The family gift that's our link in the chain of the covenant

Rabbi Tony Bayfield has given his grandchildren an antique Torah pointer for their bnei mitzvah. This is why


God doesn’t make-decision making easy, despite what know-it-all fanatics of every hue may insist. This is particularly true when it comes to the enveloping culture into which we are all born, educated, work, live and breathe.

What do we accept and what do we reject? What do we embrace as a blessing and what do we resist as a curse? It’s always been a challenge, as this time of year, between Chanukah and Purim, embraced by Greek culture and Persian culture, reminds us.

As a young congregational rabbi in the wild frontier lands of North-West Surrey, I was particularly conscious of the decisions we needed to make in relation to personal and communal observance: to embrace the benefit of the car or resist it; to welcome the liberation offered by many, varied medical advances or to be suspicious.

When I moved, first to the Sternberg Centre then to the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, I became a movement builder. My focus shifted from issues of observance to values. How should we respond to the bracing winds of egalitarianism and shocking insights into abuses of power — within society, faith communities and families? Which values blowing through modern Western culture should a Reform Movement regard as revelatory and which were those of an exploitative, hostile secular culture?

Over the last decade, my personal focus has moved again, from observance and values to theology, the third in a Jewish trilogy of Israel, Torah and God (as the Zohar framed it 700 years ago), the lens through which the whole of Judaism can be examined, studied and expressed.

More and more I’ve come to see that it’s the same journey — of reason and experience — on which our founding ancestors embarked 2,000 years ago. The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud asked repeatedly what of Greco-Roman and Persian cultures they could learn from, absorb. And what must be resisted at all costs.

In November, my third grandchild, Zachary, celebrated his barmitzvah. It wasn’t how he or his parents wanted it to be but, thanks to the technological blessings of contemporary culture, he was able to leyn from a Sefer Torah, at home, with just his parents and brothers and — via Zoom — with his wider family, community (Alyth) and family friends from Romania to Israel.

It was more than better than nothing and emphasised how much worse off we would have been had Covid struck even 15 years ago. Yet I found myself telling him just how counter-cultural his Jewish theology could be — and had the yad which was my present to him engraved as a reminder!

Many years ago, my wife Linda and I were in Venice and visited the old Borghetto quarter. As we were leaving, we walked past an antique shop and noticed a yad in the window. It had been made in the Russian Empire, of silver and ebony. On impulse, we bought it, promising ourselves that, if in the future we were fortunate to have grandchildren, it would go to the eldest on her or his bat/bar mitzvah and then be passed down the line.

Devastatingly, Linda died in 2003, not living to see the fulfilment of her dreams. But ten and a half years later, the only grandchild she knew, Francesca, leyned her portion using the Venice yad. Three years later still, it was her brother Oliver’s turn but Chessy was hesitant to hand on the yad; it was from her beloved Grandma Linda and, understandably, she asked if she could keep it.

So, I bought Oli an antique yad for his barmitzvah. And Zachary one for his. I had Zachary’s yad inscribed declaring in Hebrew: “These are the generations of Zachary, son of Daniel and Lisa and grandson of Tony and Linda.”

Zachary and I had studied his sidrah, v’eleh Toldot, “these are the generations” in my garden, socially distanced and frequently windswept. I told him how central to my theology was a certain section of Talmud. In it, God, impatient with all the dithering, holds Sinai over the Israelites: “Accept the covenant or die here in the wilderness.”

Immediately an objection is raised — surely a covenant made under duress is void? But the Talmud ignores the objection. As I said to Zachary, the covenant is never void. It may be sociologically voidable - significant numbers of Jews 
act as if it is — but it’s never theologically void.

We live in a culture which tells us that we are first and foremost autonomous individuals, free to make our own choices, do what feels right for us. But, in this respect, Judaism is determinedly counter-cultural. We don’t live in a vacuum; to a significant extent we are who and where we’ve come from. We have responsibilities to the past, present and future which go beyond personal preference. We are links in a family chain that stretches back to the involuntary covenant at Sinai, a chain only as strong as its weakest links.

V’eleh Toldot, these are your generations Zach, an un(a)voidable, counter-cultural, theological statement. And I added: I hope you’re blessed with children and grandchildren to pass your yad onto, Zachary. And I hope they pass it down the line!

The paperback edition of Rabbi Bayfield’s book, Being Jewish Today – Confronting the Real Issues, was published this month by Bloomsbury, £14.99. JC subscribers can enjoy 25 per cent discount

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