Written for the Israel Religious Action Centre e-bulletin.
This week’s parashah, T’tzavveh, begins with a very challenging phrase from the point of view of a progressive Jew reading the Torah today: Attah t’tzavveh et-b’ney Yisrael – ‘you shall command the Israelites’ (Exodus 27: 20). The Torah, of course, is replete with ‘commands’. So, what do we make of them as progressive Jews? And what gives the commands, ha-mitzvot, their authority if we understand the Torah as a human document, rather than as Divine – albeit, inspired by the Eternal? Is it possible for there to be ‘commands’, without a ‘Commander’, M’tzavveh, giving the commands?
In Israel today, ‘commands’ are mostly issued by military personnel, and the majority of Jewish citizens of the Jewish state are sharply divided between those who are intensely religious and those who are intensely secular. In this binary arena, despite the incredible work being undertaken by organisations like the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), Progressive Judaism claims the allegiance of a minority only. And yet, regardless of how individuals make sense of their relationship – or lack of relationship – to Judaism and Jewish teaching, Israeli society seems – to this diaspora Jew at least – to be permeated with a sense of obligation and responsibility. Perhaps, this sense of obligation and responsibility is a direct result of military service and the culture of discipline and loyalty that it cultivates. Perhaps, it is a consequence of carrying the burden of Jewish survival after the Sho’ah. Perhaps, this sense of obligation and responsibility is itself a survival of the sacred notion of mitzvah, we find in the Torah.
Of course, that is not to say that every Israeli Jew is driven by a sense of obligation and responsibility. Some may long to relieve themselves of it, some may actively flee from it, and some may simply not recognise it. After all, managing one’s individual life is hard enough, without carrying the fate of the Jewish people on one’s back – which brings me back to T’tzavveh. The verse that begins, Attah t’tzavveh et-b’ney Yisrael – ‘you shall command the Israelites’ – continues: v’yikkhu eilecha shemen zayit zakh katit la-ma’or, l’ha’alot neir tamid – ‘that they shall take to you pure olive oil beaten for the lamp, to set up a regular light.’ That simple verse about the oil required for what the Torah names elsewhere in parashat b’ha’a lot’cha, as ha-m’norah, ‘the lampstand’ (Numbers 8:2), conveys a much broader meaning: The people Israel are responsible for providing the means by which the light burns ‘from evening to morning… throughout the generations’ (Ex. 27:21). The m’norah, the lampstand, lit in the Temple by the priests in the days of sacrificial worship long gone by, was chosen as a key symbol of the State of Israel – alongside the magein David that adorns the flag. As the blue six-pointed star represents the reclamation and proud declaration of Jewish identity and renewed Jewish life in place of the enforced yellow ‘Jude’ star of persecution, so the m’norah proclaims that the light lit millennia ago still burns.
And so, whatever one’s relationship to the text of the Torah, whether one is progressive or dati or secular, the commanding voice of T’tzavveh resonates still in the State of Israel today. And there is more. Parashat t’tzavveh opens with the very important role of the people, but it focuses on the role of the leaders, the kohanim, priests. It was the responsibility of Aaron and his sons, and their descendants after them, to set up – l’ha’alot – the lights on the lamp – ma’or (Exodus 27:21) / lampstand – m’norah (Numbers 8:2-3).
The priesthood was destroyed when the Temple was laid waste by the Romans in 70 CE. Nevertheless, a new class of leaders, a leadership of learning, was waiting in the wings, ready to take on the task of reconstructing Jewish life for a new post-Temple era, so that the light would continue to burn in every Jewish community in every place. For almost 2000 years in the absence of political power and statehood, the rabbis governed Jewish life. Enlightenment, emancipation and the rise of political Zionism threw up new Jewish leaders, but it wasn’t until the State of Israel was established in May 1948 that responsibility for setting up the lights on the m’norah came home.
But modern Israel is very different from the last independent Judean polity – the theocratic Hasmonean state. Democratic structures and processes – however much threatened by militarism and occupation, and the challenge of functioning as a democracy that upholds the rights of all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish unlike – have made the leadership accountable to the people and conferred responsibility on all those who have a vote. It is in this context that a host of human rights organisations, including IRAC, undertake their work. It is in this context that Anat Hoffman and Women of the Wall challenge the hegemony of the ultraorthodox. It is in this context that Shulamit Aloni, z”l, who died on January 24, at the age of 85 ‘fought ferociously for Israeli civil rights’ (Gideon Levy, HAARETZ, 26.01.14). Shulamit Aloni, a lawyer, who was first elected to the Knesset in 1965, became the leader of the left-wing party, Meretz, and held numerous ministerial posts, until she retired from party politics in 1996. Throughout her career she sought a peaceful and just settlement with the Palestinians and was passionately committed to human rights for all; her relentless campaigning encompassing advocacy on behalf of Israeli Palestinians and the LGBT community. She was also resolutely secular and a fierce opponent of the power of the ultraorthodox rabbinate. And yet, it is clear that she engaged in sacred work, setting up lights continually, day after day. It is our responsibility to continue bringing the oil for the lamp, and also to show leadership by taking responsibility for keeping the light burning. To paraphrase the famous teaching found amongst the philosophical sayings of the first rabbis, in Pirkey Avot (2:16): It is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.