Monday, 13 May 2019

Yom Haatzmaut - David Sagiv


This week we commemorate a BM, and life and death and several sacred occasions.

The BM – of course, George, is yours – the heartiest of Mazal Tov wishes.

The life – of course, is of the State of Israel, 71 years this week. That’s one of the sacred occasions, for Jews – Yom Haatzmaut.

The deaths – of course, are those who died in the Wars defending the Jewish state, and the victims of terror. That another of the sacred occasions – Yom HaZikaron.

But I want to talk about another death, a death that tells us something about the past 71 years of Israel, and might prove a marker to a way ahead.

David Sagiv passed away this week, aged 91, from natural causes. May his memory be a blessing. Sagiv was born in Basra Iraq – and went for the first 23 years of his life by the name Daud Sagawi.

As a teenager he was appointed Secretary of a Jewish Youth Group in Basra called a-Shabiba al-Yisrailiya. In his 60s he wrote of the life of Jews of the place of his birth – in a memoir called Yahudaut BMifgas HaNaharaim – Judaism at the meeting place of the rivers – he wrote that the Jews and the Shiite Muslims of Basra, even the religious leaders – were perfectly civil, occasionally even warm.

He wrote that the local friendships even survived the death of the first King Faisal, for Faisal’s son became a Nazi sympathiser and life for the Jews of Iran became much more difficult at that point.

Then came the declaration of Independence and being the Secretary of a club called a-Shabiba al-Yisrailiya no longer signified that you were a Jew – for Yisrailiya is the word the Koran uses to refer to Jews, but instead suggests some kind of anti-Iraqi intent. And for this, young Daud Sagawi was arrested twice. So he fled to Israel, aged 23 in 1951.

Once in Israel Sagawi, now known as Sagiv, found work in the Arabic Spoken section of the Voice of Israel Network, and eventually became head of the division. He found that even native Israeli Arabic speakers would struggle with the right word to use on many occasions, so he started collecting words, filing away words, looking out for the earliest appearance of known Arabic words, and the first appearance of new words. He met and married. His wife – also an Arabic speaking Jew – was a diplomat, posted to Cairo as Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979. The Sagivs went back and forth between the two countries. And all the while Sagiv filed away more and more words in what became in his mind the mammoth project of creating for the first time a dictionary translating modern Hebrew into modern Arabic, and modern Arabic into modern Hebrew.

It took 60 years. And finally, at the age of 80, it was published – Milon Aravi Ivri / Ivri – Aravi Bat Zemameinu – the Hebrew Arabic / Arabic Hebrew Dictionary of Our Time. 1160 pages, more than 60,000 carefully tracked down, analysed, etymologically broken down, with the earliest appearances, whether it be Torah or Koran, Talmud or Haddith carefully recorded. It’s a gargantuan achievement. And it's known, wherever it's used, as the Sagiv.

In the intro to the dictionary Sagiv wrote;
For many generations Jews and Arabs lived side by side and the daily life of the two cultures was intertwined with Arabic as the mutual language of communication.

Sagiv was saddened to see the Arabic hatred of the State of Israel, and saddened also to see the contempt so many of the Ashkenazi founding fathers of the State of Israel had for the Jewish Arabic speaking diaspora.

Of course, the Jewish Arabic diaspora has been the home to many of the greatest achievements of our people. Maimonides, perhaps the most important Jewish thinker of all time, spoke Arabic as his day to day language. His most famous book, without question the single most important book in all of Jewish theology  – the Guide to the Perplexed was written in Arabic. Perhaps, more importantly, he studied the great Arabic scholars of his day, and his works are massively influenced by Arabic culture.

So many of the great songs of our liturgy are also massively influenced by the modes and metres of Arabic poetry, written by poets steeped in their Arabic speaking Jewish culture.

Lecha Dodi Likrat Kalah
Adon Olam Asher Malach

That’s an Arabic poetic rhythm, or to give it its proper Arabic name – Maqam.

It’s actually a rather simple Maqam – a more typical Makan goes like this

Anim Zemirot V’Shrim E’erog

But something got lost in the years of the founding of the State of Israel. Israel was founded by Jews from German-speaking and Yiddish speaking, and even English speaking Europe. And they – we – I’m one of them, tended to look down on the Arab speaking Jews. Some were poorer than the Yiddish and German-speaking founders and some were less well educated. But not all. More than the sociology, there was something about this language – Arabic – seems to have been held as a sort of treason. Even when spoken by Israeli Jews.

I spent a year in Israel on a gap year, and taught English in a secondary school. The saddest teacher in the place was the woman teaching Arabic. Every class her students would throw around paper darts, chewing gum, even chairs. It wasn’t she was a bad teacher, just they had no interest in learning Arabic – even if their parents and grandparents had spoken the language.

One of Israel’s leading contemporary writers, and poets, Elmog Behar, wrote the poem, My Arabic is Mute. It tells the story of what it means for him, as a Jewish Israeli to grow up unable to speak the language his Jewish Arab-speaking ancestors spoke so fluently.

My Arabic is Mute
My Arabic is Mute
Strangled in the throat
Cursing itself
Without uttering a word
Sleeping in the suffocating air
Of the shelters of my soul
Hiding
From family members
Behind the shutters of the Hebrew.

My Arabic is scared
quietly impersonates Hebrew
Whispering to friends
With every knock on her gates:
“Ahalan, ahalan, welcome”.
And in front of every passing policeman
And she pulls out her ID card
for every cop on the street
pointing out the protective clause:
“Ana min al-yahud, ana min al-yahud,
I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew”.
And my Hebrew is deaf
Sometimes so very deaf.

But the real reason to mourn the death of David Sagiv isn’t just that he could help poets like Behar find ways to connect to the language of their ancestors, but that he could help Jews speak to today’s Arab speakers.

By the time the Sagiv Dictionary was published the Sagivs were back in Israel, the had left Egypt – where Sagiv had been friends with the cultural luminaries of the City – he translated the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naggid Mahfouz into Hebrew. But relations between the countries deteriorated.
"Today we are less in touch with our friends in Egypt," he said, several years ago. "There is a serious process of deterioration in ties. Perhaps it is their fault, perhaps it is ours, but it is not a good thing. One needs someone crazy, like me, who will swim against the stream and publish a dictionary with the aim of getting the two cultures closer."

The Sagiv Dictionary was not just an attempt to allow a people to talk itself, it was an attempt to allow one people to speak with another.

One of the extraordinary things that happened this week – this week that recognises those fallen in the Wars and victims of terror in Israel, is that, for the fourteenth time a group of came together to mourn not only the Jews who died defending Israel, but also Arabs who died too; not only the heroes and the innocent passers-by but even, and this is where the event gets contentious, terrorists. The Bereaved Families Forum is a group of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones – even loved ones of those who have behaved murderously. They come together to talk together to find a way beyond the violence. And for the fourteenth time they held a joint Jewish Arab, Israeli Palestinian commemoration on Yom HaZikaron. 7,000 people participated. The High Court insisted that 181 Palestinian mourners be allowed to travel from the West Bank to the commemoration. Robi Damelin, a spokesperson for the Parents Circle, who has spoken at this Synagogue, whose son David was killed at age 28 performing military reserve duty in the West Bank in 2002 said “These would usually, be the least likely people on earth to have any contact whatsoever, but yet they feel this absolute need to continue with the work of peacemaking.”

At the commemoration in Hayarkon Park Jews spoke of their losses, and Arab Palestinians spoke of their losses. And in that moment of courage … well who knows what happened, or what might still happen.

Addressing criticism of the event voiced by other bereaved Israeli families, Robi Damelin says, “I don’t have any right to criticize another parent, but they too should respect our decision.”

I do respect that decision, more than that I believe that there is no other way for Israel to have a future than to understand better how to speak Arabic and actually how to listen to Arabic. You can’t detach the Land of Israel from the other language spoken there. You don’t need a law to officially demote Arabic from being a national language. You need laws encouraging all children to learn Arabic so that one day some of them can have the strength and courage to sit before an Arabic speaker and hear what makes them scared and what makes them pained. And hope that just as we all pray to one God our shared humanity will allow them to find the ability to hear us.

And there was one other sacred occasion commemorated this week. This is also the first week of Ramadan. If there is anyone here observing Ramadan, and we would be a better Synagogue if there was, Ramadan Mubarak. Mubarak, of course, coming from the same etymological root as the Hebrew – Barukh. MuBarak. A blessing. How typical that the word for blessing is one of the words Hebrew speakers and Arabic speakers don’t need a dictionary to decode in each others wishes for the other.

Barukh, Mubarak, a blessing.
May it come to both our people. Speedily and in our times.
Shabbat Shalom


Friday, 3 May 2019

The Most Important Thing - To Do Something Good for Someone Else


I want to begin where I left off at a talk I gave on Wednesday – on the eve of Yom HaShaoh, the day in the year when we, as Jewish communities across the world, recognise and memorialise the genocidal murder of our people under Nazi rule only a blink of an eye ago. I ended my talk with a tale told by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Carlebach’s a complex figure, but I think it’s a really important story, especially for today.

Carlebach tells his story that he was wandering through the streets of Tel Aviv and he sees a man, bent over, a hunchback, sweeping the streets. And he wonders what there might be to learn from such a person. So he goes over, and he gets closer to the man he sees on his forearm the tattoos of a man who was imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis. So he asks the man, where are you from,.

And the man responds, From Piaseczno.

Now for Carlebach – for me also, there is a certain magic in the name of this small Shtetl about 16 km South of Warsaw. It’s the home of one of the greatest inspirations for me, especially in a week like this, when I want to find a way to remember, to mourn and find a way to go on in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Piaseczno was the home of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira – the Piaseczno Rebbe. Now before the Nazis invaded Poland, before all the awfulness that was to come, the Piaseczno Rebbe was already known as a great teacher and scholar and specifically a great teacher of younger children. And the Nazis invaded Poland, and the Piaseczno Rebbe, like so many others, was driven into the Warsaw Ghetto. And here is where he becomes more than a great teacher and scholar and specifically a great teacher of younger children. It’s here that the Piaseczno Rebbe becomes a hero.

In the Ghetto Reb Kalonymous serves as a Rabbi – he’s better known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto  - and he teaches, week in and week out in circumstances that are, for me, for all of us, beyond belief. He had to get up and give a sermon that gave people hope, and comfort in a place that seemed empty of hope and was certainly empty of comfort. Eventually the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe was deported and taken to his the death, but amazingly his teachings, these brave, beautiful words that he hurled against the wickedness of his time, somehow escaped the clutches of the Nazis. In the aftermath of World War Two, when Warsaw was being rebuilt a construction worker came across a container buried in the earth. Inside were manuscripts in Hebrew letters. So the worker took the container to the Jewish Historical where the following was read;

Attention – Aufmeerkzam
By the grace of God, I respectfully request the honoured individual that find my following writings – sermons on the weekly portion given between 1939-1942 to be as so kind to take the trouble to forward them to the land of Israel at the following address, Rabbi Isaiah Shapira, Tel Aviv, Palestine. Please send this letter as well. When, with God’s compassion I and the remaining Jews will survive the war, I request that everything be returned to me or to the Warsaw Rabbinate. May God have mercy on us, the remnanet of Israel, wherever we may be. May God spare us, grant us life and save us in the twinkling of an eye.
With thanks from the depths of my heart,
Kalonymous.

And, after the war, after the establishment of the State of Isarel, the teachings are collected, translated into Hebrew, and published. I love this collection. It contains some of the powerful attempts to speak to people in places of pain and suffering that it is possible to imagine.

And Shlomo Carlebach knew these teachings and that’s why hearing the name of the town, where the street-cleaner grew up struck him so.

Did you, perhaps, Shlomo asked the man, Did you, when growing up in Piaseczna ever know Reb Kalonymous Kalman Shapira?

Of course I knew him, came the response. I was one of his students, before the war, before all this. Before the war I was a strong young man, so strong that the Nazi beat and beat me, and that is why I am now so bent over, and broken.

And can you, what might you be able to tell me about the Torah you learnt the Rebbe, was there anything he taught you that you could pass on to me?

I don’t remember much, said the street-cleaner. I remember the atmosphere, how wonderful it was, and his kindness, how special he made us all feel. But I don’t remember much of the content. Only this. There was one thing the Rebbe would always say at the end of his teachings. He would always end by saying this,
Hadavar Hachi Gadol BaOlam Laasot Tovah L’Mishehu Acher.
The very greatest thing in the world is to do something good for another person.
He would always end his teaching with this.

And the streetcleaner continued to tell his story. He had been deported from Piasescna and taken to Auschwitz, and one night had felt so desperate about his lot, that he thought of taking his own life. And as he stood and looked out at the barbed wire of the camp he remembered the teaching of his Rebbe.
Hadavar Hachi Gadol BaOlam Laasot Tovah L’Mishehu Acher.
The very greatest thing in the world is to do something good for another person.
And he decided to find someone for whom to perform at Tovah – a good thing, a kindness.
Do you know, he said, how many ways there are to do something good for another person in Auschwitz?
So many people who wanted someone to talk to, someone to share in their pain.
And it’s still true, the man continued.
Do you know, he said, how many ways there are to do something good for another person while sweeping the streets of Tel Aviv?



There’s something very special for me to be able to share this story today, on a Shabbat when we mark Yom HaShoah, and when we mark, William, the contribution of your family to the rescue, from the Nazis of the extraordinary Czech Memorial Scrolls.

Scrolls whose every letter teaches us
Hadavar Hachi Gadol BaOlam Laasot Tovah L’Mishehu Acher.
The very greatest thing in the world is to do something good for another person.

VeAhavta L’Reacha Camocha – we’ll read that verse next week.
You shall love your fellow as you love yourself. Rabbi Akiva said that that verse was the very essence of the entire Torah.
It’s all about how you treat other people.

Now William, you are a younger sibling, so I know you know exactly how annoying other people can be. Actually we all know how annoying other people can be. And I don’t just mean your sister. But here’s a thing.
What if the other people we meet in our lives, even the very annoying ones, were opportunities for us to the most important thing in the world?

I mean, the remarkable thing about this piece of Torah that comes fluttering down through time, the remarkable thing about this teaching of Reb Kalonymous is that it’ actually not hard.

Let me say something about that Hebrew word, Tovah – the most important thing is to do a Tovah for someone else.
The word comes from the word – Tov – good. You can’t really translate it perfectly – to do a Tovah is to give a moment to see what the other person needs, and find a way to be the response to that need – what do most of us need? A chance to feel connection, to feel listened to, to feel appreciated.
It’s an amazing thing to do a Tovah for someone else. It changes them, it changes you. And on the other side of something even as simple as a Tovah the world is a better place.
Made incrementally better each time one person performs a Tovah for another person.
A Tovah might sound like a small, inconsequential action, but it’s not – it’s the most powerful way in which we can mend the world, improve the world, and make a world more fit for our future.

The most important thing in the world is to do do a  Tovah for someone. Reb Kalonymous didn’t say the most important thing to do in the world was solve the problems of Brexit, or Climate Change. He didn’t say that you had to make someone else’s problems disappear in a puff of smoke. He didn’t say that you need to be able to cure every disease. He said that you need to do a Tovah.

Because here’s the problem.
We’ve forgotten the most important thing. We’ve forgotten that we need to lead in doing good in the world. Most of the time, most of us are waiting around for someone to do something good for us before we do something good for them. Or we spend our time looking out at everyone else criticism them, pointing out their shortfallings and failures and, well seen like that we’ll watch out and keep waiting and waiting. And in the meantime the world gets more and more broken. If we want to live in a kinder, more peaceful and happier society it’s not going to be enough to wait for other people to do good things for us, before we do good things back to them.

That kind of life has got us into a place where we are continually judging other people as not worth the effort.
And the message that somehow, miraculously, was saved from the Holocaust, is that we need to go first.

Hadavar Hachi Gadol BaOlam Laasot Tovah L’Mishehu Acher.
The very greatest thing in the world is to do something good for another person.

If we go out into the world, whether it be the streets of Tel Aviv, or St Johns Wood, and look for opportunities to do these acts of Tovah we will build a future for ourselves and our children that, please God, will never know the destruction of the century now passed. If we go out into the world and look for opportunities to do these acts of Tovah, we can build a world of kindness and goodness. A world we would all wish to live in,

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The Female Face of God in Auschwitz - A Yom HaShoah Address


In the run up to Yom Hashoah I look over my bookshelf and search desperately for something to help me have a relationship with this awful event in human history.

I’ve some great writers to turn to; the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe, Reb Kalonymous Shapiro Epstein, who offered comfort to those in the Ghetto. I look across the great work of the survivors; Primo Levi, Eli Weisel, Viktor Frankl. There are the brave thinkers who have wrestled with the awfulness of even having, themselves been spared the worst of the horrors , personally - Emil Fackenheim – who was ‘merely’ – and I use the word advisedly – held for three months concentration in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Emanuel Levinas, ‘merely’ held, despite his Jewish status as a Prisoner of War imprisoned by the Nazis from 1940-45.

And then I look at those whose bravery in engagement with this issue owes nothing to their personal narrative – Yitz Greenberg, Richard Rubenstein, and the list continues.Those of you who have heard me speak on the previous anniversaries of this sacred and awful day will know how much these writers and thinkers have inspired influenced provoked and even at times comforted me.

But the thing that struck me, this year, was that all these thinkers, brave as they are – they are all men. I know, of course, I know of brilliant women who have written memoirs, spoken of their experiences, inspired and educated – and I salute them all – and particularly Hannah Lewis, who is here today. I know, of course of brilliant women historians, Lucy Davidowocz and Deborah Lipstadt among them who have documented with care and skill the horrors that took place. But when I look for a religious response to the Holocaust – and I’m a Rabbi and we are all at a Synagogue – I had to ask around for help.

And from a number of sources I was recommended to a book, a writer, and an approach to the Holocaust that I have found hugely powerful and inspiring, even on this dark day. With your permission, I would like to share it with you.

Dr Melissa Raphael teaches at the University of Gloucester and her most important work on the Holocaust, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, was shortlisted for the Koret Jewish Book Awards. Raphael suggests that most of the time we - by which she means the male Jewish theologians who engage with the Holocaust – ask the wrong question. We ask the question, ‘where was God in the Holocaust.’ And what we should be asking is ‘Who was God in the Holocaust.’

The answers to the first question – the male question – where was God are fundamentally bleak. For Buber, God was in eclipse. For Weisel, God was hanging on the scaffold. For Rubenstein, God is dead. For untold numbers of those who survived or those who have come after the Holocaust asking the first question, where was God, results in a denial of any kind of God at all. If this could happen, so many of us have responded, then there is no God. There is no judge, there is no justice.
But Raphael’s point is that those bleak answers to that bleak question are predicated on the wrong notion of what God might be, they are predicated on a male notion of God that was the wrong notion to have in the first place.

Raphael goes about her investigation of God in Auschwitz very, it seems, inspired by Fackenheim’s work, To Mend the World. She starts by collecting stories, by collecting truths, she’s not interested in looking away, downplaying or belittling the awfulness of what happened in Auschwitz. But when she looks at the behaviour, in particular, or the women in that place of darkness and horror, she sees something remarkable. She sees acts of love.
In a review essay on Raphael’s work the Christian theologian, Christopher Pramuk records the following;

Raphael tells the story of a woman who, torn from her husband and children by SS guards immediately after arriving at the camp, falls weeping on the frozen ground “with the flaming crematoria before her,” when she suddenly feels two hands lay a garment around her shoulders. An old Frenchwoman had stepped forward, wrapping her in her own cloak, whispering [words of comfort] She recalls another now-iconic story of an old woman who is remembered “for holding in her arms a motherless 1-year-old child as she stood at the edge of the communal pit, about to be shot with the rest of her village by Nazi troops. The old woman sang to the child and tickled him under the chin until he laughed with joy. Then they were shot.”[1]


For Raphael these, and there are countless other, tales of tiny acts of kindness and comfort in the midst of awful tragedy, acts performed by men as well as women, non-Jews as well as Jews and even, it should be admitted, Germans as well. For Raphael there is something godly in these acts, and the god they define is a god of kindness, and bravery in the face of great contrary powers of chaos and cruelty. God is defined relationally – in relation to human beings. God is not some aloof distant deity lurking all mighty behind an eclipsing shadow, but rather found and experienced in the most tiny of acts. God arises and is shaped by us, relationally.

It’s an important and fascinating way of reframing the entire theological endeavour. No longer are we to start with the classic propositions of a masculine-framed theology; God is the first cause, the unmoved mover and so on. But rather God is a dwelling of mercy and kindness in a fractured shattered world. God is created as women, and men, make themselves visible to one another as human beings –Levinas is a major influence. If one of the goals of the Nazi oppressors was to dehumanise Jews, strip us of our names, our clothes, our bodies, our lives even – we were to be turned into a factory output; instead Raphael recounts and records the acts of visibility of humans acting humanely.

Here is Raphael expressing this idea in her own words;

God could hardly find her way through the darkness—but the darkness was not her disappearance. However momentarily, the spark generated between the seeing and seen face was analogous to a Sabbath candle inviting God’s presence—Shekhinah—into Auschwitz. Even the most infinitesimal spark of light was enough to illuminate—if only momentarily—the grey face of the other and so refract God into the toppling world.[2]

As she says, ‘God, in Auschwitz, was knowable in the moment of being seen in the face of the seen other.’[3]

One of the most remarkable stories Raphael uses to make her case is a war-time diary, by the Dutch woman Etty Hillesum who was murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 29. Like Anne Frank her writings survived, but she is that much older, and her voice deserves to be heard far more than is the case.

Two weeks before her arrest and deportation, Hillesum wrote the following,

Sunday morning prayer. “Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me. I shall promise You one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow, although that takes some practice. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. . . . You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”

Let me do that last sentence again, ‘You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.’

Raphael isn’t interested in the classic games of theodicy – justifying God’s omnipotence and beneficence. Like Rubenstein and Fackenheim, she thinks there is simply no point in such male pursuits. Rather she wants us to think of a God that only exists as we help God. We become partners. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who considered himself a brand that escaped the fire of the Holocaust when he escaped Nazi Germany to come, first to London then New York, spoke of God in Search of Man. Raphael articulates a God who is formed by the response of Woman – and man.

For Raphael, the God to whom Hillesum prays “is a God who does not rescue the lives of the victims, but one who sustains the sufferers in their struggle to maintain, as long as possible, a life of dignity and self-respect.”[4]

Hilllesum’s last known writings were scribbled on a postcard thrown from the train the delivered her from some other staging post to Auschwitz. ‘We left the camp singing’ she wrote. She wasn’t stupid. She knew. But she still sung. Adorno – another man – who said that could be no more poetry after Auschwitz is proved wrong by a poet who sung her way into Auschwitz.

As Raphael puts it;

Even more than her diary, this textual fragment that is delivered to us over on the “safe” other side of the Holocaust is the means by which Hillesum sends the ineradicable humanity of that “we” back to us. As the Torah does for God, Hillesum’s text—her inked words on paper—establish both her eternal presence and, as a surrogate for presence, her absence. Essentially, if not materially, her presence, like her postcard, will forever flutter toward us like a butterfly on the fresh breeze of a Dutch field in early autumn somewhere near Westerbork. And it is when the theologian kneels in the grass to retrieve that card that history and theology begin to unite—a process already underway in Hillesum’s own writing.

It’s not over. The Holocaust was awful. We stand today mourning. But God isn’t gone. I’m not sure I believe in the God that could ever be gone. Rather, God is there is the acts of kindness done by one human to another, in the face of the evil. God is formed by our witnessing that human beings are creatures of decency and kindness. The power of evil is overwhelmed when we stand and celebrate such acts, even through our tears.

Shlomo Carlebach tells a story of meeting a road sweeper on the streets of Tel Aviv with the tattoo of a camp survivor on his arm. He pleads with the man to tell him where he came from before the horrors of the Holocaust, and the man admits to having studied with the man who became the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto - the Piasescna Rebbe, the Rabbi I first spoke of at the beginning of this talk. What did he tell you? Carlebach wants to know, what was Torah . Simply this, the man replies,’ The most important thing is to do something kind for another human being.’ Even there. Even today. And in this way we not only make the world kinder, but we also make the world a little more godly.



[1] file:///C:/Users/rjere/Downloads/10144-Article%20Text-17897-1-10-20170905%20(1).pdf. I’m very grateful for Pramuk for his direction in allowing me access to this important work.
[2] P. 61
[3] P. 88
[4] P.117

Friday, 22 March 2019

What's the Point of a Democracy


It’s sometimes hard to value being in a democracy.

Suppose you live in a country that had an election and a referendum and the results didn’t come out the way you wanted. Or maybe the decision in the referendum came out the way you wanted, but not enough MPs were prepared to vote your preferred option through.
Suppose you living in a country where the democratically elected Parliament is stuck. And the democratically elected leaders of society were struggling to … lead.
It’s sometimes hard to value being in a democracy. The political theorist David Runciman coined the phrase, ‘dictator envy.’ It’s very easy to want to have a dictator who can simply get things done without all the messing around having to have a complicated constitution balance of powers.
I think it’s OK to be wary of the importance of living in democracy. After all, to be Jew has to mean not caring too much about being in the majority. I mean, I know there are more Christians than Jews, and more Muslims and Jews and more … well just about everything. But being a Jew means that doesn’t worry me too much. Actually being a Jew means I feel something else about the exercise of the power of the many. You say to me, ‘exercise of the power of the many’ and I start to get a little nervous. My mind’s eye flickers with images of mass-gatherings of fascists all chanting together and murdering my ancestors.
Rabbinic Judaism has a different way of thinking about how society should be run. To the mind of the Rabbis society should be run by wise, compassionate, caring and learned leaders who dedicate their life to leading their community. Yup, Rabbis thought that society should be run by … rabbis. But here’s the problem with this Greek idea of having wise, compassionate, caring and learned leaders running a society – it may well be that they are wise and compassionate when you appoint them, but give ‘em a couple of years in power and there’s a pretty good chance they will become corrupted and despotic and … well we’ve all seen that happen. It can even happen to rabbis. At least, and this is the remarkable thing, the Rabbis were smart enough to mistrust their own belief that rabbis should be in power.
One of the remarkable things about the great Rabbinic collection of law, the Talmud, is how often it records great Rabbinic leaders getting things wrong. There’s a story about the great Rabbinic leader Rabban Gamliel who used his position of power to embarrass Rabbi Yehoshua. He gets deposed. And that story gets carefully recorded and then passed down through almost two thousand years, so we don’t forget how easily power corrupts. The Talmud is much more interested in the control of power, and the prevention of the abuse of power than it is in ensuring that the majority get their way.
Just one other example; elsewhere in the Talmud again recorded 1500 years ago and faithfully handed down through the years is an extended debate on exactly what might count as a bribe, the sort of thing that should make a Rabbi recuse themselves from hearing a legal case. Abba Arika, we learn, refused to hear a case involving the innkeeper of an inn in which he stayed. Mar Shmuel refused to hear a case involving someone who once gave him a hand getting off a ship. The Talmud records Raba asking, "Why is it forbidden to take a bribe to free the innocent?" and he answers the question himself, "As soon as one accepts a bribe, he inclines to favour the donor and considers himself 'one with him'; and no one will find themselves guilty."[1]
I want to suggest this as a way of thinking about democracies; democracies exist to control the reach of those with power, not to ensure that those in the majority get their way.
For me, to care about being part of a democracy means to care about the exercise of power. I want to live in a society where once every so many years you have a chance to vote and kick out people who haven’t delivered on their promises. I want to live in a society where there is a balance of power between the executive and the legislature and the judiciary. So no-one can over-reach, so despotism and fascism can be controlled. I care more about the rule of law than the rule of the majority – just because they are the majority.
And part of the reason I care about the control and the limitations that democracies place on the exercise of power is that I worry about the people who can get crushed underfoot if the powerful get their way just because they are a majority. As the Bible says time and time again, watch out for the orphan, the widow and the stranger – just because they don’t have power, you should not mistreat them. But it’s not just about my being soft-hearted. I care about control the power of the majority because I believe the contributions of the minority are vitally important in our society. I don’t hear enough people saying this. We need minorities in our society if we want to grow and discover.
If the most important thing in a society is being part of the majority, then everyone will tend towards one position. If the most important thing is being part of the majority everyone will wear the same clothes, read the same books, think the same ideas and we’ll stop growing. It takes people to be different to find out new things. It takes different opinions to learn. It takes outsiders to come up with ideas that insiders are never going to find. That, of course, has been the great contribution of the Jewish people to thousands of years of cultures across the world. Like Mordechai who sat at the gates of the city, we’ve specialised in seeing things not everyone else could see and doing things not everyone else could do. We’ve specialised in being different. And we’ve helped. Not that we’ve been the only people doing things differently everyone who has ever done things differently has helped, precisely by their being different.
Because the choice about the kind of society we want to live in comes down to a choice set out by the philosopher Theodore Zeldin in his book The Hidden Pleasures of Life, and it’s something I’ve spoken about before from this pulpit. Do we want to live in a fort or a port.
In a fort we build the tallest walls we can to keep out the outsiders who are a threat, and any breach of these walls is a threat we need to repulse. But in a port we need maximum movement across our borders to bring in what is new, and to send forth that which needs to be shared. And for those of us who want to live in port – and I certainly do – that means having to shoulder the frustrations of not being able to hide big thick walls. And for those of us who care about protecting and celebrating the different insights and different natures of all human beings, that means fighting hard for the values of a democracy, even one that occasionally gets things wrong, and always takes more time than a fascist.
Because the truth about those societies that are built like forts and led by fascists is that despite their surface appeal, those walls will come tumbling down causing more wreckage that anyone could imagine. Meanwhile the open, careful, flexible societies have a chance, just a chance mind you – of surviving and thriving.
Jeremiah’s prophecy was true;
Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. … And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.[2]
Or as Rabbi Hananya the Deputy High Priest taught in our oldest Rabbinic collection of teachings, Pirkei Avot, ‘Pray for the welfare of the Kingdom, for were it not for the fear of it, a man would swallow his neighbour alive.’[3]






[1] Ketubot 105b
[2] Jeremiah 29:4-7
[3] 3.2

Monday, 18 March 2019

In the Aftermath of the Attacks on the Al-Noor and Linwood Mosques


I’ve just left Regents Park Mosque where I had the honour of representing New London and Masorti Judaism at a remarkable commemoration in the aftermath of the appalling attacks in Christchurch last Friday.

Present were politicians including Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, religious leaders including Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, Senior Rabbi of the Reform Movement, Laura Janner-Klausner, and representatives of other faith groups and organisations committed to the furtherance of civic society. The leadership of Rabbi Mirvis was especially noted. He had been the first faith leader to confirm his attendance which was acknowledged as proving pivotal in allowing such a high-level gathering to take place.

All shared their horror at the attacks, clearly motivated by Islamophobia, and their particular horror that these attacks targeted religious centres – sanctuaries. Prayers for the comfort of the mourners and the safe rest of the souls of the departed were shared and calls were made for all, faith leaders and politicians included, to take particular care in using language which could inflame false dichotomies in our society.

I found it a particularly moving gathering. It was moving to hear the Mosque’s director, Dr Ahmad Al-Dubayan, draw connections between the dangers of antisemitism and Islamophobia. The thread of hatred that connects the attacks on Finsbury Park Mosque, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques was sketched out by several. I was touched by the pride, anger and pain a younger speaker took in her identity as a British Muslim, ‘how much more integrated could I be?’ – as asked she retold an experience of being told she ought to remove her headscarf if she wanted to be seen as British.

It was inspiring, in such a room of diversity, to be reminded of the strengths that diversity brings; indeed to hear this from a Muslim Mayor and a Muslim Secretary of State.

We are stronger when we stand together in our difference. We are stronger because we care. We demonstrate that strength by refusing to turn our society into a battlefield between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ We are stronger when we chose to love our neighbour, no matter who our neighbour is.

Monday, 11 March 2019

On the Sacred and the Material

Here’s a nice problem. 

Supposed you were married, or engaged – it doesn’t matter – and you had a ring. And suppose that one of those cognitive psychologist types invites you into a room for an experiment. There, in the room, is a jeweller, and the jeweller looks at the ring and says, ‘yup, I can make a copy of this ring so perfect that you wouldn’t be able to tell the two apart.’
Then the psychologist leans forwards and says, ‘tell you what, I’ll give you a $1,000 to leave your ring here, so our jeweller can make a copy, and next week you come back and you get to pick which of the two rings you want to take home.’

It turns out that none of the people in the experiment took the money. Actually, that’s not quite true. One person took the money. They were getting divorced.

The cognitive psychologist behind the experiment was a Professor by the name of Scott Atran. And the thing Atranwas interested in, from a cognitive psychologist perspective,was the sacred. 
Something is sacred when we value it above its value as a purely material good. So, for example, a ring we value more highly than the value of its bits of gold and diamond is sacred. If it’s really sacred, we can’t be offered money to get over it.

I caught an interview with Atran on a BBC radio programme[1] and I’ve been thinking about how we value the sacred and how we can get along when the things that I might value as sacred are not the same as the things you might value as sacred.

Another piece of research from Professor Atran. Atran went to Iran and met people for whom Iran’s nuclear weapon programme was sacred. That meant they didn’t care for any kind of economic incentive to give up on a nuclear weapon programme. They didn’t care that pursuing a nuclear weapon programme would result in all kinds of economic sanctions.[2] In fact for these people, these Iranians for whom Iran getting a nuclear weapon was a sacred value, it turns out that the more you try and bribe or blackmail them with material incentives or sanctions, the less likely they are to do the thing you might want them to do – that is give up on developing a nuclear weapon programme. If you are interested in Iran NOT getting a nuclear weapon, this ought to be important research for you.
In fact, Atran seems to enjoy getting stuck into some of the most important and most difficult challenges of our time. He went to Israel and met with senior Israeli politicians who have been very clear that don’t want to see the creation of a Palestinian State, and then went to Palestine and Syria and met with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, terrorist organisations committed to the destruction of Israel, and asked them what material goods would help them give up on their positions on Israel and Palestine … well you can probably guess how that one turned out. According to Atran, the more you offer to pay a leader of Hamas or Islamic Jihad to give up on their desire to send suicide bombers into Israel, the more convinced they become that suicide bombers are indeed a justifiable thing to do. Atran found similar firmness at play among the Israelis – not that that there are any Israeli politicians who advocate suicide bombs, but that you can’t offer material inducement to an Israeli politician and induce them to give up on having Jerusalem as the unified capital of Israel or the like. That won’t be a surprise to anyone who has spent any time following Israeli politics. But, and this is where the good news starts, there is another way forward.

It turns out that if someone is offered a meaningful symbolic gesture, which seeks to show an understanding of the other side, their attitude toward even their own sacred values can melt, a little. If you seek to express an empathy with another person over something that they deem sacred, they do become less antagonistic. And that goes for the political leaders of Israel and even, according to Atran, the leaders of Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

I don’t mean to sound overly fluffy about this. It’s going to take a lot more than a one-off gesture of understanding to solve a multi-generational conflict that has claimed too, too many lives. But if we care about some of the most complex, important and deadly challenges facing us we need to think a lot more carefully about sacred values, and less about material values.

I’ve been reading the most remarkable book – Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First, The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. It’s some book. I mean, it makes James Bond and John le Carre look like In the Night Garden. Throughout the 70 years the book covers, the basic idea that drives the decisions made by Mossad and the rest of the Israeli Secret Service is that anyone who wishes Israel ill should know that Mossad can get them, and will get them. The basic idea is that anyone who wishes Israel ill should be too scared to do anything about it for the material reason that they will end up getting killed. And Israel has been pretty good at implementing that basic idea. But it’s not at all clear that this material balancing act is how prospective terrorists approach these decisions.

At the climax of this extraordinary book, Bergman tells the story of the end of the career of Israel’s greatest spy-master-  the King of Shadows – Meir Dagan himself. Dagan spent 30 years in the Mossad, the last ten as its director and, having read the book, I now know the sorts of things that Dagan did and arranged to have done. Dagan was not fluffy. No-one would ever make the mistake of thinking Dagan was fluffy. But at the end of his life, Dagan changed what he thought Israel should do about those people who wished Israel ill. He came to believe that the basic idea of material threat hadn’t made a difference in 70 years, and wasn’t going to make a difference into the future. At a mass rally before the March 2015 Israeli elections, he challenged the political leadership of Israel to, and I’ll use the language of this sermon, not Dagan’s speech, to treat the challenge of the Palestinians and the Iranians and the rest of them as a problem of sacred values, not material values, and, Dagan argued at the end of his life, sacred values need a very different kind of leadership from that which characterised Dagan’s Mossad.

Enough politics, let me talk more about religion. Because while not all sacred values are religious values – religion can never has violence as a value – all religious values are sacred. To be religious means to value that which cannot be measured, to believe in that which cannot be witnessed. And contrary to the professional God-bashers who think that religion is the root of all evil in the world, my take on this issue is that religion is the best place to go to understand how our sacred values are laid down and how they are shaped and changed. It’s not about the claim that my religion is better or worse than anyone else’s religion, it’s that being a religious leader involves the continual engagement with sacred values.

I’m not an expert on any religion other than my own, let me take just one example from my own faith.

In the time of the Mishnah – that’s around a 1,000 years later there is a story – two people come before the judge each holding on to one corner of a piece of cloth. One person says, ‘I found it and it’s all mine, and the other person says, I found it and it’s all mine.’ And the judge comes up with this solution to the challenge – you get each person to say that not less than half of the cloth is theirs, then you cut up the cloth and each get half.[3]

What interests me is the insistence that both parties have to say that not less than half the cloth is theirs, when just a few moments previously, they had been claiming that all the cloth was theirs. It’s not that the claimants are being told to say something they don’t believe – if they believe that the cloth is all theirs then it’s true that not less than half of it is theirs. They are being softened in their claim, they are being offered a way to be content with less than they claimed. Their implacability is being softened. They are being drawn away from a sacred class and once the decision is merely a material clash – it can be solved.

I could have taken thousands of examples. Rabbinic Judaism is entirely pre-occupied with the nature of competing disputes and claims. The entire Talmud is a collection of tens of thousands of arguments carefully stacked up and considered and recognised. It’s the recognition that is the really remarkable thing. It rarely happens that a Talmudic argument ends with one person being told they are wrong and another being told they are right. Rather the Talmud, on page after page, after page, recognises competing values and softens implacable oppositions until a way to go forward peaceably can be found. Religious debate – at least in Judaism - becomes a way of allowing different people to hold onto different opinions, different sacred values, without feeling the need to fight about it.
Now I know there are bigots who use religion to prop up their bigotry, but I refuse to believe that what I know to be true about Judaism isn’t equally true about other religions. After all we all believe in a God, or gods who are more important than all our claims. That should place a person in a position of humility, not arrogance. Indeed that has been the case with the extraordinary contributions of religious leaders towards such peace-positive developments that have occurred in countries a diverse as South Africa and Ireland.

So here’s the message, whether you find yourself facing a dispute that is large or small, personal or international; watch out for the difference between a sacred value and a material one. We can’t solve clashes of sacred values with material solutions – it will only make things worse. Rather we need to look for ways to recognise the sacred values of the other, and seek out ways to respect and recognise and in that way minimise sacred difference.

And if you want to learn how to do that. Keep coming to Shul. This Shul preferably.

One last thing – if you are interested in this cognitive thing, one of our resident neuroscientists at the Shul (that’s a good phrase right?) and I are talking about Judaism in the brain at a special Friday night dinner next week. You can get a flier at the back of the Shul or book on-line after Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom



[1] Go on My Mind, Episode One, available on BBC Sounds.
[2]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49596596_Sacred_Values_and_Conflict_over_Iran's_Nuclear_Program
[3] BM 1:1
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