[Sermon] Avodah – Sacred Service (AJEX Shabbat)

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
AJEX Shabbat

Al shlosha d’varim ha-olam omed: al ha-torah, v’al ha-avodah v’al g’millut chasadim

I’m sure many of you are familiar with these words from the Mishnah, from Pirkei Avot – The Ethics of our Fathers. This statement by Shimon the Righteous anchors the existence of the world as we know it on three things: Torah – i.e. learning; g’millut chasadim – that is, acts of human kindness and avodah. Now how are we to understand the term avodah? Ask an Israeli today what avodah is and they will say it means work or physical labour; in fact, it is also the name of the Israeli Labour Party.

Yet, if we look at the meaning of the term in the Bible we discover that in Deuteronomy 12:6 avodah specifically means offering sacrifices to God. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., however, the meaning of avodah was transformed. No longer could the Israelites serve God through sacrificial practice and so the stage was set for the evolution of other forms of service. And so the word, avodah, became bogged down in ambiguity. What does it mean for a Jew to serve God?

The medieval philosopher and commentator Maimonides provides us with one clear answer: “[this commandment to serve God] imposes a specific duty, namely that of prayer” (Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, 8). For Maimonides fixed prayer is the essence of one’s service to God, hence interpreting the term avodah to mean worship services. So when we gather for Kabbalat Shabbat, it is avodah – it isn’t work, for that would surely not be allowed on a Shabbat!

On the other hand, Nahmanides, famed Talmudist and mystic of the thirteenth century, argues that prayer is not mandated at all by the Torah. Prayer is nothing less than God’s gift to us. “For prayer is an expression of God’s lovingkindness to us when God hears and responds whenever we pray. . . as part of our service to God we are obligated to study God’s Torah, pray to God in times of distress, and turn our eyes and our hearts toward God ‘as the eyes of servants toward the hands of their masters’” (Psalm 123:2).

Nahmanides’ definition is far more expansive than Maimonides’. While the latter labels avodah to be obligatory prayer, the former argues against Maimonides’ claim of “obligation” and his limited definition of avodah. We serve God not only through the rabbinically ordained prayer services; Nahmanides emphasizes that we serve God in numerous ways.

On this Shabbat when we honour our Jewish Ex-Servicemen and women, let us explore the idea of avodah as sacred service in a more general way.

Living, as they did during the medieval period, a separate existence in the lands of their dispersion in which they constituted an imperium in imperio, Jews for a large part of their history were spurned as soldiers and spared the dilemma. But there came a time when the question whether military service was permissible to Jews or not was placed squarely before them.

In an attempt to force the members of the Jewish community to define their relationship to the state from the vantage point of Jewish law, Napoleon, by a decree of July 10, 1806, convened the Assembly of Notables and, subsequently, on September 24, 1806, announced his decision to summon a Great Sanhedrin to convert the decisions of the Assembly of Notables into definitive and authoritative religious pronouncements. Indicative of Napoleon’s desire to assure that those synods issue unequivocal declarations regarding the primacy of the responsibilities of Jews as citizens of the state is the sixth of the twelve questions placed before those august bodies: Do Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey its laws and to conform to every provision of the Civil Code?

By the time that the Paris Sanhedrin was convened, Jews had already served in the French revolutionary armies, in the National Guard, and in Napoleon’s forces. When the sixth question was read before the Assembly and the question of whether Jews were duty-bound to protect France was articulated, the deputies spontaneously exclaimed, “To the Death!” In the course of the ensuing proceedings of the Assembly an affirmative response to the question was formally adopted by unanimous vote. Moreover, during the subsequent deliberations of the Sanhedrin, the only matter regarding which the Sanhedrin formulated a position that went beyond the previous resolutions adopted by the Assembly was with regard to this sixth question. The Sanhedrin went so far as to declare that Jews were exempt from religious obligations and strictures that might interfere with performance of military duties.

The Sanhedrin’s declaration marked a significant turning point in the voluntary enlistment of Jews in non-Jewish armies. The historian Judith Bleich notes that subsequent to the biblical period there were only a few instances of Jews voluntarily engaging in armed warfare – from the garrison of the Jews of Elephantine five centuries before the common era and extending to the soldiers of the quasi-autonomous Jewish community of Joden Savane, Surinam, in the New World.

When Jews begun to be conscripted in greater numbers into army service following emancipation, many observant Jews perceived it as a calamity to be avoided at all cost for it threatened religious observance. In stark contrast, for liberal Jews service in the army represented a tangible means of demonstrating patriotic zeal.

As the books in front of me can attest, Jews have served this country with in large numbers and with great pride. As Lord Sterling reminds us: out of a Jewish population that has never exceeded 400,000, more than 100,000 have served in the armed forces – and nearly 6000 have died in battle. Over 3000 have been given commendations for their bravery. As well as on the battlefield, Jewish men and women served on the home front. In other words, British Jews have been disproportionately willing to stand and fight for Britain – and to lay down their lives for our nation.

Maimonides might disagree but I believe that the service of the women and men whom we are honouring this Shabbat and their comrades whom we are remembering on this Shabbat can be described as a form of avodah – sacred service to God and country – for they fought to ensure the continued existence of our world.

Avodah – sacred service; it is one of the three pillars on which the world shall stand. May we all live in times of peace filled with Torah and lovingkindness; times, in which avodah – sacred service does not require weapons but instead only offerings of the heart.

[This sermon was originally given for AJEX Shabbat 5777/2016)

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