Follow my leader?

This week’s parsha, Emor, tells us the dates of each of the festivals, which can then be slotted into the appropriate month.

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
‘These are God’s appointed, holy times, which you shall proclaim.” (Leviticus 23:4) How should we balance the calls of our conscience with pragmatic concerns and the need for unity? When is it important to stick to our principles and when should we compromise for the sake of peace? Setting our calendar should be straightforward. For many years, the beginning of each new month was proclaimed in Jerusalem by rabbis on the basis of the testimony of witnesses who had seen the new moon.
This week’s parsha, Emor, tells us the dates of each of the festivals, which can then be slotted into the appropriate month.
However, when the rabbis couldn’t agree on whether or not a new month had started, revolution almost broke out. The Mishna records that Rabbi Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin, once proclaimed the new month, but some scholars, including his colleague Rabbi Yehoshua, contested his decision. Rabbi Gamliel feared that this was a challenge both to his position and to the fabric of Jewish life. If Jewish families could not share a calendar, they would observe the festivals on different days. Our nation would be divided.
He therefore ordered the rebellious Rabbi Yehoshua to back down from his position. Rabbi Yehoshua, he said, was to appear before him on the day that he had defiantly claimed as Yom Kippur carrying his wallet to demonstrate to everyone his acceptance that this was actually just an ordinary day.
Rabbi Yehoshua was torn. He could not bear to desecrate what he believed was our most sacred day. Still, he realized that stakes were high; refusal to bow to Rabbi Gamliel threatened the unity of the Jewish people.
He sought advice from Rabbi Akiva, who pointed him to a verse in this week’s parsha: “These are God’s appointed festivals, holy times, which you shall proclaim.” This verse, Rabbi Akiva explained, teaches us that the new month is only generated when a Jewish court declares that the new moon has appeared. Incredibly, God’s calendar depends on human proclamation. Rashi portrays him saying, “I have no festivals but these.” Even if the rabbis make a mistake and their ruling is out of sync with nature, God accepts their decision.
For Rabbi Yehoshua this was not enough. God may generously accept our inadvertent miscalculations, but when a rabbi knows the truth, isn’t he duty-bound to proclaim it? Agonizing over what to do, he turned to another scholar, Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus, who sympathized with his predicament, but counseled that the decision was a fait accompli.
If Rabbi Yehoshua rejected this ruling of Rabbi Gamliel, he might as well question the decisions of all previous rabbinic courts, undermining judgments stretching back to the time of Moses. When confirming God’s covenant with the people (Exodus 24:9), he said, it combines the names of our most famous biblical judges with a group of 70 unnamed elders to teach that when a Jewish court acts with integrity, we should not delve into the identities of its judges nor over-scrutinize its decisions. Every upstanding court should be respected as if it is delivering Moses’s rulings.
Realizing that the unity of our people depended on him putting aside his own views and that God would confirm the court’s ruling, Rabbi Yehoshua traveled to Yavne as instructed. As he approached, his teacher, Rabbi Gamliel, stood up, kissed him and said, “Come in peace, my master and my student; my master in wisdom, and my student because you have accepted my words.” (Mishna Rosh Hashana 2:9) Rabbi Gamliel was acknowledging that, in this instance, perhaps Rabbi Yehoshua’s understanding was greater than his own. Still, as head of the Sanhedrin, he maintained the right to demand obedience so as to preserve the integrity of the nation.
This week, we celebrated the outcome of a similarly stormy debate between the Jewish people and its leader.
Once again the unity of the nation was at stake, on this occasion, the discussion was not about time, but about place.
Saturday, August 28, 1897, was an exceptionally hot day. On the eve of the First Zionist Congress, Theodor Herzl walked from Basel’s Three Kings Hotel to its main synagogue. He had not attended synagogue since his bar mitzva and he could not read Hebrew, but he had prepared to be honored in the community, learning the necessary blessings by heart. His call-up to the Torah made an enormous impression on him.
Returning to Vienna, after the congress, he recorded the event in his diary: “I was more deeply moved than at any moment of the Congress itself. I was simply overwhelmed by the few words of the Hebrew blessing.”
Herzl was a champion of human rights; his Jewish nationalism was not inspired by religion, but by antisemitism in Paris and pogroms in Russia. He longed to create a Jewish homeland to protect our persecuted people. His initial plan for a Jewish state in Uganda was a well-intentioned effort to achieve a sanctuary for Jews – but Uganda is not the Promised Land. There is no religious requirement to live there and its land is not so holy that the rabbis would kiss it when they reached its shores, as they would with the Land of Israel (Ketubot 112b).
Herzl was a charismatic leader, but he had not reckoned on the faithful Jewish masses. At the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, the delegates voted against his proposal. A Jewish state in Uganda might have provided an immediate and important refuge, but without the historical and theological ties, it would have lacked meaning and relevance for future generations.
There would be few Birthright trips and no mass immigration from anywhere, other than persecuted Jewish communities.
Herzl backed down. Zionism would henceforth always mean a return to our ancestral homeland.
This week, as we read Parshat Emor, we honor those who had the courage to ensure that we are united around one calendar, as well as those who courageously maintained the Jewish people’s tradition of healthy debate and discussion. On Remembrance Day, we mourned those whose sacrifice has given us new days of grief in our calendar and on Independence Day, we celebrated the heroism of those who fought to give us a new day of joy and celebration.
The writer is the British United Synagogue’s rabbi in Israel.