Q. Is there any religious problem with bringing a weapon into a synagogue?
A. The stones of the Temple altar in Jerusalem were not hewn with metal implements: the sages say that the altar symbolised peace and metal symbolised war.
In modern times no-one objects to the use of metal in building a synagogue or fashioning its appurtenances: the metal is being used for a constructive purpose and reminds us of the prophecy that swords will become ploughshares and spears will become pruning hooks (Isa. 2:4). Weapons, however, still represent the use of metal for destructive purposes, and this is inconsistent with the peace and serenity of the house of worship.
Leave the weapons to the security guards outside (if there are any), and trust in them (and in God) when you are inside the synagogue.
ARCHAISMS IN TRANSLATIONS
Q. Do you believe in using modern language in Bible and Siddur translations?
A. My mind has changed on this subject. There was a time when I couldn’t work fast enough to remove the archaisms from the sacred texts. Now, thought I, everyone will become a religious believer! All we need to do is to eliminate the “thous” and “wasts” from the translations, adopt user-friendly language, and religion will no longer be effete and obscurantist!
I hardly need to tell you that it didn’t work. Religion did eventually enjoy a modest come-back, but linguistic modernisms probably weren’t the reason. The English translations of the Biblical terminology certainly needed adapting to the findings of archaeology and linguistic research, including the Dead Sea Scrolls; the unjustified christological distortions which made every Book of the Bible foreshadow Jesus needed to be eliminated; and the irritating use of “and” at the beginning of almost every sentence needed a fresh look.
However, turning the majestic cadences of the King James Version into the colloquialisms of the street and the television serials made a joke of the whole enterprise. I often think of one of my aunts, who objected to the disrespectful way I addressed her in my childhood. “I’m not one of your mates from the school playground!” she told me, and she was right. God isn’t my mate either, at least not in that sense. The Bible is a classical text and there is no need to drag it down to the language of the school playground.
So these days I tend to prefer the rolling classical language of poetical literature (“The Lord is my Shepherd: I shall not want”) whilst still avoiding “thou”, “thee” and “thine”. L’havdil, imagine turning Shakespeare into totally modern idiom – dropping “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”, in favour of “Come on mates, listen up!”
THERE IS MORE WE CAN DO
In the tractate B’rachot (28b, 30a) the sages discuss the direction we should face when we prepare for prayer.
One view is that we should immediately face the direction of the Holy of Holies in the Temple.
Another view is that outside Israel a person should face the Holy Land; if in Israel one should face Jerusalem, in Jerusalem one should face the Temple and if in the Temple one should face the Holy of Holies.
Both sages obviously agree that all prayer ultimately reaches Heaven through the Holy of Holies, but why are the two views necessary?
The answer is that there is always a higher spiritual level a person can attain. A Jew in the Diaspora must acknowledge that there is greater sanctity in Eretz Yisra’el. In Israel one must recognise that there is greater sanctity in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem there is greater sanctity on the Temple mount. Even if one is in the Temple, even if one is the high priest in the Holy of Holies, a still higher level of holiness is possible.
One must never reach a mountain top without seeing a further mountain top ahead.