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November 11, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Can a Jew visit an aboriginal sacred site? …ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

ABORIGINAL SACRED SITES

Q. Is there any problem with Jews visiting aboriginal sacred sites?

A. Not really; it is clear to everyone that if a non-aboriginal is allowed to visit a site it is in the capacity of a respectful tourist.

The visit cannot be construed as compromising one’s own religious beliefs or participating in the patterns of aboriginal spirituality.

It has been suggested to me that there may be an analogy in the Mishnah Avodah Zarah (3:5), “If the gentiles worship mountains or hills, these themselves are permitted, but what is on them is forbidden… R. Yose the Galilean says, (It is written:) ‘Their gods upon the mountains’ (Deut. 12:2), not ‘The mountains are their gods’.”

I have my doubts about this analogy. Do Aboriginals have gods in the idolatrous sense? Are their sacred sites actually worshipped by them? We need to understand the nature of aboriginal spirituality in order to comment.

RAISING & ROLLING THE TORAH

Q. Sephardim and Ashkenazim have different customs concerning “Hagbahah” and “Gelilah”, raising and rolling the Torah scroll. The Sephardim carry this out before the Torah reading and the Ashkenazim after it. Which is correct?

A. The Sephardi custom is the older.

The original procedure as set out in Massechet Sof’rim 14:14 is, “When the Torah scroll (is about to be read) he rolls out the scroll to show three columns, raises it and shows the people standing to his right and to his left, and then turns it forward and backwards, for it is a mitzvah for all the men and women to see the writing and say while bowing, ‘V’zot HaTorah’ – ‘This is the Torah which Moses placed before the Children of Israel’ (Deut. 4:44), and ‘The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul’ (Psalm 19:8)”.

The second verse is no longer said.

At Bevis Marks Synagogue, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London, “V’zot HaTorah” is said four times.

Nachmanides links the custom to a passage in Deut. 27:26, which describes the scene when six of the tribes on one side and six on the other, responded Amen to the series of blessings and curses uttered by the Levites who were standing between them.

Raising the scroll (“Hagbahah”) and rolling it (“Gelilah”) (originally, unrolling it) were highly prized mitzvot coveted by the worthiest and most pious members of the congregation, as these mitzvot both allowed a congregant the privilege of physically handling the Torah.

At times wealthy people offered generous donations for “Hagbahah” and “Gelilah” and then passed the actual honours on to other members of the congregation.

The Ashkenazim had abandoned the original position of “Hagbahah” and “Gelilah” by the 15th or 16th century; the Rema remarks that Ashkenazim do not do as laid down in Massechet Sof’rim (Darkei Moshe to O.Ch. 147:4).

The Ashkenazi practice is to carry out these mitzvot after the reading.

BLESSINGS FOR ETHICAL ACTS

Q. I know there are blessings for ritual acts, but how about ethical duties like charity?

A. There is a distinction between commandments between man and God, such as hearing the shofar or wearing tefillin, and commandments between man and man like giving charity, acting justly, etc.

The first group require blessings, the second do not.

One explanation is that we carry out these acts as God’s agents. We are doing God’s work; in a sense, it is He who is carrying out these acts, not ourselves. The principle is, “As God is compassionate, so must you be compassionate”.

Commandments between man and God, on the other hand, are being done by us for the sake of God.

According to another view, Torah commandments between man and God are unique to Jews and require a blessing.

Jews read Hallel, but not non-Jews; Jews kindle Shabbat lights, but not non-Jews.

All cultures, however, have ethical standards, so being just, truthful, charitable, etc., are not unique to Jews. We do not say, “You commanded us” in relation to these duties, as all peoples are obligated to perform them, not just Jews.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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