Sermon: Emor – Keeping the Tree of Life Alive

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 18 May 2016

Behind me is a potent symbol of Judaism which you will see in Synagogues all around the world.  It is a Tree of Life.

Synagogues evoke this symbol in many different ways. Alyth’s is literally a tree with the seven species of Israel cast in. Look closely and you can make out wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates from Deuteronomy 8:8. Our Tree of Life is a nest for several birds of freedom and it carries on the branches the first ten Hebrew letters representing the Ten Commandments.

Some Synagogues have the quotation from Proverbs Chapter 3 above their arks: “It is a Tree of Life to those who hold it fast”.   Most Synagogues, including ours, will have at least one Torah mantle embroidered with an image of the Tree of Life.

Every Synagogue will sing in their Torah service just as we did:  “Eits chayyim hi la-machazikim bah, v’tom’cheha m’ushar. D’racheha darchei no’am, v’chol n’tivoteha shalom. It is a Tree of Life to all who grasp it and those who hold fast to it are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17-18) We sing this just before we read Torah and we sing this as we return the Torah to the ark.

Why do we sing this verse, write this verse, and symbolise this verse in Jewish creativity? Because we have interpreted it to mean Torah.

Torah is the Tree of Life whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all of whose paths are peace. But were you listening to what Natasha read just now from Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24) when she read to us from Torah? It was hardly pleasant nor conducive to peace. How can, what seems at face value, in Hebrew Pshat, to be keeping a class of people away from funerals, discriminating against women and banning the disabled from roles just due to their bodies not being up some standard of perfection be a Tree of Life?

It is a big problem in Reform and Liberal Synagogues and I suspect would be a problem in Synagogues to the right of the Jewish spectrum from us were they too to translate the Torah portions into the vernacular, as indeed once all Jews used to. We know they did because the Targumim, translations of the Torah into Aramaic and Greek, still exist from two thousand years ago together with instructions in our Talmud as to how these translations should be delivered (e.g.Berachot 8a-b).

If we translate everything in Torah then we hear this passage today, we hear the passages in Genesis about the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, we hear about the apparently divinely sanctioned violence against the people who were already in the land of Canaan when the Israelites arrived at the end of their journey across the desert in Numbers and Deuteronomy, we hear detail after detail of the building of the Tabernacle the desert temple in the Book of Exodus.

These are not the pleasant paths that Etz Chayim Hi, it is a Tree of Life, leads us to expect. In Orthodox Judaism there is no choice – the whole of the Torah is to be read word by word every year, but there is no time or space given to translation. In Reform Judaism we make a selection from each Torah portion hear it read in Hebrew and translate it or give ourselves time to read a translation. What are we to do with the passages which are tough to read and hear?

One of the things that we do is to omit reading them. In Reform and Liberal Judaism we read our Torah according to a three year long cycle. We read from the same Torah portions as all other Jews every week, with the occasional one week slippage because we follow the Israeli cycle of readings when a festival has taken place on a Shabbat.

However we read one third of each portion each week, this year the first third. But we don’t read everything. Our luach, which selects for us passages of 12-25 verses every week to hear and understand, inevitably does not cover every word of Torah. With the exception of weeks like this one tends to omit those passages that on face value might be the most troubling, the ones about blood and gore, violence and incest which are all there in Torah to hear and study.

I have never been comfortable with these omissions. I feel that Torah is there to be heard and grappled with, to be studied and argued over. It is not a feel good document and all the better for it. We can’t follow the dictum of the fabulously named Rabbi ben Bag Bag to turn it and turn it for all is in it (Avot 5:26) if we let bits drop out because we are a bit ashamed of them.

But what then are we to do with the texts in Torah that trouble us? Erica Martin, in the Spring (2016) edition of CCAR Journal makes a very helpful attempt to set out the choice in front of us when, as in the title of her article, the Good Book isn’t.

Keep in mind the text that Natasha read about barring anyone with a visible disability from being a priest in the Jewish Temple System.  Erica Martin, a Bible Scholar (at Seattle University) presents six choices of what to do with this text.

1)  You could accept it – it is the word of God and it is perfect and if you don’t like it then the problem is with you and not with the Torah.

2)  You could avoid it – just don’t read it out.  We could have assigned Natasha a different part of the Torah portion Emor, such as the lovely list of Jewish festivals just one chapter on, and while we are at it we could read just the first eight chapters of the Book of Esther on Purim and omit the chapters with the messy violence at the end.

3)  We could explain it away. This way we say that the passage is only relevant to its historical context, to attitudes to disability of its time, or we can reinterpret it, like some Rabbis have done with the passages on leprosy saying that really Metzora (leprosy) should be read Motzei Ra (spreading gossip) and ignore their original subject matter.

4)  We could omit it – editing down the Torah to a expurgated version such as used to be published for school children with all the tough bits (i.e. the sex, violence and misogny) taken out. My old school bible was just like this though of course I didn’t realise it at the time because you don’t miss what you don’t know. But really this is a con trick on our next generation.

5)  You could opt out of the system – saying that because the Torah contains these difficult passages it’s interesting but it’s no longer holy or a religious document. This position would say you don’t need Torah to be Jewish and those “who cannot tolerate the disturbing bits shouldn’t have to suffer through them or read around them” (Erica Martin, Preaching Around the Text, CCAR Journal, Spring 2016 p33).

Of finally (6)  you can use it. You don’t  “dismiss or avoid the disturbing texts” (ibid p34).  Rather you hear them, share them and then argue with them.  In every generation there has been misogyny, xenophobia, racism, greed, hatred, abuses of power.  As Erica Martin writes “These aren’t just Torah problems they are completely current societal problems. Some Torah texts offend us because they …uphold…ideas and practices that cause us real pain, right now, all around us. Let’s talk about these troubling and taboo issues. Let’s wrestle with them. Let us come together and make a plan to act on our convictions as a Kehillah Kedoshah, a holy community.”

Taking Natasha’s portion as an example (Leviticus 21:16-24), just as this text bans the physically disabled from the top position in society, the priesthood, so to in our day. For every Warwick Davis, the actor living with dwarfism, and David Blunkett, the former Home secretary who is blind, and for every medal winning Paralympian there are thousands of people with the same disability who never get to live up to their potential because of the blocks that our society still puts in their way.  To remind ourselves every three years at least that our holy set up  once excluded such people tells us to address the lack in our day too.  We can then make an acccesiblity and inclusion plan to address this unholy problem – you saw a little bit of it in our Shalom Supper last night and you see a tiny bit in the provision of a ramp to reach our Bimah.

Torah is not a feel good document.  Torah is a record of our people’s encounter with holiness and the challenges that this will always bring.  It is organic – it is a Tree of Life.  It is our work to take the messages Torah gives and the difficulties it makes us encounter and turn them in to paths of pleasantness and peace.  In every generation.

That is why we read Torah today, why we continue to interpret it and indeed to argue against it when the values of Judaism tell us we must.

The alternative is a Torah that’s just a piece of paper to be read verbatim end of story, and paper is a dead Tree of Life.

Let us hear Torah in its fullness, turn it and turn it generation to generation and let it bring us to return to God – renewing our days as of old.  Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuvah, chaddeish yameinu k’kedem. (Lamentations 5:21)