judaism · sermon · torah · Uncategorized

The most boring part of the Torah

Genesis 10 is the most boring part of the Torah. Gandhi said it sent him to sleep. Militant atheists hold it up as a paragon of inane irrelevances. Although it is very clearly part of this week’s section of the Torah, everybody skips over it. You won’t hear any Liberal or Reform synagogues read it out this weekend. Even Chabad’s lectionary, known for keeping in even the driest sections for the sake of tradition, skips over Genesis 10 as though it’s not there.

It’s the genealogies. The lists of all the people who begat other people from Noah to Jobab. All the sons of Shem, Ham and Japheth roll off the tongue and over the heads of the readers. We can see why people would want to cut it out. In the rest of this section of the Torah, God floods the planet, Noah builds an ark, saves Noah, along with his family and favourite animals, then dramatically hangs a rainbow in the sky to symbolise a promise never to destroy the world again. At the end, after we’ve skipped over Genesis 10, the people attempt to build a tower so tall it can reach Heaven, only to be struck down and separated into many nations with many languages. By comparison with everything else, Genesis 10 is boring.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read it. The Torah is a carefully crafted text. Nothing gets in there by accident. The genealogies aren’t just a list of names that break up two well-known stories; they’re integral to the Genesis narrative. They tell us something deep about what kind of book the Torah is, who it’s for, and what makes it different from every other book that’s gone before. I find that in the boring bits, whether in a book or a relationship or a friendship, you find out the most important stuff. You find out who somebody really is.

It might help to put this text into the context of other Ancient Near Eastern prologues. It was common, in the civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean, to begin with a list of people. These were the kings and their years leading up to the present day. For people in these societies, years were marked by the reign of their rulers and stories were told in relation to kingdoms. The Torah begins differently. The ancient Israelites were suspicious of monarchy and authority. They only managed a brief spell under a united kingdom, preferring instead to unite by their loyalty to God rather than to a person. For them, authority comes not from might but from history and tradition. So their story does not begin with a list of kings. It begins with a seemingly innocuous list of ancestors.

On closer inspection, these ancestors are not really people at all. Look, for example, at the descendants of Ham: Cush, Mitzrayim, Put and Canaan. These names are familiar. We know Mitzrayim as Egypt, the place our ancestors left in the Exodus. We know Canaan as Palestine, the place they entered. Put, according to Josephus, was the founder of Libya. Cush is commonly identified with Sudan. These are the nations of north-east Africa.

We see too the names Babel (Babylon), Accad (Akkadia) and Ashur (Assyria). These are the names of nations in the Near East. Later, scholars will come to identify Ashkenaz with Germany and Tarshish with Spain. The point is clear: this is a universal text. It is a story not of one great empire and its kings but of everybody. In this, the most boring bit of Torah, we find its most essential message: universalism. We are, all of us, part of this planet, sharing in its fortunes. We are, all of us, the children of Noah, descended from one common ancestor, connected by a universal God.

It encourages us to value unity in diversity – we may all come from a common ancestor, but we have gone in many different directions, all of which are to be celebrated. I think that’s the reason why it’s sandwiched between the stories of Noah and Babel. In Noah, people are violent and angry, so God floods the whole world. We realise that if the world floods, we all drown together. Our fates are so deeply intertwined that whatever we do to the world will affect all of us. In Babel, everybody speaks the same language and tries to build a tower together. But they are so single-minded that they subject everybody to the same conditions. They have no respect for difference or the unique dignity of each other, so God must separate them and diversify their languages. They needed difference.

Genesis 10, the history of all the nations of the world, combines the two messages of universalism and diversity. Yes, we all come from Noah and yes, we are all different. Yes, we share in this world, and yes, we are all part of different and exciting nations. Yes, we are all the same. And, yes, we are all different. This is a message that we can all share in what’s good in the world if we can all see what’s good and different in each other.

The nations of the world will, inevitably, look different in a decade to how they look now. The UK will most likely leave the European Union. Catalonia may or not become independent. Perhaps our Scotland will hold another referendum; Ireland and Northern Ireland might re-examine their borders. We will probably see new movements to restructure states all over the world. New nations will unite, new nations will split.

Separating or uniting need not be inherently good or bad things. What matters is the spirit in which they are done. If people split based on malice and anger, as did the generation before the flood, they won’t succeed. If people join out of a desire to be homogenous and to force everyone to conform, as did the generation at Babel, they will fail. Only if they can respect difference, uniting in a spirit of diversity, will people succeed.

tower of babel

 

 

high holy days · liturgy · sermon · Uncategorized

Is the Kol Nidrei prayer angry enough?

There are two versions of the Kol Nidre prayer. One in Hebrew; one in Aramaic. One ancient; one more modern. One looking forward; one looking backwards.

The original, older prayer in Aramaic, has these words:

All vows, oaths and promises which we make to God from this Yom Kippur to the next and are not able to fulfil – may all such vows between ourselves and God be annulled. May they be void and of no effect. May we be absolved of them and released from them. May these vows no longer be considered vows, these oaths no longer be considered oaths, and these promises no longer be considered promises.

The reformers decided to substitute it for a Hebrew alternative, and you can probably see why. Before we have made any promises, we announce our intention to annul them. We cancel every vow in advance. This was deeply worrying to many rabbis throughout history. The prayer was used as fodder by antisemites to accuse Jews of being duplicitous and untrustworthy.

Many Jews worried that it gave off the wrong impression. More than that, they were worried for their own integrity. One of the most important principles for the earliest reformers was that they would not say with their mouths what they did not believe in their hearts. So they scrapped prayers that talked about their expectations for the Messiah or their desire to build a Temple. They got rid of prayers cursing their enemies or extolling the greatness of one nation over another.

It was inevitable, then, that they would have to remove the Aramaic Kol Nidre prayer. Not only did they not believe in it, the prayer was actually about not believing the words they were saying. So they substituted it for a new version in Hebrew: “Source of Our Being, accept the vows of the children that they will turn away from evil, and walk in the ways of your Law of righteousness and justice.” Our siddur includes a reading from the American Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner to drive home the point about keeping promises:

All vows, promises, and commitments made in Your presence –

May we be given the strength to keep them

[…]

We meant them when we made them,

But distractions were many, and our wills were weak.

This time may we be strong enough;

May our better selves prevail

I want to ask: what do we gain and what do we lose by changing the prayer in this way? I think it is evident what we do gain. These words are so much more comfortable to say. It is so much more credible that we want to keep our promises than that we want to annul them.

But perhaps this very gain is also our loss. I recently ran a retreat for Jewish activists, including some members of this congregation and many from elsewhere. One participant had grown up Orthodox but found she no longer had a home there. She had turned away from Judaism and was now, tentatively making her way back. At the end of a morning prayer service, she said to me: “The trouble is, you’re making Judaism too easy! Liberal Judaism cuts out all the anger and the edge.”

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. Prayer should be comforting and uplifting, but if it is only those things it is incomplete. If our prayers are going to speak to real life, they need to speak to every emotion we experience. They should encapsulate our sadness, our anger and our frustrations, as well as our happiness and joy. This year, I realised how inadequate my prayers were when I looked up at the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower and realised that I did not have the words to mourn such callous loss of life. We need prayers that reflect our anger.

The original Aramaic prayer has something edgy about it. Tonight, we are told, God’s face comes closest to the earth. God’s presence is with us more than any other night. And what do we do, faced with our maker? We set out a list of demands: that every promise we make should be annulled and every vow irrelevant. Not the mistakes we’ve made with other people, but specifically we annul our promises to God. Worse than that, we say we want them all forgiven in advance. We haven’t made a single promise and already we want to annul it. That is a pretty audacious prayer.

The Hebrew alternative, though more honest to the best of what we mean, might be less honest to how we feel. Coming to synagogue on Kol Nidre can feel like a big deal. For many of the people who attend synagogues across the country this evening, this will be only the time they come all year. That’s great, because this prayer was written expressly so that people who had fallen out of participation could join in again. In Eastern Europe, it helped Jews who had fallen out with their friends and family to reconnect with the community. In medieval Spain, it helped Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity to keep up a sense of commitment, even if they were too afraid the rest of the year. For those people coming, isn’t there something more honest, more empowering, about annulling vows and expressing that anger than about resolving to be a more faithful person? Don’t we all, no matter our piety, come to prayer with a little bit of frustration and anxiety, especially as we enter Yom Kippur?

As well as a difference in tone, I think there’s a difference in timing. I find the idea of time in the two prayers really interesting. In the Aramaic prayer, we annul the promises that we’re going to make in the future. In the Hebrew one, we repent for our sins and we resolve to be better in the present. But the language was changed to Hebrew by the reformers because they thought that the more ancient language was the more authentic. They reached deeper into the past in order to be better in the present. Between these two prayers, I feel like there is a conflict not just over what we want to say, but over where we are and in what direction we are going. On this most holy night, with God closest to us, where do we really stand in time? Who really are we?

These prayers seem to stand in conflict, but they don’t have to. There are good reasons for the Hebrew prayer and good reasons for the Aramaic one. Perhaps the answer is we need both. We need to be humble and we need to be angry. We need to be faithful and we need to be honest. We need to repent of the sins of the past and annul the vows of the future because, when we do so, we can stand in that Infinite Space where all sins are forgiven and all promises are forgotten. We can greet God with our whole selves, complete with all our emotions, ready to say: I’m sorry. I’ll do better again next year.

Gmar chatima tovah.

kol nidrei

This sermon was originally given for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Friday 29th September (Erev Yom Kippur 5778) and originally published by Leo Baeck College