Thursday, 16 August 2018

Some Light Summer Reading - Ways of Looking at Suffering - Part One

I’ve been making my way through Scott Samuelson’s newly published, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering. I know, there are lighter offerings on the shelves, but I’m drawn to this stuff. I should probably consider a career in the Rabbinate or something. En route to my Yizkor sermon (and again Rosh Hashanah falls on the evening of 9th September), I’ll be sharing in this blog from some of the insights in the book and suggesting a Jewish response to them.

Chapter five of Samuelson’s work features the response of the Stoics. This response entails seeing suffering as no more and no less than the rules of game. As Samuelson imagines us playing chess, and wishing our pawn could zip up the board and take the opponent’s queen several ranks away, but that simply wouldn’t be chess. Similar we could wish that we, or a loved one, wouldn’t be suffering, but to wish for a life without pain is to wish for a breaking of the rules of existence. We can’t all live for ‘beyond average’ lengths of time. To think, says Epictetus, father of the Stoics, that “the fall of leaves is ill-omened, or that it is evil for a bunch of grapes to turn into raisins” is a waste of emotional energy, and worse, such an expectation only sets us up for disappointment and added heartbreak.

There is, clearly, an attraction in a stoic worldview. It’s safe from breeding disappointment. And, indeed, somewhere in a called-for Jewish response to our own bad things come the urge that we find a way to accept our experience of bad things in general and human fragility in particular. In Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur’s most magisterial prayer, the Unataneh Tokef, we acknowledge that ‘humanity comes dust, and ends in dust; like a broken clay shard, withered grass, a shrivelled flower ...’

But the response of stoicism is not the first response. And we cannot - must not - skip to the end of the story before its time. As well as acknowledging our mortality we are called to remember we are ‘little less than angels,’ that ‘the Universe is created for our sake,’ that we embody ‘the image of God.’ And so on. Life is precious, astoundingly so. Loss, pain and suffering are not invitations for cool-heads to nod coolly. They are tragedies to be mourned. In one of my favourite Talmudic passages, the young Rabbi Yochanan enters the room of the dying leader of his generation Rabbi Eliezer to see his teacher in tears. “Why do you cry?” the neophyte asks as if tears are somehow a failure of greatness. “I cry because of the beauty that is to rot in the earth” the Master responds, “And they cry together.” We don’t express our humanity through being so tough, so smart or so stoical that we feel no pain. That is the characteristic of a rock, not a being of flesh and soul. We should not feel called to transcend our humanity. For humans the more we love, the more we hope, the more we invest in the relationships which are the true touchstones of humanity, the more we hurt when these hopes are dashed. To hurt is to be human. Transcendence of our mortal realm is not the goal. Our suffering, as painful as it may be, is not pointless if it connects us to our humanity, rather it reminds us, even in our pain, of the importance of having a soul at all.

Ways of Looking at Suffering - Part Two

 I’m sharing, in my words at this time of year, insights sparked by Scott Samuelson’s newly published, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering.

Samuelson suggests that there are primarily two human responses to suffering; fix-it and face-it. He grants a third response; forget-about-it - which he acknowledges is practically common, but philosophically “not significant.” “Thanks to our fix-it energies,” he writes, “we’ve used our creative fire to forge all sorts of inventions to better our lives. A large portion of civilization arises out of the fix-it attitude, including a fair amount of science and politics, and nearly all technology.” Fixing things is good. But, Samuelson goes on to suggest, because up to the modern period we weren’t actually particularly good at fixing things we also had to develop our skills in facing-suffering.
Nowadays we are so much better at fixing things. Marvellously, infant mortality rates are down, desperate poverty is on the decline, we have and we are achieving so much. Our fix-it muscles are honed, taut and powerful. Long may they continue to be so.

But our face-it muscles have atrophied. In our fix-it obsessed modern age, we seem surprised we can’t fix our mortality and we don’t know what to do about it. We’ve lost our face-it fitness. Facing-suffering is a powerful skill to possess. Samuelson suggests facing-suffering “characterizes much of religion, art, and the humanities, as well as a certain significant portion of science and politics.” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are face-it moments in the year. We are called to feel fragile, as if we pass before our creator like sheep on a narrow path, each falling under the eye of a watchful shepherd, none knowing of its fate. But we don’t know how to do this well. “Rather than confront our anxiety at the sadness, we fidget on our tools of infinite distraction.” Yes, leave that mobile-phone at home when you come to shul.

Here are my three top tips to strengthen the face-it muscles we will need in our lives just as surely as we need strong fix-it muscles. Sit. Put everything down and sit in one place for a while without trying to do more things. Try - even if just for these coming awesome days of prayer - not to treat life as something to be fixed. It’s OK not to always be doing something. It might be the most important spiritual gift you can give yourself. Reflect on how you treat your life and the lives of those around you. And do something decent and kind for those less fortunate than yourself. Or, as the Rabbis put it, try Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah.

The best place, the best time to begin this face-it training, is Saturday evening, 1st September, 10pm at the Shul. Do come, do support our Slichot service. It is a wonderful way to enter the spirit of the time.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Buckle In - One Month To Go

We mark, on Shabbat and Sunday, Rosh Hodesh Elul - one month until Rosh Hashanah.

Looking forwards let me share, here, our plans for the Davenning in the Kiddush Hall this year. AS well as a traditional Minyan Chadash Kol Nidrei and Neilah, we are also offering a 90 minute reduced service. It will be feature participative davenning, led by former NLS choir master Joseph Finlay, and creative approaches to Torah Service and much else. It’s designed to appeal to those who would want a briefer service, with mixed seating, also to include families with children who would prefer an adult-offering above a children’s service. All welcome, access by the same ticket which provides access to the main services. (Tickets with timings will be posted to members on XXX. Non-members can purchase tickets from the Synagogue office or the web-site.)

Let me also take this opportunity to urge members to join us for our Slichot service on Saturday 1st September. Chazan Stephen Cotsen will be leading us. Julian Dawes will be bringing his own style and compositions to the evening and I will be sharing insights into one of the most special prayers of the season to get us in the spirit. It is the most magical way to get in the mood for the services that follow (from evening of 9th, 10th and 11th Sept).

And finally, Rosh Chodesh Ellul - we begin reciting Psalm 27 at evening and morning services. It speaks of one great wish, ‘to dwell in the House of God, all the days of our life.’ It may be the wish of us, or maybe there is something else. What, exactly, do you wish for your life? Not the material things, not the things that can be counted, but the things that truly count. What is our great wish for the year ahead. For the time is coming,

Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov, Shannah Tovah,

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Why I Love the Talmud

The two reasons I most love the Talmud are rarely discussed, and rarely understood.

Talmud is the way Rabbinic Judaism carries its past into a changing future. It discusses the areas of Judaism that became obsolete before the birth of Rabbinic Judaism (such as sacrificial service) with the same intense engagement as it discusses the elements of Jewish law that remain. That’s not an ostrich-like refusal to acknowledge that time has moved on, but a belief that the central essence of Judaism can still motivate and shape our lives even as the exterior shell changes. When times change we change, of course we change. But by treasuring, as sacred, the essence of what brought us to today we arrive in our present ready to apply all our wisdom to the challenges of tomorrow. As a carrier of ideas, the Talmud can be blisteringly relevant to the challenges of our time. I read broadly, very broadly, but there are Talmudic encapsulations that articulate tomorrow’s challenges; from the ecological to the nature of life, to socio-economic to ... ah the list is endless, so powerfully I turn to this 1500-year-old work to understand the challenges of the age before any other.

Secondly, Talmud understands the nature of disagreement in a way that gives me hope for this battered time. One online dictionary defines ‘talmudic’ as ‘overly-detailed’ or ‘hairsplitting.’ That sniffy, pejorative connotation fails to realise the true nature of talmudic enquiry. A Mishnah will suggest two points of view, each attributed to a different ancient sage. Then the enquiry begins; how could one sage say such a thing when elsewhere he seemed to say the opposite. No, the difference is explained away. Then another objection is raised, and solved and again, and again and again. Then the other Rabbi’s articulation is tested, tested against the totality of their other articulations over thousands of pages of carefully preserved argument until, finally, the passage is deemed complete. At this point the two opinions remain, each protected in their own terms. Neither Rabbi has been subsumed into the other. Difference has been valued. Alterity - as Levinas put it - is preserved. There is - to borrow the phrase - much dignity in difference. To be talmudic means to know that humans are not supposed to agree, we are supposed to be principled in our disagreement; at odds, while still participating in a broader communal enterprise. Oh! We need more talmudicism in these times.

This Shabbat we will be celebrating the Talmud at New London with JTS Professor Dr Sarah Wolf. She will be speaking on Shabbat morning, and sharing more insight at a special afternoon session at my home (from 4:45pm). All welcome.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Jewish Democracy

Within hours of the Kenneset passing a deeply divisive 'Jewish Nation State' Act something utterly baffling happened in Israel.

A Rabbi was arrested, in Israel, for the crime of celebrating a marriage between two Jews according to Jewish law. Yes, you did read that correctly.
Rab Dov Haiyun is a Masorti Rabbi, leader of the oldest Masorti congregation in Israel. He was arrested at 5:30am and taken for interrogation for the crime of celebrating a Jewish marriage in Israel - that's another law passed by the Kenesset. Not that it's the police-officers fault. As Rav Haiyun said, “Unfortunately, the nice young policemen serve as tools for the ayatollahs in Israel,” More on this absurdity here.

Now, I love Israel. I recognise Israel’s remarkable accomplishments, achieved under levels of stress I can barely fathom. I even recognise the power of these Israeli ayatollahs comes from the ballot box - in the country in which they live and I don’t. I know that whenever any of us, Jews living outside of Israel, and rabbis even more so, take up a verbal-cudgel to oppose the actions of the Israeli state a little of the love we all have for Israel gets chipped away. But this is unacceptable.

Worse than that, there is a connection between this offensive, frankly antisemitic, abuse of my colleague and the Jewish Nation State Law which formally enshrines the Jewish nature of Israel in language that the non-Jewish minority and its allies feel to be deeply exclusory. The connection cuts to the very heart of the nature of democracy. Etymologically, a democracy is a society where power is exercised by the populace - which is fine. But the true essence of democracy is the management of power; who gets to vote and crucially how the power of elected representatives is constrained. The treasured epithet, ‘being a democrat’ is not awarded simply to those who win elections. Hitler was elected. So was Hamas. So too - without wishing to overplay any similarity - are the current elected leadership of countries stretching from China to Russia, Hungary Turkey...
Democracies are not characterised by the wielding of power by the majority, but by the constraining of the power of the majority. True democracies constrain the powerful because treating difference and disagreement as sacred is the only way to ensure all members of a democracy thrive - not just the ones who agree with the views of today's elected leader. It’s a vital thing to care about not just because times change and wheels spin round, but because no-one is ever, truly, fully in agreement with anyone. We are each unique. We all have our differences and peculiarities. Our uniqueness and peculiarities are the sources of our humanity. No human should ever cheer for any political or communal body that seeks to suppress difference. We might find that our difference is the next to be suppressed. Moreover, it is only through the encounter with difference that growth and development are ever possible. The deepest task of a democracy is to protect difference, not suppress it.
I’m proud to be a Masorti Jew - one who privileges complexity, nuance and disagreement - above uniformity. I’m proud to be Rabbi of this community - which models exactly this behaviour - even if we sometimes take longer to move than a more autocratic community might. I’m honoured by the support of our membership for this approach to communal life. We need to stand ever more firmly, waving a flag for the values of a space created for this truly democratic approach to the common life.
And somewhere in all of this, I’m frustrated that I feel I have to say this, today. It’s the eve of the 9th Av - the marking of our previous destruction caused by ‘Sinat Chinam’ - pointless acts of hatred. I want to respond to our history with a call to acts of ‘Ahavat Chinam’ - but this is, already, too long a missive. If you are still reading. Thank you. Please consider assenting by coming this Saturday evening for our 9th Av commemoration, jointly with Belsize Square Synagogue (at NLS, learning from 9:15pm, service at 10pm). Come to fold these pains, frustrations and the battered hope of our people ever more deeply into our souls.

Friday, 6 July 2018

A prayer for the England Football Team

Let me let you in into a secret - I'm not really interested in the football.
But sometimes I make the effort.
Today's one of those days.

Arrived in my FB feed this week a special newly-drafted prayer.

May the One who gives salvation to Presidents of FIFA and dominion to Chief Executives of the FA, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom - may he bless
Our England Manager Gareth Southgate, England Captain Harry Edward Kane, Number one goalkeeper Jordan Lee Pickford and all the England Squad and coaching staff.

May the supreme King of kings in his mercy preserve England's world cup run, guard them from defeat and deliver them from dodgy refereeing decisions. May God bless and protect Gareth's back line. May He put a spirit of wisdom and understanding in the heart of our midfield, that they may protect the defence and transition the ball to attack swiftly. May our strikers be blessed with precision and guile.

In their days and in ours may our Heavenly Father spread the tabernacle of World Cup glory over all the dwellers in England and may football finally come home, and let us say Amen.

Well make me smile - and made me say Amen.
It made me smile, because it’s a smart prayer.
And it made me say Amen, because I accept its theology.
Let me do the smart piece first
It t sounded familiar - even if you’ve never heard if before. Regulars in Synagogues will certainly have recognised it - even our first time guests.
We pray this way, almost, all the time.
Just a few minutes ago,
May the one who give salvation to kings and dominion unto princes bless Her Majesty the Queen, and all the Royal Family.
We pray for deliverance and the wisdom of advisers and counsellors.
And the whole rhythm of the world cup prayer is based on our prayer for the Government and its advisors.
And it’s a really old prayer. We’ve been praying this way for the countries in which, as Jews, we have found ourselves since before Jews were re-admitted into England some 350 years ago.
The oldest version of the prayer we know comes from a C15 prayerbook from Aragon, part of Spain.
He who gives salvation to kings and whose kingdom is everlasting… may He strengthen, bless, and uplift higher and higher our Lord King Fernando
But the printing press is already in action by this time and prayer is popping up all over the place; Italy, Poland, France - even Yemen. It’s known by the Hebrew name - HaNoten Teshua.
When the leader of Dutch Jewry, Menassaeh Ben Israel, wrote to Oliver Cromwell in 1655 to persuade Cromwell to let the Jews back into this country - we were expelled in 1190 - he translates the hanoten Teshua into English and tells Cromwell that if he does let the Jews back in, we will pray for him.
And Cromwell was tempted. Actually the story of the re-admittance of the Jews into England is a little more complicated, but Cromwell wanted us back, and eventually we got back.
And this is the great English diarist Samuel Pepys, recording his visit to the ‘Jewish Synagogue’ - I’m not sure what other kinds of Synagogue there are - in Creechurch Lane.
Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.
Actually the tradition of Jews praying for the countries in which they find themselves goes right back to the time of Jeremiah - 2500 years ago.
‘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.’ Says Jeremiah.[1]
So much for the clever stuff - the intertextual stuff behind this prayer for Gareth
What about the theology? What leads me to say Amen.
Well there are rules for prayers - do-s and don’t-s. And it obeys all of them.
Two don’ts -
Firstly you are not allowed to do what is called a Bracha V’Talah - a wasted prayer. If something has happened already you aren’t allowed to pray for it to be changed. So - and I have to admit this isn’t the precise example given in the Talmud - if you happened to be wandering past a football stadium in some obscure corner of Russia and you heard a mighty cheer go up you aren’t allowed to pray that that was England scoring.
That would be a Brachah V’Talah. Either England scored, or they didn’t.
Similarly you aren’t really supposed to pray for miracles. The best story about this is the classic joke, number 14.
Man wants to win the lottery
God responds, you have to buy a ticket.
The point is that God, even if you pray very nicely to God, God doesn’t take from you the responsibility of dealing with the things you have to deal with.  If you want to win the lottery, you have to buy a ticket. Prayer isn’t going to solve that problem for you. If you are a smoker and you don’t want to get cancer - you are going to have to stop smoking. Prayer isn’t going to solve that problem for you.
There’s a great line in the Haddith I’ve always liked - ‘First, tie up your camel, then put your faith in God.’[2] The Talmudic version of the same idea is the tale of Rabbi Yannai would always check the ferry before crossing the river. Prayer doesn’t replace human responsibility for human matters.
And you shouldn’t pray as if it does.
And judged by these standards - of avoiding a wasted prayer, or pinning one’s hopes on miracles beyond the reach of human responsibility for human actions - our prayer for the World Cup passes master.

Then there are the do-s of prayer. The thing prayer should do.
Jewish prayer is only kosher if it recognises what the Rabbis call shem u’malchut - God’s name and God’s dominion over all creation. One of the things that happen when you prayer, recognising shem u’malchut is that you orientate yourself to the truly important things in the world. When you bring the name of the creator of heaven and earth, of humanity and breath within us, into a prayer - it acts as a gauge of the truly significant.
You might think, when you start praying, that England beating Sweden is the most important thing in the world, but if you pray with Shem u’malchut somewhere in the soul your are reminding yourself that football just isn’t that important. And that if England win, or if England don’t there is still going to be a universe of stars and planets who don’t care about the football at all, and even on this planet of ours the vast majority of the 7.4 billion of us, will get on with our lives regardless of whether a 30cm sphere of leather ball ended up more ofen in one net than the other.
Prayer is a call to our better selves. It’s supposed to lift us to do better, be kinder, make better decisions not for the sake of immediate gratification, but in the light of the web of responsibilities and duties we have as human beings, as members of a family, a faith community, a nation. When I pray to do well on a test what I am really doing is reminding myself of the value of giving of my best, studying and preparation. I’m calling to my better self, trying the strengthen the power of my better angels.
But does it work. What if all of us really prayed, really humbled ourselves before our creator and with sincerity and a spiritual integrity prayed that Jordan Pickford would be the best goalkeeper he could possibly be, or that Harry Kane should - oh I don’t know. Does it really matter?
Does prayer work? I have to be honest. I don’t know. I mean you can find some scientific papers - you pay your money, you make your choice. But I do think so, and it’s the great Jewish theologian Franz Rozensweig who, I think, has put it best.
Rozensweig isn’t the easiest person to read, but let me share this with you
Love cannot be other than effective. There is no act of neighbourly love that falls into the void. Just because the act is performed blindly, it must appear somewhere, [and this is the effectiveness of prayer]. Prayer, though it has no magic powers as such, nevertheless, by lighting the way for love, arrives at possibilities of magic effects. It can intervene in the divine system of the world. It can provide love with direction toward something not yet ready for love, not yet ripe for endowment with soul.  Thus the prayer of the individual, when it enlightens the supplicant, is always in danger of - tempting God.
I think that’s right. We live in a world where the interconnectedness of everything - and our prayers and acts of love in particular - have implications beyond our ability to control. I don’t mind the mystery, I don’t mind that the belief in the efficacy of prayer is ultimately just that - an act of belief, a faith in the ability of human intervention in the divine system of the world.
Prayer is good, it clarifies what we are and what we aren’t responsible for in our existence.
It reminds us that we can’t abnegate our own responsibilities for our own lives.
It reminds us that there is a greater power and a greater significance than our own lives, and even the fate of our national football team - it reminds us that we live in the shadow of our creator.
And it might, just, tempt God.

May the One who gives salvation to Presidents of FIFA and dominion to Chief Executives of the FA, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom - may he bless
Our Manager , Captain, goalkeeper and all the England Squad and coaching staff.
May the supreme King of kings in his mercy preserve England's world cup run, guard them from defeat and deliver them from dodgy refereeing decisions.
In their days and in ours may our Heavenly Father spread the tabernacle of World Cup glory over all the dwellers in England and may football finally come home, and let us say Amen.

[1] 29.7
[2] Hadith, At-Tirmidhi. A Jewish version of the same idea can be find in the name of Rabbi Yannai who would check the ferry before crossing the river, BT Shabbat 32a.

Responding to the Romans at the Walls - And Other Matters

We are marking, this time of year, the destruction of the great Temples that were at the heart of our faith for thousands of years, and the destruction of the Second Temple, in the year 70CE especially. Our commemoration of the 9th Av is on Saturday night 21st September. Do please book, do please come.

We have a remarkable record of the time - written by one of the most brilliant and enigmatic figures in our history. Yosef Ben Matityahu was head of the Israelite forces in the Galil before surrendering or defecting and becoming - as Josephus Flavius - the greatest Roman historian of the period. Quite how he felt about his former fellow Jews is disputed. But the story he tells in his heartbreaking Wars of the Jews is one of anything other than inevitable destruction. Time and time again options are put forward for peaceful solutions and rejected by the zealot guardians of the ancient city. An Roman intermediary - Nicanor - makes his way towards the walled Jerusalem to negotiate - he is shot at, injured by a dart. Later, once the siege is set the zealot defenders of Jerusalem burn the food stores to urge the defenders into greater acts of military valour. Josephus laments the decision - the stores could have been used to keep residents alive, instead, he relates, they are reduced to eating dung and grass.

In one of the Talmudic narratives of destruction Yochanan Ben Zakkai fakes his own death to be spirited from the city to negotiate for some element of survival. And we do, despite everything survive. But - do we survive through our obstinacy or through our compromise. Almost 2,000 years later the lessons are still unclear. Ben Zakkai berates himself for his own negotiation - feeling himself too soft. But surely continued obstinacy in the face of greater military might would have been futile.

To stick, or to twist? It’s the great conundrum of Jewish survival, from times ancient to modern. Do we become stronger through gentle adaption even to oppressive overlords or through meeting opposition with opposition?

Is Chaim Rumkowski, leader of the Lodz ghetto who negotiated and attempted to win Nazi favour for the ghetto he sought to protect, less or more of a hero than Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt who fought tooth and nail rather than accept Nazi awfulness? They both, of course, died.

Even in realms entirely free of the awfulness of the destructions of our history this ‘stick or twist’ conundrum remains. “Rabbi, I don’t really do Shabbat, is that OK?” Do I respond with accommodation or strength - “Yes of course, and we will still love you.” Or “Not really, you lose the sacred connection with your people, faith and creator, and even a quality of life that Shabbat fosters?”

The answer, of course, is that neither polarity can be correct all the time. We need to know when to respond one way, when the other. To meet force with force will ensure mutual destruction at worst, and partial destruction at best. To accommodate the errant trains us to care less about the matters that must be defended. It was Shimon Peres who said, that "When you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look for the third that you didn't think about.”

Amen to that.

Shabbat shalom

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