Yom Sheini, 22 Tishri 5780
Shemini Azeret Monday, 21 October 2019
Parashat Vaeira 2015

Parashat Va-eira
14th January 2015 - Rabbi Richard Jacobi

Do we nowadays consider as true the narrative of God having a direct conversation with Moses and casually mentioning that “I appeared (Va-eira) to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Adonai” (Ex. 6:3)?

The idea of God “appearing” to individual people and commissioning them with a specific task is one that ought to trouble us. Moses foretelling each of the plagues, with their impact on the Egyptian people, animals and land, and God punishing so widely for Pharaoh’s intransigence ought to make us feel uncomfortable. Add to this narrative that God is presented as hardening Pharaoh’s heart and our unease should increase. Such discomfort is then amplified by the events that unfolded in Paris last week, as men claiming to be inspired or instructed by another manifestation of God – Allah – killed so many people.

Je ne suis pas Charlie, Je suis juif. If I were preparing for Shabbat and went shopping at a kosher supermarket, none of these actions in any way warrant my being picked out to be murdered. Even if I were a satirical cartoonist or journalist, the standards of our society say that any wrongdoing is to be challenged using legal or social processes, not a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner. Yet, an Egyptian first-born, human or animal was picked out for killing in the final ‘plague’, about which we will read next week. The God of the Jews sent the angel of death and, we’re told, thousands died in that one night.

Each of the three Abrahamic faiths has in-built command and control stories and catechisms – ways of demanding absolute loyalty to the faith, its leaders and its God. The texts – Bible, New Testament or Qur’an – reinforce the superiority of ‘our’ God and provide plenty of reasons for us to be faithful servants. Traditional interpreters of each faith have to create mechanisms by which these absolute and fundamentalist traits of long-established religions can be mitigated, abandoned, or otherwise overridden.

Progressive interpreters, such as Liberal Judaism, have taken upon ourselves the duty to read these texts as human writings, the products of human frailties rather than Divine instruction. It was human beings who needed to enforce loyalty and so set up rewards and punishments. It was human beings who struggled to assert the value of religious practice in each generation, and so developed stories to reinforce and amplify the rules. I often seek to picture the religion of the ancient campfire, to imagine what parents would have told children, and what story-tellers would have conveyed to hold the attention of their listeners. We Jews are the inheritors of a wondrous array of stories and teachings, but we have to select with great care which stories and which rules are the enduring touchstones for the world in which we live.

Liberal Judaism demands that we interact between the progressive interpretation of Jewish wisdom and the learning of the many disciplines – sciences and arts – that advance knowledge and understanding. This is more challenging and demanding than any traditional or fundamental interpretation of Judaism or any faith. Liberal Judaism also asserts that no-one has a monopoly of wisdom, truth and ‘right’. This humility, this affirmation of plurality and diversity is something to which we must cling, no matter what the challenges or plagues that confront us. We can and should ask “And now Israel, what does the Eternal One, your God, demand of you?” (Deut. 10:12) But we subject the answer to careful scrutiny before attempting to implement it.

“It is not an easy task. How much do we owe to tradition? How much to fresh insights? And are they really advances in truth or merely passing fashions? We cannot be sure….

“The formulation of the highest truth needs constant revision, and even more surely do the forms in which that truth is clothed. When dogma takes the place of love, religion is dead. And a liturgy that cannot expand, that cannot absorb the religious teachings of the age, that cannot dare to sing to the Eternal One new songs, such a liturgy is a printed page, it is not a prayer fresh from the supplicant’s heart.

“God of all generations, teach us to be faithful to the wisdom of the past, responsive to the needs of the present, and tolerant of those who see this twofold task in ways different from our own.” (Siddur Lev Chadash, p.249)