Mar 6, 2014

Masorti Reflections March 2014 - Vayikra

Reflections - Vayikra - By Rabbi Amanda Golby This year I was more conscious than usual of the change from Bereshit to Sh’mot, Genesis to Exodus. I

Like   Tweet   Pin   +1  
logo with strapline

Reflections - Vayikra - By Rabbi Amanda Golby

This year I was more conscious than usual of the change from Bereshit to Sh’mot, Genesis to Exodus. I always feel a sense of sadness when saying ‘lehitraot’, goodbye, for another year, to our Biblical ancestors, and their complex lives. However I was also particularly aware of the change in mood as we came to Sh’mot, with its rather more ‘theological’ themes, perhaps because at the present time I am immersed in Jewish theology. However there is now another switch, with the start of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus. We have many chapters detailing the sacrifices. How to we relate to them? How do they speak to us in the 21st century?

Traditionally young children started their studies with the Book of Leviticus, and in many ways it seems to us a very strange choice. Tradition gives various reasons, and perhaps the one cited most frequently is that little children are ‘pure’, (tahor), and Vayikra discusses sacrifices which are pure and restore spiritual purity (taharah).

I am not convinced that this really speaks to our world, but, that is not to deny that we can aspire to learn much in the coming weeks. This Shabbat, God instructs Moses with regard to the 5 different kinds of sacrifices, the different circumstances in which each should be brought, and the very detailed instructions concerning them.

The root of the word ‘sacrifice’ is to do with ‘making something holy’. In the text, we find most frequently ‘korban’ which is far more associated with ‘bringing something near’... to the altar, to God. It sometimes seems to me that no matter how difficult it was, how many questions are raised when we think about the practice of sacrifices, it was a far easier way of coming closer to God, of saying sorry, of saying thank you, of asking for something. We still want to achieve that closeness, and it is perhaps harder without the precision.

I think back to the teachings relating to the destruction of the Temple. We can only begin to imagine how totally devastating it was when it looked as if without a Temple, without priests and sacrifices, it would be the end of Jewish life.

My hero of that time is Rabbi Yochanan Zakkai. While others wanted to rebel, he recognised this as futile. Of course he knew that the core of Jewish worship at the time was sacrifices, and yet he was prepared to be flexible to ensure survival. In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, we are told that Rabbi Yochanan was with Rabbi Joshua by the ruins of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua said, ‘Woe to us that the place where atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed’. And Rabbi Yohanan made his significant response: ‘Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? It is through gemilut chasadim, deeds of loving-kindness, and he quoted Hosea, ‘for I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice’.

A revolution was achieved in Jewish life. Prayer, study and good deeds took the place of sacrifice, and led to Judaism as we know it. We need to read again the chapters of Vayikra, learn from them, gain more insight, and, at the same time, we need to be aware of our ways of ‘drawing close’ to God, for ourselves and our children, and strive to grow in all of these areas as well. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Amanda Golby is a member of NNLS. She is studying for a Professional Doctorate in Practical Theology, hoping to be able to show how, for example, those who are ill, bereaved or carers, can find positive help in the Chagim, rather than just seeing them as a very difficult time


Moses Maimonides - By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

In this issue we are pleased to launch a series of short guides to Jewish Law, written by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon.

Rabbi Moses, son of Maimon – known by the acronym RaMBaM or in Greek patronymic style as Maimonides – is the dominant figure of post-talmudic Rabbinic Judaism. Born 1135 in Cordoba he fled Spain and eventually settled in Fostat, Egypt, where he worked as physician to the Sultan while serving as leader of Egyptian – and indeed world - Jewry. He wrote three master works; a commentary on the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah - the first significant codification of Jewish law - and The Guide to the Perplexed - a philosophical work designed to celebrate an intellectual Jewish theology in a language recognisable by students of philosophy.

On the one hand Rambam claimed the Mishneh Torah was a primer, suitable for the uninitiated, but he also claimed his opus was the most important Rabbinic work since Yehudah Ha-Nasi edited the Mishnah, some thousand years earlier. Even the name, Mishneh Torah – literally Second to the Torah - suggests confidence, bordering on arrogance. Maimonides adopts the Rabbinic name for the Book of Deuteronomy (Second Nomos, or Second Law) for his own creation. He also imposes a brand new order on the entirety of Jewish law; rejecting the structure of the Talmud and starting – as made sense to a philosopher such as himself – with Aristotelian philosophical underpinnings, a radical original choice for a people who had spent over a thousand years largely opposing Hellenism. The familiar dialogic, nature of Talmud discussion also disappears, as does almost every ‘footnote’ or explanation. Laws are stated, baldly, with maximum precision and concision – not that the connection between the clear utterance and the complex Talmudic underpinning is always obvious, and there are reams of commentaries and meta-commentaries designed to make or disparage the connection between Talmudic passage and Maimonedian fiat.

Other criticism of the work focused on what seemed to be a disparaging attitude taken towards other traditional commentaries. Some accused Rambam of advocating replacing the study of Talmud with the study of his work (a criticism rejected by Rambam, but not entirely satisfactorily). Rambam’s feelings about the Rabbis of his own day – and even the great leaders of generations prior – can be seen in many of his letters, some of which have emerged in the Cairo Geniza, discovered in the very Synagogue he served. In one letter, to a beloved student, he suggests, ‘Study nothing apart from the laws of the Rif [an earlier commentary of the Talmud] and compare them to the Mishneh Torah, if there is a contradiction know the examination of the Talmud brought it about, but if you waste your time on [other] commentaries and interpretations of debates, you will accomplish little.’

Of course even the most passive of explicators never simply explain, without imposing at least a little of their own predispositions on their explanations, but Rambam goes far beyond such conservativism. As well as setting Judaism up as a unified coherent system (not something either Bible or Talmud ever seemed much concerned to do), Rambam subtly recasts, or simply ignores, numerous statements of Jewish law appearing in the Talmud, seemingly owing to his own sense of what Jewish faith and practice MUST stand for, even if earlier attempts to present Judaism were based on radically different assumptions. Rambam rejects anthropomorphism, so the Talmudic statement ‘one who sheds tears for a worthy man, God counts them up in his treasure house,’ is recast, ‘one who sheds tears for a worthy man, is rewarded for this by God.’ Rambam isn’t given to hyperbole so the Talmudic statement ‘a scholar on whose garment is found a stain deserves a death,’ is recast, ‘it is forbidden for a scholar to have a stain on their garment.’ Rambam isn’t given to superstition so the Talmudic statement that people shouldn’t ‘go out at night on Wednesday or Saturday because the Queen of the Demons and 180,000 destroying angels go forth [on these nights],’ is simply ignored. The scholar of contemporary orthodoxy, Marc B. Shapiro, lists pages of examples of this recasting of Judaism, conveniently overlooked by ultra-orthodox Rabbinic leaders who, nowadays, ascribe canonical perfection to this work once burnt on account of its heresy. Certainly there is something very non-ultra-orthodox in Rambam’s embrace of the latest academic discoveries in fields such a astrology and medicine, an interest that he allows to present Judaism in such a way that it fits in with the best claims of contemporary non-Jewish thought. Rambam was a hungry for knowledge from wherever it may be found, how he would have reacted to the claims of evolution, palaeontology and astral physics or even Biblical archaeology and criticism, is one of the great hypothetical questions in Jewish history.

In many ways Maimonides is doing we would later recognise as Reform - freeing Judaism of ancient taints no longer believable in his contemporary age. But the changes he articulates aren’t articulated as reformations. Rather Rambam claims his Judaism is the same Judaism as Moses or Yehudah HaLevi even as his practice is different, evolved – that make him sound like a good Masorti Jew. Meanwhile contemporary modern orthodox readers of the Mishneh Torah scoff at the notion that Rambam, if he were alive today, could be anything other than a leader of Modern Orthodoxy. Every denomination claims the Mishneh Torah as its own – testament in itself to the power of the work and its author. If you want to make your own decision the good news is the Hebrew is simple, it’s a book that makes an easy study companion, say over the course of some time spent at the Conservative Yeshivah.

This is the latest in a series of short guides to Jewish law. Past and future articles can be read at

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue


Reflections aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parasha and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. If you require further guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

©2014 Masorti Judaism | Alexander House. 3 Shakespeare Road. London N3 1XE