The Sign of the Covenant The sedra of Tazria begins with the laws of childbirth and the command of circumcision: "On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised." (Lev. 12:3) Since the days of Abraham, this has been the sign, for males, of the covenant between G-d and the people He has summoned to be His witnesses: G-d further said to Abraham, "This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. (Genesis 17: 10- 11)
Why this sign above all others? Why this physical mark on the flesh? What does it tell us about the nature of Jewish identity? To understand the full depth of this command, we have to move forward several centuries to one of the great prophets of the Bible, Hosea. Hosea lived in the eighth century BCE. The kingdom had been divided since the death of Solomon. The northern kingdom in particular, where Hosea lived, had lapsed after a period of peace and prosperity into lawlessness, idolatry and chaos. Between 747 and 732 BCE there were no less than five kings, the result of a series of intrigues and bloody struggles for power. The people, too, had become lax: "There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of G-d in the land; there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing and committing adultery; they break all bounds and murder follows murder" (Hos. 4: 1-2).
Like other prophets, Hosea knew that Israel's destiny depended on its sense of mission. Faithful to G-d, it was able to do extraordinary things: survive in the face of empires, and generate a society unique in the ancient world, of the equal dignity of rich and poor as fellow citizens under the sovereignty of the Creator of heaven and earth. Faithless, however, it was just one more minor power in the ancient Near East, whose chances of survival against larger political predators were minimal. What makes the book of Hosea remarkable is the episode with which it begins. G-d tells the prophet to marry a prostitute, and see what it feels like to have a love betrayed. Only then will Hosea have a glimpse into G-d's sense of betrayal by the people of Israel. Having liberated them from slavery and brought them into their land, G-d sees them forget the past, forsake the covenant, and worship strange gods. It is a powerful passage with an astonishing assertion at its heart. More than the Jewish people love God, G-d loves the Jewish people. The history of Israel is a love story between the faithful G-d and his sometimes faithless people.
Though G-d is often angry, He cannot but forgive. He will take them on a kind of second honeymoon, and they will renew their marriage vows:
"Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her . . . I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord." (Hosea 2: 16-22) It is this last sentence - with its explicit comparison between the covenant and a marriage - that Jewish men say when they put on the hand-tefillin, winding its strap around the finger like a wedding-ring. One verse in the midst of this prophecy is enthralling. It is a complex metaphor, that must be unraveled strand by strand: "In that day," declares the Lord, "you will call Me 'my husband' [ishi]; you will no longer call Me 'my master' [baali].
The last phrase is a pun. Baal, in biblical Hebrew, meant 'a husband', but in a highly specific sense - namely, 'master, owner, possessor, controller'. It was also, of course, the name of the Canaanite god - whose prophets Elijah had challenged in the famous confrontation at Mount Carmel. Baal (otherwise known as Hadad, and usually portrayed as a bull) was the god of the storm, who defeated Mot, the god of sterility and death. Baal was the rain that impregnated the earth and made it fertile. In terms of myth, Baalism is the worship of god-as-power. Hosea contrasts this kind of relationship with the other Hebrew word for husband, ish. Here he is recalling the words of the first man to the first woman: "This is now bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman [ishah], Because she was taken from Man [ish]." Here the male-female relationship is predicated on something quite other than power and dominance, ownership and control. Man and woman confront one another in sameness and difference. Each is an image of the other, yet each is separate and distinct. The only relationship able to bind them together without the use of force is marriage-as-covenant - a bond of mutual loyalty and trust in which each makes a pledge to the other to honour one another and the reciprocal duties that bind them together in a moral bond.
Not only is this a radical way of reconceptualizing the relationship between man and woman: it is also the way we should think of the relationship between human beings and G-d. G-d reaches out to humanity not as power (the storm, the thunder, the rain) but as love - and not an abstract, philosophical love but a deep and abiding passion that survives all the disappointments and betrayals. Israel may not always behave lovingly toward G-d, says Hosea, but G-d loves Israel and will never cease to do so. How we relate to G-d affects how we relate to other people. That is Hosea's message - and vice versa: how we relate to other people affects the way we think of G-d. Israel's political chaos in the eighth century BCE was intimately connected to its religious waywardness. A society built on corruption and exploitation is one where might prevails over right. That is not Judaism but idolatry, Baal-worship. Now we understand why the sign of the covenant is circumcision. For faith to be more than the worship of power, it must affect the most intimate relationship between men and women. In a society founded on covenant, male-female relationships must be built on something other and gentler than male dominance, masculine power, sexual desire and the drive to own, control, possess. Baal must become ish. The alpha male must become caring husband. Sex must be sanctified and tempered by mutual respect. The sexual drive must be circumcised and circumscribed so that it no longer seeks to possess and is instead content to love.
"Judaism Faces the 21st Century"
Extract from London Encounter '99 - 28 November 1999 Friends, we are living in extraordinary times. The sheer progress that has been made in the past hundred years in every field of human endeavour has been little short of astonishing. Indeed, in terms of science and technology we have moved further forward in the last hundred years than in all the history of humanity beforehand since man first walked on earth. Just think about what has happened to our world in one hundred years. Think back a hundred years. For instance, in the year 1900 had there yet been powered flight? You know? By 1900? The answer is: No. First powered flight: 1903 - the Wright brothers. Had there been radio transmissions by the year 1900? Again the answer is: No. The first radio transmission: Marconi - 1901. The sheer pace of change has been overwhelming. Let me give you an example. On the shelf of my library I have a book (which I bought a couple of years ago) called "Mega Trends 2000". This book was published in 1990 and it contains a set of predictions of what the world is going to be like when the 21st century begins. Now it does not take an enormous advanced degree in nviut, in prophecy, to be able to tell what the world is going to be like in ten years' time. However, in this entire book published in 1990 one word does not appear anywhere. The word Internet. And look at this: here is something that is affecting our lives on a daily basis. I personally am keeping Amazon.com in business. [Laughter] And yet a mere ten years ago even futurologists had not even heard of it! Ours has been the century of the car, the plane, the jet engine, the space shuttle. We have sent rockets into the furthest reaches of outer space. Mind you, try getting into London in the rush hour!
Ours has been the century of the computer, the laser, interactive CD Roms, microsurgery. We have photographed the birth of galaxies and decoded the human genome - the very secret of life itself. Never, in all of human history, have people lived so long, travelled so freely, had so much choice and so much affluence. And yet - are we happier for it? The short answer is: Yes, some are. Some are. But some aren't. And who are the worst affected in our community? I will tell you. It's our children. By every measurable index - whether we take depression, stress-related illness like eating disorders, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, suicide attempts - on each of those indices things have got worse by a factor of between 300 per cent and 1000 per cent in a mere 50 years. Rebono shel olam! [Lord of the universe!] What is going on here? For whom do we labour? On whose behalf do we seek to make the world a better place if not our children? And yet throughout the liberal democracies of the West children are suffering. Listen to this. Listen to this. In 1940 - 1940 - teachers were asked: "What are the seven most serious problems you face in school?" 1940. You know what their answers were? Here, listen: talking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in corridors; cutting-in line; not wearing school uniform; dropping litter. In 1990 teachers were asked the same question and here are their answers: drug abuse; alcohol abuse; teenage pregnancy; suicide; rape; robbery; and assault.
In the United States, every three hours somewhere, a gun takes a child's life. Every nine minutes a child is arrested on a drug offence. Every 26 seconds a child runs away from home. Is that progress?! I'll tell you what kind of progress that is. It's the kind of progress of which the fabled Russian politician spoke when he got up and said, "Comrades, yesterday we stood on the edge of the abyss. But today we have taken a giant step forward!" What happened? What happened to us? The answer is very simple. In Britain 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce. In the United States - 50 per cent. In both countries more than 30 per cent of children are born outside of marriage. Today, fewer than one child in two will know what it is to grow up in some stable relationship with the two people who brought it into existence. Rabosei: [Friends] today we can do things our grandparents never even dreamt of. But the one thing they knew how to do - we have forgotten! How to make and sustain a marriage. Today, we have divorced sex from love; love from commitment; commitment from marriage; marriage from having children; and having children from bearing responsibility for nurturing them and bringing them up. It is as if somebody had planted a bomb in the very midst of our most sacred institution and all we have left is fragments. All the bits are there but they are not longer connected. We have lost - or we are losing - that one institution that brought together sex and love and companionship and trust and stability and fidelity, and bringing new life into the world and caring for it in its dependent years. The most majestic achievement of human civilisation. The Beethoven's Ninth of the moral world. That thing called marriage. Or what we call kiddushin - the sacred bond between husband and wife.