The idea that, as William Blake put it, “opposition is true friendship”, has been one of the faint consolations in Jewish martyrology. Opposition by the ancient pagan world, by Greece and Rome, by Christian Europe and Islam, though often painfully unjust and criminally destructive, has in some ways fructified Judaism and enabled it to adapt to change, and to survive and grow.
It is a beautiful spring morning. The months (years?) of planning are over and the barmitzvah boy is about to be called up to read from the Torah, the book at the heart of the Jewish faith in which he is symbolically taking his place this Shabbat. Nervously, he lifts the piece of paper on which is his dvar Torah, his explanation of the portion he is about to read, and its significance for him as he becomes a Jewish adult. Glancing at the congregation, he begins to read words he has prepared on the subject of … menstruation. Or leprosy.
There is a strong scientific consensus that humanly-caused climate change is real. It is already contributing to flooding in Bangladesh and drought in Mali. Alaskan villagers have become the world’s first climate-change refugees: tragically, they will not be the last. The human and planetary costs of our extravagant behaviour are becoming clearer to us and the prospect is alarming.
Environmental challenges are today at the top of the public policy agenda in most Western countries. But why is environmentalism still a marginal concern in Jewish thought and practice?
Stories need careful handling. Stories may be the secret of survival; stories can also kill. The way we tell our people’s story, how we cast our national narrative, the place we give to self, to others and to God, not only reflects but determines our destiny.
Seder is the great night of the Jewish story. We have always been mindful of how we tell it. The Haggadah is Judaism’s most frequently printed, most variously interpreted, and most fascinatingly subverted, text.
Nothing typifies the ambivalence of Jewish life today more than the famous midrash repeated in the Talmud. Rebbi Shmuel Bar Nachman, in the name of Rebbi Yonatan, said at the Red Sea: “The angels wanted to sing a song before the Holy One, Blessed is He, but He rebuked them, saying ‘My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you want to sing to me?’ Rebbi Yose Ben Hanina said: ‘Even if He will not rejoice, He allows others to’” (Sanhedrin 39b).
Why is this year’s erev Pesach different from all others? Because this year, Wednesday April 8, will be the day on which Jews have the rare opportunity to recite the prayers of the service of blessing the sun, or, rather, the prayers by which we bless the Creator of the sun.
According to the Hamas charter, Palestine is an Islamic endowment “for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection” which no one may renounce. The Arab-Israeli conflict is seen as not just a political dispute but an implacably religious one.
It became an iconic image: a book by an award-winning writer burned on the streets of Britain. In September 1988, Salman Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses, which contained an irreverent alternative life of the Prophet Muhammad. While literary critics debated its artistic merits, elsewhere a storm was gathering. Many Muslims felt deeply affronted by what they saw as an assault on their faith and, in January 1989, some took to the streets in Bradford to demonstrate, culminating in the now notorious book-burning.
I love finding new messages whenever one returns to biblical texts. As a teenager, I discovered that Mordecai sounded like the Sumerian deity Marduk, who was adopted as the patron god of Babylon, and Esther sounded like Astarte, or Ishtar, the Mediterranean goddess of fertility, sex and much else besides.