Thought for the Week
Friday 12 July 2019
Dear Members and Friends
Lo ish El vichazeiv; u’ven-adam v’’yitnecham….
‘God is not human to be capricious, or mortal to have a change of heart’
Parashat Balak tells the story of the heathen prophet Balaam who is summoned by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites who seek to cross the territory of Moab in order to reach the land of Canaan. The king, Balak, fears an invasion: ‘Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field’ (Numbers 22:4). His shameful descendants are those who regard those fleeing from oppression in similarly sub-human ways and use other creaturely images to describe them.
Balaam, a chameleon at the best of times, is pulled in two ways – by a king who offers him gold and silver to pronounce a curse on the Israelites, and by God who appears to him in a dream, who places in his mouth the poetry of oracles and praise for this foreign people: ‘How can I damn whom God has not damned, how doom when the Eternal One has not doomed.’
This is a people, says Balaam, that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations – a line that has often resonated with some truth about the persistence of our survival, the uniqueness of our existence. But it is not this slightly perilous thought that I want to focus on this week, but the words that Balaam speaks to Balak a few verses on: ‘Up, Balak, listen, give ear unto me, son of Zippor! God is not human to be capricious, or mortal to have a change of heart. Would God speak and not act, promise and not fulfil’ (Numbers 23: 18-19).
What do we make of these verses? How can we understand their meaning in our own time? Balaam is telling Balak: it’s no good you forcing me to curse the Israelites, because God has already decreed, instructed me to bless them and I have no power to reverse that instruction. The fate of Israel is settled – ‘there is no harm in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel…’ God is not likely ever to have a change of heart, one’s destiny is settled; it is final.
For the Israelites, this is good news – a blessing upon their heads! But let us translate this in a different way for us today. It may not be God who determines our fate, but something else – the course of a serious illness, the failure of a relationship, the loss of employment, mental illness – any number of things that will destabilise our sense of security that all is well with the world, that our life flows on like a stream, bouncing over small rocks that might veer its pathway, but in ways that are interesting, not jarring, slight and not unexpected.
It is when that devastating news comes that changes the course of our lives that we pray for God to be ‘capricious’ and to ‘have a change of heart.’ And yet we cannot lay the course of human nature and our physicality in God’s hands. God does not determine our lives in that way; God is not the cause of all those things that might hurt us or come to curse us, that take away from us our sense of security and optimism. Nor is God the cause of our blessings – the good things that happen to us, for which our response is gratitude and thanks.
When we are struck down by illness, we trust in the medical profession to find us the latest medication that will alter the course of our lives; we fend off old age and decrepitude with mental stimulation and exercise, if we can, in the hope that our decline can be postponed and know that it is not God who exerts that kind of power over the course of our physical lives.
But where Balak speaks the truth in this theological couplet addressed to his king is in God’s faithfulness and presence in times of devastation and tragedy. I cannot change this for you, says God. I cannot reverse the ‘curse’ that has been placed upon you, but I am present with you and if you can speak to me out of the depths, then I will listen to you; if you can wait for me and hope in me, then I will pour out my spirit upon you, my infinite compassion and loving kindness. This is all I can give you, and yet consider, is it not this that has sustained our people through the tragedies of their past? A faith in an eternal presence that can alter how we see our lives, what meaning and hope we can give to them. I cannot avert the evil decree, says God; I cannot remove that terrible sense of impending loss and absence, but I can fill you with some of my love and my compassion and perhaps give you the hope that the curse that afflicts body and mind and which I cannot change, be accompanied by the blessing of your deep and enduring love for family and friends and theirs for you.
Thought for the Week
Friday 6 July 2019
Dear Members and Friends
For Liberal Judaism’s Day of Celebration I facilitated a session on parenting, alongside Rabbi Yuval Keren. My focus was on parenting as a spiritual practice. How can our relationships with young people teach us to be more mindful, more patient, more aware of the wonder in the world?
My session was based on a book on parenting by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a Conservative rabbi from America. Two days before the session, I had set aside the evening to finish the book. I wandered through our home looking for the book but couldn’t find it in any predictable place. What to do? I again went through every room and looked in all the unpredictable places, still not there. I could feel my heart beating faster as I began more quickly moving around the house to find it. The book is not sold locally and Amazon would not have been able to ship it in time. I started to feel anxious and then wondered whether one of my children had moved it. I put myself in the mind of each of my children starting with the eldest. Jonah, if he is sitting still it is because he has a book in hand, could he have started reading it? No, it was not in his bed. Ollie, our creative fort-maker, could he have brought it into the fort he had made that evening? Not there either. And I finally got to Rafi, our 18 month old. And I knew just where my book was. Rafi has become obsessed with the rubbish bin, constantly asking what can be thrown away and sneaking things that shouldn’t be thrown away into the bin. With my three children asleep I went to the rubbish and regretfully started looking. Halfway through looking, still I had found nothing, but I was sure it was there. Then, at the very bottom of the bin, under a banana peel and some coffee grinds, I found my book. The humour and irony of the title was not lost on me, “Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting” In that moment I was leaning more towards the frustration and desperation of parenting young children!
The book presents numerous ways that an intentional approach to parenting can deepen one’s spirituality. One of the more compelling ideas in her book is to allow your children (or grandchildren, students, or any child in your life) to teach you about radical amazement. Young children are learned sages when it comes to be present in the moment. They could be late for school but find a stick on the ground and that stick can spark a whole imaginative story leading them to dragons and castles (but not to school!). Ruttenberg argues that adults need to allow ourselves to have more of this radical amazement. How can we make time in our life to pause, reflect with wonder and engage in the miraculous world we inherit?
This notion of radical amazement and finding wonder in normal, daily living is very much a part of our Jewish tradition. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading theologians of the 20th century, wrote these words about radical amazement. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Our traditional morning liturgy focuses on the radical amazement of our bodies. In the prayer asher yatzar, we offer gratitude for the complex system of our body that allows for us to greet each new day. In Nisim b’chol yom we thank God for the miracle of finding our feet on the ground, of having eyes that can see.
We can look to the children in our midst if we need to learn about radical amazement. With utter delight they take that first lick of an ice-cream cone, with wonder they dip their paint brush into paint and watch with glee as they move the paint from their brush to the paper, they follow bugs in the garden acting as a sacred witness to their every move.
Of course we can’t live every moment in radical amazement. But Rabbi Ruttenberg, in her book, argues that sometimes, instead of rushing from thing to thing we should allow ourselves to pause and to look at our world with wonder.
When I found the book at the bottom of the bin, I was not in a place of wonder but in a place of stress and frustration. I thought about Ruttenberg’s lessons from the book and laughed to myself as I struggled but succeeded in finding wonder in the moment. How wonderful it was to have 3 kids with such distinct personalities that I was able to somewhat easily put myself into their head and find my book.
Whether you are reading this on your phone, in the tube, on the bus, in the comfort of your home or elsewhere I challenge you to pause for a moment and look around and identify something of wonder.
Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech haolam shechehiyanu vkiyamanu vhigiyanu lazman hazeh.
We thank you Adonai our God for giving us life, sustaining us and bringing us to this moment.
Thought for the Week
Friday 28 June 2019
Dear Members and Friends
The parashiyyot (weekly Torah portions) of these most recent weeks come like bouts of bad news, week after week: food poverty and hunger, a failed mission into the land and castigation of the people because of their lack of faith, and this week Korach, Dathan and Abiram’s challenge to religious and political leadership.
These men and their followers question authority, privilege and sacred hierarchy. ‘You’ve gone too far!’ says Korach, ‘for all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal One is in their midst. Why then do your raise yourselves above God’s congregation.’ The mutiny is brutally quashed – the rebels annihilated by fire, plague and earthquake, the leadership of Moses and Aaron vindicated by the discomfiting presence in the midst of the community of an uncompromising and terrifying God.
And yet reading that cry by Korach – ‘all the people are holy’ – one cannot help but feel a degree of sympathy and understanding. Why should a man who seems to promote equality rather than hierarchy be punished so harshly?
My colleague, the late Rabbi Sheila Shulman (zichronah livrachah) paints a picture of a weak, sick and starving rabble of refugees at the mercy of a small ‘group of grandiose and visionary maniacs on a quixotic quest through the desert.’ However attractive Korach’s message, she says, it is based on wilful misunderstanding. It is not a statement of fact and actuality; it is rather a statement of potential, of what is possible.
‘This is in some ways a marvellous, a seductive vision, but takes no account either of history or of human reality. It certainly doesn’t reflect the complex realism of the biblical text. It assumes that we have arrived at where we are trying to go, that we are already what it is our task to become.’
Sheila focuses on that infamous opening phrase of the parashah: Va-yikach Korach, ben-Yizhar, ben K’hat, ben-Levi… ‘And Korach the son of Yizhar, the son of K’hat, the son of Levi took…’ The verb ‘took’ hangs objectless – what did he take, whom did he take? Sheila quotes this passage from Martin Buber about revelation, beginning with a quotation from Nietzsche:
‘”You take, but you do not ask who it is that gives.”’ Buber continues: ‘But I think that as we take, it is of the utmost importance to know that someone is giving. He who takes what is given him, and does not experience it as a gift, is not really receiving; and so the gift turns into theft. But when we do experience the giving, we find that revelation exists.’’
It is this that turns Sheila away from Korach whom she portrays as a ‘self-aggrandising’ thief, who steals ‘God’s inexplicable, demanding, life-giving love for Israel, a love as inexplicable as any other love,’ and turns it ‘into something between a right and an entrance ticket to an exclusive club.’
And so she links this story with our own painful struggle for ‘holiness’, which she equates with Buber’s ‘gift.’ ‘There are gifts,’ she concludes, in which ‘it is possible, however dimly to sense the Giver in what Buber so reticently called ‘the touch of the other,’ who could be anyone, a friend, a lover, a colleague, a teacher, a student, an acquaintance, or even a passing stranger’ (D’var Torah, Rabbi Sheila Shulman, undated).
Thought for the Week
Friday 21 June 2019
Dear Members and Friends
Over the last two years I’ve been honoured to be an intern Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. I’ve been learning an enormous amount about the synagogue and its members, and about Liberal Judaism and its principles. I feel a great responsibility to become a little part of a chain of prominent Rabbis who have served the community over the last 100 years of the LJS’ history. In a few weeks I will have a ceremony which will officially finish my student life and begin my Rabbinic path. One may say that it’s been my ‘trial’ period at the LJS: an opportunity for the community to get to know me and for me to get to know the community.
This week’s Torah portion Shlach Lecha has a story which resonates with me. It begins with a well-known narrative about Moses sending twelve people to scout the land of Canaan. They go with the intention to answer legitimate questions: ‘Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.’ (Numbers 13:18-20) We know what happened after: all of them came with a positive report about the land, but only two had the belief that the Israelites would be able to enter it. Perhaps it is natural for all of us to be sceptical and anxious about major changes in our lives. We live in the time of political change, social divide and uncertain future. The story of our Torah portion reflects a similar state of national change. Ten Spies bring back a report that reduces the people to terror and tears and the cry, ‘Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?… Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!’(Num. 14:3-4). This story has been kept in the memory of our people and has been playing an important role in shaping our national character. 40 years of wondering, which the story of Spies leads to, is the one of the most well-known biblical stories in the world. We can only try to imagine how they felt, but we have the benefit of knowing about the end of this story. We know that this story served as a trigger for the people to renew its leadership and, 40 years later, the Israelites entered the Promised Land.
Only time will tell how the LJS community will cope with current challenges. Meanwhile, we can choose to believe in a better future and do our best to achieve it. Our contribution to the wider society and our support for each other is what makes us a good community. On that note, I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to support me during my ordination ceremony on July 7th. If you would like to come, please register here to get your tickets.
Thought for the Week
Friday 14 June 2019
Dear Members and Friends
‘There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.’ It is here in the Book of Numbers, in our weekly parashah, B’ha’a’lot’cha, that the Torah articulates its legal protection, not only for the citizen, but also for the ger, the stranger living among the homeborn. One way to become a ger, says the Plaut Torah commentary was ‘as a refugee from war, famine or oppression’ – whether women or men.
I think about this law as I make my way down to the ‘one-stop-shop’ in the basement of Church Street Library, just off Lisson Grove. It is here on a Wednesday morning that the homelessness charity Shelter offers advice and signposting, helping people off the streets into hostels, working together with the local authority and The Passage, a day centre in Victoria, to find people permanent accommodation.
Chris, who is staffing the Shelter desk in a large basement room where the Citizens Advice Bureau, Carers Network and Westminster Council also have advisors, tells me that the Homelessness Reduction Act of 2018 requires the local authority to do more for anyone who is homeless and eligible for accommodation. That eligibility includes verification of one’s legal status in the UK, assessing the level of vulnerability, being unintentionally homeless and having a local connection to the area.
The increase in homelessness in the last 20-30 years is caused by the lack of social housing and the inability of local authorities to borrow in order to build. Developers, says Chris, can pay off local authorities not to build social housing.
Chris brings Manira (not her real name), a homeless Sudanese woman to the desk where we are sitting. She looks older than her thirty-thirty three years. She tells me that she was raped by Janjaweed militia forces, the same tribal groups who murdered an estimated 200,000-400,000 civilians in Darfur in the early 2000’s. She limps badly and tells me that she was beaten on her back and leg. She is still in pain and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Manira is a refugee and has leave to remain in the UK, but she can’t afford private accommodation in London. She is currently staying at the Marylebone Project, a hostel for women with about 50-60 beds. But there is a limited time she can stay there before she has to move on. Chris brings up her details on the laptop in front of her, is patient as he waits for her to update her friend on the telephone, who then translates for him from Manira’s Arabic.
To send her out of the local area would be very difficult. She shows me a letter from her GP, which reveals the very complex and multiple medical and psychological challenges she is dealing with. The medical practice is based in Soho and specifically supports the homeless.
Manira is already distressed and the thought of being moved out of Westminster increases that anxiety.
Chris is going to try and extend her time at the Marylebone Project, but that is limited and it may be that she has to move out of the borough. Shelter will help her to access a sympathetic surgery with an interpreter in Arabic.
Shelter is doing all it can to relieve homelessness – both the visible homelessness we can see on the streets, but also the homelessness we can’t see, the people who sofa-surf, the individuals, like Manira, who are living temporarily in hostels.
Tzelem – the rabbinic voice for social and economic justice – is joining with Shelter to support their campaign against landlords who refuse to rent properties to people who are on housing benefit. It is, they say, discriminatory.
Spending the morning downstairs at the Church Street Library with Shelter has been eye-opening and helped me to understand and empathise with those who are homeless – the uncertainty, the vulnerability and terrible distress that it can bring to those who don’t choose to be homeless intentionally.
We may not be able to eliminate homelessness completely, but we can contribute to reducing the numbers of people who are homeless. And if we are landlords, we can think about renting our properties to people who are on housing benefit and not discriminating against them because they are on a benefit.
Thought for the Week
Friday 7 June 2019
Dear Members and Friends
This weekend, Jewish communities around the world will celebrate the festival of Shavuot. Seven weeks and one day after Passover we arrive at Shavuot. In ancient times this was one of the pilgrimage festivals. The ancient Israelites journeyed by foot from far lands to the holy Temple of Jerusalem carrying with them an offering of the first grains of their wheat crop and the best of their first fruits.
During the Rabbinic Period, Shavuot became a time of remembering and celebrating the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The Torah is celebrated with the reading of the Ten Commandments and with a full night of study. This year, the LJS will hold a Tikkun (an all-night study) in conjunction with West London Synagogue. On Sunday morning we will hold a L’Dor Va-Dor Shavuot service for the community, led by Rimon students and families.
It is tradition on Shavuot to read the text of Ruth. The Book of Ruth is the narrative of a Moabite woman who follows her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi after Ruth’s husband dies. Ruth recites to her mother-in-law the well-known words, “Where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” Ruth later marries Boaz and becomes the ancestor of King David.
There are many different interpretations about why the book of Ruth is read on Shavuot. The most accepted is that it is around the time of Shavuot that Ruth came to Israel and that her accepting of the Jewish faith is analogous to the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Sinai.
The story of Ruth is a complex and fascinating one. Ruth shows incredible bravery, courage and clear sightedness in her narrative while also losing some of her autonomy (but gaining community!) by joining the Israelite people.
Poet and musician Alicia Jo Rabins wrote these words about the Ruth narrative, “While we seek the power to make things happen on our own, we also long to be part of something, to find our people. Ruth’s story, like most Torah stories, is writ large: she abandons her life entirely to dedicate herself to an unexpected family member, she crawls into a powerful man’s bed late at night uninvited. Her risks are extreme. But at its essence, Ruth’s journey reflects a process we all go through in our lives. And in fact, when we are faced with a major life transition, it often looms as large to us as Ruth’s hugely dramatic story. Part of Ruth’s extraordinary bravery lies in her brave decisions, none of which is guaranteed to work out. She repeatedly risks failure, heartbreak, rejection, censure; through these bold choices, Ruth transforms her life entirely. What daring risks might we take in our own lives? What unimagined future might lie ahead of us if we are brave enough to leave the familiar and set out for parts unknown?”
The story of Ruth is the story of individualism and the blessings of living in a community.
Does this not represent the most sacred lessons we are able to learn from a deep engagement with our text? How can we use our faith and our study to make us stronger in ourselves so that we are more able to build sacred, compassionate, ethical, spiritual communities?
May our Torah study lead us to greater self-knowledge, so that we are more able to partner with others and with God in our sacred pursuit of justice and compassionate living.
Alicia Jo Rabins composed the lyrics below about the story of Ruth and her journey. You can listen to this beautiful song about Ruth here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-jn7nQ_Y6U
Sometimes the road chooses you
And not the other way around
I don’t know how but I just knew
You would lead me to sacred ground
I was living in a place but it was time for me to leave
I’d lost all of my faith but I was ready to believe
In the middle of the night
I went and lay down by your feet
I knew that if the time was right you would welcome me
I crept away before the break of day
By then I knew that you would come to me
And all the people in the gate
And all the elders they will say
We are the witnesses today to this covenant you make
Generations pass generations come
And now our separate histories are one
Thought for the Week
Friday 31 May 2019
Dear Members and Friends
Some weeks ago, one Shabbat morning, I was tracing the familiar route home from synagogue – a course which takes me across Hampstead Heath from South End Green up to Whitestone Pond. As I pushed my bike up on to the path by one of the ponds, I noticed a small group of people standing and watching a swan-mother as she covered the eggs of her nest in the reeds at the edge of the water. ‘She’s got eleven eggs there,’ a man said to a small group of people who had assembled nearby.
Click photo to enlarge.
I watched her as she drew the dry reeds from the nest to cover the eggs with her beak, taking care that they were concealed before she went off to find food for herself. Almost immediately, the father clambered up on to the nest from the water, paused for a few moments to look around him and poking his beak gently into the nest began to turn the eggs. Then, satisfied with his exertion, he sat down rather heavily to mind the prospective nursery and waited for his partner to return.
Last Monday was the first opportunity I had to go and pay a visit to the hatched cygnets whose progress I have been longing to witness. I was well-rewarded. The mother was cleaning herself, standing at the edge of the nest, while ten or eleven grey, furry ducklings were sitting in the nest imitating their mother plucking at their breasts with their little beaks and having a good clean.
Behind me was the noise of the spring bank holiday fair with its rides and carousels and the fairground aromas of hot dogs and candy floss. Only a few people had come close enough to the wire fencing to watch the cygnets, already growing fast, being taught the lesson of cleanliness and hygiene. The father was swimming close by, watching out for predators and ensuring his offspring were safe.
There is much to learn from the natural world around us. In a verse from the Book of Job, one of Job’s so-called friends compares the knowledge and wisdom of the natural world with human intelligence: ‘Who gives us more knowledge than the beasts of the earth, makes us wiser than the birds of the sky?’ (Job 35:11). And the Talmud, choosing to subvert the biblical text’s meaning, to affirm the natural world’s wisdom over human intelligence, gives this extraordinary statement: ‘Even if the Torah had not been given, we would nonetheless have learned modesty from the cat, that stealing is objectionable from an ant [which does not take grain from another ant] and forbidden relations from the dove’ [which is faithful to its partner…]
Outside the window of my study, I am watching a lively and busy family of birds – I think they are dunnocks, slimmer versions of sparrows, with slate grey breasts, brown streaks on their crown and rich brown mantles and wings. They perch on the feeders, warbling noisily, occasionally squabbling among themselves, as siblings often do. Nearby there is often a blue tit, that alights on a rose bush and occasionally a robin hops nervously along the paving stones of the terrace.
The dunnocks are oblivious to the plump pigeons that swing heavily from the lower branches and feeders and although I resent their ungainly presence, the smaller birds don’t seem to mind and ignore them. They get what they need, seeing themselves as equals to the largest of the pigeons and the most greedy of the canny squirrels.
There is something, too, to be learnt from this little ecosystem outside my window. How is it that we do not learn from these birds that there is enough food for everyone in the world, that we have to learn to distribute it and to share our resources equally? And how is it that we do not learn to live side by side with our neighbours, those who are like us and those who are not like us, as these birds share the space of the air around them and in the trees and hedges in which they make their nests and find their food?
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov for the new month of Sivan which begins on Monday night.
Thought for the Week
Friday 17 May 2019
Dear Members and Friends
The Liberty Bell is an iconic symbol of American independence, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The inscription on the bell reads: ‘Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof’ (Leviticus 25:10, this week’s Torah portion Behar.)
A significant part of the modern image of the bell as an image of the proclamation of American independence was forged by writer George Lippard. His story ‘Fourth of July, 1776’ depicted an aged bellman on July 4, 1776, sitting by the bell, fearing that congress would not have the courage to declare independence. At the most dramatic moment, a young boy appears with instructions for the old man: to ring the bell. For me, the Lippard’s story has an important message. On the one hand, sometimes our future depends on others and we need to trust and wait when our leaders make a decision for us. However, the contexts of the Biblical inscription might guide us in a different direction.
In this week’s Torah portion, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that in every seventh year, the land shall observe a Sabbatical year: fields should not be sown, and vines should not be pruned. After forty-nine years, a jubilee year is to be celebrated when all the land that had been sold during that time should be returned to its original owners and slaves are to be freed. (Lev 25:8-55) I think that this Torah portion is relevant even for those who own neither a piece of land nor a slave. Throughout the portion Torah reminds us that even though we own and use the land and have people who work for us, it is important to take care of them and to give a rest to both people and the land. It is only possible when we live in a society that takes care of its members. It is only possible if we plan and prepare for it. It is only possible if we take an active role and volunteer to take care of people around us. The concepts of Sabbatical and Jubilee year require an active role of all community members. Torah’s understanding of Liberty is when we volunteer to take care of the land we live in and its people. We are commanded to take an active role to enable each other to have a rest from time to time.
This week we celebrate our community. The wide scale of our activities includes religious services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings and on all Jewish festivals, fasts and life cycle events. Our volunteers run a number of activities throughout the week or month which are for local residents – whether Jewish or non-Jewish. All of this could not have been possible without the active role our members take in taking care of each other. This week we call our service a Community Service and say thank you to all those who work hard to allow others to experience the special and holy life of the LJS community.
I would like to finish this week’s thought with a word of thanks to the LJS community. I’m endlessly grateful to all its members, friends, volunteers and staff for the support, inspiration and encouragement I’ve been receiving for almost two years, since I started to be your student rabbi. July 7th will mark the end of my student life and the beginning of my rabbinic path. If you would like to come to the ordination ceremony and support my colleagues and myself, please find details and registration here: https://ti.to/lbc/ordination2019
Thought for the Week
Friday 10 May 2019
Dear Members and Friends
This last Shabbat at the LJS, we remembered the lives that perished in the Shoah: it was the focus of the sessions for our older Rimon students. We had a moving memorial ceremony during the service and a sermon by Rabbi Marc Saperstein that focused on the words spoken from the LJS pulpit during WWII by Rabbi Israel Mattuck.
It was a very moving morning. I spent much of that morning thinking about the many ways that we remember those who perished in the Shoah.
The morning began with T’fillah for Rimon: we discussed the mitzvah presented in the Torah portion “v’ahavta lreacha kamocha” to love your neighbour as you love yourself. We discussed, as a Rimon community, what this means; how we show our love and care to others and how we must first love ourselves before we can love others. We learned about the great sage Hillel, who taught “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” As a community of young people we discussed what it means to love people who are different from us. We are teaching our young people to be advocates for those in need, to celebrate and embrace those who are different from them, and to cherish their own sacred Jewish identity- in this way we remember.
Our older students joined together to watch the movie Joe’s Violin, a short film which was nominated for an Oscar in the category of short documentary. The film can be watched here. It follows the relationship built between 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Joe Feingold and 12-year-old Bronx school girl Brianna Peres. Feingold donates the violin that he purchased with a carton of cigarettes at a displaced persons camp after he was liberated, Perez is the recipient of the violin. The film shows the power of music in the darkest of times and shows how our young people are the recipients of the sacred memories, stories and legacies of past generations. After the film, the teenagers tearfully discussed what it means to carry on the stories of those who perished in the Shoah. Some reflected on the stories in their own families, of Holocaust survivors and of those whose lives were taken. This Shabbat, our teenagers will hear Bob and Ann Kirk share their stories. I asked our young adults, “What is your responsibility?” Their replies: To never let it happen again, to share the stories, to advocate for people in need. Our young adults have taken on the sacred responsibility of sharing the stories and lessons of past generations – in this way we remember.
During the service we had readings on the theme of the Shoah, after the readings we lit six Yahrtzeit candles for the six million Jewish lives who perished in the Shoah. In Judaism, we learn that to save a life is to save the world, and to destroy a life is to destroy the world. We mourn the individuals lost, the families broken, the worlds upon worlds upon worlds of intellect, love, faith and light that were taken from us during the Shoah. After this candle-lighting, we invited members to light individual candles for family members who died in the Shoah. Those of all ages, survivors themselves and some of our Rimon students, came forward to light candles honouring their parents, siblings, grandparents. I can’t describe how powerful and painful it was to see all of these flickering lights of remembrance. We mourn the loss of each and every victim of the Shoah, we speak their names, we tell their stories – in this way we remember.
Our siddur shares these words on the obligation to remember the lives taken in the Shoah: ‘From year to year it recedes a little further into the past, but the magnitude of it remains beyond our comprehension, and the pain of it beyond consolation. All we know for certain is that we have a duty to remember: for the sake of those who perished, so that they may not be forgotten; for the sake of those descendants who survived them, so that they may know that they are not alone in their sorrow; for our own sakes, so that we may not be blind to the evil of which human beings are capable; and for the sake of future generations, so that they may consider well what is needful to prevent such a shoah– such a destruction- from happening again, to our people, or to any people. We pledge ourselves to remember.’
In spite of the suffering of our people, we hold tight to our hope. To our belief in a time of peace for all people. We commit and recommit ourselves to this vision of peace and to our role in turning this dream into a reality.
I share with you now the final reading of hope that was shared during our Holocaust memorial service:
‘One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colours, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate, grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another,”How beautiful the world could be…”
Thought for the Week
Friday 3 May 2019
Dear Members and Friends
In the short space of just over two months, Leo Baeck College, the seminary for Liberal and Reform Rabbis has lost three of its alumni. The warm-hearted, dedicated and learned Jeremy Collick was in his fifth year and about to receive ordination when I arrived at the College in 1981, knowing very little about what I was about to embark on. Jeremy, who was 61 and Rabbi at Edgware Masorti Synagogue was four days away from making Aliyah to Israel with his wife, when he was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with liver cancer. He had struggled with ill health for a number of years and had written about the long periods of time he had spent in hospital, time that he found often isolating and lonely, cut off from day-to-day life. His own community had disallowed live-streaming and he found Shabbat, he said, the hardest day of the week until he decided to live-stream services from other synagogues from his laptop. He was a kind, senior student, taking new students under his wing, and I learnt a great deal from him.
On Wednesday 24 April, Rabbi Harry Jacobi passed away after an illness of a few months. Born in Berlin, he escaped to Holland and from Holland to England in 1940 on the last boat out of Imuiden, a Dutch port, just as the Dutch were capitulating to the Nazi invasion of their country. His journey into the rabbinate was inspired by Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck, whose presidential address at the World Union for Progressive Judaism Conference in London in 1949, motivated the young Harry to abandon plans to make Aliyah to Israel and, instead, to train to become a Rabbi. It was a long and hard graft as Harry’s education had been disrupted. Harry, who served Southgate Progressive, Wembley Liberal Synagogues and the community in Zurich, will be remembered for his learning, his sincerity, his loyalty, his service to the causes of progressive Judaism in Europe, a man whose life exemplified the prophetic ideals of justice and compassion, and who served his God with an unshakeable courage and integrity.
And now most recently, we have lost Rabbi David J. Goldberg, Emeritus Rabbi of the LJS, who died after a long and cruel illness on Tuesday 30th April. Many will remember him as a witty, intelligent, provocative and always interesting and knowledgeable preacher; unafraid to speak truth to power on subjects such as Israeli government policy and with strong views about Liberal Judaism and the various directions it has taken over the years.
One congregant remembers his ‘arched voice’. He was very humorous, she said, and always woke you up in a service; he didn’t shy away from serious issues and had a ‘unique take’ on the world. He was attentive and compassionate to congregants at difficult times in their lives, made people laugh and young people, especially, often felt that they were significant when he spoke to them, always taking an interest in what they were doing with their lives. He frequently spoke for their beliefs or rather, the questions they had about life and the future, about God.
Not many writers could write as concisely and elegantly as David Goldberg; nor could they present three thousand years of Jewish history in two hundred pages as he did in his half of the book he wrote for Penguin with Rabbi John D. Rayner ‘The Jewish People: Their History and Their Religion.’
He had a long and distinguished rabbinate, serving the LJS from 1975 when he was appointed Associate Minister until 1989, when he became the synagogue’s Senior Rabbi. He became Rabbi Emeritus in 2004 and continued to write, preach and publish, and it seems appropriate to end this message with the closing words of his part in History of the Jewish People (p. 191):
‘Yet, in spite of everything, Judaism, that unique combination of religion and tribal unity, still continues to exist, and still makes its distinctive contribution to civilization. To the Jew of faith, that is a sure sign of divine guidance over the destiny of the ‘chosen people’. To the neutral observer it is a remarkable saga of tenacity, resilience and loyalty to the ancient tradition which gave monotheism to the world. God, Torah and Israel – faith, law and people – have always been the entwined, three-fold components of Judaism. The emphasis may alter according to time and circumstances, but there is an underlying continuity. It is this ability to adapt while still retaining its essential identity which gives one cautious hope that Judaism – the history of a religious culture and a people more than thirty-two centuries old – will survive into the future for as long as humanity continues to acknowledge that man does not live by bread alone.’
May God comfort all those who knew Rabbi David J. Goldberg and whose lives he touched in significant ways.
Thought for the Week
Friday 26 April 2019
Dear Members and Friends
The list of names of the 359 victims of the bombings in Sri Lanka last Sunday is heart-breaking to read. People of all ages, from senior citizens who were celebrating Mass at the Churches targeted, to young children who had accompanied parents or grandparents to services or were on holiday in the hotels that were also bombed. The lives of whole families were shattered, wiped out in those cruel and murderous moments of attack. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces; a TV chef, a rickshaw driver, a lawyer, school children, a GP and a firefighter, men and women of all nationalities from across the world. They included two teenagers from Westminster Synagogue, Daniel and Amelie Linsey. This was an indiscriminate, bloody and brutal attack. There are no words to express our horror of what took place on what should have been a peaceful, sacred day of the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday. Our hearts go out in grief to all those who mourn.
What drives individuals or groups to kill in this way? What anger and bitterness is buried inside the heart, consuming insatiably like some insidious, dark, avaricious creature, wanting to destroy, not only others but their own existence as well? Have we come to this? A rampant consumerist culture that will stop at nothing to wipe out human lives as well.
In the same week that we mourn these losses, I have been witnessing the peaceful protests by Extinction Rebellion that have occupied different parts of London – protests that have brought parts of the capital to a standstill. Extinction Rebellion has three very clear demands: the requirement to tell the truth about what is happening with climate change – that we have only twelve years to reverse the catastrophe of global warming; that the government needs to institute citizens’ assemblies and to create a more participative form of democracy; and the transformation of the economy to carbon zero by 2025.
Yes, these peaceful protests in which some 1,000 people were arrested, disrupted the capital and caused immediate difficulties for some in the short term. But in the long term? We need this gentle, non-violent protest, this form of sacred activism to change the very nature of our politics, to turn the impotency of our anger and frustration into shared responsibility effecting change.
There is a new generation of young people whose spirituality is not expressed in synagogues or churches, in mosques or temples, but by going out, engaging, doing, speaking, being with others, refraining from demonising. When a close relative saw in the newspapers and on television the conditions in which refugees were living in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais, he took holiday leave from his day job, drove down with a car full of clothes and blankets and other goods and volunteered there for several days at a time.
Of course, not all of us are able to do that, but we can support those activists who are quietly changing the world; we can – through our backing of whatever kind – convince those in leadership that the combative, shouty politics of our parliamentary system is obsolete and ineffective.
This festival of Pesach which comes to an end on Friday evening teaches us that change is wrought not only at the helm between the titans of a generation, but by the small acts of defiance and protest that lead to transformation – the Hebrew midwives who refuse to throw the male babies into the River Nile, Moses’ mother who keeps her infant son alive and so saves his life, Miriam who watches over her brother as he floats down the River Nile, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues him. Without the humane, feminine, relational, micro-acts of these women, would the Exodus have been able to happen?
We all have a role in making change – through our work, our family life, our talents and gifts, through different forms of activism. Let us not judge one another, but rebuild a sustainable world, a world in which we can breathe more easily and find companionship with others who are making the same journey alongside ourselves.
For as Rabbi Tarfon – one of the five rabbis mentioned at our Seder table – used to say: Lo alecha ha’m’lachah ligmor, v’lo attah ben chorin l’hibbateil mimmenu – ‘The work of sacred activism is not upon you to finish completely, but nor are you free to desist from it…’ (Pirkei Avot 2:21).
Let us join hands as we come out of the straits of Egypt and find a new form of creativity, a new freedom by which we can serve the highest values of our faith.
Mo’adim l’simchah for the end of our festival of freedom, Pesach, and Shabbat Shalom,
Thought for the Week
Friday 19 April 2019
Dear Members and Friends
We approach Passover – the day of many symbols and metaphors. Each year symbolic food, customs and songs of Passover trigger important thoughts which are meant to make us and the world around us a bit better. Shank bone, egg, two kinds of bitter herbs, vegetable and a sweet fruit paste called charoset – the classic six items mentioned in the Haggadah. Each of them has a metaphorical meaning, relevant to us beyond time and space. At the same time, as traditional as the Seder plate may be, there is room for some creativity. The Passover’s theme is the Jewish liberation from Egyptian slavery. Many people today also use the holiday as a way to acknowledge and honour modern liberation struggles. New Seder items are introduced every year. Here are three of the modern supplements you may find on the Seder plate:
Bread crust. In her book ‘Like Bread on a Seder Plate’ Rebecca Alpert tells of a study session on women and Jewish law. One student asked her Jewish orthodox teacher for her opinion about the place of lesbians in Judaism. The teacher suggested that lesbianism was a small transgression, like eating bread during Passover. That year at Passover, these students chose to place a crust of bread on their Seder plate in solidarity with LGBT+ Jews who were trying to find a place in Jewish life. (to read more open the link)
Orange. Professor Susannah Heschel, a Jewish feminist and daughter of the famous Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, encountered a Seder with a bread crust on the plate. Uncomfortable with bringing bread to her Seder table, she substituted it with an orange as a symbol for solidarity. It got her thinking about the marginalized people and different groups who struggle to find their place within the mainstream Jewish life. Apart from LGBT+ Jews, she thought about widows and divorcees who are rarely invited to lifecycle events and major Jewish festivals, like the Pesach Seder. She supplemented the Seder plate with an orange, which has many sections creating the whole. An orange symbolises the diversity and the hope for united coexistence of Jewish people. (to read more open the link)
Fair trade chocolate. Perhaps this is the most delicious addition to the Seder plate, although it’s bitter aftertaste can be associated with a bitter meaning. The Fair Trade Judaica movement introduced chocolate to the Seder plate several years ago. Though we may not be actual slaves ourselves today, our history moves us to ask ‘Where does slavery exist today?’ Child Labour in West Africa provides chocolate for much of the world. The piece of chocolate, therefore, is a symbol of potential freedom, a realisation that the food that gives us delight is sometimes accompanied by the pain and oppression of modern slavery. The sweet flavour of chocolate is a hope for the world to be free of slavery and oppression. (to read more open the link)
I wish for all of us to have a meaningful Passover, that triggers important thoughts and makes us and the world around us a bit better.
Thought for the Week
Friday 12 April 2019
An open letter to Prime Minister, Theresa May
Dear Prime Minister,
Last Friday I attended a vigil just a few minutes’ walk from the synagogue, where I serve as a Rabbi, in St John’s Wood. A twenty-five year old Chechnyan man, Zahir Visitor, had been fatally stabbed two weeks ago. Reverend Clare Dowding, the Vicar of St Paul’s Church, Rossmore Road, had gathered together local Muslim, Jewish and Christian clergy to recite prayers from our respective traditions and we were joined by Karen Buck, North Westminster’s MP, local councillors and friends and neighbours of the family, as well as members of the local churches, mosques and our own synagogue, the LJS.
As we stood quietly on a cold Friday afternoon, we were joined by the father of the young man who had been killed.. The pain in his eyes was palpable. Quietly, we introduced ourselves to him. ‘I know the synagogue,’ said Zahir’s father as I explained where I had come from. He bent to light several tea lights which had been arranged in front of bunches of flowers, left propped up against the brick wall of the flats.
What words are there of comfort to a man who has lost his son in such tragic circumstances? ‘I escaped from danger in Chechnya and came to a place I thought was safe,’ he said. He and his wife had been away in Turkey when he received the ‘phone call. Two younger sons, aged 14 and 10, were staying with relatives in Germany. They had not yet been told of their brother’s death.
Prime Minister, I want to tell you this because Zahir is not simply another statistic recording a stabbing in our capital city. He was the son of a mother and father – parents whose unspeakable grief and anguish must be compounded by the fact that Zahir died in such violent circumstances. He was an older brother to his two younger siblings. Born in Chechnya, he was around ten years old when he came to this country, first to Birmingham and then moving to London. He and his family came from a family torn apart by war, hostage taking and bombings. Thousands have been killed in brutal acts by Chechen rebels and Russian forces.
I know you understand this, but I want to tell you about Zahir, because the relentlessness of our Brexit quarrels, the unseemly divisiveness of government is eclipsing the urgent issues that we need to be dealing with in this country. While we divide ourselves over the issue of Brexit, our country is burning – quite literally because we are not facing up urgently to the issue of climate change. Our children are suffering in school and at home because of growing poverty, because of homelessness, because schools are having to cut down on all the support for children they have managed to build up over the last decades – pastoral care, creative subjects that feed the imagination and that most precious of all resources, staff members who are now being made redundant.
And because of these austerities, children are terrified about moving into their secondary school, not because the work will be too hard, not because they will be friendless, but because of knife crime. They are worried that they will be coerced to ‘do drugs’, to be part of gangs or that their lives will be cut short in the same way as Zahir’s life was cut short.
And because of these austerities there are 300,000 people in England alone who are classified as homeless – not only the people we see on the streets with their sleeping bags and cardboard boxes, that is just the tip of the iceberg – but people who have nowhere permanent to lay their heads, who sleep on a different sofa from one week to another, who are in Bed and Breakfasts with their children, are living in unsuitable accommodation, or are unable to find rented accommodation because landlords refuse to rent out to people who receive housing benefit.
I don’t know where to stop – child poverty, food banks, the shortage of NHS nursing staff. Can you not see what is happening to this country of ours? Can you not understand how disempowered the population of this country has become, because we are exhausted by nearly three years of Brexit wrangling that cannot be resolved.
To meet Zahir’s father, I understand suddenly the hurt and damage that is being done to the people of our country. How many other parents, siblings or children are mourning the violent death of a loved one?
I don’t want to be complacent. I don’t want to become one of those people who say: this is how it is; we live in difficult and uncertain times. I want to be a voice that urges an honest review of spending, that brings austerity to an end and recognises that the entrenched and complex problems of our society must be addressed at their source. Where are all the resources that head teachers have built up over these past decades? Where are the Sure Start centres that once supported young families? How are we supporting the police in their difficult work? Where is pastoral support for families who need it so desperately?
To look into Zahir’s father’s eyes, to stand with him on that street corner, opened my eyes to a deep and anguished suffering. He came to this country with optimism and hope for a different kind of life. I hope that he drew a tiny measure of strength from our small gathering and felt something of our sincerity, our solidarity and love. These are the values that need to be spoken of more volubly and more forcefully than ever before.
Thought for the Week
Friday 5 April 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
This last weekend the UK celebrated Mother’s Day. I spent much of the day thinking about what it means to be a mother. It is a holy role, one that comes with challenges and gifts; it is an immense responsibility and a sacred obligation to care for a child. As a parent you lay the groundwork as your children are young people, but ultimately each individual will forge their own path forward, at times stumbling and hopefully getting up again. It is not the parents’ role to form the child but rather to walk alongside their child, to celebrate their accomplishments, comfort their sorrows and help to provide a framework to allow for their child to approach life with open eyes, courage and a compassionate heart. In the Talmud we learn that it is the obligation of every parent to teach their child how to swim, a reminder of the importance of teaching our young people to be independent and self reliant. I once heard the imagery that raising a child is like caring for a seed, you help to provide the nutrient rich soil and find the sunshine but the essence of the plant itself cannot be changed. Parents are blessed to walk the road with their children as a loving witness to their journey. I imagine many in our communities celebrated this last Sunday with their mothers or their children. I hope you filled the cold, grey day with the warmth of family and loved ones.
I’m also certain that Sunday was a difficult day for many, a day marked by grief or the pain of difficult or severed relationships. A beautiful image of flowers was widely shared over Facebook on Mother’s Day with the words “Thinking of you: mothers who have lost children, those who have lost mothers, those with strained mother relationships, mothers with strained child relationship, those who have chosen not to be mothers, those yearning to be mothers.” If you hear your own story reflected in any of these words, I hope that on Sunday there were some still moments of peace and gratitude for the loving relationships in your life.
There is a fascinating story in our Tenakh, in the first book of Kings, about motherhood. It might be a story that is well known to you, this is often the narrative that is used as the prime example of Solomon’s wisdom. If you have not read the story before, please be aware that it is a painful story to read and includes a story of infant loss. Here is the story (1 King 3:16-28):
‘Later two women came to the king and stood before him. The first woman said, “Please, my lord! This woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. On the third day after I was delivered, this woman also gave birth to a child. We were alone; there was no one else with us in the house, just the two of us in the house. During the night this woman’s child died, because she lay on it. She arose in the night and took my son from my side while your maidservant was asleep, and laid him in her bosom; and she laid her dead son in my bosom. When I arose in the morning to nurse my son, there he was, dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, it was not the son I had borne.” The other woman spoke up, “No, the live one is my son, and the dead one is yours!” But the first insisted, “No, the dead boy is yours; mine is the live one!” And they went on arguing before the king. The king said, “One says, ‘This is my son, the live one, and the dead one is yours’; and the other says, ‘No, the dead boy is yours, mine is the live one.’ So the king gave the order, “Fetch me a sword.” A sword was brought before the king, and the king said, “Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other.” But the woman whose son was the live one pleaded with the king, for she was overcome with compassion for her son. “Please, my lord,” she cried, “give her the live child; only don’t kill it!” The other insisted, “It shall be neither yours nor mine; cut it in two!” Then the king spoke up. “Give the live child to her,” he said, “and do not put it to death; she is its mother.” When all Israel heard the decision that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king; for they saw that he possessed divine wisdom to execute justice.’
I’m aware that this is not a pleasant story to share, but the message is a powerful one. Solomon was wise in knowing that the mother of the baby was the one who would wish it no harm. A loving parent is one who thinks about the wellbeing of their child, a loving parent must ask what is “best” for my child instead of “what do I want?” or “what is fair?”. This story is messy and full of thorns, at times so is life. During this week of Mother’s Day, let us offer gratitude to the people in our lives, both now and in the past, who thought about what was “best” for us and who nurtured us in the growth of our bodies and spirits. Let us remember in our community that all of us are part of complicated family systems, that as an LJS family it is our obligation to be loving figures in the lives of one another, to nurture growth, to provide comfort and to be sacred witnesses.
My own mother will be visiting from America in May and is looking forward to being with the community for our Community service on May 18th. She is so grateful that her daughter and son-in-law and her grandchildren have found such an engaging and nurturing family here at the LJS.
Thought for the Week
Friday 29 March 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
Women of the Wall is a group of multi-denominational women from Israel and around the world, who have been striving to achieve equality to pray, wear tallitot and read from the Torah at the Kotel (the Western Wall in Jerusalem) for thirty years. This year, to mark that anniversary which fell on International Women’s Day, they held a special service at the Kotel.
What should have been a gentle and celebratory service to mark the beginning of the new month of Adar II in a place of history and holiness, became an occasion of violence and noise, as thousands of ultra-Orthodox youths, bussed from their yeshivot, disrupted the prayer, caused injuries to many of the women and in a horrible moment of desecration, an orthodox man tore to pieces the Women of the Wall’s Siddur in the sight of all who were gathered at the Wall.
It is not the first time that Women of the Wall have been humiliated, bullied, spat on and scratched, forced to move to a place where they are out of danger; nor is it the first time that they have remained vulnerable to violence, without proper protection from the police.
How is it possible in a democracy such as Israel, founded on robust principles expressed in the 1948 Declaration of Independence – ‘freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel…complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,’ that human rights can have become so corrupted?
I have been present with the Women of the Wall several times on Rosh Chodesh, once in similar circumstances, the concourse teeming with thousands of young girls brought from their seminaries and boys, urged on by their Rashei Yeshivah – the directors of their yeshivot – to protest, to shout, push, spit and throw things at the women.
I am sitting at my desk with the Miqra’ot Gedolot open in front of me at next week’s parashah – the large Bible with commentaries surrounding the biblical text of Tazria. It opens with the words: ‘When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity…’ (Leviticus 12:1-2)
And each one of the commentators, Rashi and Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, Bekhor Shor and Arbabanel – the great mediaeval authorities on the text – focus not on the following verse which deals with the circumcision of an eight day old male infant, but on these words: the woman’s ‘uncleanness’ at the time of childbirth, thirty three days for a male child and double for a female child, sixty-six days. She can’t go near her husband, she can’t touch anything, she is kept at a distance, must live apart, like women in primitive societies today, shut away in huts away from the family home, to live in dirt and humiliation. ‘Even her speech is unclean to them during this period…even her glance breeds danger,’ says Nachmanides.
This is how our great teachers saw women; as vehicles of impurity and danger, infecting even the air around them – not as noble individuals who have carried an infant to full term and giving birth to new life – but as objects of contempt, who need to be purged from their uncleanness.
Of course, we can find scholarly and social reasons why women at certain times of the month or having given birth were taboo to the rest of society. We can, perhaps, even discover reasons why the birth of a daughter rendered her mother doubly unclean or was less a cause of celebration than the birth of a son.
But the truth is that the text has a disturbing legacy for all of us – Orthodox and Liberal Jews alike. And there will never be any kind of dialogue between those who can tear apart the sacred words of a prayer book and those who want to see justice and equality for all Israel’s citizens – whatever their sex or race, ethnicity or gender.
A pluralist society should acknowledge difference with civility, without discrimination, without imposing on fellow citizens, doing no harm and causing no pain.
Will there ever be dialogue with the men who see themselves as the direct heirs of talmudic sages, of Rashi and Nachmanides and who refuse to take a step backwards to see that we live in a profoundly different world that takes seriously the human rights of every single individual wherever they live in the world?
And will we ever be able to create a sense of community that cultivates in citizens a concern for the whole, a dedication to the common good? We may disagree profoundly about morality and religion, says Michael Sandel in his book Justice: What’s the right thing to do? But that doesn’t exclude the need for mutual respect in the context of a more robust and engaged civic life. This is ‘a more promising basis for a just society.’
Thought for the Week
Friday 22 March 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
We held an extraordinary event at the LJS on Wednesday evening, which was Erev Purim, when nearly 150 people crossed the threshold of the synagogue to listen to four magnificently eloquent, honest and open speakers: Rabbi Indigo Jonah Raphael, speaking about his gender transition; Izzy Posen, the eldest of ten children, who had been raised within the strict ultra-orthodox community of Stamford Hill and had become, as he describes it, part of the wider Jewish world – ‘a proud secular Jew’; Hilary Totterman who, at the age of seven could not explain why she felt partly Jewish, but now decades later has become a fully-fledged member of the LJS and Director of the Reading Liberal Synagogue Religion School, and Dex Grodner, a gender queer drag performer who spoke about his grandparents journey from Bethnal Green to Edgware and his own migration back again to the East End.
Many of us felt deeply moved by the integrity and courage of each one of the speakers and it was gratifying to see many visitors in the congregation who had not been across the threshold of a synagogue for a long time and who, I hope, felt welcome and included.
In truth, Purim was a difficult festival to anticipate with its ridiculous story of the over-opinionated Achashverosh and his Jewish queen Esther, its mandate to drink until one cannot distinguish between the phrases ‘Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordecai,’ its requirement to mock and laugh at our enemies. One feels less inclined to enter the carnival spirit of Purim, less inclined to dress up, mock, make fun of the world about us.
Because it has been a sombre and tragic week, identifying with the Muslim community and particularly with the families of those who lost their lives and those who were wounded in the murderous attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. These things do not recede – in fact as the week progresses, as we mark the first week anniversary of this massacre, the numbing shock wears off and one is left with a sickening sense that there is something wrong in the world, something so deeply perverted in individuals, something that evokes profound fear and uncertainty.
And yet, out of the darkness of this pogrom, we have also seen what humanity is capable of: the true leadership of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, her refusal to name the perpetrator, to give him the notoriety he seeks; the gestures of love and support – the Jewish community of Pittsburgh raising money for the victims of Christchurch -$ 20,000 within the first few hours, a gesture which reciprocated the $240,000 raised by the Muslim community in the aftermath of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year.
Apart from the mitzvah of reading the Book of Esther, two mitzvot are associated with Purim: Mattanot la-ev’yonim – Gifts to the Poor – there is no greater happiness than causing the hearts of the poor to rejoice, says a C19th century commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. There are many worthy causes, but may I commend to you just one: World Jewish Relief are raising much needed funds for relief for their Cyclone Idai Emergency Appeal, allegedly the worst disaster in the southern hemisphere. 2.6 million people have been affected by this cyclone across Mozambique, Malawi and Zimabwe. https://www.worldjewishrelief.org/
Mishloach Manot – It is the custom in our Jewish community to give small gifts of basic food to our friends, a gesture of love and regard. Perhaps there is someone who is frail or unwell who would love a jar of honey or a carton of fruit juice, some dried fruits or another gift.
At its heart, Purim is about generosity and the duty to give to those who don’t have much. It’s also about identity – who are we, where does truth lie, how can we discern falsehood, how can we combat evil and harm? Purim leaves us with many questions as we ourselves remain in the topsy-turvy world not far away from Achashverosh’s court somewhere in a fictional Persia.
We were privileged to listen to four individuals who helped us to think about those questions and encouraged each one of us to be true to ourselves, to act with honesty and integrity and to be loyal to our religious tradition which requires us to do no harm, to suffer no one – neither ourselves nor others – any pain.
Thought for the Week
Friday 15 March 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
It happened in the days of David Cameron – that David Cameron who ruled over one of the twenty-eight provinces of the European Union, certain discontents in his court, seeing the economy turn sour and resenting the migration of foreign peoples from one continent to another coming into their land, urged their leader to break away from what they saw as the tyranny of Brussels.
‘If it please you, Prime Minister,’ said the discontents, ‘let a referendum be called to strengthen our economy, to ensure our sovereignty and to take back control over immigration. For then,’ they said, ‘there will be £350 million to inject into our National Health Service’ and we will create trade agreements with provinces all over the empire from China to the United States.’
The proposal was approved by the ruler and so, on the twenty-third day of the sixth month in the year 2016, a referendum was held across the four provinces of the United Kingdom and Gibraltar, and voters came throughout the day from 382 voting areas and cast their vote on whether the United Kingdom should stay within the European Union or not.
Some time afterward, when the vote had been counted and the result announced and the ruler of the United Kingdom had resigned because the Leave campaign had been successful by 51.9% votes and it had been written into law that Britain would leave the European Union on the twenty-ninth day of the third month in the year 2019, a new leader arose who knew David Cameron quite well, for she had been Home Secretary to his Prime Minister. And her name was Esther A, but she had changed the letters of her name round to spell Theresa.
The anger and resentment of the Remainers knew no bounds, for as they said, the future of their children had been sold down the river; while the Leavers gazed at each other in bewilderment, for they did not know how they were going to extricate themselves from the European Union, given their shared history and cultural heritage and the complex legal arrangements that were required. And furthermore, many Jewish people applied for German passports and others thought about applying for Irish passports in the event of Brexit.
So Esther A, whose name was Theresa was taken into Number 10 to begin the negotiations of the withdrawal agreement from the European Union. Couriers were sent out post haste to Brussels to discuss the divorce settlement, to investigate what would happen to UK citizens living throughout the other twenty-seven provinces and what would happen to EU citizens living within the United Kingdom. And furthermore, there was concern over a return to a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
And Esther A’s withdrawal agreement was presented to Members of Parliament in the first month on the fifteenth day of the month in the year 2019 and they voted against it by 432 votes to 202 – a great defeat in the eyes of the people.
In the third month, on the twelfth day of the month, after the Prime Minister herself had returned to Brussels to get some changes in the agreement and after she had pleaded with the MPs to vote for her deal, they voted against it a second time by 391 votes to 242. On the following day, the thirteenth day of the month, the MPs voted yet again against the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal although many said this vote against a No Deal means little because Britain could still crash out of the European Union.
Then Esther A invited the MPs to vote again on the fourteenth day of the third month in the year 2019, saying to them: ‘How can you keep silent when the people have voted to leave the EU, but you keep voting against my deals? If it is pleasing to you to delay the leaving date from the EU, then vote in that way, but if not, then stick to the date that was enshrined in the legislation at the end of this month. For who knows,’ she added, ‘have I not attained this position for just such a crisis?’
And on that day, many feared that there would be no transition period if the UK crashed out of the EU and they made preparations in great haste by stockpiling food and medicines, cancelling trips to the EU and thousands of people refrained from entering the country in those days. Furthermore, many business people were fearful that they would lose their livelihood and plans for a traffic management system were made in Kent in order to avoid possible bottle-necks with lorries on the motorway.
And all the while, as MPs debated and voted and voted again on Brexit, the poor people of the kingdom were suffering for the rich were becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer and great was austerity throughout the realm.
And all the while, as Esther A’s deals were defeated, there was no relief, but only grief and mourning could be heard throughout the kingdom and many took to drink so that they could no longer distinguish between the words ‘Cursed be Brexit and Blessed be our European history and cultural heritage.’
Shabbat Shalom and wishing you light relief next week as we celebrate Purim!
Thought for the Week
Friday 8 March 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
If you have had the opportunity to visit the Kotel (the Western Wall of our ancient Temple) you know from experience how sacred a space this is. Jewish individuals from Israel and the diaspora visit daily, writing their prayers on folded sheets of paper placed within the cracks of the wall, sharing their innermost offerings to God as their hands rest on the same stones that have been sacred to our people for thousands of years.
And yet, not everyone is given the opportunity for Jewish expression and prayer at the Kotel. There is a mechitzah separating the men’s and the women’s section of the wall and women are not given the right to pray, sing and read the Torah openly. However, we have come a long way in creating a safe space for women to pray on this sacred ground, much of this progress is thanks to the organization Women of the Wall.
This week, progressive Jewish communities around the world are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall is a multi-denominational feminist organization based in Israel, whose goal is to secure the rights of women to pray at the Western Wall, also called the Kotel, in a fashion that includes singing, reading aloud from the Torah and wearing religious garments.
Here is a bit of history on the genesis of the organization: On the morning of December 1, 1988 a group of approximately 70 women, from a variety of Jewish denominations, arrived at the Kotel (Western Wall) with a Torah scroll, to conduct a Halakhic women’s prayer service. As no provisions for Torah reading existed in the women’s section of the Kotel, they brought a Torah scroll, stood together and prayed out loud. Many women and men on the other side of the mechitzah (partition separating men and women) began to scream, curse and even threaten them.
Since that day, they continue to struggle to pray together, out loud, while wearing tallit and tefillin (phylacteries) and reading from a Torah scroll at the Kotel. For thirty years, they have endured violence and legal battles for this basic right as Jewish women, while mobilizing
support from the Israeli and international community.
These are some snapshots of the courageous actions that have been taken over the last 30 years:
■ On Dec. 31, 1988, a new regulation is promulgated by the Ministry of Religion and
the Ministry of Justice to “prohibit any religious ceremony at a holy place that is not
in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which offends the sensitivities of
the worshipers at the place.” The penalty for violating this regulation is 6 months in
jail and/or a fine. This regulation is still in effect today.
■ 2001: Proposed bill no. 1924 was voted on in the Knesset: “1. The prayer area at the
Western plaza shall be divided into a men’s section and women’s section by a
divider, and prayers by men and women in a mixed group shall not be permitted
there. 2. No religious ceremony shall be held in the women’s section near the
Western Wall that includes taking out a Torah scroll and reading from it, blowing
the shofar, or wearing tallitot or tefillin. 3. Violators shall be imprisoned for seven
years.” WOW and ICWOW orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to the prime
minister, the justice minister, and the speaker of the Knesset.
■ 2004: On June 4, the Court ruled that, despite the state’s claims to the contrary, the
Women of the Wall maintained a legal right to pray at the Western Wall.
Nevertheless such right was not without boundaries; the Court ruled that prayer at
Robinson’s Arch would allow the Women of the Wall to pray according to their
practice “next to the Western Wall.”
■ 2009: On Rosh Hodesh Kislev, November 18, the Western Wall Heritage
Foundation demanded that the police stop WOW’s prayer services, and in response,
the police arrested WOW participant Nofrat Frenkel, a young Israeli medical
student. Frenkel was held for several hours, interrogated and charged with illegally
wearing a tallit at the Western Wall.
■ 2010: WOW Chairperson Anat Hoffman was arrested in July for carrying a Torah.
Hoffman was taken into police custody and interrogated for five hours before being
released and banned from the Kotel for 30 days.
■ 2012: Anat Hoffman was arrested while leading prayer at Hadassah’s centennial
convention. She was held in custody and subjected to violent and aggressive
treatment for over twelve hours. She was released and issued a restraining order
from the Western Wall for 30 days.
■ 2013: On April 11, 2013, 5 women – Lesley Sachs, Bonnie Riva Ras, Sylvie
Rozenbaum, Rabbi Valerie Stessin, and Sharona Kramer were detained, held for
questioning and arrested. After seeing all evidence, Judge Sharon Larry Bavly stated
that there was no cause for arresting the women, and declared that Women of the
Wall are not disturbing the public order with their prayers.
■ 2013: WOW submits a list of conditions for the creation of an equal, fully integrated
third section of the Western Wall to Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s Cabinet Secretary at
the Prime Minister’s Office. A precondition to this document is that Women of the
Wall will continue to pray in the women’s section until a third section is created and
completed to the satisfaction of the multi-denominational women’s prayer group.
■ 2014: WOW launches Bat Mitzvah advertising campaign on buses; WOW holds first
Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel with a Torah on October 24, 2014. A tiny 200 year-old
Torah was brought into the Western Wall under the radar of the authorities. 12-
year old Sasha Lutt of Beer Sheva read from the Torah for her Bat Mitzvah
ceremony, as her mother Irina Lutt, member of WOW’s Executive Board, looked on
■ 2014: WOW’s first Hanukkah candle-lighting service at the Kotel brings over 100
women including prominent Knesset members Tamar Zandberg and Stav Shaffir.
■ 2018: WOW continues gathering women of all Jewish denominations for Rosh
Hodesh services, drawing 150-200 women at each event, and attracting thousands
of livestream followers/supporters from around the world.
You may have noticed the Tallit that I often wear, pictured here. It is one of my most sacred possessions. My tallit was generously given to me as a gift by Rabbi Danny Rich after my year of working at the Montagu Centre. It is a linen tallit with embroidered threads of gold, crimson and purple. Each of the four corners has the name of one of our matriarchs. It was a Tallit designed for the Women of the Wall to raise funds for their organization. As I wrap myself in this Tallit I feel the presence of the strong, courageous and spirit filled women who came before me, whose shoulders I stand on. I wrap myself in this Tallit and feel humbled to be part of this chain of tradition. If you are interested in supporting this organization you can donate on their website or you can purchase one of their beautiful Tallitot or Challah covers on their on-line shop: https://www.womenofthewall.org.il/donate/shop/
It is a sacred gift to work with our young people as they prepare for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah, to see them read from the Torah for the first time is remarkable. How tragic that still, in 2019, women are not allowed to pray with spirit in their voice and read the Torah at the Kotel without risking violence to themselves. The work is not finished here, please consider getting involved and supporting this important organization on their 30th anniversary.
Thought for the Week
Friday 1 March 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
How did Abraham come to know and believe in One God? That question yields a number of rabbinic midrashim – imaginative stories that lodged in the rabbinic mind and stay with us today because they speak to us, perhaps not quite in the same way, but in another way and with such immediacy. In one account, Abraham is likened to a man who is travelling from place to place and sees a building in flames. ‘Is it possible that the building lacks a person to look after it,’ he wonders? The owner of the building looks out and says, ‘I am the owner of the building.’ Similarly, because Abraham our father said, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ the Holy One, ever to be praised, looked out and said to him, ‘I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe.’
This story is with me constantly – the image of the burning building, a burning world, a planet that is being sacrificed in the flames of burning fossil fuels, a world that is in the grip of a mass extinction – up to 200 species becoming extinct every day; a world that is distorted by climate injustice, whereby rich countries behave as though immune to the damage they are inflicting upon their citizens and the world’s inhabitants, while other countries cannot even build the infrastructures they need for their people to live: running water, sanitation, enough food, hospitals, schools, electricity and roads.
Many of us have been inspired by the appearance of a sixteen year old girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg who has become the voice against climate change and climate injustice. She describes her life: at eight years old, she says, she first heard about something called climate change and found it strange that human beings, just another species of animal, were capable of changing the earth’s climate. If that were the case, if it really were happening, she says, then surely we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. It would be as though a world war were going on. If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before? Why aren’t there restrictions, why don’t they make it illegal? At the age of eleven, she describes how she became ill and fell into a depression and stopped eating; she was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and selective mutism, speaking only when she feels it is necessary.
For those of us who are on the spectrum, she said in a TED talk, everything is black and white; we aren’t very good at lying. We are the normal ones, the rest are pretty strange especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival.
The seriousness of her message, the urgency, her truth are frightening. That a young teenager can mobilise tens of thousands of school children to strike for the climate, to shame politicians and world leaders, should make us sit up and stop withdrawing ourselves from facing the greatest world crisis we have known in our lifetime. No one talks about this crisis, she says. Where are the restrictions? Where is the illegality of ruining our world, of destroying our planet’s species, of allowing carbon emissions to increase, rather than decrease?
We are all caretakers looking out of the burning building and should be saying, ‘We are responsible for the care of this burning planet.’ It is no good me writing about climate change, it is no good simply grieving over the loss of thousands of species, the dangerous warming of the planet – which we saw palpably over these past few days of what we thought was balmy spring weather, but was, in a more sinister way, evidence for the rise in the emissions that we allow to be discharged into our air.
How can we reduce our own carbon footprint? In our homes, in our places of work, in the travel we undertake, what we eat and what we burn? We know the answers already. The building is burning, but there are caretakers within. We must listen to the words of Greta Thunberg and the thousands of other school children who have taken to our streets, and we need to act on them.
Thought for the Week
Friday 22 February 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
It is perhaps too early to say how the shaken-up pack of cards will fall. To see the faces of those who have defected from the two main political parties, gathering as an independent group, one detects a sense of elation and freedom. Their reasons have produced strange bedfellows – antisemitism that has gone unchallenged for too long and a Brexit which is undermining and creating deep and lasting fissures in our political system and contributing to the abandonment of our social and moral responsibilities.
Perhaps we should not be surprised – I wonder what it is that they share. Something about the ‘other’, about separating one’s sense of justice and responsibility from the other, from an ego-driven desire to alienate, to cut off, to reduce our so-called ethics to social relations with those who are only like ourselves? There is, too, something about our spiritual heritage. What is it that binds together Jews who are conscious of their past, their identity and shared future? And what is it that connects us to Europe – to literature, art, music and architecture, enlightened knowledge, science, history – our shared history?
The story of the Golden Calf which is read this Shabbat begins with ominous words in relation to Moses – his negotiations on Sinai have taken too long and his delay precipitates a crisis. The people look for another leader and taking advantage of Aaron’s complacency, tell him to create a god out of gold. The fragile beginning of their new belief in God crumbles and is replaced with the shiny fatness of a golden calf and an orgy of eating and drinking and dancing around the idol.
This is not simply the splitting of a small group of rebels, defecting from the Israelite nation. This is the whole community, gathering against Aaron and urging him to create something material – ‘a god who shall go before us’, because they have lost faith in that ‘fellow Moses – the leader who brought us from the land of Egypt – we don’t know what has happened to him.’
God dissociates Himself from the people; now they are ‘your people’, you are the one who brought them out of Egypt. God’s anger will know no bounds; he will destroy them and make of Moses a great nation.
The crisis reaches its climax; Moses turns to go down the mountain, clutching the two tablets of the covenant in his arms and as he catches sight of the calf and the dancing, he hurls the tablets from his hands and shatters them at the foot of the mountain. He takes the calf and burns it, grinds it to powder and strews it on the water and makes the Israelites drink it.
The whole project – the Exodus from Egypt, the commandments given on Sinai, the journey towards the Promised Land – threatens to unravel.
Moses does what any leader, emperor, conqueror might have done in ancient times – he restores order through violence, rallying the Levites to his side and ordering them to slay anyone who has been disloyal.
The project must begin again. A new set of commandments will be given on Sinai, but Moses will not do this alone. You haven’t told me, he says to God, whom You will send with me. You have given me no leadership, no reassurance, the barest encounter with your presence.
How will he find the courage to move forward? How will he know if the people will follow, if they are committed to the social, ethical principles that he will take down intact from Sinai? And from where will he find his own inspiration and self-belief?
These are all questions which our leaders are currently facing. And we stand like Moses on Sinai, uncertain about the future, awaiting signs, words, hope for change.
It is while on Sinai that Moses hears the attributes of God: ‘Adonai Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness…’ These words – the words that speak of God’s mercy and justice – says the philosopher Emanuel Levinas – ‘are not given in the indicative, but in the imperative. The knowledge of God comes to us like a commandment, like a Mitzvah. To know God is to know what must be done.’ The statement God is merciful means ‘Be merciful like Him’ (Difficult Freedom, p. 17).
None of us can see into the future; none of us knows what history will make of this week. But politics will not change our moral responsibility as Jews; they will not alter our ethical commitment to the other. This is our imperative – to know God is to know what must be done.
Thought for the Week
Friday 15 February 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
Most of us have only three cones in our eyes; red, green and blue. All the colours that we are able to see come from these cones. We are lucky to have three, dogs have only two cones. Shockingly, the animal with the most amount of cones is the mana shrimp, with twenty cones. The mana shrimp has the ability to see a world of colour variances which would be lost on us. The genes for the cones in the eyes are on the x chromosome. Men have only one x chromosome and women have two. It is theoretically possible that this spare set could morph and become active. Generally we are trichromats, with three cones, but there is this possibility of being a tetrochromat, someone with four active colour cones. Radiolab, on national public radio, explored this idea in their programme titled, “Colours”. Dr. Jay Neitz, Professor of Opthomalogy, and a colour vision researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle developed a blood test which could identify individuals with this extra cone.
The producers of Radiolab found a woman in America, an interior designer, who was identified by the blood test as a tetrochromat. In her work as an interior designer she has a deep relationship with colour; by simply looking at a room she knows how each wall will look different, based on the sun’s orientation. The producers visited her and brought with them colour swabs which to the normal eye would look identical to each other, but to a tetrochromat would look different. Time after time she passed the test, looking at three swabs which to the producers looked only yellow and each time identifying the ones which were created to look different to a tetrochomat. Presented with three yellow swabs which looked identical to the normal eye, she explained, “all three different, green, red, less red.”
After the test, something very peculiar happened. A painter friend of the producers was with them. As a male he couldn’t be a tetrochromat. They gave him the same test and every time he too was able to name the one manufactured to be different, every time. The woman who had passed the blood test scored no better than the producers’ painter friend.
As a painter, as a man who has spent his life in a world of appreciating, working with and embracing colour, he had gained the ability to experience colour at a higher level than a normal person could. The woman who passed the test could have done so because she is a tetrochromat, or perhaps as an interior designer, because of her intense commitment to and appreciation of colour, she too was able to see other colours.
Our ability as humans to experience that which is around us, our ability to learn and grow, to be moved by what we are investing ourselves in, expands if we allow ourselves to truly dive in. As these individuals were able to see more colours by investing their creative energy and time into their relationship with colour, we too can experience more richness, more beauty, more meaning in our life if we allow ourselves to dive in.
In the quick-paced, modern world we live in, the way we spend our time is a statement of our values. If we are able to invest more in the things we care about, perhaps those things will open up to us in a way we haven’t experienced before. Perhaps the colours of our world will become more nuanced, more complex, more awe-filled.
The same can be said of our relationship with text and with Jewish ritual. There is greatness and deep value in the study of text and the observance of Jewish ritual whenever they are done, whether often or sporadically. Yet, our text and tradition teaches that the more we invest ourselves in study and ritual, the more we will receive from it; the ritual and the text will give back in a way we had not expected and couldn’t have planned.
We learn from the rabbis that there are four levels of study and interpretation of our sacred texts, these four levels are referred to by the Hebrew word Pardes. Pardes is the acronym formed from the name of the four levels-pshat remez, drash and sod. The first level of Pardes is pshat, which means ‘plain’. This is the simple and direct meaning of the text. The second level, remez, which means ‘hints’, is the allegorical, the hidden meaning behind the literal sense. The third level is drash, which is a level of interpretation and gleaning lessons through the text. The final and highest level is that of sod, which means ‘secret’-the study of the esoteric or mystical meaning as given through inspiration or revelation.
In addition to text study, these four levels can be applied to Jewish engagement of any kind. To use Shabbat as an example:
The Pshat level of interpretation: A day of rest after creation.
The Remez level of interpretation: Shabbat is viewed as a wedding, a union between the Jewish people and God.
The Drash level of interpretation: The understanding that honouring and marking Shabbat allows for more mindful living the rest of the week.
The Sod level of interpretation: The indescribable feeling you have when wishing Shabbat Shalom to your child, knowing that generations before and after have marked Shabbat this same way, the meaningful experience of being a sacred part of a chain of tradition.
By investing time in our ritual and learning we are able to see all the hidden levels and colours of Shabbat, the hidden secrets of our ritual are revealed to us.
The more we invest ourselves in our study, ritual and community the more layers of depth and meaning we will find.
Thought for the Week
Friday 8 February 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
On Shabbat we will be unveiling the narrow window light with a new stained glass panel in the John Rayner Room. It is stunning and I hope you will join us for the dedication and a celebratory Kiddush following our Shabbat morning service. To describe it to you would be to spoil your first impressions, but perhaps I can tell you that you will glimpse it through the glass of the door leading into the John Rayner Room and as you move more closely towards it, you will see the different hues the artist has used, subtly, dramatically and evocatively on antique glass.
What does it represent for us?
It embodies the opening lines of the Torah – the rhythmic, poetic creation of the earth, God’s spirit gliding over the waters. It symbolises the freedom of our people, released from slavery in Egypt, crossing land and sea to reach a Promised Land.
It represents our aspirations for moral purity and spiritual resilience and the desire for justice and righteousness in our world. It expresses the powerful chain of our tradition – our laws and observances, our history, our families and community and the energy that we bring to continuing that tradition, an unbroken stream of human existence in a world that hasn’t always been kind to our people and its faith.
There is depth and silence, a mysterious and untold unfolding of creation and beauty; there is joyfulness and celebration, the calling of deep to deep, and there is the powerful, hidden, inscrutable presence of a Mystery.
And beyond the window is the world – a world beyond our own families and friends, beyond our community and the events and activities, the prayers and learning in which we are engaged from day to day and from week to week. This window stands between us and the world – not as a barrier, but as a reminder that our work must lie beyond our own worlds, beyond the dangers of selfishness and tribalism.
This stained glass panel calls us to go above and beyond our calls of duty. It is full of hope; it is full of faith that humanity can work in partnership with the Divine to bring dignity, love, respect and compassion to humankind and the physical world – the natural cycles of life – of which we are a part.
V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham – ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them’ (Exodus 25:8). Here in this week’s parashah is stated the purpose of a place of worship. God does not dwell in the sanctuary, in the wood or the walls, in the metal or glass, in the emptiness of the space, but rather God dwells in the midst of His people. God is with us so long as we aspire to live and worship in the beauty of God’s holiness.
Thought for the Week
Friday 1 February 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
Over the past few days, I have spent several hours with people who are in hospital, sitting with them, reading the February issue of the newsletter to one and observing the hard-working NHS staff, constantly on their feet and attending to the needs of their patients. The wards are full, the hours are long, there is little respite from their labours and the pay makes one wonder how low-paid staff manage to live in London, rent a room and have enough money to pay for heating and electricity, food and other necessities.
The nursing assistant who is looking after the gentleman I am visiting is from Japan, a qualified nurse and midwife from Kyoto, who has just completed her MA in Healthcare and is re-training so that she can work as a nurse in a British hospital. She is constantly attentive, kind, ensuring that her patients are comfortable and cared for. Meanwhile, the nurses are worked off their feet dealing with the medication, various treatments and paperwork, ensuring that nothing is missed.
On the second day, I am back on the same ward; there is a different shift of nurses on duty, but Meg, the nursing assistant is still on the ward and, for the nearly two hours I am there, she does not leave it. Some of the patients have noticeably become weaker and less responsive overnight; she hovers quietly by each bed, ensuring that her patients are comfortable, despite the seriousness of their illness. She takes their temperature, measures their blood pressure, helps them to drink, reassures them gently if they are agitated, speaks to them, telling them what she is doing, even if they do not respond. Nor does she ignore the anxious visitors around the bed of their loved ones.
The Talmud records this curious discussion among the Sages on the subject of healing. One says: before undergoing a medical operation, the patient should pray to God that they will be healed, ‘since people have no power to heal.’ But Abbaye rebukes his colleague: No one should say that, he retorts, for is it not written in the Torah, in Exodus 21:19, (a verse which happens to be in our Torah portion for this week): Rapo y’rappé – ‘He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.’ From this, the sage goes on to say, we learn that permission has been given to the physician to heal those who are sick (bBerakhot 60a).
The Rabbis were not naïve – they understood all too well the value of those who practise medicine and who care for the sick. They saw human beings, physicians and carers, as working in partnership with God to find ways of alleviating suffering and curing disease.
But what about the sage who advocated prayer at the time of crisis and uncertainty? Does prayer then become redundant at a time of critical need? Rabbi Louis Jacobs (zichrono livrachah) sums up the rabbinic attitude to this kind of prayer:
‘When man in his need turns to God in prayer he is not asking so much for a miracle to be wrought on his behalf, as to be helped in his weakness to rediscover sufficient strength to enable him to face his problems and try to solve them.’
At a time of anxiety and distress, while the medical profession do what they have been trained to do so well, our prayers, born out of urgent need, help us to see our own insufficiencies; they open our eyes to see the beauty and wonder of the universe, but also its unfinished work – to heal and mend the world in partnership with God.
Thought for the Week
Friday 25 January 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
An interesting question occurred during the editorial process of the LJS February newsletter. Our new editor, Judith King, noticed that there was a discrepancy in how a particular word was spelt in two separate articles by different authors. In one, the word ‘antisemitism’ was written as one word, all in lower case letters. In the second article, it was hyphenated and the word ‘Semitism’ was capitalised thus – ‘anti-Semitism.’
An email discussion ensued and the editor, who had checked the Oxford English Dictionary, decided to go with ‘anti-Semitism’, which seemed to me to be correct grammatically (given that the word ‘Semitism’ is a proper noun) and more pleasing aesthetically (if one can refer to anti-Semitism in such a way.)
However, in her next email, Judith sent round an article published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), advocating the spelling ‘antisemitism’ because of its concern that the hyphenated spelling ‘allows for the possibility of something called ‘Semitism’, which does not exist.
IHRA makes the distinction between the 19th century pseudo-scientific racial theory, that classified Jews as ‘Semites’, culminated in Nazi ideology of the 20th century and signifies prejudice against Jews alone, and the philological term ‘Semitic’ which refers to a family of languages originating in the Middle East and spoken today by people mostly across Western Asia and North Africa. It suggests that if you capitalise ‘Semitism’ in this way and prefix it with the word ‘anti’, it refers to all people who speak Semitic languages or all those who are classified as ‘Semites.’
Following a discussion between the author of one of the articles, the editor and myself, I emailed my rabbinic colleagues to ask for their opinions on the matter.
Over three days after sending round my question, ten colleagues responded: eight agreed with the IHRA spelling (unhyphenated and all lower case) on the basis that it avoids the incorrect suggestion that the term can also be described as hatred of Semitic groups that are not Jewish, that it is consistent with parliamentary usage in current official policy and that the Hebrew spelling is one word. One of the eight stated that ‘since the outpouring of antisemitism (hatred of Jews and Judaism) in the Labour party,’ they have used the one word, lower case term, with the explicit in brackets.
One colleague said they preferred to use the term ‘Jew hatred’ which they found ‘more to the point’, although used the spelling ‘anti-Semitism’, while another stated that ‘antisemitism is the correct word ideologically, but anti-Semitism is correct grammatically.’
Regardless of the spelling – however important it may be – the rise of antisemitism (and we should add other forms of discrimination), has evoked an immense sadness and sense of loss for the diminishment of enlightened attitudes and tolerance towards Jews and other minorities. The social inhibitions that prevent individuals from voicing unjust and biased views in public are all too easily released behind the anonymity of social media.
It is all the more remarkable, therefore, to encounter the dialogue that takes place between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro in this week’s Torah portion.
Seeing him approach the camp, Moses goes out to meet this Midianite priest, whose daughter he has married, bows low before him and kisses him warmly. Moses recounts all that God has done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians and all the hardships that have befallen the Israelites on the way, how God has delivered them, and Jethro rejoices over God’s kindness and utters words of praise and acknowledgement of God’s greatness. These are generous words from a man who ministers to his own people of another faith in his own country.
Jethro is perhaps the first ‘philo-Jewish’ individual, if one can use such an expression, and becomes the forerunner of generations of individuals and groups who, for various reasons, respected and honoured the Jewish people, from Alexander the Great to the 17th century, London lawyer, John Sadler, a friend of Oliver Cromwell, and admirer of Manasseh ben Israel, a key figure in applying for the readmission of the Jews into England in 1656.
While we should remain vigilant about any form of intolerance and prejudice, I wonder if we can perhaps tip the balance away from the toxicity of focusing on hatred and abuse and concentrate on dialogue and education and on rebuilding a society that is built on kindness, respectful language, tolerance and enlightened ideals?
Thought for the Week
Friday 18 January 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
Last week was Head On: Mental Health Awareness Shabbat. These words were offered before the haftarah reading:
This week congregations around the country are participating in Head On: Mental Health Awareness Shabbat, helping to raise the profile of mental health in the Jewish community.
Head On Shabbat was started by JAMI, the Jewish community’s mental health service.
We all know someone: ourselves, our loved ones, family, friends, who struggle with their mental health.
The numbers are striking.
1 in 5 adult women and 1 in 8 adult men are are struggling with mental health.
There were 5,821 suicides registered in the UK in 2017.
The results of a recent survey shared that 60% of people with a mental health problem waited over a year to tell the people closest to them about it. The survey also shared that 40% of people with a mental health problem experience stigma and discrimination on a weekly or monthly basis. 58% of people say the stigma and discrimination is as damaging or harder to deal with than the illness itself.
Head On Shabbat is an initiative to try to break through the stigma.
We hope that this community, the LJS family, is a support to you as you are and wherever you are. Please do reach out to myself, to Rabbi Alexandra Wright, or to Aviva Shafritz, Community Care Coordinator if we can be of any help at all.
This world we live in is complex and beautiful and full of colour but also pain.
In this week’s Torah portion we read of the 10 plagues, each one increasing in severity. The 9th plague, the penultimate plague, is the plague of darkness. As our text shares,“Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another and for three days no one could get up from where he was.”
Commentators have questioned why darkness was chosen as the 9th plague. Some of the earlier plagues are seemingly much more horrific: locusts, boils, lice, the river turning to blood.
Sforno, famous Italian biblical commentator from the 16th century wrote, “Generally, darkness is merely the absence of light and can be dispelled by lighting a fire. But this darkness was so thick it could be touched. It was a darkness of a deeper nature.”
There is a Chassidic teaching that shares that the darkness was so dense that people could not see one another, that this is the worst of all darknesses: when people are unable to see their neighbours.
Our sages teach that the plague and pain of this darkness was that people could neither see nor be seen by others.
The plague of darkness, of not being seen, lasted 3 days. I return to the statistic shared earlier, that 60% of those battling with their mental wellbeing wait a year to tell those closest to them, they wait a year to allow themselves to be seen.
Whether this is your first time here or you are here weekly, we hope that this is a community of light for you; a place where you see others as they are and feel seen for who you are. We are an engaged and involved community with a variety of programs happening every week, if you are looking to get more involved let us know and we will help to connect you.
Including being a support to others, we all must first support ourselves and prioritize our own mental health.
The NHS has shared that according to research, these 5 things can really help to boost our mental wellbeing:
Connect – connect with the people around you: your family, friends,
colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships.
Be active – you don’t have to go to the gym. Take a walk, go cycling or
play a game of football. Find an activity that you enjoy and make it a part
of your life.
Keep learning – learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement
and a new confidence. So why not sign up for that cooking course, start
learning to play a musical instrument, or get more involved with some of
our wonderful programming here at the LJS?
Give to others – even the smallest act can count, whether it’s a smile, a
thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local
community centre, or here at your synagogue, can improve your mental
wellbeing and help you build new social networks.
Be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your
thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some
people call this awareness “mindfulness”. It can positively change
the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges.
On this Head On Shabbat, I hope each of us makes the commitment to prioritize our mental health by being good to ourselves, showing self love and making intentional decisions to treat ourselves well. Let us together, as a Jewish community, break through the stigma and see that there is no shame in battling with our mental health. Rather, it takes courage and strength and incredible fortitude of spirit to be honest and vulnerable about the support that we might need.
On this theme, I’ve chosen Psalm 139:1-17 for our haftorah portion this week. This psalm reminds us that God is always with us, even in our moments of darkness. We are never truly alone and we must, however difficult, always hope for light to return.
O Adonai, You have examined me and know me.
When I sit down or stand up You know it; You discern my thoughts from afar.
You observe my walking and reclining, and are familiar with all my ways.
There is not a word on my tongue but that You, O LORD, know it well.
You hedge me before and behind; You lay Your hand upon me.
It is beyond my knowledge; it is a mystery; I cannot fathom it.
Where can I escape from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I descend to Sheol, You are there too.
If I take wing with the dawn to come to rest on the western horizon,
even there Your hand will be guiding me, Your right hand will be holding me fast.
If I say, “Surely darkness will conceal me, night will provide me with cover,”
darkness is not dark for You; night is as light as day; darkness and light are the same.
It was You who created my conscience; You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made; Your work is wonderful; I know it very well.
My frame was not concealed from You when I was shaped in a hidden place, knit together in the recesses of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were all recorded in Your book; in due time they were formed, to the very last one of them.
How weighty Your thoughts seem to me, O God, how great their number!
Thought for the Week
Friday 11 January 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
In 1943, Amy Buller, published a book called ‘Darkness over Germany: A Warning from History.’ Born in 1891 in South Africa, she came to England in 1911 and made several visits to Germany before the outbreak of the First World War. After studying history at Birkbeck College in London, Buller worked for the Student Christian Movement, first in Manchester and then in London, before moving to the University of Liverpool.
Even after 1933, groups of clerics and teachers continued to visit Germany and Buller, who accompanied these groups, began to speak to individuals from across German society: a Catholic priest from a small Bavarian market town, an unemployed student, an academic under surveillance by the SS and German schoolchildren, including members of the Hitler Youth who were shocked by Nazi brutality.
These conversations became the basis of her book, written at the height of the Second World War. In 1947, with the support of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Buller and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, were instrumental in the establishment of Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park, as an educational foundation, where young people could come together and the pressing social, moral and spiritual issues of the day could be discussed.
It was in these peaceful and beautiful surroundings that I found myself on Monday at a symposium entitled ‘Democracy in Crisis: Moral and Spiritual Resistance’, organised jointly by the Council of Christians and Jews and Cumberland Lodge, Amy Buller’s book and an accompanying study guide used as the basis of the lectures and our discussion.
The speakers, while acknowledging that we do not live in the 1930’s, nevertheless drew our attention to the rise of populism, the rejection of truth, the perpetration of false myths, the injustice of inequality, the distrust and lack of faith in institutions of leadership, our fear of what will happen to the environment if we continue to ravage its resources. They addressed the question of how we can build our own moral and spiritual resistance against over-simplification and populism. And how can we overcome our sense of powerlessness and fear about the future.
What we can learn from Amy Buller’s book, they said, is something about the causes of Nazism – unemployment, hopelessness among young people, who feel that their life has no purpose and no use. She reveals personalities, often deeply conflicted and aware of the complexities they are facing in Nazi Germany, but who, nevertheless, acknowledge that they must draw on their own moral courage and inner strength to resist Nazism.
Many of us – those who have enjoyed (and taken for granted) a robust democracy over the past seventy years – are more than dismayed and frightened by an inversion of values that has taken place before our very eyes. Finding that inner resilience, moral courage and strength to resist the false idolatries of our age, is not something we can do alone.
Like other communities of faith and solidarity, let us, at the LJS, not take for granted the strength that comes from working together to reassert values of truth and enlightenment, and to rediscover our deeply human purpose to find in the face of others, that image of God that allows us to feel a deep empathy with the human condition and a sense of the mystery of some Presence in the beauty and fragility of the environment in which we live.
Thought for the Week
Friday 4 January 2019
Dear Members and Friends,
In 1992, Amos Oz, who died last week at the age of seventy-nine, received the International Peace Prize of the German Publishers’ Association in Frankfurt. In his acceptance speech, he spoke of the impossibility of a ‘perfect peace’:
‘I do not believe in the possibility of a perfect peace – remember the ‘crooked timber of humanity.’ Rather, I work for a sad, sober, imperfect compromise between individuals and between communities, who are bound always to remain divided and different but who are nevertheless capable of working out an imperfect coexistence.’
Quoting the Psalmist, ‘Mercy and truth are met together; justice and peace have touched’ (Psalm 85:10), Oz draws on a passage in the Talmud that highlights the tension between justice and peace and which offers a more pragmatic result: ‘But where justice prevails, there is no peace, and where peace prevails, there is no justice. So where is the justice that contains peace? Indeed it is in partition,’ or mediation as the Talmud puts it, both sides finding acceptance in the outcome.
‘All I can add to this,’ says Oz, ‘is just the notion that only death is perfect. Peace, like life itself, is not a burst of love or mystical communion but precisely a fair and sensible compromise between opposites.’
Death, he said, is irrevocable, but very few other points of no return cannot be undone. It is not the numbers of settlements or paved miles of highway that are essential to the question of whether Israel has passed the point of no return for dealing equitably with the Palestinians, but about a human state of mind and the human will. ‘I do not believe that states of mind are ever irrevocable.’
Oz has achieved that perfect peace and irrevocability of death and those of us who drank thirstily every word of his novels and short stories, his newspaper articles and his lyrical, moving memoir ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ will mourn the loss of a prophetic and often urgent voice of compromise in Israel.
‘The days of a man’s life are like water seeping into the sands; he perishes from the face of the earth unknown at his coming and unrecognised at his passing. He fades away like a shadow that cannot be brought back.’ At the end of his collection of short stories, ‘Where the Jackals Howl’, in an imaginative retelling of battles fought by the biblical figure of Jephthah, Oz contemplates that irrevocable death and whether anything can return from the grave – ‘the dreams [that] come to us in the night’, the return of the dead to their home – ‘nothing truly passes away and nothing is forgotten, everything is always present as it was before.’
And he moves effortlessly between the blood-soaked Jephthah of Tanakh, who offers the first thing to emerge from his house as a sacrifice if he returns from battle victorious, and the story of two peoples waging together a ‘war of words’, envoys passing to and fro with the questions, ‘to whom did the land really belong, whose forefathers had settled it first, what was written in all the chronicles, who was in the right and who had justice on his side.’
Amos Oz’s writing folds together past and present, dreams and reality, memory and forgetfulness. We are in the cold, streaming rain of a winter in Jerusalem, or the arid, dusty summer of the south; we are in the tiny, dark, cold and book-lined apartment of his childhood or in the peaceful, silent and empty garden of an unnamed village, filled with bougainvillea and lined with a dark mass of pines.
The writer has passed away, but let his words never seep into the sands of forgetfulness; let nothing of this vision of an imperfect peace be lost; one day – one day, before the days of our children are spent, let justice that contains peace bring life to the dream of this imperfect peace.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,
The new month of Sh’vat begins on Monday 7th January, 2019.
Thought for the Week
Friday 28 December 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
‘A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8)
Who is this new king of Egypt? The Talmud records a disagreement about the interpretation of this verse between Rav and Shmuel, the Principals of two great seminaries in Babylonia – Sura and Nehardea. One chooses to read the verse according to its plain meaning: a new king now rules over the land of Egypt. The other reads the verse differently: if there were a new king, the Torah would surely tell us that the old king had died. This is the same king, it is his laws that have been changed (nit’chad’shu), transformed for a different age (Sotah 11a).
I have been reading David Cesarani’s magisterial volume ‘Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949’ in preparation for a visit to Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Cesarani’s account begins with the swearing in of Hitler as Chancellor of the German Republic on January 30, 1933. Where had he come from, asks Cesarani? A newcomer to national politics, Hitler had never held high office; his career ‘had so far amounted to very little.’ As an outsider – he grew up in Linz and moved to Vienna, attempting to make his way as an artist – he eventually held sway over the largest group of Reichstag deputies. He had served as a regimental dispatch runner during the First World War and was awarded the Iron Cross for the risks involved, but found it difficult to be ‘one of the lads.’
Germany’s defeat in 1918 came as a terrific shock to Hitler, but he remained in the army for two more years, based in Munich, where he operated as a field agent for military intelligence, collecting evidence on radical and rebellious groups. It was while he was training as an education officer, taking courses in politics that he came under the influence of right-wing army officers – extreme nationalists who were anti-Marxist and anti-Semitic. From the 1920’s, he began to do the rounds of the German beer-halls, delivering speeches, becoming a political agitator and propagating his far-right, racist and nationalist views among those who remained bitter about Germany’s defeat.
With the growth of the National Socialists and what was perceived as a drift to the left in Berlin, Hitler staged a failed coup in Munich and ended up in prison. It was here that he wrote and dictated Mein Kampf, purveying an ideology that was to become pathological in its hatred for Jews and mission to destroy Jewish existence.
How did the Jewish population and supporters of the Weimar republic view Hitler’s uneven ascendancy to power? Most regarded this new development with watchful caution, uncertainty and the false hope that once in power, the party would become more moderate and sensible. There is no need to start applying for passports and packing your bags, wrote Walther Karsch, an opponent of fascism, writing for the radical weekly Die Weltbuehne – ‘anti-Semitism is no more than an advertising slogan’ (Cesarani, page 31).
For others, the future was desolate. The Austrian writer and journalist, Joseph Roth, writing from Paris to his friend Stefan Zweig was full of foreboding: ‘We are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a heller (penny) for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.’
How was it possible that the values of the Weimar Republic – democracy, equality, individual freedom – were to be submerged, overthrown and subverted in such a short space of time?
‘A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.’ Returning to these words from the Book of Exodus, we begin to understand something about the nature of change and power. Is it possible that a new king in Egypt was fed on the discontent of his people who looked on the Israelites as foreigners, infiltrators who did not belong among the Egyptians? Did he peddle a policy that everything that was false, corrupt, alien and wrong in his own society was because of the Jews? And did he conduct this ‘war against the Jews’ in Egypt because he wanted to destroy the basis of all Jewish existence?
As we look forward to a new secular year, we know that the divisions around Brexit, the lamentable neglect of domestic issues – poverty, homelessness and our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers among others – are not going to disappear. In countries which are so divided, where families and individuals are so polarised by wealth and opportunity, it will always be the ‘outsider’ who is squeezed the hardest.
I don’t think we live in the 1930’s, but I am fearful of the way the language of hatred and prejudice has become so diffuse and unregulated through social media. And I fear the lack of inhibition among those who think they can escape the common laws of decency and humanity.
Liberal religion must have a voice for change in 2019: resolving to build a coalition among liberal religious and other organisations to close the gap between rich and poor, to allow those who are forbidden to work, to enter the work force, to find their dignity and be able to provide for their family. And let us, too, make it perfectly clear that we live in a society that will never tolerate the demeaning language or brutality against anyone who lives among us – home born or stranger.
I wish you a healthy and peaceful new year for 2019.
Thought for the Week
Friday 21 December 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
The Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors has just returned from a three day retreat at Charney Manor in Oxfordshire. It is not often that we get to spend so much time talking about theology – reflecting on how we speak about God – but we managed forty-eight hours of prayer (not continual, I hasten to add!), immersion in biblical and rabbinic texts, an erudite presentation on Jewish philosophy from the 11th– 16th centuries, a session on feminist Jewish theology and several discussions around the development of the new draft Siddur Shirah Chadashah.
My colleague, Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry led a profound and thoughtful session on the place of theology in our contemporary world. While theology is somewhat in vogue outside faith communities, she said, it seems to be out of fashion within our faith communities. You can find theology in secular poetry and contemporary literature, but any discussion about God or belief, certainly within the Jewish community, often seems to be infused with a sense of diffidence, even embarrassment. To come over too strongly about faith, to cling too strongly to ritual, may invite the criticism of being childish, superstitious or simplistic.
But I am not ready to give up the idea that there is anything beyond ‘this worldly flourishing’, or that the transcendent God of our prayer books is too far beyond and too alien from our contemporary material frame of reference. What of those opening words of the Adon Olam that we sing, words that attempt to convey that God is outside, beyond time – ‘before all formed things were created,’ existing even after everything has ceased, ‘reigning alone…from now until eternity’?
Even Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed, while divesting God of any anthropomorphic attributes – either corporeal or emotional – nevertheless seems to acknowledge that God’s attributes can be described as merciful and tender. This is the only language we have for speaking about God, through metaphor and simile, and it is our language that allows us to consider and process how we relate to the God of our ancestors and to our own personal theological thinking.
Are we to rid ourselves of language that speaks of a personal, immanent, redemptive God, such as we find in the second half of Adon Olam? Here the poet moves from the perception of a transcendent God beyond – ‘without beginning, without end’ – to a God who becomes a ‘shelter’, a ‘banner and refuge’, ‘a cup of comfort’, a God in whose ‘hand’ we place our souls, who is near to us, who allays our fears from all that can discomfit and alarm us.
Are we to empty our world of the notion of a moral God, a God who compels us to be merciful, loving and tender? Have we ceased our quest for some kind of ultimate reality, the search of the Psalmist whose soul seeks the presence of the Living God? And are we to close our eyes and ears to the poignancy and beauty of the natural world in which we live and which feels so close, so intimate with whatever it is we wish to call God.
We are in the middle of our morning prayers in the Solar – the oldest part of Charney Manor dating back to 1280, with its open timber roof and early English or early Decorated windows. Below are the peaceful surroundings of the garden, boundaried by low grey stone walls. The hedges, the trees, the beds of winter shrubs, the lawns are invisible from our first floor place of prayer, but as I turn from the pages of our Siddur to glance through the small panes of leaded glass, I catch sight of a bird swinging gently high up in the branches of a tree. And I am caught between the need to express my longing through prayer, through the words of the liturgy, the invocation of our fathers and mothers, the yearning for knowledge and repentance, for forgiveness, redemption and healing, for the cessation of violence and evil – because prayer is all that is sometimes left in times of despair and hopelessness – and my longing to be outside in the winter sunshine, to walk across fields and see the humpback hills of the Chilterns in the distance, to listen to the birdsong and see the sheep lift their woolly heads just momentarily from their grass-eating pursuits.
I know I am not so different from those individuals whom I encounter at the LJS on a Shabbat morning, those who remain at home, tuning in to the live streaming, or walking on Kenwood or out somewhere in the country. We are the matrix for this theological thinking – whether in the more conventional environment of the synagogue or whether listening to birdsong or watching the waves pound against the seashore.
We seek that Oneness which is the Oneness of God’s existence in all these endeavours – a desire to be at one with the world, with nature, with each other.
I pray that as the world slows down over this period of our holidays, we can rest from the disconcerting uncertainties of the world and, wherever it is we find ourselves over the next days, find some momentary stillness and peace in our hearts.
Thought for the Week
Friday 14 December 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
On the Bimah, this past Shabbat, 21 new students of Rimon stood under a shelter of Tallitot (prayer shawls) as they received a blessing marking the beginning of their formal Jewish education. It was a powerful image, as the parents created the shelter of tallitot with a crowd of eager and proud children standing underneath.
This blessing happened as part of the L’Dor va’Dor service, the intergenerational service that we have 4 times a year. Our Rimon students and teachers helped to lead the service. The vibrancy of the community of our young people was palpable on Shabbat morning. The students did a wonderful job leading the community in prayer. Our youngest students came onto the Bimah and shared with all of the worshippers a song they had been preparing. Our older students helped to lead our prayers and our Torah service.
It was inspiring and uplifting to see the children taking ownership of the service in our sacred sanctuary. Equally inspiring for me was looking at the children while I was on the Bimah and seeing how comfortable they were in the sanctuary. There were children sharing chairs, children whispering to one another, children asking questions of their teachers, children clapping along with the songs, children singing, children’s wide eyes scanning the sanctuary and taking in its beauty. Every Saturday morning we begin Rimon with a gathering in the sanctuary; we start the morning together as a learning community and give the children the opportunity to pray, learn and feel at home in our sacred space.
Last week, the American Jewish newspaper, ‘The Forward’, published an article by Ziva R. Hassenfeld and Amy Newman titled ‘Stop Kicking Kids out of Shul. Research Says Early Ritual Experience is Essential.’ In the article, Hassenfeld and Newman discuss research that argues that in order to build a sustainable community, children need the opportunity to “explore and play in the real world spaces where adult community happens”; education scholars call this kind of learning ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. In building community, children need to not only learn in the classroom, but they need to be an integral part of the wider community.
Any of us who attend Saturday morning services at the LJS see that Kiddush is a weekly time for this sort of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. How wonderful that our community of worshippers, learners, teachers and families who fill the halls of the synagogue with discussion and prayer on a Saturday morning all end the morning together in the Montefiore Hall with Kiddush. There is a strong sense of community and connection when all those in the building, those there for Shabbat morning services and the children attending Rimon school, gather together to say the blessing over the wine and the challah and to have the chance to informally connect with their community members. I love seeing the children weave between the adults in the Montefiore Hall on a Saturday morning, I can imagine in 20 years they will have vivid memories of the Kiddush on Saturday mornings, of being an integral part of a multi-generational community.
The article shared this powerful imagery,
‘For Jewish communities, this means that children need a seat at the Shabbat table where they can hear their parents recite kiddush and, once they are ready, recite it on their own. They need to take responsibility for holding the candle and passing the spices at havdalah. And, they need to [sic] the chance to climb up on the bimah in the main sanctuary, put on a tallit, and play rabbi. These experiences show them that we trust them, we respect them as members of the community, and that we hope that they will, one day, join the community as adults.
Spaces that are just for children, such as children’s groups, are an incredible resource for shul communities. But we shouldn’t relegate our children to the basement. If our hope is to fully prepare our children to be adult members of our Jewish communities, then they need access to sacred adult spaces as well.’
Having recently read this article, I was particularly moved by the comfort of the children who participated in the L’Dor va’Dor service, both as leaders and attendees. We want our beautiful worship space to feel like theirs, what a joy to hear their voices fill the space and to see their confidence and their comfort in being in the sanctuary. Part of showing our children that they are an integral part of our community is creating programmes to allow them to lead. This is part of the intent of the L’Dor va’Dor service. The adults who attended the service saw the depth and breadth of our young family community at the LJS. Our next L’Dor va’Dor service will be March 23rd; it is a service led by the Rabbis and by Rimon students but it is intended to be a service for the whole community. Please do mark the date in your calendar and allow our Rimon children to lead you in prayer. They did a marvelous job. B’nei Atid, our children are our future.
Thought for the Week
Friday 7 December 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
Next week will mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December, 1948 and establishing the basic concepts of dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood.
Of all the stories in the Torah, it seems remarkable that Joseph’s – which we are reading now and over the next few weeks – is the narrative that is most concerned with the deprivation of human rights.
At the age of seventeen, he is sold by his brothers to Midianite traders and trafficked for twenty pieces of silver into the land of Egypt. There, an attempt is made by the wife of his master to assault him and he is thrown into prison.
Ironically, it is only once he is imprisoned that he experiences some kindness from the prison warden as he takes on certain responsibilities. Here he meets up with Pharaoh’s cupbearer and chief baker and interprets their dreams. When the cupbearer is released, Joseph asks him to remember him and commend him to Pharaoh so that he can get out of prison.
It is only after Pharaoh’s dreams of cows and corn, presaging the devastating famine in Egypt and surrounding countries, that the chief cupbearer remembers Joseph and in a short period of time, Joseph shaves, changes his clothes and is brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams.
Joseph’s ascent to responsibility and power is swift. Now it is his turn to withdraw from his brothers their dignity and rights, as he accuses them of spying on the ‘nakedness of the land’, demands that they bring their youngest brother, knowing the distress it will cause to their father, detains one of them as a hostage, plants money in the sack of his brothers, charges them with theft and eventually plants his own silver goblet in the luggage of his youngest brother, Benjamin.
Of course, there is a poetic justice in the way that Joseph denies his brothers freedom and justice. Yet these stories highlight the plight of marginalised individuals – the child who is betrayed and trafficked by his own family; the victims of sexual abuse and miscarriages of justice, as well as those who are detained without reason. And then, the tables are turned – his brothers, uncouth Israelite shepherds arrive as foreigners in a strange land and he treats them roughly, exerting his power by holding one of them in detention and accusing them unfairly of theft.
Have times changed? Have we learnt the value of dignity, freedom and equality? As we contemplate the next few months, our potential exit from the European Union, as we think about the crushing war in Yemen, the death of a generation of children there, as we consider the numbers of those who are held in slavery in our own country, and those who are trafficked and then re-trafficked, I fear that we have learnt no lessons from the past.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged from a period of barbaric and outrageous acts, from a world that was torn apart by war and the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
We must pray that this anniversary, which comes at such a crucial time of volatility and uncertainty, of populism, hatred and distrust of the other, will not be overlooked. But more importantly, we must counter the denial of human rights wherever and whenever it occurs.
Those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and those who never cease challenging the dispossession of the vulnerable and marginalised of the world, helping us to focus on humanitarian issues remind us that we all have duties and obligations. And these will never cease until ‘the inherent dignity and..the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [becomes] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach
Thought for the Week
Friday 30 November/ 01 December, 2018
The first candle of Chanukkah is lit on Sunday 2nd December. For a simple guide to saying the blessings, lighting and eating, click HERE. Join us next week for candle lighting at the LJS.
Dear Members and Friends,
If I were a Martian from outer space, landing on earth in time for Chanukkah, how easy would be my introduction to a Jewish way of life. Those brief blessings that precede the lighting of the candles, one for each night, increasing in light from one day to the next. I would sit and watch them burn down gradually, singing a song, playing with a spinning top, eating piping hot latkes and enjoying the jam ooze out of sugar- dusted doughnuts.
Someone might mention the story of a family and a fight, the reclaiming of the holy sanctuary, a vial of oil, only enough for one day, but which miraculously burned for eight days.
I’d work out the difference between the bedecked trees that are found in homes and towns all over the country at this season and the little nine-branch candelabras burning on window-sills in homes in Stamford Hill or Golders Green and ask why there were only a small number of the massive versions on Hampstead Heath or in Trafalgar Square.
I’d be mesmerised by the light of the candles, half-closing my eyes and imagining them as stars in the heavens and all those details about history and legend, truth and myth, survival and persecution would waft over my head.
If that little Martian stepped over my threshold, would I want his first introduction to Judaism to be the only festival in the Jewish year that isn’t mentioned in the Hebrew Bible? Would I want to fill him in with the actual details of our complex history – of a small, rather impoverished nation lying somewhere between its greedy neighbours, buffeted backwards and forth between the Egyptian empire to the south and the powerful Seleucid dynasty to the north and east?
Would I want to tell him the story of the cruel, sadistic and ambitious emperor Antiochus, who declared himself Epiphanes – the ‘god made manifest’ or the shocking stories of martyrdom among our people as they were forced to abandon faith, observances, customs and law?
Would he be confused by the split that occurred among our own people – the small groups from the upper classes who were dazzled by Hellenism, adopting Greek names, Greek dress and Greek ways? While the more pious and militant Hasidim opposed assimilation, their convictions driving them to train for war and entrap the enemy in swamps and valleys until, after three long years of war, they had reclaimed and rededicated the Temple and ushered in a new era of political independence for Judea.
There is a little Chanukkah song we often sing at this season that begins with the words: Mi y’mallel g’vurot Yisrael otan mi yimneh – ‘Who can retell the powerful deeds of Israel, who can count them?’ It’s a reference to the Maccabees and their skilful defeat of the Greek-Syrian army. But in my rather ancient Chanukkah song-book, the word ‘Yisrael’ has been erased with tippex and replaced with ‘Adonai’. ‘Who can retell the powerful deeds of the Eternal One, who can count them?’ This is the legacy of Rabbi John Rayner, of blessed memory, who instructed his congregation and students to substitute the name of God instead of Israel as the source of power. He taught, too, that the uniting of political independence with religious authority, achieved by the Hasmonean kingdom after their victories, was a dangerous coupling.
The Sages were so uncomfortable with the nationalism and populism of the Hasmonean dynasty they all but erased its details from the Talmud. That is why we end up with a very different story – the story I will tell the Martian and our Rimon children at the LJS – of the Maccabees finding a tiny vial of oil in the Temple, enough to last for one day, but that miraculously burnt for eight.
There is something magical watching the candles burn down on each of the eight nights – a ritual that transcends the conflicts and complexities of human life and that reminds us that we are, ourselves, flickering flames of light with the capacity to defile or purify, to darken or illuminate, to chill human relationships or create the warmth that is needed for each individual on our planet to feel valued and loved.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach.
Thought for the Week
Shabbat Vayishlach 23/24 November, 2018
A peaceful and happy Thanksgiving to all our American members and staff!
Dear Members and Friends,
This week at a moving concert held by the Wiener Library at the LJS to mark the 80th anniversaries of Kristallnacht and the Kindertransport, the Chairman of the Library, Anthony Landes, reminded the audience of the motion introduced in the House of Commons on the evening of 21 November 1938. Prompted by the terrible events of Kristallnacht, the MP for Derby South, Philip Noel-Baker asked that the House ‘…notes with profound concern the deplorable treatment suffered by certain racial religious and political minorities in Europe, and, in view of the growing gravity of the refugee problem would welcome an immediate concerted effort amongst the nations to secure a common policy.’
On the eve of the debate the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, met a large delegation drawn from Jewish and non-Jewish groups working on behalf of refugees. It was as a result of this meeting that the Home Secretary agreed to speed up the immigration process. Travel documents would be issued on the basis of group lists rather than individual applications.
This operation became known as the Kindertransport. The first transport, bringing 196 children from an orphanage in Berlin, arrived in Harwich on 2nd December 1938. In the following 10 months, 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees came to the UK.
In this month of painful anniversaries – Armistice, Kristallnacht, Kindertransport – there has been little time to pause between them to think about the terrible waste of life in the First World War, the boys and young men who gave their lives in service for their country and those who, when the war came to an end, wondered what they would do next.
I have been reading the book edited by Ruth Levitt (z’l) before her death, Prelude to the Holocaust: Pogrom November 1938, Testimonies from ‘Kristallnacht.’ These are not childhood memories of Kristallnacht, but witness statements taken by adults in the days immediately after the Pogrom. They are frightening, raw and desperate. They describe graphically the brutality of the Nazis against old and young, the imprisonment in Dachau and Sachsenhausen of teenagers, captured because they looked older than they really were.
A father writes to the Children’s committee in Amsterdam that he has just returned from six weeks in Schutzhaft [protective custody] in Dachau and must leave the country urgently. He seeks accommodation for his children in Holland as he cannot take the children with him. The children are not provided for. A homeless widow, in great distress seeks somewhere for her only son. She has suffered a nervous breakdown due to anxiety. ‘I cannot watch the way my child must starve, and am close to despair with the child.’ Another correspondent writes on behalf of a family with two children of four and five years of age. ‘The father of both children, who was a doctor in F., has been under arrest since 10th November. The mother is seriously ill with pneumonia so that the children are not being looked after at all…’
How many children were not included on the Kindertransport? A guest at the concert spoke to me afterwards about his mother’s family – 100 of her relatives had been killed in the Shoah. This must be a time to remember, to grieve for all that was lost with them – their goodness and wisdom, their laughter and love. And to remember, too, those whose very names are lost.
I find it almost unimaginable to think what it must have been like for parents who took the decision to part from their children, some as young as 2 or 3 years old, to wave goodbye to them on desolate platforms, seeing them bound for a foreign land, to unknown families and hosts. Theirs was an unknown sacrifice of enduring love and hope.
And the children who came alone, who settled in with families they didn’t know or were moved from hostel to hostel, who learnt the language and built their lives on foreign soil. Many are no longer with us; for others the memory is buried deep inside a black box of fragile memory. And yet for others, there is a desperate need to communicate their experiences to a new generation. We stand in awe of their integrity and passion for justice – because of them, our faith must surely be strengthened and because of them we commit ourselves to a future that is free from discrimination, oppression and persecution.
And there were those who opened their homes and their hearts to unaccompanied children – the hosts who acknowledged the faith and heritage of their guests, who were sensitive to their losses and needs. True there were families who could not acknowledge or nurture these children’s identities and faith. We must learn from them, too, that how we are with those who are not like ourselves is a measure of the community and society in which we live.
In 1938, the British government acted quickly and decisively and found ways to bring thousands of unaccompanied children into this country.
Over the past two years, there have been efforts to allow unaccompanied children into the UK from outside the UK under the Home Office’s Vulnerable Children Resettlement Scheme. This was followed by the Dubs Amendment to include children living in Europe, taking note of children in camps in Europe, children who are homeless and vulnerable to trafficking.
Last year, 20,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in Europe, yet in the past two years – with a cap set of 480 – the UK has accepted less than half that number, 220. Now Lord Dubs has presented a petition to Parliament calling on the government to accept 10,000 child refugees over the next ten years, representing just three children a year in each local authority.
There is an urgency to the work of rescuing children separated from their families, children who have no permanent home, who are missing out on their education and the support of close relatives. But there is also a need for us in this country to bring about change – from the hostile environment that makes refugees and asylum seekers feel unwelcome, frightened and uncertain about being here. Even if we can’t host a refugee, there is still much we can do to campaign and educate, to support and increase awareness and so change our society from the grass roots upwards with our own actions and our own words.
This is what we can learn from these poignant and significant anniversaries of Kristallnacht and the Kindertransport.
Join us for 10,000 steps for 10,000 children – a walk from the LJS to Liverpool Street Station to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the Kindertransport. Click here for more details.
Thought for the Week
Friday 16 November 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
We are in the midst of the reading of the book of Genesis, the first book of our sacred text. Genesis shares the biblical account of the creation of the world, the creation of monotheism and also the creation of our nation. Time and time again throughout this narrative, our forefathers are promised land, progeny and sustenance. In Genesis 15:5 we have the account of God asking Abraham to look at the stars, sharing with Abraham that “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you can count them. And so shall your offspring be.” In this text we hear of God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the starts in the sky.
And yet, there was much struggle and heartbreak while our matriarchs birthed our great nation. For there is also another theme that runs through Genesis, infertility of the matriarchs, our text has numerous accounts of women struggling to become pregnant. This week’s Torah portion details Rachel’s struggle and pain in her journey to parenthood. In reading the text, one can imagine the hopelessness and pain Rachel may have been feeling as her sister Leah birthed many children while she remained childless. As our text shares in 30:1, “When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children or I shall die!”
Our society today is wholly different from that of the biblical world, and yet for many, even within our own congregation, Rachel’s pain is easy to imagine as it is estimated that one in six Jewish women struggle with fertility. This one in six might be you, or your sister, or your daughter or your friend. It is incredibly common and very rarely talked about. However, people are finding the courage to talk about their journey, to share their story in order to break down the stigma. Numerous rabbinic colleagues in America, who themselves have struggled with fertility, chose to talk about their personal journeys on the bimah over Rosh Hashanah. As rabbis, they have heard the pain and hope of members of their own community and wanted to share their own story of fertility struggles in the hopes of giving voice to this common but painful experience. Please do reach out to me if you are interested in seeing these sermons, I would be happy to send you video recordings of them.
The Jewish Women’s Archive has a podcast I recommend, titled ‘Can We Talk?’ This podcast shares stories and conversations about Jewish women and the issues that shape their public and private life. Last March, they shared an episode titled ‘TRYmester’; the episode brought together many personal narratives around fertility. Naomi Less, Jewish educator and musician, shared the story behind the creation of the musical ‘TRYmester: Jewish fertility journeys out loud’, a musical that depicted her own story and the stories of many other Jewish women. Her hope is that her musical will bring the physical, spiritual, emotional and financial sacrifices that can be a part of a journey towards parenthood into Jewish community conversations. Less shares the pain she experienced of finding her place in the Jewish community in the midst of fertility struggles, “The focus [of the organized Jewish community] is on getting families to participate in Jewish life — once they have kids, then it’s all about the day schools and the preschools and the JCC camps.” Less compares seeing young children called up to the bima in the synagogue on the High Holy Days to “sticking a knife in your heart for someone who is infertile.” (https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/theater-work-to-raise-awareness-reduce-stigma-of-infertility/)
Families come in many forms, some have chosen to marry, some have not, some have chosen to have children, some have not, some desire and hope for growing their family, and some have found their family through their friendships. However it is that you define family, may you be gentle and compassionate with those around you. This Torah portion reminds us that while Leah was giving birth to her sons, Rachel was grieving for her children yet to be. Wherever we are in our life, we are in a community with those who may be experiencing life differently, who may be overcoming a struggle that is invisible to us, but coloured with pain to them.
May we all be blessed with the fulfillment of our hopes, and when we experience loss may we have the courage to find those we can lean on and those who will hear our stories and show us care.
Thought for the Week
Friday 9 November 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
This Shabbat, the LJS will combine the 100th commemoration of the signing of the Armistice in a railway carriage in Compiègne on 11 November 1918, with the 80th anniversary of the November Pogrom of 1938 – Kristallnacht.
A week after the end of the First World War, the first Rabbi of the LJS, Dr Israel Mattuck, breathed a sigh of relief that the war was over: ‘After more than four years of a war unequalled in the sacrifices it demanded, in the desolations it wrought, in the sufferings and sorrows it inflicted, we have come unto peace with the victory we yearned and prayed for,’ he said. There were times when ‘hope drooped and darkness threatened the soul,’ but now there is light and thank God, ‘there is Victory and Peace.’ Not the victory of mighty and military force, but the victory of righteousness, the triumph of democracy over autocracy, the conquest of the human spirit over arms and war, over violence and self-aggrandisement.
Germany, however, was broken – the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty outraged the population. The country was defeated and dishonoured and it was in the years that followed the end of the war that anti-Semitism ‘metastisized’, says David Cesarani in his magisterial volume ‘Final Solution.’ No longer on the margins of German society, it moved into the mainstream until the Jews were blamed for Germany’s defeat.
For German Jews – and particularly for the generation who had fought in the war – bewilderment and disbelief took hold as they were stripped of their assets and found it increasingly impossible and dangerous to leave the country. Their children were ostracised and forced to move to overcrowded Jewish schools to continue their education. Cesarani reports that Austrian Jews, ex-soldiers, put on their medals when they ventured into the streets in the belief that decorations for valour would offer a degree of protection from the anti-Semitic mobs, only to be mocked and abused. German citizens, whose families had resided in Germany for generations, who had gone to war to fight for the ‘Fatherland’, discovered their loyalty betrayed.
The brutality and violence unleashed against Jews on Kristallnacht was not unique. In Austria, the Anschluss in March 1938 had led to boycotts, the wrecking of Jewish shops and stores, and the humiliation of women and men, with ‘jeering storm troopers over them and taunting crowds around them on their hands and knees’ scrubbing signs off the sidewalks or forced to clean the conveniences of their synagogues in their tefillin. Many Jews took their own lives.
The news that Vom Rath had died – shot on November 7th in the German Embassy in Paris by seventeen year old Herschel Grynzpan, whose parents and sister were among the Polish Jews who had been abandoned by Germany at the Polish border, triggered disturbances in Dessau. Jewish shops were looted and the synagogue burned.
But what followed was neither the spontaneous ‘rage’ of the people, says Cesarani, ‘but nor was it a well-planned, centrally executed operation, either. Hitler and Goebbels triggered a nationwide pogrom without any clear goals and no thought for the methods that were to be employed’ (p. 183). It was a rushed and improvised affair, there was miscommunication and messiness and the result was ‘murder, rape, looting, destruction of property, and terror on an unprecedented scale.’
One thousand synagogues and prayer rooms were destroyed – gutted, burnt or smashed up. Approximately 7,500 shops were wrecked – windows shattered, shop fittings ripped out, stock looted or scattered in the streets outside. Over ninety Jews were killed and several women raped or abused.
After the November Pogrom, the Nazis would find new ways to deal with the Jews in Germany – not on the streets; instead, the violence would be removed to the east and hidden.
Less than two weeks later, Britain became the only country to change its immigration rules as a direct response to the unfolding tragedy. On 21 November, Sir Samuel Hoare, in the House of Commons, announced that Britain would admit 9,000 unaccompanied minors, under the age of seventeen on special chartered trains known as the Kindertransport. Between the first arrival at Liverpool Street on December 2, 1938 and the last train just before the outbreak of war in August 1939, around 10,000 children from Berlin, Vienna and Prague, were transported to the Netherlands, where they transferred on to ferries that were to bring them to the UK.
As we commemorate these significant anniversaries this coming weekend, we do so in profound sorrow, aware of the need to learn about the past and to remember. But with remembrance – the biblical command zachor – comes the obligation to re-organise the world, to be the architects of a world in which all human beings are valued and respected, where there is no incitement to hatred or discrimination. To remember means not to stand idly by when we see others who are persecuted or oppressed because of who they are. To remember means to nurture the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God, and to remember means actively to pursue the religious values of holiness and truth, justice, compassion and peace.
Thought for the Week
Friday 2 November 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
Jewish tradition denotes several periods of grief after a loss of people important to us.
The first one is called Aninut. It lasts from the moment a mourner has learned of a death until the end of the burial or cremation. During this time, one is exempt from all mitzvot so as to be free to arrange the funeral.
The second stage is called Shiva. It begins immediately following Aninut and lasts for seven days. Mourners are encouraged not to work during the Shiva period but rather to stay at home. It is also preferable not to participate in parties, concerts or other events that are celebratory in nature.
The next stage is called Shloshim and it lasts until the thirtieth day from the burial. During this time, the intensity of the mourning is reduced; however, some restrictions remain in effect. It is followed by a period of twelve months. During this period, most activities return to normal, although the mourners continue to recite the mourner’s kaddish as part of the synagogue services.
Aninut, Shiva, and Shloshim allow mourners to express their sorrow, discuss the loss of a loved one, and slowly begin to re-enter society. Over the most intense stages of mourning, not only are we allowed to express the grief and pain of a loss, but we are strongly discouraged from even trying to force ourselves out of that pain. The collective wisdom of our tradition suggests that it takes about one month for a person to begin the journey which will eventually lead the mourner to return to their normal life.
Over the past week, many of us have been shaken by the terrible attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. In the aftermath of the event, Ronald Linden, a Professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote an article entitled, ‘We Pittsburgh Jews Don’t Want Your ‘Thoughts and Prayers.’ In it, he expresses the need for rapid change in society and encourages us to go beyond expressing sentiments of hope and to fight for a better world where our communities will feel safe and protected.
Although I agree that it is important to act in the name of those who have been murdered, it is also important to allow ourselves to feel pain, sorrow, and grief. We must also acknowledge that mourners need to go through bereavement, and our extended community needs time to process the moment. Sometimes the best we can do for them, and for ourselves, is take some time when we do no action.
The wisdom of our tradition reminds us that we shouldn’t feel undue pressure to know how we want to act next when emotional impact is still too strong. Our Jewish world is still in the period of Shiva for those killed in Pittsburgh. However, according to the Jewish Law, Shiva is not observed on Sabbat, and there is something we can all take this week. The JLC has encouraged our community to join the worldwide campaign to #showupforshabbat . It is a chance for all of us to be there – for the community and with the community – to spend some time. Together.
Thought for the Week
Friday 26 October 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
Two stories of hospitality are set next to each other in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira. In the first, ninety-nine year old Abraham, recovering from his circumcision, is sitting at the entrance of his tent and sees three men passing by. Anxious to offer them some respite from their journey, he runs to meet them, brings out some water for them to rinse their feet and urges Sarah to prepare food for them.
In the second story, the visitors, accompanied by Abraham, make their way towards Sodom – the city that has already made a name for itself on account of its crime rate.
It is here that Abraham pleads on behalf of the innocent in the city, bargaining with God to save the remnant of those who are blameless: ‘Will you indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked…Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?’ (Genesis 18:25)
As the men arrive in Sodom, they are greeted by Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who has made his home in what the midrash describes as a den of iniquity, rife with murder, fraud, sexual incontinence and deliberately created destitution. He offers an obsequious welcome to the visitors – ‘bowing all the way to the ground.’ He gives them water and a festive meal, but there the comparisons with Abraham cease. For scarcely have his guests digested their meal, than the men of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand that the visitors come out, ‘so that we can have them.’ The implication is sexual and Lot, in an attempt to protect the men, offers instead his virgin daughters – female rape being the lesser of two evils in his eyes.
What is it that distinguishes the hospitality offered by Abraham from that offered by Lot? In the former, there is an urgency in the way that Abraham sets about preparing for his unexpected guests: he runs to greet them, he hurries towards the tent to ask Sarah to prepare food and then runs to the herd to take a young calf, gives it to his servant who quickly prepares it. This elderly man, convalescing, is solicitous, respectful, generous and modest – he gives the men space to compose themselves, ‘Let me bring a bit of bread and you can restore yourselves…’ And after the hors d’oeuvres, there is a plentiful repast of meat.
By contrast, there is an unspoken indolence about Lot, he gets up, rather than runs to greet his guests, he pressures them to enter his house; we know only that he makes a ‘feast’ for them, no details are given of the preparation. The treatment of the guests by the townspeople is hostile and violent as they advance to break down Lot’s door and Lot responds to the brutality with a willingness to subject his own daughters to vicious abuse.
It is from the first story of Abraham and others in Tanakh, as well as the welcome and generosity to be shown to the ger – the ‘stranger’ who is to be treated with particular kindness, that the Rabbis derived the ethical principle of hakhnasat or’chim – literally ‘the bringing in of guests’ or hospitality. There is a singular pleasure in welcoming guests into one’s home and into our congregation, not only close friends and family, but those who are away from home and might otherwise face the celebration of Shabbat and festivals on their own, as well as those who are curious about Judaism.
Looking after guests and strangers – in our home, in our synagogue, in our cities – is so important that the Rabbis used to say that hospitality is even more important than prayer, even greater than receiving the divine presence.
And Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who did so much to break down barriers of suspicion and who challenged those who were hostile to difference, in one of the last things he wrote before he died, said that how we are with the stranger in our midst is a barometer of the kind of society we wish to create.
It is a far easier thing to mingle with those who are like ourselves, whose language, culture and customs are already familiar to us. Reaching out to those who are different, who are not like ourselves, requires us to leave aside self-interest, to cultivate an empathetic curiosity and desire for friendship, to care so deeply for someone that their circumstances and destiny matter to us as much as our own.
Can we imagine a world, without pressure, hostility or suspicion? A world which is governed by Abraham’s gentle invitation to his guests to eat a little food and so find restoration of soul? Perhaps, when we find that composure and peace in our own hearts, we will find it in ourselves to live according to the principle of hakhnasat or’chim – showing hospitality to others.
Thought for the Week
Friday 19 October 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
This past Shabbat we tried something new at Rimon, we invited the parents of our Rimon students to stay for 15 minutes after drop off to study text together. I arrived Shabbat morning and optimistically set the table for 15, I imagined we would have some extra chairs. What a pleasant surprise when 25 parents joined the conversation.
We began with a short D’var Torah around the importance of teaching our children and then went around the room to introduce ourselves to one another. I asked each parent to reflect on the one thing they most hope their child gains from having a Jewish education.
There were two words repeated over and over again by the parents of the room: community and identity. Many of the parents spoke about wanting their child to have a Jewish community, some parents reflected on what it meant for them to grow up in the midst of a Jewish community and their hope to create a similar community for their children. Many parents shared that they hope their child has a stronger sense of their own identity by attending Rimon, that they feel rooted in text and tradition and culture and are proud of their Jewish heritage. Others shared that they weren’t raised within formal Jewish education and they are learning alongside their children. Many parents shared that as an interfaith couple the Jewish partner felt significant pressure to provide their child with a Jewish education and that they joined Rimon in order to share and get support with this responsibility of educating their children.
Afterwards parents commented on how wonderfully diverse our Rimon community is, we had parents there from the USA, from Mexico, from France, from Austria and other countries as well. After the formal conversation had finished some of the parents stayed and schmoozed and developed relationships with one another.
Identity and Community, self and other, I was very moved to hear these words repeated by so many of our Rimon parents.
As I know from my own personal experience, it can be challenging being a parent in our fast paced modern world. Children have so many demands on their time with academic, athletic and social engagements. It truly is wonderful how many of our LJS families choose to take the time and invest the energy to bring their child to the LJS on Saturday to instill in their child a sense of community and identity.
There is a scheduled 15 minute break during Rimon for the children to have a snack and have some unstructured time with their classmates. After starting the morning with the parents of Rimon and hearing the desire for community and identity it was such a treat to see the children at break together. They fill the halls of the building, sitting and sharing food and conversation. Walking through the halls during break you hear a chorus of children telling stories and laughing. How lucky we are at The LJS to have Rimon, Dov and Debi lead the community with intention and commitment and the teachers gift the students by coming on Shabbat morning ready to lovingly share with the children the text, values and history of our faith.
We will be having Rimon parent gatherings once a month, I am greatly looking forward to our gathering in November as all of us continue to build our sense of community and identity.
There is a famous Midrash that shares the narrative of the Israelites at Sinai ready to receive the Torah. Before God was willing to give the Torah to the Israelites God requested guarantors to ensure that the Israelites would indeed commit themselves to Torah.
First the Israelites offered their elders, “Our forefathers will be our guarantors.” God would not accept the forefathers as the guarantors of the Torah.
Next the Israelites offered the prophets as the guarantors, again God would not give the Torah with the prophets as the identified guarantors.
Finally the Israelites said: “Our children will be our guarantors.” To which God replied: “In truth these are good guarantors. For their sake I will give it to you.” (Canticles Rabbah, 1:4)
Our children will be our future leaders, we are blessed at the LJS to have parents and teachers who take seriously the responsibility of building for our future.
Thought for the Week
Friday 12 October 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
After the Flood in this week’s parashah, comes the story of the Tower of Babel – a tale that explains why people were ‘condemned’ to speak different languages and prevented from understanding each other.
All this is told in a terse and concise nine verses in Chapter 11 of Genesis at the end of the sedra. Va-yehi chol-ha-aretz safah echat – “All the earth had the same language and the same words” is a story, not only about the diversity of the nations and language, but also about the origins of Babylon, the empire that will eventually oppress Israel.
The earth’s population wanders from the east and comes to a valley in the land of Shinar and settles there. But like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and those who corrupted the earth in the generation of Noah, the inhabitants of Shinar want to go a step too far. ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the earth’ (11:4).
In a rare ‘appearance’, God ‘comes down’ to look at the city and the tower built by the people and seeing that no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach, he confuses their speech so that no one is able to understand what the other is saying and then scatters them over all the earth. That is why, says the text, the name of the place was called Babel (Babylon) because from there, God ‘balal ‘– confused the speech of all the earth, God created a babel of sound among humanity.
In contemporary literature, William Golding’s 1964 novel, The Spire is a kind of contemporary midrash on the story of the Tower of Babel. The Dean of a cathedral directs the construction of a tall spire – said to be based on the spire of Salisbury Cathedral – against the advice of the master builder and many others. At great cost – physical, financial and spiritual – those who drive forward the ill-fated project, become corrupted and damaged, ambition and blind folly bringing about their downfall.
So too, in a rabbinic midrashic commentary on the Tower of Babel, the tower reaches to such height, that it takes a year to climb to the top. Said the rabbis: a brick was more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it, but if a brick dropped, they wept because it would take a year to replace it.
Yet, despite this over-reaching ambition, the punishment is ‘less’ than that of the Flood. Divine response mirrors human action very precisely. While the people want to make a name for themselves and prevent dispersion over all the earth, the very opposite happens. The name that is made for these people is ignominious, they are dispersed throughout the earth and their speech is confused.
The story is designed to reflect adversely on Babylon but this is a story about language and words – the language and words that lie at the heart of the Jewish chain of tradition, the words that flow through generations of parents and children, scholars, teachers and students, ordinary men and women. ‘Ours is not a bloodline but a textline,’ write Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, in their book Jews and Words; we belong to a ‘lineage of literacy’. We see the whole world and our own lives as a text to be passed on – laws, traditions, stories, blessings, prayers. – from one generation to another.
Does the story of the Tower of Babel, therefore, undercut this dependence for our survival on language? Not at all! It is only when we use language to ‘make a name for ourselves’, to distort, to self-aggrandise, to bend dishonestly to our will, that words fall opaque like stones on hard ground, without their resonance of truth and integrity.
But when our words fall as the rain, our speech ‘distils as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass’ (Deuteronomy 32:2), gently, irrevocably, soundlessly, with the transparency of crystalline quartz, then our words bear the truth and resonance of their telling.
Thought for the Week
Friday 5 October 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
After the reading of Bereshit on Monday at Simchat Torah, the congregation formed a large circle in the Sanctuary and slowly and carefully, our student Rabbi, Igor Zinkov, unrolled the scroll from the very end of Deuteronomy all the way back to Genesis and so prepared the scroll for the new cycle of readings which begin again this Shabbat.
It was moving to be able, as it were, to walk through the pages of the Torah – to connect individuals with where they were standing: one member visibly affected as she was holding the k’laf (parchment) on which the Shema was written; another moved by ‘her’ bit – the Priestly Blessing and the whole of the choir, together with Tim Farrell, the LJS’s long-serving organist, arranged behind Moses’ Song at the Sea and the reference to Miriam’s timbrels.
The opening chapter of Bereshit gives rise to a number of midrashim about the ambivalence of human creation. Mindful of humanity’s bent towards evil, the Rabbis – in an audacious and highly imaginative midrash – created this commentary on the phrase, ‘Na’aseh adam’ – ‘let us make humankind.’
‘Said Rabbi Shimon: When the Holy One came to create the first human being, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, ‘Let it be created,’ whilst others urged, ‘Let it not be created.’ For so it is written, ‘Love and Truth fought together, Righteousness and Peace combated each other’ (Psalm 85:11). Love said, ‘Let it be created, because it will dispense acts of love’; Truth said, ‘Let it not be created, because it is compounded of falsehood’; Righteousness said, ‘Let it be created, because it will perform righteous deeds’; Peace said, ‘Let it not be created, because it is full of strife.’ What did God do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground. The ministering angels said: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Why do you despise your seal of Truth? Let Truth arise from the earth!’ Hence it is written, ‘Let truth spring up from the earth’ (Psalm 85:12).
And while the ministering angels were thus arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Holy One created the first human being and said to the angels: ‘There is nothing you can do to prevent the creation of the first human being. It has already been made!’
The midrash captures God’s commitment to humanity. However much the divine heart is aggrieved by the capacity for harm and evil in human beings – a grief and resentment against the world that culminates in the Flood later on in Genesis – there is divine recognition that if human beings did not exist, there would be no capacity for acts of loving kindness and no righteous deeds would ever be performed. And the strength of this aspect of human kind – the compassionate, wise, just, generous, hospitable, kind, loving qualities that are found in ordinary and exceptional beings, seems to outweigh, at least in God’s mind, the falsehood and strife of which we are also capable.
This idea of God, as it were, trumping the ministering angels, saying, ‘Too late. Here is one I have already made!’ suggests an optimistic view of human kind. God has given us free will; we can choose how to live our lives – truth or falsehood, kindness or cruelty, generosity or meanness, compassion or indifference. And even if through omission or commission, we err from the path of the good life, there is in Judaism, a remarkable mechanism, not for complete eradication evil and harm, for the consequences will always remain, but at least for re-setting our moral thermostat. Teshuvah – repentance is the process that is central to the festivals we have just celebrated, notably Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But it is not exclusive to them.
For even if we were to recite one blessing each day, then let us choose the blessing that helps us to overcome the harmful inclinations which the angels thought would overwhelm the human condition and eclipse our inclination towards good:
Help us, our Creator, to return to your Torah; draw us near, our Sovereign, to Your service; and bring us back into Your presence in perfect repentance. Baruch attah Adonai, ha-rotzeh bit’shuvah – We praise You, O God: You delight in repentance.
‘No one sets a true, great task for themselves,’ wrote Leo Baeck in This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence. ‘One can only accept and meet the demands of a day, for the noble task endures and remains.’
As we return to the beginning of the Torah, to the stories that have informed the lives and experiences of generations of our people, let us dedicate ourselves to ‘meeting the demands of a day’ and renewing our connection to our Jewish heritage and its teachings of goodness and hope.
Thought for the Week
Friday 28 September 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
It is something of a mystery to me how a people whose existence and history stretch back nearly four thousand years, have managed to pass on the sacred stories and laws of the Torah, from one generation to another, even until today.
If we were to pass on nothing else to our children – no other texts from the Talmud, nor the great mediaeval philosophers such as Maimonides, nor commentaries like that of Rashi – even if we neglected to pass on the observances of Shabbat, its home rituals of lighting candles and saying Kiddush, or the festivals, or the act of prayer at home or at synagogue – we must surely hand on this remarkable collection of books we call the Torah.
From the magnificent epic poem of creation at the very beginning of Genesis, to the poignant verses that relate the death of Moses, alone on Mount Nebo, and everything in between, this is our story, these are our laws and they represent what Isidore Epstein describes as ‘Israel’s intellectual and cultural heritage of millennia.’
This is revelation, not in the sense of a verbatim dictation from God to Moses on Mount Sinai, but in the sense that it discloses fundamental truths about the right way to build a good society. It reveals uneasy truths about humanity and family life, about nationhood and difference, about conflict and war, order and chaos, rebellion and respect – about the way of the world.
This is also a book about God. From the first moment of creation to the last words of Deuteronomy, we are aware of God’s Presence in the universe – in those opening words, ‘Let there be light’ that bring the earth into existence; in the closing chapter as God buries Moses in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor, like a parent burying a child.
How did these stories come down to us? Did parents tell them to their children as part of an oral tradition? Or were there perhaps poets and song leaders versed in traditional poetics and storytelling who sang or read these oral texts, re-telling and reinterpreting them in each generation?
At what point, did priests and sages write down these stories and laws? When did these texts cease to be an oral tradition and become written, canonised and enshrined for future generations? Perhaps that oral tradition has never faded, for the Torah is heard by listeners every week in synagogue, the stories are told to our children, to us, and as we retell them, so we reinterpret them for our own age and give them immediacy and meaning.
Simchat Torah – which we will celebrate on Sunday evening and Monday by taking all the scrolls out of the Ark, joyously processing and dancing with them as though our very life depended on them – reminds us that, as Jews, we must all become skilled listeners of Torah, for this is our life and the length of our days and without it how can we understand our responsibilities to each other and to this intricate, utterly beautiful world that has been entrusted to us to pass on to others?
Even if we were to observe nothing else of our Judaism, the Torah is addressed to each one of us and it is part of who we are as Jews. Even God – the magnificent author of creation, the Giver of promises, the Subject of dreams, the Law Enforcer, the Fountain of all wisdom, the Source of light and love, of compassion and justice – cannot be ignored. God – who breathes into us the yearning for goodness and morality, who exacts from us a concern for humanity and all creatures – this Spirit, the Spirit of the Jewish people, cannot be ignored or excised from our existence.
The Torah is our tree of life – may we take hold of it, quite literally, on this forthcoming festival and hold fast to it. For its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Thought for the Week
Friday 21 September 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
It is past midnight. In anticipation of Sukkot – and we haven’t yet constructed our tiny Sukkah yet – the rain is beating on the window and I can hear the wind stirring through the trees. Those last lingering moments of Yom Kippur are over for another year. Where has the day gone? Where the opportunities for expressions of remorse and regret, for confession and seeking forgiveness? They have slipped away and I wonder if I used those hours well – whether I found that consonance between the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart. I suspect – no, I know – that there is still much work to be done.
Suddenly, in the aftermath of this Day of Atonement, I realise how hard it is to eliminate the bad habits, to become the person I’d really like to be.
Perhaps that is why Sukkot comes so quickly after Yom Kippur – barely five days in which to recover from this extraordinary period of prayer, penitence and seeking pardon. Five days to turn from contemplation of ourselves, to gratitude for the blessings of the earth. Five days to turn from thoughts of sin and mortality, to goodness and life.
And five days to prepare for the three mitzvot, essential to our celebration of Sukkot and which define the underlying significance of the festival.
Firstly, is the command to build a Sukkah – a temporary structure of four walls, covered with a roof of green foliage and branches. Weather permitting, the custom is to eat in the Sukkah, if not for the whole week, then perhaps symbolically – a morning cup of tea, Kiddush on Friday evening. Not all of us can create a Sukkah, particularly if we have no outdoor space, but the synagogue’s Sukkah is spacious and by Erev Sukkot on Sunday, there will be hanging fruits and plenty of s’kach – greenery decorating the walls and roof. It is the temporary nature of the Sukkah that reminds us, not only of our history as wandering refugees in the desert, but of the impermanence of our lives.
The second mitzvah is to take the arba’ah minim – the four species. Of all the mitzvot in Jewish life, this is one of the most beautiful and most moving. Assembling the lulav (palm branch), together with the willow to its left and myrtle on the right into their little holders, and then taking them together with the etrog (in our left hand) is so very different from the other mitzvot we perform throughout the year. What does it mean to stand and wave these plants and fruit in six different directions? An ancient waving ritual and dance to bring the Autumn rain? A reminder of the ancient midrash that each of the species symbolises four different kinds of Jews; or that each of the species represents part of our anatomy, held together to express our desire to praise and serve God with each part of being?
And thirdly is the mitzvah to rejoice – to see in the Sukkah and the waving of the lulav a profound sense of joy in the blessings of the earth.
And so, even as the wind gathers force and the raindrops beat more fiercely against the window pane and the sounds of the night herald the changing season, each of these mitzvot discloses something of the mystery and beauty of the universe and calls us to live simply and in consonance with the rhythms of the seasons, with the cycle of the moon, with the unspoilt loveliness of the earth and all that grows and lives in it.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sukkot Sameach.
Thought for the Week
Thursday 13 September 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
This Shabbat we celebrate Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat in the midst of our 10 days of self reflection. I want to share with you some thoughts that I have been focusing on during this sacred time.
Over the last 10 years Dr. Carol Dweck, faculty at Stanford has been running experiments on 400 fifth graders, aged 10-11, in New York City. These experiments have tried to determine whether praise for one’s intelligence boosts one’s confidence. The book, NurtureShock: New Thinking about Parenting explores Dweck’s experiments and subsequent conclusions.
These 400 students were taken out of their classrooms and given non-verbal IQ tests. First, they were given a puzzle easy enough that all students were expected to do well. Upon completing the test the children were given one line of praise only. Half of them received praise on their intelligence, they were told, “You must be smart at this.” The other half was praised for their effort, being told “You must have worked really hard.”
The students were then given a choice for the second set of tests. They could choose a test more difficult than the first or they could choose a test at the same difficulty level. The vast majority of those praised for their effort chose the harder puzzle set. Whereas a majority of those who were praised for their smarts chose the easier test.
All the fifth graders were then given a test beyond their capacity. Anecdotally those whose efforts had been praised seemed to enjoy the challenge more than those who were told they were smart. They were then, after this round of forced failure, given a final round of tests that were at the same level as the first easy round. The scores of those praised for their efforts increased by 30%, those who were told they were smart did 20% worse than they had originally performed.
Dweck comments on her research saying, “When we praise children for their intelligence we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes…” she continues “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control, they come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
This book argues that the more young people are encouraged to understand that effort leads to accomplishment rather than believing in their inherent smarts or skills the more successful they are and the less fearful they are of failure.
While this book is about children, the same can be true of adults. Those who believe they have an inherent gift at something may be less willing to take chances, not wanting their Achilles heel to be uncovered to themselves or to others. Additionally, the satisfaction that one receives from their actions may be diminished as the focus may not be on the task at hand but rather on upholding their image.
We are in the midst of a 10 day journey of bettering ourselves. These holy days emphasize the importance of seeing effort over inherent skill. Judaism argues that we are all born b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. In our morning prayer we recite Elohai n’shama shenatati bi, t’horah hi, My God, the soul you have given me is pure. Throughout our texts we have examples of the purity of the souls within each of us. However, it is a challenge, a sacred, beautiful and never ending challenge attempting to determine how these pure souls, these godly souls within each of us, within all of humanity, will find their way into this human world we inhabit together. None of us are born with the inherent knowledge of how to live, living righteously is learned, through mistakes and through risk taking. These 10 days acknowledge the divine spark, the inherent goodness and potential within all of us but the focus is on where we have missed the mark.
And we have missed the mark. All of us. All too often self reflection comes in the form of digging within oneself to find out who we really are. What are our inherent skills? What is our very nature? Perhaps, this year if we were to focus not on who we are but rather on what areas we want to try harder we will be able to accomplish more, we will be able to get closer to the mark than we have the previous year. We limit ourselves by overly defining our inherent skills and not believing in our potential for growth with effort.
What might this new year look like if we approach it unafraid of failure, if instead we are able to focus with pride on our efforts and be self-forgiving when the outcome isn’t what we had hoped for.
In Pirkei Avot we have the well known words of Ben Zoma, Who is wise? The one who learns from every person. Who is brave? The one who subdues his negative inclination. Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has. Who is honored? The one who gives honor to others. The wise person is the one who learns, the brave person is the one who can subdue himself, the rich person is appreciative and the honored person gives honor. Our actions not our inherent abilities define us. During this holy season may we recommit ourselves to learning, experimentation, and growth.
Thought for the Week
Thursday 6 September 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
The end of the summer seems to have come suddenly – no more the languid days of August, the sticky nights, the dry heat, burning the grass and turning prematurely to copper and gold the leaves on the trees. London is filled again with the bustle of people returning from holidays and there is a sense of anticipation for a new year, with all its excitement and an apprehension about what this time will bring.
Last Saturday night, members of the LJS were privileged to listen to the baritone, Simon Wallfisch, accompanied by Simon Haynes on the piano come together with a recital of songs before the Selichot service. Listening to both texts and music, I wondered how they could help me take those first and faltering steps into the terrain of the Days of Awe, the Yamim Nora’im. Could they remove the carapace of indifference and callousness, could they touch me in ways that would open me to greater empathy, kindness, tenderness to my fellow human beings and all living creatures?
Here were words by Erika Taube, set to music by her husband the Galician born composer, Carlo S. Taube. Both were murdered in Auschwitz, together with their child in 1944:
You are a child like all the many
All over the entire world
Like all the others, playing,
And yet, you are so different, child.
The song was written in in 1942 in Terezín, where Taube conducted the band and orchestra. Who is the child addressed in the poem? His own child, for whom freedom in the streets of Vienna or Prague was an unknown, a child ‘without a homeland’, in every place a stranger? Or a child of our own time, a child separated from its parents, unaccompanied, stranded somewhere on the continent, without a homeland or bed, a stranger in a strange place? Is your heart ‘untethered’ still? Is there hope that your youth is not entirely spent or wasted, is there time for you still to sit at the feet of your teachers, to know the warmth of family love, instead of this hostile environment? I think of a family at our monthly Drop-in – three beautiful little boys and their parents. The father has just been granted Leave to Remain – ‘I held my breath for twenty years’, he said.
Simon’s song recital was followed by an exquisitely lyrical song composed by Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, with words by Goethe:
Over every treetop is peace,
on every summit you hardly hear
The little birds are silent in the forest.
Just wait, soon, you too will be at peace.
How does the sound of music convey that peace and silence of which the poet speaks? A hushed breathlessness, the notes rising into nothing, the voice gliding over gentle arpeggios, slow, barely audible; the silence of forest of trees, the anticipation of our own mortality? The held breath of an asylum seeker?
And then, Ravel’s extraordinarily beautiful, mournful Hebrew Melody, written in 1914 with words from the Kaddish. How did Ravel know of this music and these words? And what inspired him to write his Hebrew Melodies? Had he visited a synagogue at Yom Kippur and heard the moving chant of this prayer? Or did someone show him the manuscripts of synagogue cantorial music? Ravel himself wrote of this discovery:
‘I was attracted to the strange and haunting beauty of Jewish music. I felt almost as though I had been brought into a new musical world when a few authentic Jewish melodies were brought to my notice. I was so bewitched by the mysterious colour and exotic charm of these melodies that for weeks I could not get this music out of my mind. Then my imagination was set aflame.’
The voice in this Hebrew Melody is isolated, wandering above a sparse, taut and austere piano accompaniment, that haunting line, as the composer describes, sustained, full of yearning, dark, against tense and discordant chords, until at last the piano and voice come together, the voice taking off again, daringly, a virtuoso of dazzling notes, the piano unyielding.
It is these songs and chants that stay with me in these last days of the old year. Music and texts draw my attention to the world and its precious beauty, the purity of the air, miles of moorland covered with heather, the dark silence of the forest where even the little birds are silent. How lovely is God’s world! And yet, still a child goes hungry and grows up without the opportunities of others. Can a man hold his breath for twenty years and not be hurt, or wander from continent to continent to find a place to rest his head? Is it not a person’s right to breathe in that pure air, to be free, to be able to work, to provide shelter and food for one’s family, to have dignity?
We enter the Days of Awe alone, like the voice of Ravel’s Hebrew Melody, isolated and wandering in an austere and difficult world, struggling to making sense of the uncertainties and enigmas that are before us. This is the world and its destiny – it changes, we change, we cannot foresee what will come upon us in the coming year, what challenges and triumphs. Therefore we hold on to the words of an ancient prayer, sung by generations – V’yamlich malchuteih b’chayyechon u’v’yomeychon… ‘May the Eternal One establish His sovereignty during the days of our life and the life of all…’ to remind us that although it is not our responsibility alone to complete the work of mending this fragmented world, we are not at liberty to hide ourselves and turn away from it.
May this season help us to know our true responsibilities, not only to ourselves and our dear ones, but to uphold a shared responsibility that reaches beyond our own immediate concerns.
Shabbat Shalom and l’shanah tovah tikkateivu – May you and your dear ones be inscribed for a healthy and peaceful New Year.
Thought for the Week
Thursday 30 August 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
It has been with much appreciation and respect that I have had the opportunity to get to know many of you over the last two months since I began my work as part-time Rabbi. In my short time here I have seen a glimpse of the depth and breadth of this community. The character of the LJS was shown in the varied experiences I have participated in over the last two months: in the commitment and intention of the volunteers at the last drop-in Centre, by the eagerness and joy of the young children participating in Rimon, by the compassion and energy of the 4C’s committee, by the commitment and wisdom of the council, by those who attend services with an open heart, by the tireless work of the amazing staff, and that is just naming a few of the examples. I deeply look forward to meeting more of you during High Holidays and getting to know you better as we learn and pray together over the coming months and years.
This Saturday evening we will be coming together at the LJS for Selichot. The service of selichot is an ancient ritual, in Sephardic communities Selichot happens at the beginning of the month of Elul, in Ashkenaz communities the service takes place the week before Rosh Hashanah. The first mention of the Selichot ritual is from the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon from the 9th century. With the liturgy and music of Selichot we get a glimpse of the liturgy that will lead us through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we feel the locked doors of our hearts begin to open as we reflect on what we need to do to enter into this holiday season ready for transformation.
During Selichot we begin the spiritual work of allowing ourselves to be open and vulnerable to the experience of the Days of Awe. Our prayers become focused on teshuvah (repentence), on how we want to turn or shift our approach to ourselves, to those around us and to the divine in the coming year. In the Talmud Berakhot 34b:22 we are given this lesson on teshuva, “R. Abbahu teaches: The place where those who do teshuva stand, the perfectly righteous are unable to stand.” The person who sins and repents and adjusts their behaviour is holier than the one who does not sin.
Many believe that Elul is the month of the Hebrew calendar when we have the most intimate relationship with God. There is a commentary that the month’s name Elul (aleph, lamed, vuv, lamed) is actually an acronym for Ani l’dodi v’dod li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” This text from Song of Songs is often used at weddings and in Ketubot (the Jewish marriage contract). In the month of Elul God is our beloved, we enter into an intimate relationship of vulnerability and openness as we do the hard spiritual work of repentance and growth.
As I approach the Days of Awe this year I am very aware of all of the transitions in my life. We left our home and friends and family in America and are now slowly setting our roots here in London. This transition for us has involved saying “l’hitraot” (see you soon) to our community, it has involved setting up our children at a new school, my husband beginning a new job and my start here at the LJS. I am personally looking forward to the High Holy Days this year, to have the opportunity through prayer and study to focus not on the logistical transitions I am in the midst of but rather what is deeper within: How have I missed the mark this last year? Where should my focus be this coming year? How am I acting as God’s partner in this world? I imagine that you may find yourself in the same position, looking forward to the High Holy Days as an opportunity to step back from life’s logistics and to turn your focus inward.
My hope for all of us is that we spend the days before Rosh Hashanah preparing ourselves, whether by attending Selichot or engaging in our own personal preparations of the soul, so that we enter the Synagogue doors on Rosh Hashanah open to the potential of transformation and growth.
Thought for the Week
Thursday 23 August 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
Two weeks ago, when we held our Drop-in at the LJS, I met a young woman who had been trafficked from her native country to Western Europe and sold into prostitution by her ex-fiancé.
Mikela is not her real name. She is nineteen years old, had finished school in Albania where she had done well academically and was hoping to go to university. She spoke good English, which she said she had learnt at school. She trusted the man to whom she had become engaged and had the support of her parents who wanted her to marry. But the man she thought she knew and trusted, took her to Italy and sold her into prostitution. The details around her journey and escape are murky. Somehow she managed to escape her captors, hid in a lorry with other women and was brought to England where she applied for asylum.
There is no possibility of Mikela returning to Albania. She is scared that her ex-fiancé will find her, and her parents – her father, especially – from traditional Muslim backgrounds, have rejected her. It is not uncommon for families to blame their daughters for being trafficked into prostitution. They do not see them as victims, but as the cause of shame and dishonour on their families.
Sadly, these accounts of trafficked women are not isolated. The loss of hope, of aspirations, the exhaustion and profound fear that these women experience is palpable. I think of other young women I know of a similar age, pursuing university degrees or careers, living independent and fulfilling lives, with the support of a loving and accepting family. It is so difficult to put oneself in the shoes of this young woman, still a teenager, cut off from her parents and siblings, now in the interminable asylum queue as she must wait for the Home Office to decide whether she can be granted Leave to Remain.
In front of me lies open the Torah with this week’s parashah, Ki Tetzé. One might be forgiven for imagining that Deuteronomy has a preoccupation with sexual relations. There are laws that permit taking captive women who are prisoners of war, rules concerning sexual misconduct, false and true accusations of unchastity, penalties for adultery, rape, prostitution and laws prohibiting sexual intercourse among family members – what are known as prohibited degrees of consanguinity.
Not all of them make comfortable reading. An Israelite warrior is permitted to take captive and marry a ‘beautiful woman’ if he ‘desires’ her; a woman is stoned to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night, adulterous couples, similarly, are to be put to death; a virgin who is raped by a man must marry the rapist ‘because he has violated her’.
Of course, there is a way of reading some of these laws as protection for the women – a violated woman can never be divorced from the man who forced her to have sex, because her ‘dishonour’ would forbid her to other men. But the Torah also reminds us that the status of women was subordinate to their fathers and then their husbands, and that women like Dinah, Tamar, the daughter of David, the nameless concubine in the Book of Judges and others, women who were dishonoured and violated in terrible ways, were victims of male abuse of power. Just as Mikela is a victim of male abuse of power in the 21st century.
I return to the verses of Ki Tetzé and will read some of them this Shabbat, because they help to keep in mind the women like Mikela and millions of others who are today’s victims, whose stories must be told and brought into the open, so that their abusers can be brought to justice and the shocking and endless cycle of abuse and violation of women and children brought to an end.
There is no difference between being raped
and being pushed down a flight of cement steps
except that the wounds also bleed inside.
There is no difference between being raped
and being run over by a truck
except that afterward men ask if you enjoyed it…
There is no difference between being raped
and going head first through a windshield
except that afterward you are afraid
not of cars
but half the human race….
Fear of rape is a cold wind blowing
all of the time on a woman’s hunched back.
Never to stroll alone on a sand road through pine woods,
never to climb a trail across a bald
without that aluminum in the mouth
when I see a man climbing toward me….. (From ‘Rape Poem’ by Marge Piercy)
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
I was not one of the 68 Rabbis from across the different religious denominations, who signed a letter to the Guardian on 16 July, 2018, urging the Labour Party to ‘adopt the full and unamended International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism including its examples.’
Why not? What stopped me from putting my name to a letter, written with regret to acknowledge that ‘antisemitism within sections of the Labour party has become so severe and widespread’ that it is necessary to speak out with one Jewish voice?
What prevented me from accusing the Labour Party’s leadership of choosing to ignore ‘those who understand antisemitism the best, the Jewish community,’ and charging them for rewriting a definition of anti-Semitism, accepted by the ‘Crown Prosecution Service, College of Policing, the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the National Union of Students, and 124 local authorities, including scores of Labour-held councils…and accepted by the vast majority of Jewish people in Britain and globally.’
The IHRA, (formerly the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research), was initiated in 1998 by former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson. Today, there are 31 member countries of the IHRA, combating Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and focusing on accurate and sensitive remembrance of history with a view to informing contemporary policy making.
I am fully aware that, as well as the National Executive Committee (NEC), there are those – including some members of the Jewish academic world – who do not regard the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism as the final word on the matter. Some argue it is ‘deeply flawed’, ‘vague,’ and as a ‘working definition’ of antisemitism, say that it should be developed and refined.
I am also aware that the IHRA definition is, in fact, endorsed and identical in Labour’s code: ‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’
So why is the leadership of the Jewish community and the Jewish press, who last week pulled off the stunt of publishing the same headline in all three Jewish newspapers, so vehemently angry that the NEC has now produced its own code on anti-Semitism?
Is it because the examples of one text are correct and in the other, incorrect? Is this really a quarrel about a codified definition of anti-Semitism and its examples? Or a political brawl that wants to see the ousting of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader? Or is it about the freedom of individuals to criticise Israel’s government policies and defend the rights of Palestinians?
I listened to the recording of Peter Willsman, a member of the NEC and an ally of Jeremy Corbyn as he attacked my 68 colleagues who had signed the letter to the Guardian. As he grew more and more agitated, ignoring a voice that tried to stop him, he accused members of the Jewish community of being ‘Trump supporters’ and making up allegations of anti-Semitism. Were the tone of his voice not so disturbing and so full of loathing, his comments would have been laughable.
He is just one of a number of individuals who have voiced quite despicable and blatantly racist remarks against Jews. It is hard to believe that scarcely seventy years after the Second World War, in living memory of those who lost family members in the death camps or arrived here as refugees, we have come to this.
So why did I not sign the letter? Why not simply join my colleagues to declare my disgust at the level of expressed anti-Semitic posts, twitter feeds and verbal assaults in certain sections of the Labour Party? Surely, after the way that Margaret Hodge, Ian Austin and others have been treated, each one of my colleagues’ signatures is a vindication of such a letter.
I wish I could say that I examined the letter carefully, thought about the issues over time and then decided not to sign. But that is not exactly the truth. The truth is that I find the whole issue confusing and disturbing; I asked myself, is this the letter I would write were I to put pen to paper? Did I really want to become part of a communal debate that seems to have lost its way and where no one listens to each other? Do we solve anything by shouting headlines at each other? I don’t believe we should dignify the racist slurs and anti-Semitic comments that are thoughtlessly, ignorantly and maliciously expressed on Twitter and other social media.
We need to take a step back and reflect on whether communal anger and tribal politics will get us anywhere in this bitter so-called debate. Anti-Semitism and racism of any kind should never be tolerated. But we need to be careful that we don’t become embroiled in a spiral of arguments that will get us nowhere other than in a deeply dark and unpopular place.
We have known what it means to be branded as victims of anti-Semitism; six million of our very own people were murdered in the Shoah because they were Jews and the object of Nazi hatred. We are, understandably, deeply sensitive and fragile when it comes to issues of anti-Semitism, but this does not mean we can act intemperately and with impunity. The more our populist Jewish newspapers rile the Labour Party, the more certain individuals will dig in their heels even further and cease to listen to what we have to say as Jews.
I did not sign the letter to the Guardian because I wanted to step back, to stop, reflect and listen to what is really going on behind these loud headlines on the one hand, and to understand what it is about the silence of Labour’s leadership that I find sinister and unmoving, on the other. I don’t know if there is a rabbinic response to this complex and difficult issue. There may be several different responses.
But I do know that the Torah, at its very heart, teaches us to listen (Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel). It teaches us the principles of reverence and humility, love and service. It teaches us that stiff-necked humanity is not the centre of all existence, but rather an Unseen Presence who upholds the cause of the needy and vulnerable and befriends the stranger. This should be our moral compass, for this is what the Jewish people have to contribute to society; to defend our own cause, yes, but also to defend the cause of all those who are oppressed or persecuted.
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
I was moved this week to read of a young Swedish student’s lone act of protest to prevent an asylum seeker being forcibly returned to Afghanistan. Elin Ersson bought a ticket from Gothenburg to Turkey, but refused to take her seat until an Afghan man, who was being removed by the Swedish authorities, was taken off the plane. Facing both applause and hostility from fellow passengers, she said: ‘I don’t want a man’s life to be taken away just because you don’t want to miss your flight…What is more important a life or your time?’
It is the courage and probity of this young woman’s act that moves me most – a declarative act that embodies sayings found in the Mishnah and in a similar form in the Qur’an, that whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.
On Monday, some of my progressive and Masorti colleagues set out to stand outside the Israeli Embassy in London to protest against the arrest of Rabbi Dov Haiyun, a Conservative Rabbi, who had officiated at a non-orthodox wedding in Israel. Unable to gain access to Palace Green and make their presence felt at the Embassy, they stood at the end of the road in High Street Kensington, holding a tallit as a chuppah and placards demanding pluralism and equality and an end to the orthodox monopoly on life-cycle ceremonies in Israel.
Last week, despite thousands protesting in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, the Prime Minister of Israel, Netanyahu, passed a Bill now known as the Nation State Law, a law, which is seen as a further erosion of democratic values in Israel. There is no mention of Israel’s Arab, Druze or Bedouin citizens; Arabic is no longer one of the official languages of Israel, but now has ‘special status.’ It makes no mention of preserving the cultural, historical and religious heritage of minority groups in Israel; nor of the state’s national value on any settlements other than Jewish ones. It does not promote coexistence or flexibility; it is a law that lacks humanity, respect and sensitivity. It is a law that emasculates and declares ‘other’ anyone who is not Jewish.
It subverts completely the Jewish value that cries out from the Torah: ‘Love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ What has happened to our Jewish values? Where is the voice of compassion? How have we lost our ability put ourselves in the shoes of those who are different from us?
I don’t know how we move away from the stridency and extremism of discourse. Where is diplomacy? Where is humility? What has happened to our capacity to listen or to change? What has happened to justice? Can we hear and see what we have become?
Of course, not everyone is pursuing a path towards extremism; not everyone is motivated by religious and ideological fanaticism. If that were the case, we would not have an Elin Ersson in Sweden, or colleagues in the USA and here in the UK promoting pluralism and tolerance, nor would we find Israelis in the streets of Tel Aviv defending the rights of minorities in Israel, whether Arabs, Druze and Bedouin, or LGBTQI people.
In this hot, dry summer, fields and heaths consumed by wildfires, with its shrivelled harvest, its cities choked by toxic effluence, we are becoming too heated and too irritable, too caught up in a language of confrontation and contempt.
We need to take a step back and think about the effect of our words and actions. Not all of us are comfortable in this binary place that pits the so-called ‘good’ against the so-called ‘evil’. That surely is the way of losing hope, of remaining entrenched in static positions, where there is no possibility of moving forward. We are stuck in an ever-recurring cycle of despair and hopelessness.
I hold on to that image of a weeping student in the aisle of a plane standing up for the life of one Afghan asylum seeker. And I hold on to the voices of my colleagues with their placards and tallitot pleading for pluralism and equality; and I listen to those voices of in Rabin Square, refusing to give up hope that Israel can be a home for all its citizens – Arab, Druze, Bedouin, Jews and others.
The world is not all bad; we are not all fanatics. But stand back and listen to the gentler voice of compassion and sensitivity, listen to those who have the capacity to change themselves and therefore change the tone and nuance of debate and listen to those who say, ‘ ’tis not too late to seek a newer world’ (Tennyson, Ulysses).
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
This weekend, in the cycle of our Torah readings, we begin a new book – the book of Deuteronomy. The name ‘Deuteronomy’ comes from the Greek translation of the phrase, Mishneh Torah (Deut. 17:18), meaning ‘second, or repeated, teaching’. The Hebrew name of the book, D’varim, means ‘words’. The Israelites now stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, and the book of Deuteronomy is cast as Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites. It is a most fitting reading this week, as The LJS opens a new chapter, too, in its rabbinic life.
Don’t worry, though, this farewell Shalom LJS message to you is much,
much shorter than Moses’! Words – d’varim – can be used to hurt, and they can be used to heal. The Midrash, D’varim Rabbah (1:6) says of the words of the Torah, ‘just as the honey of the bee is sweet and its sting sharp, so too are the words of Torah…’ They can hit hard, as many of Moses’ words do, in his final speech, reminding the people that their fate depends on their behaviour, and their response to God’s commands and promises.
With regard to words, there is a rabbinic story about Rabbi Shimon ben
Gamliel, who once told his servant, Tevi, to buy the best food in the market. The servant bought tongue. He then instructed his servant to buy the worst food in the market. Tevi again bought tongue. Rabbi Gamliel said to him, ‘What is this? When I asked you to get the best food, you bought me tongue. When I asked you to buy me the worst food, you also bought me tongue!’ Tevi replied, ‘Both good and bad come through the tongue. When the tongue is good, there is nothing better. When it’s bad, there is nothing worse.’ (Va-Yikra Rabbah 33:1)
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of the Vision. The name comes from the first word of the traditional Haftarah portion, Isaiah 1:1-27, describing the ‘vision of Isaiah’. This is the last of three special Haftarot read between Tammuz 17th, when the Babylonians breached the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and the Ninth of Av, Tish’ah B’Av, when they destroyed the Temple, in the year 586 BCE.
There is one word that links the Torah portion, the Haftarah portion, and the book of Lamentations, that is read on Tish’ah B’Av, and that is eikhah. Eikhah can mean both ‘how’, and ‘alas’ (isn’t Hebrew wonderful?). In the Torah portion, Moses, weighed down by the burden of the people, who have become so numerous, cries out, eikhah…’how shall I alone bear the burden of you…?’. In the Haftarah, Isaiah laments the iniquity of the people of Jerusalem, eikhah hay’tah l’zonah… ‘Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city’, and the book of Lamentations begins with these words: eikhah yashvah badad ha-ir, ‘how lonely sits the city once filled with people!’
This is a sobering weekend in the traditional Jewish calendar. Rabbi Elana Dellal will be leading a study session, and an Erev Tish’ah B’Av service on Saturday evening, July 21st, and this will be an opportunity for you to get to know her, and also to discuss with her how we, as Liberal Jews, respond to tragedy.
This time of year reminds us of the consequences of our actions, and enjoins us to engage in the work of Tikkun Olam, doing our part to repair the world. After Tish’ah B’Av, there are seven weeks of Haftarot of comfort and consolation, that then lead us up to Rosh Ha-Shanah, and the contemplation, reflection and introspection of the High Holy Day season.
Last Shabbat, we marked my final service as one of The LJS’ permanent Rabbis and this is my final Shalom LJS message to you. I said ‘Thank You’ to you all in the July/August newsletter, and during the service last weekend. I would like to finish this message with Moses’ words of blessing in this week’s Torah portion:
‘May the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousand fold, and bless you, as promised’ (Deut. 1:12)
Shabbat Shalom and L’hitra’ot (I’ll be seeing you!),
Rabbi Rachel Benjamin
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
This was a simple story of twelve children who entered to explore a cave with their young football coach. When the rains came, the cave flooded and they found themselves with no way of returning to the entrance and cut off from all contact with the outside world. How they existed, what they thought or felt during the nine days of their isolation from the outside world, we will, no doubt, learn as the boys return to health and are allowed to tell their story to the world.
Then, out of the water and darkness, there appeared two British divers. The rescue of the boys could not be undertaken immediately, it would be fraught with danger; the expectation of monsoon rains entering and raising the water level of the caves, the low levels of oxygen, the weak state of the boys, their inability to swim, the impassibility of parts of the underground passages, the prospect of spending perhaps months inside the cave until the waters had subsided. And in the midst of the preparation to bring the boys and their coach out of the caves, the loss of life of one of the divers – a sobering and tragic indication that the story could end badly.
This was the story of Noah and Jonah rolled into one – diluvian waters threatening to extinguish these young lives, a dark, dank, deep environment beneath the earth, with its undiscovered life forms and only the prospect of the waters rising, leaving these boys no way out.
‘The waters closed in over me,
The deep engulfed me.
Weeds twined around my head.
I sank to the base of the mountains;
The bars of the earth closed upon me forever.
Yet You brought my life up from the pit,
O Eternal One my God!
When my life was ebbing away….’ (Jonah 2:6-7)
As the divers from a host of different countries, many unable to communicate in one language, but bound together by a common and urgent task, undertook the rescue of the boys and their coach, families, friends and volunteers gathered at the entrance of the cave, to hear news, to pray, to grieve over the death of one diver but above all, to hope.
In Hebrew, the word for hope is ‘tikvah’ and it comes from a root which may probably have meant to ‘twist’ or ‘stretch’, then of ‘tension’, a sense of enduring and waiting. ‘Tikvah’ also means a ‘cord’ – the red cord that was hung out of the window of Rahab’s family in the Book of Joshua, that would preserve her life and the life of her family.
The diagrams that illustrated the rescue of the boys, show the static rope that guided the divers back to the entrance of the cave – a cord of tension, part of the complex system that would help to save the boys’ lives, but also a symbol of those days of waiting to see whether all the boys and their coach would survive.
‘Kiviti Adonai, kivtah nafshi, v’lid’varo hochalti’ – ‘I wait for the Eternal One; my soul waits, I put my hope in God’s word…’ (Psalm 130:5). It is this sense of longing for something inexpressible that gives us hope in the world – the hope that the boys’ lives would be saved; the hope that humanity can work together in a united, not a divisive way, to save other lives, other children in parts of the world, hidden from the public eye.
At the end of this week, we know that we have the resources, the capacity and the goodness to work together; we are different nationalities, different faiths, different cultures, we speak different languages, but our faith in One God reminds us that we are one humanity, descended from one common ancestor and united in our deep longing and hope to make the world a place of life, goodness and love.
Thought for the Week
After last weekend’s Liberal Judaism Biennial, with its sessions on the draft liturgy of the new prayer book and explorations of what Liberal Jews believe in (or not), I came home and looked on my shelves for a book I haven’t read for several decades. It is called ‘Mister God This is Anna’ and is written by someone who called himself ‘Fynn’. Published in 1976, it is both narrative and philosophy, telling the story of how the teenage Fynn encounters four year old Anna, a runaway from an abusive home, somewhere in the pre-war East End of London. In an age without child protection policies, he takes her home where she is embraced by his mother and becomes part of his family until her tragic death at the age of eight.
The philosophy is embedded in the dialogue between this diminutive child and her rescuer. Anna’s relationship with God is a deeply personal one:
‘Most people I knew used God as an excuse for their failure. ‘He should have done this’, or ‘Why has God done this to me?’, but with Mum and Anna difficulties and adversities were merely occasions for doing something. Ugliness was the chance to make beautiful. Sadness was the chance to make glad. Mister God was always available to them. A stranger would have been excused for believing that Mister God lived with us, but then Mum and Anna believed he did. Very rarely did any conversation exclude Mister God in some way or other.’
Anna is Fynn’s ‘vehicle,’ if one can so describe her, to express the inexpressible. We are a little like ‘Mister God’, says Anna, but God isn’t like us. The definitions of God, the words that we often use to describe God like ‘Goodness, Mercy, Love and Justice’ are refined; God lies beyond what you and I can express and see. ‘You see,’ she tells Fynn, ‘everybody has got a point of view, but Mister God hasn’t. Mister God has only points to view.’ Fynn is stumped for words: ‘It seemed to me that she had taken the whole of God outside the limitation of time and placed him firmly in the realm of eternity.’
If God is everywhere with his infinite number of viewing points, says Anna, he is also different because he ‘can know things and people from the inside too. We only know them from the outside, don’t we?’ she asks Flynn. ‘So you see, Fynn, people can’t talk about Mister God from the outside; you can only talk about Mister God from the inside of him.’
There is no piety in this child, only a kind of vulnerable, short-lived innocence that is able to perceive the limitations of humanity. It is sad about people, she muses; people ought to become wiser when they grow older, but they don’t. Their questions only fit the size of the box – the answers are the same size as the box. ‘You ask a question in two dimensions, then the answer is in two dimensions too. It’s like a box. You can’t get out.’
What she means by this is that we limit God; we are unable to let God simply be. ‘We put Mister God into little boxes…. Because we don’t really love him. We got to let Mister God be free. That’s what love is.’
Anna looks for evidence of her God in all the signs and wonders of the world, not simply from her own viewpoint, but from every other individual’s point of view – whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, whether a scientist or rationalist – to Anna, our different voices and the different names and sounds and symbols we give to God, are the same to ‘Mister God.’ ‘We’re all playing the same chord to Mister God but with different names.’ Even the ‘chord of atheism might be a discord but then discords were in Anna’s estimation ‘thrilly’, but definitely ‘thrilly.’’
Liberal Judaism today is struggling with this inclusiveness. We have pushed the boundaries to ensure that all can find a home in our movement, but at the same time, I wonder if we have lost our way theologically? Where is the personal God; where is the idea of a moral God who drives the individual towards doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God?
We do not need to become mystics, seeking a communion with a transcendent mysterious presence, but we do need to hold on to the idea of ethical monotheism. Should this be our theological limit? If what is important in our limited human lives are the encounters we have with each other and the imperative to listen and understand human needs, to bring goodness and compassion into the hostile environment of our world, do we not need, therefore, to go beyond ourselves, to go to the deepest part of ourselves and feel driven and nudged by something more personal, more intimate, more present to us? And can we not give that presence a name, our own Jewish name of Yod Heh Vav Heh, the Source of all Existence?
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
From Sunday onwards and for the following three weeks, my orthodox neighbours will be refraining from haircuts, listening to music and dancing, celebrating weddings and playing instruments for fun. The reason is a minor fast day in the Jewish calendar known simply by its date, the Seventeenth of Tammuz, or Shiva Asar b’Tammuz in Hebrew.
The Mishnah in tractate Ta’anit 4:6 lists five calamitous events that took place on the 17 Tammuz: the tablets of the law were broken by Moses on account of the golden calf; the daily sacrifice ceased as Jerusalem was sacked; Apostomus, a Greek general in the time of the Maccabees, set fire to a Torah scroll and the Romans placed an idol in the Temple.
This was but a prelude to five further catastrophic events that took place on the 9 Av, three weeks later in the Hebrew calendar, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples – and hence two fast days and a three week period in between, restricting joyous occasions and diminishing pleasures.
Actually, the 17 Tammuz occurs on Shabbat this year, but the custom is to postpone the fast to Sunday as mourning restrictions are always lifted in honour of Shabbat.
Liberal Judaism has held on to Tisha B’Av, recognising the significance of a date that became the focus for major tragedies throughout Jewish history – not only the destruction of the Temples, but the expulsion of the Jews from England and Spain, pogroms and massacres against Jews in Poland and Eastern Europe and as an opportunity, along with Yom Ha-Shoah, to commemorate those who died in the Shoah.
But the 17 Tammuz has disappeared completely from our calendar, so too the Three Weeks – a dark period in the cycle of our Jewish year. And as I bask in these warm and sunny days at the end of June and watch the blue-tits and thrushes, the jays and robins in the garden, constantly on the move, busy finding food, flying from one feeder to another, I find my spirits lifting; how does one connect to the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem two and a half thousand years ago and the continued observance of these two fasts of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av?
After the Six Day War, when Jerusalem was recaptured, there were those who abandoned these fasts – political exile had come to an end with the founding of the State, they said, and the fact that Jews could now worship at the Western Wall had turned their mourning into rejoicing. But for others, redemption was not a political event – the return of our people to our homeland, but metaphysical. In the words of our Marriage Service, we live in a world as yet unredeemed, ‘where joys and sorrows are commingled.’
These two fasts, particularly Tisha B’Av which begins on Saturday night 21 July with a service at 8.30 pm at the LJS, remind us forcibly of our obligations to each other. In the days when our people were confined to the ghetto and persecuted simply for the faith they had held on to for millennia, these fasts paradoxically gave us hope for better times – that out of destruction would come rebirth, as it did in each generation. Return to Zion after the Babylonian exile, the flourishing of Jewish life in the diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple, the persistent resurgence of Jewish life throughout the Middle Ages in spite of expulsions and massacres, and the founding of the State of Israel and renaissance of Jewish life after the Shoah. These ‘resurrections’ of our people do not detract from the tragedies that preceded them, but they testify to something mysterious and enduring about our people and faith.
And so, these days should remain a focus in our thinking about the unredeemed elements of our world – three weeks in our own spiritual cycle to ask ourselves, what can we do to lessen prejudice, to counter hatred, to turn the tide in the affairs of the world against cruelty, dehumanisation and shameful words and actions from leaders who have lost their moral compass in the world?
It is easy in these summer months of relaxation and holidaying to lose sight of that moral compass that has always been the driving force of our people. If we are to be a ‘light to the nations’, then our role is to motivate ourselves and others to protest against hatred and bigotry and to vote only for integrity and honesty. Only then can we hope for the equality of all human beings and that dignity and respect can be restored as the foundation stones of the world we are building for future generations.
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
It is in this week’s parashah, Chukkat that Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, dies and in the aftermath of her death, the Israelites are without water. Yet again, they quarrel with Moses, resenting his leadership: ‘Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink?’ (Numbers 20:5)
God tells Moses to ‘order the rock to yield its water’, but in his frustration, and perhaps also his grief at the loss of his sister, he abuses the people: ‘Listen, you rebels…’ Then forgets that it is not his hand that will get water out of the rock, but God’s: ‘Shall we get water for you out of this rock?’ And instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it, not once, but twice with his staff. His punishment is death on the eastern bank of the Jordan, he will never set foot in the Promised Land.
The punishment is a harsh one and although Moses says nothing here in response to God, in Deuteronomy, as Moses recounts this episode to the people, he confesses that he pleaded with God at that time to let him cross over and see the ‘good land on the other side of the Jordan’. God remains angry and refuses to relent. Moses can see the land from the summit of Mount Pisgah, but will not be allowed to enter.
Many have debated the severity of the punishment. Hasn’t Moses been a good enough leader? Hasn’t he borne the quarrels and insurrections of the people for forty years? Has he not calmed and saved the face of an angry God who would have destroyed the people had it not been for Moses’ intercessions?
Why such an unfair punishment?
That is the question a friend asked me this week, but it was more personal: ‘Why am I being punished by God in this way?’ she asked me. ‘Why am I afflicted with a mental illness and cancer, preventing me from leading a normal life like my friends with jobs or who are having babies? Having just learnt that the cancer had spread further, she felt that God, in her eyes, must be a punitive God. ‘I must have done so many bad things in my life,’ she said.
How was I to respond to her? This was not the first time this conversation had taken place. If I said that I don’t see God as being so punitive, but rather as One who accompanies us on these painful journeys, to whom we can pray for strength and courage, how would that help her? In her eyes, God is all-powerful, the God of the Hebrew Bible, who performs miracles, but also metes out punishment for those who fail to live righteously.
We may be able to live with a God who gives us freewill – ‘Everything is foreseen, yet freewill is given,’ but can we believe in a God who is limited by the laws of nature and human moral freedom? A God who is not responsible for disease or accidents or natural disasters.
I am convinced that my friend does not suffer because she is a bad person. And yet, as she would argue, her not yet forty years have been years of trials because of her illnesses – chemotherapy and radiotherapy as well as surgery for her cancer; treatment for her bipolar disorder, the uncertainty of mood cycles that make her feel so unhappy.
Where did she learn that God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous? How can she think, in our own age, with six million dead in the Shoah, one and a half million of them children, that somehow her suffering is a punishment for deeds committed long ago?
I am silent. I cannot respond to this theology with another kind of theology. It won’t do. I needed perhaps to say to her that that what she has suffered is dreadfully unfair, that she suffers too much, that she is a good person, who employs her considerable writing skills in posting a blog every single day, drawing together a community of her readers who think of her and join her in the ups and downs of her journey.
God does not pick on individuals because He needs them more than anyone else; God does not single us out for suffering because He loves us more than someone else or has His special reasons for hurting us. And I don’t believe that God is somehow passively watching what is happening to humanity, uncaring, detached from us all.
I cannot tell her that God is with us, in our suffering, accompanying us, by our side, weeping with us, because that simply doesn’t hold water for her. She seems to need to believe in a punishing God who rewards and chastises. But later on, her daily blog pops into my inbox: ‘My Rabbi visits. It’s lovely to see her and to gain some spiritual succour. She encourages me to believe in a less punitive G-d when I ask “why has G-d chosen me for such cruel, unusual and severe suffering?”’
Life is unfair – particularly unfair in my friend’s case. Perhaps there is some miracle in that she hasn’t rejected God; she hasn’t said – because of my suffering I no longer believe in God. Perhaps this is her way of articulating despair and the exhaustion of fighting against her illnesses and yet, even as she does this, her writing and her daily regimen of exercise, transcending her physical and mental states, are inspiring – it is in her writing that she makes her readers smile, uplifting their hearts, speaking without a trace of self-pity. And perhaps her belief in this God who chastises is a way of allowing a belief that there is some order in her own uncertain world.
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
We are in the place where Avram moved his tent to settle by the oaks of Mamre and built an altar to God; the place where Sarah died and was buried and Jacob lived with his large family; the ancient seat of rulers, where David was anointed king over the tribes of Israel – Hebron.
The second largest city in the West Bank, Hebron or Al Khalil, in Arabic, is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians and around 800 Jews who are concentrated around the old quarter. Our guide is Eliyahu McLean, from Abraham Tours, who introduces himself as a Hasidic Jew, descended from a long line of Scottish pastors on his father’s side and a Jewish American mother. Born in California and raised in Hawaii, he is the founder of the Jerusalem Peacemakers. Here is how he describes his vision:
“I try to hold the whole picture, and that includes the experience of the hilltop
youth and the right-wing settlers, and the experience of the disenfranchised
refugee and the Palestinian who supports Hamas. That seems like an almost
impossible place to be politically– where does that leave you? But I think that’s
where my spiritual roots come in, to somehow be able to hold all of that and
then to organize meetings, events, projects that somehow connect to that.”
He leaves us with Mohammed, the young, highly articulate son of a Palestinian shopkeeper, whose wares spill out on to the now deserted street that runs from west to east in front of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The Herodian walls which surround the Cave of Machpelah, the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs, is reached by a set of wide stone steps. Mohammed takes us up into one half of the building, now a mosque where Isaac and Rebekah’s tomb rest in the centre; later on Eliyahu will lead us into the Jewish part of the Cave and we will see again how Abraham and Sarah’s tombs are divided – one half in the mosque, the other half in the synagogue.
From the mosque, Mohammed takes us through the market and into downtown Hebron – the administration of the city is confusing – the Hebron Protocol of 1997 divided the city into two sectors: H1 controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, roughly 20% of the city administered by Israel. Through the narrow streets of the market, there are shops on either side and we stop in front a stall of souvenirs to meet the owner; Mohammed invites him to explain what it is like to live and work in this place. The street is covered with chicken wire and in some places rusted corrugated iron, because above the buildings on one side of the street, explains the shopkeeper, is a house that has been taken over by Israeli settlers who throw their rubbish out of the windows and allegedly harass the stall owners by pouring sewage and other trash into the street below. Later, on this dual narrative tour, Eliyahu will tell us that it is true that Israeli settlers harassed the Palestinians below and took over another house, forcing a Palestinian family to leave, but that the rubbish is old and the settlers have now left.
Downtown Hebron is chaotic, cars tearing their way through a busy main street, hooting those in their way, children begging for money, women and men doing their shopping to prepare meals for the breaking of the fast at the end of the day – we are a week away from the end of Ramadan.
Lunch is at the home of Mohammed, where he lives with his parents, wife and little daughters. Their hospitality is generous – huge plates of chicken and rice, hummus and warm pitta bread. The women make themselves scarce and we seek them out to thank them; they are quiet and modest, leaving the talking to their men-folk, but I feel grateful to have been welcomed into this Palestinian home, to have shared food with our group and listened to the Palestinian side of this narrative.
We are handed back to Eliyahu who leads us through the part of Hebron that is administered by Israel – up a narrow street and steps that lead to the tombs of Ruth and Jesse, a small synagogue where one man is praying and another larger place of study and prayer. An Israeli soldier stands guard over the shrine.
We enter the other half of the Cave of Machpelah, now a synagogue. It is strange to see these shrines inside a synagogue – cemeteries and tombs are places of tum’ah – impurity, they should not be places of worship, but the politics of this place is fiercely competitive and I am reminded of the mosaic at Hamat Teveriya – an ancient synagogue by the Kinneret – with a representation of Helios, the sun-god in front of the place where the Ark would have been – a Jewish re-interpretation of Greek and early Christian art that perhaps is an expression of the bitter rivalry that existed between the early Christians and Jews living in the Galilee.
Our final visit is to a museum in the Jewish Quarter of Hebron, Beit Hadassah. There are graphic photographs of survivors of the 1929 Hebron Massacre, when 67 Jews were murdered by Arabs and scores horribly mutilated. Tzippi Schlissel manages the museum and tells us that her grandmother was rescued by an Arab family during the pogrom. So why is it, we ask, Palestinians and Jews are unable to trust each other in this place; why not seek out your neighbours to speak to them, to work with them and live beside them. And then, unassuming, quietly, she tells us that her father was stabbed and killed by a Palestinian in 1998 and that afterwards she came to Hebron to live with her mother. ‘I have a psychological barrier still,’ she says. I cannot trust, you do not know what will happen.’ And we are silenced. ‘My mother,’ she adds, ‘was the grand-daughter of Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine.’
And I wonder what Rav Kook would have made of the religious nationalism today that makes this conflict so intractable on both sides. ‘Nationalist movements are temporary phenomena,’ he wrote, ‘which are due to be transcended as humanity responds to the more universal claims of human nature…Those who think that the new nationalist movement can supersede our concern with holiness are in grievous error.’ Only in the ‘dimension of holiness’ can we find ‘the source of abiding life.’
Can one find hope even here in Hebron where the memories of pogroms, stabbings and shootings are still so raw? The tragic irony of this city lies in its name: Al-Khalil in Arabic, Hebron in Hebrew, both words coming from Semitic roots that have something to do with ‘joining together’, ‘being bound together,’ ‘friend’ – a reference to Abraham in the Q’uran, who is described as Khalil al-Rahman – ‘Friend of God,’ echoing Isaiah’s Avraham ohavi – Abraham, My beloved’ or ‘My friend’.
Certainly, there are friendships across the divide, encounters and conversations. Surely the partnership between Mohammed and Eliyahu is one such conversation, where a little bit of distrust and prejudice is dissipated in the quest for peace. We came across many other examples of individuals in organisations working hard to close the wounds and allow healing to take place. And we were heartened, in spite of everything we read and uplifted by the courage of women and men seeking to build dialogue and understanding.
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
I am enjoying working with one of our members towards her adult Bat Mitzvah later on this year and, last week, in discussing the Torah portion (B’Ha’a lot’kha), she commented on ‘Moses’ epic meltdown’, when he rails at the burden of ‘carrying’ the Israelite people. Well, in this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’kha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) it is God’s turn to have an epic meltdown.
At the beginning of the parashah, Moses sends twelve Israelites, one from each tribe, to spy out the land of Canaan. When they report back, on their return, ten of the spies tell of a beautiful and bountiful land, but with fortified cities and terrifying inhabitants, too powerful to take on in battle, and the other two spies, Joshua and Caleb, assure the people that these inhabitants can be defeated.
The Israelites believe the ten spies, rather than the two, and rail against Moses and Aaron, demanding to return to Egypt. Joshua and Caleb are almost attacked with stones, when they try to reason with the people.
Everyone seems to have come to the end of their respective tethers in this section of the Torah. Moses, as I mentioned, despaired of leading this fractious, complaining people any further. The Israelites themselves go through a cycle of despairing of their situation, moaning and grumbling about the food, the water, Moses, Aaron and God, who has led them towards Canaan only for them ‘to fall by the sword’ (14:3).
God has finally had enough of the people’s lack of faith, and threatens to destroy them and start over with Moses, from whom God would make a far more numerous nation. Moses talks God down, saying that, if he destroys the people, the other nations will believe that God is powerless to fulfil the divine promise to the Israelites, to bring them to the land of Canaan. Moses then goes on to appeal to God’s attribute of mercy, reminding God of God’s own patience, forbearance and compassion, and finally pleading, in words familiar from our Yom Kippur service: s’lach na la-avon ha-am ha-zeh k’godel chas’dekha, ‘forgive, please, the iniquity of this people, according to Your great kindness’, to which God responds, salachti kid’varekha, ‘I have forgiven, according to your word’.
It’s a remarkably powerful text, and theologically quite challenging. Like Abraham, in Genesis chapter 18, trying to persuade God not to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and wipe out the innocent together with the guilty, Moses, to borrow a well-known phrase, ‘speaks truth to power’. ‘Shall the Judge of all the world not act justly?’ cries Abraham (Gen.18:25). Moses appeals to God’s vanity, and compassion, in persuading God against such a drastic course of action. God is at His most human in this passage.
This is part of what makes it, I think, the story of us all. We all have our limits. We all complain, argue, moan about our situation, from time to time. But then we pick ourselves up and move forward. Maureen Kendler, the pioneering and inspirational Jewish educator, who died earlier this year, wrote that ‘This is family. Total strangers do not complain about each other and argue as Israel and God do. God is their personal God still even though He is a volcanic, punitive God who destroys thousands in the book of B’midbar[Numbers]. Shelach Lekha marks a low point in our family history, but like families have to do, we patch it up, move on… together.’
Overcoming adversity is not easy, but the alternative is worse. We are continually facing challenges, on a daily basis – some more extreme than others – and our capability to conquer them needs willpower and strength of mind. In the last few weeks, there have been reminders of recent terrorist acts in Manchester and London, and the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry is in progress. These have reminded us that it is possible to recover from adversity and move forward, hard though it may be.
Rabbi Rachel Benjamin
Dear Members and Friends,
It is Monday afternoon and I am outside the North Kensington Library on Ladbroke Grove. A sizeable crowd of people of all ages are spilling into the road from the pavement, waiting to join a silent walk to Bramley Road, near to the burnt out shell of Grenfell Tower. Some stand with placards – ‘Justice for Grenfell’, others hold up photographs of missing residents – many of them children and their families.
Under the burning sun, the crowd swells – a few young men are jostling the organiser, Ishmahil, who is finding it difficult to maintain his calm. There is shouting, tempers are frayed, but eventually we begin walking slowly, silently, up Ladbroke Grove and then left into Cambridge Gardens.
I find myself, walking next to Ahmed. He is telling the story of his last conversation with his sister-in-law, trapped on the twenty-first floor of Grenfell Tower in her flat, with her husband and three children. ‘We have been told to stay in our flat,’ she tells Ahmed. These were the last words he heard from her. He still hopes that the family will be found alive.
The walk continues – everyone silent – down the leafy streets of North Kensington, pausing every few moments, as though we are making that solemn walk from the Ohel to the grave in a Jewish cemetery, to offer up prayers for the souls of the departed. And then, as we leave the spacious Victorian villas behind us, we are in Bramley Road, the traffic thundering over Westway that cuts through this residential neighbourhood. Beneath the concrete flyover and outside the community centre there are burnt out candles and hundreds of photographs pinned to walls and railings, flowers withered in the afternoon sun. ‘Missing’; ‘Have you seen Fawzia?’ or ‘Jessica’? Or the scores of others missing since the fire last week.
And nothing prepares me as I raise my eyes to a peerless blue sky, to see the terrible and shocking black shell of the tower, as though transplanted from hell’s own landscape. We stand transfixed on the pavement below – a man next to his bicycle, a woman standing on the balcony of a block of low-rise brick apartments, her head turned upwards to gaze on its unsightly and menacing frame. Next to me, a group of three young girls clap their hands to their mouths, their eyes wide open in incredulous astonishment. There are no words to describe this blind, burnt, blackened, towering box – its empty, glass-less windows a shocking indictment of negligence, of all that is morally ugly in our society.
It is enough. If we are tired, exhausted by the news – yet another atrocity outside Finsbury Park Mosque that night after my visit to the Tower – what of the victims and their families? What of the police and fire service, what of the hospital staff triaging those who most urgently need care and attention? What of those who must tell families – your loved one is missing; we cannot locate them, knowing in all certainty that what ‘missing’ means is something else altogether?
These days are frightening for all of us. They make us anxious and fearful – and that anxiety spills into our own families, into our own lives, for we cannot seal ourselves from the vulnerability of being an ordinary citizen crossing a bridge, walking along a pavement, of living in a high rise block of flats.
It was Ahmed – the man whose sister-in-law and family had been lost in the fire – who taught me the need for companionship and connection in the midst of tragedy. We stood as old friends, although I had met him just five minutes before. He introduced me to a Palestinian lawyer; he wanted me – a Jew and a Rabbi to connect with his friend. He wanted to reach out, to be reassured and to know there were friends, those who would accompany him on this walk and help him deal with the terrible aftermath of violent and tragic death.
I know our community tries to be that locus for companionship and connection. We need each other more than ever – to allay our fears and to find again some kind of faith in each other, in ourselves and in a compassionate God who weeps with all those who suffer.