Friday, 15 December 2017

Chanukkah is All About the Story

I wrote on the eve of Chanukah about the relationship between the history behind the festival and the way the festival is celebrated. You can read that post here. I was interested in the way that the miracle of the oil - so much the centre of our contemporary celebration is not recorded in the various texts which make up the historical record of the festival; the Books of the Maccabees, Josephus and the like. I suggested that we, as a religious community, have made a decision to elevate a gentle, light-filled miracle at the expense of the miracle of military success, with its incumbent ethical challenges.

In the last couple of days I came across this fascinating engagement with a very closely related issue (thanks to Adam Eilath).

In the early 20th century, Moroccan Rabbi Yosef Messas received a letter from a Jew who had become sceptical of the Hannukah oil miracle story because he couldn’t find a written source that attested to its authenticity. In his response, Messas strongly rejected the idea that a written source was the only way to prove something as authoritative and accurate. Messas argued that the home, and specifically the teachings of the parents, were of equal importance to the written Rabbinic laws. He wrote that the “love and care that parents build with their children” creates a source of authority. Parents, he wrote, “teach stories to their offspring that pass on from generation to generation,” and these stories are on equal standing with written traditions. 

It’s a terrific insight into the nature of Judaism. There are historical truths often recorded in scientific documents which explain what happened and happens in the world. And then there are the stories. Stories are transmitted intimately; even if they are written they need to be told to come to life. In our stories we find colour, emotion, love and, perhaps most importantly, the reason for passing on narratives. If documents can explain ‘what’ questions, stories can explain ‘why’. Rabbi Messas is surely right; the stories we tell, and perhaps especially at this time of year, are the heart of our faith and our connection to our people. We should tell the story of Chanukah well.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,
(This Shabbat at Shul I will be looking at the relationship between Chanukah and ‘Chukot HaGoi’ the obligation ‘not to walk in the paths of the non-Jew’)

Monday, 11 December 2017

Chanukah - Between History and Religion

We have an (almost) contemporary record of the Chanukah story. While the Rabbis never considered the Books of the Maccabees part of the Bible, the early Church did preserving them as, what Christians call, ‘inter-testamental literature.’ They make for a compelling read. There’s pride, honour, gutsy under-dogs and an arrogant enemy brought to humility. There’s also a rededication project - that, of course, is the literal meaning of the word Chanukah.

My favourite passage is the heroic refusal of Mattathias to bow down to the statue of the wicked King Epiphanes. The Maccabean patriarch has been singled out to bow first;

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, everyone of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors,  I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors.  Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances.  We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”

What the First Book of Maccabees doesn’t do, however, is recount the miracle of a long-lasting flask of oil. That miracle doesn’t appear in the Second, Third or Fourth Book of Maccabees either, or the reasonably contemporary historical narrative of the great Jewish/Roman historian Josephus. The miracle of the oil only makes its first appearance in early (Tannatic) Rabbinic literature, dating from probably around 200 years after the event.

Talmud Shabbat 21a
Chanukah begins on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. On these eight days eulogies and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest. It contained enough for only one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred and they lit the lamp with it for eight days. The following year these days were marked as a Festival with Hallel and praise.

While the Talmud does contain the story of the oil, the Rabbis mention neither the Maccabees nor any narratives of heroism.

The Maccabees seem to have been edited out of the Rabbinic history since their dynastic rule was marked by corruption, murder and other impropriety. (Really there is a mini-series waiting here for someone). I wonder if another reason for the absence of praise of military-based heroism is the Rabbinic discomfort with military might as a way of solving challenges. The Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah - chosen by the same Rabbis who are responsible for the Talmud - contains the verse, ‘Not by might and not by power, but by [God’s] spirit.’

Rabbi David Golinkin, from the Masorti Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, has a terrific post on the original Megillah for Chanukah (not a tradition still in use) - you can read his piece here or watch here. His suggests re-creating a public recitation of a story of Chanukah in our homes and synagogues. We might try it this Shabbat. But this deeper level of historical connection would come at the cost of what must be a deliberate Rabbinic decision - to downplay the military importance of the historical event in favour of more peaceful miracle.

May we all be blessed to have the opportunity to spend Chanukah in peace, celebrating miracles of light, and not placed in a position where military solutions are our only response to the challenges facing us.

A peaceful, light-filled, Chanukah to all,

Rabbi Jeremy

The first Book of Maccabees can be read on-line here.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Mental Health

Isaac never recovers from the trauma of the Akedah. If a label of ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ feels anachronistic, maybe that’s a reflection of our unwillingness to view the ancient heroes of our faith as archetypes of the very same challenges we face as humans today.

The Bible is replete with examples of mental health; King Saul displays symptoms of depression, mania, paranoia, anxiety ...

Meanwhile, in the Talmud, come tales of senile dementia; one aged mother who, following the death of her husband, wants to marry her son. Another marches into the City Council, where her son is Mayor, and proceeds to bash him over the head with a slipper.

Judaism offers a remarkable counter-balance to the stresses and strains of contemporary existence - the Sabbath - and the importance of soulful rest has never been more important. But mental health is tragically often a burden beyond the reaches of even the most efficacious bowl of chicken soup.

We don’t make enough space in our souls and in our community, to acknowledge the ways mental health can devastate a life. Indeed, perhaps precisely because mental illness is harder to see than many physical illnesses and injuries, the impact of mental ill-health on the family and social structures surrounding an ill person can be even more painfully felt.

I was deeply moved, this week, to receive the latest edition of ‘Head Room’ - a listing of courses, seminars and events run by Jami, the ‘mental health service for our Community.’ It’s a remarkable document containing offerings for the young and the old, for patients, and those who love them, for anxiety, stress, vulnerability, self-harm, eating disorders, managing loss and on the list goes. In particular, many of the listings share a concern to provide a safe space for sharing stories, listening and finding among other human beings, a humanity when faced with these deeply human sufferings. I would hope we, at New London, and I - not that I’m a trained medical professional - can offer some of that humanity and safety for all those in our community so affected.

There are a few copies of the Jami booklet in the Shul foyer, others - and much else - are available at

As ever, I welcome any and all responses,

Shabbat shalom

Friday, 3 November 2017

Balfour - One Day Later

One hundred years, and a day, ago the Balfour Declaration was signed.

“His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Those of you at last night’s lecture at New London, ‘Balfour and Beyond’ will have heard Professor Yaacov Yadgar’s superb presentation on the subject. He highlighted the challenges implicit in the declaration itself; Jews were to have a new national home, without losing rights in their existing national homes. The new national home would be for the Jewish people, but nothing should be done to suppress the rights of the non-Jewish communities. To these challenges he added others; what does a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ mean - is ‘being Jewish’ simply the collection of the things that Jews do, whatever and wherever that may be? Or is ‘being Jewish’ a spiritual vision of a covenantal relationship with God? And if the latter, who gets to decide what that means in a vibrant challenging polis?

Professor Yadgar showed how the Balfour declaration owed much to a rejection of a former vision of Jewish existence; a vision where Jews were ‘Englishmen [or Frenchmen, or Germans] of the Mosaic persuasion,’ a people whose external political life was entirely devoted to the states in which they lived, whose Judaism was an entirely inward-facing private apolitical matter. Early Zionist thinking, in large part, rejected that vision; replacing the internal aspects of Judaism with a complete focus on  Jewish political national consciousness.

At the heart of all these challenges is the question of what, precisely, Judaism, or Jewish-ness, actually is. Are we a faith, a race, a people, a community ...? It must, indeed, be frustrating looking for a label which fits Jewish-ness. We seem to suit many a little and none precisely.

There is only one solution. We need to be able to embrace multiple contradictory claims as capable of bearing truth. ‘Elu v’Elu Divrei Elohim Chaim’ - teaches the Talmud - ‘Both these and these are the words of a living God.’ It’s hardly a new idea for us. Judaism needs to be both honoured in the diaspora and safeguarded in its homeland. It needs to be both a religious calling and a political reality. Israel needs to be a Jewish homeland which does indeed recognise rights and aspirations of non-Jews in its borders. Perhaps that is the greatest insight of the Balfour Declaration - it understood that Jews need to be ‘both and’ and not ‘one or the other’ if we are survive and thrive. If being ‘both and’ means we do not fit into the neat categories of non-Jewish ways of thinking about socio-religious political entities, so be it. In truth we know who we are. We know when our rights are threatened, we know what gives us pride and we know where we fall short. Maybe what we lack is the confidence to exist in our multiple-identities, the honesty to admit our shortfalls and the willingness to apply ourselves to do better.

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Shabbat UK

The Chief Executive of Next, Simon, Baron, Wolfson, was one of the panellists on last week’s Any Questions. After the usual tour of topics of the day, came a question about a school who have issued alarm clocks to their students so they don’t have to keep their mobile phones in their bedrooms. We are all, it seems, too in thrall to our phones.

“Funnily enough,” the boss of one of Britain’s most significant clothing companies shared, “for religious reasons I turn my phone off for from Friday night sundown and I keep it off until Saturday nightfall. And I have to say it’s an incredibly liberating thing to do. What you realise is that it’s not a life support machine. And you can live for 24 hours without your phone. I would recommend trying it. You will have a much nicer weekend.” Silence swept the studio as the idea sunk in, then applause.

MP, Lisa Nandy, went next. She suggested that if only MPs could be persuaded to turn off their phones for a day they could actually get together and solve the problems of Brexit. She was only half-joking.

Does that help? I figure I am, at this point, not really trusted on this - pasul b’eydut in the Talmudic idiom - banned from serving as an objective witness as to the beauty and power of a Shabbat honoured without mobile phones, computers, email and the rest of it. But here you have a FTSE 100 CEO and an MP. And there is more. Getting the phone turned off is more than a way of making your weekend ‘nicer.’ It’s about connecting with life as it right before you - not being whisked away from the here and now by the siren calls of telephony, push e-mail and streamed distraction. It’s about learning to take pleasure in what you have already, letting go of the chase for the new and probably not that important. It’s about finding a space in which to be grateful for the gift of life, and Jewish life at that.

It’s Shabbat UK - it’s a pleasure to share congratulations with the Orthodox Chief Rabbi for his leadership in drawing the focus of all Britain’s Jews towards the greatest gift we possess, as Jews - the Shabbat. There are Challah bakes and calls to light candles and all of that is important. But if you want to experience Shabbat as what the Rabbis meant when they called her a little piece of paradise on earth, please do join me in turning off that phone. Let me know how you do.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

P.S. If interested, The Question Time clip is on-line [here -] at 54:30.

November at New London

Next month we are launching the Chai Mitzvah Initiative, and hosting a flagship educational evening; Balfour & Beyond. Members are warmly encouraged to take advantage of these two terrific programmes.

Flagship Evening on the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration; Balfour & Beyond
We are delighted to welcome Professor Yaacov Yagdar, newly appointed Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Oxford, to reflect on one of the most significant moments in the journey towards the creation of the modern State of Israel. It will be an exceptional evening and I am honoured that Prof Yagdar will be joining us as we host members from several local Synagogues.
7:30pm 2nd November at New London Synagogue
Open to all.
More info here

Over Yom Kippur I spoke about a new initiative at New London - Chai Mitzvah.
It’s a programme designed to support people looking for something extra Jewishly, but wary or just too busy to make more than one evening a month.
The deal is this; come to nine monthly classes and commit to one new act of Jewish ritual engagement (of your choice) and a project of bettering something - an act of Tikkun Olam. You will deepen your understanding of Judaism, feel more engaged in the community and have fun.

The materials are terrific (more info here).
The people who have already indicated their interest are terrific.
And I am able to confirm the dates for the year. See [below - can you link down the document to the dates].

I have had so many conversations with so many members articulating a desire to find something that hits that ‘sweet spot’ allowing a comfortable, intelligent, well-supported way of feeling more at home in their Judaism. This is the best opportunity I have found. I commend it to all. If you have any questions, or if you are interested in joining us, please let me know

These are programmes absolutely central to my sense of what we, as a community, should be offering. I hope they will have your support.

Rabbi Jeremy


Dates for the Chai Mitzvah Initiative

Thursdays at 8-9:30pm at the Synagogue on
November 16th
December 7th
January 4th 2019
February 1st
March 8th
April 12th
May 3rd
June 7th
And Shabbat after services, at my home, on
June 30th

Friday, 29 September 2017

God Optional - Kol Nidrei 5778

God Optional

A long time ago, now, I started thinking about the Rabbinate. There was so much that enticed me; the study of Torah, the majesty of Shabbat, even - I’ll admit it - the idea of having a bunch of people sit and listen to me pontificate for a while - thanks for coming. There was just the one problem - the God problem.

I didn’t really have any relationship with God. I hadn’t heard any voices. I hadn’t spent my life in fear, or in love, with a white bearded deity on a cloud. I’d uttered a bunch of words in shul - I’d even found inspiration and comfort in prayer - but I’d never taken the God-ness of our liturgy too much to heart. And here I was thinking about the Rabbinate - chutzpah, dishonesty or possibly on to something?

We had a visit earlier in the Summer from one of my dearest American colleagues, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavi. Amichai runs an organisation called Lab/Shul - it’s branded ‘God-Optional - Open To All.’ I get what he is trying to achive; saying to people that it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t believe about God. Here’s Judaism, you want it, come on in. Take what you want to take, and leave what you want to leave. Perhaps most of all, Amichai is acknowledging that the G-word is a barrier for many of us. Calling Judaism ‘God-Optional’ opens a path to those who are never going to take seriously something they feel is predicated on a deceit.

So here’s my ‘does it matter’ question for Kol Nidrei - does it matter if you believe in God?

I know it’s easy to insist it is; I can cite Rambam and Rashi, and the rest of ‘em. There is a mighty list of theologically inclined Rabbis who all agree that Judaism without a relationship with God is an impossibility. But I also know the reality of Jewish life in this special community, and many others. There are loads of us busily getting on with Jewish lives; learning, cultural engagement and even prayer - who don’t do God. Many of us are actually quite comfortable customising our Judaism to exclude the God bit. Does that matter?

OK, that’s the question clearly put. And here it gets a little tricky. I occasionally joke with upcoming BMs that there’s a trapdoor under the Bimah, and if they make a mistake in their leyning they’ll find themselves dropping into a piranha pit underneath. I say it with a smile. But this sort of sermon does feel a little like that. I know what’s coming.

The truth is I don’t care much about a person’s use of the G-word. You can tell me you believe in God. You can tell me you don’t. It would figure pretty low on a list of things I would want to know about your qualities as a person and your relationship with Judaism. But that’s not because I’m into what most people refer to when they talk about God-optional in Judaism.

Most people, when they talk about God-optional Judaism, mean that there is a fully realised Judaism that can be lived culturally, with a love of the Jewish people, Jewish history and even Jewish study. And that’s it. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all. I think Judaism needs an existential component - existential as in - connected to a grand vision of the nature of existence. It’s just that I think that if you connect to three key elements of that existential sense of what I think Judaism has to be about, I would encourage you not to worry so much about the G-word. If you can go along with these three key parts of Jewish life - you’ve already got it.

So these are the three key parts of the existential nature of Judaism.

The first is an awareness that you are not the most central thing in the Universe. None of us is. I’m aware that’s a little counter-cultural. We live in a world obsessed with placing our own needs and desires front and central - a view it has to be said, largely fostered by those making money from exploiting our desires to satiate own needs to line their own pockets. More fool us. But seeing our own desires as not ultimately important is more than a waste of money. It’s shallow and dangerous. Placing self-interest at the centre of our world view, turns the rest of the world, and certainly all the people in it, into the means to our own ends. Seeing our own desires as supremely important empties out an ability to care about anyone or even anything else. It spells disaster for any serious attempt at relationships. It’s dangerous but we all do it, all the time. We judge political parties, friends, professional colleagues, even the ecology of our planet in terms of what they could do for us, rather than see our lives as opportunities to serve, to care and to tend.

Locating ultimacy as beyond self-interest is an essential component of what people who use the G-word should mean when they use the G-word. Belief in God is a training in recognising the power otherness. “I am God,” reads the first of the Ten Commandments, and you are not. Belief in God is belief in there being something more important that anything we could possess, tame or own. It’s a training in humility. It opens us up to realise that what we have is not some kind of right but a gift and a grace.

If you can get to this place of grace, recognising otherness and our relationship to that which is truly important in the work - without the G-word. And there are plenty who do. That’s genuinely fantastic. That’s the first thing.

The second element in an existential Judaism is an awareness that the most important things in life can’t be measured.  This is the thing that most drives me to staggered bemusement when I encounter the blockbuster atheists who seem only to value that which can be measured and double-blind tested under laboratory conditions.
I know measuring is terribly important. I don’t want to take a train across a bridge that hasn’t been measured and checked to beyond any conceivable chance of collapse. Of course measurement is important. But you can’t measure a life in the same way you can stress test a bridge. You can’t measure love, happiness or kindness. Or rather something rather sad happens to these things if we pretend they can be force between callipers. The more we measure the more we turn everything in our life into commodities - just other things in a world of so many things. That’s not the way to treat that which is most important - our relationships in particular.

In one of the most famous tales in the Talmud the great Rabbi, Shammai loses his temper and ends up beating a stranger with a question with the Talmudic equivalent of a ‘2 by 4.’ I wonder if the violent response might be occasioned by Shammai’s profession. He’s a carpenter - indeed that’s what he’s doing with the 2 by 4 in the first place. And carpenters do a whole lot of measuring. I’ve known some lovely carpenters, but I wonder if Shammai was just too used to measuring things, and began to measure people in the same way he measured joists and beams. Hence the frustration with anyone who didn’t come up to the expected height - whack. Hillel - who brings the poor soul under the wings of the Divine Presence - is presses olive oil. That’s a job which entails drawing sweetness from something that seems intolerably bitter. Pressing olives is probably not a bad training in valuing things that cannot be seen and none the less needs to be valued.

My great teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote[1] about the ‘wind that sighed before the dawn.’ He noted that if we treat the phrase as a description, it’s meaningless. But if we consider it indicative - if we think these words point towards that which cannot be accurately pinned down technically, it’s a great phrase. It’s a line from Lewis Morris’ Le Vent de L’Esprit

The wind that sighs before the dawn
Chases the gloom of night,
The curtains of the East are drawn,
And suddenly—'t is light

That’s the sort of stuff that can evoke wonder and drawing from us an amazement that is the greatest achievement of our human grasp.

Believe in the sights that cannot be seen, the sounds that cannot be heard and the emotions that cannot be plotted on some fancy electronic feed that won’t tell you anything about the quality of your love or the wisdom of your soul.

If it helps to count God among the things you value, the things you believe in, that do not belong in the category of things that can be measured, but are still important. Great. If it doesn’t, if the G-word gets you feeling hostile or embarrassed or preferring some quotidian explanation of why we are the way we are, then don’t use the G-word. I don’t mind. Really.

Just don’t consider you are the most important thing in the universe you inhabit, and value the stuff that can’t be measured.

And the third thing.
The third key element of an existentially valuable Jewish existence is to believe that actions matter. What we spend our money on matters, what we eat matters, the way we speak matters, the way we treat people - strangers and friends matter.
We’ll do the prayer tomorrow, the Unataneh Tokef, there’s a reference to a books recalling our every action, even the forgotten one and the Hebrew reads - Hotem Yad Kol Adam Bo - the seal of every human’s hand is within it. You don’t have to believe in literal books. You don’t have to believe in God as some kind of cosmic accountant running profit and loss accounts on our merits and failings. But if you want to be a good Jew - frankly if you want to be a good human being - you need to live as if the actions you take leave behind some kind of cosmic fingerprint. You have to believe that just as the wind sighs before the dawn, you write a book with Hotem Yad Bo - a book sealed in the trace of your actions and inactions.

Here’s the tricky piece - about actions. I think you need to believe that your actions matter even if no-one else sees you doing the thing you do. In fact particularly these things matters; the things you think you can get away with. I was having a conversation with a friend about trolling, and the way the anonymity of the internet seems to have begat an overspill of nastiness into public society. That’s bad. The hidden nastiness has had very public consequences.
The Jewish understanding of the significance of these hidden actions gets its fullest expression in the understanding of a Biblical verse which prohibits placing a stumbling block before a blind person. ­Lo Titen Michshol Lifnei Iver (Lev 19:14). The blind person, of course, can’t see the stumbling block infront of them. And the Biblical verse goes on to say, ‘I am the Lord your God’ which the Rabbis understand to mean - God watches, even if you think God doesn’t.

But you don’t need to bring God into the picture. You can hold tight to a pithy aphorism about butterflies and hurricanes. You can hold tightly to a notion of God who knows and is the force of order in amongst all this chaos. But you have to believe that actions matter.

If you live your life locating the centre of the Universe as ‘not you,’ if you can value the hidden things as more important than the things that can be measured and if can live as though every act is cosmically significant. That’s great.

And that is really what I wanted to say tonight. If there is someone at home who wants to hear what the Rabbi spoke about in Shul this evening, tell ‘em this. Tell ‘em that the Rabbi said that if you lived life with a sense of humility, if you cared about the things that couldn’t be measured and if you lived life as if every action counted then, the Rabbi told you, you didn’t have to worry about the whole God thing in Judaism. Be my guest.

But here’s the kicker. Here’s the bit for anyone still paying attention. You’re a smart lot, you’ve probably figured it out already. The things I’ve been talking about are the very essence of a perfectly noble theology. This is what Judaism means when it talks about centrality of God. This is what I mean when I say I do believe in God. I believe in God as the point of ultimate otherness. I believe in God as the location of ultimate immeasurable value. I deem God as mechanism of record keeping of all actions. Zeh Hu Zeh. This is that. A belief in God isn’t an abdication the belief that science matters. It’s not a foxhole in which to crawl when things get hard. It certainly isn’t a children’s story. It’s a description of ultimacy, value and meaning. Almost a location.

I’m aware this might sound a little new fangled, or heretical, but it’s what the Rabbis of the Talmud, I think were getting at when they began to use the Hebrew term HaMakom as the word they used when they referred to God. HaMakom means ‘The place.’ God is the place where ultimacy resides.

I believe in God. I got over my nervousness and fear of the word, got on with my Rabbinic studies and here we all are. I began to find insight and strength from allowing myself to feel more at ease with the whole God thing - even if my beliefs in how we got to be here haven’t really changed. I used to believe I wasn’t the centre of the Universe, I used to value the things that can’t be measured and I used to take action seriously. I still do. I used not to take the G-word seriously, but now I do. I don’t think it’s as necessary as some make it out to be. It’s not as necessary as some other more important stuff. But it’s not as far away as some would suggest either. It is, in the sense of that extraordinary verse at the heart of my sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, not in the heavens, it’s not so far that you have to leave your senses or your rationality to find it. It’s very close, in your heart. And the pathway to my feeling a relationship with God are these very three elements of a Jewish life lived well.

You don’t have to believe in God. It’s not necessary, but it could be.

Chatimah Tovah

[1] In God in Search of Man p.182
[2] Le Vent de L’Esprit by Lewis Morris
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