Rabbi Silverstein was feeling quite uncomfortable.
Mimi Ruben, a teenage girl on the back-row, kept asking him daft questions which bore no relation to his latest book.
“Was there any evidence of female circumcision among the ancient Hebrews?
“Could the concept of the Shechina – the feminine aspect of the Almighty – be construed as idolatrous?
“Secular food publications often referred to ‘kosher’ salt. Why did non-Jews eat it?
“As it is forbidden to use a computer on the Sabbath, did he (the rabbi) ever write things down in his head?”
Yonah Silverstein avoided addressing women’s groups. It was considered ill-advised for a strictly Orthodox rabbi to mingle with women, even in public.
But he had agreed to meet the Derby Jewish Women’s Literary Society to promote An Alternative Orthodox View Of Progressive Judaism.
This was to placate his publisher and to please the group’s senior president, Eva Gluck, who was widely revered for her knowledge of Tenach – the Hebrew bible.
But now he had to quieten this infant trouble-maker who had fairly frozen the others present into abject silence.
“My dear young lady, I appreciate your enthusiastic attendance so I’ll refrain from asking why you are here on a school day.
“Instead I’ll tell you about myself. At your age, my late father regularly beat me for reading secular books. These included the works of the 18th century English poet, Alexander Pope who wrote: ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing.’
“Your questions have been pert – which I’ll define as ‘high spirited’; but they have not been pertinent – relevant to our discussion. Indeed, they have been impertinent – quite improperly bold in their line of thought. Moreover, they have been expressed before ladies who have a thousand times your knowledge and life-experience.
“But as I find you a challenge, Miss Rubin, I’ll offer you one. Please make an appointment to see me here at synagogue where I may better answer some of the conundrums you have posed.”
Mimi blushed red-hot. “Thank you so much, Rabbi.
“But I thought that you offer private interviews only to people like my brother, Sammy who says he’s gay.”
But as the chairman, Mrs Freeson rose to short-circuit the affair, Mr Johnson, the caretaker came in and passed her a note.
“Ladies,” she said. “We must vacate the premises. The Sabbath kettle has inexplicably blown and badly scorched the surrounding kitchen worktop. Mr Johnson assures us that he has cleaned the area and has ordered a health and safety check for tomorrow. Meanwhile, he suggests we leave immediately.”
As the crowd shuffled in a daze towards the entrance, the rabbi lingered.
“Ladies”, he called after Mrs Gluck and Mrs Freeson. “I’m sorry to ask you both to stay. But it appears that even in synagogue, a man must always be seen to be chaperoned when with women.
“As you are both family friends - and you, Mrs Gluck, are a noted Torah scholar - I’m taking you into my confidence. I shouldn’t quote from secular sources, but I am forced to say this once: “there are more things in heaven and earth …”
Mrs Gluck chuckled despite herself.
“Ha! Rabbi, please pardon some further impertinence – this time from an old girl.
“As you and Mrs Freeson both know, the Torah portion to be read in synagogue this coming Sabbath includes the story of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu and how they were killed by God’s fire for sacrificing their own without His permission.
“Some interpretations suggest that their sin had been that of trying to outperform the Almighty at His most glorious. They were guilty – unwittingly perhaps – of spiritual hubris.
“Our little Mimi reminds me harshly of my teenage self. So with her mother’s permission I will take her in hand, bringing her version of Heaven very much to earth. The first thing she’ll learn is not to play with ‘strange fire’.”
(Copyright – Natalie Irene Wood, 02 March 2012).