New Zealand is famous for its large population of sheep.
New Zealand is famous for its large population of sheep. Photo by Dreamstime
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I recently had the honour of being schlepped out to New Zealand. Nobody flies to New Zealand. Schlepping is the only option. And bizarrely, I’m pretty sure that Elijah the Prophet was there with me.

The reason I was there was to present some sessions at their annual Limmud Conference, where some 400 people rolled up for a weekend of Jewish learning in Auckland. The experience was fantastic.

Jewish life in New Zealand, one can fairly say, is somewhat less than thriving. The Jewish school in Wellington has just announced its closure. Young Jews in New Zealand generally face a choice between rampant assimilation and moving to larger communities in Australia or Israel.

One shouldn’t be too gloomy. Auckland boasts a lovely Orthodox shul (I didn’t see the Reform shul, but met many of its charming members), a lovely little school, a kosher deli, a vibrant little library-cum-shteibl under the direction of a sparkling Lubavitcher. They even have their own weekly radio show, largely down to the dedication of a seemingly eternally youthful octogenarian, though I couldn’t quite work out who listens to it.

But, as an observant Orthodox Jew over there, I certainly didn’t find it easy. There weren’t prayer services for me to attend every day. There were very few places where I could comfortably eat, although the local community went out of their way to accommodate me. As I say, Jewish life there is less than thriving. Elijah probably doesn’t come by very often.

There’s an old tradition that Elijah visits every seder night and every circumcision around the world. At each seder night we set out a cup for him to drink. At each brit mila we set aside a chair in his honour. The real history behind these traditions is complex. There was a halakhic dispute about how many cups of wine we’re supposed to drink at the seder night: four cups or five? The rabbis decided to pour a fifth cup and when Elijah comes to announce the dawning of the Messianic age, he can resolve the rabbinic dispute as to whether we should drink it or not. The genesis of the custom to put out a chair for Elijah at a brit mila is less clear. But the following story, relevant to both customs, has always resonated with me.

Elijah had tried to combat the idolatrous ways of his people, and he considered his efforts to have been a failure. Running away from the Kingdom of Israel, with a warrant out for his execution, he finds refuge in a cave. And this is what he says to God: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10). In other words: I’ve done my best to rebuke this wayward people, but they’re beyond hope. I’m the only real Jew left. For the rest of eternity, God shows Elijah, who incidentally never died, just how wrong he was, because in every generation – however assimilated we become – we Jews never let go of two symbols of our identity; two symbols, even, of our relationship with God: the seder night and the covenant of circumcision. The number of Jews who still mark these two rituals is overwhelming; the number that abstains is negligible. And Elijah is there to see every single one of them, to teach him that God’s faith in his people was well placed.

So Elijah was in New Zealand, where he saw hundreds of Jews of all different backgrounds coming together in recognition of what they share, and in recognition of the room they have left in which to grow through learning. Elijah saw an Orthodox rabbinical student sitting round the table sharing a coffee and a thought with an Israeli Reform rabbi and an American Reconstructionist rabbi who had to come to New Zealand to meet one another. He saw, despite their real differences, that their eagerness to serve God, and to understand the Torah in their diverging ways, was compelling evidence that the God of Israel still lives in the heart of His people. And this scene is replicated at Limmud conferences all around the world.

Elijah appears at three Jewish events – seder nights, circumcisions and Limmud Conferences. I hope we keep him busy for years to come.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.