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Today we weep – the day after Orlando


The news on Sunday was shocking, confusing, and unspeakably tragic.

What in God’s name is happening in this, our world? Last week Tel Aviv, this Sunday Orlando, and next week …? There is so much pain.

In thousands of places all over the world Jews studied Torah last weekend. We engaged ourselves in those studies, because we have hoped to find a better understanding of how we can make this world a better place. We have engaged ourselves in Tikkun Olam, the reparation of the world, because we know and we see how much more needs to be done to see this world redeemed. Saturday night we spoke about the pain the death of a single person can cause, and how guilty we feel if we couldn’t help. But we accepted that death is part of our lives and that we can find comfort in our Jewish tradition and our surrounding community, if death happens within our closes circles.

But nothing can prepare us for those horrific, brutal and senseless attacks we had to witness in the past few days, months and years. The world, which I love so much, is broken, and the rifts seem to me un-bridgeable. How can we repair the world if a single person has been able to destroy the lives of so many, and to bring so much more hate into this world? How many more people need to study the values of the Torah to outbalance the bestial acts of those monsters?

Many, I know will answer this question with a sense of hopelessness, telling me that there aren’t enough good people in this world to tip the scale to the good. Helplessness tells us to surrender. But in doing so, we allow those monsters to take the victory home, and we give space to the demagogues who trample on the victims to boost themselves and their ideology of hate. The terror acts of the last few days don’t allow us to surrender, to the contrary, the victims of those crimes ask us to not give up hope and to stand up for our values.

We need to be the people of God that actively involve themselves in initiatives to end violence, especially violence against minorities. We need to be committed to the idea that being a Jew means nothing less than intentionally standing up, regardless of differences, when we see lives devalued or dehumanised by hate and ignorance. I believe with all my heart that doing so is a beautiful outworking of the Torah we claim to love and live.

We value all life and the dignity of others because we all bear God’s image. Our faith can never be a reason to turn away from each other, but it should be – it must be – the reason why we approach one another and try to make an impact, even though we don’t understand or approve. Our tradition calls us to nothing less!

Those terror acts call us to break down the walls of our own lethargy and to strengthen those who stand to protect us and our society. Judaism is not a religion of presenting the other cheek if we are attacked. To protect ourselves doesn’t mean to outcast others, it means to be aware that evil things happen and need to be stopped. When the allies started to re-create a civilised society in Germany after 1945 they used the term “fortified democracy” to introduce a system that doesn’t allow radicals to pervert democracy again. The main key is that every individual is responsible to protect this achievement. And so we are called today to protect our world from those radicals, from those haters of life, from those demagogues who try to ignite hate in us.

Today we weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn, tomorrow we stand up to change the world.


Exodus – Kings and Gods

A few weeks ago, the film Exodus – Kings and Gods was launched and, in anticipation of the upcoming Torah readings about the liberation of the Israelites from slavery, I decided to watch the movie. I wanted to see how the authors of the film interpreted the biblical narrative. I was disappointed in the film in so many ways. I never expected to see a movie that was close to the bible’s narrative, and/or to Jewish interpretation, but in my opinion the film’s only goal was to devalue the Bible. The filmmakers presented a crude idea of a shizophrenic Moses who caused Israel to become insane followers of a cruel, child-murdering God.This film is not the first attempt at finding scientific explanations for the 10 plagues, and to devalue Moses’ prophecy as a kind of mental delusion. Usually, I don’t mind these attempts, as long as they respect and don’t vilify those who have a different understanding of the Torah. Unfortuantely this film has no intention of doing so.
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Yom Kippur: A day of hope

And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls [teannu et nafshoteichem]; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before Adonai. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you afflict your soul [ve-innitem et nafshoteichem]; it is a law for all time. (Leviticus 16:29–31)

Yom Kippur isn’t an easy day. Not because of we are fasting. I agree, fasting is one of the duties of today, as commanded in the Torah, but fasting in itself only needs a bit of physical strength. If, God forbid, we are ill, or get sick, we are even commanded to break our fast.
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A serious move – Rosh HaShanah 5775

Many of you know that I moved a few short weeks ago. Anyone, who has moved, knows that relocation from one place to another isn’t easy. There are so many things to consider. What needs to be put into the packing cases, what needs to be left, to be sold, given away, or maybe stored. Before we can move, we need to write lists, we plan, make arrangements, and try and get organised.

Whenever I looked around my apartment before the move, I was shocked to see how much ….. stuff had found its way onto my shelves. There a book, I once bought because I had always wanted to read it. Here, a gift from a good friend that I had never quite found the right spot for. And so many papers on my desk, papers that needed checking and sorting. There are many little keepsakes and souvenirs all over my shelves, reminders of the many wonderful moments in my life.
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Ki Tavo – An eternal flame

KiTavo, our Parasha for this week starts with the words:

When you enter the land that the Eternal, Your God is giving you.

What follows are instructions to the Israelites regarding what they have to do, after they have entered the Promised Land. This is not the only time in the Torah, that some commandments are strongly linked to “the land”. Remember that all the Mitzwot, dealing with the Sabbatical Year for agriculture are commandments linked to the land.

According to the traditional interpretation of the Halachah, these Mitzwot are still bound to the land of Israel, or more precisely, only within the border of the biblical land of Israel and Judah. This means, that our friends on the progressive Jewish Kibbutz Lotan in the South of Israel are not obliged to follow the regulations of the Sabbatical Year. The Arava and Negev Desert don’t belong to ancient Israel.

Reading the bible very literally, one could argue these commandments are not relevant to us in South Africa. We are neither going to enter the land of Israel, nor are we living there already. One may even be tempted to say that even a lot of Israelis are not really observing the laws that are presented in our Torah portion.

But, I wouldn’t be raising this topic, if I agreed with this point of view. There is another way of looking at it, that – in my opinion – makes more sense. I would argue and say that Mitzwot, connected exclusively to “the land”, bear an absolute relevance for us all, even though we are not living in the land of Israel.

The laws we find in our Torah portion, and in other places as well, are loaded with ethical values that are vital to every society. These include the sharing of a tenth of our harvest or income with the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and the appreciation of the land, and our natural recourses, by keeping the idea of a sabbatical year. I truly believe that the intention of the Torah by telling us this is – as mentioned in Verse 26.18 of our parashah – to create a “Holy Nation”, a nation that is struggling for a better world in the path, God has designated for us.

Actually, I think that all these Mitzwot, which on a superficial level are connected to the land, have a broader, and deeper meaning – that of connecting us to each other and the Eternal through the ethics they represent.

Therefore, the connection of the Mitzwot with “the land” can be understood as being of great help and greater importance. The land of Israel may be seen metaphorically as an eternal flame, reminding us not to forget to thank the Eternal for what we have achieved, and that every one of us has had a moment, a time in their lives where they are brought out of a “very personal” Mitzrayim. Every one of us overcomes challenges in life. It could be leaving home, entering into a partnership, discovering one has a serious illness. The list is endless. Israel, in this sense, is a symbol of the well-being of the Jewish people because it reflects our relationship with God.

I would like to very briefly raise another point relating to the issue of “the land”. I can understand that a lot of people are troubled by the politics, and realities connected to the modern State of Israel. I, too, am very often troubled, and I would consider this to be a normal reaction. We need to be concerned, but I think our Torah portion also teaches us, that we, as Jews living outside of the land of Israel, are in a relationship with Israel. Like the other Mitzwot I referred to, Israel has a relevance for us all.

I believe, Israel reflects our eternal relationship with God. If we think, that things in the State of Israel are not going well, then our relationship with God also needs some improvements. Guided by shared values – like gender equality in public spaces, the “western wall” as a place of worship for all Jewish streams, and a human treatment of all people, irrespective of their background, – we should seek to find ways, in which we can change the current situation. Israel is too important for us as Jews to be left alone and on its own. Ignoring it, or even boycotting it, won’t change anything. After all, Israel is our Jewish homeland.

As progressive Jews, we have a responsibility for Israel in the same way as every other Jew has – whether they are living in Israel or not. In our Torah portion Moses repeats that the land of Israel is part of our heritage. Not only OUR heritage today, but the heritage of EVERY generation of Jews. Those who have gone before us, our generation today, and for the generations that will come after us. I think, it is worth taking on this responsibility.

Shabbat Shalom

Ki Tetze: In remembrance lies the secret of redemption

Parashat Ki Tetze continues to present a rich and varied collection of directives that serve as a partial blueprint for behaviours and norms to create a just society. It contains a mixture of seventy-two commandments, dealing with such diverse subjects as the treatment of captives, defiant children, animal welfare, property, sexual relationships, interaction with non-Israelites, loans, vows, and divorce, and laws of commerce pertaining to loans, fair wages, and proper weights and measures. The parashah concludes with the commandment to remember for all time Amalek’s killing of the old, weak, and infirm after the Israelites left Egypt.
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Shoftim: A glimpse of a society of a different order

Parshat Shoftim is concerned with the structures of governance of biblical society and their just operation: the government and its military, the courts and the religious authorities.

Having emerged from the foreign slavery of Egypt and now attempting to maintain the freedom achieved in the Exodus, the parshah is concerned with ensuring the fair functioning of these three institutions. That is, the Torah explicitly limits exploitative possibilities by separating the centres of power and placing constraints that keep these institutions functioning appropriately.
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Shabbat Ekev

A key passage in our Parshah (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25) is the second chapter of the Shema, which repeats the fundamental mitzvot enumerated in the Shema’s first chapter, and describes the rewards of fulfilling God’s commandments and the adverse results (famine and exile) of their neglect.

IMHO the both extreme positions, presented in this short passage, are reflecting the both worlds we know in Judaism. The not perfect one, the one with not enough rain, excile and injustices, represents the Olam HaZe -the perfect world is a just world, a world where everyone has a fair share in everything, the Olam HaBa, the messianic time.

The recitation of the Shema reminds everyone of us to be engaged in Tikkun Olam, and bring forth the messianic time.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Pekudei – Facing one another

This Shabbat’s Torah reading is the last one of a whole series about the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The portion ends with the stunning moment when God’s presence fills the Mishkan.

The building of the Mishkan is an important part of our annual Torah reading, which Jews all over the world have studied during the last weeks. We have dealt with the meaning of the Mishkan, the portable place where God could be found, and of course with the Temple, which replaced the Tabernacle in later times, and gave God a more permanent dwelling place.

And as Progressive Jews, we may have added our very own views to these discussions on the Temple. As Reform Jews we do not longer believe in a need for a Temple, a centralized “holy place” for worship and sacrifices.

In fact, most references to the temple and its cult have been removed even from our liturgy. We don’t pray for the rebuilding of the temple any longer, we deleted the parts referring to the burnt offerings, following the prophetic words that God is with us, wherever we are, and that prayers are the offerings, God favors most.

There are good arguments for this position. The Torah portion two weeks ago, Ki Tissa, with the story about the Golden Calf, is a good example, and reflects beautifully on the concept that Judaism is a “religion in progress”, and that it is important to understand the needs of people and to develop concepts of worshipping God, which may differ in time and depend on a certain environment and place.

The Israelites, who had just left slavery in Egypt, couldn’t understand the concept of an untouchable, invisible and abstract God.
And even though the Golden Calf may not be what God had in mind as a proper answer to the needs of the people, with the two cherubim, the cloud and the ‘pillar of fire‘, the Israelites got something they could relate to.

Centuries later, the Temple with its cult was another and important step in this process of transition and progress. That time, the temple played a major role in forming the Jewish Kingdom, and had an important function in centralizing the cult.

With the destruction of the first Temple an important change took place in Jewish practice. More fixed payers replaced the daily offerings, and paved the ground for the Rabbinic shift after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, when prayers replaced the animal sacrifices totally.

Rabbi Shmuel ben Rabbi Isaac, who lived in the third-century, explained that a synagogue, where people come together for payers, should be considered “a minor Temple” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 29a). Together with the transformation of Temple practices towards the synagogue setting (such as the use of the shofar, lulav, and etrog), and the ritualized memories of the former Temple ceremonies into synagogue liturgy, such as the recital of the order of the sacrifices, the Rabbis were comforting the people.

With the development of Reform Judaism in Germany by Geiger, Jacobson and others, the Temple finally lost its ritual function, even in the figurative sense. The concept of a Temple was perceived as old fashioned, preventing Jews from an intellectual, enlightened Judaism, based on reason and science.

Jews had proven over centuries that the covenant with God doesn’t need a Temple. Jews could and can practice Judaism in a meaningful and rich way everywhere in the world.

I can relate to this concept. I fact, that’s why I think any return to a former stage would be a step backwards – instead of coming closer to God, we would depart ourselves from the Eternal again.

I can’t see any sense in the concept of rebuilding the Temple, and more so, I am opposed to the idea. I personally, have decided for myself even, not to go up to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. Today, it’s a holy site for Muslims, and as long as it is a place with so many tensions, we should minimize any conflict – especially because the site has no ritual purpose for us nowadays.

“But tell me one thing Rabbi,“ a congregant asked me during one of the last Torah studies, when I had explained my position, “If you are so against the Temple, why do you support the Women of the Wall and the campaign for an egalitarian Kotel / Western Wall? Why should Progressive Jews or Jews at all pray there?“

This was a very good point. I liked the question, because I had to define my arguments more clearly. My perspective may look a bit ambivalent or even schizophrenic at first glance, but I think it reflects a very specific situation within Judaism.

From a religious point of view, I stick to the position I just explained. And I would strongly argue that Jews don’t need the Western Wall to encounter the Eternal. As I said, I believe that we can meet God at any place in this world.

But Judaism is not a Religion alone; it is so much more than that. It is a covenant between individuals as well – we are one people – “Am Israel“. We all share a common history and common values. We are all connected in an invisible chain from the past to the future – “Le Dor va Dor“.

Our Sages, who transformed Judaism after the destruction of the Temple into a religion without sacrifices and without the temple cult, did an amazing job. They detached “religion“ from the place, but kept the people connected through and to this place. Even though they turned Judaism up side down, they kept Jerusalem as the center of Judaism. Not as a place where God should be worshiped alone, but as the center of our hope and of our people, to get through all difficulties in Jewish history.

The Western Wall is a symbol for this, it is the central point of the Jewish People, and belongs therefore to all Jews, no matter where we are, and what we are.

Our Torah portion ends with the powerful image when God took possession of the new Mishkan.

For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and the fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

The Tabernacle was the center of the camp in the desert, visible for all Israelites. It was the stronghold of the people, giving them hope and much more, security, a sense of belonging-together, not being alone.

Today, we don’t have the Mishkan; we don’t have a cloud hovering above the Temple mount. But we have us.

As long as we all are facing Jerusalem in prayers, songs and thoughts, we are also facing one another. Jews from all corners of the world are still connected through this center, they do belong together, in one covenant – throughout their journeys.

Shabbat Shalom

​Rabbi Adrian Michael Schell​​​ – Shabbat Shekalim 5774

@ Bet David, Johannesburg ZA

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