Thursday, 17 July 2014

Wherever You Go - Reflections on Conversion at New London Synagogue

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Three reflections.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

Friday, 11 July 2014

Texts on Pinhas and Violence

 

 

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

Big HT to Rav Shai Held from Hadar

 

John Collins

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

 

Numbers 25:12

 

Talmud Sanhedrin 82a

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

 

Ha-Emek Davar (Netziv d. 1893)

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

 

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

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

 

Genesis Rabbah 60:3

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

 

Pirkei Avot 4:1

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

 

Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Mercaz HaRav, aftermath of Kibiya 1953

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

 

Yeshayhu Leibowitz , After Kibiya

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

 

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

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

 

Teaching on Violence

Some texts for a Shiur I’m Giving over Shabbat

 

Thoughts On Israel, Violence, Revenge and Strength

 

Exodus

You shall not murder

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

 

Pirkei Avot 4:1

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

 

Part One – Lessons of History

Crusade Chronicle of Bar Shimshon of Mayence circa 1140 CE

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

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

 

Max Nordau, 1898  Muskeljudentum (Extract from 1903)

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

 

Part Two – The First Act of Violence

Genesis 4

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

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

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

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

 

Midrash Bereishit Rabba 22:7&8

And Cain said to his brother Abel ...

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

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

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

From this Cain rose up against Hevel.

 

And Cain Rose Up Against Hevel His Brother

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

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

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

 

Part Three – Contemporary Israel

Windows Onto Jewish Legal Culture

Rav Shaul Yisraeli: Takrit Kibiyeh

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

 

Yeshayahu Leibowitz: After Kibiyah

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

 

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

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

 

 

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Turning Off The Chad Gadya Machine

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Recruiting to the New London Synagogue Cheder

New London Synagogue is looking to recruit three key members for our fabulous Cheder. If you are interested, if you know anyone who might be interested, or if you could post the following to any network where an appropriate person might be lurking, please do,

 

                New London Synagogue’s Cheder is looking to recruit;

·         An Administrator (14hrs a week term-time to include 33 Sunday mornings, 5hrs a week outside of term-time)

·         A Hebrew Specialist (33 Sunday mornings teaching and curriculum support and some management responsibility)

·         A Class Teacher to work with younger students (33 Sunday mornings, and some other times).

Our Cheder is growing, vibrant and creative. You will be working with talented, hardworking and fun-loving team reporting to the interim Headteacher, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon. For more information please go to www.newlondon.org.uk/vacancies

Applications close 25th July.

For more information, or to discuss your application, please contact Rabbi Jeremy youth@newlondon.org.uk

 

Many thanks and best wishes,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

Monday, 7 July 2014

Looking Back and Forward - The Rabbi Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture 2014

I’ve heard this story many times, I’ve lived it. Many of us here today have also.

Want to try and tell is a little differently from the way I’ve ever heard it told before.

 

Let me start this way.

I don’t think Rabbi Louis Jacobs, of blessed memory – one of the greatest Jewish theologians of modern times - was really a theologian.

His intellectual curiosity came from elsewhere

And his theology was driven by something other than theologising.

 

Go back 70 years, 1944

13 years before publication of We Have Reason to Believe.

20 years before foundation of New London Synagogue

 

Louis was recently married and comes into contact with what is known in the trade as Wissenschaft des Judentums – the critical, academic study of Judaism – for the first time.

There are two currents in Manchester Judaism at the time – one ultra-orthodox, typified by Rav Dubov, of the Manchester Yeshiva.

And another cooler, academically literate, though entirely observant, orthodoxy represented by Dr Alexander Altmann (notice, Dr, not Rabbi).

We have the record of Louis’ first meeting with Dr Altman preserved in his diary

(Grateful to Elliot Cosgrove who included this extract in his PhD thesis.)

 

[Altmann] mentioned that certain writers in America write and advise a “Return to Ghetto Life” - they advocate isolation as far as humanly possible. [Altmann] said that a man like the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva agreed with this view and he admires him for it. He however thinks that for a man with a liberal education this attitude towards life is a sheer impossibility. He asked me to read a paper on Toldot Halakha by C. Chernovitz (sic).

 

Toldot Halakha demonstrates – as its name suggests – how Halachah passes down through the generations, how it changes (Incidentally Louis misspells the name Tchernovitz in his diary – this is all very new)

Then goes home, and that night shares this in his diary.

 

I thought a lot about the theory of the development of halakha and have found one or two proofs in Kiddushim and Shabbat. One in tosefot at the beginning of perek sheni about ketana bizman hazeh and also [in the] Rama [Rabbi Moses Isserles] about daluka b’shabbat.

 

(used to marry off minors, now don’t.

Rama  - don’t have to put the Chanukiyah in the window if it’s dangerous)

 

You can feel an excitement in the diary entries from the time. Louis’ world-view, his Jew-view is shifting, inspired by the developments of critical thought – Wissenschaft.

 

The notion that Judaism changes as it evolves to new understandings and new challenges, as opposed to the notion that Judaism should head back into the ghetto in retreat from the contemporary, is the key difference between two schools of Jewish life and thought; one closed to the enquires of science, the other not.

 

My point is this;

The demonstration of the evolution of Jewish practice is the central driving force of Louis’s work. More important, than theologising.

On this perspective of Louis’ intellectual engagement his most important work is probably Tree of Life with its self-explanatory sub-heading ‘Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law.’

Just look at the Chapter headings.

The Influence of Philosophy on Halakhah
The Influence of Mysticism and Kabbalah on Halakhah
Responses to the Gentile World
Halakhic Responses to Social Changes: General Principles
Halakhic Responses to Social Changes: Further Examples

 

This is Louis doing Wissenschaft des Judentum, the critical study of Judaism,

This is Louis doing history.

History, of course, is a never-ending education into the notion that ‘things change’, adapt and shift.

This is what history does to one. It takes neat convenient labels and anatomises them.

It messes up neat lines and complicates simple stories.

You can’t be a fundamentalist and a historian.

Louis, the non-fundamentalist, chose history and history inured, yet further, Louis from fundamentalism.

And then the next thing kicks in, a whole series of personal characteristics.

Firstly curiosity.

Louis always had a sort of voracious entirely un-bordered fascination with everything.

In the new collection – available for purchase - Pursuing the Quest, an article on Tobacco. Louis was interested in everything.

Some other emotions folded in as well.

Certainly courage.

Where some felt nervous of applying the rigour of critical academic study to theology, Louis felt he had to face these challenges.

A touch of arrogance, a belief that he could make a contribution.

And pride - a refusal to back down before the bullying of others.

 

So Louis couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t do the thing so many orthodox scholars of historical development in Judaism do; namely stop being historically curious when it comes to the question of the Torah itself.

When Louis was at Jews College, he reports in Beyond Reasonable Doubt, explains that his teachers scholars used critical methodology, but only for history and grammar, Talmud and codes. Never for Torah itself.

But Louis was led inexorably towards not only the classic problems of theology- choseness, evil, the end of time – but also the radioactive question of who wrote the Torah.

 

But even when writing theology, Louis was really writing as a historian.

See most clearly in his greatest theological work - Principles of the Jewish Faith (1964).

Writes as a historian of theology – different eras, different environments, different external influences lead to different theologies.

 

I want to share an extract from Beyond Reasonable Doubt (2004, two years before death). Chapter on views on enjoyment and the purpose of the creation of the world and the human.
Surveys both Talmuds, codes, mussar, halachah, hasidut etc. with usual brilliance, and concludes;

I have tried to show that Judaism is not monolithic and that when Jewish thinkers speak of normative Judaism they tend to affix the label to those aspects of the tradition to which they are personally attracted. There is liberation in the thought that there is no alternative for a religious Jew, in his quest for the transcendent, than to try, guided by the tradition, to think some things through for himself.

 

Louis becomes aware not just of differences over time and space, but also between people.

He has become unable to mono-ise (it’s a word I’m inventing, please excuse me)

To mono-ise is to demand that all people should be the same.

Louis was deeply allergic to mono-isation.

He chose as a title for his personal theological reflection ‘A Jewish Theology’ – note not ‘The Jewish Theology.’

 

I want to suggest something that perhaps drove this allergy to mono-isation, something beyond an understanding of historical development and unbounded curiosity.

It’s something to do with the most remarkable aspect of Louis’ academic achievement.

He did it all while serving as a congregational Rabbi – a congregational Rabbi of this very congregation.

Let me digress for a few moments.

I read recently of a survey that said that 81% of mothers felt that their being a mother had impacted on their professional success.

And the thought that struck me was this - what on earth were the other 19% possibly thinking?! Let me assume they hadn’t all just checked their children into 24 hour daycare.

How could a person, juggling professional and personal responsibilities not feel the limitations of this impossible balancing act?

I came to this conclusion.

There is something about being a parent that helps, professionally.

There is something about being a parent which helps you realise you are not going to be able to control the life of others by imperious dictates. There is something about having to rehearse arguments, again and again, in a myriad of different ways before you can, for example, persuade a small child to put on their shoes in the morning. And sometimes you have to go along with your small child just not putting on their shoes – and these are all important things to know if you want to be a successful professional. Certainly they are things you find out pretty quickly in the congregational rabbinate. Certainly this is something you find out as Rabbi of a this community.

Louis knew he couldn’t stand up here and insist that the congregants of New London should keep Shabbat because it said so in the good book. Not only did he need to marshal other arguments. Ultimately you need to realise that people are just not going all fall neatly in line, because people are ... people. They are going to behave differently.

In the idiom of a very different kind of a ghetto, being a Rabbi to real people, ensured Louis always ‘kept it real.’

 

Indeed the writing of We Have Reason to Believe came as a result of a study group with real congregants, held at the New West End Synagogue. It’s a book that owes its origins to the real questions, real concerns and the real beliefs of real people.

 

Louis’ theology was not forged - as Rambam or Rebbe Nachman, thought theologies should be forged – in intellectual or spiritual retreat, transcending finite human concerns and emotions.

On the contrary it was forged in the rigmarole of competing congregational needs, in living alongside members as they journey through Rabbinic rituals of hatch, match and dispatch that I recognise so well.

I believe that this grounding in congregational life shaped Louis’ of a monopolistic approach to theology – a sort of one-size-should-fit-all approach.

 

So what do we have? What is the inheritance of Louis’ Torah in this community, the community he served with such distinction, for over four decades?

·         The way in which history anatomises and breaks up simple narratives replacing grand sweeps with rigorous analysis. Replacing a sense that ‘this is the way it has always been’ with an understanding of how things have always been in flux.

·         A combination of curiosity, a breadth of engagement, courage, maybe even the arrogance to believe he could make a contribution.

·         And a grounding in the individual experience of individuals, a grounding that dissipates any possibility of creating a one-size-fits-all approach to Jewish life.

 

So where are we now, New London, as a community, in this 50th Jubilee Year.

 

Some things remain vital parts of who we have always been.

A certain pride, a certain arrogance, maybe, that we have something special to offer.

Certainly there is still a breadth in our hearts that is remarkable; the sort of breadth that sees, on most Shabbatot, jewellery designers and journalists, university professors and school principals and barristers and bankers.

 

But much of what drives this community has been in remarkable flux over the past 50 years, and will continue to be in flux into the future.

I want to share two insights. One based on numbers, the other based on the relationship between theology and change.

 

When Louis passed away – eight years ago – this was an aging community in decline; leaking members and finances at quite terrifying rates.

When I arrived here, as Rabbi, I brought the average age of Shabbat morning congregants down – sharply.

We were at 330 member units. The Cheder was 15 students and Carmi was the only the child in the non-functioning children’s service.

 

We are now some 570 member units. The Cheder is bursting with 100 students and growing. This RH/YK season we are going to have to erect a tent in the courtyard outside to accommodate the burgeoning children’s service.

I now bring the average age of Shabbat morning congregants up.

That’s pretty remarkable.

 

Or is it?

As some of you will know I have a much-loved brother who is Ultra-Orthodox – lives in Har Nof.

And we do, as you do, get involved in conversations about Jewish stuff from time to time.

Usually our arguments go something like this.

He asks about some element of Masorti practice. And we get in an argument about its textual basis and we trade blows, text against text.

And then we move to the sociological realm, where my brother puts this sort of question – and how many people in your community actually keep Shabbat, or actually come to synagogue three times a day, or actually immerse themselves in Rabbinic study on a daily basis.

And there I run out of blows.

When New London Synagogue gets aggrieved by something – maybe I’ve given a particularly inflammatory sermon, or God forbid there has been some terrible atrocity perpetrated against our people – I get two or three emails.

When Har Nof gets aggrieved by something – 400,000 turn out to protest on the streets and the entire capital of Israel can be shut down.

 

I tweet.

If you tweet also, you should follow me – I’ve 400-and-something followers, which sounds OK.

Lord, Rabbi Sacks, has some 16,000

Rick Warren, the evangelical American Pastor who gave a blessing to President Obama when he took office, has 1.42million twitter followers. Now that’s a twitter presence.

I fight to gain every new member, every child, every soul.

I get upset when members have the temerity to leave the country.

In the meantime 10,000 turn up weekly at the Belzer Synagogue in Jerusalem.

Gevalt, 20,000 turn up weekly at the Church Rick Warren serves in Southern California.

 

This is the greatest weakness of what we have, or haven’t accomplished, as a community these past 50 years, when viewed critically, through the lens of Wissenschaft. There just aren’t very many of us, at all.

Even across the movement.

We are a blink of an eye.

A good story to tell, but no more than a footnote.

 

If you are going to be historically rigorous and academically grounded in your analysis of the most important developments in the last 50 years of Anglo-Jewry, the story isn’t about us.

It’s about them.

The answer, from a perspective of cool indifference to emotion, is that the ultra-orthodox were right to crank up the drawbridge and leave anyone with a scintilla of heresy in them on the outside.

Evangelism and theological purity, from the perspective of numbers, looks like the right way to go.

So much for numbers.

 

What about the intersection of theology and change.

It was my teacher, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, who noted that all theologies come with a price-tag. You pick what you believe – or maybe what you believe picks you – and you have to pay the price.

It’s a testament to his integrity and intellectual honesty, that Rabbi Jacobs was prepared to pay the cost of his theology.

A theology that couldn’t hide from the reality of history and the lived experience of real people.

He did that throughout his life, but perhaps the way he paid the price of his theology in his last years is less well known.

In his last significant work, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, published in 2004. Rabbi Jacobs gives up on calling himself orthodox.

‘It would be ridiculous for someone with my views to lay claim to Othodoxy,’ he admits, ‘Honesty compels me,’ he writes, ‘to define my position as Masorti.’ In part he claims this is because orthodoxy had shifted radically to behind the drawbridge, and that is certainly true, but I think there is something else.

 

Over 50 years, I believe, Louis has been contaminated by his engagement in history, and the interaction with real people with their real problems and honestly held heresies. And it’s seeped into him.

In 2004, Rabbi Jacobs admits something he denied in We Have Reason to Believe, written almost half a century earlier.

In 2004 Louis writes, ‘It is undeniable that a clear recognition of the human development of Jewish practice and observance is bound to produce a somewhat weaker sense of allegiance to the minutiae of Jewish law.’

 

I would agree, in part; weaker allegiance to the minutiae, but not necessarily weaker in terms of meeting God’s will for us, God’s people.

Here’s a story.

I was speaking to Rabbi Jackie Tabick, the first woman ordained as Rabbi in the United Kingdom. She was at Leo Baek College doing courses without a view towards ordination, when it was Rabbi Louis Jacobs who, she said, encouraged her to become ordained.

I don’t mean to make the claim that Louis wanted to be part of a religious community where female Rabbis worked personally, but he believed in the possibility, in the potential, the ‘kashrut,’ of female Rabbis.

 

On the one hand one can say, ‘how terrible that he was contaminated by his experiences of modernity to that extent.’

On the other hand one can say, and I do, ‘how wonderful, that Louis’ sensitivity to humanity in its enormous breadth and in the way the narrative of the human story unfolds from one generation to another, opened his eyes to possibilities not known in the books he knew so well.’

I think, there is a place in the evolution of Louis’ thought and that of the community he led for so many years, that finds its justification in the lives of its people, not the edict of its books.

And that has always been the case.

There are many new challenges that face us, the issue of egalitarianism principally. Same-sex marriages is another example.

We need to face them with a courage to hold both a fidelity to God’s will and an understanding of the lived realities of this community.

 

One last point.

I want to return to the way in which a cool, scientific analysis of the major trend of the last 50 years in world, and certainly Anglo-Jewry, suggests that the right way to go is to draw up the drawbridge, exclude the heretics, and propagate a pure more fundamentalist approach to religion.

 

And that’s this.

Never give up.

Rabbi Jacobs never gave up. Never stopped teaching what he believed to be true; even as he apologises in the 5th version of the preface to We Have Reason to Believe, for running through this all, one more time.

Even as, especially towards the end of his life, he came to believe that British Jewry just were not going to get the sort of nuanced perspective on Jewish life he offered.

We also need to refuse to give up.

We need to keep banging the drum.

 

Today, perhaps more than ever.

We live, increasingly, in a world that likes simple truths and clear distinctions.

We live, increasingly, in a world that finds nuance disreputable and contradiction unnerving.

We represent a different approach to the nature of truth; one that understands that extremes are, almost by their very nature, to be untrusted, one that understands that truth lies in a tension between tugs between different polarities.

We dare not yield ground to those who suggest that the way to truth lies by pursuing extremes. That’s horrifyingly dangerous.

 

Louis loved the tradition, and he loved the way in which tradition evolved and unfolded, and changed. More than anything else he loved that dynamic tension.

I’m going to finish with a Midrash, particularly suitable in this week where atrocities in Israel have so disturbed our hearts.

 

In the run up to the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, God calls Abraham to offer his son, his only son, the one he loves.

In Bereishit Rabbi Abraham plays dumb.

My son, I’ve two sons – Isaac who goes on to become father of Israel, and Ishmael, father of Arab nations.

My only son, they are both the only sons of their respective mothers,

And then comes this – the one I love?

 

Eet tachumin b’mai – he responds. Isn’t there the capacity in my heart to love both?

That’s our Torah. Loving and holding both.

 

Some things change, some stay the same.

We remain a community committed to understanding nuance, celebrating the individuality of its members,

We remain allergic to oversimplification and a sense that all of us should line up, somehow, in identical columns.

These are commitments that are important not only for the future of our own community, but of this poor beaten and bedraggled world.

 

And in this commitment we remain inspired, motivated and enormously grateful for the work of our founder, our Rabbi, my Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, may his memory always be for a blessing.

 

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Three Tales of Death and Hope

My thoughts are with the families of the murdered Israeli boys, and the murdered Palestinian boy. This has been a horrendous week. My prayer is that this awful experience of tit-for-tat murder shall push us all to reject acts violence as incendiary and exponentially ever-more-dangerous. The ray of hope came in a stunning call of the uncle of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the murdered Israelis, to bring a halt to calls for ‘revenge.’ “The life of an Arab is equally precious to that of a Jew.He insisted, Blood is blood, and murder is murder, whether that murder is Jewish or Arab.” It’s a point made in the Talmud, but never has it been so desperately needed.

It takes a certain spiritual power to rise beyond the experience of deep pain, to find a truth more needed than revenge. Its a power desperately needed in this battered world and, sadly, one of the greatest exponents of this power has also passed this last week. Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi was the greatest spiritual teacher I have met. He was a guest at New London around five years ago. He lit up the Synagogue with his blend of irreverent humour, extraordinary compassion and profound understanding of Torah. Reb Zalman preached a Torah of respect and love of the other. May his life’s lesson guide us beyond his death.

While at New London, Reb Zalman taught of a speaking tour he undertook with Rabbi Louis Jacobs, founding Rabbi of this Synagogue – it must have been some meeting. This week we commemorate Rabbi Jacob’s Yartzheit and I have the honour of giving a memorial lecture in his name. The first time I prepared to give a class on Rabbi Jacobs the class was cancelled - Rabbi Jacobs had passed away that very week and I was instead invited to speak at his Shiva. As many will know, I grew up at New London. Louis was my first Rabbi, and still is the vision of a Rabbi I see when I close my eyes and think of what a Rabbi should be. I’ll be speaking about the relationship between the man and this community, as we celebrate our 50th year. I’ll be looking both backwards and forwards, trying to understand and re-understand his inspiration for us today, and into our future. It would be an honour to have you join me. The lecture will follow Maariv led by Louis’ son Ivor at 7:30pm on Sunday. I hope to see you there,

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

 

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