Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Suppose there weren't four children - A Pesach Message

Suppose there never were four siblings who just happened to be different despite the parents’ best efforts to love each equally. Suppose it was four different parents. Suppose it was the parent who knew how to stimulate a child to the extent that they would stay rapt even while she explained the technicalities of what you can and can’t eat after the Afikomen. And there was the parent who would set the teeth of their child on edge, and the child wanted nothing to do with any of it. Then there was the parent who didn’t know so much, but could convey the singularly essential message that the Pesach story - ‘because of this that the Holy Blessed One did for me.’ Or finally the parent who, perhaps, was just too busy to stimulate any enquiry from the child at all.


Or maybe it’s the same child and the same parent and the Haggadah documents just different days, different moments. There are moments, in parenting, when I stimulate and moments, in parenting, when I push away - and the difference is less some objective difference between the subjects of my storytelling, and more my own ability to become share these narratives with grace and passion.


The question is - how do we tell our stories? Do we do so with the personal twist the Hagadah demands (‘Everyone is obliged to see themselves as if they themselves have left Egypt.’) Do we snap our way through a narrative, setting the teeth of those we encounter on edge?


It’s not really a question about Seder night where most of us can put on a good show for one night in a year. How do we talk about Judaism when there is no script? Do we turn those around us into Wise Children or Ones Who Do Not Know How to Ask? How do we talk about Judaism in the immediate aftermath of the French supermarket attacks, or the Israeli elections?


It’s not really a question about parenting. We are constantly engaging with those around us, tweaking and shaping how they see Judaism through the way in which we present ourselves and tell our stories; the non-Jewish work colleague, the office cleaner who may well come from some other ethnic minority, even the person we sit next to in Shul. Every story we tell shapes those around us – even when we don’t imagine we are telling a story at all.


Maybe there are primordially destined wise, wicked, simple and dumb members of the human race, but we make a grave error if we forget our own ability to shape those around us by our own behaviour; especially when it comes to the way those around us see Judaism, especially at this time of year. Tell our stories well.


A joyous and Kosher Pesach to all


Rabbi Jeremy


Friday, 20 March 2015

Pesach - Why Bother

Pesach - Why Bother


Pesach, a lot of work, an expense – for what purpose? Surely if the holiday is supposed to be about freedom we would be better served ordering in a take-out, and putting our feet up infront of the television?


Thus a new question for the 21st century. It’s not the classic question of the wicked child. The wicked child of the Haggadah - who doesn’t want to be part of the Jewish journey simply doesn’t ask the question, they’ve wandered off already – it’s one of the ‘gifts’ of the Enlightenment. Nothing forces the Jew into identifying against their desire. So we are left with the Jew who wants to identify Jewish, but doesn’t want the perceived burden of the hard work, they don’t want the institutionalised aspects of an institutionalised religion. They want Jewishness to be simply the desire to identify.


In part there is the belief that getting something out requires something be put in, ‘as the effort, so the reward,’ teaches the Talmud. In part there is the belief that more important that the easy joy of freedom is touching the nature of oppression – you need to taste the Marror to taste freedom. In part Pesach is about realising we aren’t ‘there’ yet – we live in a world where too many are oppressed, Jews and non-Jews alike. In part there is the belief that the opposite of enslavement to Pharaoh isn’t the freedom to do nothing at all, but rather the call to enter into a relationship of responsibility, accepting the price of freedom as a covenantal obligation to serve. In part there is the belief that Pesach is about more than freedom, it’s about experiencing Spring as new beginning and that becomes ritualised as a clean out of the old. Pesach is also about the generation by generation quality of Jewish existence – we clean and switch around and cook and the rest of it, to take out places in a narrative of Jewishness that echoes back through the millennia. In part there is the sense that somehow, folded into the rituals and the disciplines that echo back through the ages, we can encounter the will of God.


There is plenty to enjoy in the songs about the goat and favourite recipes (egg in salt-water – yum, we should do this more than once a year). But without engaging seriously with the rigmarole of Pesach Kashrut I don’t think it’s possible to understand the sheer breadth of the sophistication of a Jewish sense of freedom at this time. Please do engage.


My guide to Pesach kashrut is on-line [here http://www.newlondon.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=311&catid=32 ] and this Shabbat, after the services I’ll be sharing some observations on Pesach kashrut and answering any questions.


Shabbat shalom,



Thursday, 19 March 2015

A Religious Problem With the Results of the Israeli Election

A note in my personal capacity.

Do Rabbis have personal capacities? I don’t know, I suspect that for some this will seem to be an abuse of my position, either as a Rabbi or as a ‘foreigner’ or both.

But there is something I feel, religiously, about the recent Israeli election that is, I hope, worth sharing.


It’s remarkable that Israel is a democracy.

It’s remarkable that there Jewish MKs, Arab MKs, and MKs representing a vast range of political positions elected to a Kenesset that represents a country whose capacity to engage in vigorous debate is exceeded by none.

It’s remarkable that an election is called, no-one dies, no-one levels accusations of vote-rigging and no-one doubts that had the will of the Israeli people been so manifest, elected officials would have packed up and moved out without tanks or protests. But that is not what happened.

What happened is that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership and his electoral strategy were vindicated and while I respect the decision of the electorate, that makes me sad.


It makes me sad because the leadership and the strategy were driven by something I oppose – the creation of factions and the othering of those who disagree with me. Likkud’s election posters - banner headline ‘it’s us or them’ –captured the mood of the Netanyahu campaign perfectly. Who were the ‘them,’ was it the Palestinians, the Iranians, the Zionist Union, reds under the bed? All of the above, and more (possibly not the reds under the bed). Netanyahu accused outsiders of trying to bring down him and his government, ‘There is a huge international effort, with major money and also media figures, in order to bring down the Likud government,’ he said, ‘Whether legal or not, it certainly is not legitimate for foreign governments and all kinds of donors to meddle here.’ That’s the same Netanyahu whose most significant speech of the campaign was given in the US Congress and whose most significant supporter is the American media figure Sheldon Adelson.


On the day of the campaign the warning went out, ‘Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot box.’ The message, again, is that someone else is the enemy. The Arab communist party twitter-feed captured the intent with a witty play putting Netanyahu into the mythology of the TV show, Game of Thrones.


If, in Game of Thrones, the enemy are flesh-eating zombies who will stop at nothing to breach a wall that is the only thing keeping the Kingdom from destruction, then the Arabs are ...


But perhaps the most significant moment of the campaign came with Netanyahu rejecting the two-state solution. In this new Kenesset, the Palestinians are not potential (if hard-to-win) peace partners, they are to be excluded, ‘othered.’


These last-minute otherings of Arabs and Palestinians brought the electoral cycle back in a full circle. The election had originally been called following a coalition fall-out over a bill that would define Israel as ‘the nation-state of the Jewish people.’ The row was predicated on a perceived abandonment of the intent of Israel’s Declaration of Independence which spoke of the foundation of a ‘country for the benefit of all its inhabitants [ensuring] complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of religion.’ The bill was designed to indicate to the Arabs that they were to be tolerated as ‘others,’ allowed to sit quietly on the fringe of Israeli society, but no more. More crucially it was designed to indicate to Netanyahu’s own right wing that he was ‘one of them’ and that the peace-mongers, the non-Jews and everyone else who harboured hopes for a two-state solution were other.


This is my religious point.

Othering people is not good. The central message of the Torah is, according to the Talmud’s dominant Rabbinic leader, Rabbi Akiva, loving your neighbour. As one teacher put it to me, if you only count as neighbours people you like already, you’ve missed the point. Another of the Talmud’s greatest teachers, Ben Azzai, disagrees with Rabbi Akiva. For him the central point of Judaism has something to do with recognising that all humanity is created in the image of God, Jew and Arab alike. The Bible itself, on 36 occasions, warns against oppressing the stranger, the powerless, those who sit on the fringes of society. We are, as the People of this awesome Book, commanded ‘to love the stranger,’ precisely because we, as Jews, profess an understanding of what it is to be treated as others, kept on the fringe and tolerated as outsiders – at best. Looking for opportunities to create division, even for the sake of political advantage, is not good enough. Creating a culture of ‘us vs them,’ when we are going to have to work out ways to live together one way or another, might be good short-term politics, but it’s counter-productive in the long term and religiously unacceptable.


The leader of one of those ‘foreign NGOs’ who Netanyahu so criticised in the run up to the election, Jeremy Ben-Ami of J-Street, sent out a disappointed, but unbowed, reflection on the election, calling on its supporters to continue to make the case for a two-state solution, for breaking down the culture of fear and otherness. It’s a call I echo, for religious and ethical reasons, as well as political ones.


Those interested in practical ways to do this work are invited to investigate further and support organisations such as

www.yachad.org.uk –educating and lobbying on a pro-Israel, pro-two-state solution.

http://www.newisraelfund.org.uk/ - supporting democratic, progressive, tolerant and inclusive NGOs in Israel.



Friday, 13 March 2015

On the Making and Meaning of Community

We have an exciting Shabbat ahead. I’m delighted that Joey Weisenberg is joining us from Machon Hadar. Joey’s work is in building community through song. It’s an appropriate week. Our Torah reading opens, ‘and Moses brought together the community of all the citizens of Israel.’ Hebrew grammar is so delicious – vayakel – is a verb, to make a community, a kehillah. How do you make community? Here are three thoughts.


It takes underlying shared sensibilities so when strangers come together they are already beyond the point of being strangers. You take a Sephardi Jew from Morocco who speaks Arabic, and a Ashkenazi Jew from London and .... well, you wave your hands around a bit, and laugh a bit – and that’s because there is something already there. The shared narrative allows for shared existence.


It takes structure. Two strangers can pass on the street and pause for a moment and experience something powerful, but then the strangers pass and the moment is gone. Coincidence – as beautiful as it is – isn’t the same as community. Community is only possible when there a rhythm for interaction; same time, same place ... community building takes time, it creeps up slowly, it can take a generation. The Hebrew word is keva –structure –structure is the scaffold for a community to find its soul.


It takes risk. Two strangers than sit side-by-side on the pew, week after week, nodding a Shabbat Shalom at one another remain nothing more than strangers who share Kiddush. It takes the moment when one person turns to another and opens up to the possibility something other than being strangers in the same space. Perhaps this is where we are, as a New London Synagogue community, at our weakest, a little too English, a little too worried lest we offend by being too forward. We should be bolder. Perhaps this is where the music can come in. Singing in risky. We open up our voices and who knows where it could lead? I look forward to taking the risk with you. Do come and join us for services. It’s a very special opportunity.


Shabbat shalom


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Masorti Paper on Same-Sex Partnership Ceremonies


1 The statement by Masorti Judaism UK

2 Introduction: a consideration of values

3 A summary of the arguments of the Law Committee’s responsa on which the UK Ruling is based

4 The conclusions reached by the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK, and their ruling

5 What a shutafut ceremony might include (a fuller discussion will follow at a later date)

6 A reflection on the meaning of welcome and inclusion


(1)    This document has been kept brief for reasons of clarity, but fuller arguments are given in the endnotes

(2)     References in this paper to “The Law Committee” are to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement in the United States of America.

(3)    References listed at the end of this paper include links to the full texts of the Law Committee’s responsa discussed below.


1        The statement by Masorti Judaism UK

This paper provides the background to the following statement issued by Masorti Judaism UK in October 2014:

After much learning and discussion, the Masorti rabbis have ruled that communities may carry out ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples based on a ‘shutafut,’ or partnership, ceremony. We recognise that our movement encompasses diverse views on this important subject. Each Masorti community, together with its rabbi, will be free to decide whether to carry out these ceremonies and, if so, whether the relationships sanctified by them should be registered under English law as same-sex marriages or civil partnerships. Masorti Judaism is proud to be taking this opportunity to make our communities ever more welcoming and to realise our values of inclusion, equality and diversity within the framework of halakhah (Jewish law).

The rabbis

The Masorti rabbis referred to are: Mijael Even-David, Jeremy Gordon, Rafi Kaiserblueth, Daniella Kolodny, Joel Levy, Chaim Weiner and Jonathan Wittenberg. Their discussions took place over the course of several of their meetings in their capacity as the rabbinical body of Masorti Judaism UK

2.  Introduction: a consideration of values

It is a core teaching of Judaism that every person is created in God’s image and deserves to be treated with equality and respect as God’s creation. Some years ago an orthodox gay man spoke about how he felt as he stood before God: ‘Am I, too, made in God’s image? Does God want me as I am?’ If so, he concluded, he had to accept himself for who he was. That struggle for acceptance, before self, parents, peers, community and God has often brought great pain, shame, and deep loneliness to gay people and has driven some to suicide. Judaism has often had a part in that suffering by offering, if not outright rejection, then what has been described as ‘at best a cold welcome’, a response which has been experienced as isolating and cruel.

Attitudes towards homosexuality have changed profoundly, not only in secular society, but also within the Jewish community. One milestone was the film Trembling Before God, which brought the pain and isolation of many gay people to the attention of rabbis and communities of all denominations. [1] It made clear the destructive effects on gay people of blame, rejection or the suggestion that being gay was an illness of which a person could be cured by therapy.

It is thus not only a matter of compassion but of justice to include gay people within the community, without discrimination and with full equality. To welcome another person in this manner also means to accept and respect the relationship formed with the partner together with whom he or she seeks to build a Jewish home, based on a loving, enduring and exclusive relationship. This is especially important at a time when so many Jewish people feel alienated; the Jewish community gains not by driving away but by including those who want to belong.  

It cannot be disputed that Judaism, both in the Torah and rabbinic teaching, has understood the ideal human state to be within heterosexual marriage. [2] Yet, for many with a strong commitment to the Torah and its values, there is now a widespread understanding that it cannot be right in the light of our current awareness to exclude from the community people for whom this is not a possibility. [3] There is an appreciation that, since Judaism regards faithful and loving partnership as the surest basis for creating Jewish homes and communities, a way needs to be found not only to sanction but to honour and celebrate the enduring commitment a gay couple may choose to make. From the perspective of the community, it is important, especially in a period of attrition, to support those who wish to create a bayyit ne’eman be’Yisrael, a true and loyal home in the people of Israel. 

3. A summary of the arguments of the Responsa of the Law Committee

It was with these concerns in mind, and prompted by the widely publicised debate in Britain following proposed, and later accepted, changes in civil legislation to allow same-sex marriages, that the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK turned for guidance to the responsa of the Law Committee. In the early 2000’s that committee was asked to consider the key issues concerning the status of gay Jews. [4] The questions placed formally before it were: ‘What guidance does halakhah offer to Jews who are homosexual? Which intimate activities are permitted to them, and which are forbidden? How shall Conservative Judaism relate to gay and lesbian couples?’

The committee spent two years studying, debating and writing; their work included consultations with leading researchers, retreats devoted to the topic and painstaking analysis of the sources of Jewish law. The process led to the preparation of two responsa, both of which were accepted by majority vote on December 6, 2006. After many discussions, the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK agreed that these decisions should be acceptable in our congregations in Britain and that congregations together with their rabbis should be allowed to choose their own positions on an individual basis within the bounds of what they prohibit and allow. We did not consider that we had the capacity to engage in a similarly searching and extensive process of our own, or that we would arrive at substantially different conclusions from our American colleagues.


3.1 The Dorff, Nevins, Reisner responsum

The following is a synopsis of the key stages in the halakhic argument presented in the responsum authored by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner (the link to the full document is given below).


The authors cite the key verses from the Torah, Leviticus 18:22, ‘Do not lie with a man the lyings of a woman; it is abhorrent’; and 20:13, ‘If a man lies with a male the lyings of a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – their bloodguilt is upon them’. The authors note that these verses are almost universally understood to prohibit penetrative sex between men, the latter verse including the receptive partner as well. In upholding this prohibition, the authors conclude that ‘To strike this law from the Torah is a radical step. On the other hand, to expand [it] beyond what is actually written is unnecessarily harsh. The Torah forbids anal sex between men, nothing more, nothing less.’ [5]


The critical stages in the argument now follow. Considering the rabbinic literature on other forms of intimacy, the authors note that Nachmanides categorises them not as de’oraita, that is, Torah-enjoined, but as derabbanan, rabinically-enjoined, prohibitions. This does not of course mean that they should not be taken seriously. The division between de’oraita and derabbanan law is itself a rabbinic distinction and the numerous rules and decrees described by the rabbis as belonging to the latter category form the basis of our Judaism. But understanding a law as derabbanan does allow greater leeway for negotiation between it, other stipulations of Judaism, and practical and ethical concerns. Nevertheless, the authors conclude this section of their argument by acknowledging that ‘the established halakhah presents a comprehensive ban upon homosexual intimacy,’ and that only the most serious considerations should allow a reappraisal of this attitude. The question before them is therefore whether such considerations exist within the domain of Jewish law and ethics.


The authors now turn to the concept of kevod haberiyot, ‘human dignity’, a value on which the Talmud relies in a number of instances to explain why certain rabbinic and even Torah-enjoined rules should be set aside. They argue that since kevod haberiyot is invoked in the Talmud to prove that considerations of human dignity can, in certain circumstances, overcome prohibitions in Jewish law, the principle should be developed and applied to the situation of homosexuals as well. Kevod haberiyot should be understood to include acceptance of and respect for gay people, which entails respect for partnerships formed with the same enduring intentions as those of heterosexual couples. Thus considerations of kevod haberiyot should be allowed to override the rabbinical prohibition on other forms of intimacy, though not the Torah’s explicit ban on penetrative intercourse.

Their conclusions form an essential part of the ruling by the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK. The relevant sentences are:

Gay and lesbian Jews may form intimate relationships, with the Torah’s explicit prohibition of anal sex between men remaining in force. Commitment ceremonies that avoid the legal mechanisms of kiddushin may be designed for gay and lesbian couples. There is to be no discrimination against gay and lesbian Jews. [6]


3.2  Rabbi Roth’s Responsum

In a strong refutation, Rabbi Joel Roth attacks two key steps in the argument of the Dorff, Nevins, Reisner responsum. Firstly, he argues, even were it the case that the prohibition in Torah law referred only to penetrative sex, an assertion which he challenges, what has so long and so clearly been understood by rabbinical decree as forbidden cannot be overridden, however strong the wish to do so may be. Rabbinically enjoined law is, after all, a central and essential part of Judaism. Secondly, the concept of kevod haberiyot, human dignity, should not be invoked because, he maintains, it is basically applied by the Talmud only to a person’s loss of dignity in the eyes of others, not to the loss of a sense of self-esteem or self-worth in a person’s own eyes, as would be the case for a gay person seeking Judaism’s endorsement of the relationship with his or her partner. Rabbi Roth therefore accuses his colleagues of constructing ‘a tall building on a very shaky foundation’ and of allowing the ends for which they aim to dictate their halakhic argument. [7]

Rabbi Roth concludes by confirming the conclusions of his 1992 responsum, noting that ‘We affirm that gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps and schools’; that they ‘will not be denied any honors within worship and regarding lay leadership positions’ but that Conservative rabbis and cantors may not perform commitment ceremonies for them. (See his responsum in full.) Rabbi Roth’s responsum was approved at the same session as that of Dorff, Nevins and Reisner.



3.3  Critique and Counter-Critique

Rabbi Roth’s argument is critiqued by Rabbi Richie Lewis, like Rabbi Roth a head of the Conservative Yeshivah in Jerusalem. Without declaring his own position on the question of gay relationships, he challenges the assumptions behind Rabbi Roth’s approach. Firstly, he argues that just as there can be no story without a story-teller so there can be no responsum which is not ‘a construction of the posek (the decision-maker). Thus every halakhic argument is not only bound to, but should, reflect the way its author understands the key Jewish values involved in the issue. Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner cannot therefore be blamed in principle for seeking a path through the halakhic material to support their understanding and attitudes.

Secondly, Rabbi Lewis critiques what he calls Rabbi Roth’s “context-less” approach to textual interpretation’, arguing that ‘every text came into being in some context or other and every author is conditioned by the givens of the context in which he lived and wrote’. Thus it is not only legitimate, but necessary, to consider the meanings of the concepts underlying any halakhic argument in their historical and social contexts. The issue here is therefore not simply “What did ‘human dignity’ mean to the rabbis of the Talmud?” but also “What should ‘human dignity’ mean to us today?” [8] Hence, without commenting on its decisions, he upholds the key aspects of the methodology of the Dorff, Nevins, Reisner responsum.

Rabbi Lewis’s comments take us to an essential issue in the Masorti approach to Judaism, the impact of history on text and tradition. Once it is accepted that the Torah is sacred and constitutes ‘God’s word’ yet nevertheless reflects its social, moral, historical and legal contexts, then we cannot divorce our understanding of God’s will from the impact those contexts may have had on the human interpretation of what that will should be. [9] It is precisely this difficult path between faithfulness towards tradition and the impact of changing realities and values which the halakhic process has to tread. Such an appreciation does not of itself make the responsum by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner compelling, but it does show how it can be read as creative and courageous within the terms of halakhic argument.


3.4  The ruling by the Law Committee

The Law Committee voted in favour of both responsa. They thus allowed rabbis and communities to make their own choice between the different positions taken by them on same-sex partnership ceremonies.


4. The conclusions reached by the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK and their ruling


The rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK endorse the position of their American colleagues. They thus rule ‘that communities may carry out ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples based on a ‘shutafut,’ or partnership, ceremony.’ Those who choose to do so will rely in full on the conclusions of the responsum by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner, including both what it permits and what it prohibits. Again, the relevant sentences are

Gay and lesbian Jews may form intimate relationships, with the Torah’s explicit prohibition of anal sex between men remaining in force. Commitment ceremonies that avoid the legal mechanisms of kiddushin may be designed for gay and lesbian couples. There is to be no discrimination against gay and lesbian Jews.


Those who choose not to conduct shutafut or partnership ceremonies will rely on the responsum of Rabbi Roth.

Since the choice of a shutafut ceremony is permitted, the question needs to be addressed of what such a ceremony might involve.


5.  What a shutafut ceremony might include

A shutafut ceremony is based on the same moral, emotional and spiritual premises as the public affirmation of heterosexual monogamous relationships in Judaism through marriage: the commitment to a faithful, enduring, exclusive bond, based on respect, love and the express intention to establish a Jewish home and live according to Jewish values and practice. As already noted, it is founded on the wish to create a bayit ne’eman be’Yisrael, a true home in the People of Israel. It is at heart a celebration of this commitment before friends, community and God. It marks a sacred bond.

It differs clearly from the kinyan and kiddushin, or ‘acquisition’, model which forms the basis of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. In the words of Rabbi Joel Levy, it is ‘rooted in the Jewish law of partnership, shutafut, rather than the law of acquisition. The central act of such a ceremony replaces the kinyan (‘acquiring’) of kiddushin, where the man gives an object of value to the woman, with a ceremony where each partner places an object of value into a bag which they then raise together, thereby indicating that they enter into a joint partnership. The terms of their contract are detailed in a “Covenant of Love”, one of the terms of which must be a promise of mutual sexual fidelity.’ [10]

A shutafut ceremony may include the symbols, songs and blessings which mark the creation of a loving and committed Jewish home. It is a joyous and sacred occasion, to be celebrated with wine and food, music, Torah and tsedakah.

The rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK intend to hold further discussions as to the full details of the shutafut ceremony, after which a further short paper will be circulated.


6.  A reflection on the meaning of welcome and inclusion

In a recent conversation a gay man explained that ‘the most painful thing is silence, the refusal to address the issue’. The position adopted by the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK attempts to find paths through that silence which are considerate, sensitive, respectful of Jewish law and true to the Jewish principles of justice, compassion and human dignity. As Rabbi Jeremy Gordon writes, ‘I believe the desire to stand before God, families and friends and, in the name of a shared Jewish tradition, commit to a particular kind of loving bond, is rooted very deeply.’

The shutafut ceremony offers the opportunity to celebrate such commitments in a way which reflects awareness of Jewish tradition and faithfulness to Jewish values. By including those who want to create committed Jewish homes and who have for so long felt rejected, we believe we will also strengthen the Jewish community, the enduring vitality of which is rooted in faithful partnerships and close families whose lives express Jewish practice, learning, values and devotion.


End Notes

  1. Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s film Trembling Before God was first shown in 2001
  2. One of the reasons advanced for this through the ages is that the commandment to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ can be fulfilled through heterosexual relationships only. This requires two qualifications. Firstly, it has always been understood in Judaism that the purpose of marriage is also, if not more so, companionship and mutual support. Secondly, though the process is of course different, gay couples can and do raise children in happy and secure homes.

It is worth noting that Rabbi Chaim Rappoport writes in his important study of the issue from a strictly orthodox point of view that ‘it is reasonable to believe that a faithful Jew has no cause to reject the current appreciation of an exclusive homosexual orientation – developed by nature or nurture – as indicated by so much empirical, scientific and psychological evidence’ (Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View, p. 20). This is indeed central to his argument, in which he maintains that what the Torah forbids is not being homosexual, but the homosexual act. He emphasises how Judaism demands of a gay person something it asks of no one else, celibacy, since, in his view, he or she is offered no possibility of intimacy within the sanction of Jewish law. He repeatedly stresses that the response this should elicit from the Jewish community is not homophobia but understanding and support.  

  1. The Committee had previously considered the question in 1992, when Rabbi Joel Roth wrote a responsum ruling that, while gay people were in no way to be excluded from the community, Judaism asked them to remain celibate. The fact that the question came before the Committee for a second time within little more than a decade also indicates that the 1992 decision did not provide what was felt to be an acceptable and workable response to the real concerns of the community.
  2. Steven Greenberg, a modern orthodox rabbi, describes how during the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon, when Leviticus 18 is read, he would stand and weep. Concerning being gay within the orthodox community, he writes: ‘The third option is to stay and tell the truth. To stay and tell the truth means to remain committed to the fulfilment and the study of the Torah while accepting and even celebrating one’s gayness. It means being generally honest about who one is, patient with those who do not yet understand, and ready to get on with the business of finding a life partner and building a Jewish home. This is surely a religious path, and despite its apparent disobedience to certain religious norms, it is in my view the most faithful.’ (Wrestling with God and Men, p. 239) 
  3. An approach which has often been taken is to contextualise the verses. Hence, they are understood as referring to sex as part of an idolatrous cult, or to sex between non-equals, or to coercive sex. These practices were indeed part of the Graeco-Roman world against which rabbinic culture and its values were formed, aspects of which rabbinic Judaism strongly rejected. Those who argue against such an interpretative approach note that the Torah itself offers no indication that the verses should be confined to such, or to any other, limiting contexts.
  4. The full text of the ruling, which also covers other issues is:

Our practical rulings: Gay and lesbian Jews may form intimate relationships, with the Torah’s explicit prohibition of anal sex between men remaining in force. Bisexuals with primary sexual desires for someone of the opposite sex should seek to create a faithful heterosexual marriage with another Jew.  Commitment ceremonies that avoid the legal mechanisms of kiddushin may be designed for gay and lesbian couples. There is to be no discrimination against gay and lesbian Jews. Should they exhibit the other criteria needed for ordination as clergy, they shall be qualified to serve as rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators.

  1. As the process of preparation of both responsa was fully open, each of them carries refutations of its opponents’ arguments. For further consideration, see the full texts of the responsa.
  2. This is similar to the argument made by Rabbi Louis Jacobs (though not in the context of gay relationships, which he certainly did not sanction) in a Tree of Life, in which he maintains that serious Jewish law has always developed not only in its legal but also within a social, economic, moral and intellectual context, and that halakhists often knew what the decision had to be before they commenced constructing their arguments.
  3. This issue constitutes the very essence of ‘the Jacobs Affair’.  From We Have Reason To Believe onwards, Rabbi Jacobs argues that the Torah is not a text which ‘dropped from Heaven’ and thus expresses the immutable will of God beyond all human historical, legal or social context, but is a revelation not just ‘to’ but also ‘through’ human beings. Torah is thus ‘the constant interaction of the divine with the human. That the Torah contains a divine element no religious supernaturalist will wish to deny. But the human element, too, is quite obviously present’. (God, Torah, Israel, p. 33) Contextualisation and interpretation are therefore inevitable. Hence Rabbi Jacobs argues in A Tree Of Life that Jewish law has always involved not in a vacuum, but in dynamic relationship with changing social, economic, legal, intellectual and moral realities.
  4. In her ground-breaking book Engendering Judaism, Rachel Adler includes a full discussion of shutafut ceremonies. 



The key responsa referred to above can be found online at





Other works referred to are:

Richie Lewis: CJLS Teshuvot on Homosexual Themes (unpublished)

Rachel Adler: Engendering Judaism (Beacon Press, Boston1999)

Steven Greenberg: Wrestling with God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

Louis Jacobs: God, Torah, Israel, (Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1990)

Chaim Rapoport: Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View (Vallentine Mitchell, London, Portland Oregon, 2004)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Heroes Come in Many Different Guises - Reflections on the European Rabbinic Masorti Team Meeting in Jerusalem


It’s Purim this coming week.

I do look forward to celebrating with one and all.

I love the celebration, but always feel a twinge that the Festival deserves more serious attention. It’s really not a children’s story.

There are two extraordinary moments of courage in the Book of Ester. There is Mordechai, who refused to bow down, even before Haman, even knowing what might befall him and his people. And there is, of course, Ester, the pampered princess who finds the courage to go before the King, unbidden, to plead on behalf of her people – her status as a Jew being previously unknown to her husband.


I’ve been thinking about these acts of heroism in the context of the heroes I’ve met this week in Israel where I have been taking part in a meeting of the European Masorti Rabbinic team.

We go round the table sharing any news and Rabbi Reuven Stamov introduces himself, ‘Shalom, I’m Reuven, from the Ukraine, we are at war.’ He laughs, he has to.

Our colleagues from France are here. Rabbi Yeshaya Dalsace of the community just around the corner from the attacked supermarket in Paris showed my pictures of his Synagogue, being used by soldiers from the French special forces, sat in his Bet Midrash, weaponry spread out across the table. He laughed too, he has too.

One of our presenters was Rabbi Tamar Eldad-Applebaum, who spoke about being a Masorti Rabbi in Israel, ‘You need a lot of Emunah, - faith.’ Facing an Israeli society seemingly utterly polarised between the Daatiim – religious - and the devoutly Hilonim - secular she has founded a new community to practice what she calls Israeli-Judaism, neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, speaking to both Datiim and Hilonim. Hundreds are attracted. If you want to come, another of the Israeli rabbis leant over to me, you have to get there in plenty of time, otherwise you won’t get in.

Rabbi Joel Levy, now combining his work at Kol Nefesh Masorti with serving as Director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, is trying to transform Masorti Judaism worldwide by giving thousands of us the skills and the insights to grapple with the inner workings of the tradition ourselves.

The list goes on.

So what does it take to be a hero? A core belief that something is worth struggling for, and the perseverance to stand up for what is right, even if it is not easy. We are blessed to have many heroes in the Masorti movement. We are blessed to have, in the lead characters of the Purim narrative, great heroes to inspire all of us. So here’s a question – what do you believe in, and do you have the courage of your convictions to stand up for these core beliefs?


Shabbat Shalom


Friday, 20 February 2015

Copenhagen and the Lessons of Jewish History

Been thinking about the lessons of history,

In the aftermath of yet another attack.

And that looming warning of George Santayama that one who doesn’t remember history is doomed to repeat it.


Been thinking over a moment in the darkest years of our Jewish history – in the midst of the Holocaust.


In Hungary, last of the European countries to be occupied.


When Hungary invaded, immediate devastation.

Deported at a rate of 12,000 Jews a day – to Auschwitz.

Rudolf Kastner, a Zionist involved in a small, not partic powerful group known as the Vaada, put himself forward to negotiate with Adolf Eichman, one of the most significant architects of the Holocaust.

He succeeded in getting 1,685 Jews – men, women and children out of Hungary, to escape the gas chambers. He got them to Switzerland and most arrived in Israel. They survived.

Sounds like a good news story, right?

Here’s where it gets more complicated.


Kastner’s negotiations at the SS Headquarters in Bucharest didn’t go down well with everyone. What’s he doing wandering in and out of this place of evil? And then these 1600 souls, Eichmann didn’t just give Katzner these Jews. They were bought, at the cost of $1,000 a head – in 1944 prices – some $14,000 a head in today’s money. Katzner, knowing that most didn’t have these sums auctioned off the first 150 seats on the train to raise the funds to pay for the others.

Eventually the money was paid off, replete with leaders of the Hungarian community, a famous psychologist, an opera singer and a group of Polish orphans. How would you have allocated your notional 1600 tickets. What would you have done if told you needed to raise over $20,000,000 dollars to get 1600 of your fellow Jews out from under the shadow of the death camps?


Eventually a train left, the first 600 souls. Eichmann broke his word, sent the train to Bergen Belsen, but Katzner went back in to negotiate –members of his own family were on the train. Eventually Eichmann relented, the train left Bergen Belsen for Switzerland. The passengers survived. And another train followed.


Step forward 8 years, 1952, now living in Israel, Rudolf Katzner – now known as Israel Katzner – is working for the Labour Government as a spokesperson in the Dept of Trade when a article accusing him of cosying up to the Nazis was published. The Government sued, in Katzner’s defence, for libel. The trial became a cause celebre and the allegation of libel was defeated. In other words the attack on Katzner was allowed to stand.

The judge, held [and I quote]

The temptation was great. Kastner was given the actual possibility of rescuing, for the time being, 600 souls from the imminent holocaust, with some chance of somewhat increasing their numbers by payment or further negotiations. Not just any 600 souls, but those he considered, for any reason, most prominent and suitable for rescue...But timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts). By accepting this present Kastner had sold his soul to the devil.

Katzner sold his soul to the devil.

When the Israeli Labour government elected to appeal the ruling, the several right-wing parties brought a motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister Moshe Sharett’s government and Sharrett resigned. It took David Ben Gurion to bring stability back to a rocked country.


Eventually the appeal succeeded. In part. In 1958 Katzner was absolved of sleeping with the devil. But not of some other elements of his behaviour, most notably writing a reference for on of the SS Officers with whom he negotiated which helped the officer, Kurt Becher, escape prosecution for Crimes Against Humanity.


There is also a huge question over whether Zrazner and his colleagues would should have put their efforts not into saving a few individuals, but instead doing everything they could to make known what they knew – that the relocating of Jews was simply a front for their being sent to death-camps.


But by the time the Appeal was decided, Katzner was dead. He was assassinated, by a Lechi hit squad – a Jewish hit squad. In January of this year previously confidential documents were released by Shin Bet which confirmed that Israel’s secret service agency knew Katzner was being targeted.[1] The documents also reveal how a Shin Bet guard protecting Katzner was pulled off that duty days before the assassination, and have created even more confusion – was Shin Bet itself complicit in killing Katzner?


Is this getting difficult enough?

Let me do just one more layer of complexity.

On his train, arranged by a Zionist who bought the favours of senior Nazis was a Chasidic Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe – a man who opposed Zionism in the most brazen of terms. And a man who had only one message to the thousands of his Hungarian followers; don’t panic as the Nazis enter this country. Don’t lose faith and don’t believe anything the Zionists tell you. It’s just a test of faith and God will protect his people. Teitelbaum told thousands of his supporters to stay put. While he jumped on the train and was saved.

Sounds dodgy, but what would you do? Not even as question of the ethics of desertion, but also as a question of practicality. What would have happened if the Rebbe had terrified his followers with tales of an all-but inevitable death?

Can you, dare you judge?


Can you – of course you can’t – put yourself into the position of someone alive at that time.

Can you – of course you can’t – put yourself in the position of having only the knowledge that a person at that moment would have had. No 20/20 retrospective perfect vision.


I’m not entirely sure what has been bringing this story to mind, but I know when it came to mind. It came to mind when I heard the Israeli Prime Minister, evoking memories of the Holocaust to call on all Jews to move to Israel. ‘Yet again,’ PM Netanyahu noted this week, ‘Jews have been murdered on European soil just because they were Jews.’


When I do that most dangerous thing of turning to think about the Holocaust and the challenges experienced then, and then I think about what happened in Copenhagen, and Paris, and even those awful acts of antisemitism that occur in this country I just get struck by the absolute gulf between them. It’s not just that it was worse then and there than here and now. It’s that the issues are completely opposite. In Nazi occupied Europe the problem was institutional and state led. In England today the problem is the odd lunatic and the cancer of antisemitism is opposed in speech after speech and show of support after show of support at every level of government, the police and I could go on.


And as I struggle with this question – when do you leave, when do you hold fast to being part of a diasporah community and when do you flee in search of such safety as the one Jewish homeland can offer, I’ve been struck by this, well known, Talmudic story.


It’s a story about the failure of retreating behind a wall in a purely Jewish space. It’s a story about the importance of getting out among the nations. It’s the story of the destruction of the Second Temple. The Jews are besieged, surrounded by enemy forces. The Rabbis wanted to make peace with the Romans, but the zealots were so convinced that they must stand and fight; that they burnt their own food stores. It didn’t help. Jerusalem was plunged into famine. The leader of the Rabbis went to plead with the leader of the zealots – get me out of here so I can negotiate with the Romans. The Zealot leader felt he couldn’t back down in the face of his people.


Eventually the leader of the Rabbis is smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin. He negotiates for a future life for Judaism beyond the walls of Jerusalem. And as Jerusalem is destroyed a remnant survives and a Jewish life grows anew in Yavneh – the town Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai persuaded the Emperor Vespasian to give the Jews as the Second Israelite Commonwealth was destroyed and we were sent into exile.


What should I say about this story and its contemporary valence. Should I suggest that ‘yet again’ Israelite intransigence behind the walls is ratcheting up the tension between Israel and her neighbours to levels that threaten the survival of the Third Israelite Commonwealth? Should I say that Jews need to get beyond the walls to make peace even with their enemies before the walls of the Third Israelite Commonwealth are destroyed because of our own belligerence?

No, that would be an abuse of history. It would be a massive oversimplication of the relationship between then and there and here and now.


That phrase, from George Santayama, one who does not remember history is doomed to repeat  it, it’s woefully inadequate. It’s not enough just to remember. To tell stories of the past where something has gone wrong for one reason or another.

You’ve got to go more carefully.

You’ve got to understand the ways that then and there is different from here and now.

You can’t evoke historical narratives, no matter how traumatic, and brandish them in a contemporary milieu and expect to be taken seriously.


The moral of the story is that there is no simple clear cut moral.

And a better slogan than Santayama’s is that of

HL Mencken, ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.’


The truth is that sometimes we have had to go.

Sometimes we have gone, and sometimes we have gone too late.

The truth is that Israel is a wonderful home for the Jewish people – but fear of the world outside isn’t the best reason to go and live there – it may even be a counterproductive reason.

There’s plenty to do, to learn from the lessons of history.

And the way in which we do, terrifyingly slip into repeating the past is terrible.

But oversimplification is not the answer.


Shabbat shalom

[1] http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.636130

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