Thursday, 24 September 2015

As the Dust Settles

I want to offer my warm thanks to everyone who took part, led, or otherwise supported our services over Yom Kippur. It was a very special day and I was very touched to hear so much warm appreciation from members.
Thank you.
As we look to keep working to improve what we do I've put together a very simple opportunity for members to share feedback on the services. If you have anything to share, or any suggestions for where we can improve, please do.

And coming soon! I warmly look forward to seeing one and all over Succot, beginning this Sunday evening.

Rav Kook, writing on Succot, notes how 'though good for the soul' the journey of Yom Kippur in particular can be a little draining, with all our repentence and this relentless focus on sin we can feel a little beaten up. And that is why Succot comes so close on the heels of the Days of Awe; Succot is a time of celebration and joy. I defy anyone not to smile at the scent of the etrog, I'm always amused by the dance we perform with the weather at this time of year - in, out, in, out etc. Joy is good, celebration is good, eating is good. And, with the high, and heavy lifting behind us, we can prepare to celebrate.
There are services, evening and morning both days of Succot (Sunday night - Tuesday morning), followed (weather permitting) by a Kiddush in the Succah.
Let me also take this opportunity to wave a flag for our Simchat Torah celebrations where we will be celebrating the end and beginning of our Torah cycle and honouring some wonderful New London members; Nathalie Glaser, Brian Linden, David Lewis and Gina Sanders. In particular our celebrations on Monday night, 5th October are a wonderful way to bid the Tishrei season farewell and all are most warmly invited.
Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Jeremy

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Kol Nidrei - A Complex World

A Complex World
I had some time off over the summer, and did what every good Rabbi should do with some time off, and checked myself into Yeshiva. Astonishingly it's been 18 years since I studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, it's not that I haven't done learning since then, but there is something very special about having a run of time to pour through Rabbinic material in detail. And that's hard to squeeze in among the other demands of a congregational life.
The book I wanted to learn was, Meishiv Milchamah, the legal writings of the first Chief Rabbi of the Israel Armed Forces, Shlomo Goren. You might recognise this photo - that's Rav Goren, at the Kottel on the sixth day of the Six Day War. Rav Goren quite literally wrote the book on how the Israeli Army should be keep Shabbat and handle the demands of Kashrut - this is it. Meishiv Milchama also includes sections on dealing with the status in Jewish law of the wives of sailors, who disappeared in military service. Were it not for Goren's interventions these women would have been left in a limbo of being neither widowed, nor married. I enjoyed working my way through these sections, but the sections that originally drew me to the work were ones that attempted to articulate what it means for Israel's army to be holy. How do you balance the brutal, bloody demands of defending a country from existential threat with a commitment to the sanctity of all life? What is permitted in the name of self-defence either in anticipation or as retaliation? What responsibilities does Israel's Army have towards Palestinian non-combatants in occupied territories? And on; these are all questions Goren Wrestles with in Meishiv Milchamah.
I want, if you will join me, to take you inside one of Rav Goren's articles on the Lebanon War, back in the early 1980s.
In 1982 the Israeli Defence Forces invaded Lebanon, and began a siege on its capital, Beirut, in an attempt to bring to an end attacks on the northern Galil. Goren waded into the national debate with an article based on an obscure demand found in Maimonides' tenth century legal code, the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides demands that when a city is besieged an escape route must be left for those who wish to flee.[1] When I first heard of Goren's application of Maimonides' doctrine of the 'escape route' to the siege of Beirut I was stunned. A siege with an escape route seemed  as much use as a bucket full of holes. I read an article suggesting that Goren was driven by an ethical sense that compelled him to advocate having mercy even for Israel's enemies. In fact this was the article that inspired me to spend a summer reading Meishiv Milchamah. I was excited to see someone, actually someone known as a right-winger, a hawk, advocating this sort of merciful ethics.
So I went to Israel, and I got hold of the books and I read them, and in the books I found ... that it's more complicated than that.
It turns out that when you read Goren carefully it's not so clear that Goren is, in fact, motivated by an ethic of extending mercy towards even your enemies. In fact he spends a great deal of time discussing the possibility that the instruction to leave an escape route is merely, an eitzah - a piece of advice based on a Mediaeval conception of military siege best practice - a devar strategi - a matter of strategy - designed to weaken the determination of the besieged population who might, if deprived of an escape route, feel the need to fight to the bitter death. And if this is merely eitzah  - advice, a devar strategi, then, says Goren, it's up to the Generals of the day to decide if they want to follow this strategic advice, or other strategic advice from other quarters.
It was a deflating moment. I was looking for some kind of ethical beam of light to puncture the bleakness of so much that has emerged during and since the War in Southern Lebanon. I wanted a beacon of purity to shine into a world of military ethics I find challenging - and I thought I had one, but on closer inspection it turned out I was mistaken. I was deflated.
And then I remembered a poster that used to hang in the Synagogue of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I trained for the Rabbinate. It's an advert designed to encourage people to apply to the Seminary. In large print is this question;
Two people are crossing a desert, there is only enough water for one of them to make it. Who gets the water?
And then, towards the middle of the poster, in equally large print is this comment.
There is a simple answer to every complicated question... which is usually wrong.
And if you make it to the small print you will find out that the question about the water is discussed in the Talmud and that if you want to really know about what Judaism thinks should happen with this one bottle and the two desert wanderers, you should consider studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
It's an advert for a kind of Judaism prefers complex answers to complex questions. It's an advert that suggests that simple answers are likely to be wrong simply by dint of their simplicity. It's an advert that sums up not so much a specific approach of the Jewish Theological Seminary, but - I would claim - the reality of Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism distrusts the simple, it is, at its very core, a journey through nuance and subtlety replete with a deep understanding of complexity.
And in terms of my desire to find in Shlomo Goren's writings on war a beacon of morality, it's an advert that tells me that maybe there are no easy answers, no simple ethical solutions when it comes to war.
There is a simple answer to every complicated question... which is usually wrong.
When we encounter religion as children - even when I first encountered Goren - we want and we expect simples answers. Do good and get good, say sorry and get forgiven, read a book on the morality of war and expect to find simple morals. And now here I am - here we all are, grown up, at least a little bit, forced to confront the reality that Judaism just like life itself, is more complicated than that.

You may, at this point have realised, that I'm not really giving a sermon about Israel and the complexity of defending a country surrounded by, and even pervaded with, enemies. Or at least it's not merely about that.
It's a sermon about what we think we are doing here as more or less religious Jews, both praying to be sealed in the book of life, and not really believing that there exists - up in the heavens - ledgers in which is written whatever fate lies in store for us this year. Our religious journey is complex, but that's OK.
It's a sermon about the world, a world where - let me return to the subject of my sermon over Rosh Hashanah - we might want to be more open-hearted in our welcome to refugees, but run up against complexities because of one reason or another.
It's a sermon about our relationship with our parents, or our children, or our work colleagues, who we would find it so much easier to love with a full heart, if only they would do more of one thing, or less of another. Ah these families are complex things.
It's a sermon about politics, maybe you want to support one party, but don't like their leader, or the other, but aren't sure their attitude towards the one issue you value more than any other is quite where you would want it to be.
Perhaps above all this is a sermon about what it means to be a Masorti Jew, feeling more comfortable in a place which eschews the appeal of the simple, but wrong, in favour of a more complicated view of the world. It's a sermon that says to those of us who can handle complexity in one area of our life - and that is surely all of us - be more at peace with complexity throughout a life. It's a sermon that wants us all to feel more at home in a Jewish community that contains, and even celebrates, these tensions and counter-tensions. It's a sermon about New London.
There is a story about a community trying to work out what to do about one of the strange calendrical situations that come up only once every several years. The Rabbi, who's not been so long at the shul thinks the community should do one thing, the Cantor who's also a little on the new side thinks the shul should do the other thing. Together they go to longest-standing member to see what happened last time the community faced the same problem. 'Last time this happened we did what I claim we should do,' prompts the Rabbi, right?' 'No,' responds the member, 'Not right.' 'So last time this happened we did what I claim we should do?' responds the Cantor eagerly. 'No, not that either,' responds the member. 'Then what did happen last time?' both clergy demand, exasperated. 'Last time this happened,' the senior member is forced to admit, 'The Rabbi and the Cantor disagreed, and we had a big old discussion about it.' That's my kind of shul.
Have I missed out that this is a sermon about the role of women in our services here? It's a sermon about that too.
This is a sermon about finding the nuanced, delicately poised uneven solution more attractive than the cast-iron clear-cut one in every part of our life.
We have a problem in this world, a problem of being seduced by the simple. Spin-doctors insist that we - the great unwashed of a society - are only capable of responding to the simple statements, repeated with sufficient frequency that we come to believe them by dint of their continual thudding against our eardrums. And they have, I'm forced to admit it, some pretty compelling evidence on their side. But it doesn't mean I have to like it. It doesn't mean any of us should accept it.

Particularly since so many of the failings of the world are due to our pursuit of over simple solutions to the complexities of our lives.
The notion that a claim is better because it is simpler, or that it becomes more persuasive simply by being repeated is one we should reject. Instead we should ... well what exactly? This is the problem with a world of complexity, we can find ourselves stilled, paralysed almost, and that's no good either.
Maybe there is a way out offered by one of my most dearly treasured verses, from the Book of Micah.
God has told you what is good and what God demands of you; only that you should do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.
I like this verse. It has its own complexities. First there is that weasel word 'only' - as if doing any one of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God isn't enough we are called upon to do all three. But more than that, there are so many contradictions in the instruction. Doing justice and being kind are often incompatible. If someone has done something wrong, the just thing to do vigorously oppose it. The kind thing to do is to forgive it. But there is something in this triumvirate of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly that coheres as a single response. Maybe the three legs of this verse serve as a kind of counterbalance on to the other. When we find ourselves getting too strict and disciplined - too much justice, maybe we should try to love kindness a little more and walk a little more modestly. When we find ourselves walking too humbly, we should look to act more boldly; loving more boldly and promoting more justice in the world more vigorously. When we think we've got all the answers, we should walk a little more humbly.
In this year to come we should take opportunities to embrace the complexities of our life, the vibrant spectrum of colour that emerges between the extreme polarities of a life lived in black and white.
The complex is to be welcomed. The balanced approach - do I need a little more kindness, a little more justice, maybe a little more humility - is the one which will mark out our lives for greater glory in the year to come.
And as such, I commend it for us all, for a year ahead of sweetness, health and happiness, a year of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly.
Chatimah Tovah,
A good year to all,

[1] כְּשֶׁצָּרִין עַל עִיר לְתָפְסָהּ, אֵין מַקִּיפִין אוֹתָהּ מֵאַרְבַּע רוּחוֹתֶיהָ אֵלָא מִשָּׁלוֹשׁ רוּחוֹתֶיהָ, וּמַנִּיחִין מָקוֹם לַבּוֹרֵחַ, וּלְמִי שֶׁרוֹצֶה לְהִמָּלֵט עַל נַפְשׁוֹשֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "וַיִּצְבְּאוּ, עַל-מִדְיָן, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה', אֶת-מֹשֶׁה" (במדבר לא,ז)--מִפִּי הַשְּׁמוּעָה לָמְדוּ, שֶׁבְּכָּךְ צִוָּהוּ.

Neilah - Lessons in Love

Lessons In Love

The Maggid of Kozienicz[1] was a great Hasidic leader. But he wouldn't give the sermon on the holiest of days in his home town. You see in those days sermons would be long, technical and full and rebukes and reprimands. But one Yom Kippur the people crowded around him, and insisted. Eventually they succeeded in persuading him. The Maggid went up to the bimah, stood there for some time, and appeared to be ready to start several times, before .... nothing.
And then finally this,
My friends! I wanted to find sins in the Jews – but I have come to see that you are all holy, because your source is holy and your intentions are good. It is really only the exile of this world that has defiled us. So, may the redemption come and bring us out of exile, and let us say, Amen.[2]
And then he sat down.

I like that story. It's a story about a particular attitude towards Jewish leadership. You have to love Jews to be a Rabbi. Fortunately I do, and even if not every one of us keeps every jot and tittle of every legal command, I think you are all lovely.

It's good to love, it's actually an obligation, a Mitzvah no less to love; you have to love your fellow - that's the one Akiva considered the central organising principle of the entire Torah. Then there is the obligation to love God - that's the first line of the Shema, and the obligation, the most frequently repeated in the Torah, to love the stranger. A whole lot of loving.

It's not that I see myself as any particular expert, but I want to share three lessons in love, three challenges, if you will, to determine if we are doing it right, in the hope that we'll do it better, and do it more in the year to come.

Lesson One
Antigonus Ish Socho, on of the most ancient of Rabbinic teaches said this;
אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת שלא לקבל פרס[3].
Don't be like a servant who serves their master in the expectation of receiving a reward, rather be like a servant who serves their master with no expectation of reward.

Antigonus is talking about serving God, but it's a great question to ask regarding all our interactions.

When we are being nice to other people - and we are all nice to other people at least some of the time - are we doing it in the expectation of reward? Doing nice in the hope of getting a reward is OK. It's certainly better than not doing nice things for other people. But the expectation of reward removes the quality of love from an interaction. If you are putting something into a relationship calculating the scale of your investment against the prospect of a dividend you are not behaving like a lover, you're behaving like a financial analyst. Relationships based on mutual reciprocity, calculated on the basis of getting out at least what you put in are what Martin Buber called I-It relationships; not bad, as such, just quotidian, mechanical, dull - the Hebrew word would be Chol - profane.

But when you catch yourself putting more into a relationship than you could ever hope to get out - that's love, that's Buber's I-Thou interaction, that's the fullness of what it means to be a human being, that's holy.

A first test in love - Are you putting in more than you are planning on getting out?

And a second.
You do know, don't you, that love isn't an emotion. It's not something you do, it's something that is revealed by action.

A story.
A colleague, a very successful Rabbi in New York, receives a call from his long-since retired father, who had gone to live in Israel.
Avi, he said, I’m phoning to tell you my plane's been delayed and I'm now coming in to New York on Friday.’
‘Oh Abba,’ responds Avi, ‘That’s terrific, you know how much I love to see you.
I’ll arrange a cab to pick you up at the airport and bring you home and I’ll see you when I get back from the…
‘Avi’ the father interrupts, ‘I said I’m arriving at the airport on Friday.’
‘I heard Abba, and you know how much I’d love to come and pick you up from the airport, but, you see …
‘Avi,’ the voice gets serious, ‘do me a favour, love me a little less, and pick me up from the airport.’

I've told that story before, I love it a great deal. But partly I'm telling it this year because Avi's father passed away in Israel several months ago and at one point, on my Facebook feed, up popped a video of 30 of his congregants who went to the airport to pick up their teacher as returned to New York from the Shiva. They obviously knew that story too - a story in which love is revealed by our willingness to schlep out to the airport; love is revealed by action.

It's a very Jewish approach. The Shema calls us to God, in the Shema, it doesn't mean we are commanded to feel all warm and cosy inside. It means we are commanded to repeat these words night and day, to our children, to put on Tefilin and affix Mezzuzot.

When we are commanded to love the stranger, in Deuteronomy, we are commanded to leave parts of our harvest for them, we are commanded to ensure they have enough to eat and clothes to wear. It's our actions that reveal the nature of love.

Golde was definitely on to something in Fiddler on the Roof;

Do I love you? 

For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
If that's not love what is?

Aside from the gender critique - and there is certainly a gender critique - Golde has  a great point - this, all this activity, reveals love.

Officiating at weddings is great, having the best seat at a Chuppah is the a wonderful  perk of the job, and I am touched by the articulations of love that come from the newly engaged. But I would be much more interested in peeking into their future, and seeing how they are behaving in the moments of normalcy and challenge. How are their actions in those moments revealing the true nature of their relationship?

Do you ever find yourself using the words of love to free yourself from actually having to do something loving? I'll admit it, I do. At least sometimes. It's not really good enough, is it.

Maybe the true test of love is the Martian's test - if a Martian dropped into our homes and watched our behaviour would they consider us loving. Or let me do that in more theological language, with our every action revealed and laid bare before the One who knows all, how loving do we appear before our creator?

Test one - do we put in more than we expect to get out.
Test two - what do our actions reveal about our ability to love.

And one more.
It's a little complex. Love, real love, isn't about the object of love.
The point of love isn't to select with whom we share our love. The point is to be loving not discriminating in our love.

There's a clue in the array of objects of love commanded in the Torah; God and then two categories of human; your fellow (it's often translated as 'your brother') and the stranger. In other words you have to love two types of person, the one like you and the one different from you; the humans you naturally are drawn towards and the humans you naturally draw away from.

Admittedly the Christians have made more of play of loving one's enemies than the Jews, but it's the Hebrew Book of Exodus which instructs, 'if you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down, rescue it with them.'[4]
And it's the Hebrew Book of Proverbs which instructs, 'If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat.'[5] We've plenty to say about the importance of loving those we don't in fact like very much.

I'm quite sure that Akiva, in suggesting that loving your fellow is the central principle of the Torah, must have meant we have an obligation to love those we dislike. What, after all, would be the point of a Biblical injunction to love only those we like already? How can that provide a central principle for anything?

True love isn't to be funnelled only in limited directions.
A love that is too busy selecting what, or whom, to love isn't really love at all. At best it's an exercise in self-gratification, we love that which makes us feel better and we turn our hearts away from anything or anyone who doesn't. At worst a fenced-in love could be the cover for a much nastier emotion - hate.

I've long been amused by a provocative insight into the relationship between a Jew and an antisemite. The antisemite, the saying goes, hates all Jews, but has nothing against Shumli, who lives next door. On the other the Jew loves all Jews, but Shmuli...!

Neither Jew nor protagonist emerges from the tale free of taint.
The case I am making is that there is a link between the pejorative notion of being discriminating - that is to say being an out and out racist, and the supposedly non-pejorative notion of being discriminating - that is to say being picky about who or what we love.
We should be working on becoming less discriminating in both senses of the term.
We should loving a lot more and excluding from the bracket of those with whom we share our love a lot less. 
Be more loving, be less picky.

That's my third test of love.
We need to focus our ability to love on being loving, not discriminating.

So this is my Neilah call, it's both simple and complicated.
Be a lover, love more, love better.

Put more into your relationships than you expect to get out from them.
Check and check again that your actions reveal you to be a lover.
And watch out when you find yourself becoming discriminating in choices around love.

Goodness, what a wonderful world we could create together.
What a lovely world.
May we all work to create it in this year ahead,
Let us take these last few moments, before the gates close to commit ourselves to building this version of a new year for us.
And may we all have the merit to enjoy it,

Chatimah Tovah

[1] c. 1737-1814
[2] I came across this story in a sermon given by R. Tirza Firestone, formerly the Rabbi of the Boulder Renewal Community.
[3] Avot 1:3
[4] 23:5
[5] 25:21

Yizkor - Judaism Works

Sheryl Sandberg's husband died this year. You may have caught the story on the news. Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and her husband was the CEO of SurveyMonkey. Do you remember the survey we did about the community last year - that was done on SurveyMonkey. He was 47, their kids are even younger than that. Sandberg, some thirty days later, posted - on Facebook, where else, some reflections on what she had learnt. It was a moving and inspirational post, but my eye was drawn to the Rabbinic bit.
Sandberg talked about Shiva, she talked about Sheloshim. When she said, ' I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I feel like I am thirty years wiser,' I felt that in amongst the pain and the loss, the Jewish piece had played its part in providing a net to carry her and her family from the first moments of horror forward.
I often do.
In part I'm telling this story about Sandberg because she posted, publically. I've got an entire shelf of books written by people reflecting on what does and doesn't help in the aftermath of loss; losses both appallingly tragic and less tragic. I could tell a similar story about the losses so many of the members of this community. I so often feel and so often am told that in amongst the pain and the loss, the Jewish piece had played its part in providing a net to carry her and her family from the first moments of horror forward.

Maybe I'm in danger of overreaching a touch. Maybe there are a few of you here who were dragged through the Jewish observances after the loss of those you have loved most and felt nothing, or felt only anger towards our faith. To you I'm sorry, you may well not like anything of what I am going on to say, but I want to take this moment, on this most special of days, to unpack a little of why and how I think this Jewish thing works, not only in the aftermath of loss, but more generally also.

On the one hand it's terribly hard to know what to do when someone passes away.

There are so many different kinds of death, no two could ever be the same. There are deaths that come at the end of a long and richly lived life, and those that come horribly before their time. There are deaths that come at the end of a long illness, and deaths that come suddenly.

And there are so many different mourners, no two could ever be the same. We cover different generations, different levels of dependence on the person who has passed away, different levels of love - let it be admitted. There are the mourners who were once so close, but have drifted apart and there are those who had difficult times earlier in life, but had been successfully putting a relationship back together until death ripped that apart again.

And there are so many different emotions that rampage around a house of mourning. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, widely recognized as doyenne of the study of grief suggests five; denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. But I regularly see so many others; fear, guilt, relief. I meet mourners who feel guilty because they feel relieved and mourners who feel relieved because they feel guilty. And then the most bleak emotional response; the emotional response which is empty of all emotion.

If all that doesn't make knowing what to do about loss sufficiently confusing there is one extra dimension of complexity. When we encounter the loss of another's parent or lover or sibling or child, God forbid, we are forced to encounter our own mortality. That's scary.

And into all that complexity, and variation and sheer awful pain, Judaism wades in with a collection of observances and Halachah and customs that can seem, from the outside, so strange and old-fashioned, but from the inside, for so many, work - or at least help as much as any response to loss could.

We move quickly, partly because it is felt to be an affront to the deceased to be left just hanging around, and partly because we believe a family can't mourn while, in the language of the Talmud, the dead lie before them.
A body is washed, dressed with the care and a liturgy that would befit the High Priest in Temple times, but in the simplest of clothes - Tachrichim, and placed in the simplest of plain pine boxes. All of us dressed the same way, boxed up the same way - death is universal and universally horrid, 'who is important, who is distinguished [before the angel of death]' notes the Talmud.[1]
The funeral is simple, no complicated liturgical decisions to make, two brief readings and then a eulogy. 'Don't make your eulogy too long' counsels the Talmud - wise advice this one for Rabbis who are called upon to speak at funerals. Don't kid yourself you can effectively sum up a life no matter how long you go on for.

Then that most brutal of moments, when the coffin is lowered and the mourners are offered shovels, and there is that sound of earth hitting the coffin and the pain is palpable. It's done because the Jewish tradition isn't designed to mollify or pacify in the aftermath of the loss of those we love most. It's designed to bring into sharp focus the loss we have just experienced. If the observance feels raw, that is only an attempt to match the reality of what has taken place.

Oh, there are so many moments of detail. There is a tradition I always take a moment to observe - plucking a few blades of grass as we leave the grounds and letting them flutter away through my fingers with reference to a verse in Isaiah, an image used also at the heart of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, 'Yavesh Chatzir'[2] - grass withers. For we came from dust and will return to dust.

Then comes the food - we are after all Jews, what did you expect? - and the low chairs and the wishes for a long life, and the candles and the covered mirrors and then the Shloshim, and the Yartzeit. There is the way the Kaddish that starts so stiff and foreign in the mouth, even of those who know their way around a service, and after a year becomes easier to say, just as the tradition hopes the loss becomes easier to bear.

So many ideas all coded into ritual and practice.
This is the point.
Out of this panoply of rituals, each one attempting to hold, or honour or confront a web emerges that can, I do genuinely believe, hold all of us, no matter who it is we have lost, or how we have lost them, or who we are, even as we change pinging around in the aftermath of a bereavement from one emotional ebb to another flow.

The ritual, our faith tradition, wants to wrap us up and protect us at the most raw moments of our journey, and gently put us down as the rawness passes, gently ushering us back into the real world for we are forbidden from sitting Shiva for evermore. Of course our rituals don't make all this pain disappear in an instant, but the goal of mourning isn't 'to get over it.' The goal is revealed slowly, over the passage of time.

What a gift. What a gift to be a Jew, to have woven into our spiritual DNA an entire approach to death which is this sensitive and this deep. What a gift, as a Rabbi visiting the bereaved, to know I have this arsenal. When the words don't work, when there are no words that could possibly help, I can reach into this treasure chest of our faith and find something that might help in a way that no words can match.

And why does all this help? In part because these rituals have been created by wise, compassionate elders of our faith who understand the nature of our mortal condition. In part because these rituals have evolved slowly becoming increasingly attuned to their ecological niche, just as any other evolving system becomes increasingly effective. In part because underneath and beyond all this human endeavour is a divine whisper that our human efforts have managed to pick up like some giant radar array detecting the presence of far-off life.

Again, if I'm overreaching I'm sorry. If you are listening to this thinking I have no understanding of how poorly our faith tradition failed you at your time of greatest loss, I'm sorry. But I hope, and I think I've reasonably safe in thinking that there won't be so many of you thinking that. There are definitely those of you who have shared that this, this whole Jewish thing, has helped. There are those of you who didn't, at the beginning of the journey, see yourselves wanting to sit so many nights of Shiva, or come so regularly to Shul to say Kaddish, but, in the days, weeks and months after the moments of greatest rawness have reflected that it did help after all.
I think this does help.

And so here's my question.
If we got it so right, when it comes to our approach to bereavement, how come we got it so wrong in our approach to so much else of Jewish life?
Or let me try that slightly differently, if, when it comes to bereavement there is a sense that the tradition and its rituals and observances help us, support us and leave us stronger how come we aren't a more observant community when it comes to Kashrut, or Shabbat, or shul attendence.

I mentioned that survey, we did last year - only 52% of respondents ticked the box that said they kept kosher at home and a only 28% ticked the box that said they kept kosher 'out.' That's it? It hurts.

It's not that the rituals associated with Kashrut come from a different place from the rituals associated with bereavement. They come as refractions of divine will and have been pored over and evolved through centuries of wise and careful balancing.

It's not that the rituals associated with Kashrut don't hold and code for profound ideas about the nature of food and ourselves. If we are what we eat we should, surely, be thinking more carefully about what it is we out in our mouths, and if we value life we should, surely, be thinking more carefully about our consumption of meat in particular. Each time a Shochet takes the life of an animal to produce kosher meat they say a blessing, animal life - though different from human life - is honoured. To consume meat is an act of violence, our tradition recognises that, and demands that we shouldn't mix milk - that gift of life - with our carnivorous urges. An observance of Kashurt can make us more sensitive to our place in the food chain, and our place as consumers on this planet. Kashrut is one of the most powerful markers of Jewish identity. If you are one of the ones who don't observe, try it - start somewhere easy. Stop ordering the meat is easy. Milk and meat is easy. Try it, and let me know if you think it helps.

And what about Shabbat. Almost 3/4 of respondents ticked that they light Shabbat candles 'always' or at least 'often.' That's not bad, I suppose. But how many of us desist from shopping, or give Shabbat more than the attention of a brief few moments on a Friday evening? The survey didn't tell us that. But it won't be so many. And again, it's not as if the ideas aren't powerful - Shabbat a day to celebrate what have rather than engage permanently in a never-ending consuming cycle of seeking more and more. We will never realise what we truly have until we stop, and give thanks. Shabbat is about what it means to be human in ways deeper than our choice of vegetables or movie downloads. Again, let me offer this in the most simple way I can. Stop spending money from sundown Friday to stars-out Saturday. Be a human being rather than a consumer. And if you want something a little more challenging, turn the radio off, the TV, the phone even! gevalt, how can a person possibly survive with only books and face to face conversation - well I suppose you could come to shul. We moan about the pressures of life, but the ability to turn the computer off is only a flick of a switch away. Try it, and let me know if you think it helps.

We have, I suspect, the Jewish thing back to front. We start from the perspective of it being a drag and of limited value in our oh so busy lives. And then when we need it, it's there and we find in it meaning and relevance and power. We don't need to wait that long. We can start to find the meaning and the relevance and the power before then, before the gates close, before it's too late to make a difference to the lives we live and the most important relationships surrounding us.

If you think it helped, this Jewish thing, at the moments when you and your family were most in need. Give it a try now, make a promise to yourself to try the Kashrut thing, or the Shabbat thing. Frankly any of the things. Try it and let me know if you think it helps. I hope you will. I think you will. And in so doing, I hope, we can all become better Jews, better members of our families, better inheritors of our Jewish tradition, and even better placed to carry these traditions forward into the year to come.

Chatimah Tovah

[1] Moed Katan 28a
[2] Isaiah 40:7, used in the Unataneh Tokef

Monday, 21 September 2015

A Very British Antisemitism

I was coming out the shower after a yoga class and struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. 'Are you going to get yourself one of these?' He asked, nodding at his lovely - but expensive - yoga mat. 'No,' I replied, I've got a mat already, it's not as fancy as that one, but it's fine.' By this point I'm doing up the last buttons of my shirt, 'I'll save myself the hundred pounds.' At this I take the last piece of clothing from the locker, my kippah, and put it on my head. 'Oh,' he starts laughing, 'you said that just as you put the Jewish headcovering on, that's fantastic, that is.' He has genuinely found this an amusing moment. It takes a moment to gather myself. It's been a while since I've heard anything quite so crude directed at me and my "Jewish headcovering." He's noticed I am looking at him strangely. 'What,' he asks, 'you're not amused?' 'By the anitsemitic derogatory stereotyping?' I confirm, 'no I'm not.' Now it's his turn to be taken aback. 'I didn't mean to offend.' He sounds hurt. 'No,' I say, 'I know you didn't, but that doesn't really change anything.' And I'm off, bag on shoulder, door swinging shut behind me.

A couple of reflections.

I didn't let the moment pass. I'm proud of myself. I spend a lot of my time swallowing my tongue, as a communal Rabbi you have to. Moreover a changing room isn't a place where I feel comfortable making anything other than smallest of small talk. I'm caught off-guard, but it turns out I didn't shuffle away meekly in the face of offence - on this occasion. The papers in the Britain have recently been full of discussions about women responding fiercely, or meekly, to the slings and arrows of gentler, but still pernicious, acts of everyday sexism. It turns out for Jews too there is that moment of having to decide whether to let offense lie, or speak out. On this occasion I spoke out. I'm delighted to report speaking out against antisemitism feels good. I encourage us all to commit to it.

I often get asked, usually by Americans, 'how bad is it in Europe?' They are worried that the Charlie Hebdo murders or the latest daubing on a Jewish cemetery somewhere are heralds of a descent into the sorts of antisemitic horror that scarred Europe in the last century. I don't believe it. There are a number of genuine fascists in this country, but they are barely capable of drumming up a Minyan. There is also an islamist threat, but again these numbers are tiny and I believe mainstream Islam, not to mention every other part of society, is working hard and largely successfully, to mute and tame this threat. This anti-islamist work is vital and we, as Jews, need to ensure our own safety as well as call on everyone in society to continue to demonstrate their commitment to defending the canaries in the mine, but the threat is far from ubiquitous.

Then there is this; the just-below-the-surface jumble of good ol' fashioned antisemitic stereotypes repackaged for contemporary times; the Jew and their money most of all. And, the new kid on the block, the Zionist who thereby must hate all Arabs and disdains the grief of Palestinian loss (my own feelings on this one are that this is a modern version of the blood libel - we Jews are still being held to require the blood of the innocent non-Jew to meet our nefarious religious necessities). Those harbouring these feelings don't consider themselves to be antisemitic, they might not even realise they are such a harbour. If you were to ask such a person what they thought of antisemitism they would, of course, oppose it vigorously. But these feelings lurk under the conscious radar. For the first three glasses of wine at the dinner party they will remain in check, but come dessert-time there they are. When the person in the locker room is suddenly revealed as an observant Jew the shock dislodges these subterranean vats of pus and up they bubble.

My take on the nature of British antisemitism is not so much that it's coming back, but that it never really disappeared. It just got buried under a thin screed of politesse and, to come back to my first point, that is why naming and shaming the moments when residual antisemitism rears its ugly head is so important.
May we never have to.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Rosh Hashanah II Sermon - Boing

Rebbe, said the Chasid, I have a problem,
              Tell me your problem my dear one.
My problem, dear Rebbe, is that I don't know if I want to come to the Synagogue to pray?
              Why is it, my dear one, that you don't want to come to the Synagogue to pray?
Dear Rebbe, it is that I find prayer very hard.
              And why, my dear one, do you find it hard to pray?
Dear Rebbe, I find it hard because I don't know if God is listening.
              And why, my dear one, is that a problem?
Because if God isn't listening, maybe there is no point to any of this?
              Ah, my dear one, what makes you think I am any different?

It's the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I'm amongst friends. So I want to ask a very big question. What exactly are we doing here - stepping out of the confines and opportunities of the rest-of-the-year world - draping ourselves in festive finery and rocking and shockeling when our belief structures are, how can I say it, unsteady on their feet? It's not a bad question. It's a question I ask myself.
Perhaps you have experienced the same thing I've experienced, every now and again? A sort of ambivalent envy towards a more literalist faith - the sort of faith that neither our Rebbe nor our Chasid  actually have - but the sort of faith that would - if we could only believe in it - justify our decisions to come to shul and lead us to pray as if our lives literally depended on the fervour with which we recite our benedictions.
It's an ambivalent envy because it's not purely an attractive tug. It's also a deeply unattractive one. It's not just that I don't believe literally and I can't pretend that I do, but more than that I distrust anyone  who espouses a literalist theology - I find such things dangerous as well as nonsensical.
So what do we have left, and is it enough?
I'll share what, exactly, I think I am doing here shortly, but I want to give a few kicks to the notion that a literalist theology is what we, as Jews, are should believe in, because I don't think it is.
We read some very special verses this last Shabbat;
These instructions I instruct you in today, they aren't miraculous for you and they aren't far away. They are not in the Heavens that you should say, who will ascend to the Heavens for us and get it for us. Neither is it across the sea. Rather this thing is most close to you, it's in your mouth and your heart. (Deut 30)
In Moses last great speech to the Children of Israel he doesn't call on them, on us, to lobotomise, to give up on our rational selves and seek to adopt something beyond our ken. Rather we are urged to feel the connection to Torah and Judaism from the place where we find ourselves.
It's not in the heavens, it's not across the sea. Rather it's most close to you.
I'm reminded of a wonderful poem of the Sufi master, Rumi;
              I've been wanting to know reasons
              Knocking on a door. It opens.
              I'd been knocking on the inside.
It's here - this religion thing. Not there.
The notion that Jews should suspend our critical faculties and go off after some voice that echoes from the heavens has undergone an enormous rethink, in Jewish thought, in the centuries since God's call to Abraham made that call in precisely that way. In the past millennia, time and time again, Rabbis have walked away from the literalisms of a over-simplistic theology. You are not supposed to listen to the story of Abraham offering up his son as a sacrifice and think, let me too.
One example,
The Talmud in Baba Batra[1] observes that since the destruction of the Temple there is no more prophecy and therefore Hacham Adif Mi Navi - a wise person is preferable to anyone professing to be a prophet. That is to say if a wise person advises you to do one thing, and a person, claiming prophecy advises you to do the other, you follow the wise person, not the person claiming prophecy. You distrust the claim made in the name of theological purity, theological certitude. Since the destruction of the Temple, since the dawn of Rabbinic Judaism we are taught to distrust theological literalism. That's not some newly reformed diluted-down affectation of Judaism, that's the Talmud.
I don't mean to suggest that religion is only following what our eyes tell us is right, or what we decide on any given Wednesday is the will of God. I'm not making the claim that the aim is to do whatever we feel like doing and call that religion. That's not the aim at all. I'm trying to do offer something between the literalist interpretation - that the will of God drops down from the heavens in such a way we can trap it, understand it and follow it blindly - and the entirely earthbound claim that the thing we call the will of God is nothing other than the internal machinations of our own mind.
Let me start here;
There is a verse, early on in the Book of Numbers, when the Children of Israel are lined up in marching formation; each tribe, in the language of the Torah is arrayed tachat diglo - underneath their flag. At this point in the narrative,  certainly in the Rabbinic commentaries on these verses[2], there is a real sense of excitement. After so much waiting at Sinai the children of Israel are, at last, going to move on towards the promised land. And it's responding to this excitement that the great Chasidic teacher, the Sefat Emet, plays with the letters of the word diglo - their banner or their flag - and suggests, that the word should be read delugo - their jumping. Everyone is stood  tachat delugo - underneath their jumping. I know that phrase doesn't make much sense in the English. To be honest it doesn't make much sense in the Hebrew, but it's struck me very deeply since I first came across it, because it sums up, for me what I am doing today. I'm jumping, or to be more precise, I'm standing under my jumping.
Jumping is a strange thing to do with one's life. To jump is to point at the heavens and take off. We know that gravity will bring us down again, but we seek, nonetheless, this momentary escape. This is my version of the leap of faith. Jump up in search of the transcendent, knowing what it means to be earthly, knowing that what is beyond my leap. It's this double nature of jumping that appeals to me so greatly.
In part jumping is about throwing yourself at the heavens. You can't be half hearted in your jumping. You'll never take off.
But to jump isn't to misunderstand the nature of the human condition. No matter how high or elegantly I rise into the air, I'm still coming back down. In fact that's what makes jumping such fun; it's a kind of a dance between the rising and the falling. In religious terms, when I pray I'm not expecting to encounter God face-to-face, for a man-to-divine-being chat. I'm not expecting to receive some literal prophetic clarity. I'm not going to float off into the air never to return. I'm expecting to jump, to come down to land, and then to get on with the rest of my day energised, perhaps with a new perspective, perhaps with a new insight.
I do believe that there is something that is beyond my knowledge, I do believe that there is a realm that will forever be beyond human grasp no matter how hard we bang the sub-atomic particles together. I do believe in God. And I do believe, again, in a way I can never fully grasp, that there exists a thread that connect me, as a Jew, to God. I do believe that the pathways, of Jewish observance, observance of Shabbat, Kashrut and prayer are the best way I have of training, learning how to jump higher and for longer. And the more I train the more fleeting moments of insight I get, suspended momentarily in mid-air.
To be a Jew is to be a spiritual high-jumper. Jewish observance year round, prayer year round, is how we practice; lighting candles, reciting the Shema, avoiding Treyf and the like just as track athletes work on their Frosbury Flops or hops, steps and jumps. We practice, just as the real athletes practice, through the year so that on the most important of occasions we fly furthest. And if our training is effective, we can perhaps, in the most special of moments, succeed in brushing against the lowest levels of the heavens for a moment, but no higher, and only momentarily. This is my understanding of the nature of the human relationship with God.
This is my understanding of the strange phrase the Sefat Emet leaves us with when he flips around the letters of our verse to suggest that the Children of Israel stand, tachat dilugo 'under their jumping.' I'm both jumping and standing under my jump. I'm both escaping the plain of my day-to-day existence and rooting more deeply into it. I'm experiencing both polarities almost simultaneously - I'm standing under my jumping. Will you join me?
This is what I want to say today, jump. Know what it means to jump, and practice, practice jumping.
Is it enough for you - this jumping business - are you only to become more interested, more committed to a Jewish journey in the coming year if I offer not merely jumping, but actual flight - literal miracles, literal theology? Would it help, or hinder if I were urge you to suppress all rational faculty and accept that the things you are liable to read in the Bible literally took place?
Or maybe this jumping metaphor is already too much - too hokey, perhaps. Perhaps you are only interested in a Jewish approach made up purely of the rational and nice elements of Jewish life where any notion that there is a transcendental possibility seems to you ridiculous.
To the real wannabe literalists, I'm sorry to fail you. To be fair, this has never been a community for the adherents of literal theology and to you I hope you'll forgive us our blasphemies.
To the staunch literalists, I urge you to open you heart, actually I don't need even that. I just need to urge you to start jumping. There are few whispers of prayer left on this sacred day, but rumours of a marathon of prayer ahead. Jump in. Practice committing. Sing as if you mean to sing, stand silently with a commitment to standing silent. Profess regret for the failings of your past year as if you really regret them. And reflect on whether the jumping really helps, I believe it will.
Practice jumping. It's the easiest thing in the world, you've done it since you were children. We all have.
Know what it means to jump, and practice, practice jumping.
And in so doing may we all be merited to enjoy a joyous, healthy and bouncy year ahead,
Le'Shannah Tovah U'Metukah - A sweet year to us all

[1] TB BB 12a
[2] Bmidbar Rabba 2:2. I am grateful to Avivah Gottlieb-Zornberg whose book Bewilderments introduced me to this reading.
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