Parashat Toldot 5777

Rabbi René Pfertzel, 2 December 2016


A fortnight ago, Liberal Rabbis met at Charney Manor in Oxfordshire for their annual rabbinic retreat. The theme of this year was “Halacha: vote, veto, or whatever”. We started our two days’ discussion with a sermon written by Rabbi John D. Rayner (z”l) in 1963 entitled “The Next Chapter”. It was an address given at the LJS after the passing of Lily Montagu (z”l) earlier on. Sensing that a new generation was about to arise, Rabbi Rayner wanted to pay tribute to the work of the first generation of Liberal Jews, and to assess the challenges to come, because “every generation must do it anew; for conditions change, thoughts change, and the language of one generation is not fully comprehensible to the next… We must therefore express the message of Liberal Judaism in the idiom of our own day”.

According to him, the new generation of Liberal Jews in his time were facing many challenges: to expound Liberal Judaism “in a more thorough manner”, by enabling access to Jewish education to our congregants: “We must present it as a religion for the educated and committed Jew, … respecting of the past, … but in ways more appropriate to the age in which we live”. It is what he called “the noble work of recapturing the unaffiliated”. However, another task, probably more important in his eyes was “to establish Liberal Judaism as a serious alternative to Orthodoxy, and ultimately as the norm of Jewish life in this land”. How to achieve this goal? “It requires that we should build up a kind of Liberal Jewish Halacha, firmly grounded in Jewish tradition, thoroughly modern in its conclusion, comprehensive in its scope, unimpeachable in its reasoning”.

These words were uttered more than fifty years ago, and we wanted to understand where we stand on this question. Are they still relevant today? Do we need other wordings?

We discussed Jewish identity, weddings, mixed-faith blessings, Halacha and prayer, and so on. It felt like being in a rabbinic academy where cases would be scrutinised before reaching a conclusion.

The stakes are extremely high. On one hand, as a rabbinic body, we have the duty to offer clear answers to our members who turn to us for clarification and guidance. We draw our inspiration and knowledge from our Tradition, and also from what has been transmitted to us by Liberal Jews from previous generations, not necessarily Rabbis, as it is a common endeavour. We also look at the values and principles embodied in our Tradition and our reading of them. During our Kallah, we read Rabbi Elli Tikva Sarah’s “Compelling Commitments”, which are a reformulation of our principles. I strongly recommend any Liberal Jew to read them. On the other end, we have the duty to transmit our Tradition to the next generation, a Tradition able to evolve and to take into account the world in which we live today.

The Midrash Genesis Rabbah mentions a peculiar sort of Beit-Midrash, The Beit Midrash of Shem and Eber. After the Akeidah, says this Midrash, Abraham sent Isaac to learn Torah from Shem (Gen. Rabbah 56:11). Quoting the Talmud (Megillah 17a), Rashi says that Jacob studied as well at the Beit Midrash of Shem and Eber.

In our Torah portion, we read the passage from a generation to the other. In the previous parasha, Abraham died “at a good ripe age, old and contended” (Gen. 25:8). Isaac, son of Abraham, becomes the next leader of the Hebrews. With him starts a new stage, consolidating what has been previously achieved by his father, and assuring the family lineage. Isaac might have not so many stories about him. He was nevertheless an essential link in the Patriarchal saga, between his father, who brought monotheism to the world, and his son Jacob, who fathered the twelve tribes of Israel. Each and every link is essential and important to ensure continuity and survival.

Midrash Kohelet (fol. 323, col. 2) affirms that one who studies Torah in this world will study with the Beit Midrash of Shem, Eber, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron in the world to come. Torah study is not only incumbent upon Rabbis. It is upon all Jews from any background. It is a common and fascinating adventure, and is essential to our survival as a people who has a strong voice in this world.

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