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Sermon by Rabbi Mark Goldsmith: 10 January 2015

This sermon was given by Rabbi Mark Goldsmith at Alyth (North Western Reform Synagogue).

First at the magazine office they killed people for what they had done. Then at the kosher supermarket they killed people for who they are.  The depth of the evil of the Paris murderers was extraordinary and comprehensive.  In this week when we hear the portion of Shemot we confront both.

Pharaoh kills the Israelite children – all of the baby boys born just for who they are, an inconvenient people in his kingdom. Moses is saved by being placed in the bulrushes in a basket and then found by Pharaoh’s own daughter to be brought up at the palace.

But then Moses himself confronts us with an awful moral dilemma.   He witnesses the Egyptian taskmaster beating the Israelite slave.  He sees what he does and condemns it absolutely.  Moses then kills the Egyptian.  The Hebrew is this verse is unclear as to exactly what happens.  It does not say that Moses kills the Egyptian, or murders him.  It says that he struck him in preventing him from committing further cruelty. (Exodus 2:12)   It was a tragic blow because the Egyptian task master died and Moses buried him in the sand.

Was it right for Moses to kill the man for what he did?  We see Moses defending the Hebrew slave as an act of justice which helped to qualify Moses to be the leader of the Israelites out of slavery.  But the act of manslaughter of the Egyptian task master?  In the Torah text itself it makes Moses into a fugitive who has to run right out of Egypt.  He is not even supported in his act of killing the Egyptian by his own people who in the next verse, when he intervenes to stop two Israelites in violent dispute, condemn him for the death that he caused.  Later Rabbinic tradition even suggests that because of the death of the Egyptian Moses was immediately condemned by God never to enter the Promised Land.

Judaism of course abhors the killing at the Hyper Cacher supermarket and the killing at the Charlie Hebdo magazine.   Neither are justifiable in any way.  So too does Islam the faith.  Only Islamicism the tribal sect has so little care about humanity that it lives with and promotes this evil.  But there are questions still open for Jews.

The questions as far as I see it remain about whether the activities of Charlie Hebdo in publishing cartoons of Mohammed are morally questionable and about whether it is possible for Jews to continue seeking friendly relationships with the Muslim community.

When Moses is given his mission at the burning bush to lead the Israelites out of slavery he has an immediate crisis of confidence that he would ever be listened to as a spokesman in God’s name. He asks God to pin down who God is so that Moses can say with confidence that he represents God.  Moses asks: “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’ and they ask me, “What is his name?  What shall I say to them.”  God’s answer is at the root of our inability and therefore reluctance to make pictures or images of God.  God said to Moses “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” – I am that I am – thus shall you say to the Israelites, “I am send me to you.” (Exodus 3:13-14).

We do not picture God.  In the windows which shine on our Synagogue there are images of so many aspects of Judaism, Jerusalem, Torah, Lulav, Chanukkiah.  But not God.  If you ask a Jewish child to draw a picture of God they would be reluctant to do so, if you ask them to throw such a picture away even more so.  If you ask them to write the word God many of them will write it g-d.  We know almost instinctively as Jews that there are limits to what is OK to write and to draw so that we do not offend.  I am sure that the same would happen if you ask a Muslim child to draw a picture of the prophet Mohammed.  It is just something you don’t do.

There are limits in Judaism to what is OK to say or to picture.  Speech too has its boundaries.  Building on the principle in Leviticus 19 that you should not spread gossip Judaism has a whole structure of disciplined speech.  You do not spread lashon ha ra – speech which hurts and offends others, you do not say something about someone which you even know to be true if it would be to their harm, you don’t castigate a person who has converted to Judaism because of your opinion of their origins.

The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan in c19 Poland, built a highly influential guide to behaviour which would avoid offence and harm on this principle.  His non de plume comes from this verse in Psalm 34:  Who is the person who desires life (Chofetz Chaim), who loves days to see goodness? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully. Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.

Its not OK in Judaism just to say and picture what you want with no regard for the consequences.  But all of this principle is about what you do to be a decent person.  It does not in any way give another person a right to attack you for what you have said or pictured.  Judaism provides a structure for dissent, for other ideas, for dangerous things that are said.   The Torah almost tells the story straight, though there are different accounts of the same event within reflecting differing traditions probably between the northern and southern Israelites.

But the Talmud is chocked full of debate, discussion, argument, different ideas, often harmonised with abstruse logic but  also often left hanging as different ways of thinking and different possibilities.  Our Midrashim are beautiful because of all of the different ideas.  You do not get one interpretation of a text in Torah, instead Davar Acher after Davar Acher, a different opinion after a different opinion present many ways of thinking about Torah.   One small example of thousands:  When Moses sees the burdens of the Israelite slaves – Rabbi Eleazar says it means that Moses saw how hard the work of the slaves was and went to help his fellow Israelites to carry what they were required to – an example of empathy.  Davar Acher – another Rabbi says noo – this meant that Moses saw that Pharoah gave the slaves no rest and so Moses instituted rest on the Shabbat as in the Ten Commandments for everyone, free or enslaved. (Shemot Rabbah 1:27-28).

Judaism even has a way to say uncomfortable things about God and to excuse the offence you might cause – throughout Talmud and midrash when a Rabbi feels the need to say something he is concerned may be offensive he introduces it with the word Kivyacchol – “as it were” – so when Rabbi Jannai tries to understand how God felt the pain of the Israelite slaves in Shemot he says “Kivyachol” – God is like a twin brother to Israel.  Even if they are not near each other when one twin feels a pain in the head so does the other.  (Shemot Rabbah 2:5) It is radical even offensive to call God the twin of Israel – but with “Kivyachol”  Rabbi Jannai in the second century warned his readers, what I am about to say may be offensive but is worth saying because it will further the debate.  Because of this Jews are careful about what they say but they do not violently attack each other when they claim offence.

Nor does real Islam.  As Jonathan Freedland writes “the challenge is to frustrate the killers’ desire to fuse themselves with Islam that puts a burden on non-Muslims too.  They have to take great care that nothing they do…treats the Muslim majority and the jihadist cult as if they are one group.  They are not…..  The finger wagging demand that Muslims condemn acts of terror committed by jihadist cultists is odious:  it tacitly assumes that Muslims support such horror unless they explicitly say otherwise. …Jews have some experience of this feeling:  we are sometimes told we have to condemn this or that action taken by others – and over which we have no control – if our place in polite society is to be secure.”  (Guardian 10/1/14 p 35).

We can and must defeat the murderers by continuing to build a society where Jews live with Muslims and Christians and Hindus and secular people learning from each other, valuing our differences, taking care not to hurt each other.  The alternative is a future of warring walled up nations.   It is most certainly not what we pray for when we say Sim Shalom in every morning service – bring us hayim chen v chesed – peace, goodness and blessing, life grace and mercy.  When we pray that God blesses us all together. As the Chofetz Chayim built from the Psalm (34):  Shun evil and go good, seek peace and pursue it.  It will not simply come to us.

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