Sermon: Jacob of Kefar Neburya, Rabbi Chaggai, and the need for change

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 June 2016

Sometime in the third century, in the city of Tyre, now in Southern Lebanon, a Jewish man and his Aramean wife had a problem.  Their new son had been born on the previous Shabbat, and they were planning his Brit Milah.  But could the circumcision take place on the eighth day – as the Torah required, because this would be Shabbat?
The circumcision of the son of a Jewish woman would supersede Shabbat – that much had been established already in the developing law of the rabbis – but what about the son of a Jewish man and an Aramean woman?

In Tyre at the time was an authority called Jacob, who had come to the city from Kefar Neburya, near S’fat.  Jacob was not a rabbi, but he was known as an interpreter of Torah.
So, the couple went to Jacob to ask him what to do.

His answer was yes.  The circumcision of their son would supersede the laws of Shabbat, and take place on the eighth day.
Because, he pointed out, in the census in the beginning of the book of Numbers – from which Sol read for us this morning – the people were registered “l’mishp’chotam l’veit avotam” – “by the clans of their fathers’ house”.  This text is clear, he argued: lineage follows the father according to biblical law – there is no mention of the identity of the mother.  So, biblically this child should be counted as part of the community, and so for the purpose of his circumcision he should be considered Jewish l’veit avotam – according to the status of his father.  Go ahead with the Brit.

This ruling was to prove more than a little controversial.  When news of it reached Rabbi Chaggai – based in Sepphoris, further South in the Galillee, he was livid.  The giver of this deviant judgement should be punished, he ruled, quoting a verse from Deuteronomy prohibiting Israelite intermarriage with Canaanites.  So Jacob was summoned to Chaggai, and punished with lashings.

It’s a tricky little story – one which is even briefer in its telling in the Palestinian Talmud and in the Midrash Rabbah than my version has been.  It raises, but doesn’t quite answer, huge questions about the boundaries of legitimate interpretation, and the exercise of power and authority in religious life.
Jacob of Kefar Neburya is himself a complicated character.  He was, as I said, accepted within the rabbinic corpus as an authority in the area of aggadah – narrative interpretation.  But as a halachist he was clearly a contrary figure.  Another tradition has him ruling that fish must be ritually slaughtered, drawing a not entirely unreasonable analogy between fish and birds.  Once again Chaggai reinforces the position of the rabbis through corporal punishment.  They don’t seem to have really liked each other.

Because of these arguments, Rabbi Issi of Caesarea referred to Jacob of Kefar Neburya as a sinner and later writers accused him – without real evidence – of being a Judeo-Christian.  Unquestionably, what he was was someone who liked getting under the skin of the pompous rabbis by pointing out their inconsistencies – a contrary so and so, who enjoyed pricking the rabbinic ego.  As such there is actually something really quite endearing about him.

There is much about this little story that is fascinating: the power dynamics, the characters.  But for those of us who live as Jews engaged in the modern world, one thing is particularly interesting: what they are arguing about.  At the heart of this particular story are issues of status and inclusion.  What are Chaggai and Jacob of Kefar Neburya really arguing about?  Who is in, and who is out; who can be included in the ritual of Jewish life, and who not.  How do we respond to the product of a world in which Jews and non-Jews interact?

As such, this is a remarkably modern story.  We sometimes imagine that the challenges of mixed faith relationships, of living side by side with those of different faiths and cultures is a modern phenomenon, a product of modernity, of our new society.  But it was also the reality of the Roman Empire; of the context in which the early Palestinian rabbis operated.  The Babylonian sages, whose worldview and prejudices came to shape much of the Judaism and its prejudices that we now live, existed in a society with very strong social and ethnic segregation.  We see that influence in much of modern Jewish practice.  But in Roman Palestine, particularly around what is now Northern Israel – from where the characters in our stories come – these were not hypothetical issues, but real, living questions: Jews and non-Jews lived, worked, and socialised together.  We know that non-Jews came into the ancient Palestinian synagogue – some converted, while others became known as yirei shamayim – fearers of heaven – non-Jews who were attracted to Jewish life but did not convert; we know from stories like our one that Jews and non-Jews had relationships, and had children together too.  So the Palestinian rabbis were grappling with questions very much like our questions.

And, of course, their arguments are therefore very much like our arguments.  Chaggai and Jacob of Kefar Neburya present two different responses to integration and interaction – or, in this specific case, to Jewish men having children with non-Jewish women.  Chaggai’s concern is with intermarriage; his ruling reflects a desire to fight against these new social trends. It is a voice that seeks to discourage Jewish interaction with the non-Jew – the marriage of this couple was just not OK, he says.  We should discourage Jewish men from such behaviour by saying that if they do behave in this way any product of their relationship will not be Jewish – your son isn’t really your own, because such relationships are frowned upon.
Jacob of Kefar Neburya’s, on the other hand, is more a big tent voice, recognising the reality of the couple’s situation without judgement, and using the plain meaning of the text to extend the reach of Jewish ritual life to include them.  Both voices would be found around any table of rabbis actively engaging with modernity today, as we seek to respond to the same social phenomena.
Do we, as Chaggai argues, encourage intermarriage when we accommodate its product, or do we enable more people to access Judaism in their lives, as Jacob of Kefar Neburya seems to suggest?

The answer of this story – that is, the answer with the early rabbinic muscle behind it – seems to be the former.  But, acknowledging that, there is one more important thing about our story.  It also tells us that this was radical.  That the response to social change can be radical.  Because Jacob is right, and the story knows it – not in his ruling, perhaps, but certainly in his reading of Torah.  The biblical model of status was on his side.  He reads our portion correctly.  In the biblical model of status, anyone was included who was attached to the household of an Israelite male by birth or by marriage – l’veit avotam.  This is why, to pick one example of very many, Moses’ children needed to be circumcised.   Chaggai’s argument is weak, and the story knows this too – the Deuteronomic attitude to intermarriage with Canaanites is nothing to do with status – it’s about the risk of idolatry.

The introduction of a matrilineal model by rabbis like Chaggai – motivated by the desire to discourage male assimilation, and heavily influenced by Roman status law – this was a radical innovation which utterly subverted the biblical model and there is contrary old Jacob of Kefar Neburya to point it out.

The story knows it – why else does it have Jacob whipped?  In the mindset of rabbinic Judaism, if you could prove something by being clever – by the power of argument – you would.  To resort to corporal punishment is to recognise that you are acting on authority, not because you are right.  The text is seeking to enforce a radical response to a new social reality when, like all radical changes, it brings conflict, disagreement, and argument.  Jacob is whipped for upholding the Torah – for upholding the model found in our portion this morning.  In fact, the whipping of Jacob is not (merely) an abuse of power – it is a symbol of the desperate imperative of change.

The story of Jacob of Kefar Neburya is a deeply complex one.  It is also remarkably familiar.  The challenges of the modern Jewish community are very similar to those of Northern Israel in the first centuries CE.  As a rabbi I work with couples like that couple from Tyre all the time.
When I do, in truth I find myself in tension – like Jacob and like Chaggai – seeking to uphold boundaries and to include people in Jewish life.  The story doesn’t – sorry – give us a simple answer to that.  But what it does teach us is that just as the rabbis knowingly subverted Torah in their attempt to preserve Jewish life, so, in our attempt to preserve Jewish life, must we.  We must think boldly about issues of inclusion and status in our communities, too.

And this is the bigger message of our story, too.  Grown up religions are ones that are capable of change.  In order to survive as a meaningful part of society, religions must not be bound to the text they inherit – even where it is as unequivocal as the one we read this morning, Judaism was capable of moving from the text.  We, too, must be willing to evolve, to change, to innovate, to add and subvert, to respectfully break free of the handcuffs of that which limits us.  Just as the rabbis did.  If there is a role for religion in modern society it is not as a relic of past practice but as an exemplar of radicalism and innovation.  This may well lead to disagreement and to argument – in fact, this is inevitable.  And it is OK.
Our goal should be that, unlike Chaggai and Jacob, we can do it without the whippings!