps. During the years of famine Egypt attracts people from all over, who come to buy food. Amongst
them are a band of 10 Hebrews whom Zafnat-Paaneah recognises as his half-brothers. One can imagine that it
was quite awesome for them being brought in front of the Chief Minister of Egypt. He accuses them of being
spies, but they protest they are merely 10 of 12 brothers, one of whom has died, and the youngest has been left
with their ageing father Jacob. Zafnat-Paaneah gives them a minimum amount of food, to retrieve their younger
brother and bring him back as proof of their identity. He also arranges for the money they have paid for the
food, to be secretly returned to their luggage.
One can imagine on their return to Jacob, how a discussion takes places in which they think the Egyptian is
tricking them (he is, but not in the way they think!). They also still have guilty feelings about Benjamin‟s elder
brother Joseph, whom they assume must be dead by now. Is this some sort of divine retribution? However,
eventually the choice is, return to Egypt and take the chance or starve. On their return with Benjamin, Zafnat-
Paaneah receives them in his home. This time he sells them what they require, and again sends his servants to
secrete a precious object in Benjamin‟s luggage. They are pursued and accused of stealing the object. They
volunteer that if such an object be found then the thief should die, after all they are sure they have stolen
nothing. The object is discovered, and Zafnat-Paaneah insists that the culprit should stay with him – the
brothers think Benjamin will be executed - and the rest can leave.
Neatly, the sophisticated plan of Joseph has arranged that any of the potential outcomes will give him some
satisfaction. He cannot lose. If his brothers are the same uncivilised immature men who planned his death, then
he manages to keep his own younger brother and send them back with a problem. They will be in serious
trouble with their father, when he discovers they have lost another son. On the other hand, they may have
matured, become more civilised and indeed seriously regret their previous action. In that case Zafnat-Paaneah
can become Joseph once again and reconcile himself to all his family.
Thus Jacob and his entourage go to live in Egypt, paving the way for next great hero of the Torah – Moses.
Both Moses and Joseph, rise to eminent positions from humble beginnings. Both have guile and sophistication.
The Jews have a reputation for guile and sophistication, often the adjective “clever” is used. There seems little
evidence that we are born with some “clever” gene. Where Society has flourished so have the Jews amongst
them (Medieval Moslem Iberia, Protestant Europe). When the Moslem world declined, so did the Jews amongst
them. To this day there is even a difference between the achievements of Ashkenazi Jews in Protestant
countries and those in Catholic countries. Given the right environment the Jews flourish. Their success follows
the Torah pattern, typically low born, prejudice against them always lurking somewhere, but they manage not
just to succeed, but often to excel. Overwhelmingly more Nobel prize winners (in proportion to their numbers)
than any other (although predominantly from Jews living in Protestant countries!).
The Jews have surely suffered trauma, persecution, dispossession, murder and worse, on and off for two
thousand years. The Torah was formally adopted at a time when they were in their heyday in the reign of King
Josiah and the Prophet Isaiah. The Torah was not the mythology of a downtrodden persecuted people. It did
serve them well when their fortunes changed.
In spite of persistent persecution over centuries, culminating in the worst descent into barbarity known in the
whole of the history, the Jews have never asked to be excused bad behaviour as a result of their trauma. They
avoid pleading for special rights. In America the concept of success from humble beginnings is very much
admired, however many groups find this almost impossible. When some of their number do excel (often in
sport or entertainment) it has minimal impact on the community as a whole. For some of these groups much of
their own heritage has been destroyed and they cannot absorb themselves seamlessly into the dominant culture,
probably because it is actually a synthesis of many strands, but not all.
Political Correctness expects us to show moral relativism to many strands of heritage and to concentrate on
rights rather than obligations. PC leads us to abandon the Torah because it contains elements which do not live
up to our standards of behaviour (although we tend not to live by those standards!). I would like to paraphrase
Gibbon from the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “Various modes of worship were considered by the
people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the governments as equally useful”. They
knew then, and deep down we know now, we should not (indeed cannot) recognise equal validity, but we do
have to show humility, and perhaps even enforce the principle, we do not do to others what we would find
hateful if done to us. That is an (all too succinct) summary of the Torah and what we can learn from it.
The Jews have one of the most ancient cultures known. It has survived because it influences people to look after
themselves, but also to look after the community. It concentrates on humility and humble beginnings, using
sophistication to achieve civilisation and constantly progressing ethics and morality. To think that Jews are no
longer influenced is to be blind to the obvious. The Torah is both ancient and cogent. Few have such a heritage.
No wonder there are more press correspondents in Jerusalem, than any other city, fascinated by what the Jews
do. No wonder a double standard is applied, expecting of us ethical behaviour most do not expect of
themselves. Abandon all this and we abandon a responsibility and a privilege. That would not be very Jewish!
Genesis 44.18-47.27 Parshat Vayigash plus the Haftarah of Ezekiel 37.15-37.28
Vayigash. means “and he approached”, from the opening passage “And Judah approached him (Joseph) and
said, let me have a word in your ear, and show me, your slave, no anger, as you are as powerful as Pharaoh
The Bible has surely been proven to be, not true history. There are stories of murder, genocide and betrayal and
other deplorable behaviour, yet somehow religious Jews worship part of it (the first five books) and it is a
document that seems obsessed with the actions of an unseen god. How many reasons do we need to find it more
than just an irrelevance to our secular lives, perhaps even the world would be a better place without such Bronze
to Iron Age mythology? If we have not progressed in moral values since those times, then we are living in a
fantasy world, no less powerful than that of the age of miracles.
Whilst not adhering to the rigour of modern history, it is history as told in those times, and it is not entirely
fanciful, fitting the culture and actual events. In this it is unique, probably a tribal history dating to beyond the
first millennium BCE, and in written form from the 6th Century BCE, perhaps earlier. There is no other
document of any people of antiquity to compare. If we found a document from two thousand years ago that did
not mention some deity, we would be surprised, this is three thousand years old! The Torah is unlike the other
two more modern “sacred” texts, the New Testament and the Koran (more modern by a thousand years and one
thousand six hundred years respectively). They are also an ancient historical record, also clearly inaccurate.
However both are based on the life of one person, who is considered perfect and a role modern for all humanity
(Aren‟t we all suspicious of those who model themselves too closely on the lives of Jesus or Mohamed?). The
Torah is the folk history of a people, who searched for, and progressed through rules of behaviour, a set of
ethics, which captured the imagination of the known world.
Religious systems creep increasingly into the real world of politics, expanding from the simpler role of
providing the culture of identity, birth, rites of passage, marriage and death (hatch, match and despatch). Today,
in place of what was once the strength of their imagination, we see only the poverty. Unfortunately this is true
of the secular as well. The secular think they can invent “new” thousand year old traditions. Then they are
surprised that their own children do not absorb anything of their value systems. Whatever we think of religions
they tend to be successful at passing on their values to their next generation
The Torah has no role models, and it demonstrates a very slow progress, over Centuries, from a primitive
nomadic Bronze Age family, adopting principles ahead of their time, to a sophisticated urbanised cosmopolitan
community, with a developing ethics that captured the imagination of most of the world. Unfortunately the
“world” also thought they could adopt an instantaneous “thousand year old” tradition, and both Christianity and
Islam have become a travesty, in many ways, of Judaism, and of ethical behaviour. (That is not to say that
individual Christmas and Moslems are without ethics, but it does go to prove that there is often a natural
tendency to behave ethically).
There are two major personalities that dominate much of the Torah text, Joseph who brings his part of the
Hebrews to Egypt, and Moses who takes them out. It is historical fact that there were Jews in Egypt of the time,
and also in Canaan. The subsequent brutal conquest of Canaan (by Joshua) is probably mythical. A “good”
history to invent, giving your neighbours the idea that you had a military past, and they should be “nice” to you.
The predominant partition of the world until recently was that between Communism and Capitalism but that
appears to have been superseded by the secular and religious divide.
Many of us are searching for our roots, prompted by aversion to the traditional synagogue and Temple based
communities. We are not religious and find much of the ritual and prayers to be strange, perhaps even alien,
certainly lacking in logic or reason. We cannot understand all the theism. We find the curious blend of politics
and religion quite unsatisfactory. The orthodox have embraced right wing Jewish nationalism, whilst many of
the more liberal or reform movements have embraced left wing populist championing of the down trodden,
which assumes that the problems in the Middle East are created by the behaviour of the Israelis (or at least that
the Israelis are responsible for finding the solution to the problems of Islam in the 21st Century).
America has the largest Jewish community in the world (although Israel is probably overtaking that position
lately). The community is unique in another way, being the only one without a Chief Rabbi. (Some
communities have multiple “Chiefs”!). In the UK he is considered by everyone, except many of the Jews, as the
leader of the community. The latest was specifically chosen because he appeared to have the right credentials to
be, perhaps, actually the community leader. He was young, had a secular education in philosophy at a prestige
University, was bright, articulate and charming. He has proved to be the worst, most divisive “chief” we have
ever had. In his acceptance speech he said “I will accept all Jews, but not all forms of Judaism”. He has spent
the whole of his time, trying to prove to the ultra orthodox (who also don‟t recognise the office of Chief!), that
he is kosher. Picking fights with everyone who is slightly less orthodox than the ultras, when in fact he is the
elected Chief of the mainstream orthodox.
This highlights for us the question, what does it means to us to be Jewish? There is no simple answer, but apart
from being born so, or wanting to join the community of Jews, don‟t we have a heritage? Doesn‟t being a Jew
imply some form of Judaism? Does this heritage entirely belong to the religious community, and have no
meaning for anyone else?
We need to ask ourselves how the Jews are so centre stage in the world, when they only form less than one
quarter of one percent. How it is that they are so eminent in some many fields,
Genesis 47.28-50.26 Parshat Vayechi plus the Haftarah of Kings I 2.1-2.12
Vayechi. means “and he lived (or was)”, from the opening passage “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt
We are now almost at the end of the first of the five books of the Torah, Breshit (Genesis) which starts with the
birth of the Universe and ends with the deaths of Jacob and with his son Joseph. A central theme is the
displacement of the firstborn, one that has occurred on quite a few previous occasions.
Joseph had been a victim of the ancient practice of passing on major inheritance from father to the first born son.
His elder brothers had barely resisted murdering him as a vain arrogant dreamer. At the deathbed of his father
Jacob, he presents his grandsons Mannasseh and Ephraim. When asked to give the blessing, placing a hand on
their head, Jacob crosses over his hands, thus conferring the senior blessing on the younger grandson. Once
again overturning the culture of primogeniture. Jacob, old, feeble and almost blind, responds to the irony of
Joseph‟s protests “I know, my son, I know, he will become a great people, but his younger brother will be
greater still”. Does one detect the hand of editing here? Merging different tribal traditions to nevertheless give
precedence to one group? Surprisingly Jacob gives almost equal portion to two grandchildren as he does to all
the other sons. He gives the major inheritance to Judah - who is actually the fourth son in line, and to the
younger grandson Ephraim. Judah was one of the two tribes that survived, whilst King Jeroboam came from the
area subsequently granted to Ephraim (around Shechem – called by Westerners Nablus).
The rejection of a preordained hierarchical order has been one of many major benefits of this ancient culture. It
means that from very ancient times, the Jews have been more attracted to advance on merit than by right. We
see that Jews world wide take pride in the merit they can develop.
Unfortunately modern Israel is surrounded by countries where a preordained hierarchy remains the norm, as it
was in the Bronze Age. Recently I read an article on Afghanistan answering some public statement about
helping the country to come OUT OF Medieval culture. The article claimed that we should work hard to bring
them INTO the Middle Ages, as this would make a great step forward. Could this be true of Israel‟s
Less than 100 years ago, Pearson invented the workhorse of all Statistics – Linear Regression. From that we get
the Correlation Coefficient so beloved of our politicians, as they use it to “prove” many different things, such as
reduce the supply of money and we will increase overall happiness. Basically it takes two groups of numbers
(such as inflation and wages) to see if they increase similarly. If they do, politicians assume that one thing
“causes” the other. Therefore, they assume, control one and you control the other.
Pearson started with two sets of numbers, the IQ scores of some leading people, and the IQ scores of their
children. He found that whilst the leading people had much higher than average scores, their children did not,
and he assumed that children of intelligent people “regressed” back to average (hence he called the test – Linear
Regression). He thought that he had two groups, connected by their genes, but in fact when it comes to
intelligence (and possibly many other traits) there is little inheritance, simply one group had been chosen for
their higher intelligence, and the other (the children) was a simple random group, who by definition would be
The ancient Jewish texts established the principle of advancement by merit, thus also putting paid to the idea
that you get some things “by right”. Much later, when the Jews needed a government of kings to relate to their
neighbours and show unity, they were very reluctant, partly because of the problems of primogeniture. The first
two Jewish kings were chosen. The Haftarah from Kings is about the death of David. In his case, his son
Solomon was an able king, but his grandson was a disaster, resulting in splitting the nation into two, and the loss
of the Northern kingdom. Jews formally got rid of this concept over two thousand years ago, yet is still has
enthusiastic followers in many parts of the world.
Today Jewish Hassidic cults cling tenaciously to primogeniture, much the same as the tribes of Afghanistan, the
rulers of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. Even Egypt, after the assassination of Anwar Sadat,
democratically elects his deputy, with a majority of 99.7%.
Didn‟t an American President say “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your
country”. He could almost have borrowed that from underlying Jewish secular philosophy. One first
established millennia ago. Unfortunately orthodox Jews, as usual want to return to the Bronze Age, to be allies
in this, of the Afghan tribes, and of Israel‟s neighbours. And they think that only they understand the Torah?
All seems so simple, yet it takes centuries to slowly seep into cultures. It‟s not that people don‟t have basic
rights (the UN has a Declaration on Rights), but that getting people to concentrate on their obligations would
make for a better world, getting people to rely on their merit (and that of others), would demonstrate that there is
no right to wealth – or power. These are ideas we Jews first played with three thousand years ago. Evidently
only we Secular Jews can continue with that heritage. Lose the heritage and perhaps the world regresses?
I have always given both the Hebrew name of the Parshah and the Chapter and verse numbers that were first
provided by the Church in the Vulgate – the Medieval Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible. Eventually the
numbering custom was also adopted by Hebrew publishers
The ancient Hebrew system of demarcation is often closer to the content of the text, keeping passages logically
together. Standard printed editions of the Torah in Hebrew preserve the ancient format with spaces which have
a letter "peh" (for petuhah- meaning open) or the letter "samekh," (for stumah-closed).
The Latin numbering is sequential but otherwise arbitrary. I think that the division between last weeks parshah
of Vayigash and this weeks (Vayechi) is the only one that has no such division or space.
Exodus 1.1-6.1 Parshat Shemot plus the Haftarah of Isaiah 27.6-28.13 and 29.22-
Shemot. means “names” from the opening passage “These are the names of the Children of Israel”. Shemot is
both the name of the passage and the Hebrew name of the Book of Exodus.
This is the second of the five books of the Torah, and contains the defining mythology of the Jewish people, the
exodus from Egypt, and the adoption of a covenant of behavioural rules. Moses is the hero of this book, and
there is an interesting contrast with Joseph (of the previous book – Breshit – Genesis), who was sold into slavery
but rose to become the second highest authority in the most powerful country of the known world of the time.
From ancient Egyptian sources we know that Hebrews were in such positions. Such events happen from time to
time. Jews were very prominent in the court of Abdel Rahman, when his Ummayyad Caliphate centred on
Granada in Spain, led the world in art and science, basically rescuing ancient Greek wisdom, thrown out by the
early Christians – committing them to the Dark Ages. (Philo in the second century CE was an early synthesiser
of Greek philosophy with Judaism). Disraeli was Prime Minister of the British Empire at its height, and
recently there have been Jews in very prominent positions in modern American administrations.
Sometimes these Jews come to prominence as Jews, whilst some are very assimilated into their surrounding
culture. Joseph was elevated as a Jew, but when he dies, he is embalmed as an Egyptian so that the body can be
transported back to the land of his ancestors in Canaan, he is buried in Schechem – what we call Nablus. Of
Moses we only know him in his early life as an Egyptian. Even when he kills an Egyptian who killed a Jew, he
runs away and the Midianites receive him as an Egyptian.
Ancient Egypt was ruled for some time by the Hyksos, foreign invaders who were Semites like the Hebrews.
When they were expelled, native Egyptian rulers retook power. Very possibly the Hebrews were welcomed by
the Hyksos, but resented by the Egyptian rulers. The original 70 members of Jacob‟s family obviously
prospered over some generations and became numerous. Fertility and fecundity are the universal accusations of
racist ideologues against the “other” in their midst, as it was by the new Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph”.
Joseph was clearly gifted and articulate, but Moses is not at all articulate, a curious admission in the Torah for
someone who is the greatest of all the leaders. He is also uncertain of himself, almost to the point of cowardice,
he makes mistakes, is irritable, and very conscious of his own shortcomings. He doesn‟t really know how to be
a leader, or how to delegate tasks.
Moses was the most influential Jew – for the Jews of antiquity, but he also made an impact over much of the
ancient world. The Greeks compared him to their own pantheon, and there was a general view amongst many
writers (Eupolemus, Artapanos, Aristobulus) who thought that humanity as a whole and Greek thought in
particular owed much to his ideas. Others thought that Moses created a religion which was strange, narrow,
exclusive and anti-social. The first recorded anti-Semite was probably Manetho, an Egyptian of around 250
BCE, who claimed that Moses was a renegade Egyptian priest, possibly of the cult of Akhneton, who led a
revolt of outcasts that included lepers and Negroes. Just shows how powerful were these myths of those times,
that Manetho should be motivated to “improve” the history of his own people – whose culture had not advanced
in 1,000 years.
Wherever Moses got his ideas from, it was not Egypt. This was a repudiation of everything within Egyptian
culture, the overpowering worship of death and afterlife, the lack of progress and conception of time as static.
Egyptian life was rich and gracious. The Exodus was not an escape from hardship, there are too many clues that
the privation was quite bearable, the people refer to “the fleshpots of Egypt”. The Egyptians were skilful in arts
and science, with exquisite taste in many things. The poverty from which Moses wanted to escape was in their
intellectual life, which he found suffocating.
Abraham had initiated some ideas, Moses substantially developed these original thoughts and elevated them
from a family idea to that of a nation. Almost certainly some ideas were borrowed, especially the concept of a
written law, which was not uncommon in Mesopotamia but absent in Egypt. Moses is also credited by some of
the ancient Greeks with the development of the first alphabet leading to Phoenician and onto Greek, which
could have been from the primitive notation of the Egyptian miners in the Sinai desert – amongst whom he
This development of a set of ethical rules, how to behave towards each other, the concept of having rights, and
obligations, the proto-democracy where everyone is equally recognised, the growth of a culture of ritual group
bonding to reinforce the rules and to pass on the values to ensuing generations was one of the great turning
points in the history of humanity, maybe the greatest of all turning points to date.
But that comes in the ensuing story of Shemot. This week, Moses, brought up in the Egyptian palace, kills an
Egyptian, caught killing a Jew. Moses goes to the desert, where he is accepted – as an Egyptian – and learns
from Yitro (Jethro – his future father-in-law) that he is a wanted man. He stays with the Midianites, returning
only after one Pharaoh has died and been replaced by another.
Having meditated during his period as a fugitive, Moses returns to free the people from slavery not for their own
version of glory, but to create a blue print for the building of a just Society. A common theme of these first two
books is injustice. This is quite exceptional amongst the mythologies of nations, certainly a successful slave
rebellion with these aims, is completely unique.
The next great thinker of the Jews after Moses was also called Moses (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, otherwise
known as Maimonides or by the acronym Rambam, who was born in Moslem Spain but moved to Cairo). He
claimed that Moses talking directly to god in the desert – the only person who ever gets to talk directly! – was
an entirely inner experience in his mind.
Both must be turning in their graves at the modern ceaseless effort of pouring over the minutiae of Moses‟
Bronze Age text with the aim of ritual purity but without applying any creative thought to bringing justice to the
modern world. These rules of Moses are written for the guidance of wise men, and the obedience of fools.
Unfortunately we know which of these two choices theistic religions have made. Secular people seem to be
proud of making no choice at all, assuming they can bring justice, without guidance of previous generations.
Have Secular Humanistic Jews something special to contribute here, some understanding that will otherwise be
lost to the world?
Exodus 6.2-9.35 Parshat Va’era plus the Haftarah of Ezekiel 28.25-29.21
Va’era. means “and I appeared” from the opening passage “And I appeared unto Abraham”. The “name” of
each passage is the first distinguishing word or phrase (for instance Genesis is called in Hebrew Breshit – “In
the beginning”). In this parsha the first distinguishing phrase is actually in the second sentence.
History is punctuated by episodes where one country, one culture, dominates the known world. Since the
demise of Communism the world is led by the economics, culture and military might of the United States.
In previous times that role had been occupied by the Moslems in their early Centuries, by the Romans, the
Greeks under Alexander and by the Pharaohs of Egypt.
In each case the Head of State has almost limitless power. The President of the United States is somewhat
circumscribed by Democracy, but the further we go back in history, the less restraints there are on the rulers.
Pharaoh considered his power almost infinite, he was after all surrounded by people who believed him to be no
mere mortal human. Even he had limits, the passing of day and night was the work of still more powerful gods
The Exodus from Egypt, the escape from bondage to the most powerful man on earth, has had a very significant
impact on the development of culture for all humanity, strange then that the obsession with the story of the
plagues and other miracles dominates what has been written about this story.
Thirty Centuries ago if the day suddenly turned to night, if masses died from disease, this must surely be the
work of gods? Indeed that would have been the most rational explanation. The “work of gods” would remain
the most rational explanation for an eclipse for the next twenty five centuries (out of thirty!). It would take even
more time to discover bacteria and viruses, with their role in contagion and fatal disease.
One of these Pharaohs was confronted by a renegade from his own Palace, one brought up as an Egyptian by his
father, who has returned to his family, and demands that his people be freed. He claims that he has a more
powerful god, and forecasts punishment from this god, if Pharaoh does not comply. This would surely have
been treated with great cynicism, unless some naturally occurring disasters, fortuitously seem to prove that
Moses indeed has a more powerful god. Such events would have convinced both Pharaoh and the Jews of the
existence of Yahweh. It was the most rational explanation available to them all.
The “miracles” have blinded many to something far more powerful from the Exodus story. It is the only known
successful slave rebellion in the recorded history of humanity, all the more remarkable because the aims of the
rebellion were so different to what one would expect. They had a vision of how people should behave towards
each other, that laid the foundation for some of our most cherished ideas, particularly Humanism and
Democracy. This involved many different concepts, which we shall explore as the story enfolds. In this
parshah they haven‟t yet escaped and are still involved in “inflicting” the plagues.
We have already come across one of the first principles that is a requirement of democracy, that rule is not by
inheritance. Joseph was a younger son, whose father was a younger brother, as was his grandfather, making
clear the Torah disapproval of the right of the first born to inherit the power of their father. Moses was also a
younger brother and “low born” as were other Torah characters.
Whilst “act of god” is an entirely rational explanation for eclipse or contagion centuries ago, certainly not the
result of some dogma, that does not mean that when we make discoveries that can provide a more rational
explanation, dogmatists don‟t try to defend what has become irrational.
However it is when dogma is used to support obnoxious morality that we have to be worried. After all an
argument about whether the Earth orbits the sun, is only obliquely connected to my behaviour (although some
poor sods were burnt alive for saying so).
Recently we have heard from a Rabbi officiating at a wedding in Jerusalem, where there was a tragedy of the
floor collapsing. He claimed that the dead were murdered by god, as punishment for men and women dancing
together. This is surely not dogma, nothing to do with Judaism, the ban on mixed dancing is a relic of tribal
customs, which the Torah does much to eradicate. This is a cheap jibe at Secular Jewry, from an orthodox
Rabbi, whose understanding of Judaism is significantly less than the secular, to whom he directs his remarks.
When the Sephardi Chief Rabbi claims that those brutally murdered in the Holocaust were actually murdered by
god for the sins committed by previous generations, of whom the dead were reincarnated souls, this isn‟t a
dogma, reincarnation is absent from Judaism, this is a cheap jibe at Secular Jewry (the majority of whom are
Ashkenazi), because it was mainly Ashkenazim who perished in the Holocaust. No-one, Religious or Secular,
with a minimal understanding of Judaism, could make such a remark.
I could go on with many examples, but clearly these people who claim that man made or natural disasters are the
work of god, murdering people for actions that are not crimes in Judaism, and never were so, should make us
deeply worried, it is this which is causing the demise of Jewry – the massive abandonment of Judaism, by the
Religious establishment. To which the Secular respond with little more than bewilderment.
Moses started a trend which led to Democracy and Humanism, as we shall see (and as Rabbinical authorities
have completely lost). In the meantime let me leave this week with a (contentious?) thought. Humanism and
Democracy have only developed (uniquely) where the Torah was an influence. The Torah is revered by
Christians (they call it the Pentateuch, part of their “Old Testament”, which in Hebrew is called “Tanakh”). The
Koran rewrites some of the Torah stories, leaving out all the moral allegory. Unlike the Christians, they reject
the original text. Is the unique combination of Humanism, Democracy and the Torah simple coincidence?
Exodus 10.1-13.16 Parshat Bo plus the Haftarah of Jeremiah 46.13-46.28
“Bo”. means “come” from the opening passage to Moses - “come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart”..
We tend to think of many branches of Judaism, but since the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE
until quite recently, the survivors were all offshoots of the one branch of Rabbinical Judaism. Branches
associated with Temple practice demised with the Temple destruction. Much of the branch of Hellenistic
Judaism probably became subsumed within Christianity.
Humanistic Judaism is an altogether new branch, one that brings an understanding of Jewish heritage based on
what humankind is today. This is a branch with a vibrant potential to breathe new life into Judaism, to depart
from the reactionary practice of discussing how much of ancient, pre-rational belief and practice we should
In this parshah we complete the famous morally ambivalent, ten plagues. Morally ambivalent because the
parshah opens with the astonishing statement that god hardens Pharaoh‟s heart and goes on to describe the
slaying of first born sons. Obviously a series of natural disasters are described, plague of locusts, flood,
drought. Even the rather unusual plague of the killing of the first born, has brought forth various ordinary
everyday explanations. For a people to perceive some awesome event, it is not necessary that every single
“first-born” dies, simply that some do. Even three would be enough of a coincidence if it happened in one
week, to cause people, even today, to add two and three and come up with six.
The Plagues appear also in Psalms 78 and 105, although there are only seven plagues in the Psalms, even then
not quite the same set. All three versions show a gradual intensification of natural disaster, and all conclude
with the death of the first born. Obviously there were a number of different tribal traditions regarding a plague
incident that have been edited.
The “hardening of Pharaoh‟s heart” seems to be a gratuitous addition for the purpose of demonstrating that
Yahweh is indeed more powerful than the Egyptian gods, causing plagues to increase in intensity until they
outperform what the Egyptian Court Magicians (the scientists of their time?) could achieve or explain.
Gratuitous because Pharaoh behaves as you would expect. He is a demi-god himself, absolute ruler of the most
powerful nation. We would expect such a person to be cynical, when the leader of a subservient minority makes
claims to power. Even today societies display widespread cynicism, fear and unease with lower strata
minorities within their midst. I see no hand of god in the behaviour of Pharaoh, simply the behaviour of a
From the Torah and from everything we can learn from other sources and surrounding societies, there was a
widespread legal, social and religious institution of the Firstborn. In the book of Dvarim (Deuteronomy) the
importance of the First born is made clear, notwithstanding a man having two wives, loving one hating the
other, whichever is the First born inherits double. There was a deep cultural attitude concerning the waning of
your strength, such that each child was the product of decreasing strength. The principle in Hebrew is called
bechor, meaning first or senior. It is also somewhat homophonic (similar sound) to bracha meaning blessing.
The Torah constantly give examples of overturning this very entrenched cultural practice, Abel was favoured
although a second twin, Isaac inherits although younger than Ishmael, Jacob inherits rather than Esau, Joseph is
a much younger son, Moses has an elder brother, most of the Judges were low born military heroes (Yiftach,
Dvora, Samson). Not all the Kings were First Born.
In the book of Kings the story of Mesha King of Moab tells how he sacrificed his First born son to appease
Sacrifice itself seems to be a development within arable societies, spilling blood onto the land to keep it fertile.
The Hebrews started as nomads, settling to become mainly pastoral people. There was arable land in the coastal
plain of the Philistines, but much less in the hills of the heartland of the Hebrews, where flocks would have been
more productive. Could this explain why they never considered human sacrifice? How they were influenced by
sacrifice and used animals? Even here sacrificing the first born male offspring was considered to be especially
good, the prophet Micha describes this practice. We still have a relic of the whole first born issue with the
orthodox practice of “pidyon haben”. If they have a son first they must “purchase” him back, because he
belongs to god until they do.
The bechor principle has been in society since very ancient times. France had a bloody revolution to overturn it.
Until eradicated there is no true Democracy. The Hebrews cannot claim to have developed Democracy (it came
out of medieval Europe), indeed there is no such word in the Hebrew language, even today. The word is of
course Greek, and the ancient Greeks had many lofty ideals. This was a brief historical episode, which might
still inspire us, but has little direct influence on modern ethics and social practice. The overturning of the
principle of bechor has influenced us in modern times – still does, and is one of a number of influences that are
crucial to our concepts of a humanistic democracy – curious when Humanism is also a word that does not exist
in Hebrew. Neither does tachlis (a Yiddish word roughly meaning “nitty-gritty). The Torah has some brilliant
tachlis, which is still working it‟s magic!
Notes for this week
The Greeks influence was brought to medieval Europe through the Arabs. Yet the Arabs did not develop
Democracy, and are still very far from such development. The Koran is influenced by the Torah, but is in fact a
shallow vulgarisation. Why then – nowhere else in the world, other than Medieval Europe, did democracy
develop? Why did Christianity resist?
Exodus 13.17-17.16 Parshat Bashalach plus the Haftarah of Judges 4.4-5.31
“Bashalach”. means “when he sent forth” from the opening passage- “and it came to pass when Pharaoh, let
the people go (sent them forth)”
Both passages this week are stories concerning a Hebrew victory over an enemy who is numerically and
technologically superior, principally because the enemy had the ancient equivalent of tanks, chariots in those
days. Both stories are centuries before King Solomon, who was credited with introducing a chariot force in the
Jewish army. It‟s one obvious difference between the Palestinians and the Israelis, nowadays we have the tanks
and they don‟t.
The victory over the chariots of Pharaoh, fantastic as it may seem (fantasy being an appropriate word), is not the
major part of the story. It simply obscures the main thrust.
Before that we should mention Dvora (Deborah), a prophetess without whom the Hebrew General Barak would
not go into battle. She gently mocks, asking whether he was prepared for a victory credited to a woman. The
army of Sisera is vanquished in spite of fielding heavy chariots, of which the Hebrews had none. Given women
in antiquity are rarely accorded praise, it is worth mentioning, especially as this was a military honour.
We have come a long way from those days of antiquity, not just in our technology, but also in our philosophy,
feelings and attitudes, reducing some of the issues that troubled us to simple brilliant ideas. We sum up
fundamentally who we are using Descartes‟ wonderfully succinct expression - “I think, therefore I am”.
So much has changed since those times, that we now face a totally new anxiety. It was possible throughout the
history of people, (as Descartes says - humans think, and it follows, have imaginations), for them to escape the
pressures of society through their fantasies. We could dream of flying away, our enemies humiliated, our loved
ones esteemed. Today we begin to fear that somewhere in the world people are already doing things that exceed
our wildest imagination. Modern Technology mocks the fantasies we can conjure in our thoughts. Perhaps that
explains why fantasies “not of this world” remain so popular. At least “not of this world philosophies” may be
immune from the relentless march of technology, indeed they are almost anti technology.
We should not conclude that we are the only age to feel technologically advanced. Ancient Egyptians probably
felt more advanced than we do, building structures that were the “Wonders of the World”. No such structures
would appear anywhere in Europe for over two thousand years. We would be hard pressed to think of anything
we can do, which will take others two thousand years to master.
There are actually many other similarities between us and the people of antiquity. In this weeks parshah the
Hebrews gain their freedom from servitude, by fleeing into the desert. Once in the wilderness, they realise that
there is more to this freedom lark than they anticipated. When you are free “the buck stops here”, in the
succinct phrase of a recent President of the United States. The people are now responsible for their own safety,
their own society and its organisation and rules. Even more fundamental, they have to find their own food and
water, itself not a trivial task in Sinai.
They complain to Moses “are there no graves in Egypt, that you bring us to the wilderness to die?” Moses is
justifiably considered a great leader, realising that the next step, having attained freedom, is to acquire the
attitudes and feelings of free people. People who would consider it natural that they must sort themselves out,
there is no-one to blame, no-one who will provide things for them. The brilliance of Moses was not just to see
the next steps but to realise that such concepts can take generations to acquire. He condemns them to wander
until a generation born in freedom can take over.
Whilst thinking about this, I was assailed by another episode of the frequent hand-wringing tirades we hear,
about our plight with our Palestinian neighbours. They too have gained some freedom, and the problem is not
so much the quantity of freedom, but the quality. “How perverse”, the refrain goes, “when in Israel they have
free speech, democracy, better paid jobs, only in Israel can Arabs have all these things, yet they prefer their
poverty and corruption!”. Like the Hebrews of antiquity they desire their own autonomy and just like the
Hebrews of antiquity, we (and they) fear that they don‟t know what to do with it, now that they‟ve got it.
The amount of freedom, has little impact on this problem. At a loss for allies (really people who will sort out
what they can‟t do for themselves) the Palestinians adopt the “other world fantasy” of their linguistic and ethnic
neighbours. Once the most secular of Middle Eastern peoples, they have become Islamicised. From the
Palestinian leadership, many of whom are secular, this appears a cynical ploy. They are simply not ready to go
it alone, at least not compared to the Israelis, and sadly Yasser does not have the stature of Moses (but then who
does in the Middle East of today?).
It‟s one of the faults of our modern simplifications, reducing everything to a single choice (left/right,
secular/religious, dove/hawk, freedom or servitude). The Hebrews had to “feel free”, it was not enough just to
“be free”. We should see these simplifications for just that, not the whole philosophy, but a reduction that
misses things out for the sake of clarity. Once we use the simplification to obfuscate, we need to review what
we are doing. We “are” not just because we “think”. (I was going to include Shakespeare‟s “to be or not to be”
but couldn‟t get out of my head that great modern philosopher‟s expansion - do be do be do - Sinatra!).
Secular people seem to have an attitude of either/or on these issue as well - “we think, they feel!”. We certainly
appear to prefer intellectual thought to motivating emotions, but since when were they mutually exclusive -
either/or? I doubt that you can “be free” without “feeling free”, and the latter is not an automatic consequence
of the former.
We would be doing ourselves a favour updating some of these simplifications, especially when they lead us into
gratuitous conflict. My suggestion to render Cartesian logic more useful to our truly modern world, is “I think
and I feel, therefore I am!”
Exodus 18.1-20.23 Parshat Yitro plus the Haftarah of Isaiah 6.1-7.6 & 9.5-9.6
“Yitro”. is the Hebrew name of Jethro from the opening passage “Jethro priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-
This week, serious questions of tradition and whether there is a future for Jews, both arise from the parshah.
This is the famous episode, where the Decalogue (called in English 10 commandments, but in Hebrew 10
“sayings”) is introduced for the first time. I have discussed these rules as a Humanist text in previous
commentaries (at length in my 20th Commentary - parshat V‟etchanen, I will send a copy to any one who feels
that it will be useful). It is at this point, probably over three millennia ago, that the Jews took upon themselves
obligations of ethical behaviour, as the essential component of their identity, and probably started the process
which has made them uniquely centre stage for much of the time since then. Even today, Israel receives more
Newspaper column inches and Television minutes around the world, than any other foreign country. There are
many weeks in the year, when it has more than all other foreign countries put together. This “Jews is News”
syndrome is not especially to do with what is happening. Often similar events, on a grander scale, happen
elsewhere. There just seems an obsessive interest in the Jewish “angle” of any story. Throughout most of that
history Jews have been powerless, with some small periods of limited autonomy.
Just to digress for a moment, Moses had left his wife and children with his father in law when he returns to
Egypt to free his people. He names his sons to reflect that journey, Gershom meaning “he lives in a far away
place” (he means that he left him in Midian), and Eliezer “my god will help me”. According to halachah his
sons would not be recognised as Jews. If only he could return to modern day Israel, to claim citizenship by right
of return, that would surely embarrass the Rabbinate of today! Any Rabbi with integrity would have to insist
that the wife and children of Moses are not Jews and must go through conversion!
Yet this parshah is not named after Moses (the Lawgiver), nor even after the “sayings”. Indeed there is no
parshah named after Moses, although according to the naming tradition this one could have been. This is named
after a non-Jewish priest, who also gently rebukes Moses and teaches him how to administer law. Was there a
purpose in choosing to name this after Yitro, to play down the role of Moses? Perhaps they wanted to play
down the sayings themselves, so that they could elevate the tradition of “oral law” to an equal footing. (In the
oral law they have 613 commandments).
This “oral law” was certainly a living heritage of the dead. Jews spent Centuries compiling the Palestinian and
Babylonian Talmuds. There is little to compare with these vast volumes written from the 1 st to the 5th Century,
which extensively analyses and preserves the long-established understanding of the Torah. Today in orthodox
religion, we seem to have a dead tradition of the living
Take for instance the “saying” concerning the prohibition of elevating material things to the point of
worshipping them (could anything be more relevant today?), which also uses the phrase “visiting the guilt of the
parents upon the children”. The editors of the Talmud were concerned with the apparent immorality of
condemning innocent successive generations. The Talmud accepts that the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel both
essentially revoked the sanction.
Whilst the principle of inflicting the guilt of the parents onto their children was rejected in the Talmud, (there
are exceptions such as the rules on a specific view of illegitimate children), the general idea of our behaviour
impacting future generations is obvious. Everything we do, what you and I are doing at this very moment, has
an effect, mostly imperceptibly, sometimes powerfully. Could the well established Jews of Medina in Saudi
Arabia have known how badly Mohamed would take their rejection of his “revelation”. He had after all based it
on their great texts more than anything else. When they decided to join with his enemies, could they have
known that 1,400 years later, there would be one billion people reading of their behaviour and holding negative
views towards Jews today? Martin Luther also had a “revelation” where Christianity could be reformed by
allowing every individual to have a direct relationship with god (not dependant on priest, Bishop, Cardinal,
Pope) - just like the Jews. They also rejected him.
Both Mohamed and Luther appeared in their early stage of revelation to hope that acceptance by the “Jews”,
would give them the ultimate approval. It would prove to the world their validity. What the Jews might call the
ultimate “hechsher” - certificate of kashrut. Rejection is always difficult to accept, and rarely does the person
rejected, escape feelings of resentment. In both these cases the resentment was intense. The strong negative
feelings they came to experience towards the Jews (they both started with favourable attitudes), shows how
much they valued the missed opportunity of having the Jews join them.
Looking back there are many other episodes when we can think of tremendous outcomes from simple actions or
words. We still agonise over the potential for saving Jews in the Holocaust, could more have been done?
We are stuck with what others (and we) did in the past, we cannot turn back the clock, but we are the future. A
future in which Jews, having provided more than their “fair share” of eminent secular “high fliers” in a wide
range of endeavours, over many centuries, could now disappear (at the current rate of decline), within the next
two-three generations. This would leave about 15% of the total, those who are strictly orthodox, perversely,
precisely those who will make little secular contribution. Those who cherish the dead faith of the living, as
opposed to those influenced by the living heritage of the dead.
Israel is also likely to survive, but already it is faced with a rapidly declining Diaspora. This will push the
country further into the Middle East. It looks like a European country, but close your eyes for a moment, listen
to the Radio, the street, or even sit in a high level Business Meeting, and you realise how far it is in the Middle
The famous Jews of today are eminent in a wide range of secular endeavours. It reminds me of an anecdote by
Lord Marshall, who was head of the UK Electric Energy Board. When he joined the Physics Faculty of his
University, he commented to the Professor that of the 25 people in the department he was the only non-Jew.
The Professor told him he was wrong, as there were two people joining the faculty, which now had 26 members,
and he was the only non-Jew. Not just in Physics, but in many other subjects, Wittgenstein (Spinoza, Kant) in
philosophy, Durkhein in Sociology, in music, art history, chemistry, medicine, entertainment, including a
surprising return to military prowess, and many other secular subjects, the Jews have not just been numerous,
but eminent. Perhaps that was simply a result of their genes, but the influence of their heritage cannot be
Is the disappearance of the Secular Diaspora inevitable? Has 30 centuries of amazing history played its course?
Maybe it is desirable that there should be a rapid decline. Does it matter? In what way does your and my
behaviour affect that future. Clearly there is a great desire throughout the world for ethics, spirituality, bonding
and identity, and a desperate need for a secularisation of those issues. Once again we find ourselves in a unique
position. We have most of the tools to synthesis the desire and the need. Nowadays few of our eminent people,
are so as Jews (they are simply coincidentally Jew-ish), nor do any aspire to be a leader of Jews. Sadly these are
times which simply do not produce any leadership potential. If enough of us show a desire to go somewhere,
there would at least be a place for leadership.
Just one more issue for Humanistic Judaism to consider.
Exodus 21.1-24.18 Parshat Mishpatim and the Haftarah of Jeremiah 34.8-34.22 &
“Mishpatim” means rules from the opening passage “and these are the rules…”.
Last week the 10 sayings were introduced, and this week we have an extensive set of further rules all concerned
with justice and how people should behave towards each other. (It is not about theism!). They establish ideas
of obligations and of rights. Including for instance rights for women and for slaves, very advanced concepts in
the Bronze Age, but we have come a long way since then. We can see how much civilisation has move forward
on these issues in the ensuing three thousand years. One of the points I made about the original 10 sayings was
that they were good law, because they were precise and unequivocal. “Don‟t murder does not go on to say, “but
it depends on who you are and who you murdered”. In reality, today, it does. The relative status of the
perpetrator and victim make a difference. A higher status murderer and a lower status victim will result in a
dramatically lower punishment than the reverse. We haven‟t advanced as much as we‟d like to think. In
technology perhaps, but civilisation is really about people and society, not the technology they use.
In the Talmud there is much discussion of these matters. Perhaps the best illustration I can give is the rule
(which seems quite old-world and charming to the urbanised Jews of today ) concerning your ox goring that of
your neighbour‟s ox. In a number of previous commentaries I have discussed the meaning of the word
translated as neighbour. The Mishnah (the first simple codification of what the Torah meant in practice, decided
that “rai‟echa” is a neighbour if he‟s “one of us”. Only if he‟s one of us, do you have to compensate him. Two
thousand years ago (when compiling the Talmud, as the Mishnah was inadequate), Rabbis debated this and felt
uncomfortable, and we certainly no longer enshrine such discrimination in our legal codes, but we still practice
that discrimination. (A Black man murdering a white woman, will normally receive a death sentence, but a
white man murdering a Black often won‟t).
The UN Declaration of Human Rights is a lofty document that goes beyond much of the principles in these
rules, but it is more known for very frequent breaches, than for rare partial observance. Our ancestors saw this
as a living system, which they called “halachah” (to go forward), but today it has become an ossified piece of
worship, rather pagan really, of no practical application.
Between the Assyrian conquest (721 BCE) and the Babylonian (who eventually conquered and destroyed
Solomon‟s Temple built in 960 BCE destroyed in 586 BCE), Israel enjoyed a brief period of calm and
flourishing culture. Many of the Prophets lived in that period, and towards the end, when the looming threat of
the growing Babylonian Empire could be seen, Jeremiah preached. The Babylonians came about 40 years after
Jeremiah started his prophecies and removed most of the population, some returning 70 years later.
There is a famous passage from Song of Songs written by some Hebrew poet (Psalm 137) about that enforced
exile “There by the waters of Babylon we sat and wept”. This is often quoted together with the next verse “If I
forget thee Jerusalem, let my right hand forget itself (“Tishkach yamini” sometimes translated as “let my right
hand forget it‟s cunning”, which I guess tries to convey the meaning of the Hebrew, which is absent from any
way of translating the superbly concise phrase into English). Rarely however is the next verse quoted “…a
blessing on him, who repays you in kind, what you inflicted upon us, a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks”. Three thousand years ago, and yet it could have been written any time
between 1940 and 1945. Did “civilisation” advance so little in three thousand years?
Most historical barbarities were attempts to impose a culture on people, perhaps to eradicate a culture, the
Holocaust was an attempt to eradicate an entire people. In this it was unique, but somehow, as with all previous
barbarities against us, it failed.
Here as always, the immediate feeling of the victim is for revenge, to inflict on the perpetrator the same evil act.
Those feelings are unavoidable. The mark of a civilised person is not to act on them. To show the world how
you can overcome such behaviour. Centuries later the Jews of Babylon produced the Talmud (discussing
concepts of Justice over five centuries), and today there are few Jews in Babylon (Iraq), but there are no
Babylonians. The Holocaust survivors have gone on to become eminent people, dignified and civilised. They
ask the world to deal with its perpetrators of crime and to seek justice, not revenge. The response is hardly
encouraging. (Most of the attendees at the 1942 Wansee Conference which decided on the Final Solution for
the Jews, died peacefully in their beds).
We speak of “civilisations” - Egyptians, Assyrian, Babylonian, but what we know of them is their technology,
we divide history into technological ages (Bronze, Iron, Post-Industrial), yet when we talk of civilised people we
are not talking of their technology, but the Rules of behaviour by which they live their lives. (Marx tried to
introduce such categorisation - Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism).
“And here are the rules”, this passage and Judaism, for more than two millennia afterwards, is concerned with a
developing set of rules. We see how the Soviets tried to invent new secular rules and failed, how the UN has
such little influence in the advance of real civilisation. Well it is in this document - the Torah - that such a
search started so long ago, and now the theistic religious stop searching, and the secular don‟t take an interest
because they allow to take precedence, the travesty of understanding of the religious.
Perhaps that is another reason for Anti-Semitism, the fact that we have given up our greatest asset - the
continuing search for Justice and Humanism. Now we have a highly technological society, which somehow
manages to be reasonable to most, but the “rules” allow, even encourage, self-interest at the expense of others.
We‟ve let ourselves, and the world down, who amongst us is keen to help keep this aloft before it is lost
Exodus 25.1-27.19 Parshat Trumah and the Haftarah of Kings I 5.26-6.13
“Trumah” means offerings (or donations or gifts) from the opening passage “…tell the people to bring me
gifts”. These donations were for the building of the Ark of the covenant. “Ark” is a curious translation of the
simple Hebrew word “Aron” meaning cupboard or chest, often referred to “aron kodesh” or holy cupboard. In
synagogues the cupboard where the Torah scrolls are kept is a modern day equivalent of the ancient Ark.
If you haven‟t seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, by Steven Spielberg, you must surely have heard of the film. Pure
escapist fantasy, superbly done. In the film Spielberg has a copy of the Ark of the covenant that the Hebrews
built in the desert, and his construction looks much as you would imagine it when reading this weeks parshah.
The text is all about collecting valuables from everybody, in order to make the “Ark” (a sort of box) in which
“god will dwell”. The building of the Ark is described in exquisite detail. Possibly it contained the two stone
tablets on which were written the 10 sayings and possibly it was empty.
Surely absurd that the All Powerful Creator of the Entire Universe, should dwell in a box about four feet long
and just over two foot high. Before dealing with that, I would like to digress.
When I was in my teens I read a book called “The Little Prince” in which a French aviator meets a child who
asks him to draw a sheep that the child is imagining. After many unsuccessful drawing attempts of sheep, he
draws a box (with holes in the side!) that contains the sheep. The child exclaims that the sheep is exactly right!
Some years later I visited Japan and on the desk of my host was a small wooden doll with one eye missing. He
explained to me that this was a Daruma (named after the founder of Chinese “Chan” Buddhism - called “Zen” in
Japan). The missing “eye” was intentional. People would take the doll to represent some important task in their
life. Only when the task was complete, would they permit themselves to paint in the missing “eye”. Until then
it would sit there constantly reminding them in a nagging way. So simple, it “sets” the mind on the task, staring
at you with one eye. (You can try this for yourself, draw a simple “happy face” leaving out one eye, aren‟t you
motivated to complete it?).
The Hebrews built an expensively decorated wooden box, which focuses their mind on who they are.
Occasionally they took it into battle, and reputedly it eventually sat in the “Holy of Holies”, an inner sanctum of
In one battle the Ark was captured by the Philistines, but bad fortune befell the captors, and they assumed that
this was because of their possession of the Ark. They therefore returned it to the Israelites.
By the time of the reconstruction of that Temple in the reign of Josiah, the Ark is missing, and there is no record
of when or where it went missing.
The second Temple (built by King Herod, an Idumean appointed King by Rome, whose people had been
converted to Judaism) there was no mention of the Ark, but he did build an extravagant Temple with a Holy of
Holies, into which the High Priest was allowed to enter once a year. (It is the retaining wall of the Temple
Mount Herod created, which is called the Western Wall, at which orthodox Jews pray). Herod‟s Temple was
destroyed by the Romans in the 1st Century CE, and in the 7th Century CE the Moslems built the Al Aqsa and
Omar Mosques on the ruins of the Temple Mount.
Many of the practices of the Ancient Israelites were simply what everyone did. Every one sacrificed animals,
whatever their religious faith, and to whomsoever they prayed. What we retain today of their thoughts, contain
some concepts that were advanced for their time, different to their neighbours and are advanced even by many
standards of today.
One such concept, was that their identity, their people-hood, their ethnicity, was bound up in an abstract
concept, a covenant to behave in a particular civilised manner. Like everyone else in the world of the time, they
explained creation through theism, and continued with most of the culture that everyone else had with regard to
their god or gods. But the Hebrew god was entirely abstract. Their covenant was a set of rules. They did not
set their identity by buildings, by conquests, by land, but by abstractions.
Many peoples in the Ancient world had achievements we would be hard-pressed to repeat, even today with our
technology, let alone three thousand years ago (Only recently could we consider building pyramids, we would
find building them with the technology available to the Ancient Egyptians, impossible. There are many such
examples. A Bridge built across the Danube by the Roman Army is a feat of engineering that still puzzles us).
Many examples of their technological prowess remain today, yet most of the peoples described in the Torah
have vanished, along with their cultures and their languages.
When the Roman General Vespasian had conquered Jerusalem, he entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple,
and records his surprise at finding an empty room.
The idea of an empty box, or empty room, being useful, is still one that many people find puzzling. It is like the
Little Prince‟s drawing of a box, in which he can imagine the perfect sheep, like the Daruma doll, a focus of
attention that sets the mind.
The Ark is a communal setting of the mind on what they can imagine in the empty box. It “contains” their
intense feelings at the birth of their people-hood, and a constant reminder, a setting of their hearts and minds on
Today many can only to relate to something tangible, but not just the Hebrews understood this concept, at about
the same time that, at least the last book of the Torah was probably written (about 6th Century BCE), the Chinese
philosopher Lao Tsu wrote (in the Confucian book Tao Te Ching):
Thirty spokes share the wheels hub
It is the centre hole which makes it useful
Shape clay into a vessel
It is the space within that makes it useful
Cut doors and windows for a room
It is the holes which make it useful
Therefore Profit comes from what is there
Usefulness comes from what is not there
The Ark was useful, precisely because it was empty! Where is our focus today? We would be hard pressed to
describe what such a box represents for us today. Profit has been worshipped, but that appears to have been
replaced by Size. Three millennia ago people thought about putting Usefulness above Profit. Today where are
our priorities? Does HJ have an ability to build such a box, even a metaphorical box? Where should we start?
Exodus 27.20-30-10 Parshat Tetzaveh and the Haftarah of Ezekiel 220.127.116.11
“Tetzaveh” means “ you shall command” from the opening passage “and you shall command the children of
Israel…”. They were commanded to bring everything needed to make ritual garments for the priesthood (i.e.
Aaron and his sons) and to “purify” them with sacrifices.
Chassidic Jews all dress in particular “uniforms”. Each sect has it‟s own variant, and each scrupulously
differentiates itself from other Chassidic sects with these minor changes. Their clothing is very distinctive, and
coincidentally highly inappropriate for the climate in Israel. All sects use a derivative of 17th Century Polish
aristocratic dress. This has nothing to do with the Torah or religion, but is a fairly modern tradition, which they
In a similar way the Scots all pay strict attention to which Tartan to wear, depending on their clan. This is also a
rather recent “1,000 year” tradition, invented in the reign of Queen Victoria.
In a modern world with travel and communication, there is a slow but growing tendency for people to dress
alike. Go to a Business meeting anywhere, and one will meet people with regulation Business suits and ties.
Every culture used to have its own manner of dress. With the rise of Western Christianity, European mode of
dress became dominant, and a scientist wishing to announce a new discovery, was hardly likely to appear
barefoot and in some desert nightshirt, even if this was their normal attire. To be credible, they had to look
We should not be flippant about concern with appearance. This week is Fashion week in London. Vast
amounts of talent (and money) will be spent, and large proportions of women (and probably many men) will be
hanging on all the nuances. The cosmetic industry is amongst the largest of all, and Cosmetic surgery is big
business (some clinics specialising on areas of the body that defy belief!).
Judges throughout the world wear robes of office, and in the UK judges and counsel also wear wigs. It seems
intellectually absurd, but we cannot escape the fact that we make judgements on people by their appearance,
first – and sometimes last as well. Armies tend to invest energy in dress and ritual, parade ground marching,
shouting orders and polished boots (although the Israeli army is an exception, I doubt they have one tin of boot
polish between them all, they use first names, and sergeants rarely bark orders – except at Basic Training).
So there isn‟t anything to cause raised eyebrows in this parshah, that the first of thousands of years of hereditary
priests, should be very elaborately robed and installed. We still have vestiges of this tradition because we
assume that everyone with the name Cohen is a descendant of that first family. The word kohan (priest) is very
ancient, appearing in Canaanite and Ugaritic inscriptions. The word in Hebrew is probably borrowed from their
languages, certainly they predate even the ancient Torah.
Yet there is a problem here. The Torah appears almost certainly to be an edited document from more than one
tradition. In the early stories, some talk of god as YHWH whilst others use the plural noun Elohim (another
curiosity – gods?). Separate these two strands and one ends up with the story told twice. The literary style also
differs. The editor who merged these two folk memories must have been under pressure to keep each intact.
They are possibly similar but separate traditions of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. The editors
introduced a third strand of their own. Probably priests themselves, they establish an exalted image of the
It seems to me that this elaborate parshah, on the start of the institution of an hereditary priesthood, is one such
later addition. How else do we account for the fact that sacrifice and ritual continued to be performed by
ordinary people at shrines set up all over the country. The number of people who undertake rituals, and sacrifice
throughout the Torah until the period beyond the Torah through Judges and onto Kings, is quite large. From the
Patriarchs through Jethro, Moses, Gideon, Manoah, Samuel, Adonijah and others at places throughout Canaan
and Sinai, there is little evidence for ritual through priests, throughout the Torah. There were altars everywhere,
and the practice of priests was in the Temple. Maybe these two cultural patterns (Altars and Temples)
co-existed. Perhaps the Assembly Tent in Moses time was like a Temple, but once settled in Canaan, they were
too dispersed to assemble in this way. Indeed the first real evidence for priestly ritual is under King Josiah,
many centuries after the Torah events. Even if we accept the Torah stories, notwithstanding the flimsy historical
supporting evidence, then it would not be until the First Temple of Solomon that there was any such centralised
institution as a priesthood.
Not long after Josiah closed down all the shrines and centralised the worship and ritual in Jerusalem, the Temple
was destroyed and the priesthood exiled to Babylon, where it settled into a pattern of synagogues, no sacrifices,
and no priests. Later with the partial return, the Second Temple was built and the priesthood restored, until once
again the Temple was destroyed. The Priesthood was at best a few Centuries under the early Kings, but more
likely just over one Century, which was resurrected in the days of the second Temple, until that was destroyed.
Synagogue worship without Priests was started in the time of the Prophet Yehezkiel (his name means “may god
strengthen him” known in English as Ezekiel), who was one of the Priests exiled to Babylon. His testimony can
be accurately dated between July 593 BCE and April 571BCE, as he refers to specific events of
Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, from whom we have other evidence. Yehezkiel makes clear that the future is with
My conclusion is that the priestly tradition did not start in the times of the Torah, but evolved as part of the
imposition of Kings. Even here it was fragmentary, in two separate periods. For all of the first period (Early
Kings, long after the Torah period) the Tanakh has it coexisting with general non-priestly ritual. For all of the
Second Temple, the Babylonian Synagogue system was already in place, before during and since. Babylonian,
Synagogue (non-priestly) practice, was equal if not dominant. Even at the height of the 2nd Temple, the
Pharisees in Israel were congregating in Synagogues. Synagogue Judaism survives and evolves until today, but
will not continue to do, if left in the hands of the Rabbinate.
Do you know that Israel is considering changing the flight paths of planes as they depart Israel? Apparently as
they leave Ben-Gurion Airport they fly almost over Holon Cemetry. If there are Cohen‟s on board, would that
make them ritually impure (they‟re not supposed to be close to dead bodies), and when the Messiah returns, will
they will be unable to make sacrifices on our behalf in the Temple that will be magically restored? The leading
Religious Judge of Europe (Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu) thinks so, and until the flight path is changed, he wraps
himself in a plastic bag from take off until they are past the Israeli coast. Apparently the cemetery
“contamination” reaches over one mile vertically, and penetrates the hull of a Jumbo Jet, but travels less than
one yard horizontally through plain air! El Al don‟t allow this sheathing of live people in plastic body bags, so
he travels on British Airways where they do (are they laughing at us?).
In the subsequent parshah of Korach, we hear of a revolt against this priestly institution, and the “rebels” all
magically perish. If anything, that story simply reinforces the conclusion that the whole priestly “thing” in the
Torah is an editing gloss at variance with the stories themselves, and attempting to lend credence to a more
recent tradition (like Chassidic dress or Scottish Clan Tartans), which, if ever the dominant culture, could only
have been so for a brief period during the early Kings, centuries later than the Torah.
Christianity still has such a priesthood!
Exodus 30.11-34.35 Parshat KiTisa and the Haftarah of Kings I 18.1-18.39
“KiTisa” means “ when you count (carry, take up)” from the opening passage where Moses is told to count (or
add up) the number of people, in preparation for taxation. Moses had brought these people into the desert, and
begins to forge a nation.
The idea of an infant castaway who grows up to be a hero, is not unique to the story of Moses and Hebrew
mythology. Myths of Sargon (the Akkadian), Cyrus, and the Egyptian god Horus, are similar.
Moses is initially a hero because he has led the people from servitude under the Egyptians. He now has to
consider what to do next, and goes up the mountain alone.
The people become desolate waiting over a month for Moses to return. In despair they turn to his elder brother
Aaron, exhorting him to make them a Golden Calf, which they can worship and from which they may get
inspiration as to what to do next. They are certainly at a loss to know how to cope with freedom, now that they
Moses realises that freedom is not the absence of servitude, nor dependent on a leader (Aaron cannot be relied
upon in Moses absence). Both leader and led need to understand what it really means to be free.
The whole allegory clearly establishes that humans are human and god is not. We expect and demand certain
behaviour of humans, but god behaves in ways they do not accept as “humane”. Here we have one of many
such instances, where the alleged reaction of god to the Golden Calf is to destroy everyone and offer to start
again with Moses and his heirs. It is Moses who rejects this idea, and believes that promises are made to be
kept. You can‟t have spurious excuses to escape obligations you have taken upon yourself.
This also gives Moses clues about freedom. Not so much about your rights, freedom stems from everyone
fulfilling their obligations. Moses returns from the mountain with a covenant, we will be a people because we
adopt a set of obligations. He speaks to those who have just escaped slavery, not telling them what they will
now get, but what they must now give. Don‟t do this, do that…
Yet today many groups, be they nations, ethnic minorities, gender politicians, are still discovering what our
ancestors knew. Freedom is not absence from servitude. How many countries have fought and died to throw
off foreign rulers, only to install their own worse despots? How many have discovered that freedom does not
flow from simply having your own leader.
Many complain, that one of the problems with the Torah is the lack of role models, as they are all humanly
flawed. Christians build statues of their role model (and his mum!) and worship them. Islam understands some
of the message from last week‟s commentary (usefulness from what is not there), so they have no statues of
Mohamed, but their reverence for Mohamed exceeds that of Christianity for Jesus. Jews have no such role
model, only ideas, concepts, mainly about how we are obligated to each other.
(Just a digression, but a Christian friend justified no women priests because Jesus, after all, only had male
disciples, I was proud of my quick response, that they were also all Jews, does that mean only Jews can become
So who cares if Jews disappear? If 3,000 years later we still struggle with the same concepts? Does it matter?
My first answer is that there should be no posthumous victory to Hitler, Pol Pot (and many others!). Surely a
sentiment that distinguishes the world‟s majority from the abnormal. That isn‟t just about Jews, but once again
our survival is the ultimate symbol.
Next we must ponder why the words of President Kennedy (“ask not what your country can do for you, but what
you can do for your country”) resonated so deeply. He was elegantly repeating – in a modern well-established
society - the aims of Moses for a rag tag bunch of newly freed slaves.
Then the concept of slavery is used often in the Torah to dismiss ethnocentrism, to deal with everyone fairly, to
abhor prejudice, to treat well the stranger and the disadvantaged amongst us, without seeking benefit or
accolades for ourselves, “ for you yourselves were slaves…”
The concept that it is humans – not god – that worry about how to behave, what is morally right, stems from
these very allegories.
Repeatedly there is no individual salvation, only the group or community survives. Neither Moses nor Aaron
get to “the promised land”. For reasons that escape me, we seem to continually ignore this amazing endurance.
We dwell on our glorious failures to survive, often presenting ourselves as brave losers in the face of adversity.
Destroy one Temple and we build another to be destroyed again. We make a brave stand at Massada, then
commit suicide. Again at Betar, and the Crusades, and the Warsaw Ghetto, the Holocaust, each examples of
noble death and vanquish, yet we are still here to care about it.
We can, and possibly will, give posthumous victories, simply ceasing to care. By not caring about the
obligations of each of us towards others that is fundamental to freedom, by concentrating on our individual
rights (“suits me to blend in, why make the effort to stand out from the crowd, and I don‟t like to be associated
with those hotheads in Israel, or the obsessed in their black hats…”). People ask “Isn‟t it all relative” “Isn‟t the
problem that each thinks that only they are right?”
Moses argued with god about throwing everything away and starting afresh. Europe was in the dark ages for
Centuries because it threw away the wisdom (mainly from the Greeks) that was available, because it didn‟t fit
with their world view.
Unless we keep these many different messages alive – a Humanistic understanding of the Torah - then we are
doomed to start afresh – a task that could take many Centuries with much further suffering on the way. Many
people in the world are still discovering that freedom involves obligations – first! That leadership is always by
fallible human beings, that sons or daughters, do not necessarily make good leaders in their turn, that freedom
comes from community, that communities need focus (don‟t we always take the easy route – focus on an
enemy!). I don‟t want to summarise the ethics of the Torah for modern times, but I want to say that loss always
overwhelms gain in these affairs. Unfortunately we can have the loss easily – do nothing!
The rebirth of Israel has added some security to the future of Jews. Now we need to consider the future of
Judaism – surely there are no Jews without some form of Judaism?
We are small in numbers, lacking in resources. If we were all willing to donate two hours each week, to make
progress, would that be a step forward? Could we begin to make our contribution, our understanding (the real
fundamental one!) not just to being Jews, but to what it means to be a Jew?
We cannot leave this weeks parsha without comment on the many instances of medieval art depicting Moses
with horns. I even know some individual Jews who remember when their hair was ruffled by curious other
children in the school playground – trying to feel the Jews “horns”.
This is because of a mistranslation from this weeks parsha, when Moses descends from the mountain, the text
says “light radiated from his face”. In Hebrew this is “keren or panav”. Hebrew is a very concise language.
The root “krn” signifying things that point. When in the dual form (words that end in “ayim”) it means horns of
an animal (karnayim), any other form means rays (e.g. karnei shemesh – rays of the sun).
Exodus 35.1-40.38 Parshat Vayaqhel/Pekudei and the Haftarah of Kings I 7.40-8.21
“Vayaqhel” means “ when he gathered” from the opening passage “and Moses gathered all the clans of Israel
together”. “Pekudei” means “order”, or in this case measurement, from the opening passage “this is the order
of the Tabernacle”. This is a double parshah and most years it is the tradition to read them together. The
Tabernacle was some sort of ornate meeting tent, like a portable Temple.
In these two parshot we have elaborate descriptions of the building of the Tabernacle and the furniture within it.
The associated Haftarah from Kings, concerns the building of Solomon‟s Temple, probably 500 years later. The
Vayaqhel text describes a version of the Temple as you might expect desert nomads to build, highly portable.
Was Solomon‟s Temple based on the Tabernacle, or perhaps the other way round? The Tabernacle description
is somewhat confusing and illogical (was it pitched inside or outside the camp – the text says both, how was
such weight carried in only four wagons, do the measurements add up etc.). We could be forgiven for thinking
that some priest – around the time of Solomon, had inserted this text into the tribal tradition to lend subsequent
authority to the Temple they were now planning to build. Perhaps they already had some ancient tent and
furniture (although by then it would have been rather tattered).
The phrase “kol Ha‟Am” is used in the Golden Calf episode, and it means everyone, “all the people”. Just like
some herd of animals, each following the other. This week, everyone is asked to donate fine things for the
building of the meeting tent, and its contents, and the phrase is “kol nediv libo”, people “gave according to how
their heart moved them”. That‟s an important distinction. Previously there was nameless “following the herd”,
this week the whole language concentrates on “each” individual. Specific mention is made of Bezalel the
master craftsman, his name means “in the shadow of god”.
We rightly criticise much older tribal traditions as being unfair to women, but this text also specifically
mentions both men and women and what each contributes.
These choices are still to be made today, do we follow the herd, or contribute according to how our heart moves
us. Indeed who admits to their heart being moved?
Many of us are still concerned that few lessons have been learnt from the Holocaust. We see that the blame is
often put on the curse of Nazism, the failure of the Pope, or in Daniel Goldhagen‟s views, the German people
and their culture. We see the surprising oxymoron, that many Nazi sympathisers of today question whether six
million really died. What are we to understand from that? If they genuinely disapprove, does this mean they
want to lessen the barbarity? Not take responsibility? If they approve why are they trying to lower the number?
I am pleased to announce that David Irving, who took Deborah Lipstadt to court, to curtail her freedom of
speech (she claimed he had falsified evidence of the Holocaust in order to deny it happened and give an
improved image to his idol Hitler). He not only lost his case, but an application has been made to declare him
bankrupt. He has not paid the cost of the legal action he took (some $3m, although they have only asked for a
first payment of 7%), he has failed to pay anything and it is assumed that he cannot do so.
Far more important for me, is that there must have been about one million households of Jews in the Europe of
1940. Most of these were vacated unexpectedly and would have been left with sheets on the bed, crockery and
food in the cupboard, books, toys, indeed all you‟d expect, even in the poorest of households. Where have the
sheets and crockery gone? Certainly the advancing German Army, did not have time to clear up after every
dawn raid. There must be hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, not necessarily German, not necessarily
Nazi, (but probably without exception Christian), who quietly entered the empty Jewish homes, and took what
looked useable. Almost as many who “inherited” some new home. They “followed the herd”. Some of them
may even have had misgivings, but they ignored the “movement of their heart”.
It is not enough to claim that we do not participate in things of which we disapprove, not enough to voice
dissent when it is convenient, not enough to feel righteous indignation at what goes on around us. That is little
more than simple “following the herd”. Its what everyone does, we just differ on what makes us indignant. It is
not just the perpetrators of barbarity that concern me, it is the herd. There would be much less barbarity without
With committed people, we see that they both follow the herd, and are moved by their heart, indeed these two
work together. If we want to make progress, then we too need to listen to our hearts, and let it move us to
action. We have a treasure chest of talent amongst us, but we lack being moved by our hearts. Somehow we
seem to feel that such emotional attachment to ideas is unbecoming, the province of religions and quite
irrational. Like the Torah, we throw away such things not for wise reasons, not because they lack value for us,
but perversely and simply because of their connection with ideas we find irrational.
There are hundreds of thousands of young Jews, waiting for something to touch their heart, but orthodox
religion appears to see the need, whilst we respond with our logic. That leaves them only one choice, religion or
assimilation. Most prefer neither! We are losing a complete generation. What can we do to “touch their
Leviticus 1.1-5.26 Parshat Vayikra and the Haftarah of Isaiah 43.21-44.23
“Vayikra” means “ and he called” from the opening passage “and he called to Moses out of the Tent of the
Meeting (the Tabernacle) saying…”. This is the opening passage of the book of Leviticus, and therefore both
the passage and the book itself are known by the significant opening phrase. “Leviticus” in Hebrew is known
I wonder, given the cacophony of difficult news these last few weeks, whether anyone can be bothered with
Biblical Commentary. This is my last Commentary, hopefully even in these times some will find it appropriate,
perhaps thought provoking. The first Commentary I wrote (a year ago) was “Tsav” which is the second parsha
(passage) of the Book of Leviticus – itself the third of the “Five Books of Moses”. I have now reached the last
of the Commentaries I set myself, as we open with this book that is so concerned with rules.
My aim was to explore the Humanist content of the Torah. If we accept that sacrifice of animals, various other
ritual behaviour and belief in a vast array of gods, were part of all known emerging civilisations in the Early to
Middle Bronze Age, then we should not be surprised to find that this document – the Torah – is full of such
references. It is the only such document to survive those times. It would appear to have been unique even then.
Of course all those Bronze Age practices have disappeared, haven‟t they? Certainly the civilisations have,
Sumerian Babylonian, Egyptian, Amalek, Moabite, Midianite, Phoenician, the list is endless. We struggle to
understand what is left of their languages, let alone know intimate details of their lives.
Yet here we have a complete set of books in a language that still lives, written about 3,000 years ago (Must have
been completely finished by 621 BCE, probably edited from various other documents starting in about 1,000
BCE). The people of this book are the only ones that can be still identified from those times.
It cannot be because of the Bronze Age concepts of Theism and Culture, they all died out, together with the
civilisations that spawned them. It is often claimed, that the survival is due to the one “true” theistic concept of
monotheism. Yet when we examine these books, they are really concerned with how people should behave
towards each other. This is the essence of Humanism. Indeed the Torah is a developing Humanist philosophy
starting in the early Bronze Age and inspiring the concept of Judaism, which is not about any god but about
people. Unlike the successors to Judaism (Christianity and Islam), you cannot “join” by a simple ceremony of
declaring that you believe in god (and Jesus or Mohamed as appropriate). Most Jewish “conversions” require a
probationary period where you learn to behave as a Jew, and when accepted, no-one asks whether you believe in
god (although I guess orthodox Rabbis, will hope that you do). Judaism is mainly about Deed, Christianity and
Islam are mainly about Creed.
This parsha is about deeds of transgression, behaviour for which you might be sorry. Of course in Bronze Age
times you‟d show your remorse by publicly sacrificing an animal, but I will ignore the minutiae of such
sacrifice, and concentrate on the underlying text. This is the concept of being publicly and obviously remorseful
for some previous behaviour. What is most interesting is that such remorse is specified for absolutely everyone,
from the top Ruler (this was before the Israelites had Kings!), through the High Priest down to the lowest
member of society. The more eminent the person, the greater the display of contrition required – a bigger
animal. But to be fair to everyone, even the poorest can join in. “When a Ruler has sinned…(even through
ignorance)…. He shall bring a male goat without blemish…” In the case of someone poor… “a small amount of
flour for his offering…”.
So many centuries later we are overwhelmed by those who wish to retain much of the Bronze Age rituals, whilst
remaining ignorant of the Humanism that really concerned our Ancestors.
If only some of today‟s leaders could show some contrition for past behaviour, even if they meant well at the
time, we might live in a better world. There is no such mechanism today, no-one will admit to any
transgression, we must “unite”, which translates as “everything we do is OK and aren‟t “they” awful!”. Morally
indignant about others, incapable of being contrite about ourselves, leads us to a permanent impasse. (Today
being contrite about yourself can be seen as evidence of mental ill-health, and we use different language – “guilt
Such a tragedy. When Christianity decided that it had no need of knowledge, and burnt all books it found that
did not support its ideology, Civilisation went into the Dark Ages for Centuries. Bronze Age animal sacrifice is
still practiced throughout Islam (which itself was founded long after the Bronze Age), and Christianity still
celebrates the sacrifice of their role model (an Iron Age Jew).
Are we to enter a new Dark Age condemning us to a few more Centuries of suffering, until someone (other than
the Jews?) rescues this phenomenal treasury of humanist ideas that took centuries to develop. I thought that was
what Humanistic Judaism was about, am I wrong?
NOTES for the this Commentary
The Hebrew word for sacrifice “Korban” comes from the root “krv” to bring near. The English translation once
again loses the spirit of the original text. The Korban (literally a “near-offering”) brings you closer to the
people, in front of whom, you have performed this ritual.
Leviticus 6.1-8.36 – Parshat “Tsav”
Tsav means command from the opening statement:
“Command Aaron and his sons…”
This week‟s section of the Torah deals with the public repentance required when transgressing against other
people. In the early Bronze Age when this was written, public repentance was to make a public sacrifice of an
Today, unfortunately, we have a less clear view of making a public repentance, it is rarely done voluntarily, and
there is no simple method, or ritual. Is this one reason why it is so difficult?
Since the destruction of the Temple, animal sacrifice is just one of more than 95% of the injunctions in the
Torah that have been officially abandoned. Not for nothing do we call our system – halacha – to go forward.
Clearly our ancestors were sensible people. When the custom became inappropriate, it was either abandoned or
reinterpreted (we shall see much evidence of this). During the Enlightenment people discovered that god was
not necessary for societies to behave morally, in fact it had little to do with moral behaviour. Today‟s Rabbis
react by abandoning the idea that one should think for oneself, reintroducing the idea of “command” that had to
be obeyed without thinking, the very idea that Judaism overturned at the start of the Iron Age. The Hebrew
name for this portion is “tsav” – command. One of the very rare occasions in the Torah where “commands” are
given, but this did not deter earlier (braver?) Rabbis from abandoning the practice.
Even the basic 10 “commandments” are only “commands” in the English translation. In Hebrew they are called
“dibrot” roughly meaning sayings or utterances. They should be so obvious, who needs to be commanded to
obey? Behaviour should come from what you know to be right – the basis of Judaism.
This Saturday was also the first night of Passover. Food is prepared and the family gather round and celebrate
freedom. The luxury of holding back from immediately eating prepared food put in front of you on the table,
whilst enjoying each other‟s company and celebrating, is a privilege only available to the free and not starving.
Denied to the Slave Labourers in WWII and still today almost half the world's‟ population do not enjoy this
privilege. Our Ancestors started this tradition in Bronze Age times. How can we not be proud? How can we
not make effort to help others achieve this?
Notes for this weeks parshah
Today Jews are very prominent in the world of numbers, but our ancestors had almost zero concepts. Even the
idea of zero was unknown to them. We divide the Torah with Latin names and numbers, but Hebrew uses the
opening phrase to identify each passage. In Hebrew Leviticus is “vayikrah” (and he called) and Chapter 6.1 is
“tsav”. With the Hebrew method one might be less sure of the sequence, but you get a better clue to the text.
The Torah is the five books of Moses copied in handwriting on parchment and made into a scroll. The printed
books which contain the same text are referred to as Chumash (from “chamesh” meaning five). Each week the
scroll is wound forward and a passage read publicly. The literal passage may have been pertinent in the Bronze
Age, but the spirit behind it is pertinent today.
Exodus 13:17-15:26 – Parshat Beshalach
Beshalach means “sent forth” or “let go” from the opening statement:
“When Pharoah let the people go”
Last Saturday was the seventh day of Passover. On each day a portion is read from Exodus relating to the
escape from Egyptian Slavery. The seventh portion is part of “beshalach” which means let go or sent forth
(“when Pharaoh let the people go”). Next week the original sequence returns.
Here it says that god “hardens Pharaoh‟s heart” against the fleeing slaves, so that he reverses his previous
decision to let them go, upon seeing them trapped by the vast desert ahead. This is an interventionist god of
power, similar to most of the pagan thearchies (rule by gods) of the early Bronze Age, all of whom, including
this one, seem to have ceased doing anything obvious since then.
The slaves were leaving the most powerful, most technologically advanced country in their known world. No
structure in Europe would equal the Egyptian Temples in size, let alone grandeur for more than two thousand
years. Then as now, our ability to advance ethically always lags far behind our ability for technical advance.
Our Ancestors responded by designing a plan for Society. Concentrating on the ethics of how to behave, not
what to build. We are perhaps known more for the rules of what to eat than how to behave, conceivably because
much of the world now also aspires to behave in that way. At the time it was very advanced ethically, and
surprisingly most of it is still valid.
In the full flow of Beshalach is also the passage in which our Ancestors, having escaped the fury of Pharaoh,
become a poor people surrounded by desert with only those possessions with which they could flee. They have
no previous experience of being independent, no army and few weapons. Yet they are attacked by the
Amalekites, opportunistically exploiting their weakness. Probably every Jew has attended at least one
traditional Seder night, where they have said, “remember what Amalek did to you!” If there really were a
people called Amalek, then we do not remember much about them. We don‟t know what language they spoke,
what made them laugh or cry, how they married, or buried their dead. This is also true of almost all the people
mentioned in the Torah, and many of them certainly did exist, we can visit the remains of their cities today.
They have descendants, but the “peoples”, their language, culture and moral systems, have become extinct. Not
so the Jews, for many reasons, two of which come from this weeks portion, which we shall discuss more fully in
In the meantime we can reflect on the fact that the world is still full of Amalekites, people who wield power and
think they are important. We‟ve all met such people. Maybe they cause others distress, simply because that
enhances their feeling of power. They can only hope that once they are gone they will be forgotten. If they are
remembered, it will only be as Amalekites, people of whom we know nothing other than they weren‟t very
agreeable human beings.
Of all the once great peoples of antiquity, none but the Jews remain from those mentioned in the Torah. The
Jews not only survived but consistently make a positive and often outstanding contribution, out of all proportion
to their small numbers.
Our heritage has contributed to what we are. The challenge is to continue pioneering the process of behaviour
between people (Halacha which means “to go forward”!), developing the heritage so that it can continue to keep
us, leaving the Amalekites of today to the fate assigned by history.
Notes for this weeks parshah
This week of my commentaries is part of 54 parshot or portions. You may ask, but surely there are only 52
weeks in the year? Well that would leave a day and a few more hours at the end of each full year. In Ancient
times all months were measured by the Moon, as it waxed and waned, regularly. Neither counting days nor
Moon cycles gives an accurate year, and all calendar systems introduce a Leap year concept. Our current
Western calendar was only adopted a couple of centuries ago, quite recent really. In the old Jewish Lunar
calendar the Leap Year had a short thirteenth month giving 54 weeks, and in no Leap years there are 50 weeks,
during which some parshot are doubled up. This is also the reason why all the festivals come around the same
time of year, but never quite consistently match the same date in the Julian calendar. Both calendars are
arbitrary, neither measure a true solar year, even modern Leap years, get out of synchronisation with the solar
cycle (although much less than a Lunar calendar).
Exodus 18:1-20:23 – Parshat Yitro
Yitro is the Hebrew for Jethro from the opening statement:
“When Jethro the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard…)
“Yitro” is the Hebrew name for the Midianite Jethro, father-in-law of Moses. Didn‟t seem to be much of a
problem about who is a Jew then. Obviously the halachic tradition of matrilineal descent did not apply at the
time of Moses (at least not to his wife, and potential children). It‟s a more recent custom, which avoids
Today we hear of people blaming some previous trauma – I turned to drugs because my partner/parent beat me,
I am a criminal because… Yet the people who survived the greatest trauma of recorded human history – the
Holocaust, have all become honourable, law abiding, and in many cases, eminent citizens. Quietly getting on
with their lives, they entered Universities and became Professors, Doctors and Writers. Many went to the
nascent Israel and entirely surrounded by extremely hostile despotic dictatorships, they created a liberal
democracy where there is Rule of Law. Not one Holocaust survivor claims mitigation for bad behaviour
because they suffered in the Holocaust. This taking responsibility for your own behaviour, under all
circumstances, is aptly demonstrated with the unique Israeli law applying to Soldiers. Only in Israel is it
possible to be court martialled for obeying an order if it contravenes natural justice. Mind you they can still get
court martialled for disobeying an order, so that really illustrates the difficulty of being responsible for yourself.
The rest of the world holds Israel to standards of behaviour, they themselves often do not even attempt to reach.
This Jewish Heritage must be really powerful stuff. Does the text of “Yitro” give us a clue?
The 10 “sayings” (I‟m sticking with the original Hebrew meaning and avoiding “commandments”) are basically
a set of “do‟s” and “don‟ts” with some unique properties. All decent lawyers will say that good law is precise
law. These are very precise, do this, don‟t do that. No equivocation, “well it all depends…”. They apply to
everyone without consideration or exception, for class, ethnicity, or gender. They recognise that each of us can
expect certain things from Society, in this case one day of rest in every seven. To completely emphasise the
point it is precisely explained that this applies to you, your family, your servants, strangers within your midst
and even your cattle. Most of this (you can see that not all of it, even today, is applied) is so obvious as to be
unnecessary to be commanded so to do.
Is this the case with “No other gods before me” or “No graven images”? Much of the world we recognise today,
we do not understand. Time itself is one such mystery. How much more so in the Bronze Age, when every
unexpected or unexplained occurrence required a rational explanation - the will of Zeus (Jupiter, Horeb,
Mithras, Wotan….Yahweh), the common clarification for everything that could not be explained. The escape
from Egypt mentions a number of divine miracles. However when it comes to the adoption of the 10 sayings
directly from god, this god is suddenly nowhere to be seen. Thunder, lightning, flaming bushes, nothing that has
not since been explained with an ordinary, everyday exegesis. We may also ask ourselves, how come god has
not shown himself since the 10 plagues to this day. This god is carefully described in “Yitro” as only in their
hearts and minds, never actually seen nor heard. Deists may claim that it is some external force which causes
them to feel that way. I don‟t feel that way, and after 3,000 years of intense (and sometimes desperate)
searching for evidence of a god, I can only conclude that my Ancestors were right, I am dependent upon what is
in my heart and mind and yours. That really is awe inspiring. I can‟t pass the buck, it‟s up to you and me. So
when it says “No gods before me” that‟s you and me, people come first, before anything else. The second
saying clarifies totally, no worship of statures or artefacts, anything above or below ground, on the ground, in
water or land itself, just you and me. Anyone that can truly claim to live by that principle has achieved the
ultimate in Humanism, a principle first established about 3,000 years ago. Maybe it has taken most of that time
to realise what they were saying. Maybe even for them, surrounded by a mysterious world teeming with deities,
it was difficult for them to appreciate the full impact of their own wisdom. Who knows what people 100 years
from now will make of us? Will they laugh at how backward our principles were? We cannot laugh at our own
heritage, judging by the standards of today. We can only aspire to their insights and inspiration.
Leviticus 9:1-11:47 – Parshat Shemini
Shemini meaning eighth is the Hebrew name of the passage from the opening statement:
“And it came to pass on the eighth day…”
Our Ancestors lived in the hills of Galilee, Judea and Samaria as pastoral people, with herds that grazed. They
neatly defined their animals with two features, they chew the cud and have two toes. (“Tlafayim” is an
example of many Hebrew words that end the same as Shtayim - meaning two. All of these words signify pairs,
eynayim for eyes, michnasyim for trousers etc. and comes from the root “tlf” for hoof). To their East was the
desert where the Camel was dominant, it also chews the cud, but has more than two toes. To the West on the
coastal plain, it was mainly urbanised (Acre, Jaffa, Ashkelon) even in the early Bronze Age. The coastal urban
diet would consist of sea food, and perhaps animals that could live on the swill of towns, such as pigs
(“tlafayim” but don‟t chew the cud). So as part of their identification the Jews declare what is in any case a fact,
each of these groups has a different diet. No major effort involved.
They list the mammals by name fairly accurately, but the birds less so, and many of the prescribed birds we
would not eat today in any case (swan, eagle). Their knowledge of the sea is even more limited, and so they
permit anything with scales, without naming species. Insects are also proscribed, but not locusts.
Logically, we must assume that this was written by people already living in those hills, and not in the desert of
Most Rabbinical commentaries relate to the mythical incident where the sons of Aaron die because they got the
ritual wrong, and they don‟t know what to make of it. Somehow food remains the dominant Jewish theme, as a
social issue, and is the dominant theme of this parshah. We are not known for gourmet cooking, or for being
excessive with alcohol.
These rules, very easily followed in those times, seem to have a twofold purpose, both concerning identity.
They allow for some separation and for some special consideration. If you cannot eat with other people you
have difficulty in socialising with them, and if you have some means of reminding yourself of your own
identity, each time you eat, then both of these become a powerful cultural pattern, which at that time was very
easy to adopt.
Nowadays the ritual of kosher standards defeats the original objectives. Scrupulously observant families, proud
to marry their daughters to an observant son-in-law, suddenly introduce tension as the new couple refuse to eat
with their parents, claiming insufficient kosher standards. It has become an obsession that separates one
observant Jew from another, let alone secular from observant.
In the world at large two out of five people are fortunate if they eat one meagre meal each day. One out of five
are surrounded by such abundance of food that the major clinical problem amongst them is obesity.
Jewish numbers world wide are declining, and obsession with the kashrut of food, is a significant factor in
deterring many from keeping their identity. The opposite of ostentatiously abandoning all such rules is also a
factor in lessening our ties to each other and the value systems. Both seem to diminish our humanity. Is there
Leviticus 12:1-13:59, and 14-15 (a double portion) – Parshot Tazriah and Metzorah
Tazriah means conceived from the opening statement:
“And if a women has conceived and born a child”
Metzorah means Leper from the opening statement:
“This is the law of the Leper”
Tazriah in the opening section is about the rights and obligations of women after childbirth. There is a
specification of abstaining from sex for a period. This might not be much in the way of women‟s rights by
today‟s standards, but the very idea of such rights for women is still absent in much of the world around us.
This is only the opening section.
Most of this weeks portion is explicitly and gruesomely about “Tsora‟at” (leprosy). Essentially this has over
120 paragraphs describing diagnosis and treatment. Fortunately no-one, not even the super ultra orthodox take
this passage literally. This is not a question of abandoning some practice such as Temple sacrifice, explaining
away by sophistry. This, according to Rabbinic “wisdom”, does not mean what it says.
We know that leprosy was a major problem at the time, highly contagious, extremely disabling and disfiguring,
with no known remedy. Here we have lengthy diagnostic descriptions – “..in the place of the boil there be a
white rising…and somewhat reddish… and the hair within the spot turned white…”. The diagnosis is rather
good for the time, trying to distinguish contagious leprosy from non contagious skin conditions. Treatment
consists mainly of banishment of the person, temporarily until the diagnosis can be confirmed. Finally there is
total banishment and burning of clothing.
The stories of Jesus also talk of Leprosy and curing by spells and magic, which we know to be the standard
“cure” amongst the surrounding pagans. The Jews did not attempt such “cures”, and the role of the Priest had
more similarity to a quarantine or Public Health Officer than faith healer.
There seems no reason to doubt that these biblical passages were a sincere attempt to deal with a serious
Rabbinical wisdom explains that Tsora‟at is not really about skin diseases but concerns “Lashon Hara”, literally
a bad tongue. This is the Hebrew for slander and libel. Bad mouthing is considered a very serious
transgression, and this passage is explained as an allegory, warning what may happen to you, if you do speak
wrongly about someone. You will suffer some physical illness as punishment. Medically we would call this a
Psychosomatic response to knowing that you‟ve done something wrong.
So Rabbis of old, upon realising that this passage must either be edited out, as medically it had become useless,
or treating it as allegory, they chose the latter path.
In Jerusalem today, Lashon Hara appears to be a favourite pastime of the ultra Orthodox. The walls of their
areas are covered with the graffiti of two simplistic themes. Anything good (which typically means anything
said by their own Rabbi) will bring closer the coming of the Messiah. Anything bad is “Hitler”, often some
competing Rabbi. Occasionally, when they are aware of the world around them, some politician is so criticised.
That was one of the antecedents of the murder of a Prime Minister.
Lashon Hara could become one of our clarion calls in Humanistic Judaism, firm evidence that even the most
orthodox realise that the Bible is meaningless unless treated as allegory. Once that is allowed, the consistent
trend towards objectives of non-theistic humanist values shines through. With Lashon Hara conceding to an
allegorical approach, the Torah becomes an inspiration for wisdom, not a spade with which to cultivate
Notes for this weeks parshah
We have spoken of the Torah, as the first five books, but a Bible (Christianity refers to this as the Old
Testament) contains other texts. These include “Nevi‟im” (Prophets), and various other pieces known as
“Ketuvim” (Writings). Ketuvim includes some of the well known texts including Psalms, Proverbs, Song of
Songs and Ecclesiastes. In Hebrew the whole book is known by the acronym Tanakh (Torah, Nevi‟im,
Leviticus 16.1-18.3 and 19.1-20.3 a double portion – Parshat Aharei Mot and
Aharei mot means after the death from the opening statement:
“…afer the death of the tow sons of Aaron…”
Kedoshim means be holy from the opening statement:
“speak to the congregation and say “you shall be holy””
Much of this week‟s double parshah is about sexual intimacy, with whom you can and cannot have such
relationships, who you should respect, and who you should avoid. They were clearly not limited to monogamy
in Bronze Age times, but Rabbis have since assumed this to be the norm (Theoretically polygamy is still
halachically possible, but not in practice – further proof that the halacha is not set in concrete). Incest has long
been taboo amongst most human societies, but here there are further definitions of adultery and other
Whilst all manner of relationships are proscribed here, a few are more strongly condemned as an abomination,
and these include some specific same sex association between males, and anything with animals.
Women in religion tend to be relegated to a different and less significant role from the Men. Remarkable that
religions separate the genders socially, reducing the opportunity for heterosexual activity, but increasing it for
homosexual activity. Whether it is the Yeshiva (seminary for Jewish study), the monastery, priesthood or the
more comprehensive separation of the sexes within Islam, the opportunity for relationships is in conflict with
what they abhor. Misogyny and homophobia just seem to be surprising bedfellows. Still, gender separation
does not have an adverse effect on fertility.
Then, as now, hormones rather than holiness is the significant factor. The emphasis in this parshah is on some
ground rules for “purity” of behaviour. Given what we know of hormones, society still needs such rules, and in
the main with some modification and updating in the details, these principles still apply.
There is also reference to strangers. This occurs frequently within the Torah and always the message is the
same. Treat strangers well. This text says “and if a stranger lives amongst you, don‟t vex him, but treat him as
though he had been born amongst you, and love him as you love your own kind. For you yourselves were
strangers in Egypt”. Frequent reference is made to the Egyptian Slave story to enforce this message in different
ways. This is very noble stuff. Consider how difficult to apply to the circumstances in Israel.
The first Torah reference on this issue is of course the well known instruction to “love your neighbour as
yourself”. Over the centuries, writers who are keen to justify their ethnocentrism (again a surprising component
of much religion), have sought to distinguish the Hebrew word in the original 10 sayings “re‟aicha” (translated
into English as neighbour) as really meaning someone with whom you are closely acquainted. “Re‟aicha” for
them means another Jew. It is true that neighbour is usually rendered in modern Hebrew as “shachen”. In this
week‟s parshah (and other‟s) the word “ger” is translated as stranger, although it is more often used nowadays to
signify a convert. Nevertheless the meaning of the sentence could not be clearer, “for you were strangers in
Egypt”, which clarifies what is meant by the word “ger” whatever the more modern usage might be. There are
many other examples such as Exodus 23-9, “you understand the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers
yourself in Egypt”. Deuteronomy 24-22, where there is an interesting instruction (often repeated elsewhere) to
never entirely harvest a field or vineyard, always leaving something for the passing stranger, the widow, the
disadvantaged to glean, because “you remember what it was to be a slave in Egypt”. This provides an added
depth to the issue of charity. Today it is common to see many acts of charity used as a personal advertisement
for the donor, that the world may admire their virtue. The Torah references to charity describe a procedure
where both parties remain anonymous and unknown to each other, all retaining their dignity, and avoiding the
sycophancy that often appears the raison d‟être for giving in the first place.
Notes for this weeks parshah
The two contentious words I have discussed are re‟aicha, and ger (the last one from this weeks parshah). In
Hebrew emphasis is on the second syllable, and the words are pronounced “re-air-cha” and “gair”. The first
from the well known phrase “ve‟ahavta et re‟aicha” (love your neighbour).
Leviticus 21-24 – Parshat Emor
Emor meaning “speak” or “tell” from the opening statement:
“Tell the priests and sons of Aaron…”
This week‟s parshah contains the famous phrase “an eye for an eye”. We could rename this passage “measure
for measure”, as the spirit is to ensure that the punishment not just fits the crime, but where appropriate the
perpetrator compensates the victim in equal measure. Thus if you cause the death of an animal belonging to
someone else, you must replace the animal. This is an admirable but problematic principle, which conceptually
cannot be applied to many crimes. With sexual offences, for all sorts of reasons, we cannot do to the perpetrator
what they did to their victim. If someone is mutilated, do we similarly mutilate the perpetrator? – that is what
eye for eye literally means, and is what the Torah prescribes. “If you cause a disability in your colleague, the
same shall be done to you”. What do we do with a multiple murderer, given that the maximum we can do is kill
them once, does the punishment fit the crime, if so in what way?
In some places of the world, mutilation of criminals (amputating limbs for instance) is practised even where the
crime was petty thieving. In others being caught three times, results in loss of liberty for the rest of their life,
irrespective of the magnitude of the offence. The principle of measure for measure clearly does not, nor cannot,
These are issues we agonise over even today, wondering how to balance our confused objectives. Punishment,
revenge, retribution, compensation and deterrence are all considerations, and ideally we would also like to reach
a situation in which crime itself is lessened within society.
Capital punishment, where society kills people officially, may meet some of the criteria, but does not lead to a
reduction in crime. The lowest rates of murder tend to be in countries where there is no capital punishment.
Whatever is happening in those countries to keep down the murder rate, it is not dependent on the deterrent
factor. The relationship between crime and punishment is very complex. In this parshah we see an attempt to
deal with a problem that still remains a serious issue to this day. Then they tried to be advanced, avoiding blood
feuds between clans. Unfortunately there are many parts of the world where a wrong is deemed to be put right
only when the clan inflict greater punishment on the opposing clan. This results in a cycle of violence that can
continue for decades. Being ruled by such feelings leads to a breakdown of Rule of Law. All the more reason
for us to take these concepts seriously and continue the pioneering but as yet unfinished work of our heritage.
The “eye for eye” concept is often thrown at Jews, accusing us of being a vengeful and vicious people,
contrasting with Jesus encouraging us to “turn the other cheek”. 25 Centuries after some Jew wrote the words
“eye for eye” Shakespeare wrote in Merchant of Venice the infamous “pound of flesh” speech of Shylock. Even
Shakespeare recognised the inequity of this view. He exposed the notion that because Shylock was a Jew, he is
required to show a leniency that he cannot anticipate in return. The play is often staged concentrating on the
speech of Portia “the quality of mercy is not strained..” giving it prominence over Shylocks‟s appeal to be
treated as a normal person - “if you prick us do we not bleed?”. A further five centuries on and we are still
branded with the double “whammy” of a harsh people, of whom the world expects standards of behaviour that
they do not apply to themselves.
Perhaps the overriding philosophy of the parshah can be best summarised with the quote, “the stranger should
be as a citizen of your own country, with the same law applied”. (The word “ger” for stranger – appears again
this week). As with many of these concepts, thirty centuries later, the world still struggles to live up to the ideal
of law applied equally. Humanistic Judaism has an indispensable role in the survival of these concepts, for
ourselves, the future of Jews and Judaism, and for the world, which still depends on such systems being carried
forward. Can we rely on anyone else?
Leviticus 25.1-26.2 and 26.3-27.34 Parshot BeHar and Bechukotai
Behar meaning “on the mountain” from the opening statement:
“And god spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai”
Bechukotai meaning “according to my Law” from the opening statement:
“And if you act according to my Law”
The major new “law” introduced here concerns the requirements of an ancient agricultural society. As
communities settled and cultivated crops they discovered that the yield from the land would decline year by
year. For some 3-4,000 years of such primitive agricultural practice the solution was to leave land fallow giving
it time to regain fertility. By the early Middle Ages it was discovered that if different crops were rotated in a
three year cycle, the land remained fertile, as one crop replenished what the previous crop had exhausted.
Today we overcome the problem with the application of fertiliser and weed killer, enabling vast tracts of land to
be returned to mono-culture. By the time of discovery of rotation of crops, the Jews had ceased to work the land
for over 1,000 years, having been dispersed by the Romans. They became an essentially urban people, often
dispossessed and moved on. The only possession that could not be taken from them, was the knowledge in their
For 2,000 years a law that “Israeli land” should be left fallow every seven years, wasn‟t significant. Hopefully
in Biblical times harvests in the sixth year were particularly good – at least that is what is promised here,
although growing the same crop six years running without benefit of fertiliser and weed killers, probably meant
a rather poor yield.
If these laws are obeyed, then all sorts of good things are promised, “five of you will chase 100 enemies, and
100 will chase 10,000”. If they are disobeyed, , “you will perish amongst the heathen, and the land of your
enemies will eat you up”.
Nowadays no-one takes this seriously from an agricultural perspective. Religious people still feel obliged to
recognise that the land belongs to their god, and just like god, should rest on it‟s seventh cycle. In reality this is
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate overcome their problem in the Sabbath Year, by solemnly and publicly “selling” the
agricultural Land of Israel to an Arab. They know they haven‟t really sold it, just as the Arab knows he hasn‟t
really bought anything, and one assumes that none of them think that god has been misled by this ritual. The
super ultra Orthodox in a Sabbath Year, simply don‟t buy anything of Israeli origin, making sure that their food
is imported from Arab countries.
This is one of a number of absurdities instigated by a Rabbinate that has been remote from agriculture for two
millennia. Elsewhere in the Torah there is an injunction that cows must be milked every day – including
Shabbat. In order to make sure that this is done to relieve the cow of distress, and not for human profit (that
would be working on Shabbat), the cow must be milked onto the floor. In the few religious dairy farms in
Israel, on Friday evening an hygienic floor tile is placed in the refrigeration tank. That way the milk “falls onto
the floor”. Of course the real spirit behind the “law”, is to benefit the cow and not the human, so they go one
stage further and place a yellow die in the tank which prevents it being sold as milk, although this does not
prevent it being made into cheese!
Society engages in many meaningful rituals designed to confirm to ourselves and others how we feel. We salute
the flag, sing the National Anthem, share joy at weddings and grief at funerals. Sabbath Year is representative
of a number of vacuous rituals, dissociated from their agricultural origins, in this case encouraging the deceit
and pretence that land can continue to be cultivated, because it is “not ours” for that year. This is a travesty, an
abandonment of the principles of halacha and elevates cheating to a holy ritual. Sabbath year was once a
sensible agricultural practice (now superfluous), this is hollow pagan ritual. As Hillel said two thousand years
ago in his (all too) succinct summary of the halacha “do not do to others what is hateful to you”. The Rabbinate
in modern times have misunderstood; their predecessors moved forward, now only Secular Jews appear to have
the wisdom., we know - what they ignore – people are judged by how they behave, not in what they believe, that
always was and remains the essence of Judaism.
Notes for this weeks parshah
The word Chok (Ch pronounced like a hard “H”) means law, and Bechukotai is one example where a simple set
of prefixes and suffixes in Hebrew, convert one word into a complete phrase. The prefix “be” (pronounced beh)
is often translated in its simplest meaning - “in”. This phrase also has the genitive suffix, meaning “mine”.
These two parshot (that‟s the plural of the word parshah) conclude the book of “Vayikrah” (Leviticus), and next
week we start BaMidbar (Numbers).
Numbers 1.1-4.2 Parshot BaMidbar and Hosea 2.1-2.22
BaMidbarr meaning “in the desert” from the opening statement:
“And god spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai”
Hosea is a Prophet from time of King Hezekiah, written after the fall of the Northern
Kingdom, which ultimately led to the loss of the “10 Tribes”.”
The last Century will be primarily remembered for two World Wars. The second was just over fifty years ago.
There are still people alive who were involved, yet from the end of the War until today we still argue about the
precise details. Some of them are quite important, otherwise what will we learn from this ghastly behaviour?
Knowing who commanded each and every unit holds no particular appeal. These opening passages of
BaMidbar are just such a list of names from each tribe, as they were organising themselves into an army.
Maybe the only piece of genuine modern interest is the fact that the Levites (hereditary priests) were excused
military duty, as are all Yeshiva students in the Israel of today, most of whom are granted permanent exemption.
Last year Hollywood produced a film where brave young Americans captured the secret Enigma machine of the
German Navy in World War II. Their tongue was firmly in their cheek, as the film makers knew that the Enigma
was captured and the code cracked more than two years before America entered the War – mainly by the
British. Maybe in 50-100 years time, the Hollywood film will become the reality, and the surviving (and
contrary) documentation will be passed off as the confusion of War.
If we cannot be sure of the events of 50 years ago, how much less can we know of what happened 50 times 50
years ago? It isn‟t the detail, not the minutiae, but the ideas that remain important. Ideas can have more power
than the greatest armies. Soon after World War II, India achieved independence from the British, with little
violence. More recently the Army of the Shah of Iran ceded power to the followers of Khomeini with hardly a
shot being fired.
Hosea writes about 700 years after the wandering in the desert. He appeals for a return to a society of values
based on ideas. He is one of a number (including Amos Isaiah and Jeremiah) who turn defeat (of the Northern
Kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians) into Victory, through seizing the hearts and minds of the people to
mobilise them into making dramatic changes in culture and attitudes.
He himself was married to a wife who turned to whoring. He makes the analogy as though we are married to
the people to whom we belong. If the people turn to whoring, as with his wife, it does not mean that we stop
loving them, but we also want them to improve.
Hosea is also something of an early pantheist, this being a stepping stone from the anthropomorphic Bronze Age
deities to a Secular Society with moral values. “…and I will make a covenant with the beasts of the field… and
abolish the sword…. (2.18). “Green” politics aren‟t so new! He also paved the way for abandoning sacrifice of
animals and thus dependence on a priesthood (mercy not sacrifice … knowledge more than burnt offerings ...)
The Priests regained their hold some centuries later with the Second Temple, reintroducing the importance of
sacrifice and other rituals over personal and communal behaviour. Today‟s religious leaders are the inheritors
of the Priestly approach, and no-one seems keen to take the mantle of the Prophets.
Hosea comments on the futility of power with out moral values. We may wonder where are the great ideas
between the participants in the Middle East. Clearly the religious values on either side merely fuel the flames of
War, rather than point to a “Peace of the Brave” (a phrase both sides seem to like, but would appear to have no
meaning). Our technological advance since the time of Hosea is almost beyond belief, but in leadership, values,
in our hearts and minds, we may not even be the equal of such thinkers. We have the capability, but lack the
will. Too many of us don‟t feel we are married to the people, an idea with which Hosea succeeded. Even if we
feel that we don‟t need the people, they certainly need us (as Hosea‟s wife possibly needed him!) , and that‟s a
view we tend to ignore!
Notes for this weeks parshah
This week we start a new “book”, the fourth of the five books of Moses that comprise the Torah. The Tanakh
(the Old Testament), has a number of additional writings, and the tradition is to read a specific passage from
these each week as well. These passages are called “Haftarah”, which some jokingly refer to as “half-Torah”.
(Actually the Torah is about one quarter of the Old Testament of the Bible). Haftarah comes from the root ptr
(ending, dismissal) and is best translated here as concluding portion. I will therefore, where appropriate from
now on, include commentary on the Haftarah portion as well. The Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions differ
slightly in their linking of Torah and other portions, but I will use what seems to be the most common.
Numbers 4.21-7.78 Parshat Naso and Judges 13.2-13.25
Naso meaning carry or take up from the opening phrase “Take the sons of Kehat” and the
Haftarah of Judges, none of whom are really Judges but all of whom are low born heroes
chosen by the people on their merit to lead in times of need.
We are concerned with two themes this week, Jealousy and Democracy. In “Naso” there is much discussion
over who will carry the Tabernacle and how. These rituals have of course been completely redundant since the
dawn of history, as it is only with the time of the Judges that we enter any period with which we can really
identify and connect it to history and archaeology. This was the period from the start of settlement in Canaan to
the rise of Kings. Nevertheless the previous Torah period provides much of the folklore and basis for morality.
Here the question of adultery (for man or woman) is discussed. The problem often arises because one partner
suspects the other but has no proof. We need to ask whether the distress is caused by the suspicion, or by the
fear that it is publicly known. It is often the complaint that the betrayed party is the last to find out. Here a
ritual to establish “truth” is based on drinking water that will become bitter and your “thighs will drop” if you lie
(no I don‟t understand it either!), so this will almost certainly exonerate you, and hopefully alleviate the distress
of your jealous partner. Whatever you do, you are unlikely to display the symptoms of guilt. The only problem
is that the ritual appears to contradict itself from one paragraph to the next. As far as I can tell this is the only
instance of “Trial by Ordeal” anywhere in the Tanakh. Although many peoples have used Trial by Ordeal up to
a couple of centuries ago (immerse the witch in the river, if she drowns she‟s innocent, but if she survives, burn
her as a witch) no such practice appears to have been used by the Jews.
In the two or more Centuries of the Judges there were no rulers, neither secular nor religious. In times of need,
such as external threat they would elect a leader. This was no Theocracy, and much closer to Democracy than
we are today, where we are not exactly ruled by a majority, but by leaders chosen by the majority.
The hero discussed in this section of Judges is Samson, telling an exaggerated story of his birth. Samson in
Hebrew is Shimshon from the word for sun – Shemesh. In some obscure way he was dedicated to spirituality.
Did he have some sort of sun worship and wear his hair long in emulation of the sun‟s rays? He is described as
a “nazir” which today would mean a monk, he may have been spiritual or ascetic but was not celibate. He had a
relationship with at least three “foreign” women, getting into a fracas on each occasion. One was a prostitute
whom he married, and the last Delilah, who captured him and handed him over to the Philistines, who were
becoming an increasing threat.
Other such heroes include the prophetess Dvorah, who “dwelt under the palm tree”, Jefta the son of a prostitute,
and Gideon a poor and lonely man who “threshed wheat by the wine press”. These and others were all low
born, people, chosen on merit when needed. Gideon was so successful that he was the first to be offered an
hereditary kingship. He refused because the people “should be ruled by the law”. A good thing too, as is often
the case his son would have been totally unsuitable, murdering a large number of his half brothers and sisters to
ensure his inheritance.
These were not theocratic times. People were ruled by their conscience, there were no overall rulers. Today we
distinguish democracy from theocracy on the basis of the rulers, were they chosen by the majority, or do they
impose themselves on the basis of representing religion or god? Even when the majority choose, the
consequences can be dire. Hitler was so chosen. In this period of Judges, there were infrequent ad hoc leaders
chosen on merit. At other times they depended on each other implicitly accepting a set of shared values that
governed their behaviour towards each other.
Nowadays we exercise a choice every few years, of who should rule. Always the choice is very limited, and
often we choose the lesser of two evils. We then harass the leaders on personal transgressions. All the “Judges”
were low born, on the fringe of society, often with quite delinquent behaviour. They were suited to their
leadership. General Moshe Dayan (famous for his eye patch and the 6 Day War) had a reputation for
philandering. He asked the press whether the elections were for a seat in the Knesset or a prize for Husband of
All this is symptomatic of a society without too much agreement on basic shared values. We are concerned at
the breakdown in personal relationships and the consequent cost to the children and society. Yet having chosen
a leader we spend vast amounts of energy trying to find them guilty of some personal transgression. In ancient
times they appear more concerned with the distress than the guilt. More concerned with the sharing of basic
values. They were truly democratic for a few centuries. Any subsequent monarchy or theocracy was
persistently criticised as being against the rules. They seemed to know their priorities. What is the basis for
the rules that are being marketed to us today as Rabbinical Judaism, surely not these texts. How come we find
our Democracy so superior to what went before.
Numbers 8.1-12.16 Parshat Beha’alotcha and the Haftara of the Prophet Zechariah
Beha’alotcha means “when you light” from the opening passage when Aaron was told to
light the lamps. The Haftara is Zecharia, one of the minor Prophets, where the word minor
does not refer to status, minor Prophets are shorter in the length of the text.
There is a part of this week‟s parsha which is rarely taught. Moses‟ older brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam
speak against him “because he had married a Cushite”. “Cush” is the biblical word for Africa. The woman‟s
name is not given, and we know that Moses is already married to Zipporah from Midian. We therefore don‟t
know whether this is a second wife or refers to Zipporah. Either way the text makes clear that they object to
Moses having an ethnically different and darker wife. This however is not the real reason for their complaint.
They ask whether god speaks only to Moses or to them as well. They want to establish their authority.
The answer they are given is that god speaks only to Moses directly “mouth to mouth and not in riddles”,
whereas “if there is a prophet amongst you, I will make myself known in a dream or vision”.
There is more than one paradox here. The Torah, both the written text and the oral explanations of the text,
according to Orthodox tradition were given by god to Moses, who then gave it to the people. So we only have
the word of Moses that he alone speaks to god directly, and everyone else will only receive visions. Moses is
hardly an independent witness to this information. Zecharia has many such visions, writing after the fall of the
first Temple about 500 BC, he dreams of rebuilding.
If my Doctor overhears me talking about hearing voices, he is likely to scribble in my medical notes
“schizophrenia?”, as this is the first symptom that practitioners note. On the other hand if the voice I hear is
god, then I become especially blessed. Of course if the voice, god‟s or otherwise, tells me to inflict violence on
people, then I am back to the schizophrenia diagnosis. The rule seems to be that hearing god‟s voice allows me
to function normally in society, whereas any other voice could cause me distress, and might require treatment.
Miriam is punished for even questioning the status of Moses, by being turned white through leprosy for a week.
Notice the “white” as an appropriate response to her accusing Moses wife of being “Cushit” (in modern Hebrew
this means – well I am not sure what the current PC term is – African?).-
Thus even in this really ancient text, we see the first movement towards an understanding of god that is
acceptable to all, even by the standards of today. Basically everyone can co-operate and coexist, atheists,
theists, agnostics and any other appropriate label, as long as god is non-interventionist in human affairs.
Attitude towards god becomes a private concern. There is no relevance to how we behave towards each other.
Problems arise when someone claims to understand the mind of god, and demands that we follow guidelines
according to their understanding. Here in black and white, written millennia ago, no-one talks to god “mouth to
mouth” since Moses. That makes sense to me, and given that others believe this to be the word of god, should
make sense to them. The Torah can form the basis for those with or without god, to live in harmony. Belief
need not divide us one from another, nor these ancient texts, they can form the basis for harmonious
coexistence, a goal the majority would welcome.
Yet going the rounds of Religious-Zionist households around the world is a video tape of a Hebrew lecture by
Amnon Yitschak. He‟s a populist Rabbi dressed in an Arab Jabaliya. A quotation from the tape: “Four hours
passed from the announcement by the previous Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for a Secular Revolution (he
had suggested disbanding the Ministry of Religious Affairs) and the announcement by Yasser Arafat on the Al
Aqsa Intifada. The holy one blessed be he, lost patience with the Jewish people abandoning his commandments
and sends Arafat to punish us”. Rav Yitschak makes clear what he means by keeping commandments when he
says that if we all put on Tefillin the Arabs will then be scared, and god will rescue us from our problems.
Aside from the absurdity of his ideas, how does he claim to know the mind of god? After three millennia of
deeply thinking about these issues, we turn full circle back to Bronze Age concepts? There are vast numbers of
Jews, and probably even more non-Jews, waiting for people such as us to reclaim the Torah. To continue with
the extraordinary progress towards a society where we each take responsibility for our behaviour,.
Notes for this weeks parshah
Cush, the biblical word for Africa, is translated in the Septuagint (the 3rd century BC Greek translation of the
Torah) as Ethiopia. The word Cush also appears much earlier in about 18th century BC Egyptian writings and
refers to an area we now call Nubia. In modern Hebrew the word “cushi” means Negro.
Tefillin known in English by the Greek word phylacteries (which means amulet), is a pair of tiny boxes
containing text from the scriptures and attached to leather straps. Orthodox Jews place one on their forehead
and one on their arm, each morning when they pray, except on Shabbat and Holy Days.
The ritual stems from four (similar) passages in the Torah to “put these words for a sign on your hand and a
memorial between your eyes” Exodus 13.9. (see also Exodus 11 and Deuteronomy 6 and 11).
This was probably intended figuratively in the manner of the Song of Songs “Set a seal upon your heart and
The idea of actually wearing such signs is not specified in the Torah as a ritual, in contrast to many other very
detailed (but mostly redundant) rituals. The tradition comes from the Oral Law. It is without doubt very
ancient. Tefillin were found with the Dead Sea scrolls in the caves of Qumran, so the tradition pre-dates
Rabbinical Judaism, the rule of Rome and possibly the Second Temple.
One can understand that some people derive personal comfort and spirituality from a private ritual every
morning, which has also been carried out for millennia. One cannot understand how reading this text leads such
a person to believe that we are divinely punished en mass for not doing it. That is a truly primitive pre Moses
(and therefore pre-Judaism) view of god.
Numbers 13.1-15.41 Parshat Shelach and the Haftara of Joshua 2.1-2.24
The name of this week’s parsha is “Shelach” meaning send, from part of the opening
paragraph “Send men to search the land of Canaan”. Joshua is the successor of Moses, a
military leader, who according to legend conquered the “promised land” of Canaan.
In this weeks parsha, the Hebrews, wandering in the Sinai desert, have been promised the land of Canaan, and
send one from each tribe to spy out the land. They return after 40 days with a number of items, including
famously a very large bunch of grapes, and report that the land is “flowing with milk and honey”. They also
report that it is peopled with giants.
The number 40 appears often; 40 years in the desert, in Noah‟s building of the ark, like some primitive counting
system that goes twenty, thirty, plenty.
In the Joshua extract, they are in the town of Jericho, where the spies are almost discovered, but hidden by a
harlot, whom they promise to save, when they come back to conquer.
The subsequent conquest is completely out of character for these people. What is described in later passages of
Joshua is an act of genocide. It is immortalised in the song of African Americans “Joshua fit (fought) the battle
of Jericho – and the walls came tumbling down”.
The secular evidence conflicts with this bravado story.
Both Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources talk of a people called the Habiru. These sources are around 4,000
years old. There appear to be a number of such groups, sharing some common culture and similar language.
They were present throughout Canaan and the surrounding area. The town we call Nablus, but over there is still
called Shchem as it was then, was almost certainly settled by the Habiru, before any possible entry into Egypt,
let alone the Exodus.
The similarity between the description of the Habiru and the biblical Hebrews is remarkable and many scholars
believe them to be one and the same.
Some towns in Canaan were vassal states of Egypt, and others of Mesopotamia. Local commanders complain of
the difficulty of controlling the Habiru. They served in important positions, administratively, in trade and as
mercenaries, although they were considered socially inferior.
Jericho was certainly a town with walls, as described, but the archaeological evidence does not support the
destruction by Joshua. Far more likely, the Hebrews were already settled there. Perhaps one group had been in
Egypt and returned to join the others. As they developed their ethical culture, turning their backs on paganism,
they form something that becomes very attractive, very Humanist. Coincidentally there is no place in this
culture for a human being to be worshipped as a god (as in Egypt or Mesopotamia). Because everyone is in the
image of god (their anthropomorphic god is actually in the image of man), how would the Egyptians feel about
their gods such as crocodiles, with such a claim of this unruly people with their own lack of simplicity?
The ethical human-centred culture spread throughout Canaan. Eventually these people formed the dominant
way of life, whose sophistication separated them from local rulers, as the rulers enjoyed and expected people to
be simple, subservient and thankful.
Their sophistication makes sycophancy difficult. The Hebrews embellish their history, with stories of being
slaves in Egypt (and some of them may have been), and of the receiving of this culture from divine authority.
They also tell gruesome tales of barbarous conquering of Canaan, when in fact they were already there, but
simply found their culture adopted, people assimilate into them, and they become dominant. They are the only
people in recorded history to have lived there continuously and to have had an independent State. The
recreation of that State was the first vote of the United Nations in which the USSR and the USA voted together.
Only the Arab bloc voted against, and they went to War (four times) the first time with the as yet unformed
country to overturn the legally made decision.
Mark Twain‟s Huckleberry Finn says “it‟s not so much what you do, but what you let on that you do, that
counts”. Well this group, slowly evolving into an ethnic nation, certainly “let on” that they were tough and
ruthless. Then as now, we judge each other on what we really do, not on what we claim to have done. We do
not reject American values because we assume they are entirely included within the myth of the Wild West.
Most of the violence depicted in the Torah is at odds with the reality. This was a small ethnic group making a
disproportionately large contribution to society, in almost every century of their existence. The Torah played its
part in enabling us to be so privileged.
By taking some moments each day to reflect on that privilege, we can make our own small contribution to
keeping the clock ticking forwards, countering those who want to turn it back 3,000 years.
Notes for this weeks parshah
Many scholars have written on these origins of the Jews, including from our own list Bob Wolfe
Numbers 16.1-18.32 Parshat Korach and the Haftarah of the first book of Samuel
Korach is the great grandson of Levy, the founder of the clan who have priestly duties.
Samuel is the last of the “Judges”, and his period forms the transition from a loose
confederation of tribes to a centralised monarchy.
This is all about kings and priests, of which, today we have neither. We were always extremely dubious about
both, since the dawn of our history.
The theme of the book of Bamidbar (“in the desert” – the Hebrew name for the Book of Numbers), centres on
the issue of rules for society. The editors of this book (who were probably priests themselves), were also keen
to establish beyond any doubt, that this was to be accompanied by a ritual priesthood, animal sacrifice, burning
of incense etc. The people realised how incompatible such empty ritual was with the developing Human centred
Promoting the priesthood in the face of persistent opposition, required very powerful allegories and this parsha
is one of the strongest. Korach is himself a “prince” and his followers question Aaron, “why do you take for
yourself so much holiness, aren‟t we all holy, don‟t we all have god inside us?”. There follow a number of
miracles in quick succession. Korach and his followers are buried alive in an earthquake, his clan consumed by
fire, others who say that maybe he has a point (I‟d have been amongst them!) are destroyed by plague and on
and on… It would take a 1,000 years to shake off the priesthood and their empty rituals.
1500-1000 BC was a time when many ethnic groups were forming themselves into nations. This was the same
for the Jews. They could not continue to rely on electing an ad hoc leader (such as Samson or Gideon) and
uniting, only when faced with an emergency. They required a permanent structure. All kings surrounding them
were divine, either half way between man and god, or themselves part of the pantheon of gods.
The Prophet Samuel was asked to appoint a king, but he vacillates, as the developing culture of Judaism was not
compatible with kings as then understood. Nations required standing armies. Kings can form treaties,
command respect, ensure deals are honoured. This requires taxation and conscription for military and civil
purposes. Saul is the first and a relatively modest king and competent military leader, but the next two (David
and Solomon) are very grand. Such grandeur becomes a burden, and Solomon‟s unpopular successor
(Rehoboam) treats the people in a juvenile way saying “If my father (Solomon) made your burden heavy; now
it will be heavier still, if he punished you with whips, I will use scorpions”. Samuel was right to have had
doubts. The entire concept of being an involuntary servant or worshipping people, was already alien to the
Jews. Samuel understood the mutation of subservience to god into the lack of submission to a person, leading
the way for the basis of freedom between people. Hence his difficulty with anointing a king.
We dramatically abandoned the concepts of priesthood and monarchy at the time of destruction of the Temple in
70AD; only to find that as we abandon them, Christianity takes up these ideas enthusiastically. We had never
been enthusiastic! Christianity retains a priesthood and its paraphernalia to this day and had kings with absolute
and divine rights up to 300 years ago. The Jews could not accept divine rights in kings even 3,000 years ago. In
Japan the Emperor did not just have divine rights, he was himself divine until 60 years ago.
Those who think Jewish survival depends on returning to the hollow rituals we have always resisted, remind me
of the time when I was an undergraduate, and asked to define the difference between neuroses and psychoses. I
jokingly answered that neurotics build castles in the sky whilst psychotics lived in them. Is there some
communal psychoses hankering after castles in the sky?
Numbers 19.1-22.1 Parshat Chukat and the Haftarah of Judges 11.1-11.33
Chukat HaTorah has many themes including the death of Aaron and the arrival at the River
Jordan overlooking the “Promised Land”. Jephtah (in Hebrew the name is Yiftach) is the
lowest born of the “Judges” .
In the opening phrase of this parshah we have the statement “this is the law of the Torah..” Chukat meaning
“law of”. The “law” is an elaborate ritual involving the sacrifice of an unblemished red heifer. Yet another
“law” which has not been obeyed for millennia, if indeed it ever was obeyed.
Looking at the map of Sinai we can see that the Hebrews crossed the Sinai and Negev deserts, South past the
Dead Sea, avoiding the border forts of the Egyptians and the coastal cities of the Philistines. They had been
camping in the oasis of Kadesh (it‟s still there!) when there was not enough water, and they again question
whether they would not have been better off in Egypt, at least there they eat and drank. Everyone has doubts
including Moses, until he strikes a rock and water pours forth. This doubt finally censures them all. Not one
single person who came out of Egypt was to get “to the Promised Land”. That‟s a metaphor that has survived.
They try to enter Canaan asking for safe passage from various rulers all of whom deny them. The parshah ends
with the people camped on the banks of the Jordan opposite Jericho.
Aaron is told that he will die. He goes up the mountain with Moses who takes his clothes (we assume the
priestly garments) and gives them to Aaron‟s son. Aaron promptly dies. Rabbinical literature refers to this
scene as the “kiss of death” and that is another metaphor that has survived.
It just seems a bit too convenient. I know people whose parents died before they had the opportunity to discuss
issues. The “truth” went to the grave. Must have been somewhat similar for the Hebrews in Canaan. Not a
single living soul to fill in the details, only the folklore and whatever interpretation we can make.
Nevertheless these Biblical stories do tell us some very important themes about the developing ethical Jewish
culture. Here we see, that unlike most other religions, especially the two major ones that evolved from Judaism
itself, there is no concept of a “perfect” human being. Even Moses doesn‟t get to the Promised Land. Judaism
has no role model to whom it is impossible to aspire, which would condemn us all to failure. We are all the
same. Well we were, but now we have messianic cults, who believe that a dead hereditary rabbi is the king
messiah, and will return. They scrupulously follow Jewish ritual (although they haven‟t found an unblemished
red heifer!), but their belief system is closer to Christianity or Islam, who both have similar concepts of a
“perfect” human being (although “perfect” and “human” sounds like an oxymoron to me!).
The very word “biblical” also seems to have a surviving meaning. This week I read of Aids being of “biblical”
proportions, the same description applied to a locust plague currently in Asia, and drought in Africa. “Biblical”
is often used for any large scale natural disaster, where humans have had some part in the cause. The adjective
appears to be used in the sense that we have responsibility for ourselves. No doubt they‟d like to pass the buck
if they could, but knowledge is advancing to the point where we begin to realise that some of these things could
be avoided or diminished, if we understood how to behave.
The Haftarah concerns Yiftach, described as a man of valour, son of a harlot, who was kicked out by his
brothers. In the English translation the brothers accuse Yiftach of being the son of a “strange” woman, but the
Hebrew says “another” woman. He was probably illegitimate and became a bandit leader. He was called back
and offered leadership in the war against the marauding Ammon. At first he tries to negotiate with them, saying
that when his people 300 years earlier came out of Egypt they asked for safe passage, and were denied. Now
after all this time the Ammon want to take what was in any case never theirs. “We have not sinned against you,
why should you do us wrong to make war on us?”
Yiftach realises he must go to War, and promises that if he gets a great victory he will “offer up” whatsoever
exits from his front door on his return. His only daughter is the first to greet the Victor. Realising his promise
she asks for two months to “weep for her virginity with her friends”. Then Yiftach “completes his vow, and she
knew no man”. The implication is that she was sacrificed as a burnt offering. Primitive stuff indeed, concepts
from which we have long since grown away (and don‟t make rash promises you cannot keep!). Previous
Human sacrifice is the heart of the creed in Christianity, and remains a current practice in Islam. Attitudes,
beliefs and understandings change slowly, and we have much to do. There is still a requirement for a “light unto
the nations”, and that does not involve empty rituals, sacrifice, of heifers or anything else. The opportunity
continues to knock on our door.
Numbers 22.2-25.9 Parshat Balak and the Haftarah of Micah 5.6-6.8
Balak (King of the Moabites) is the name of this weeks’ parshah, which together with the Haftarah, has one
overall theme. The Haftarah is Micah (in Hebrew Michah), one of the Prophets.
Can we take seriously stories about a talking ass? The Moabites are troubled by the Hebrews who have asked
for safe passage. Other peoples who chose war rather than co-operation, fought them and lost. Balak sees that
there are more of them than he realised, so he asks for a famous priest to weaken them in battle.
Balaam is the priest who has been promised wealth if he curses the Hebrews, but god speaks to him first. Not
directly, as we know that god only ever spoke to Moses.
It is Balaam‟s ass who realises that god, through an angel, is telling him not to place the curse. There is some
humour and derision here. Balaam hits his ass three times. He expects to vanquish a numerous people with the
power of a curse, but he needs a stick to influence his ass! Seeing the error of his ways, and much to the
consternation of the Moabites, he blesses the Hebrews rather than curses them.
Some of the Hebrews are attracted to the less puritanical pagan rites of the Moabites and began to “whore” with
them (there can be little doubt about translating the Hebrew word “znut”). There are many ways to “conquer”
There follows a well known passage in which Pinhas catches a man and a Moabite princess in flagrante delicto
(“in the act of committing the crime!” it used to be a favourite legalism in the divorce courts), and with one
spear, impales them both, thus stopping “the plague” from spreading.
In modern times there have been comments, that the Torah is either the very words of god, or it is a book full of
murder and mayhem. The first explanation is an insult to our own gifted ancestors who wrote the books and
rather than enhance the text, it detracts from the phenomenal talent of the writers. As to murder and mayhem, it
is in context with the times in which it was written and as such is probably an honest account. Are we as
honest? Many people die violent deaths every day in major modern cities. Today murder and mayhem are so
common place, that we are silent about it, ignore what surrounds us, as no concern of ours, whilst trivia swamps
the media. Is this more honest? It would be utterly prejudiced of us to assume that murder and mayhem are the
central themes of the Judaism that sprang from these texts.
Many quote Hillel to summarise Judaism. He lived after this was written. Michah lived in the period around the
fall of the Northern Kingdom. He also summarised Judaism, about seven centuries before Hillel, and twenty
seven centuries before today. It still has resonance, how can we reject such honest writing, so full of Wisdom?
Michah asks “What is required of you but to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with your god”. In a
plea that could have been written yesterday for pluralism and against religious fanaticism he says “For all the
peoples will walk each in the name of his god..”. Most famously (and adopted by the BBC and the subject of
various songs) is the statement “…and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning
hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more..”
Both the Torah text and Michah are concerned with what we worship, what do we revere, what is central in our
thinking. We tend to perceive worship as a once a week infusion of incantation and incense, but it has a wider
meaning. Without doubt the modern preoccupation with shareholder dividends (not even profit!) now takes
precedent over all social issues. Often there are long term negative social consequences that outweigh the
benefits from short term demands for increased dividend payment. It isn‟t so much immoral as amoral.
Someone said these people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Abandoning justice, kindness
and humility, makes us an ally of the fanatics, who cannot be fought with reason but with values.
Notes for this weeks parshah
The Christian Bible has a neat twist on the notion that god talked directly only to Moses, deciding that Jesus was
himself divine, although the New Testament consistently reports him as denying it. The foundations of the
divinity of Jesus originate, after his death, from Paul who had “visions” on the road to Damascus. This
contradicts the Messianic Prophecies of both Job and Isaiah, who talk of the coming of a “ben-adam” which
literally means a son of Adam, and is the Hebrew – both biblical and modern – for a human being. The English
translation of “Son of Man” gives the direct opposite meaning, and is any case a phrase that cannot be simply
translated back into modern or ancient Hebrew or Aramaic.
A Pagan is reputed to have asked Hillel to summarise Judaism “whilst he stood on one leg”. The sarcasm was
intended to expose the complexity of Judaism, as he would have fallen over long before the explanation had
finished. Hillel replies “Do not do to others, what you would find hateful; the rest is commentary – now go and
study”. Christianity borrowed this summary, but as with the translation of “ben-adam” once again reverses the
intent. It was drummed into me at school, that the central theme of Christianity – “as taken from Judaism” – is
“Do unto others as you would be done by”. As I subsequently learnt of Hillel, I realised that it has the opposite
meaning of the original!
The modern “conversion” of Rabbinic Judaism into a set of quasi priestly cults, obsessed with ritual,
abandoning the ethics of human relations built over millennia, is a reversal of the intent of Prophets such as
Michah. In spite of the involvement of each of us, sometimes things go backwards.
To keep the main text as simple as I can I have translated the word “hesed” (pronounced with a hard “H”) as
kindness, but it really has a much richer meaning, often translated as loving-kindness, but benevolence,
affection, sympathy or goodness, might also apply.
The Hebrew name Michah is pronounced mee-cha, with emphasis on the first syllable.
Numbers 25.10-30.1 Parshat Pinhas and the Haftarah of Kings I 18.46-19.21
Pinhas, grandson of Aaron was in last weeks’ parshah committing “murder”. The Haftarah is about Elijah
(Hebrew Eliyahu) and Jezebel who was the wife of King Ahab.
The worlds‟ attitude towards the Bible is influenced by the Talmuds of Babylon and Jerusalem, vast volumes
which comment on the Tanakh. When my commentaries claim that instructions in the Tanakh are ignored, or
interpreted differently from the explicit text, this is derived from the Talmud. Therefore it applies to even the
most orthodox of Jews, not just the observation of a “maverick” secular commentator.
In the Parshah of Pinhas, he is amply rewarded for his zeal in murdering Zimri and Cozbi for consorting
together. Last week‟s parshah was about the sins of the pagan practices of the Moabites, and also consorting
with Moabite women. Yet here Cozbi is described as “Midianite” – not Moabite! Moses wife and father-in-
law were Midianite, and both Aaron and Miriam (his brother and sister) appeared to have objected to that. Is
this editorial “mistake” intentional?
Both Talmuds (I assume they arrived at the conclusions independently) disagree with the biblical reverence for
Pinhas on four counts. Firstly anyone contemplating such action should seek guidance from sages. Secondly
had they had been the sages consulted, they would not have agreed to murder. Thirdly that Pinhas action was
murder, and fourthly that had Zimri been able to defend himself and in so doing had killed Pinhas, that would
not have been murder. The Talmud commentaries are considered as binding by the Orthodox.
The murderer of Prime Minister Rabin quotes the story of Pinhas. Like many fanatics he was taking the text
literally but selectively. Obviously completely mixing the Torah conclusions and the Talmud, to suit himself.
Rabbis are not priests but teachers learned in such texts as the Talmud. They knew that this fanatic had
completely misunderstood the Talmud commentaries. Yet they remained silent. That makes the overwhelming
majority of them accessories after the fact. What have they done to our heritage?
The Parshah is also about the specific numbers and names in each family, like some census prior to deciding
who will settle where, and with how much land. In an amazing piece of thinking that has yet to penetrate most
of the world, families with only a female head are granted equal rights.
There follows further detailed ritual of sacrifices, morning and evening. They must have really been scared of
deities, and saw the evidence of various gods‟ work all around them. It is difficult for us to see into their minds,
to experience why they felt it necessary to appease these gods with the spilling of blood, even occasionally that
of human blood. They might have thought that whatever was ritually killed became closer to the deity, so this
probably seemed like benevolent behaviour rather than odious as we see it today. This was true for all of their
known world and even the Hebrews did not doubt the existence or power of other deities. They introduced a
novel concept for the time, that their deity was abstract. The abstraction was indeed more powerful, and with
hindsight we see that it has survived whilst all others have demised.
The Talmud came to terms with where this was leading, abandoning most of the practices with one fell swoop.
Once you no longer have priests, public ritual that depends on some professional class becomes redundant.
They also realised the importance of what was in both your heart and your head, something the priesthood
resisted for over 1,000 years, with the Prophets almost always against them.
In the Haftarah we have the story of Elijah, who was something of a Magician. In a contest with non-Jewish
priests (those brought in by Jezebel?) he makes rain whilst they fail. As we know today, secular government has
to make compromises, treaties with other peoples and different value systems. David and some subsequent
kings were good at this. Ahab marries Jezebel for this reason amongst others. She worships Baal, and some of
the people follow her in this. It is one thing to make treaties and compromises, but altogether different to absorb
practices you find strange, unnatural and undesirable. Elijah prophesied against this. Many of the Prophets
must have been very irritating to their rulers, their opposition basically political and secular, even if expressed in
religious language, as almost everything was in those days. Most of the Prophets were in any case uneasy about
Monarchy, finding it inherently incompatible with their understanding of Judaism.
Somehow I feel that the Rabbinate is pushing us back to a priesthood, abandoning the ethical basis,
concentrating on ritual (what purpose is a priest, other than to perform ritual for which only he is qualified?) and
acting as though priestly ritual has simply been in abeyance. Reason shows that we need the ethics more than
ever, but emotions still crave the human bonding so easily provided by ritual. What we want and what we need,
often do not come together. Integration of` these different needs and cravings may be the only way to make
Numbers 30.2-32.42 Parshat Mattot and the Haftarah of Jeremiah 1.1-2.3
Mattot means Tribe or branch from the opening statement that god spoke to the heads of each tribe. Jeremiah
is a prophet whose Hebrew name – Yerimyahu – means “god will lift up”. His prophecies can be accurately
dated to the period 627-585 BCE.
The parshash opens with a section on swearing of an oath, which must be kept. There is much concern about
the oaths of women and the circumstances in which they are binding. They allow for instance, daughters to
have their vows valid only if their fathers keeps silent, but if he hears it and disallows it, she is released form her
vow. It was a man‟s world, even if they conceded rights to women.
It is ethics such as these which abound in the Tanakh. The whole issue of the behaviour of each individual
towards their neighbour is elaborately discussed. Unlike other philosophies, such as the Greeks, we have very
little to say on the ethics of Power, how is society organised, who rules?
The rest of the parshah concerns the Midianites – again! But we know that the Hebrews have come out of Sinai
and are in the land of the Moabites, which is today Southern Jordan. Midianite territory was further South,
probably on either side of the Red Sea. Midianites are mentioned in Greek, Roman, and Arabic sources, and
also by Josephus, all of whom confirm the geography, placing the Hebrews at this point, as not in Midianite
territory. Yet here Moses commands the raising of a large army to go to War with the Midianites, and kill all
except the female virgins. Did this instruction include the Midianites within the camp? Could it have included
Moses‟ father-in-law and Wife, who were Midianites? Does it make sense that Moses would have been silent
on that issue?
In the previous parshah of Balaam, we know that the Moabites tried to entice the Hebrews to worship of their
god Baal-Peor, and sent their priest Balaam. The Moabite women play their part in this enticement. Somehow
seamlessly this enemy become Midianite, although it is not clear what have they done to deserve this. Do the
Midianites also worship Baal-Peor? If so little is mentioned in many previous and friendly references to them. It
does not make sense. Either these are editorial errors, or there is some purpose to discredit Moses as far as the
hereditary priesthood is concerned. If this was written – based on folklore – some hundreds of years after the
events it‟s supposed to describe, this suggests the hand of Aaronid priests, confirming their own position.
With their imagination let loose, they describe the annihilation of the Midianites as demanded by Moses. In
their fantasy they can wield Power without ethical values. There is a detailed list of war booty, much of which
they have to hand over to the priests, because they were not initially prepared to be ruthless in killing the
By the time of Jeremiah the Assyrian Empire was failing and the Babylonian rising. Eventually
Nebuchadnezzar conquers and exiles back to Babylon all but the peasants. Jeremiah claims this is the work of
god, using the Babylonians as punishment. He thinks that we are capable of rising above the realities of
everyday life, but do not. We react to human situations with human behaviour, untempered by a value system.
Individuals and communities fail, the people survive. I have merely used the present tense for Jeremiah‟s
words, and it seems to apply. We can date these words very accurately as they are supported by the Babylonian
This poses an interesting question, are individual ethics sufficient, or do we also need an ethics of “power”? In
modern times we have developed various checks and balances through democracy, but this is by no means an
homogenous system. In the USA the President must be separate from Congress and Senate whilst in the UK the
opposite is true, the Prime Minister can only be elected, from the House of Parliament. Quite different systems!
Judaism has little to say on the exercise of power or on Business ethics. Is this a deficiency? Do we need to
develop this side, or does it naturally flow from people who have suitable individual ethics? Difficult questions
for us, but the evidence suggests, Judaism has the emphasis roughly right.
Notes for this weeks parshah
On the issue of the ethics of power, taking Israel as an example, whatever ones politics, their behaviour in a very
adverse situation is rather good. They have a highly disciplined army that does not go on the rampage, a
citizenry that does not take vigilante action against Arabs in general, a country that respects the rights of Islam
and Christianity even though no such respect was received. (From 1948 to 1967 when the Kingdom of Jordan
ruled the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank, more than 50 synagogues – some very ancient – were
destroyed. Gravestones were ripped up and in one particularly odious case used in an army latrine. As a young
man I was with a tourist group visiting in Jordan, and as we descended the steps of Rachel‟s tomb the Jordanian
guide boasted that “no Jew has passed beyond the third step!”). More than half the Israeli population – contrary
to popular myth that they are all holocaust survivors – are people who lived in Arab countries. Some of these
communities precede Islam, yet they were dispossessed and kicked out. They are resentful to this day, but they
get on with their lives.
Yet the behaviour of Israel is not good enough for some of the liberal democracies, whose own record in
significantly less adversity is often far worse. Can individual Judaism influence exercise of power positively?
Should we be cynical and say that Israel is subject to restraint whilst the Arabs are not, because of oil interest?
Even for secular Jews in Israel, does not their background, their absorption of their ancient heritage, affect their
outlook and their behaviour?
Possibly Judaism as we see it today is the development of a people who have lived for two millennia as a
disenfranchised minority. Perhaps that is why we have no development on the ethics of power. But then maybe
if you get the individual guidelines right, would that be sufficient for the group? They say with money, look
after the cents and the dollars look after themselves. I doubt that with people, this is an area that obviously
needs further development, although not specifically within Judaism. .
Deuteronomy 1.1-3.22 Parshat Devarim and the Haftarah of Isaiah 1.1-1.27
Dvarim means words (or things) from the opening statement “These are the words that Moses spoke to the
people of Israel”. Not only is Dvarim the name of the Parshah it is also the Hebrew name of the book of
Deuteronomy. Isaiah is a prophet whose Hebrew name – Yeshayahu – means “the saviour of god”.
This week we start the fifth of the five books of the Torah. Known by the Hebrew name of Dvarim, this is both
the name of the parshah and of the complete book. This book is also known as “Mishneh Torah”, implying a
second telling of the previous stories. Hence the Latin name of Deuteronomy. It can be summarised as a
farewell speech of Moses, in which he reminisces, summarises laws, introduces new legislation and adds literary
and poetic story telling.
Unlike previous books in which others and god speaks, this story is told from Moses viewpoint. In this early
passage he talks about arriving on the plains of Moab, they are about to enter the promised land, and they rest
for 40 days, he recounts battles both spiritual and of war.
The whole point of Aaron his older brother being chosen for the priesthood, was precisely because Moses was
not a good public speaker. Probably stammered. Strange that finally Moses does speak publicly, having
avoided that up to now.
This book was apparently lost and discovered in 621 BCE during the reign of Josiah when they were repairing
the Temple. The unearthing of this book caused quite a stir, and led them back to their true faith. The story of
the discovery is itself part of the Tanakh in the second Book of Kings, and that allows it to be accurately dated.
The book was presented to the people as the authentic work of Moses.
It has phraseology used by religious people today, but which probably conveyed a different meaning then. They
are required to “love with all your heart”, to “hearken to the voice of” to “fear” just to give some examples. All
of these phrases appear in legal constitutional documents of other nations of the time. They appear in the Sefire
treaty of the Assyrians in a document dated 750-745 BCE and also in the Esahaddon document of the King of
Assyria dated 680-669 BCE. The meaning (rather than the literal translation) of to love.. is to be loyal, and to
fear really means in today‟s language to revere. This document conveys in the speech of the time, exactly how
people were expected to relate to their ruler. In the case of the Jews, their ultimate ruler was an abstract
concept. Even the king obeyed his law.
Given that there is language that appears in other documents of the previous 100 years, many consider this to
have been written just prior to its discovery. Some of the law appears no where else, such as statutes for the rule
of Kings, which are unlikely to have concerned Moses or a people who had no King, and were reluctant to adopt
the idea of Kingship centuries after the events of Dvarim.
Assyrian power was in decline, the Egyptians had long ceased to be a danger, but the new threat was from the
growing Babylonian Empire. During this transition period between surrounding Empires, this was a
comfortable time for the Jews.
In addition to the poetry and story telling, the book can be summarised as having seven areas of concern, which
we shall explore in the coming weeks. Josiah‟s predecessor had encouraged worship of other deities. Devarim
establishes that the Jewish faith is their personal covenant. They did not consider it to be the “one true faith”
which must be imposed on all others, but they did think they had been especially chosen. The “one true faith”
concept evolved from Judaism but started with Christianity and has become the modern phenomenon of
We apply Western understanding, to all forms of culture that we find. The “religions” of Japan are mainly
Buddhist and Shinto. Without realising the irony, atlases claim that 98% of the population are Buddhist whilst
98% are Shinto. This mutual co-existence is not just between adherents, but each individual can follow multiple
concepts. This clearly distinguishes them from what we call religion. They are closer to our own understanding
of Judaism, as expressions of their ethnicity, and of their values. Ethnocentrism – the feeling that your ethnic
culture is superior - is very ancient. Now we have developed the idea that if you are “this” you cannot be “that”,
there can be only one “true” way, which must be imposed on everyone. This is relatively modern. This paves
the way for fanaticism in many “religions”. Somehow Jews are excluded from these rules. Generally choosing
one system means divesting oneself of another – you cannot be two of them at once – say both Christian and
Moslem, or Protestant and Catholic. Except when it comes to being Jewish. Apparently once a Jew, always a
Jew, at least in the eyes of many non-Jews, even when you become a devout Christian, Moslem etc. If we retain
our identity (in their eyes) whatever value system we adopt, isn‟t that a model for progress? Surely mutual
exclusivity is the problem, not the argument about value systems. Yet again an important role for our Humanist
Deuteronomy 3.23-7.11 Parshat V’etchananen and the Haftarah of Isaiah 40.1-40.26
V’etchananen means beg or beseech from the opening statement “And I beseeched god”. This is Moses
recounting history. Isaiah is a prophet whose Hebrew name – Yeshayahu – means “the saviour of god”.
In this parshah we have a repeat of the 10 sayings (In English they are called “commandments” in Hebrew they
are referred to as sayings, or “utterances” - dibrot) originally encountered in Exodus. This is a fuller version.
The first four deal with theism, whilst 6-10 are enshrined in every secular legal code everywhere in the world.
(In English we have the early English saying “Thou shall not kill” but this is a mistranslation, as the original
says “Don‟t murder”). The middle one forms some sort of bridge – Honour your father and your mother. Note
it does not say “love” or “obey” them. Because they are so obvious (hence “sayings” in Hebrew), perhaps we
feel they have nothing to tell us. If you are secular, then can 1-4 apply? In any case, every society has come to
apply 6-10, some without ever encountering these dibrot.
The dibrot are basically a set of “do‟s” and “don‟ts” with some unique properties. All decent lawyers will say
that good law is precise law. These are very precise, do this, don‟t do that. No equivocation, “well it all
depends…”. They apply to everyone without consideration or exception, for class, ethnicity, or gender. They
recognise that each of us can expect certain things from Society, such as one day of rest in every seven. To
completely emphasise the point it is precisely explained that this applies to you, your family, your servants,
strangers within your midst and even your cattle. Most of this is so obvious as to be unnecessary to be
commanded so to do (you can see that not all of it is applied, even today).
One difference between the two versions concerns Shabbat. In Exodus the reason given for resting on the
seventh day is because god worked six days to create the Universe and rested on the seventh, but here in
V‟etchananen it is because we were slaves in Egypt and it is part of the dignity of free humans to rest. We often
deride the concept of work that so engaged the Rabbis, is carrying a handkerchief or lighting a fire, work? But
the concept is not just to desist from your regular work, but actually not to do anything which disturbs nature, to
be at one with the world around you.
Not everything about the Enlightenment moved society forward. One aspect was the notion that with the
advance of technology we could “Conquer Nature” (indeed it is the title of an early book). Consider that we
now live in a world where there are more scientists alive today, than all the scientists that ever lived before
them. There are also more people alive today who have never experienced electricity, than all the people that
ever lived before electricity was invented. Somehow these two facts are not consonant. Most technology
implies some form of electricity, but there has been no advance on the oil lamp for centuries. Far from being
some neutral engine of change, technology is the most powerful expression of our political and economic will –
basically a language that reflects our values. These values do not include much care about the majority of the
human beings on this planet. Indeed much of science and technology ultimately depends on fossil
hydrocarbons, one of our non-renewable resources that will disappear within the next generation, even if it
remains restricted to a privileged minority. Remember the Sabbath day, is about avoiding activity which
interferes with Nature. That is no bad thing on which to reflect, on the fact that Humans cannot “conquer”
nature, they part of it, and live and die with it. Behaving in a way that allows for reflection on concepts we have
only discovered since the Enlightenment, concepts our ancestors considered in an embryonic way all that time
ago, is yet one more very modern way, we can be in touch with our heritage.
What about “No other gods before me” or “No graven images”, how do they apply, if at all? Much of the world
we recognise today, we do not understand. Time itself is one such mystery. How much more so in the Bronze
Age, when every unexpected or unexplained occurrence required a rational explanation - the will of Zeus
(Jupiter, Horeb, Mithras, Wotan….Yahweh), the common clarification for everything that could not be
explained. The escape from Egypt mentions a number of divine miracles. However when it comes to the
adoption of the 10 sayings, this god is suddenly nowhere to be seen. Thunder, lightning, flaming bushes,
nothing that has not since been explained with an ordinary, everyday exegesis. We may also ask ourselves, how
come god has not shown himself since the 10 plagues to this day. This abstract god is carefully described in
“Yitro” (the first mention of the 10 sayings in Exodus) as only in the hearts and minds of the people, never
actually seen or heard. Deists may claim that it is some external force which causes them to feel that way. I
don‟t feel that way, and after 3,000 years of intense (and sometimes desperate) searching for evidence of a god –
any god, I can only conclude that my Ancestors were right, I am dependent upon what is in my heart and mind,
and yours. That really is awe inspiring. I can‟t pass the buck, it‟s up to you and me. So when it says “No gods
before me”, rationally that has to be you and me, people come first, before anything else. The second saying
clarifies totally, no worship of statues or artefacts, anything above or below ground, on the ground, in water or
land itself, just you and me. Anyone that can truly claim to live by that principle has achieved the ultimate in
Humanism, a principle first established about 3,000 years ago. Maybe it has taken most of that time to realise
what they were saying. Maybe even for them, surrounded by a mysterious world teeming with deities, it was
difficult to appreciate the full impact of their own wisdom. Who knows what people 100 years from now will
make of us? Will they laugh at how backward our principles were? We cannot laugh at our own heritage,
judging by the standards of today. We can only aspire to their insights and inspiration.
Deuteronomy 7.12-11.25 Parshat Eiqev and the Haftarah of Isaiah 49.14-51.3
Eiqev means “since” from the opening statement “and since you heard (harkened to) all the laws…”. Here
Moses explains how they destroyed many enemies – because they obeyed the laws. This “discovered” book of
Dvarim was intended to bring people closer to Judaism, although the Judaism of the Josiah period had
innovations of its own. Isaiah is a prophet whose Hebrew name – Yeshayahu – means “the saviour of god”.
We often look at religions and wonder at the dogma that springs from a specific time and place, even if we can
no longer be sure of either, the dogma by its very nature becomes “certain”.
The more common of these dogma are well known, life after death (often split into a good place and a bad place
dependent upon your behaviour in this life), reincarnation, original sin (dating back to the behaviour of Adam
and Eve for which we must all repent), a god who has three parts one of which is half human and half god, a
requirement to convert the world if it is to be “saved” and so on.
Judaism has very little such dogma, certainly none of the above. Most faith systems have developed from their
surrounding cultures. They are built on metaphor and evolve.
Judaism started some quite intriguing ideas (built upon metaphors of the world around them at that time) and for
Centuries no-one copied, or tried to compete. That is an unusual situation, independent ideas can fail because
they have no direct competition, no point of reference, nothing with which to compare.
It‟s not as though Judaism had an easy ride, battling for Centuries against the certainties and pleasures provided
by surrounding paganism. By the time of King Josiah, the Jews had developed a quite spectacular, very human,
very literate history. They were not a numerous people (in spite of promises to be so in the Torah), they were
not technically advanced compared to their neighbours and they were never powerful.
Suddenly there was a transition period between the collapse of one Empire and the rising of another. Josiah
seizes this opportunity and decides to bring the people back to Judaism (with some innovations!). One of the
significant tools he used was the “discovery of an ancient text” in 621 BCE. This is the book of Dvarim
At the same time we have various Prophets writing in this period, including that of this week‟s Haftarah,
Yeshayahu (Isaiah). There is a distinct possibility that Dvarim and much of Yeshayahu were written at about
the same time.
The most surprising aspect for me is that Dvarim accurately reflects many of the views of a millennia early,
whilst Yeshayahu shows how significant were the developments taking place in their thinking.
The deity of Dvarim and that of Yeshayau share the same qualities of an abstract singularity. Yet the first is a
petulant, intolerant, authoritarian, revenge seeking, adolescent, whilst the other is a sophisticated philosopher at
the center of world culture. This makes sense, as the god of Dvarim acts like a primitive tribal chieftain,
recognizing the existence of other chieftains, and like everyone else – “ours is more powerful”. A simple
reflection of a simple people, where god and people are in each others image. In their mythology Adam and
Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, had they have also eaten from the Tree of Life they would have become
god (or at least the equal of god) hence they are banished from the Garden of Eden, as they were not ready to
grow up in this way. We see the transition from the jealous tribal god of Abraham, through the “nameless” god
of Moses (who is told by god, “I am who I am”, but this has also been translated as “I will be who I will be”),
the worldly constitutional non-power wielding monarch of Yeshayahu, to the god of Moses Maimonides, of
whom we can only know “what he is not”.
Throughout there is much writing about what god does, but only indirectly what god is (even when writing
about god, we concentrate on deed, not creed). From beginning to end there is an avoidance of theology (study
of the nature of god). From Moses in the desert to the Medieval Moses Maimon, there is no falling into the trap
of “putting flesh” on the concept. There is adherence to the notion of a covenant, a set of rules of behavior
adopted by a people as central to their people-hood.
In the world of today we appear to be very concerned with our rights and we keep large professional classes to
ensure them for us, lawyers to enforce other people and priests to ensure our rights in the next life. The concern
of Judaism has been with obligations, not with rights. That is fundamental to what we call being civilized.
Unless we accept obligations willingly, we will always need a higher authority and a punishment system to
“enforce” the rules of behavior – although we know they don‟t work very well. We had two themes converging
– a set of rules, and a higher authority whose existence was in our own heads. The objective of the two themes
was for people to reach the maximum potential as human beings. A millennia after the second Moses, and we
appear to have made little further progress.
This is not about theism, with priests, mullahs or rabbis acting in loco parentis for an absentee tribal chieftain.
Nor is it about Humanism, a précis of a palimpsest (a parchment, that has been written on more than once, with
the earlier writing incompletely scraped away and often partly legible), of 3,000 years of human collective
development. It is about the world of human beings maturing, growing up and leaving their adolescence. It is
about ceasing the desire to look or behave as collective 14 year olds.
The world of human beings as an adult society, takes responsibility for itself, whilst in childhood and
adolescence it required parenting. Being mature in society means going beyond taking responsibility for
ourselves as individuals, to the point where each have some collective responsibility for everyone else. That‟s
the message of Pikuah Nefesh (every life is sacred), Tikkun Olam (repair the world), both fundamental concepts
of Judaism (not land, the worship of which is a return to paganism). In our small way can we help the society of
human beings mature into collective independent adults?
Deuteronomy 11.26-16.17 Parshat Re’eh and the Haftarah of Isaiah 54.11-55.5
Re’eh means “see” although in the English of King James this is translated as “behold” – a word often used
today to make things sound “biblical”. Similarly the cliché of the music Greensleeves is used by Hollywood to
depict any period between 1100 and 1600 CE. Re’eh is from the opening statement “See that I set before you
today a blessing and a curse”.
Some weeks ago I spoke of the book of Dvarim concerning itself with seven themes. Some of these were
already well established. There are various injunctions against idolatry, and following on from the last
commentary we are clearly talking of anything that does not have humanity at its apex. Today this message
remains apt, given that power in modern society is not wielded according to some measure of people, but other
indicators (e.g. money supply, balance of payments, inflation) in the forlorn hope that controlling the relative
amount of money in society results in people living better lives. Not so long ago a maverick economist
correlated the rate of English inflation with the incidence of diarrhoea in adult Scottish males, and found they
were more highly correlated than inflation with money supply. This is a modern form of idolatry.
Another of the seven features is the Exodus story and the election of a people to a covenant. Can we argue with
the fact that this has indeed been our fate. We caught a tiger by the tail, deciding that we were responsible for
the development of a set of rules, given to us by a higher authority – that exists entirely in our heads. For better
or worse, all Jews are still associated with this, even the most strictly secular.
A third element is the constant reminder about monotheism. In 621 BCE they were surrounded by a very large
pantheon of gods, from which to choose, this was the corollary of injunctions against idolatry, and a admonition
to stick to what was in their head, to have a “conscience” and to be guided by it.
The fourth theme that I identify in Dvarim is the repeat and more detailed explanation of various laws, such as
the dibrot (10 commandments) or kashrut (what food to eat).
With the fifth theme we start to see ideas that were not around during the first four books of the Torah. We
could say that in this farewell speech of Moses, he had the foresight to introduce laws that did not apply at his
time, but would be useful at some future time. At least that is the only explanation that can apply if you insist
that Dvarim really was the words of Moses, lost for Centuries and then discovered. Somehow all too much is so
conveniently applied to the time of Josiah. These concern ideas such as kingship. Very applicable to the time
of the “discovery” of the book in the time of King Josiah, but in Moses time many centuries would pass before
the prophet Samuel vacillated over whether to introduce kings at all. There are also laws concerning inheritance
of land, although it was not until after the death of Moses that the people settled anywhere, and would consider
land as their own.
Other interesting legislation concerns loans. After seven years if the loan has not been returned, the debt should
be cancelled – assuming that the borrower is also a Jew! In similar fashion Hebrew slaves must be set free after
seven years. These laws have not been abandoned simply because the Temple has been destroyed, Judaism has,
until relatively recently kept it itself up to date.
Most significantly is the centralisation of Judaism in Jerusalem. In Moses time Jerusalem was not even part of
the land, and would not become so until the second king – David. Did Moses really know what would happen
in hundreds of years time! On a more serious note, there were many shrines throughout the country, Shiloh,
Beth-El, Hebron, and the early prophets clearly regarded them as important. One can just imagine that each
shrine would have priests and adherents, different clans or tribes would have preferences for the shrine in their
own vicinity. Centralising the worship and ritual would have meant quite an upheaval, and one can imagine
opposition. This would be tempered by the general thought that Josiah was a good king – he is often referred to
as such. Unlike other kings all of whom are rebuked to a greater or lesser extent, Josiah receives only praise.
Perhaps centralisation was one theme the people would swallow, as part of the general “package” of return to an
ethical society. In the war against idolatry they are told to destroy the places where idols are worshipped,
however “not where god is worshipped. But a place where god will choose from all the tribes and to that place
you shall all come”.
Jerusalem is not mentioned, perhaps if written in the reign of Josiah that would have been too obvious, but
phrases such as “beyond the Jordan” to signify lands outside of Canaan can only be logically used by a people
already in Palestine. Dvarim talks of Canaan “as we did unto the land” although Canaan had presumably not yet
Previously we talked of rights and obligations. Even in Dvarim we see a development from the earlier books of
the Torah. With laws about slaves, only obligations of the master are expressed, any rights for either master or
slave, are assumed from the obligations.
Orthodox Jews criticise all others as picking and choosing from Judaism to suit their convenience. Judaism
from the beginning was never fixed. It was constantly evolving, from one book of the Tanakh to the next, from
one Century to the next. It is not we who select for convenience, it is they, returning to the original Bronze Age
pre Moses ideas. Obligations for hollow rituals, a jealous vengeful god, forgetting their obligations to their
fellow human beings, Orthodoxy is a misguided form of Judaism. Lest this be thought to be a criticism of an
uneducated maverick secular commentator, hollow ritual is the constant accusation of many of the prophets. Let
me end with Isaiah who quotes the people as asking “Why have we fasted and no-one gives us credit?” He
answers that on the day of the fast they seek their own pleasure, and oppress their workers.
Deuteronomy 16.18-21.9 Parshat Shoftim and the Haftarah of Isaiah 51.12-52.12
Shoftim means “Judges” from the opening statement “Judges and Policemen shall be at all the gates…”
Astrology, Astronomy and Ambivalence are three themes that appear with some surprise in the book of Dvarim.
There had previously been no particular concern about studying the stars. Many of the neighbouring peoples
had derived great knowledge from such investigations. Chaldeans, Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks found
that both during the day and even more so at night, they could find exact directions from the heavens
A comprehensive understanding of what could be seen in the sky, allowed for many important predictions: of
the seasons, the tides, the full moon, the longest and shortest days of the year, and much more. This was
recognised science. If so much could be predicted, could not the “heavens” also predict the affairs of man?
Dvarim has a half-hearted warning about predicting in this way; “Don‟t use divination, enchanters, witches or
magic fires”, or more explicitly “Don‟t lift your eyes to heaven, and upon seeing the sun, the moon and the stars,
be driven to worship them and serve them, as they are for all people that live under the skies”. Isaiah also
scornfully said to the people “you have many counsels, the astrologers, the stargazers, those that study the
months, let them save you!”
We should not conclude that Judaism really disapproved of Astrology. Josephus reports at the time of the
Roman conquest, that Astrology was very popular. Half the Rabbis in the Talmud spoke in praise. Indeed the
Talmudic word for the Chaldeans (from whom Abraham came) – Kasdim – is synonymous in the Talmud for
Astrologer. Those in the Talmud who were less approving spoke of Astrology as something for non-Jews. In
the Middle Ages almost all the great Jewish thinkers spoke approvingly. Maimonides is the most well known
exception. The Kabbalah takes Astrology for granted.
Ultimately science and fantasy diverged, although the fantasy retained the more grandiose title of Astrology,
whilst the science had to settle for Astronomy.
Galileo studied Astrology and “hypothesised” that the Earth moved around the Sun, but the Catholic Church
threatened to burn him to death, unless he publicly withdrew the “conjecture”. 400 years later, and a generation
after people had been to Moon and back, the Catholic Church said that maybe it had made a mistake, although
the World had known that and shrugged its shoulders for Centuries. Their “rationale” was that the hypothesis
contradicted the Bible. It‟s a Christian tendency to be obtuse to the metaphor and take the text all too literally,
even where there is no obvious literal meaning, which is often the case. Protestants are even more enthusiastic
than Catholics in this regard.
Even in Galileo‟s time, Astrology and Astronomy were still inextricably linked as the same science. So much
knowledge had come forth that Astronomers were reluctant to let go. Not only could they tell the direction of
North, they could tell exactly where they were on a North-South line – their latitude, even in the middle of an
ocean. It would make sense to think they should also be able to know where they were on an East-West line –
their longitude. Galileo was convinced of that. We now know that this information is not in the heavens at all.
Only an accurate watch is needed. (Come to visit me from the US to London, but don‟t change your watch.
When you arrive compare your watch with mine, the difference will tell you how far East you‟ve travelled. This
remains the only accurate way of knowing. Even the GPS satellites are only transmitting a time signal. The
clever thing is that we can now “see” three or more different time signals at once!).
Longitude was first accurately measured – by the Harrison clock – in 1743. It was not until 1902 that the Royal
Navy abandoned the hope of finding an answer in the stars.
Do we reject Astronomy because they had irrational pretensions (amongst other things, of finding Longitude)?
Or because for Centuries it was a part of Astrology?
Should we reject the Torah because the authors had irrational pretensions amongst their obvious wisdom?
Many a ship foundered on rocks, whilst the Astronomers insisted that clocks could not be the answer. They did
not throw out all Astronomical knowledge as a result of that blunder. We need to know our own destination,
and if we are to reach it (and recognise where we are), it will only be by diligent use of the wisdom that has
gone before us.
Notes for this weeks parshah
The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. In Hebrew the word for East is “Mizrach” which evolves from
the phrase “HaShemesh zorachat” meaning the sun is shining. West is “Maariv” in Hebrew, based on the same
root as “erev” meaning evening.
Deuteronomy 21.10-25.19 Parshat KiTitsei and the Haftarah of Isaiah 54.1-54.10
KiTitsei means “when you go out” from the opening statement “When you go out to make war against your
enemies... and amongst the captives you see a beautiful woman after whom you lust….”
A jubilant headline last week announced that the Divorce rate had declined, this being one of the main indicators
of the health of our relationships. Given the breakdown of half of all marriages and the inescapable distress for
the couple, their children and society in general, this was indeed cause for celebration. Until one examined the
figures. Less people got married, therefore, there were less divorces. The proportion of marriages failing was
still on the increase.
In addition to divorce, our behaviour in War and the status of Women in Society also indicate the general health
of Society. Sadly, advance to a moral, human centred behaviour moves very slowly, even today. Soldiers
facing War go through panic, fear, terror, dread, physical violence and if they survive; is it any wonder that their
bodies, by then, are drenched in adrenaline (is that why they wear brown trousers?). It becomes difficult to
avoid the consequences of hoodlum behaviour on the local civilians, the meek, the old and the women,
particularly in the absence of specific rules (we tend to rely on general rules, or in the last resort, the
International Court in the Hague). In biblical times they thought long and hard about these issues, and whilst we
would find their specific solutions unpalatable, bizarre sometimes, and inapplicable to our time, at least they
thought about it and established strict rules and obligations, which they seem to have observed!
War was total and there was no distinction between soldiers and civilians. This parshah opens with concern
about female captives. What happens if you fancy one of them? Can you just have your way? You are required
to take her as guest in your house, permit her one month to grieve for her family, and then, if you are still keen,
you should marry her, take her for a wife. It isn‟t much by today‟s theoretical standards, but then, it was a start,
establishing that you had obligations, and the female had consequent rights. This is not the case in many parts
of the world today. The concept of total war, with no distinction between civilians and soldiers, is still both the
rhetoric and the behaviour of many. Whilst we may have differing views on the politics driving the armed
forces in Israel, their citizen army is disciplined, well behaved and there is little evidence of the atrocious
hoodlum activities one finds in many other theatres of War (and bear in mind that there is no family in Israel
without some relative maimed or killed from the Wars in which they have engaged, every soldier has personal
Whilst we may rightly view the Tanakh and Rabbinical Judaism as essentially male dominated, both have a
generally favourable view of women compared to many other religions. The saying is honour (both) your father
and your mother, or don‟t lust after your neighbour‟s wife, and punishment for sexual transgressions applies
equally to both sexes. On the other hand, men – married or single can only commit adultery with a married
woman, whilst any woman can commit adultery. However most such attitudes and punishments have ceased to
apply for millennia. A more obvious example of sexism is polygamy, which is taken for granted in Dvarim, but
again not practised for millennia.
Both Christianity and Islam have taken a more misogynist view, with Catholicism assuming that holiness is only
possible with the absence of intimate relations, and Islam enforcing women behind a veil. Only recently the
spiritual leader of the Taleban in Afghanistan said there were only two places for women – in the home or in the
grave. Last week in Algeria school girls had their throats slit for attending school.
Orthodox male Jews every morning repeat “Blessed art thou Oh Lord our God who has not made me a woman.”
We find the texts of the Tanakh, the Koran and the New Testament to be awash with misogyny and irrationality,
and we are concerned because people base their behaviour on these books. Our response appears to be passive
indignation against the “wrongs” of this world, and active rejection of our heritage (the reverse might be more
constructive, understanding how the heritage leads us to be who we are). The value of the texts needs to be
judged on ensuing behaviour, particularly as no-one can take the texts literally, nor does anyone follow most of
the rules of behaviour. We must judge these documents on the behaviour that ensues from the people who
follow it, or who are influenced by it – and almost all Jews are so influenced. Rationally, if we look at the Jews
(all of them!), they have their villains, but in the main they are totally under represented in villainy. Do we wish
to abandon this heritage and become like everyone else? The major obvious difference in such “normalisation”
would mean us working towards having more drunkards, people of violence… Perhaps this heritage has value?
Perhaps there is something positive in the concept of being “chosen”? And possibly we can utilise that to
contribute something from our privilege (in modern jargon to be proactive), rather than regret (or be ashamed
of) our differences? Me? I‟m really proud!
Deuteronomy 26.1-29.8 Parshat KiTavo and the Haftarah of Isaiah 60.1-60.22
KiTavo means “When you come” from the opening statement “And it shall be when you come to the land given
to you for an inheritance and you have inhabited the land”
We assume that when we write and when we speak, we use the same language, but the medium alters the
language quite dramatically. The written word does not contain pauses where the listener interrupts, there is no
body language or facial expression to enhance the words, no inflexions of voice and no feedback from the
listener, we are separate in time and place from the actual writing. The written word has a permanence in which
the reader has time to reflect, to reread passages and to reach an understanding. Committing to writing can
present a serious hostage to fortune. There is no chance that we can hear any spoken language from 2,500 years
ago, but we can still read their text. The book of Dvarim had a purpose, it would be amazing if that purpose was
still valid and achievable today. Not only does it remind us of all the laws but spells out some very elaborate
rewards and curses for transgressions. This is a hostage to fortune, because today, without all the surrounding
help of the spoken word, we have to assume the intention, the spirit behind the text, solely from the text itself.
This encourages some people to take the text “fundamentally”. They claim it must be true, because we
transgress and behold, Israel is in permanent trouble from her enemies, the Diaspora community is dwindling
fast. Are these not desperate times where the curses of Dvarim are coming true and there is worse to come,
This is the problem of all law making, once it is written down, lawyers will argue years later on what is written,
and will feel no obligation to be concerned with the original intention.
However, much of the intention behind Dvarim is obvious. These rewards and curses, do not concern any
“afterlife”, although applying to each individual these are national and universal rules, a form of collective
conduct, more concerned with how we behave towards each other, than how we behave to god. It‟s all about
not cheating on others, being trustworthy, and generally “cleansing” the people. The basic intention
(fundamental interpretation notwithstanding) is a set of Humanistic rules.
And you know what? It works! Throughout history, poor ethnic minorities have suffered discrimination and
tend to play all too large a part in criminal activities. In this they are often encouraged by the majority who label
them as criminals, pre judging the facts. Prejudice is the fate of being a minority. Except for the Jews. Yes
they have always suffered discrimination and prejudice, but it is just that - a pre judging of the facts. Because
the facts are that Jews throughout their post-Biblical history, when they were always (until 1948) a minority
everywhere, have behaved well, very well.
In the USA and Canada Jews are 50% less likely than the general population to be committed for an offence
resulting in prison. That statistic is remarkably static, being true of the dirt poor religious community of
Tunisia, and of the German assimilated community, even during the early Nazi years, when the majority were
determined to incarcerate the Jews, the numbers of imprisoned Jews only rose when laws exclusively for Jews
Initially our own approach to crime and punishment was Talion, where punishment is identical to or equivalent
with the original crime (although the “curses” in Dvarim are hardly talionic!). In Hebrew this is called “middah
kaneged middah” famously translated as measure for measure. The Talmud concludes that this might be
instinctive, but it is not practical. Nor does it work as a deterrent. One can think of absurdities, the one eyed
man who pokes out the eye of another, do we then make him blind, is this measure for measure (is this the
In Muslim Sharia law, this still applies, the victims family can demand compensation or talion. Throughout the
world, there is still a popular view to enforce talion but only in the case of murder, otherwise it is not applied.
The Talmud concludes that virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment. Somehow, rich or poor, the
Jews behave well. In Israel they are becoming “normal” with crime rates approaching “normal” Western
countries (about 90%). This “normality” extends to some ethnic groups (of Jews) being more represented than
It seems that the intention within Dvarim works, as a community we are Humanistically law abiding. Does
anyone see a point in abandoning our heritage as part of a move towards being more “normal”? Doubling our
rate of crime, that would be the most obvious trend in “normalisation”. You will therefore excuse me if I
choose to remain “abnormal” and be proud of it. I never expected to have it easy being a Jew!
Deuteronomy 29.9-31.30 Parshot Nitzavim & Vayilech and the Haftarah of Isaiah
61.10-63.9 and 55.6-56.8
Nitzavim is from the word to stand or stand upright, the opening statement of the Parshah is “You stand this
day, all of you, before god”. Vayilech means “and he went” from the opening statement “and Moses went and
said all of this to the whole people”. Due to a tragedy this week, two parshot have been combined into one
“Chazak Ve‟amatz” – be strong and of good courage is the Biblical phrase taken from this week‟s parshah
which is on the badges of Hashomer Hatzair, the Youth Movement of which Mordechai Anilewiech was a
member, he was leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
This week will be Rosh Hashanna the Jewish New Year. (Happy New Year to everyone). It has become a
Diaspora privilege to celebrate New Year twice, because when communications were poor and they relied for an
exact calendar from Israel, they could not be sure on what day this fell, so to be certain they celebrated for two
days. In Israel Rosh Hashanna is only one day. We also get to celebrate the secular New Year, and how
different they are, the Jewish tradition to be sombre and reflect on the past year, whilst we are determined to
have fun on December 31st.
The actions this week of inhuman thugs, forces us to reflect. We are neither a military nor a political unit, but a
social community. One of our aims is pastoral care for our community and the world, although this week we
find ourselves unprepared. People need to share their complex set of feelings and reactions to the outrage, and
many will find comfort in the shared and familiar ancient texts of their culture.
We may feel that it is the very myths of those ancient cultures that led to the current atrocity of psychopaths.
Rational Science has subjected all of these books to radical scrutiny and found that they cannot be real history,
simply myths. Calling them myths today, is another way of saying that they are not true. This arises because
the modern world has simply lost the original sense of the mythical, assuming that these texts can only be read
as rational history.
Truth (according to Aldous Huxley) has been narrowed to what is “demonstrated and demonstrable”. This
leaves out art and music and implies that all behaviour is ultimately genetically determined. We still have much
reflection to do on the relationship of Myth to our new found Reality.
Let me take a very modem example, please indulge me. Hands up all those who bought “A Brief History of
Time” by Professor Stephen Hawking. Now hands up all those who read it to the end and understood it. You
may have seen Stephen on Television, he suffers from a degenerating physical disease, sits in a motorised
wheelchair and talks through a machine sounding like a space cyborg. He‟s a brilliant mathematician, and he
recently claimed that intelligent computers are set to take over the world, and we must modify our DNA to close
the gap. Myth has come full circle!
What Professor Hawking is saying, is that if it appears to be intelligent, then it is. He has failed utterly, to
distinguish between simulation and duplication. My daughter is a great fan of the weekly TV medical drama
called ER. It is a show full of very attractive, efficient and dynamic Doctors. She complains that her own local
doctor is indistinguishable in looks and manner from the local newspaper vendor, yet when she is ill she turns to
him. She knows that the actors in ER are just that, however convincing it may seem; they are merely a
simulation of her own local Doctor. Professor Hawking may be a bit of a clever chap, but my daughter knows
better than him the difference between simulation and duplication. Is the next step that the standard for good
human behaviour will be modelled on how computers simulate human “behaviour”?
In response to the question “How was it for you?” there is the mythical answer “the earth moved!”. Do you
respond that as you were in the same room, nothing of the sort happened. That the statement is simply not true.
Or do you realise that your partner is trying to express in words an emotion that cannot be so expressed and
therefore uses a shared myth that helps you both to understand.
Rationalists assume the myth is invalid because it is not “true”, theists think the opposite. Surely we know that
it neither (it is both valid and untrue) and both have misunderstood. We have the only safe pair of hands with
which to preserve this part of humanity.
Our ancient myths help us to understand what it means to be human, to express in the written word that which
cannot be reduced to factual words. It is the glue of our social cohesion, that helps us to reach ecstasy and
experience grief, to be inspired to write and appreciate great music, to build vast structures, and to desire a
society which works harmoniously for all. We achieve much without the myths but this week we discover
where the deficiencies are, for we struggle to provide the pastoral care that the atrocity requires.
May we prove capable of Peace amongst ourselves and throughout all mankind and that our actions contribute
to Peace for us and for the World.
“Na‟aseh shalom bimromeinu v‟ben kol bnei adam, v‟shema‟aseinu tormim leShalom alienu ve‟al kol
(My personal update of Kaddish, first written in Aramaic two thousands years ago, so that the ordinary person
could understand it and identify with it. Over the centuries it has acquired a cadence and rhythm that associated
it irrevocably with a public expression of Jewish grief).
Notes for this weeks parshah
In 1968 when Israel lost the submarine Dakar, Chief Rabbi Goren immediately found a way to overcome the
lack of witnesses to the death. According to “halacha” these women would have remained “chained” (in
Hebrew Agunot) and unable to remarry, unless a husband gave them a Jewish divorce (a “Get”), or his death
could be confirmed by a witness to the body. Goren found a way of releasing them, although today all Rabbis
now say that there can be no solution, and many orthodox women remain Agunot..
They have come to treat the myth as absolute truth, and the rationalists treat it as untrue. Both have been taken
in by the modern realism. As no doubt have the perpetrators of the recent atrocity, they too think their text have
to be absolute truth, they too misunderstand the role of myth. When they did understand myth they flourished,
and that was long before the Christians ever flourished.
Professor Hawking has been taken in by the mythology of the Turing test, first suggested by the British
Computer Scientist Alan Turing. He headed the team that cracked the enigma code of the Germans in World
War II. The test says that if two people are in a room, each with a terminal, and that one terminal is connected
to a computer and the other to a human being and they “converse”; if they cannot tell which terminal is which,
then the computer is deemed to be as intelligent as a human. Of course what it really shows is that human
beings have no simple test for the difference between simulation and duplication, between pretence and reality.
The reverse is also true, if the humans pretends to be the machine, we still might not know which was which.
Pretending a situation often gives us benefits, helping us to learn about the real thing, but we‟ve come to a pretty
pass, when we consider it to be more real than reality!
Deuteronomy 32.1-32.52 Parshot Ha’azinu plus the Haftarah of Samual II 22.1 22.51
Ha’azinu means listen, hearken, sometimes translated as “give ear” (this must have been a mediaeval usage,
Shakespeare wrote a speech with the phrase “lend me your ears”). The opening phrase is of a song which
starts “Listen Heavens and I will speak, and the Earth should hear my words”.
Most of this parshah is a song written in two parallel columns. Moses is ending his farewell speech, summoning
heaven and earth as witnesses to what will happen if the Jewish people sin. Going back over History Moses
shows how the people have been rescued from obliteration in each generation. He tells how Peoples with no
moral worth will subjugate Israel and scatter them across the world.
So what are you going to say when your Orthodox acquaintance tells you that Moses was summarising history
as he knew it, but it has continued to be true again and again, since then? Surely this is rational proof of the
“truth” of the Torah, and the “proof” that it is the words of god? Many people require this certainty, they want
to know what will happen (the gambling industry would be out of business if we really knew!). It isn‟t just with
religious texts. For reasons which are beyond me, many also read their horoscope avidly. Talking about ones‟
star sign is a flirting tool for some, but beyond that, frivolously or otherwise, many others follow their
Some of the conclusions have an element of truth. Fall (Autumn for English readers), is approaching, the days
get shorter and colder, and the behaviour of Society adapts appropriately. It makes sense that babies born in this
season will absorb some of the changing behaviour of their parents. We can expect babies born now, to share
behaviour characteristics that would subtly distinguish them from Spring babies. This is a more common sense
explanation for personality differences than the two dimensional pattern of stars that we see, which is actually in
four dimensions. Indeed some of the visible stars, may not exist, because what we see is the light they emitted a
long time ago. The common sense explanation is not always the correct one, but in the absence of firm
evidence, then it‟s much more likely that my own “Gemini” personality has more to do with being born in
Spring, than the two dimensional appearance of the stars. There is a grain of truth in personality types, and a
possible link to the season in which they were born. This small piece of feasible rational “evidence” has a
timing which fits with a two dimensional appearance of stars. It does not follow that one causes the other, but
does point to other factors with which personality and stars may be separately connected – such as the seasons
of the earth, which is actually governed by the Sun, not the Stars.
Horoscopes tell us what may happen, but knowledge of the future would be paradoxical. The very act of
knowing could change the future, then what we knew would not be true.
So it seems many have a need for some certainty without a requirement for rationality. Attempting a rational
explanation (as above with Astrology) does not give us insight into this trend.
It is the modern phenomenon ensuing from the Age of Reason which brings us to look at everything rationally.
Even my Orthodox acquaintances, argue their case on the basis of reason – however absurd the reasoning.
This last of the Five Books of Moses – the Torah, is obviously a compilation from different periods and
different authors. In previous Commentaries I have given a précis of some of the rational arguments for the fifth
book to have been written in 621 BCE (a fairly precise date!), about eight centuries after Moses was presumed
to have lived, and given this speech. Before then there must have been four books (at most!). There is a further
topical (for 621 BCE) symbolism in Moses handing over to Joshua, as the King was Hosea, had a Hebrew name
(Hoshia) which sounds like Yehoshua.
Surely the “certainty” so many seek, in so many ways (including “certainty” about death and what “happens
next”) originates partly from being so dependent upon, yet so uncertain about, the behaviour of everyone else.
Recent events demonstrate that we cannot rely on very basic moral restraint in the behaviour of others. We
cannot depend on others being human, even in any elementary understanding of the term.
Until the Age of Reason we depended upon moral restraint emanating from Ancient texts. It was far from
perfect (by modern standards), but humanity and civilisation developed. All three basic monotheistic religions
enjoyed periods in which they flourished, whether that was ethically, technically or artistically. Eventually but
gradually the “mythology as truth” proved to be an impediment (remember Galileo being told that the Earth did
not go around the Sun, which the Catholic Church conceded just a few years ago was a mistake?). As a result
we entirely discarded the mythology, reinterpreting the very word “myth” to mean false. But only from a
rational point of view was it so.
Now both sides apply “truth” and reason and reach opposite conclusions. Each considers the other to be
inhuman. Yet the search for more certainty can only come from having some clue as to how the “other” will
behave. This can only arise from shared values, and that cannot depend on reason alone. Every human being
has a thin outer shell of reason surrounding a raging core of unconscious, irrational and primitive impulses that
effect behaviour in profound ways, and over which they have little control. The assumption that we can reduce
everything about humanity to reason, although laudable, is the fallacy of both sides to the debate. Is it
reasonable to be a Jew?
Being Jewish is, in many ways, very unlike being Christian or Moslem or Black or English. It is part of an
ancient culture and mythology that has been one (of a number) of the central themes in the development of
becoming human. Being Jewish means having a specific ethnic background, perhaps even a slightly different
genetic makeup. Being Jewish means being a member of one of the most ancient of ethnic groups, with a
recorded history and mythology that predates most others, not just by centuries but by millennia. Being Jewish
means both being dispersed amongst most nations, and having a homeland. Being Jewish means being part of a
people whose contribution to humanity in so many endeavours, overwhelms their tiny numbers. Being Jewish
means passing onto our grandchildren a set of values that evolve from our mythology. There may or may not be
a god and who we are may simply be the consequence of a vast series of events almost from the start of human
civilisation until today. We may not be chosen, but we ignore the responsibility of who we are to the detriment
of all humankind.
If mythology brought us to this point, it is mythology that enables us to grieve collectively in the face of
tragedy, enables us to work towards shared values and enables us to have increased reliance on the behaviour of
others. If both sides can abandon the sole test of pure rationality and understand that we must relate to each
other as complete human beings, not simply as reasoning machines, but people who are sentient, know how it
feels to be loved (or not), to be respected by our peers (or not), to enjoy our childhood and our children; and to
realise how much of this is simply not objective and never can be. The role of mythology is to put into language
part of this subjective world, which helps us to understand what it means to be a community of human beings.
We Secular Jews, with our mythology have a unique role (no-one allows you to remain a Jew and abandon the
role). Can we fulfil that responsibility whilst learning (and then teaching the world) how to abandon the rational
test where it is inappropriate, how to show that “ethnic” , “myth” and “secular” are not mutually exclusive
terms, all this whilst still being Jews? Would not that help the world – Halachah claims as a central tenet –
tikkun olam – making the world a better place. As Theodore Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream” (im
tirzu, ein zo agadah). We can do it, but do we “will it”?
10 sayings Beha‟alotcha
10 commandments ............................................ 79 when you light (the lamp) ................................. 64
death of ............................................................. 69 (on the mountain) ............................................. 58
agriculture ............................................................. 58 Beshalach
Aharei Mot (let go or sent forth) .......................................... 49
(after the death) ................................................ 55 Canaan
Amalekites promise of ......................................................... 66
a people remembered only for something bad .. 49 Capital punishment ............................................... 57
an eye for an eye ................................................... 57 charity ................................................................... 55
Astrology .............................................................. 85 Chukat
Bad mouthing ....................................................... 53 "the law of" ....................................................... 69
Balaam Chumash ............................................................... 48
Preist of the Moabites ....................................... 71 Conquer Nature ..................................................... 79
Balak court martialled ..................................................... 51
King of the Moabites ........................................ 71 Cush
BaMidbar Biblical word for Africa ................................... 64
in the desert ...................................................... 60 David
Bechukotai 2nd King ........................................................... 68
(according to my Law)...................................... 58 Delilah .................................................................. 62
Democracy ............................................................ 62 Mishneh Torah
Devarim "subsidary Torah" alternative name for Dvarim or
Deuteronomy, Hebrew for "words" .................. 77 Deuteronomy................................................ 77
dibrot Misogyny .............................................................. 55
10 Commandments ........................................... 79 Naso
sayings - the name for the 10 commandments .. 48 Numbers 4.21 meaning to take ......................... 62
"since" or "it came to pass" .............................. 81 monk or ascetic, spiritual person ...................... 62
Elijah Parshat V‟etchananen
Prophet ............................................................. 73 "and I beseeched ............................................... 79
Emor Pinhas.................................................................... 73
(speak) .............................................................. 57 re‟aicha
Enigma Secret code machine of the German Navy60 (neighbour or acquaintance) ............................ 55
Galileo .................................................................. 85 Re‟eh
ger "see" or "behold" .............................................. 83
(stranger, more modern usage - convert) ......... 55 red heifer
Habiru ................................................................... 66 an obscure biblical ritual sacrifice .................... 69
to go forward, the name of the Jewsih "rules" .. 48 4th King, unpopular, son of Solomon ............... 68
Hillel repentance ............................................................. 48
1st CE Rabbi around the time of Jesus ............. 58 rotation of crops .................................................... 58
Holocaust .............................................................. 51 Sabbath Year ......................................................... 58
homophobia .......................................................... 55 Samson.................................................................. 62
homosexual ........................................................... 55 Samuel
Hosea Prophet, last of the Judges. ..................... See Saul
Prophet in the time of King Hezekiah .............. 60 Saul
Humanism 1st King ............................................................ 68
précis of a palimpsest ....................................... 82 sexual intimacy ..................................................... 55
Jealousy ................................................................ 62 shachen
Jephtah (one who lives near you - neighbour) ............... 55
Anglicised name of the Prophet Yiftach ........... 69 Shakespeare .......................................................... 57
Prophet ............................................................. 75 meaning "send" ................................................. 66
second spies ...................................................... 66 (eighth) ............................................................. 52
Jesus...................................................................... 57 Shoftim
Jethro .................................................................... 51 judges ............................................................... 85
Joshua ................................................................... 66 slander ................................................................... 53
(holy) ................................................................ 55 3rd King............................................................ 68
KiTavo Son of Man
when you come................................................. 89 mistranslation of the Hebrew ............................ 72
KiTitse talking ass ............................................................. 71
when you go out ............................................... 87 Tazriah
Korach (conceived) ....................................................... 53
A prince divinely killed for questioning the authority thearchies
of Aaron ....................................................... 68 rule by gods ...................................................... 49
kosher ................................................................... 52 theism
Lashon Hara absentee tribal chieftan ..................................... 82
(slander, libel) .................................................. 53 in loco parentis ................................................. 82
Leper ..................................................................... 53 Trial by Ordeal ...................................................... 62
libel ....................................................................... 53 Tsav (command) ................................................... 48
Lunar calendar Yeshiva
the Jewish lunar calendar.................................. 50 Jewish Theoligcal Seminary ............................. 60
Mark Twain .......................................................... 67 Yiftach
matrilineal descent ................................................ 51 Judge, military leader ....................................... 69
Tribe or Branch ................................................ 75 hebrew for Jethro ............................................. 51
(Leper) .............................................................. 53 Prophet ............................................................. 64
Prophet (in Hebrew Michah) ............................ 71 wife of Moses, a Midianite woman .................. 64
Glossary of Biblical Hebrew
Breshit Hebrew name for Genesis meaning “In the beginning”, this is also the name of the opening passage
Parsha (prural Parshot) “passage” of the Torah (Old Testament)