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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

There Will Be Blood

I’ve never been a very ideologically-minded Reform Jew. I have never seen myself as a ‘salesman’ for the Reform brand of Jewish self-expression. I think of Judaism as a three thousand years old religious and cultural civilisation, a rich and multi-coloured tapestry of belief and practice with complex theological and intellectual and emotional and spiritual threads woven into it: the ideology of Reform Judaism, progressive Judaism, might be a distinctive set of threads in the overall, ever-expanding weave of Jewish civilisation, but temperamentally I don’t feel myself motivated to keep pointing out the softness and sparkle of the red threads as opposed to the coarseness or dullness of the blue threads.

But this week I have been thinking in particular about Reform Judaism’s relationship to blood. I saw that a motion was put forward to the Church of England’s synod to make blood donation (and organ donation) a specific responsibility incumbent on all Christians -  a ‘mitzvah’ so to speak.  Given that only 4% of the population give blood regularly and the NHS need another 200,000 donors a year, this is an important move by the Church, if they are proposing to actively promote it as a religious duty. 

In Judaism blood donation is usually seen as a mitzvah, and even in traditional halachic circles it is viewed as something between what is permissible and what is obligatory.
But Judaism has a curious, complex , ambivalent relationship to blood. And Reform Judaism more so. Most of the sections of Torah that Reform Jews in the UK read in its three-yearly cycle manage to avoid the blood – or at least the bloodiest parts of these sacred texts, where the writers describe the rituals that were a normal, regular part of the Temple cult.

Take this week’s sedrah, T’zaveh, which stretches from Exodus 27:20 to 30: 10. We never read the verses about the consecration of Aaron the High Priest and his sons, where a ram is killed ‘and you take of its blood, and put it on the tip of the right ear of Aaron, and on the tip of the right ears of his sons, and on the thumb of their right hand, and on the big toe of their right foot, and then you splash the blood against the altar and round about. And then you take of the blood that is on the altar, and the anointing oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and his garments, and on his sons and their garments, so that he and his garments shall be kadosh, holy, and his sons and their garments along with him’ (Exodus 29: 19-21). That holiness was achieved through this blood-based ritual is not something that (for better or worse) Reform Judaism wants us to be exposed to, or have to think about.

Next year, when we reach this sedrah, we will hear about the first part of the ritual, before the ram, which involves killing two bulls ‘before the Lord, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting’ (29:11), whereupon ‘you take some of the bull’s blood and put in on the horns of the altar with your finger, then pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar’ (29:12).  So even in the ‘edited highlights’ version of the Torah text that we read in Reform circles for this parashah, you can’t avoid the blood completely. But, on the whole, we omit these blood-soaked verses. Our tapestry of holiness has holes in it, so to speak.

Part of me approves of this. I do appreciate that Reform Judaism distances itself from some of these more problematic passages that the Torah contains: problematic in that they confront our modern sensibilities head-on.  Historically, this goes right back to the origins of Reform Judaism in Germany, 200 years ago in Seesen, then Hamburg, then Berlin. Cuts were made in the liturgy to edit out all the traditional references to the Temple, and all the prayers which hoped for the restoration of the Temple, and its sacrifices. Not all the ancient Temple sacrifices and rites involved blood, the slaughter of animals and birds – but a lot of them did. This was a clear ideological move  by the early Reformers : it wasn’t an evolution, it was a revolution - to drop the ancient hope for the rebuilding of the Temple.

And the Reform branch of Judaism has never deviated from this position, whether it was in Germany, or the United States, or here in the UK. Contrary to  traditional strands of Judaism, we don’t pray for there to be a restored, Third Temple – thank God, I want to say. In fact we might pray that we hope we never see a Third Temple - particularly (but not only) because it would have to be built on the site currently occupied by the Dome of the Rock. And if Jews started to demolish that sacred building because of these archaic texts we wouldn’t see a Third Temple, we’d see a Third World War.
So my Reform Jewish blood runs in opposition to that whole ancient cult of the Temple and its sacrifices and all that spilt animal blood. 

I am fine about studying these ancient texts as a part of the history of our people, I’m fine with finding ways – as the later rabbis always did – of interpreting them symbolically, but I’m convinced that our understanding of holiness has moved on, and the whole question of how an individual can be in a living relationship with God, with the divine,  and how a people can be bound into a covenant with Adonai, the Holy One, I’m convinced that this quest for holiness now lies in a different direction from the blood rituals that these Torah texts hold dear.

In other words I’m with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, from the generation of rabbis that saw the Second Temple laid waste, who comforted his grieving colleague Rabbi Joshua. Joshua was distraught that ‘the place where the sins of Israel were atoned for is destroyed.’ ‘There’s no need to grieve’, said Rabbi Yochanan, ‘There’s another way to atonement and to be at-one with God as effective as the Temple: it is deeds of love and kindness. The prophet Hosea has already said’, says Yochanan, ‘that God tells us: “I desire mercy - and not sacrifices”’. 

Another way to holiness as effective as the Temple – deeds of love and kindness. Rabbi Yochanan  ben Zakkai – the first Reform Jew. He comforts his colleague by making the imaginative and spiritual leap – that ethical action is the way to serve God, to be close to God, to be bound into a covenantal relationship with God. Holiness doesn’t require blood to be spilled.

But blood, the theme of blood in Judaism, has a way of seeping out. The word comes more than 350 times in the Hebrew Bible, and it is as integral to Jewish life as is the circulation of blood to our own bodies. And this omnipresence is made beautifully clear in a remarkable little exhibition now on – you can catch it until February 28th – at the Jewish Museum in Camden. It’s called simply ‘Blood’ with a subtitle ‘Reflections on what unites us and divides us’ and it made me think about the extent to which Judaism is pre-occupied with blood, historically and to this day.

The first mention of blood in the Bible is put into the mouth of God, and the context is an ominous one: ‘The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me’, says God to Cain after the murder of Abel. And blood keeps cropping up at key moments in the unfolding Biblical story – Joseph’s coat is torn off him and dipped in blood and taken back to the distraught Jacob, a symbol of its use to deceive; the blood of the paschal lamb smeared on the doorpost in Egypt is a sign of the Israelite homes, a symbol of its use to separate out the Hebrew people, and protect them. And then you have Sinai and all the laws of Judaism around blood. What areas of life does it impact on? Circumcision, kashrut, the laws of menstruation come immediately to mind. And there are sections in the exhibition devoted to all these.

And then there’s the way that Jewish identity has traditionally been passed on through the mother (at least until very recent  changes in Liberal and then Reform Jewish practice), which effectively makes Judaism a religion that follows the blood line. This notion of ‘Jewish blood’ is a powerful fiction – but a fiction that in the 19th and 20th centuries was given a veneer of pseudo-scientific  respectability through eugenics, and as we know it was a fiction that ended up in genocide. Ironically, Jewish scientists were as enthusiastic in promoting theories of race as everyone else.

One of the most chilling and provocative artefacts in the exhibition is the chart from 1935 of how the Nuremburg Laws, ‘For the Protection of German Blood and German Honour’ were to be implemented. It shows how marriages or sexual relationships between Germans and Jews were forbidden, but the chart shows how this question of racial purity through the blood line needed to be traced back to grandparents and great-grandparents in order to determine who was a kosher ‘German’, so to speak, and who wasn’t.

Nuremburg also features in the exhibition with a 15th century woodcut  illustrating the medieval blood libel – one of the central themes of the exhibition is the way in which so much of the fraught relationship between Jews and Christians centres on blood. There is a real psychological drama within Christianity rooted in the experience of, as it were, drinking blood - through the wine’s transubstantiation, Christ’s blood is made present. This is a kind of horror story dressed up as religious ritual. Incidentally, I think that the blood libel is a projection of this horror onto Jews, who are accused of using blood, Christian blood,  in rituals like matzah baking. In a related crime, it is Jews who attack the wafers used in Mass and make blood come out of them – host-desecration - and the exhibition also illustrates this lesser-known part of the history of Christian hostility to Jews around the theme of blood.

So there’s lots to look at there, lots to ponder on – and I haven’t mentioned the section on vampires and Dracula and the Jewish connections to them, including the box of breakfast cereal produced in 1987 in the US called Count Chocula, with a jokey box illustration of Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula with a Magen David around his neck – the makers recalled the product after a threat of legal action from the Anti-Defamation  League. 

But the trope of Jewish blood-suckers goes back a thousand years: it takes in the history of usury and goes right up to the anti-Semitic cartoons of Der Stürmer which you can also see at the Museum.

Once you have been to this provocative and informative exhibition you can’t help but notice how central is this theme of blood to so many aspects of Judaism, Jewish history, Jewish ritual life, Jewish social life, positively and negatively. It’s integral to the tribal identity of Judaism – and it’s part of the rhetoric and iconography of anti-semitism through the ages.

Reform Judaism may shy away from some of its manifestations, it may edit out some of the Torah’s more difficult texts, it may have a more relaxed attitude to kashrut, menstruation rites, even circumcision – it may want to concentrate on the ethics and the spirituality – but I have a nagging suspicion that this is cheating us of some of the richness, the complexity, the ambiguity of our long and bloody history.

The Jewish story has blood running in its veins just as Jews have blood running in their veins.  Shakespeare , as so often, said it best: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ The Merchant of Venice is a play about blood, Christian blood and Jewish blood, and what these phrases/concepts really mean, or if they mean anything at all.

Do you think there’s such a thing as ‘Jewish blood’? Even if you don’t, most of the world does.  I sometimes think that Reform Judaism would like to promote itself as a bloodless religion, a religion of ethical living and celebration and gentle religious observance , a religion of the mind and the soul, and the heart – as long as the heart is a metaphor. 

But if we turn away from the reality, the physicality, the oozing, flowing, coagulating viscosity of actual blood – human blood and animal blood - that courses through the veins  of Jewish life and Jewish texts and Jewish myth and Jewish history, I suspect it will come back, vampire-like, to bite us.

 [based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, February 20th, 2016]