Sermon: Reading Torah in a time of Coronavirus

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 16 May 2020

“Adonai spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying”
So begins parashat Behar from which Josh read for us this morning.

Which, on reflection is rather odd.

We are most of the way through Leviticus, 15 weekly portions since the reading of the narrative of Sinai, and suddenly we are told about location?  The other sections in Leviticus haven’t begun in this way.  We’ve had a lot of ‘God spoke to Moses’, but not ‘on Mount Sinai’.

What are we to make of it?  Is the implication that this is a distinct bit of text, separate from the others?  Does it mean that this section was given on Sinai and not the rest?

The early midrash on the book of Leviticus, Sifra, is very aware of these possible implications.  It asks:  ‘Ma inyan sh’mitah etzel har Sinai’ – ‘Why is the section on sh’mitah (on the sabbatical year) placed on Mount Sinai?’  Why the question?  It continues:  ‘‘V’halo kol ha-mitzvot ne’emru mi-sinai?’ – ‘Weren’t all the mitzvot stated at Sinai?’  That is, isn’t the implication that the other bits weren’t?

This is Sifra’s answer: ‘Just as in the case of the laws of Sh’mitah, its c’lalot – its general rules, and its dikdukim – its fine details were given on Mount Sinai – so too with all of the commandments.’

Sifra observes that our portion is full of information about how to do the rules of sabbatical and jubilee, and that this is specified as given on Sinai.  So, it argues, this phrase comes to teach us that all the rest of the mitzvot also have that level of detail, also given on Sinai.  As the scholar David Weiss HaLivni puts it, “The laws of sh’mitah are… [thus understood to be] paradigmatic of all other laws of the Torah… to indicate that, for example, the prohibitions concerning the Sabbath, only intimated [in Torah] were also revealed by God in much fuller detail.”

This is one of those wonderful pieces of intellectual creativity – some might use the word contortion – thrown up in our tradition.  A feature which is in itself pretty strong evidence of the composite nature of Torah is brought as proof not only for the unified and divine nature of Torah but also, it turns out, for the details of its application – the Oral Torah, or rabbinic law – also.  In Sifra, our troublesome verse is transformed into a proof text, for one of the earliest rabbinic texts to claim that not only the written Torah but also what is known as Oral Torah – an accompanying set of rules about application – were both given to Moses on Sinai.


So many of the conversations we have about our Jewish lives hang on a question of reading exemplified by this single verse.  Do we start with the text and see these kinds of moments in it as evidence of Torah’s non-unified nature – that this is a work made up of multiple parts woven together over time?  Or do we, as midrash Sifra does, begin with the theological position of Torah min hashamayim – Torah from heaven – and find evidence of it wherever we look?   When our portion begins with these words do we understand this as evidence that our texts have more complex stories, or proof of the authority of the Torah and rabbinic tradition?


Most of the time, for most Jews, this is a pretty hypothetical question.  We live the Jewish lives we prefer.  Most Jews do not have to encounter these sorts of theological, ideological questions in any real way.

But sometimes they really matter.

Sometimes they confront us head on.

And never more so than today.  Because our answer to that question, exemplified by this one verse, has shaped the different Jewish responses to the extraordinary circumstances in which find ourselves.

Do we run a service on Zoom on Shabbat?
The answer is determined by our understanding of the authority of Torah and the rabbinic oral tradition.  Whether we understand electronics as being a form of malachah, of work, prohibited on Shabbat depends on whether we understand not just Torah as from Sinai, but also its interpretation in the oral tradition – so the question of its origin and authority is key.

Are we able to say kaddish online?  The underlying question is whether what we are doing now is understood to be a community in prayer together – which can therefore say kaddish, or whether ‘community’ has the technical definition found in rabbinic literature.  There it means minyan – 10 people – well 10 men – together in a room, and virtual minyanim don’t count.  So, it really matters whether this is a divine ruling with eternal weight or a human answer for a very different time.

The claim of Sifra is no longer hypothetical, but very real.

And sadly, our answer to these questions have also had, and are likely to continue to have life and death consequences.  Many of those for whom the rabbinic laws of minyan are understood to be divine in origin continue to seek to be together, and especially on Shabbat.

As we journey further into this period, all of us who are passionate about our Jewish lives share a yearning for a return for some sort of normality.  How we respond to that yearning will be shaped in part by the dichotomy exemplified by our reading of that verse.  Pressures are already being applied to government to enable a quick return despite what we know about places of worship and communal singing as high risk places and activities.  The response of the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue yesterday must be applauded, as he urged caution against premature re-opening of shul life.

A once purely ideological question is no longer hypothetical but very very real.  It shapes how innovative we can be in this crisis.  The flourishing of amazing and wonderful creativity across Progressive Judaism has been possible because of our theology, because of our understanding of the origin and authority of Torah and Oral Law, exemplified by our reading of that single verse.


Now I am not raising this in any way to be disparaging about those who believe in the divine nature of the rabbinic tradition.  It is not my position, but it is a clear and honourable one, it makes total sense, it is coherent, and it is worthy of a great deal of respect – at least as long as it does not start posing risk to life.

There is a third ideological position about our verse, about Torah from Sinai, which is less clear.  This is the inadvertent stance of many individuals who identify themselves as Orthodox Jews in the UK today.  And it is the explicit position of one denomination in this country.   It is a position that says that Torah and the Oral tradition were not given at Sinai.  That is, it understands our verse today as we do, as evidence of the composite nature of Torah.  It recognises the historical importance of that text from Sifra, as indeed do we, but does not ‘agree’ with it as a description of history.

And yet, it argues, we still have to keep the outcomes as if they were divine and eternal even in the face of extraordinary circumstances.  We still have limited authority to innovate, to vary, and this is true even in – to use the halachic terminology – sh’at ha-d’chak, in ‘time of pressure’, of crisis.  It states that the parameters of our religious life are firmly set.  That we are still bound to the legal handcuffs this theological position produces even though the theology is not our own.  It effectively abdicates responsibility for our religious choices to a text it recognises to be all too human and to have its own human history.

This position is being tested to breaking point by a situation such as this.  Because this crisis has revealed how much less flexible and modern it is in its application than its proponents once thought, producing a gap between rabbinic ruling and congregational need and preference.

In a very important development this week, the American Conservative movement which, in common with its British equivalent, had prohibited use of electronic devices on Shabbat and festivals even in the face of global pandemic, moved to close that gap.  It issued a limited teshuvah allowing for livestreaming in its communities.  It is a very welcome step, and it will be interesting to see how the UK equivalent will respond.  It will be a test of their ability to meet the need of the moment, and thus of their religious – and intellectual – credibility.


“Adonai spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai”
It seems so harmless, just another introductory verse in Torah.  But behind it, or how we read it, is a debate that shapes the whole nature of our Jewish lives.  One of the many extraordinary things that coronavirus has done is to bring this to the surface.

No longer are our ideological positions and questions mere intellectual positioning, our Jewish choices simply a matter of preference.  How we read that verse has very real consequences – not just for how we live our Jewish lives but potentially now for our wellbeing as a whole.