I went (on Zoom) to a day long pre-High Holy Days education event at the London School of Jewish Studies. I’m not going to relate in detail all the talks, because it would take too long, but here a few highlights.
The first, given my Gila Fine, was about a story in the Talmud about God asking the High Priest, Rabbi Yishmael, to bless him. Rabbi Yishmael blessed God that His mercy should overcome His anger and God indicates His approval for this blessing. This led into a discussion about God in Judaism not being an unmoving (in all senses of the word) omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent being of Greek philosophy, but as emotional, vulnerable and wanting our love (I would say, presenting Himself as emotional, vulnerable and wanting our love – I can’t completely lose the Greek omni belief, I’m too much of a Maimonidean). This was related to the idea that the image of God in the Talmud is softer and gentler than in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), which I’ve noticed before myself and wondered about. Fine didn’t say why this is the case. I may email her later, as she gave us her email to ask further questions. I feel the softer presentation of God in the Talmud (Oral Law) may be connected to the mystical idea of the Oral Law showing God’s aspect of love and the Written Law (Hebrew Bible) showing His aspect of justice. Or possibly there’s a historical explanation about the Talmud being largely exilic and the Torah being largely pre-exilic (she did speak about Rabbi Yishmael potentially being the last High Priest before the destruction of the Temple, in which case the story has added pathos). Anyway, this was helpful to me in trying to find a healthier understanding of God.
Rabbi Lord Sacks spoke about the approaching festivals in lockdown as opposed to being in synagogue with a large community, singing together. The standout quote to me was, “The most important thing is not to be afraid to be silent in the presence of God.”
Rabbi Joe Wolfson spoke of using Kayin (Cain) and Yishmael (Ishmael) as unlikely models for teshuva (repentance), unlikely because they are not normally seen as positive role models and also because their repentance was not complete. Kayin represents teshuva as beginning a conversation with God (when he asks if his sin is too great to bear) and Yishmael represents teshuva as being about where we are now, not past or future selves (based on the Midrash where the angels tell God to let the lost and dehydrated Yishmael die because he will be wicked and his descendants will oppress the Jews, but God lets him live because he is righteous at the moment). The former makes me feel better about repentance being a process rather than an event, and something that starts just with speaking to God.
There were more shiurim, but I’m too tired even to summarise all of them; I may share some more ideas tomorrow.
My sister and brother-in-law came over at lunchtime, mainly to see my Mum. I saw them for a few minutes between talks. They had bought another copy of my Doctor Who book, to give to their nephew (brother-in-law’s brother’s son), who is an avid Doctor Who fan, and they wanted me to sign it, which I did. I worry it’s a bit too analytical for him (I forget how old he is, I think he’s about ten). Maybe he’ll read it when he gets older, if he’s still a fan.
I managed to squeeze a walk in between talks too, so it was a long and busy day, but good, interesting and thought-provoking.
My mood was mainly good, but with a bit of a dip in the early evening. There was a reason for this, but I’m too tired to go into it now; maybe later in the week.