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Rabbi Tony Bayfield

Shabbat M'tzora 5782

You can listen to Rabbi Tony's sermon here or read below.



My father – Miriam’s grandfather, Chessy and Ben’s great-grandfather - was one of the founders of South West Essex Reform Synagogue, 65 years ago. Dad, Ron Bayfield died of Covid in late March 2020 and I’m extremely grateful to FRS for allowing me to give the sermon today – it’s not every synagogue that would allow Ravdad the privilege of being Ravdad.  I’m very fortunate

    For many years, as some of you know, I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with liturgy.  Not with prayer but with liturgy – the words in our prayer book – and for me its often impossible theology.  And that includes the Book of Psalms.  I’ve always associated Psalms with T’hillim, the Hebrew name and with ultra-Orthodox Jews shockling backwards and forwards whilst reciting t’hillim in response to bad things: something tragic happens, chant psalms.  As a student and teacher at Leo Baeck College, I also came to associate the Book of Psalms with the contemporary literary approach – revealing astonishing patterns in the use of language, highlighting the sophistication of the poetic writing.  Which I admire – who wouldn’t admire Jonathan Magonet.  But it still seemed to avoid the theological issues which bugged me.

    However, a couple of weeks ago, I read an academic paper – don’t ask me why – which, to use very unacademic terms, turned out to be a game changer.

     At first, I found the paper really intimidating – coming as it does out of the contemporary university academic tradition which uses shedloads of constipated terms like ‘psalmic‘ and ‘hymnic’, and ‘canonical’ and ‘Psalter’.  And, worse, attacks me with the most obscure Greek words and terminology – notably ‘merism’ and ‘ekphrasis’.

The paper started with discoveries made many years ago at a place called Qumran.  Qumran, it turns out, is not one of those villages in the South Wales valleys, where – like Jonah, they sing all the time – but the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. 

    I was interested to learn – who knew – that there are psalms in the Dead Sea Scrolls and there are also psalms in the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a rag bag of literature from the end of the Biblical period which didn’t make it into the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.  What, the paper asked, distinguishes the 150 psalms which are included not just in the Hebrew Bible but also in the Christian tradition, from the ones which didn’t make the cut?  It’s not a question I’ve ever asked - having not been aware either of the Psalter in the Dead Sea Scrolls or of the fact that there was a massive output of hymnic material current amongst many of the Jewish groups who were struggling at the time with how to deal with the unprecedented upheavals in the world around them.

    Background: here’s another term much beloved by British and American academics: the ‘intertestamental period’.  (Intertestamental – all one word, 16 letters.  Too big for a crossword grid.)  The period begins from when the Hebrew Bible was closed to any more books and includes the Maccabean period, 165 BCE, right up to the completion of the New Testament which happened roughly speaking at the time when we Jews were undergoing mass expulsion from our Land at the time of Rabbi Akiva, let’s say 135 CE.  So, 300 years in which our lot were being subjected to the physical and cultural steamrollers first of Greece and then of Rome and fragmented into a mass of parties and groups trying to find a way to survive as Jews and make sense of the nasty, bloody and ruthless world which had invaded them.  Something which it shouldn’t take too much effort for us today to identify with.

One of these groups – the Essenes - wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls; another – the Pharisees - laid the foundations for Rabbinic Judaism, our Judaism; and a third eventually founded the early Churches and Christianity.
    Okay, back to the Psalms and the paper I’m going on about, which asked what distinguished the 150 Psalms in T’hillim, exactly the same Psalms in the Christian Psalter, from all the rest that were not included. 

    The answer the paper gives is the ekphrastic imagination.  What the paper explained is that ekphrasis is the word given to the particular style, quality which is the hallmark of the 150-strong Book of Psalms.  As soon as the writer began to explain ekphrasis my eyes lit up and I felt this sermon coming on.  Ekphrasis is about the distinctive use of the sound of the Hebrew words to give life to the meaning; it’s about metre which I began to recognise is like no other poetry.  And further, it’s about the particular use of words and play on words, the use of consonantal sounds to highlight parallels and also accentuate contrasts.  It’s the manipulation of words as integral to the faith and theology they express.  I beamed in recognition. One of my obsessions is the way in which Rabbinic Judaism, which of course came later but frequently quoted from the Psalms, is focused on words and the centrality of words, of language being the essence of Judaism. 

But even more of a clincher, the key example of ekphrasis is imagery – the way in which the Psalms treat the natural world.  Right from the beginning - in Psalm 1 - the faithful are likened to a well-watered tree and even in old age they’re full of sap and still producing fruit.  Elsewhere, the enemy is a wild animal - a bull or a lion or a dog - and the faithful Jew, beleaguered, under attack, is a sagging fence or a battered wall.  God is a rock, a fortress.  The world isn’t an inanimate backdrop; the hills skip like rams and the sky declares the glory of God.

Suddenly I got it.  The Psalms aren’t stressing the extraordinary value of the natural world, important though that is.   Nor are they proposing what we theologians term pantheism – God and the world are the same thing.  No.  What the Psalmists are saying is this: the world is a very challenging place about which we have every right to complain – to God, not the rabbi or the Chair.  Why do we have all these enemies, God?  Why must we walk through the valley of the shadow of death in life?  Why is there evil that we’re supposed not to fear?  Why does the world give innocent human beings such a hard, painful time?  It shouldn’t be like that and we will always protest and complain about it.  But, for the Psalmists, if we lift up our eyes to the hills we can see them skipping like lambs and the sky declaring the glory of God.  We cannot help but see a world responding to the Divine, suffused with the Divine, declaring the glory of the Divine.  However agonising life is, God animates the world and however much life does its worst to obscure it, that Presence – that Ultimate Reality – breaks through, bringing the world alive.

Understood like that, I can identify with the Psalmists who, like me, have found the world to be, all too often, a nasty and unpleasant place full of people and events to struggle with but I’m forced to acknowledge that mountains do, as it were, skip like rams and hills like young lambs.   

Which leads me back to my father’s yahrzeit.  We don’t live to see what comes after us.  From my point of view, I’m really rather glad about that aspect of life and death.  I’d rather not know who and what I messed up.  It’s hard enough avoiding giving advice when I still can; the thought of seeing what’s going on and not being able to give my etzes is too awful for words.

But Dad, founder member of SWERS, Head of the Leo Baeck College teacher training department and comprehensive school headmaster, did live to see me become a rabbi and his granddaughter become an exceptional rabbi and I do wish he could have seen his great-grandson lead services.  But I think what would have astonished him the most today and given him the most pleasure is that paper.  You see, it was written by his great-granddaughter and future cantor Chessy Weiner.
Miriam, Chessy, Ben – Dad, Grandpa, Great-grandpa, headmaster Ron Bayfield would have given us all today as much as 9 out of 10!

Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE

Sat, 21 May 2022 20 Iyar 5782