Thursday, 26 January 2017

Write, Jews, Write it Down - Lessons of the Holocaust

This Shabbat we are marking Holocaust Memorial Day with a special event. I have invited two of our members to share the story of their work. Jenny and Dina are translators working for Yad Vashem. They work with the Oneg Shabbas archive, documents that survived the Holocaust, hidden, in the Warsaw Ghetto, by those who did not. 

“Write, Jews, write it down,” were the dying words of the great Jewish historian, Shimon Dubnow, as he was murdered by the Nazis in Riga 1941. He wanted to leave something so we can hear voices lost. Indeed there is plenty of writing, and the like, left for us. All that lacks is people will to read, to come and to hear - as hard as it may be. I do urge all members, friends too, to join us for this Shabbat. 

Dina and Jenny will be speaking during the service and also sharing insights into some specific texts with which they have been working during a sit-down-kiddush. (Youth activities will be provided outside of the Kiddush hall).

In conjunction with Holocaust Memorial Day, I want, particularly, to note the work of our member Hannah Lewis, whose story can be read here, for her heroic educational work. I’m also grateful to Freda who drew my attention to a showing of the new documentary Night Will Fall about the first footage shot by British soldiers in the liberated camps. Night Will Fall is being shown today at 9pm on More 4 (channel 14 on Freeview, 138 Sky and 147 Virgin), I urge you to record it for later viewing. More information here.

We live in strange times. It turns out that we cannot take for granted that ‘we’ - Jews, Brits, Europeans, members of the human race - know the story and even the message of the Holocaust. We must commit ourselves to doing more. The original footage which makes up the heart of Night Will Fall film was to be part of a, sadly, unfinished work directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Bernstein and Richard Crossman. That work was to end with these words, ‘unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall. But by God’s grace we who live will learn.’

Shabbat shalom,

Thursday, 5 January 2017

On Israel - the Grand Scale and the Individual

An Israeli rabbinic colleague of mine in America posted on Facebook about the two Israel-related discussions filling up his feed. His American friends, he wrote, were all processing the recent UN resolution on settlement construction and John Kerry’s recent speech on Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. Meanwhile his Israeli friends were all engaged in the case of Sgt Elor Azaria - the Israeli soldier who shot Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, a Palestinian terrorist while the latter was handcuffed and prostrate on a Hebron street. You are unlikely to have come across the story of Sgt Azaria unless you read the Israeli press (in which case you would have drowned in comment) though this from the New York Times is good. See also this from IDF Code of Ethics author, Professor Asa Kasher.

Aside from the substantial - and there are very substantial - issues at stake, my friend observed how those most geographically close to the struggles of Israel obsessed on the fate of the individual, while those more distant looked to the bigger picture. For me, the grand scale and the microcosm simply reflect a singular issue. It’s a very religious perspective - religious Jews engage in the most tiny matters of detail because we believe that it is only in detail that our true beliefs and values are reflected. Stepping too far back, gazing from too far a distance, allows and even impels, generalisations and stereotyping. The Azaria case is appalling; appalling because of the original terrorist attack, because of Azaria’s response, because of the political pressures brought to bear on the military courts but, most of all, because none of this should have happened.

The Jewish presence in Hebron is inflammatory and, I believe, unjustifiable. I agree with the response of the New Israel Fund to the incident, posted here. The NIF noted that the murder victim was indeed a terrorist, noted also the clear culpability of the soldier, but also suggested Sgt Azaria was ‘a victim of circumstance’ - forced by an occupation into a role for he, a 19 year old, was unable to perform.

There will, of course, be others in this community who will take other perspectives. Indeed our love for Israel can only be accurately reflected in a breadth of views. I won’t be addressing this issue over Shabbat, but it is important for us to speak more about Israel, a country at the centre of our religious identity in so many ways. In fact, we will be dedicating time to so doing next Shabbat - 14th January. Indeed I am hoping we will be joined by a guest speaker who can share a particularly deep understanding of the political issues. I will be able to share more next week.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Judaism, But Were Afraid To Ask

I am, I admit, done with 2016, but excited for the year to come.

In January I will begin teaching The Aleph Course. It’s a six part course where each week the subject is one of the most important aspects of Jewish identity; Shabbat, History, Prayer, Theology, Israel ...

Six consecutive Wednesdays, 8pm at the Shul, beginning 11th January. Each class is self-contained.

I’m doing the bulk of the teaching, Cantor Jason and David-Yehuda will be pitching in with a class each. More information here.

It’s a chance to get the grounding and context so many members tell me they never had, or have forgotten, or would simply want again.

It’s material that has been hugely appreciated in previous outings at New London and elsewhere and I’m delighted to be able to return to teach it at our Shul. If this is something you, or anyone you know, might be interested, please let me know, and make a note of the dates and other info.

It’s very definitely open to non-members and members alike - though we make a charge for non-members. It is a chance to feel comfortable in our Jewish identity and hugely recommended.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 8 December 2016

And Jacob left for Haran - A Kiss Isn't Just a Kiss

This week’s Torah reading begins with Jacob fleeing his furious brother and deceived father. He heads for Haran, dwelling place of his uncle Lavan. Lavan’s first encounter with this family of Hebrews came when he met Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who came bearing gold to persuade Lavan to let his sister, Rebecca, marry Isaac. The penniless Jacob arrives - already having met his wife to be, Rachel.

[And Lavan] ran towards Jacob and embraced him and kissed him and brought him into his house.

The Rabbis of Bereishit Rabba take the opportunity to paint Lavan as a deceiving moneygrabber. Lavan ran towards Jacob thinking he had come bearing gold. He embraced him, taking the opportunity to check if there was any gold in Jacob’s pockets. He kissed him, taking the opportunity to check if there was any gold secreted in his mouth.

It’s a terrific playful interjection, sensitive and sceptical to Lavan’s eagerness and prefiguring Martin Buber by around 1500 years. Lavan’s relationship with his nephew is precisely what Buber had in mind in his analysis of the ‘I-It’ relationship. The relationship based on the single question - what’s in it for me? Relationships founded on self-service are never going to be profound. At their best they are reciprocal. Reciprocity isn’t evil, but it’s a long way from love. The ‘I-Thou’ relationship, where one seeks to serve another without regard for self-interest is of an entirely different, deeper, sort.

So this is the challenge, when we encounter others do we interact on the basis of what is in it for us, or without regard to our own self interest? Can we crank up the number of interactions we have with others that are based on wilful acts of generosity of deed? How much sweeter, and more surprising, could we make this world if we led with a desire to do things for others, freed of the need to be assured of precise predictable payback. It’s a way of encountering others that will work for nieces, other family members, work colleagues, friends and strangers alike. I commend it.

Shabbat shalom

Friday, 2 December 2016

Parashat Toledot - The Children are Revolting

Ve’eleh toledot.
And these are the generations.
Interesting week for Cheder Shabbat.

If last week I spoke about Abraham Zaken - being old.
This week want to talk about being young.
Being a Yeled

Key moment re Isaac
dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.

Been filled in, and dutifully, as a good son should, redigs them.
Re-endows the wells of his father as his father’s wells.
Sounds good. This is, is it not, what children should do to honour the name and the triumphs of their parents.
I speak of this, of course, as a parent.

But something feels slightly remiss.
Remiss in Isaac - sense of own narrative disappeared.
Couple of weeks ago he was bound.
Last week, a wife was found for him.
This week redigs the wells of his father.
And he is deceived by his own sons.
Passive existence.
He’s not the hero of his own existence.
Slips betweens the cracks between Avraham Avinu - our patriarch Abraham and his son known as Yisrael - for we are all Bnei Yisrael.

Wonder if a piece of it - and you can’t tell my children I said this - is that just redigging the wells of your parents is not enough.
Recreating the actions of a previous generation, by definition, is a recipe not for bright innovation and hope, but a gentle slide into obsolescence.

I was flicking through Rabbi Jacob’s autobiography when I came across one of his fav stories, a story I last shared on this Bimah ten years ago this week, when I interviewed for the position of Rabbi here. Taken from the section of the autobiography where Rabbi Jacobs is getting ready for his first Yom Kippur at the prestigious New West End Synagogue, and just as he is preparing to go into the service sees one of the enobled members of the community, also just outside the sanctuary.

Time was pressing and I suggested that we go into the synagogue for Kol Nidre.
The Lord replied that he did not want to enter the synagogue for a while and that he would explain why after the service.
His explanation was that his grandfather, the first Lord, although a very observant Jew, did not hold with the Kol Nidre formula and used to wait patiently in the foyer until this part of the service was over.
His son, the second Lord, less observant and a little indifferent to the whole question would still wait outside because his father had done so.
The third Lord explained he personally didn’t understand what it was all about, but felt obliged to carry on the family tradition.

It’s redigging the wells, it’s humble, but it’s not vibrant. It’s not enough for a child. It shouldn’t be what we expect from our children.
Whisper it, but sometimes, in the words of Tim Minchin’s musical Mathilda, children have to be a little bit naughty.

Of course, certainly in my own house, I’m not such a fan.
Quite like kids to do precisely the things I tell them to do, and promptly, and with a smile on their faces.
And on a superficial level I really like the idea that after I’m gone they’ll do precisely the same things I did in precisely the way I did them, but ....

It’s an old problem.
This is God’s principal experience with the problem - also known as the problem of Free Will.
God puts the first human beings in the Garden and tells them they can have everything they want, apart from the opportunity to want one thing; the opportunity to understand for themselves what good and bad actually mean.
What do you expect happened?
Of course the children wanted to understand things themselves, even if it meant making their own mistakes.
Even if it meant being more than a little bit naughty.
Adam and Eve wanted to be - and indeed became - the paradigms for humanity.

The world turns.
The lives of our children will be unrecognisably transformed from the lives of our parents and they will have to be prepared for challenges so radically different from those of 40 years ago that training our children to redig our wells is simply not good advice..
Not just talking about the transformatory nature of contemporary technological innovation - it’s never been possible to step into the same river twice.
Life is always transforming and the deeper thing to wish for our children is a transformed future.

Here’s another encounter between God and children, dating to the mid Talmudic period, say around the year 300.

Talmudic tale of the oven of Achnai
The Rabbis are arguing. One rabbi starts to call on God to support his claims and God starts to intervene, causing trees to be uprooted, water to flow upstream and even the walls of the Bet Midrash to cave in, until the other rabbis banish God from the argument pointing out ‘Lo bshamayaim hi.’ That the Torah is not in heaven, but rather given to each and every generation to decide it as they - not God, our father in heaven - best see fit.

And the tale continues - nitzchuni banai­ - usually translated, my children have defeated me, ut literally - my chidren have outlasted me.
Irony is that we last longest by ceding to the generations to come, rather than imposing our own take on their futures upon them.
Scary thought - as I said, you can’t tell my children I said this.

Meaning of Yichus
Actually two things - one is the sense of pride taken in those in whose triumphs I see my own triumphs.
But also - and perhaps even more importantly, a sense of wonder as those who are coming after me supercede that which I could have imagined - nitchuni banai

I used to be a huge fan of the George Berard Shaw quote,
When I was 14 I knew my parents knew nothing, by the time I was 21 I was amazed by how much they had learnt in 7 years.
But I think, in honesty, I’m not sure even that is enough.
My hope for my children is that they outdo, out-think and transform any expectation I could have for them.
Because - on this Cheder Shabbat - it’s probably necessary that kids should be revolting

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Fires in Israel - Kehillat Moriah

Many will have read about the fires that caused such devastation in Israel last week. We send our best wishes to everyone affected. In particular I wanted to draw our members’ attention to the devastation caused at the Masorti Synagogue of Haifa, Kehilat Moriah, one of the oldest and largest Masorti communities in Israel.
I know Rav Dubi, the spiritual leader of the community, well. Flames caught hold of a pine tree behind and above the building and led to destruction of the upper floors, including the Noam youthg group rooms, the library and study hall and much else. Haaretz has a full story which you can read either [here -], or if you don’t have a Haaretz subscription you can access the article by googling  ‘the true extent of the wreckage here at Moriah, the oldest active Conservative congregation in Israel, only becomes evident when a visitor sets foot inside.’ The community has embarked on a fundraiser to save their building and repair the damage. I commend it to all. More information [here -].
Tomorrow we will celebrate Shabbat with our Cheder and youngest members. It’s a tremendous pleasure and I’m delighted we have such a dynamic programme for our younger members. We will also be joined by our Noam Movement Worker, Amiel who is introducing himself to the community below.
Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 24 November 2016

‘Abraham was Old’

Old age, the Rabbis suggest, began with Abraham. It’s a typically rabbinic observation. The word, ‘Zaken’ appears for the first time only in this week’s parasha, and so ...

Perhaps the more historical observation would be that ageing used to be so much rarer than it is today. We are, notes Noah Yuval Harari, the first humans to face age as the greatest threat to our mortality. In generations past violence, pestilence and famine accounted for so many more of us. Now what?

In Bereishit Rabba Abraham asks God for a sign of ageing so everyone will know who deserves more respect when ‘a father and a son go to a place,’ indeed the word Zaken, means both ‘aged’ and ‘wise.’ Zaken also means ‘beard’ - a sign of age? Certainly. A sign of wisdom? Well as long as it’s a reasonably neat goatee, I think so.

The great American teacher Reb Zalman taught much about ‘saging’ a process where the aged are duly celebrated for their wisdom, not only the real depths of insight that come with age, but also the wisdom of declining intellectual perspicuity. And there is the rub.

In ancient times death, in times of peace and plenty, would usually be preceded by illness, untreatable and therefore brief. Nowadays we survive, physically, longer and longer, perhaps outlasting our mental strength, perhaps outlasting financial sums put aside, perhaps outlasting the reservoir of care and love that we imagine our due. The absolute connection between age and wisdom is severely threatened. Indeed this may be the single greatest challenge of our age.

Two thoughts to share, neither renders the work of caring for the aged easy or alters the stark physical challenges so many face, but hopefully thoughts that can ease a spiritual burden.

Firstly when the Talmud discusses the obligation to honour one’s parents - one of the Ten Commandments - the examples cited are without exception about aged parents; perhaps senile and certainly no longer at the height of their power. A jeweller forgoes a significant sale since his father is asleep using his keybox as a pillow. A man watches his mother fan money off the back of a ship without attempting to stop her. When the Rabbis suggested honouring one’s parents to be the heaviest of the obligations they knew the challenges posed by ageing. Acknowledging the gift of our parents is something that takes place not when our parents are at the height of their powers, but afterwards.

Secondly, there is this notion of the creation of the human in the image of the Divine; every human, at every stage in that person’s life. It is the greatest challenge in our faith and it applies equally to the young, the old, the fit, the infirm, the perspicacious and the demented. To bear witness to the divine nature in a person, no matter how challenging they might be, no matter how much a shadow they might be of their former selves, is, I believe, the key to understanding how we should care for our most aged and sage-ed. It is certainly how we should all wished to be cared for ourselves.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy
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