On a bus ride between Alnwick and Rothbury in Northumberland the last week of August I witnessed the most magnificent rainbow I have ever seen. We had decided to take the bus westwards that morning rather than go for a walk by the sea, because the weather forecast had been for rain, followed by sunshine. It rained, but the sun shone through – and there it was: a complete arch of glorious deep stripes of colour that seemed to be planted in the earth on either side. I have seen many rainbows in my lifetime, but until that moment, I realised, they had been partial; multi-coloured crescents floating in the air – over a hillside, or the tops of houses. This one resembled a child’s painting of a rainbow – except it was for real.
A rainbow: the sun’s light refracted through water. When it comes to seeing a rainbow we are all children, filled with awe and wonder. And most of those reared on Bible stories as children, are familiar with the tale of the flood in the Book of Genesis, which relates that after the rain had fallen for 40 days and 40 nights, and all life, save for the inhabitants of the Ark, had been destroyed, God set a rainbow in the clouds as a sign of an eternal covenant between God and every living thing on earth. In view of this well-known story, it’s not surprising that the rainbow has been adopted by many people as a symbol of peace and also, in recent years, by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people as a symbol of inclusion and diversity. The rainbow with its spectrum of colours proclaims more than any other sign that life is plural, encompassing myriad ways of living that coexist side-by-side.
The context of the biblical flood story is universalism par excellence: the rainbow is a sign that every living thing – from the seedling and amoeba through the animals, great and small and homo sapiens, the most complex life-form of them all – is connected, and ultimately, shares the same fate. Captivated by the flood story, over the years I have also returned again and again to a Torah text which, by contrast, is preoccupied with the very particular story of the Jewish people. And yet, it, too, presents an image akin to a rainbow. We read at the beginning of the Torah portion, T’rumah, directly after the account of the closing scene of Revelation in which ‘the glory of the Eternal dwelt on Mount Sinai:
The Eternal spoke to Moses saying: / Speak to the Israelites that they shall take for Me an offering, from each person whose heart is willing you shall take My offering. / And this is the offering which you shall take from [what is] with them: gold and silver and copper; / blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen and goats’ hair; rams’ skins dyed red and dolphins skins, and acacia wood; / oil for the lighting, spices for the anointing oil and the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the cape and for the breast piece. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
‘Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them’ – v’shakhanti b’tocham: that I may dwell among them – not that I may dwell in it. By building the mikdash, ‘sanctuary’, also referred to as the mishkan – literally, ‘dwelling’ – and usually translated as the ‘Tabernacle’ in English, the ex-slaves enabled the elusive God, who ‘dwelt’ – va-yishkon – on Mount Sinai to dwell in their midst. The construction of the mishkan was an exercise in community building in which each individual offered their gifts with a willing heart to the collective enterprise.
The passage describes a host of magnificent and varied materials. If we focus on their colours, a rainbow of spectacular hues emerges: ‘gold and silver and copper; / blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen and goats’ hair; rams’ skins dyed red…’ Just imagine the scene: the profusion of wonderful, varied gifts: some glittering in the sunlight; others radiating deep plush colours; a plurality of fabrics and textures and scents. And let us also imagine that these varied and beautiful gifts are expressions of the variety of the individuals, who bring them.
So, who were these individuals, who gave their offerings for the building of that glorious tent with a willing heart? The answer seems obvious: the Israelites; the descendants of Jacob/Israel and his family. But the wilderness journey we find in the Torah was not the journey of a people, with a singular identity. The ex-slaves were a rabble made up of the Israelites, and erev rav – a ‘mixed multitude’ of others, who made the dash to freedom with them. The individuals who brought their magnificently varied gifts were also themselves magnificently varied. It was the experience of fleeing the house of bondage that enabled them to cooperate together to forge a community and to build a framework of meaning and a sense of connection. The fugitive slaves were united not by a shared identity – not by who they were – but rather by a shared experience of slavery and a shared enterprise: by what they did together.
Significantly, the emphasis on ‘doing’, rather than ‘being’ is at the heart of Jewish teaching from the beginning. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Ha-Shanah is ‘the birthday of the world’ – harat olam – and it is in the first narrative of the creation of the world related in the Torah that the centrality of ‘doing’ is paramount. And so, we read at the conclusion of that first narrative – and this is the literal translation:
Heaven and earth were finished, and all their host. / On the seventh day God finished the work which He had done, and ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. / Then, God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it, He ceased from all the work which God had created to do.
It is very difficult not to produce a clumsy translation of the original Hebrew. One of the reasons for this is because of the repeated use of the Hebrew root, Ayin Sin Hei, to ‘do’, or to ‘make’, and of the Hebrew root, Lamed Aleph Kaf, from which the noun, m’lakhah, ‘work’, is derived. The passage leaves the reader in no doubt that for six days God was ‘doing’ the ‘work’ of creation.
Significantly, messengers of God in the Torah – often referred to as ‘angels’ in older translations – are, more literally, God’s ‘workers’ – m’lakhim. But ‘work’ is not confined to the Divine realm. The Torah makes it clear that to be a human being is to imitate the Divine architect of the world and so be engaged in ‘doing’. Martin Buber drew attention to the parallels between the account of Creation and the account of the building of the mishkan, identifying seven correspondences between the two narratives. Within these seven parallels, Buber noted that the root Ayin Sin Hei, which appears seven times in the Creation narrative, is repeated 200 times in the chapters outlining the building of the mishkan. The correspondence between the two accounts is underlined by the way in which they both conclude. And so, just as God ‘finished’ the work of creation, Moses ‘finished’ the work of building the mishkan.
To understand the significance of the way in which the account of the construction of the mishkan mirrors the account of Divine creation, it is important to acknowledge that the mishkan represents individuals, who are by definition, different from one another, coming together to create community. While the Divine architect of Creation may have worked alone; the human architects of the mishkan worked together.
The differences between individuals, who nonetheless collaborate together, cannot be overstated. In their German translation of the Hebrew Bible, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig translated the key verse that expresses the obligation of individuals to one another, V’ahavta l’rei’akha kamokha; Ani Adonai – ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Eternal’ as: ‘Love your neighbour as one who is like you.’ By contrast with this emphasis on shared identity as the basis for relationship, the French Jewish philosopher, Emanuel Levinas, argues that we are obligated to acknowledge, above all, the otherness of the other.  Indeed, our responsibility to the other as other supersedes our responsibility to ourselves. For Levinas there is no such thing as an essential self. The meaning of the self emerges only in relation with others, for whom we bear a responsibility. 
The way in which we express that responsibility is by ‘doing’; by actively relating with others. While the emphasis on identity, on ‘being’, separates: it proclaims that I belong ‘here’ and you belong ‘there’; ‘doing’ unites through relationship: it has the potential of bringing a plurality of ‘others’ together and forging relationships between us. What individuals share when we engage together is not our identity and being, but rather the relationships we create. The significance of the building of the mishkan in the wilderness is underlined by the teaching of Levinas: By contributing our individual offerings to shared endeavours, individuals generate connectivity and community. There are limits to identity, by definition. There are no limits to the possibilities for connectivity.
The lessons and implications of the narrative of the building of the mishkan for us today and for our particular community are important and far-reaching. Proud to be affiliated with Liberal Judaism, which has led the way, since its establishment in Britain in 1902, in the arena of inclusion and equality, as a congregation, we are engaged in a profound way in what I have recently begun to call ‘Rainbow Judaism’. At its best, Liberal Judaism is Rainbow Judaism; an approach to Jewish life that is centred on putting the values of inclusion and equality into practice in everything that we do, so that everyone is enabled to contribute their particular individual offerings to the community, which we create together. Everyone means everyone: of all ages; of all genders; of all sexualities; of all abilities, mental and physical; those who are Jewish and Jew-ish; those with one Jewish parent – whether their mother or father – as well as those with two; non-Jews who wish to participate as Friends the synagogue. By the end of the secular year, we will have moved back into 6 Lansdowne Road. But the word ‘back’ is rather misleading. Save for the front wall, and the east wall, the building we will inhabit will be entirely new. On Shabbat Chanukkah, we will rededicate the building. More important, we will rededicate ourselves to our sacred task as a congregation dedicated to enabling all those who wish to participate to contribute their gifts to the creation of community – community that not only brings people in but reaches out and connects with community-builders everywhere.
As we engage in Rainbow Judaism, we forge connections with others, both within and beyond the Jewish community, who are committed to generating a plural social nexus that ensures and celebrates justice, equality, diversity and inclusion. From the vantage point of Rainbow Judaism, we also broaden our awareness to encompass the Earth. As the account of the Flood narrated in the Book of Genesis teaches us, there is an underside to the wondrous beauty of nature. Flood. Hurricane. Tornado. Drought. Volcanic eruption. Earthquake. And following the Indian Ocean catastrophe on December 26, 2004, a new word entered the lectionary of ferocious so-called ‘natural disasters’: Tsunami; the consequences of earthquake under the sea, precipitating engulfing waves. The context for the description of the rainbow in the Torah in the second portion of the Book of Genesis reminds us that even a natural phenomenon as ethereal as a rainbow signifies powerful forces.
In the theological framework outlined in the narrative of the Flood found in the Torah, a rainbow – keshet in Hebrew – is not just one of the myriad manifestations of beauty on the Earth, it is a sign of a covenant – b’rit – between the Creator and every living creature that is also an eternal reminder of the power of the Creator to destroy every vestige of life. Whether or not you subscribe to this theology, the message is unavoidable. When we witness a rainbow in the collision of rain and sunshine, we are reminded of the power of the elements and of our responsibility to harness our own powers for the sake of life, and in the service of the planet that is home, as the Torah teaches, to every living thing. To practice Rainbow Judaism is to acknowledge that awesome responsibility and to rise to the challenge to enter into a covenant with one another and with the Earth. Today, on this ‘birthday of the world’, may the vision of the rainbow above and the rainbow community we are building together here below inspire and encourage us as we take our first steps into the New Year. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Rosh Ha-Shanah Shacharit 5776 – 14th September 2015
- The tale of the Flood is related in Torah portion, No’ach, Genesis 6:9- 9:28.↑
- The ‘rainbow flag’ was first designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker of San Francisco http://pflagdetroit.org/story_of_the_rainbow_flag.htm↑
- Exodus 25:1-8.↑
- Elsewhere the Torah also refers to ohel mo’eid, ‘the Tent of Meeting’. The ohel mo’eid is presented, both, as another name for the mishkan, and as a place distinct from the mishkan, which Moses would pitch up outside the camp – see, e.g., Exodus 33:9-11.↑
- For a more extensive account see Chapter 11, ‘Empowering Individuals and Creating Community’ in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, London, 2012).↑
- Exodus 12:38.↑
- During the musaf, ‘additional’ service, when the shofar is blown in three sequences of blasts, the congregation recites the prayer that begins, ha-yom harat olam – ‘Today is the birthday of the world’. The prayer is found in the first prayer book, Seder Rav Amram by Amram ben Sheshna (c. 860 CE) (edited by Daniel Goldschmidt, Jerusalem, 1971). According to the German-Jewish liturgist, Ismar Elbogen, in his Jewish Liturgy. A Comparative History (Translated by Raymond Scheindlin, JPS and JTS, NY/Philadelphia, 1993), these verses are common to all denominational rites and are based on a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 CE): Tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah 10b.↑
- Genesis 2:1-3.↑
- Martin Buber. The Way of the Bible. (Bialik Institute, Jerusalem, 1964, pp.54-58). Hebrew. Nehama Leibowitz outlines Buber’s seven correspondences in her Studies in Shemot (Exodus), Part II, Terumah 2, pp. 479-481 (The World Zionist Organizations, Jerusalem, 1981).↑
- Genesis 2:1-2.↑
- Exodus 39:32; 40:33.↑
- Leviticus 19:18. ↑
- In his treatise, The Star of Redemption Franz Rosenzweig provides an insight into this translation: ‘…. Your neighbour is ‘like you.’ …. ‘Like you,’ and thus not ‘you.’ You remain You and remain just that. But he is not to remain a He for you, and thus a mere It for your You. Rather he is like You, like your You, a You like You, an I – a soul.’ [My emphasis] ↑
- For an exploration of the differences between Levinas and Buber, see: Levinas and Buber: Dialogue and Difference edited by Peter Atterton, Matthew Calarco, and Maurice Friedman. Duquesne University Press, 2004. ↑
- From: ‘Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas’, a series of interviews conducted, edited, and translated by Richard Kearney, and reviewed by Levinas. Reprinted in Face to Face with Levinas , edited by Richard A. Cohen. State University of New York Press, 1986, pp.23-24. ↑
- See http://www.tsunami2004.net/tsunami-2004-facts/↑
- Genesis 9:8-17.↑
- Ibid. ↑