Sermon for Shabbat Mishpatim

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 27 February 2020

I don’t know if the name Pavlov rings a bell or not, but earlier this week I found I was giving a sort of rabbinic Pavlovian response to my colleague (but nevertheless my friend) Rabbi Josh. He was telling me about a book he’s reading to which my almost involuntary response was “Is there a sermon in it?” When rabbis get together and talk about a film or play they’ve seen, a book they’ve read, an exhibition they’ve been to, one of the usual questions is precisely that one: “Is there a sermon in it?”

So it was that a couple of weeks ago, going around the current British Museum exhibition on Troy, I found I was asking myself, without even thinking consciously about it: “Is there a sermon here?” Well, we’re all about to find out!

Much of the exhibition – surprise, surprise – is about the Trojan Wars. According to classical sources, primarily Homer’s Iliad, the war began after the Trojan prince Paris, kidnapped Helen. Her jilted husband, King Menelaus of Sparta, convinced his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, to lead an expedition to rescue her. After a 10 year siege and many deaths, with the help of the Trojan horse, he defeats the Trojans.

On the face of it, the war seems like a conflict between Sparta and Troy. But it is actually a war among the gods on Mount Olympus. Some side with the Trojans, others with the Spartans. Going around the exhibition reminded me that what is going on is a sort of cosmic game of chess between the gods. In this game, human beings are chess pieces – indeed they are merely pawns – unknowingly manipulated by the gods, all the time believing that they are the masters of their own destiny.

It’s a scenario so very alien to how we understand the relationship in Judaism between God and human beings. Obviously we’re not talking about gods or some sort of celestial conflict between gods, as in the Iliad. But is there any sense in which God can be seen as manipulative in the same way that the gods appear to be in the drama of the Trojan War?

In the Bible, God is creator, ruler, liberator from slavery, lawgiver, judge, shepherd, man of war and so on. God is powerful and yet accessible. God speaks to human beings and can even appear contradictory. So God tells Abraham to take his son, Isaac, and sacrifice him. But when push comes to shove, God stops Abraham from doing just that. The point is that, in the Jewish understanding, God is in dialogue with human beings. It’s not a dialogue of equals, to be sure; but in that dialogue human beings can challenge God. So when God tells Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed, Abraham throws down the gauntlet before God, accusing God of wanting to kill innocent and guilty arbitrarily: “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justly?” (Genesis 18:25) God speaks to human beings through the medium of the prophets, with some of the most sublime ethical and moral teachings. At no point, therefore, is there any sense that we human beings are just pawns in the real action which is happening ‘up there’, as it were, but not down here on earth.

So, for example, in the morning blessings we speak of God as clothing the naked, providing for our every need, freeing those who are bound and so on, Jewish tradition understands that as an exhortation to ethical and moral behaviour on our part. In other words, we are capable of imitatio Dei – the imitation of God. Not just capable but something that is required of us.

The Biblical view of God has its own problematic to be sure. But I certainly prefer a view of God that recognises the possibility of dialogue and relationship, rather than being manipulated by powers beyond my control, of which I am not even aware.

And the exhibition of course has the pottery and sculpture depicting aspects of the Trojan War. There’s a fantastic bust, supposedly of Helen, in this exhibition. And seeing the statuary, marvellously executed, many pieces stunningly beautiful, makes me reflect, as it often does, on why until the 19th century, there was little, if any, of a tradition of sculpture in Jewish life. Many think that Jews don’t do art because of the second commandment about not making images. There’s some truth in that, but there has never been an outright prohibition of such things.

In one famous – and relevant – discussion in the Mishnah they discuss whether one can have a statue of Aphrodite in the bathhouse. Significantly the discussion doesn’t focus on whether it is permitted or forbidden to make such a statue, but on the purpose of making it. The discussion concludes: “you can make a statue of Aphrodite for the bathhouse; you cannot make a bathhouse for Aphrodite.” (Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:4) In other words, if you are dedicating a bathhouse to Aphrodite, then a statue becomes almost idolatrous. But it is less problematic if, on the other hand, you want there purely for decoration.

In a marvellous essay Two World Views Compared, Leo Baeck grapples with this question. (The Pharisees and other Essays, Shocken, New York 1966, pp125-145)

His starting point is that human beings are afraid of change and want to take refuge in the idea of something that is fixed and unchanging. “The eye that beholds the world,” he writes, “can only possess the instant and therefore really possesses nothing…. only in the work of art, it was felt can we discover the blissful land of the always-the-same.” (p125) Here you could find meaning and duration. The artist tries to express that which is permanent, the essence, the unchangeable thing.“ Only the work of art is,” says Baeck, “only the work of art is true.” (p126)

The ultimate Greek artistic medium was sculpture. It, above all, sought to capture, to fix the unchangeable, to be the ultimate expression of an idea, and an ideal – beauty, love, strength and so on. The aim was perfection.

It’s interesting and probably not coincidental, that in many European languages, the past tense is called the ‘perfect.’ That which is past, is perfect, it has in some way been encapsulated, seized, grasped. And so, argues Baeck, in that way of thinking, “finality, pastness, becomes the ideal. The ideal is future-less” (p130.) So in the Jewish understanding, the ideal is almost inherently unethical because ethics is a striving towards the future, towards a not-yet realised better form of behaviour and way of relating to each other.

If the Greeks struggled to express the holiness of beauty, Judaism took the other path – striving to express the beauty of holiness. Well, not so much to express it as experience it. In Jewish thinking we are always on the way to becoming, always only the clay out of which something is yet to be fashioned.

“Becoming and struggling,” says Baeck, “the constant preoccupation with the path and the future …. this constant tension is what is understood as the meaning of life, the life of the world and the life of human beings.” (p137) But always with the awareness that God cannot be ‘trapped’ in wood or stone.

Yesterday morning as I came out of Grodzinski’s in Golders Green with my challah, lost in thought about this sermon, I nearly bumped into two yeshivah bochurs. I tried to imagine them going to the Troy exhibition but couldn’t. For them, the yeshivah and an exhibition at the British Museum really were two different worlds. For them it would be nahrishkeit, an emptiness, a distraction from the real work, with nothing in it for them.

Not, I hope, in a sense of judgement, but I did think, “what a shame that they will not have the chance to experience that beauty, that wonder.” I think we have a profound need for the aesthetic in our lives, and because that beauty, that experience of the world around them would not be available to them.

Baeck is right in talking of two world views. The consummated Greek world in which we experience completion, being, existence as a perfect work of art; or the Jewish world of tension in which we experience the urge to the infinite, the struggle and the path, experience the world as an ongoing process of creation, a path on the way to becoming but not yet there, not yet perfect, always beyond our reach. God is always moving – God puts Moses in a cleft in the rock on Sinai: “you can only see My back as I pass.”

I don’t think Baeck would have said it’s an either-or thing. I’m sure he would have recognised that there is something in the holiness of beauty. For when we stand before a beautiful painting or piece of sculpture, it’s hard to remain the same, not be moved by it, even, in some sense, diminished by it, led to ask questions about ourselves. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, stands before a statue of Apollo, and writes a poem concluding:  “for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life,” (The Archaic Torso of Apollo.)

So it is not an “either-or,” one of the other. For those yeshivah bochurs, the beauty of holiness accessed through the Talmud and halacha would have been dayenu, enough. But they would miss the holiness of beauty. Not beauty or holiness but beauty and holiness.

Baeck would, I imagine, have recognised how beautiful that bust of Helen was and been able to admire the beauty of it without feeling that it was somehow the boundary of his world, of his concern, of what is the value of life.

So has there been a sermon in this?………

Shabbat Shalom