D’var Torah: The Millennium. Belsize Square Synagogue. 1 January 2000

 D’var Torah: The Millennium

 Belsize Square Synagogue

Saturday 1 January 2000

Anthony Stadlen

Today we have read the last third of the stupendous first sidrah of Shemoth [Exodus]. This strange, uncanny sidrah raises questions a lifetime’s study could only touch on.

Today is also the first day of the year 2000 of the Common Era. This raises questions for Judaism.

Do these two sets of questions, about the sidrah and about the Millennium, throw any light on each other?

There is one immediate link. What Christian festival were those worldwide displays of lasers, fireworks, Domes and Wheels celebrating? The Archbishop of Canterbury, I suspect, will not have dwelt on this in his sound-bite last night. But the revellers were not celebrating Jesus’s birthday: that was last Shabbat. No, today is the Feast of the Circumcision. Jesus’s circumcision.

Only Luke’s Gospel describes it. Chapter 3 verse 21:

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Luke goes on:   

And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord:

(As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord:)

So Luke shows Jesus as having a Jewish upbringing. But this sets the scene for the claim that Jesus transcended Judaism, went beyond Torah, so that Christians are the new Israel, who have Love rather than Law, and the Jews are the unrepentant and unredeemed killers of God, who cling to the ‘vengeful’ God of the ‘Old Testament’ and still deny ‘Christ’s’ divinity.

That remains the background to the relation between Jews and Christians, despite advances in recent years. Hyam Maccoby writes in the current Jewish Quarterly: 

As long as the negative image of the Pharisees, the archetype of Judas Iscariot, and the portrayal of the Jewish crowd baying for Jesus’s crucifixion continue to poison the minds of Christian children, antisemitism will continue, and post-Christian secular antisemitism will continue to feed off its Christian origins.

Let us hope that the new Millennium will see an end to the Christian contempt for Jews. But we shall need to be clear-sighted about it.

Today’s sidrah can contribute. Let us first look at it as a whole.

There are numerous, and numinous, parallels with the beginning of the book we have just finished, Bereshit [Genesis]. God sees that the Creation is good; and Moses’s mother, Jocheved, sees that Moses is good. She places Moses in an ark in the bullrushes: a tevah, the same word as for Noah’s ark. She is the first person in the Torah whose name refers to the ineffable Name of God, the Tetragrammaton. Her name means ‘the Everpresent is my glory’: before God told Moses Gods Name, either the Tetragrammaton or Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (‘I will be who [or what] I will be’).

The last chapter of Bereshit is silent about women, as my wife, Naomi, discussed on 25 December. But women are gloriously present in today’s sidrah: Jocheved, Moses’s mother; Shiphrah and Puah, the heroic midwives; Pharaoh’s daughter, who saves Moses; Moses’s sister, Miriam, who arranges that their mother is able to breastfeed Moses and even get paid for it!

Then there are the three strange verses where Zipporah, Moses’s wife, saves Moses’s life by circumcising one of their sons before God can kill Moses. Or does she, as Hyam Maccoby translates in his book The Sacred Executioner, save her son’s life before Moses, in a reversion to human-sacrificial frenzy, can kill the son? Either way, these three verses raise many questions.

Another question is: how and why did God ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’? Does this contradict free moral choice? But what of God’s encouraging Moses? Does God enable people to intensify who they have chosen to be, for good or evil, so that Pharaoh and Moses both become more themselves?

Berel Dov Lerner, writing in the journal Le’ela, suggests that precisely because Pharaoh engaged in ‘mind control’ to reduce the Israelites’ freedom of action, not just to enslave them physically, God intervened to restrict Pharaoh’s freedom and imprison him within his self-chosen hardness of heart.

This question of ‘mind control’ – psychological manipulation – is central to the question of our being strangers in Egypt, and to our slavery, that the Torah enjoins us to remember.

The Torah insists we must love the stranger.

The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
And we were slaves in Egypt:
I am the Everpresent thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
In the first version of the Ten Utterances, the Shabbat is a Memorial of Creation. In the second version, Moses says God said we should keep Shabbat, with our manservant and maidservant, our ox and our ass, and remember we were slaves in Egypt. Again the link between the creation story and the bringing-out from Egypt.

But how can we remember that we were slaves if we do not remember how and why we were slaves? The detail is everything. If we do not try to understand the detail, our remembering will be an abstraction, a cliché, sentimentality.

True remembering means trying to understand.

But doesn’t this prove the Christian allegation that we are vengeful, narrow, resentful, self-pitying, legalistic, unspiritual, paranoid?

Isn’t our God paranoid? Why does the Everpresent dwell on the past? Why can’t the One just be a loving God, like gentle Jesus?

But what is paranoia? Paranoia is seeing persecution where it is not. Most psychiatrists do not realise that the paranoid person also does not see persecution where it is. Paranoia often arises from trying not to see real persecution. One denies it, displaces it, sees it where it is not, does not see it where it is.

Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbour lest thou bear a sin on his account.
Loving one’s neighbour, or the stranger, means, among other things: not taking revenge, not nursing a grudge, but – rather – seeing wrongdoing, or persecution, where it is, and as it is. It means speaking out.

So the Torah requires us to see persecution where it is, and to love our neighbour by speaking out if he does wrong. But we do not have to be foolhardy if he has hardened his heart. God encouraged Moses not to tell Pharaoh the whole truth, but to request ‘three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Everpresent our God’.

Again, Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives, who ‘feared God’; who perhaps led two guilds of Egyptian midwives, a respected profession in Egypt; and, in the first recorded act of civil disobedience on moral grounds in human history, refused to carry out the order of the Pharaoh to murder the Hebrew boy babies at birth – Shiphrah, meaning beautiful, and Puah, meaning a girl, or fragrant, or perhaps recalling the way women purr or coo to babies – these brave but lowly women, whose names the Torah honours across the millennia while disdaining to mention the name of Pharaoh, did not tell Pharaoh the whole truth about their courageous refusal to take part in murder masked as health intervention. The first human conversation of Exodus echoes the first human conversation of Genesis: Avram’s great refusal to let the King of Sodom seduce him with money. But Shiphrah and Puah’s great refusal is circumspect. When Pharaoh asks why they have not murdered the babies, they reply: ‘Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women, for they are lively, and are delivered before the midwife comes unto them.’ This may even have been true, but it was misleading.

The story of Shiphrah and Puah, of the attempt to enlist the health professions in mass murder, followed by actual mass murder by throwing babies into the Nile, throws light on our slavery in Egypt. But Martin Buber, in his book Moses, written (in Jerusalem) in 1944 of all years, claims it cannot be true. Buber says it contradicts Pharaoh’s wish to exploit the Israelites as slaves.

But there is no contradiction. The Torah states that Pharaoh said: ‘Come, let us deal wisely with them’ – i.e., shrewdly, or cunningly – because they are ‘too many and too mighty for us’. ‘Therefore’, says the Torah, ‘they did set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens.’ Not to exploit them, while incidentally afflicting them with burdens. The primary aim was to afflict them.

So ours was no simple slavery. Our demoralisation was not a byproduct of our slavery. It was the whole point. The economic value of our slave labour was a byproduct of the project of demoralisation.

Understanding this should help us understand Jewish slavery under the Nazis. The Nazis were not primarily interested in Jews as slave labour. If they could be used for that, on the way to the Final Solution, all right. But the primary aim was something else. After the recent opening of the Sonderarchiv in Moscow, we can study the methods that Herbert Hagen, Adolf Eichmann, Theodor Dannecker, Dieter Wisliceny and others in the Sicherheitsdienst, the SD, developed to mystify and demoralise the Jews. The First Solution, so to speak, was to demoralise them to the point where, as Dannecker put it, ‘no Jew could see a future in Germany’. The Zionists were to be manipulated to encourage the assimilated Jews to emigrate. In the Final Solution, they used methods of psychological manipulation to mystify and deceive the Jews into cooperating with their own extermination. Many have claimed this apparent cooperation as evidence of a psychological peculiarity of the Jews.

My colleagues and I have done research to discover who masterminded the psychological manipulation, the mystification and deception, of the Jews in the Shoah. We thought it might be psychiatrists, clinical psychologists or psychotherapists. The Nazis, like Pharaoh, were happy to use such health professionals; and many health professionals, unlike Shiphrah and Puah, were happy to offer their services. The first commandant of Treblinka with its medical programme of extermination of Jews and others was a psychiatrist, Irmfried Eberl, fresh from his job as medical director of the institutes for the so-called ‘euthanasia’ of the so-called mentally ill’ at Brandenburg and Bernburg, directed from T4, Tiergarten 4 in Berlin. He was an expert at killing. But he was not very competent in psychology: he left bodies lying around, making a poor impression on new residents and others, and he was soon replaced.

We found there was no need of professionals to mastermind the psychological manipulation of the Jews. Hagen, Eichmann and the others in the Sicherheitsdienst did very well working it out as they went along. Hagen’s son told me his father had contempt for professional psychologists. The documents released by the Moscow archives show that Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, of mindless bureaucrats, is misleading.

The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, who gave a sermon here a few years ago, in his book To Mend the World quotes Pelagia Lewinska: 

At the outset the living places, the ditches, the mud, the piles of excrement behind the blocks, had appalled me with their horrible filth.... And then I saw the light! I saw that it was not a question of disorder or lack of organisation but that, on the contrary, a very thoroughly considered conscious idea was in the back of the camp's existence. They had condemned us to die in our own filth, to drown in mud, in our own excrement. They wished to abase us, to destroy our human dignity, to efface every vestige of humanity....

But from the instant that I grasped the motivating principle...it was as if I had been awakened from a dream.... I felt under orders to live.... And if I did die in Auschwitz it would be as a human being, I would hold onto my dignity.

Fackenheim calls this a monumental discovery. To mend the world, we have to understand the shattering: who, whom, what, where, when, how, why.

So understanding our bondage in Egypt helps in understanding the Shoah. There is a moral imperative to strive to understand both.

As for the Millennium: there is no excuse for any of us, Christian or Jew, to continue deceiving ourselves about how the Gospels and the writings of Paul and other Church Fathers have misrepresented Judaism. From this recognition, healing could follow. The third Christian millennium might become a time of true friendship and respect between the two religions.

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