1st June 2024, B’chukkotai – Mike Levy

My sermon today comes with a health warning. Be wary of pledges. Shock, horror! Pledges can be broken and for us Jews, this can have consequences. Of course, we are now in a time of pledge-flation. Harold Wilson, former prime minister, once famously remarked ‘A week is a long time in politics’ How true. It already seems like the election was called by a man in a rain sodden suit weeks not 10 days ago. With elections come part pledges. I’ve lost count- the Tories five pledges: Stop the Boats, Labour’s six pledges START THE Economy, the Greens pledge to BUILD MORE HOMES, the Lib Dems pledge to clean up our waters. Yesterday the now Independent Jeremy Corbyn pledged – and I quote “to fight for Palestine and against poverty and racism”.

All these talks of pledge giving reminds me of the sung monologue in Fiddler on the Roof. You may remember that in the musical play, the papa, Tevya, is told by the poor tailor that he and Tevya’s daughter Tzeitel gave each other a pledge to be married. Tevye, a devout Jew who talks directly to God and holds on, like a drowning man, to Jewish tradition, the tradition of the shtetl. Tevya is shocked at the news of this pledge of marriage. A pledge without Tevye the papa’s consent.

Tevye sings:
“They gave each other a pledge. Unheard of, absurd.
You gave each other a pledge?
Unthinkable. Where do you think you are?
In Moscow? In Paris? Where do they think they are? America?

They gave each other a pledge-unheard of, absurd.
They gave each other a pledge-unthinkable.”

In Tevye’s eyes the pledge made by his daughter and would-be son in law is invalid. The tailor and Tzetel had no right to make such a pledge. He as the patriarch has the power and the right to break such a pledge. Mottle and Tzeitel’s pledge is, he thinks, worthless.

In Judaism, pledge giving is often given short shrift given our religion’s true understanding of the fickleness of human nature and the power of events dear boy, events, to scupper the most solemnly given pledges. Of course we are forever grateful for those Beth Shalom members who pledged substantial donations in the building of our synagogue. In those cases, the pledgers meant what they said and delivered the cash. But as our sages taught, vows, oaths and promises cannot always be relied upon. Kol Nidre? All vows – we ask to be annulled from one Yom Kippur to the next.

The fragility of pledges is reflected in this week’s parasha. The final chapter in Leviticus and you’d think there would be a grand page turning flourish, a gripping end of box-series twist. But no, the chapter concludes with a seemingly dull and legalistic laying out of legal positions around pledges and what happens if a pledge is withdrawn.

The text is unusually dense, remote and often hard to fathom. Lots of stuff about what happens if a person pledges part of their wealth – land, livestock, houses….to the glory of God. A pledge to adorn the mishkan, the holy mobile temple, by yielding assets to the priest who can then sell on to raise cash.”If any party consecrates a house to יהוה, the priest shall assess it. Whether high or low, as the priest assesses it, so it shall stand; and if the one who has consecrated the house wishes to redeem it, one-fifth must be added to the sum at which it was assessed, and then it shall be returned.”

SO – I want to make a pledge of my house to become a place of worship to the Lord. So I give the priest my house which he assesses as worth £1000. But later I want it back. I must pay £1200 to the priest to have it returned. Note here two elements: an acknowledgement that a pledge might be broken. But the consequences are a 20% fine.

Jewish history is filled with pledges given and broken. My mind has recently turned to the pledge given to the Jews by the dukedom of Mantua in Renaissance Italy. Why so? Sheila and I sing in our choir Kol Echad. We are giving two concerts right here on 27 June and 14 July. Both highlight the music of Salamone Rossi. Born in Mantua in 1570, Rossi wrote the first ever choral settings of Jewish prayers and psalms for the synagogue, publishing them as The Songs of Solomon in 1623.

A friend and collaborator with Monteverdi, the Mantuan Jew was a true music innovator linking Italian Renaissance and the Baroque. His 33 settings in Hebrew are truly gorgeous – richly polyphonic and full of beauty and celebrating the joy of being Jewish. Rossi flourished in a brief period when the Dukes of Mantua took a liberal attitude to the Jews in their midst. The ruling family, the Gonzagos, pledged that the Jews of Mantua would be free to practice their religion, be free of Papal restrictions such as being locked in a ghetto and free to mix culturally with their Christian neighbours.

It was a period of great creativity. Rossi, the Jew, became a chief musician and composer to the Gonzago dukes. He published dozens of works including the lovely settings we will be singing for you. He was not alone, Also in Mantua was the Jewish playwright, theatre director and choreographer Leone de Somme. He wrote many plays for Mantuan court festivals and in 1550 wrote the first ever play in Hebrew. ‘A Comedy of Betrothal’. Rossi and Leone de Somme had a Mantuan Jewish audience who were clearly fluent in Italian and spoken Hebrew. Setting synagogue music to choir ensemble was also a challenge to the Jewish orthodoxy of the day. But Rabbi Leon of Modena, a close friend of Rossi, decried those who frowned upon using choral music in the festival and shabbat services. “Is it conceivable that those whom God has bestowed with musical wisdom and strive to honor the Almighty be considered as sinners? God forbids!” He called Rossi’s work hadashah ba-’aretz, “something new on earth” and he predicted that this book pf music would be the first of many in the Jewish tradition.

In the same vein, Leone de Somme told his fellow Jews that Hebrew should be a living language – one in which great poetry, theatre and literature could be written. 400 years before Ben Yehudah.

With Jews it seems, all good things must come to an end. The pledge to give the Jews of Mantua the Duke’s support and protection lasted less than 120 years. A new ghetto was built and the age of Jewish artistry came to an abrupt end with the siege of Mantua by the Austrians in 1630. It was in this year that Rossi disappears from the record. A light once so bright, went out with Rossi’s death. It was a false dawn of Jewish enlightenment. A pledge with time limits. Rabbi Leon of Modena was wrong, Rossi’s settings of sacred Hebrew texts would not be the first of many. synagogue composition came to an end and nothing new was heard for over 200 years.

Don’t rely on a pledge. That’s the message in this week’s parasha. Rossi’s beautiful light went out for 200 years ..but it came back, as you will hear. it shines once more, brightly, joyously, full of melodic beauty. You will hear it and be transported. And that’s a promise. A pledge we intend to keep.