I know we are now into the last of the five books of Moses known as Deuteronomy, but I will leave it to you to discuss the intricacies of this week’s parshah as written.
I cannot count the number of times I have been asked to comment on what is about to happen as we read this parshah, to wit, Tisha B’Av but in reading one that I wrote eleven years ago, I cannot believe how prophetic what I stated in 2010 has in a sense come to pass. I am referring to our current situation as it relates to attempting to keep the tradition of the Jericho Jewish Center going through a possible consolidation with another conservative synagogue and the difficulty it seems to be going through. The potential for all to be lost because of internal bickering is real and I would like you to read what I conveyed only eleven years ago.
“As one gets older one’s tastes change, and I find this true in my reading habits among other things. Lately, I have taken to reading the obits in the newspaper for two reasons. First, I peruse the section to see if I’m in it, and if I do not see my name, I go on with my day. Secondly, I find interesting tidbits about people I never heard of before, but that have led interesting lives. A couple of months ago, I came across one that I found absolutely fascinating, and I believe it fits in with today’s reading and what we think about at this time of the year.
The person’s name was Moshe Greenberg, who was a biblical scholar and died at the age of 81. In fact, he was one of the most influential Jewish biblical scholars of the 20th century. Professor Greenberg, who in 1994 won the Israel Prize, that nation’s highest civilian honor, taught Bible and Jewish studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1970 to 1996. But his teaching career began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954 and constituted something of a breakthrough in American academia.
Before then, most American universities held that biblical study was primarily the domain of Christian scholars said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
“The concept was that Jews could not be objective about teaching the Bible and that they had shifted to the study of the Talmud,” Professor Sarna said, referring to the post-biblical collection of rabbinic discussions of Jewish law, ethic and customs. “So the appointment of Greenberg to teach Bible at a secular university was a milestone.” said Professor Sarna.
Can you imagine that a Jew could not teach the Bible because it was thought he or she would have too much of a Jewish slant on the subject. To me that is the equivalent of saying a Catholic cannot become the Pope because he would have too much of a bias on that Jesus concept. But I digress.
Professor Greenberg brought to the field a willingness to take what is known as the historical critical approach to Bible study, which assumes that more than one author had a hand in writing the first five and many other books of the Bible.
“Jews were studying it in a traditional pious way,” said Jeffrey H. Tigay, the Ellis professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. The new approach, he said, “undermined the Jewish dogma of the whole Torah being given to Moses at one time.”
Professor Greenberg’s idea, which he called a holistic method, Professor Tigay said, was: “Let’s build on the idea of multiple authorship, but let’s not stop with unraveling the original components. Let’s figure out why the compilers put them together the way they did.” That method was central to Professor Greenberg’s extensive commentaries on the books of Exodus and Ezekiel, which analyzed how the multiple writers had woven their ideas into unified themes.
In his book “Biblical Prose Prayer,” from 1983, Professor Greenberg examined every instance of people praying in the Bible and concluded that their prayers were what he called “a vehicle of humility, an expression of un-self-sufficiency.
“Many of those who prayed in the Bible were commoners; you don’t have to be a priest in the Bible to pray; Professor Sarna said. “Greenberg shows how the biblical concepts influenced the subsequent history of Jewish prayer, that Jews don’t need an intermediary.”
Professor Tigay added: “He reasoned that the frequency of spontaneous prayer must have sustained a constant sense of G-d’s presence and strengthened the egalitarian tendency of Israelite religion, which led to the establishment of the synagogue.
I submit that nowhere do the teachings of Professor Greenberg come together as perfectly as they do in today’s reading, which begins the Book of Deuteronomy. The oldest name of this Book is Mishna Sivra, which means the Repetition of the Torah. In essence as described by Dr. Hertz, this Book was “Moses’ Farewell Discourses and the Song to Israel. The Lawgiver had brought his People to the borders of the Holy Land. He then recounts in three Discourses the events of the forty years’ wanderings; and warns against the temptations awaiting them in Canaan, with promise of Divine judgment for disobedience, and Divine blessing for faithful observance, of God’s commandments.”
To those of us that read the Torah every week, it becomes evident immediately that this Book is written differently than the others. Just look at the first sentence which starts: “These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel…” It does not start as most other chapters do with “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying…” which I think gives validity to what Professor Greenberg tried to convey about the multiple authorship.
If we go into what is stated today, we again hear the story of the twelve spies and their fear of going forward because of the giants that would prevent the Israelites from entering the holy land. The complaints mount and it is said that G-d made up his mind at this time to prevent those that had come out of the land of Egypt from going into the Eretz Yisrael because despite all of the miracles that G-d had provided them, the splitting of the Red Sea, the providing of manna, the ability to beat what seemed like invincible armies, the people bickered and could not appreciate what was given to them and did not deserve to experience the ultimate prize of settling in the Holy Land. G-d’s decision was allegedly made on the 9th day of Av, which is the real theme behind today’s sermon.
As I have stated on earlier occasions, it is amazing the unfortunate events that occurred on Tisha B’Av which included among other things a personal tragedy for me, the passing of my father. However, the events that are most associated with the Tisha B’Av are the destruction of the first and second holy temples of Jerusalem and the Diaspora of the Jewish people around the world.
It is said that that the destruction of the temples took place because of a moral and religious decline of the Jewish people and the fact that their internal bickering and complaints allowed its enemies to take advantage of the situation and destroy the very fabric of the Jewish religion. Is this so farfetched? If I may take my cue from Professor Greenberg and put my slant on the events, I do not think so.
When my father died on Tisha B’Av, I could have turned my back on G-d and said why do I have to believe in a religion that takes from me, one of the persons that meant most to me on this Earth on a day that is synonymous with disaster to the Jewish people. I didn’t, and in fact thought that this was a sign that I should be even more observant. The thing my father wanted most from me was that I would always say Kaddish in observance of his passing. Even if I wanted to, I could never forget the day my father died and placed upon me with the obligation of saying Kaddish in his beloved memory.
I urge each and every one of you to consider something that I’m sure no one in this room would ever want to see come to pass. As a past president of the JJC, I heard more than my share of bickering and complaints from the synagogue’s congregants about what was wrong with this or that. Many were good with suggestions of how something should be done but when I would suggest that maybe they could take on the suggestion, most of the time I was told how busy he or she was and that someone else should get the job done. My friends we have an absolute jewel of a building that you are sitting in that has withstood the test of time for more than fifty years. But be advised that if those that complain do not come forth with either their time or with funds to help the shul survive, generations from now might be lamenting the day the walls of Jericho came down for a second time. With Tisha B’Av coming around in a few days, reflect on what you could do to improve our fate so that we can all enjoy this wonderful institution for many years to come.
As Professor Greenberg might have commented to those here today, next week pick up the big blue book that is in front of each and every one of you. Read it, enjoy it, question it but for heaven’s sake don’t ignore it. As Jews know all too well at this time of the year, history has a way of repeating itself.”
I am in total agreement with what you stated and as to the why, it is quite simple. It is the only answer that makes sense. Those that complain about what is being proposed, in all likelihood have complained about many things over the years at the JJC but they are not there to get directly involved in "correcting" what they perceive to be wrong. Any time someone advocates something like a "second minyan" it goes towards what I said eleven years ago with the internal bickering leading to the eventual downfall of a temple, be it the First, Second or what we have today at the JJC. What makes those that want something separate more "holy" than the rest of us? I for one do not think G-d thinks that one that prays with more "fervor" or with a greater "understanding" of what is actually recited has a greater chance of being heard by the Almighty. It is not what is being said or how you say it that matters. It is what is in your heart that gets through. What we had at the JJC was special, but our time has past. The demographics of what was once Jericho is no more and will not come back. Trying to bring back something that no longer exists for one's own satisfaction is not what our religion is about. Whether one is more "religious" or not is not what is at stake. The future of the JJC and what it has represented is what is important and if we bicker in order to get a certain point across, we may see a Tisha B'Av result to yet another temple.
Thank you for your words, Mordecai. I really appreciate your perspective, and I think you have grasped the issue clearly. I still have questions about the consolidation, and I think greater transparency around the decision-making could have been helpful. Nevertheless, I believe if a Conservative synagogue has an opportunity to merge/consolidate with another Conservative synagogue, rather than a Reform one as was basically the case at my pulpit in Reading, then it should do that.
I hope you will share some variation of what you wrote to me tomorrow night. If I may function as your rabbi forthrightly for a moment, I advise you to deliver them with patience. I know you don’t suffer foolishness and are not patient with those you find unreasonable. You have such a good point to make, and I would love to see you deliver it in measured words while knowing some will not hear what you have to say. If one person listens, then that’s a small victory.
I would not write it if I did not want it conveyed. As to saying something to the congregation tomorrow as to what is on my mind, I will listen and if I think it appropriate, I will say what is on my mind. I have been around these people longer than you and I know the way they would like it to be stated. Whether I will, remains to be seen. Buckle up, it could be a bumpy ride.