Sermon: HA’AZINU

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 25 October 2022

For over 40 years – from 1977 to 2018 – it was never a problem and only became one in 2019. “2019?” you might be thinking, “oh, for goodness sake, not another Covid-related, lockdown sermon!” But this is nothing to do with the pandemic. In February 2019 we moved home, downsizing from a large house to an apartment. All of that was fine: we were ready to move, no nostalgia about leaving, a good opportunity to declutter and so on.

But during those 40+ years we had been building a sukkah on our patio. It became a lovely exercise. On the principle of “do as I do” and not “do as I say,” building a sukkah myself meant I could encourage members of my synagogue to build their own sukkot. We had an annual Sukkot Cavalcade where we would go from sukkah to sukkah: have some refreshment in each one, sing a bit, do some study and move on to the next one. It was a great afternoon, even when it rained!

My problem now is that our apartment is on the top floor of the block. It has great patio space for a sukkah but being on the top and exposed means that the wind whips around the roof and no sukkah covering would survive. After an abortive attempt in 2019, I’ve not built my own sukkah. And I really miss it.

Building my sukkah really made the festival of Sukkot come alive for me. It was a lovely thing to do as a family, building and decorating it together, being out there each evening; getting wet when it rained, seeing the stars through the gaps, shivering with cold; having friends come into the sukkah, and so on.

But over the years I became increasingly concerned about hanging up an abundance of fruit and veg knowing that, a week later, it would have to be thrown away, and couldn’t be donated to a food bank, a Care Home or the like.

I found myself, therefore, in the somewhat paradoxical situation of fulfilling a Jewish religious obligation – to have a sukkah – but by doing so, violating a Jewish ethical imperative. It’s called “bal tashchit” and means “do not destroy or waste resources.”

Earlier this year, I became a fan of ‘The West Wing’ the TV series based on life in the Executive wing of the White House during the fictional presidency of Jed Bartlett. In one episode, Bartlett hosts a group of Evangelical Christians. He’s an active Christian who knows his Bible well. “Tell me,” he asks them, “my chief of staff works on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 says that whoever works on the Sabbath should be put to death. Am I morally obligated,” he asks, “to kill him myself? Leviticus 11:7 says that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean. Does this mean I can’t play football?”

He’s obviously poking fun at them. But then he quoted Leviticus 18: 22. That verse is the Biblical peg on which parts of the Jewish and Christian religious world hang their claim that homosexuality is an abomination, a sin. Suddenly, the tension between a halachic requirement and an ethical principle is no longer a joke.

Nor is it a joke for the divorcee whose ex-husband refuses to give her a get, a religious divorce, making her an agunah, a ‘chained woman,’ unable to marry in a synagogue of her choice, while any subsequent children will suffer serious religious disabilities. The Beit Din in this country agrees that it’s disgraceful but say that they can’t force him to grant the get because a get given under coercion is not halachically valid. When law enshrines an injustice, no amount of “but what can we do?” hand-wringing can alleviate that injustice.

When the laws of kashrut were formulated, everything was free-range: the idea of factory farming was inconceivable. Jewish law focussed on ensuring that shechitah was as humane and painless as possible. The question facing shechitah in our time, however, is not only how did the animal die? but how did it live? If a chicken has been raised in battery-farming conditions, what meaning might the word ‘kasher’ have, even if it has been slaughtered by a shochet?

David Weiss Halivni who died last June, was a leading Talmud scholar on the right-wing of the American Conservative movement. He addressed himself to the question “can a religious law be immoral?” (Arthur Chiel (ed) “Perspectives on Jews and Judaism: Essays in honour of Wolfe Kelman,” Rabbinical Assembly, New York 1978.) He cites Talmudic rabbis – well-known names, Akiva, Tarfon and so on – who, effectively, did away with capital punishment, saying, “had we been in the Sanhedrin, nobody would ever have been put to death.” They weren’t saying that capital punishment is immoral per se, argues Halivni. “How could they have declared it morally offensive,” he asks, “if the Bible sanctions it?” for that would have meant saying that the Torah is immoral. So they never actually abrogated the law of capital punishment, but they hedged it around with provisos and conditions so that it became virtually impossible to sentence anybody to death. In a bit of a give-away addition, Halivni says, in brackets, “subconsciously I am convinced that morality was uppermost in their minds” and in an even-more revealing footnote: “I realise the difficulty in proving anything that exists only in the subconscious. But I believe it best accounts for the rabbis’ seeming inconsistency in the use of morality in halacha.”

In the same vein, if you have a “ben sorer u’moreh” “a stubborn and rebellious son, who doesn’t listen to his father and mother” the Torah says he should be stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21) Given that most Jewish sons could be defined like that at some point or other, half the Jewish population would be at risk of being stoned to death! The rabbis argued that the Torah says ‘stubborn and rebellious,’ so he had to be both stubborn and rebellious; he had to ignore both his father and his mother and so on.” (Sanhedrin 71a)

One way of dealing with a problematic law is to define it out of existence. The rabbis admit that such a case never happened or could happen. So why, asks an unnamed rabbi in the Talmud, put the law in the Torah in the first place? “In order,” it explains, “that you should study Torah and learn.”

That’s the double bind: divine rulings which seem inherently immoral, but which couldn’t simply be rejected precisely because they were divine commands.

While the stubborn and rebellious son might be an academic, didactic exercise, the law relating to same sex relationships or the agunah is neither academic nor didactic. Real human lives are involved here, often suffering real distress.

If, however, we see halacha as a human construct, the attempt by human beings to enshrine in a legal system what they see as the will of God, then we are in a different framework altogether. It recognises that ideas and thinking change over time and law changes to reflect that. That’s how the legal system operates in any advanced society: slavery, child labour, public execution, capital punishment and so on were all once legal. Not so any more.

So where does this leave me with my sukkah? In 1970 I was a student rabbi in Australia over this season of festivals. I visited some friends in Sydney and we went to the Great Synagogue, the flagship Orthodox synagogue of Sydney. In the sukkah I was amazed to see plastic fruit hanging there. I couldn’t understand why they used plastic fruit in a country where every fruit was so easily available. I don’t know why they did it, but I would surmise that, 50 years ago, whatever the reason, it wasn’t for any environmental concerns.

But 50 years on we are very environmentally aware. So my first problem with my sukkah is a technical one: “how to do it so that it doesn’t blow away, blow down or lose all the roof covering? I’ll solve that for next Sukkot. But I’ll still have my second problem: what shall I have hanging in it? Real fruit or plastic? The most important part of a sukkah is its impermanence, its openness to the elements, the nature of the roof covering. The decoration in the sukkah falls into the category of “hiddur mitzvah – embellishing the mitzvah, going the extra mile. It’s nice – but it’s not crucial to what is required.

There’s no neat ending here. 50 years ago, my reaction to plastic fruit was simply because I didn’t expect it in such a fruit-rich country as Australia. It’s clear that Halivni and the Jewish world he came from would say: a religious law can’t, by definition, be immoral. So, Colin, just go, build your sukkah and stop raising silly objections, already!”

But once you become aware of something you can’t just ignore it. It’s that tension between wanting to fulfil the mitzvah of building a sukkah and being aware of environmental issues.

I’m determined to solve my first problem for next year and I’ll report back to you next year about how I’ve resolved the second issue!