Thursday, 11 September 2014

Written on a Hat - Rabbinic Reflections on Ellul and Manmade Fibre

I bought what was once called a woolly hat, back in the days when hats were made from wool. This hat, made out of some fancy manmade material, comes with a ‘legend’ printed on the label.

 

‘Polartec (registered trademark) is a series of high performance fabrics that enable you to control your Body Climate (trademark protected) and stay comfortable regardless of the weather or activity. Believe In What Your Wear! (trademark protected).’

 

Oh dear. How very un-Ellul. At this time we are called to acknowledge our fragility and the lack of true control we have over our lives. The winds blow and not even the most impressively engineered high performance fabric will keep us comfortable. “All flesh is grass,” teaches Isaiah, in verses that influence the most powerful prayer of the Rosh Hashnaha season, “ and all its grace is as the flower of the field; The grass withers, the flower fades. Only the word of our God endures forever.”

 

Believing in What We Wear is no more advisable than believing in the idolatrous power of an icon. We do better to place our trust, perhaps counter-intuitively, in that which cannot be trademarked, purchased and owned – we do better to place our trust in a God we cannot understand and have never seen. In part because even in our lack of true comprehension we can still intuit calls to care, be holy and kind. But perhaps even more importantly, by placing faith in that which lacks concrete certainly we are forced to tread more gently. If we are foolish enough to Believe In What We Wear - if we think that a hat, or a burglar alarm or 90 minutes in the gym actually offer any kind of real protection from life and its intransigencies, we are likely to care less about the myriad of encounters that make our life worthy of being saved. Being worthy of being saved, while less superficially attractive than the guarantee of comfort regardless of the weather or activity, does at least has the ring of truth about it.

 

The problem isn’t just hats. The problem is that wherever we turn we are being sold, quite literally, the ability to be Masters of the Universe. We live in a world so infused with hyperbole, deceit and vanity that looking beyond the nonsense of legendary hats and their like is actually a challenge. It takes effort, we need to nurture the ability to see the reality beyond that which is day-after-day imprinted on our senses. Let me suggest three ways to develop a more profound way to see the world.

 

This coming Tuesday we are offering an evening of exploration around Rosh Hashanah. More details at http://www.newlondon.org.uk/index.php?option=com_dpcalendar&view=event&id=gc-1-22ieuut3r5if0as0l56drjqv78_201409161900, it will be an opportunity to reflect and open the mind. All welcome.

 

Next Saturday evening (20th Sept) at 9:30pm we being our liturgical preparation for Rosh Hashanah, our Slichot programme will allow prayer and music to open our hearts – and I’ve pulled all the nepotistic strings I can to bring a very special guest to join me for a pre-service conversation. More information at http://www.newlondon.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&layout=edit&id=202

 

Finally Friday week (26th Sept) – the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The first day is fine, lots of people we haven’t seen for a while and lots of prayer stuff, but it takes the first day to quieten down the Shuk of the world outside. The true moments of insight come, I promise, on the second day. For tickets please go to http://www.newlondon.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&layout=edit&id=164.

 

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 28 August 2014

On Teshuvah and Love

Elul is here – Rosh Hashanah cannot be far behind.

 

With the New Moon of Tuesday night we entered the Hebrew month of Elul.

With the next New Moon we will enter a New Year.

May it come to us, and all, for good and in peace.

 

We are counting down to Rosh Hashanah.

The evening of the first day is 24th September. This is month when we begin to assess the work of the coming days. Perhaps we could all benefit from starting with this idea.

 

In a process known as Notarikon, the Rabbis play with the Hebrew word, Elul – Aleph Lamed Vav Lamed, taking the letters of the word and matching them up against a verse from the Song of Songs – Ani LeDodi V’Dodi Li – I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. The point is this – Teshuvah is built from a foundation of love and reciprocrity. True Teshuvah can only happen gracefully and in relationship with our Creator and our fellow human beings.

 

A graceful relationship with our Creator involves accepting we are created in God’s image. We are invested with a spirit and – should we be so fortunate – the possibility to breathe, see, smell, think, and change. How extraordinary, how beyond any machine-created possibility! And if our relationship with our Creator has gone a little rusty, if we have taken our creation, or our inheritance as Jews too much for granted, the possibility for renewal and transformation exists. The Rabbis teach that when sacrifices were offered in the Temple the flame from the altar would rise and it would meet a flame descending from the heavens. We are met in commitment to live next year differently from the year past.

 

A graceful relationship with our fellow human beings involves opening our heart to the notion that we are not perfect. It’s always easy to ascribe blame or see fault in others. But in this month of Elul we should treat others with the sort of grace we usually reserve for considering our own failures, and put in our own mouths – and hearts – the graceful words we would wish to hear from others ‘sorry,’ ‘no, it was my fault,’ ‘let me do that.’

 

By treating the world and its inhabitants more gracefully, more lovingly we increase the amount of decency in this poor battered world. We might even find more grace and love coming our way in return.

 

Early wishes for a sweet and healthy year to all,

 

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

Thursday, 21 August 2014

512 Hours & 25 Hours

 

In the fancy setting of a prestigious art gallery with blank walls we are invited to do nothing. Marina Abramovic’s ‘durational performance,’ entitled ‘512 Hours’ is drawing rave reviews from critics and long queues from punters for whom standing still in a bare and quiet room is an exciting counter-cultural experience.

 

Actually I loved my time at the Serpentine. Phones, headphones, wallets and keys are left in a locker and you instantly realise how these tools we rely on so eagerly draw us away from intimacy, replacing genuine connection with swipes, taps and clicks. We wore noise insulation headphones which cut out all external noise, but allowed me to hear the sound of my own heart, gently doing its miraculous, life-giving and so-easily-overlooked thing. The sense of sight seemed sharper – a fellow visitor was brought to stand directly infront of me and we gazed at each other for far longer than would have been the case had we scuttled by on the street. And in the face of this slightly pudgy man with burst blood vessels around his nose and tufts of hair emerging from his ears, I witnessed the humanity of a stranger and it was utterly beautiful – far more beautiful than even the most delicate oil painting. Abramovic’s coup is to package the experience of carrying, hearing and seeing ‘nothing’ as something more rich and inspiring than the regular day-to-day experiences of carrying this and that and being bombarded by ceaseless sights and sounds. The exhibition at the Serpentine has a week to run and I do recommend it – but compared to Shabbat ....

 

Imagine a weekly installation with wallets, phones and the like put away. Imagine a time where focus was brought to the faces of our nearest and dearest, freed of the weekday habits of scuttling past as if we were strangers to one another. Imagine a time when our whole relationship to the material world had a reset – where we reconfigure our sense of gratitude for what we have and to whom we should be grateful. Imagine coming together to eat, to pray, to sing. What a work of art that would be. As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught in the last significant interview he gave at the end of his life, ‘Above all remember that the meaning of life it to build a life as if it were a work of art. You are not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.’ There is no way to self-curate this work of art as perfectly – not even a visit to the Serpentine Gallery – that can touch the power of Shabbat. Best start practicing soon,

 

Shabbat shalom,

*

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Wherever You Go - Reflections on Conversion at New London Synagogue

I’ve had an extraordinary day at the Bet Din. Seven adult candidates from the New London conversion programme were accepted ‘among the people of the God of Abraham,’ as were two infants.

 

The sheer depth and range of commitment the Bet Din witnessed was deeply moving. One of the Rabbis was a guest, recently retired following a career in South America, USA and Canada, he said that he had never seen such learning, passion and sophistication in 40 years of Rabbinic work. There were discussions of Pikuach Nefesh, matching of Megillot to Moed, the relationship between the nature of the fast of Tammuz and the fast of Av .... I could go on.

 

One of the candidates was asked why they wanted to convert and responded that they didn’t feel like it was a choice, coming to the Bet Din was simply the next stage of recognising the person they felt they had become through their Jewish journey.

Another candidate shared that, only some months after they joined New London, they found Jewish roots in their own family, stretching back generations. It made them feel as if their journey to New London and Jewish life was of even more importance.

We had candidates who were first exposed to Judaism through a Jewish partner, but claimed that they now felt they had found their own path, own reasons and own beauty in their own new faith.

We had candidates without partners, who found the beauty in Judaism on their own.

 

Rabbi Chaim Weiner, my predecessor here and now Head of the European Masorti Bet Din, asked one candidate why they chose New London, and they responded that we felt like a community that was not only welcoming of converts, but valued converts. That struck me as particularly important distinction.

 

Three reflections.

New London has always been a place open to those who wished to throw their lot in with the Jewish people. It was a principled stance of our founding Rabbi who believed that the United Synagogue had drastically inflated expectations and the supposed importance of pushing back potential candidates for conversion. I’m proud that as a community we continue to believe that open doors and warm welcomes are better than intransigence and hostility.

 

The strength of New London owes a great deal to the vitality and commitment of those in, and those who have completed a conversion at New London. Former conversion candidates and their partners are members of council members, heads of committees, Minyan men – and women and the driving force of so much that goes on here.

 

And then there is that weasel question, of seriousness. How many of these converts are ‘only doing it to get married,’ how many ‘really get it.’ The real answer, is the superb mythic answer of the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China when asked his reflection of the French Revolution, some hundred years earlier. It really is too early to tell. In truth the obligation to value the work of a conversion programme falls on both its participants and the broader community. The participants have an obligation to allow the community to feel that their once-spoken pieties remain strong ongoing commitments to support a people whose destiny has merged with their own. The community need to ensure that no convert is ever shamed or made to feel less worthy simply because they were not borne Jewish.

 

To everyone who came to the Bet Din this week, welcome and congratulations. To everyone who supports, teaches, welcomes or even opens their heart to this extraordinary journey, my thanks and the thanks of of converts in this community, past, present and future, are with you,

 

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

Friday, 11 July 2014

Texts on Pinhas and Violence

 

 

Texts I’m using at New London Synagogue over Shabbat.

Big HT to Rav Shai Held from Hadar

 

John Collins

Terrorist hermeneutics can be seen as a case of the devil citing scripture for his purpose, it is [nevertheless] also true that the devil does not have to work very hard to find biblical precedents for the legitimation of violence.

 

Numbers 25:12

 

Talmud Sanhedrin 82a

Rav Hisda said: If the zealot comes to take counsel [about whether to kill in the case of cohabiting with an idolator], we do not instruct him to do so. What is more, had Zimri forsaken his mistress and Pinhas slain him, Pinhas would have been executed on his account; and had Zimri turned upon Pinhas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Pinhas was a pursuer [seeking to take his life].

 

Ha-Emek Davar (Netziv d. 1893)

God blessed him with the attribute of peace, that he should not be quick - tempered or angry. Since it is in the nature of Pinhas' action - killing human beings with his hands - to leave an intense emotional unrest in the soul afterwards... the blessing he received was to be in a state of peace and tranquility

 

Amud Ha-Emet, p. 42 (Kotszke Rebbe d. 1859)

Having seen Pinhas' zealousness for God's name... Moses thought, 'A zealot cannot be the leader of Israel.'" Therefore Moses turned to God to find an alternative. [Num 27:16-18, Moses asks God to identify a leader, looking over the ‘claim’ of Pinhas. God elects Joshua].

 

Genesis Rabbah 60:3

Was Pinhas not there to annul his vow? Rather, Pinhas said: 'He needs me, and I should to go to him?! Moreover, I am the High Priest and the son of the High Priest; shall I go to an ignoramus?' While Jephthah said: 'I am the chief of Israel's leaders, and I should go to Pinhas?!' Between the two of them the young woman perished" [Commenting on the story of Commander and Chief  Jeptha (Judges 11), who promised to offer up as a sacrifice the first thing he saw on coming back from war, if victorious. As he returns his daughter comes to greet him, and he offers her.]

 

Pirkei Avot 4:1

Ben Zoma used to say, who is a hero – the one who conquers their inclination to anger.

 

Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Mercaz HaRav, aftermath of Kibiya 1953

‘There is a place for acts of retribution and revenge against the oppressors of Israel. … They are responsible for any damage that comes to them, their sympathizers, or their children. They must bear their sin.  There is no obligation to refrain from reprisal for fear that it might harm innocent people, for we did not cause it.  They are the cause and we are innocent.

 

Yeshayhu Leibowitz , After Kibiya

[The attack can be defended with reference to Rabbinic tradition] but let us not try to do so. Let us rather recognize its distressing nature.’ [Leibowitz compared Kibiya’s destruction to the Biblical tale of Dinah. He claimed the brothers] had a decisive justification [for launching the all-out raid]. Nevertheless, because of this action, their father Jacob cursed the two tribes for generations…Let us not establish [the modern State of Israel] on the foundation of the curse of our father Jacob!

 

Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner speaking at Embassy of Israel Vigil, 3rd July

One rabbinic friend reminded me of a piece in the Jerusalem Talmud in which Rabbi Akiva warns against vengeance, he explains that vengeance is like one hand of the same body wounding another. Humanity is one, by vengeance, we damage ourselves.

 

Teaching on Violence

Some texts for a Shiur I’m Giving over Shabbat

 

Thoughts On Israel, Violence, Revenge and Strength

 

Exodus

You shall not murder

(note the King James translation, ‘thou shalt not kill’ is simply not correct)

 

Pirkei Avot 4:1

Ben Zoma used to say, who is a hero – the one who conquers their inclination to anger.

 

Part One – Lessons of History

Crusade Chronicle of Bar Shimshon of Mayence circa 1140 CE

It was on the third of Sivan that Emico the wicked, came with his whole army against the city gate and the citizens opened it up for him. The children of the holy covenant who were there, martyrs who feared the Most though, still clung on to their Creator yet they had no strength to stand up against the enemy. Then came gangs and bands sweeping through like a flood.

One to another they said, ‘Let us be strong and let us bear the yoke of the holy religion, for only in this world can the enemy kill us – and the easiest of the four deaths is by the sword.’ Then all of them to a man cried out with a loud voice, now we must delay no longer for the enemy are already upon us. Let us hasten and offer ourselves as sacrifice to the Lord. Let him who has a knife examine it that it not be nicked and let him come and slaughter us for the sanctification of the Holy One.

 

Max Nordau, 1898  Muskeljudentum (Extract from 1903)

History is our witness that a [a muscular] Jewry once existed. For too long, we have been engaged in the mortification of our own flesh. Or, to put it more precisely – others did the killing for us. We would have preferred to develop our bodies rather than have to kill them or to have them figuratively and literally killed by others. Let us take up our oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp eyed men.

 

Part Two – The First Act of Violence

Genesis 4

And Cain said to his brother Abel ... And when they were in the field Cain rose up against Hevel his brother and killed him.

And God said to Cain, ‘Where is Hevel your brother?’

And he said, ‘Dunno, am I my brother’s keeper?’

And God said, ‘What have you done, the voice of the bloods of your brother calls out to me from the Earth.

 

Midrash Bereishit Rabba 22:7&8

And Cain said to his brother Abel ...

What did they quarrel about? They said, Come let’s divide the world.’ One took the land, the other the moveables.

One said, ‘The land you are standing on is mine. Fly!’

The other said, ‘The clothes you are wearing are mine. Strip!’

From this Cain rose up against Hevel.

 

And Cain Rose Up Against Hevel His Brother

Rabbi Yochanan said ‘rose up’ must imply that Cain lay beneath Abel. [i.e. Abel was winning the fight and could have killed Cain.]

Cain said to Abel, ‘There are only two of us in the world, what will you go and tell our father [if you kill me]?’

Abel was filled with pity for Cain. Immediately Cain rose against Hevel and killed him. From this comes the saying, ‘Don’t do good by a despicable person, for then the despicable one can’t harm you.’

 

Part Three – Contemporary Israel

Windows Onto Jewish Legal Culture

Rav Shaul Yisraeli: Takrit Kibiyeh

There is a place for acts of retribution and revenge against the oppressors of Israel. … Those who are unruly are responsible for any damage that comes to them, their sympathizers, or their children. They must bear their sin.  There is no obligation to refrain from reprisal for fear that it might harm innocent people, for we did not cause it.  They are the cause and we are innocent.

 

Yeshayahu Leibowitz: After Kibiyah

We can, indeed, justify the action of Kibiyah before "the world." [Even though] its spokesmen and leaders admonish us for having adopted the methods of "reprisal"- cruel mass punishment of innocent people for the crimes of others in order to prevent their recurrence, a method which has been condemned by the conscience of the world. We could argue that we have not behaved differently than did the Americans, with the tacit agreement of the British, in deploying the atomic bomb… It is therefore possible to justify this action, but let us not try to do so. Let us rather recognize its distressing nature. There is an instructive precedent for Kibiyeh: the story of Shekhem and Dinah. The sons of Jacob did not act as they did out of pure wickedness and malice. They had a decisive justification: 'Should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?!'… Nevertheless, because of this action, their father Jacob cursed the two tribes for generations.

 

Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner speaking at Embassy of Israel Vigil, 3rd July

One rabbinic friend reminded me of a piece in the Jerusalem Talmud in which Rabbi Akiva warns against vengeance, he explains that vengeance is like one hand of the same body wounding another. Humanity is one, by vengeance, we damage ourselves.

 

 

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Turning Off The Chad Gadya Machine

 

This coming Monday marks the start of the ‘Three Weeks;’ an annual remembrance of the fragility of the Jewish State. Officially the Seventeenth day of Tammuz commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago. But one doesn’t need to look beyond the front pages to feel fragile, bruised and pained today. Yet again.

The terrible kidnapping and murder of the ‘three boys,’ the inflammatory calls for ‘revenge’ leading the terrible kidnapping and murder of a young Palestinian, the launching, yet again, of rocket after rocket from Gaza into Israel, and the response from the Israeli forces, yet again, ferocious and deathly.

 

Yehuda Amichai, the greatest modern Israeli poet, wrote this poem. I haven’t been able to find out exactly when. But I would imagine it would have been in a similarly bruised and scared time.

 

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the "Had Gadya" machine.

 

Had Gadya – the Passover tale of a goat, bit by a cat who is then bit by a dog, then and then, and then...

It’s the cyclical nature of what seems to be unfolding, yet again, that I find so dispiriting. As a six year old my son was in a play about a lion tamer who only knew one way to tame a lion – shout then if that doesn’t work shout louder. It was, in the morality offered to a six year old, a foolish way to try and create a new pattern of behaviour in the lion. I’ll be looking, over Shabbat, at some Biblical responses to violence, seeing what other options exist within our most sacred text for turning off Amichai’s Had Gadya machine. Someone has to be offering something different, quite literally, for God’s sake.

 

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

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