Monday, 29 September 2008

It's Not Yours

For many of us our relationship, as Jews, with the world in which we live, has been one-way traffic.

The more we have engaged with the world in which we live

The more we have allowed that world to shape and colour the way we live our Jewish lives.

That's OK.

But today I want to make the case for a movement in the opposite direction.

I want to make the case for shaping and colouring the world out there by the way we understand our Jewish identity.

I want to talk about something that can make a difference beyond the walls of this Synagogue.


As Jews we have always made an impact on that world, out there.


As Jews we celebrate the three thousand year old claim of Genesis - that every human being is created in the image of God.

And this year marks the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, a declaration drafted by a Jew, a declaration based on this most central Jewish claim.


As Jews we celebrate the three thousand year old claim of Exodus - that slavery is vile and will always be overthrown.

And this great truth has been at the heart of every liberation narrative since, well since the time of Moses.


And now we need another great claim of our faith.

And it will need to be a great claim, for the challenges faced in the world out there are terribly terribly serious.


Let me take one verse.

Leviticus 25:23

Ki li haaretz, ci gerim v'toshavim atem imadi[1]

For the earth is Mine [says God] and you are dwellers and sojourners with me.


This, perhaps, is the most needed Biblical message of our age.

We need it to break in on what I believe to be the greatest problem of our contemporary existence.

The greatest problem is that when we look at the world and its many material things and we think that we – in some meaningful way – can own them.

From a religious perspective this is simply wrong.

Ki li haaretz.


The credit crunch, the banking collapse, the stock market devaluations are scary.

Many of us – myself included – have seen the value of our property drop we've lost savings, pensions.

There will be others amongst us who have been rendered unemployed, even threatened by bankruptcy, destitution – those things are awful. And I don't want to downplay the horror of poverty.

But for the rest of us, those of us for whom the collapse of sub-prime mortgage bonds means not destitution, but rather a gnawing fear about our financial security and an ill-wished for need to tighten the belt,

For the rest of us I have this clear message.

Ki li haaretz,

It was never really our money in the first place.

We were its steward, its guardian, we looked after it as an act of grace and favour.


And now, well, we just davenned this in the Amidah led so beautifully by our Chazan

מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נובֵל
כְּצֵל עובֵר

 as withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow,[2]

Those material possessions are gone, or threatened.


You do look my son in a mov'd sort.

As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful sir.

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself.

Yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve,

Leave not a rack behind.[3]


That, of course, is Shakepeare's Propero

The Bible is more direct.


Ki li haaretz

It's not yours.


It is time to let our Judaism impact on our relationship with the world out there, and in particular with the way we treat the material nature of that world.

We need to step back from the drive to measure our life by the ebbs and flow of the stockmarket, for the problem is not that the FTSE is higher or lower, but that we think these kinds of numbers are a true measure of our value.


Let me share something else in the world out there that scares me far more even than this financial mess we are all in – the remorseless destruction of the natural resources of our planet.

It shouldn't need an ex-United States Vice-President or a United Nations Commission on Climate Change.

It certainly doesn't need a Rabbi to rehearse what we know.

We are ripping the very guts out of this planet.
And we are doing so in a profoundly un-Jewish way.


One day [says the Talmud] Honi ha-maagal - was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree.

'How long before it produces fruit?' He asks

'Seventy years' Comes the reply

'Right,' says Honi – 'and you are going to live seventy years?!'

The man responds 'I found ready planted carob trees and as my ancestors planted these for me, I will plant for my children.'[4]


And as for us -

At this rate, melting icecaps and all that - our grandchildren won't know polar bears.


Ki li haaretz

It's not yours.


Or as the Rabbis put it in a blunt Midrash


When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: "Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent… See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.[5]


Or here is another Midrash, this one based on the story of Noah.

In the Rabbis' mind Noah prophesied the coming catastrophe and was bluntly ignored, year in year out, right up to the point where the waters came rising from the deep. And then


Seven hundred thousand people gathered around the ark and implored Noah to grant them protection. With a loud voice he replied, 'Aren't you the rebellious ones? Haven't I prophesised for 120 years and you didn't listen to the word of God? And now you want to be kept alive?'

And the sinners cried out, 'So be it. We are ready to do teshuvah now, if only you will open the door of your ark to receive us.'

The crowd of sinners tried to take the entrance to the ark by force, but the wild beast keeping watch around the ark set upon them and many were slain, while the rest escaped, only to meet death in the waters of the flood.[6]


This Midrash appeals to me even in its gloom.

It resonates with both the impending ecological catastrophe and the current financial collapse with equal prescience.

And now we are all trying to escape the flood.


Ki li haretz.

So how can we let this attitude to our material possessions 'break in' on us?

So how can we find another way,

To measure the value of our lives

To live lives that do not cause such distress to our battered planet?


Another verse.

ששת ימים תעבד ועשית כל מלאכתך:

(ט) ויום השביעי שבת ליקוק אלהיך

Six days work, do all your acts of labour,

But the Seventh day is a day of Shabbat to God.


This is the great gift of the Shabbat.

It allows, those of us who allow it to break in,

It allows us to recalibrate our attitude towards the material.

Six days we run, like hamsters on a wheel, to put food on our plates and to earn the necessary crust with which to pay for the car, the new clothes, the mobile telephony, the broadband exchange router.

For six days we are allowed to consider ourselves Masters of the Universe.

We are allowed to throw ourselves into in our financial, material lives.

Uvayom hashvii shvat vayinafash

But on the seventh day we are re-ensouled


On the Seventh day we bid 'stop, breathe.'

It is demanded that we remind ourselves that there are things in life that are more important than money.

We are commanded to commit to ways of valuing a life that cannot be measured in terms of bank balances and stock market indicators.

The seventh day is a spiritual practice in reminding ourselves that we have it all on grace and favour.

Ki li haaretz.


Actually, it isn't just Sabbath, though Sabbath is crucial, it is the whole apparatus of Jewish ritual practice.

All of Judaism serves as a training, a practice, a spiritual practice in realising

Ki li haaretz


'Judaism,' said Abraham Joshua Heschel,

'Is a candle to the soul.

It teaches us to hold on to the melody in the cacophony of life.

It teaches us to listen for the miraculous pulse of life which beats though the veins of the universe.[7]


It's a sound that is heard most brightly on a day like today, a day like Shabbat, when we have stepped back from the pursuit of the material, we have allowed the world to get along without us.

We commit ourselves to be better humans, kinder, in particular we turn our attention to the relationships with those around us, our family, our partners, our colleagues, our friends.

On a day like today commit ourselves to acts of Tzedakah – justice, charity, equity.

We create a space in which to hear more clearly 'the miraculous pulse of life which beats though the veins of the universe.'


If a notion of a miraculous pulse beating through the veins of the universe sounds a little highfaluting and abstract, let me make things simpler.

For one day a week; leave the wallet at home.

For one day a week; pull out the intravenous cable that connects us to the internet, turn off the blackberry, don't pick up the phone.

For one day a week put down the credit card that promises we could buy happiness, and not have to pay.


For one day a week treat yourself to an escape from the loadstones of materiality.

And instead converse with your fellow human beings face-to-face, 'off-line' as we now have to call it.

Take time to listen to silence,

Take time to have the conversations that were always too rushed during the week.

Take time to celebrate being alive.


And protect this day with great dedication.

Fence this day off with candles and Kiddush.

Protect this day and let it protect you.

Strengthen it and it will strengthen you.

Because if ever there were religious claims whose time has come then these are those claims.

Ki li haaretz – It's not yours.

Uvayom hashevii, shavat vayinaafash – and the seventh day shall be a Shabbat and you shall be re-ensouled.


This is about more than our own state of spiritual fulfilment and richness.

These are calls, approaches, insights that the entire fragile and battered world needs, we need to share these insights, affirm their importance not just among Jews, but more broadly in the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic worlds in which we all live.

But the first step in helping the world out there to realise this most paramount truth is our own personal commitment  to this more spiritual and spirited way of living in the world.


Our greatest strengths, as Jews, have always shone out, eventually.

Those insights, approaches and passions we, as Jews, have tended in our own scriptures, lives and communities have eventually overturned the follies and failures of the world.

This is the greatest achievement of the Jews.


But before we can rely on anyone else understanding that possession doesn't really mean ownership,

Before this, we need to affirm our own commitment to the verse ki li haaretz we need to affirm our own commitment to the Sabbath as a way of ensuring we, our children and our children's children have a more balanced world in which to live.


I don't make a guarantee that being a better Jew will make you richer.

I don't pretend that observing Shabbat will increase the value of your share portfolio.

But I do offer this guarantee.

Know that the material things in this world are not our own – we have them as an act of grace.

Know that taking a day in seven to recalibrate our relationship with the material world is vital

And we will feel richer.

And we will be better for it

And we might even save the world.


My prayer and my blessing is this.

If we can do this,

If we change the way we view and treat the material world in which we live

Then, regardless of the decrees we will face in the year to come, this year, our new year, our new life, will be the sweeter and richer for it.


L'Shannah Tovah.

[1] Lev 25:23

[2] Liturgy, Una Taneh Tokef

[3] Tempest IV.1

[4] Taanit 23a

[5] Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on 7:13

[6] Cited from Ginsburg, Legends of the Jews Vol I p. 158 see also sources Vol V p. 177

[7] Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity p. 57

Friday, 26 September 2008

And so we begin

The job of a congregational rabbi doesn’t suit the perfectionist.

How much time should a rabbi spend meeting a woman who has lost a husband after fifty years of marriage?

How often should a rabbi make a call to check that a housebound member is doing OK?

How does a rabbi manage to focus on the one conversation he is being engaged in when the in-tray and the schedule bulge?

How does a rabbi balance these, ultimately professional, challenges with the need to find time to study, to pray and to tend their responsibilities as husband, father, son and friend?

These questions are all, of course, excuses. The truth is that I should have done better. I have learnt lessons aplenty this last year and now the challenge is to make different mistakes, better mistakes, in the year to come. As Beckett counselled, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’


Many of you, reading this blog, I know. And some of you I know I have offended, this past year. There will be more, of course, I have offended unknowingly.

Rambam teaches that neither this sacred time, nor the personal psychological work of teshuvah have any effect when it comes to the sins committed between one person and the next until the offender has sought the forgiveness of the offended.

I am fairly sure would not have felt that a mass e-mail would have counted, but let me nonetheless take the opportunity of this New Year to ask for your forgiveness and wish one and all a sweet, healthy and happy year.


Shabbat Shalom and

L’Shannah Tovah


Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Get Ready .... Go

These are my first High Holydays as Rabbi of New London and I am nervous and working hard to prepare for the days to come. But this sense of nervousness and this need for preparation has to be something we all share – you and I. Rosh Hashanah demands preparation. Even the prayers themselves have been in preparation this past month. A new Psalm has crept into the Evening and Morning prayers and, on weekdays, the blast of the Shofar heralds Rosh Hashanah’ approach. We are called upon to get ready.


Ready for what?

We need to be ready to stand before our Creator with the work of our lives in our hands; the moments of loving kindness, selfless service and commitment and the moments of selfish failure, greed and anger.

There’s a lot to stack up, in the ledgers of our existence; too much to rush into, straight off the street. We need to be in training. So let me offer two training methods. One requires your pocket, the other, as my American friends would say, the seat of your pants.



Go somewhere the rush of the world doesn’t reach. Personally, I can’t recommend Synagogue highly enough. Come and sit and let the prayers wash over you, around you. It really doesn’t matter that they are in a foreign language. Use the liturgy to block out the noise of the everyday and allow the important relationships of your life to crystalise, hold you and move you. Allow the stillness to do its work. We are, in this day and age, terribly bad at sitting. We are, in this day and age, not so great at tending the important relationships of our life – our inter-personal relationships and our relationships with our Creator and our fragile Universe. So find a place to sit and reflect.


Secondly give something away.

There is a wonderful moment in Tony Hancock’s ‘Blood Donor’ where our hero, having just donated ‘nearly an armful’ of blood, whips out his little black book in which he has written all the financial gifts he has made to charity and enquires how much a pint should be worth. It’s a provocative suggestion, but our attachment to material things and personal possessions can indeed be measured with this sort of precision. Becoming generous with our material possessions promotes, with stark clarity, generosity of the soul. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that, when asked, what a person should do to take a step towards greater spiritual seriousness, he always replies – give away more money than you think you can afford. We live in a delicate and battered world. There is so much that deserves out support; organisations that tend to the physical needs and those that tend to the needs of the soul. Members of New London will hear more about our Kol Nidrei Appeal. Other requests will tumble in, no doubt, through letterbox and e-mail in-box. Our acts of generosity don’t guarantee any great change of fortune in the year ahead, but I do promise this, they will make us kinder, better and more worthy of the grace and favour we seek.


Prepare well and we will merit what Josephine, Carmi, Harry and I wish for us all; a sweet, happy and healthy year, lshanah tovah.


Rabbi Jeremy

Monday, 22 September 2008

financial markets and paradigm shifting

I received a touching e-mail from a congregant, a city man, returning from holiday this week,


Thank you for your E Mail. I returned from a few days away and since then I have been concentrating on the demise of the banking system as we knew , and didn't much love, it. I haven't had time to respond to the enquiry and shall do so shortly.


I have spent a good deal of the hours of darkness awake, this last week.

I wish I could say it has been preparing my soul for the spiritual task of the Festivals to come, but that would be untrue. Harry isn’t sleeping so well, so, armed only with the BBC World Service, I’ve listened to a lot of late night radio.

Late night reporting, from America in particular, has felt apocalyptic.


It is of course dangerous territory for a Rabbi and more important than that, it is surely, as Chairman Mao said of the French Revolution, ‘far too early to tell.’


As you will see in the newsletter, shortly to arrive through a letterbox near you, I’m presenting a major education programme on money in November. Hopefully things will have calmed down a bit by then.


But I feel this is something you have to address.

I’m interested in this notion of the demise of the old.

It may well be that when the dust settles we will be right back where we started, but there does seem the possibility that something has changed.

A paradigm shift.

The end of one way of doing business in the world.

That’s scary, dangerous.

And it is also something about which Judaism has plenty to say.


I wanted to look at how Judaism responds to paradigm shifts.


The central moment, the central paradigm shift of the Jewish people has to be the moment of the destruction of the temple. 70CE

In the space of a Biblical blink of an eye Judaism is transformed from a faith tied to its land, to a wandering diaspora.

From a Temple based priestly cult, to a Synagogue based rabbinically led combination of prayer and scholarship.

All of a sudden the entirety of the book of Leviticus, not to mention large swathes of Exodus become irrelevant, in terms of Jewish life.

And then the slaughter. At just one location, Gamla, the Roman attackers killed four thousand defenders of the city and five thousand threw themselves into the steep precipices of the hill-top settlement.

I’m pleased to say that things don’t seem to be quite that bad in the city.


Josephus, the great chronicler of these times is clearly writing in the belief that the Jewish journey has ended.

And here, he says at the end of his great work, Wars of the Jews, we shall put an end to this our history.

But, of course, as we know, Judaism did not die out.

And certainly there has been an impact on Jewish life of the destruction of the Temple.

We are a very different religion today than we once were, sacrifices are indeed no more, but there was no radical break.  Judaism evolved, rolled with the punches, ebbed, flowed


The key, at least in the eyes of the Rabbis, much of this was down to the bravery of one man.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who got out of a besieged Jerusalem, hidden, playing a corpse, in a coffin, being carried past guards who wanted to run the coffin through to ensure that no live body was within.[1]


Yochanan escapes Jerusalem and sets up a Yeshivah in Yavneh from which springs the entire corpus of Rabbinic Judaism.

Judaism, survives.

Josephus is not, of course, the first person to mis-diagnose the passing the Judaism.

Not the first person to imagine the unfolding of the narrative that began at Sinai will come to an end.


Two others – who made the same error.


Shabbatai Tzvi,

The great false messiah of Jewish life passed away in 1676. A the height of the furore that surrounded him he claimed the end of the world was coming – he claimed to be the Messiah. Thousands were convinced

“Everybody talked about having seen a pillar of fire. [read one contemporary account] To some it had appeared at noontime, to another at night, a thirds have seem the moon like red fire, to a fourth the heavens had been opened and he beheld a fiery gate in which there stood  a man in the likeness of Rabbi Tzvi with a crown on his head.’[2]


Tzvi had the classic prayer for the Government under whose graciousness Jews live, ‘may the one who gives salvation to Kings and dominon to princes’ abolished and re-written to bless himself, in much the same language.

Here was a new dawn, a paradigm shift.

That too was a mistake.

And certainly there has been an impact on Jewish life of Shabbatai Tzvi.

There are certain places of radical Jewish thought now, probably forever closed as a result of the catastrophe of Shabbatai Tzvi, but Judaism evolved, rolled with the punches, ebbed, flowed


And of course there is the horrific Museum planned, but never realised by the Nazis who thought that the end of the story had come.

They were wrong too.

The 1,564 Torah Scrolls which were intended to be the centrepiece of this horrifically misbegotten plan are shortly to be made, again, available to the public.

At Westminster Synagogue.

And certainly there has been an impact on Jewish life of Shabbatai Tzvi.

There are certain Jewish worlds gone forever as a result of Holocuast, and that is an unspeakable tragedy, but Judaism evolved, rolled with the punches, ebbed, flowed. Got on with it.


The point is this.

Jews don’t really admit to paradigm shifts.

We don’t really believe in the story every coming to an end.

Instead we believe in change, development.

If something isn’t working, allow it space to redevelop, grow.


It’s more than history, it’s also a guide to life.

An approach, most particularly at this time of year, to teshuvah.

Thursday night I was teaching Rav Kook on teshuvah.

Don’t let yourself be imprisoned by what you perceive to be dead ends, taught Kook.


Roll, ebb, use the twinges of pain to free, to lift to free and to evolve into something better, even out of the darkest corners.

Kook, like so many great Jews was a tremendous romantic.

In a world created by a good God,

In a human life created in the image of God.

Nothing is really that terrible.

And when faced with what might seem like the end of the world, the Jewish response is simply this, to respond.

To evolve, to roll with the punches, to ebb and to flow.

To allow ourselves to be impacted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but steel ourselves with the bravery of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai and go on.


Shabbat shalom


[1] Gittin 56a

 [2] Cited in G. Scholem Sabbatai Sevi p.418

Friday, 19 September 2008

Financial Armageddon

This week I felt I gained an insight into how the BBC will report Armageddon.

Poor old Robert Preston.

With banks disappearing and the stock market in free fall, there was a sense that ‘The End of the World Is Nigh.’


It’s a subject I’ll be looking at in my sermon tomorrow, but for these words I want to share this thought.


I do not believe we are pre-occupied with finance because it affords us happiness. Indeed poll after poll suggests that there is no great equation between riches and happiness.

Rather I wonder if the great attraction of money is that it is so easily quantifiable. When we turn our focus to things financial we can know how well we are doing. Life, in the financial realm, is about the bottom line. Money gives us something to keep track of. The Footsie is up, the dollar is down, and we consume these figures to the second decimal place.

Indeed the measurability of the world of finance penetrates every level of the financial culture of our age. We live in a world where the temptation is to measure one’s worth in terms of bonuses and wage packets. This is deeply dangerous.


The Rosh Hashanah season (beckoning with ever-increasing urgency) challenges us to find other ways to measure the successes and failures of our lives. The scales of success and failure we are asked to self-evaluate on Rosh Hashanah resist the quantification of the world of finance.

How much love did we share?

How many lies did we tell?

How many lives did we better?

How many decent people did we hurt?

These questions evade simple measurement and, in a world where the quantifiable question tempts us so much more than the impossible-to-measure, the temptation is simply not to bother with questions that don’t have easy answers.

My plea is that we allow our internal accountant-of-the-soul the space and the opportunity to engage seriously with these more important questions; for this is truly how to measure the value of a life.


Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Been Busy Looking For Truth In Many Places


It’s been a breathless couple of weeks.

As well as sermons (and preparation for the High Holydays to come), I’ve produced a keynote lecture on Kiekegaard and the Akedah, an article on the religious significance of Einstein (to be published in the Jewish Quarterly) and a piece on the religious significance of Rothko (for the Jewish Chronicle).

Philosophy, science, art.


The full pieces will make their way onto the blog in time. (for advanced copies, please e-mail me).

At the moment I am struck by this unavoidable truth.


One sometimes hears the claim that religion and science are interested in two entirely different spheres; science explains how things happen and religion explains what a person should try and do. That feels fuzzy and wrong. It certainly runs counter to the claims of Einstein, his great intellectual nemesis Nils Bohr, and Rothko too - that what applies to apples falling from trees must also hold true for the innermost secrets of the heart. If religion, art, philosophy and science aspire to revealing truths, they either have to overlap or be rejected. I cannot claim to be able to accept the truths of science in one sphere, while holding tight to religious dogma in another. As the Kabbalists point out kula chada – it’s all one. This is a significant challenge to the contemporary religious truth seeker. Scientists, philosophers and certainly artists such as Rothko enjoy nothing greater than superseding earlier truth claims, but religions in general and traditional forms of Judaism in particular don’t like being superseded. We don’t throw out the Code of Jewish Law just because, contrary to the Talmudic claim that fish and meat consumed together are dangerous, we subsequently discover no such pathology exists. But there has to be a line.


Solomon Schechter, the first President of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote about the Rabbinic tale in which the Biblical patriarch Abraham smashes the wares of his father, a seller of idols. It must have been tempting for Abraham, wrote Schechter to continue the life of dishonesty of an idol salesman, but the Jew, ‘being the first and fiercest Noncomformist of the East’ is called upon to ‘boldly denounce’ superseded truth claims.[1] As Jews we have to be in search of truth in wherever it may be found and we need to prepare ourselves for the consequences of what we might find. At the very least if we find certain truth claims of our faith superseded by science we should admit that, if we do persist in following various religious doctrines, we are not doing so in pursuit of some grand universal truth, but rather, to borrow language from Mordechai Kaplan, we are performing ‘customs’ and travelling on ‘folkways.’[2] The pursuit of truth costs. Either we commit ourselves to paying the price or we should walk away from the challenge.


[1] Schechter, Studies in Judaism, p. 18 citing Bereishit Rabba 38:13

[2] Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilisation, (1981) p.437

Friday, 5 September 2008

Dyslexic Torah and the Fundamentalism in Judaism

Dyslexic Torah


I want to give what I will always think of as a Louis sermon with a Jeremy twist. It's a Louis sermon because it is about who we are as a community and the places where we sign up to the tradition and the places where we distance ourselves to some of the human errors that have slipped into our glorious inheritance. And it has a Jeremy twist because I have dyslexia, more of which anon


It’s a sermon about how we try and touch what God truly wishes of us when we ourselves are human, and not only human, but humans not gifted the prophetic insight of a Moses or even the prophetic insight of a Jonah.


Indeed this is the very central problem of the parasha. And indeed the whole book of Deuteronomy.

You only need shoftim and shotrim – judges and police-officers to run a society when God no longer rolls in from the heavens to zap any miscreant personally.


It’s not the Book of Numbers anymore.

In the Book of Numbers, if there is an insurrection that needs to be put down, God sorts it out personally – as it were.

In the book of Numbers, if any kind of judgement is to be made the judgement comes with a divine imprimatur.

But that is now behind us.

We are now well into the Book of Deuteronomy.


Let me paint the picture.

Moses knows he is going to die.

He knows his unique form of leadership is coming to an end, so he is standing there, desperately trying to imbue a sense of decency and dignity on the people, some 1.2 million people arrayed before him.

And he is giving a great speech

We are witnessing one of the greatest attempts in the history of world religion, literature, to create a just society.


And part of creating and living in a society involves a suspension of personal autonomy.

You can’t do whatever you feel like and be part of a just and well-ordered community.

You can’t be a communally minded anarchist.

If you want to be part of a just society you have to give up some of your freedom to the society.

This, of course, is what the eighteenth century French philosopher Jacques Rouseau articulated so beautifully in the justly famous opening of this Social Contract.

‘Man was born free; and everywhere is in chains’


And so to this week’s parashah

8 If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault — matters of dispute in your courts — you shall promptly repair to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen, 9 and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, 10 you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place that the Lord chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you. 11 You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.

(Deut 17)


And if you happen to think that the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time happen to have made a mistake, you have to tough it out.

In other words once God has stepped back from the active role of judge, jury and executioner you are bound by the decisions of the appointed judges in your time.


What catches my eye is the notion that you have to obey the ruling of these human appointees yamim usmol. You must not deviate to the left or the right.


The early Rabbinic commentary, Sifrei, states ;

Afilu nirin be-eyneicha al smol shehu yamim o al yamim shehu smol, shma lahem.

Even if it appears in your eyes that what they have told you is left is right and what they have told you is right is left – obey them.


The Medieval great, the Ramban states

even it is pashut beyneicha because you know the difference between your right and your left, taseh kmitvotam, do as they command.


The Ramban goes on to refer to one of the great moments of tension in the Rabbinic period, the moment, recounted in the Mishnah (RH 2) when two witnesses come before Rabban Gamliel to declare that they have seen the new moon of Ellul.

In Rabbinic law this moment of giving testimony starts the clock, the clock that started for us this week – the inexorable arrival of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

These two witnesses come before Rabban Gamliel – the presiding magistrate of his day - and declare they have spotted the first signs of the New Moon.

Only for it to suddenly disappear again that night.

Moons, of course, do not suddenly disappear.

The witnesses have made a mistake and Rabban Gamiliel who should have spotted a problem with the testimony misses it.

And the rest of the Rabbis know Rabban Gamliel has messed up.

Edei sheker hen – They are lying witnesses, one of them says.

And Rabbi Yehoshua seems to be about to protest the incorrect calling of the New Moon,

And in that moment he challenges the authority not only of Rabban Gamliel but the entire Deuteronomic system, a system that seems based on getting the right people in the right place to make the right judgement and supporting that judgement, accepting it, right or wrong.

As another of the Rabbis of the Mishnah notes – ‘if we argue against the court of Rabban Gamliel, we argue against each and every court since the time of Moses.’


Shelach lo Rabban Gamliel.

Rabban Gamliel sends for the recalcitrant Rabbi Yehoshua, and commands the junior Rabbi to appear before him on the day Rabbi Yehoshua would calculate as Yom Kippur bmakelcha uveme’otchah – bearing his staff and purse.

On Yom Kippur – aside from the public embarrassment, Rabbi Yehoshua has to believe he would be chayav mitah – guilty of a sin deserving capital punishment if he appears in public carrying staff and purse on Yom Kippur.

You can feel the tension, it is as if the whole corpus of Rabbinic existence is about to topple.

And yet he comes, Rabbi Yehoshua turns up before Rabban Gamliel, staff and purse in hand.

He is received gracefully and the moment passes.


Afilu nirin be-eyneicha al smol shehu yamim o al yamim shehu smol, shma lahem.

Even if it appears in your eyes that what they have told you is left is right and what they have told you is right is left – obey them.


But there is something terrifying in this midrash, in this approach to what it is to live well in a society.

I am terrified by the notion that that the word of the priest, the Rabbi, is deemed to have divine imprimatur even if it is so wrong that left and right have been confused.


I cited earlier the Ramban, saying that even if it is pashut beyneicha because you know the difference between your right and your left do as they command.

It gets worse.

Don’t say, the Ramban goes on, eherog haish hanaki hazeh – how can I kill this innocent person. Aval tomar rather say so I have been commanded by the Master of command.


What the Ramban is saying, following from the Sifrei, is that regardless of what you think about the guilt or innocence of the man standing before you, if the judge says stone him – you stone him.


This is the sort of stuff that gives religion a bad name, a very bad name.

The problem is that two terribly powerful forces have coalesced.

The first of these forces is the force of Divine Will.

What God wishes of a person is a powerful force for good, certainly.

The second force is the force of societal stability.

Things that keep our communities strong are needed, societal stability is a good thing.

But when the force that provides for societal stability becomes conflated with Divine Will, that is when things get very dangerous.

That is when mistakes get made.

That is when innocent men start to die.

Indeed there is a word for the religious attitude that requires a suspension of critical faculties and that word is fundamentalism.


And so, when you hear of Jews behaving in a fundamentalist manner we should, perhaps not be so surprised.

In a world where God no longer acts as shofet and shoter – judge and officer – someone needs to take responsibility for societal stability.

And at a time when traditional forms of Jewish life feel so under threat it is perhaps no surprise to hear that there are Rabbis and the followers of Rabbis claiming the divine imprimatur when attempting to provide a bulwark for tightly knit, passionately committed religious communities.

When the challenges of modernity come knocking, what better way could there possible exist to guarantee the survival of a religious society than claiming that you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.


This is, of course, not the approach of our great founder, and I don’t like it either.

For there is another side to Judaism.

A side that rejects the suppression of our own sense of what is right and wrong.

A side that requires us to keep our own spiritual, ethical and intellectual faculties fully engaged.


The opening words of the Jerushalem Talmud, Horayot[1] is an attempt to understand the choice of imagery – left or right.

Yechol ­– you might in error suppose that the reason for this left, right phraseology is that you should follow an errant judge even if they proclaim left as right, or right as left. But that would be wrong, says the Talmud.

Rather our problematic verse should be understood as follows

you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you when the judges call something that is right, right and something that is left, left.[2]

Al yamim shehu yamim ve al smol shehu smol

In other words, as a religious demand, you are called upon to follow only just laws.

And the claims of the judges, no matter how learned, how long their beards or how many times in the past they have got a decision right, the claims of the judges need to be examined again, questioned, prodded, challenged.

Because, and this is the biggest truth of all, Rabbis can guess at the Divine Will, they – we, all of us - can try and puzzle it out, but ultimately Divine Will is beyond human ownership.

It’s too complex, infinite, ungraspable.

We cannot own Divine Will, even if we are sure of our interpretation.


And that is why Jews love to argue.

It’s because, ulitmatly, we don’t accept that story of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel represents the right way for Jews to behave.

We don’t believe in the suspension of powers of debate and challenge.


Ezo hi machloket bshem shamayim

What is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven[3] ask the Rabbis of antiquity

There is such a thing, of course, an argument for the sake of heaven – where would we be without argument.


And another Rabbinic text, this one from Bereishit Rabba – I could do this all day.

Kol ahavah sheain imah tochechah ainah ahavah[4]- 'All love that is not accompanied by criticism is not love.

Kol shalom sheain imah tochechah ainah shalom All peace that is not accompanied by criticism is not peace.'

Tochecha meivi lyadei shalom[5]

Reproach, the rabbis claim, argument, disputation brings us to a place of peace.


This is, I would claim, the truer voice in our tradition, the tradition of the pursuit of the divine will free of the need to ensure, always for the stability of the society.

This is the voice that speaks to me. The voice I love.

I believe in argument, disputation, reproach

And to be a person who believes in argument, disputation, means that you have to let go of a little certainly, increase a little the societal instability.

A religious life without fundamentalism is a little less secure.

Thank God.


If the problem of fundamentalism is a problem of the conflation of Divine Will and societal stability we need, to turn again to the French philosophers, what Montesquieu called the separation of power.


We need religious leaders who are prepared to challenge every claim made in the name of God, to test it against some of the other great rallying calls in this week’s portion.

Tzedek Tzedek tirdof - Justice, justice you shall pursue.

Vkeratah ehlehah leshalom – call out to your enemies in peace.

We need religious leaders, religious followers, heck, even irreligious non-followers, We need every human to bring every ounce of their god given talents sharpen and improve the claims of those of us who attempt to speak in the name of the Divine.


As my predecessor here, Rabbi Jacobs, lived and taught and wrote so powerfully, I pledge my own religious leadership at this special community never to hide behind the flimsy curtain of societal stability if it means calling left right, or right left, and certainly not if it means good people getting hurt. Indeed it may well be that there is something more important than knowing the difference between one's right and one's left. And that is knowing that you don't know. Knowing that sometimes the difference between right and left, so clear to so many, is acutally confusing - dyslxia rules K.O.


The world is too fragile and too dangerous for any religion to make a claim for inerrancy. Instead we must make calls for challenge, disputation and debate.

Since tochecha meivi lyadei shalom[6]

Reproach, argument, disputation brings us to a place of peace


Shabbat shalom.

[1] 1:1

[2] Reading the vav of yamim usmol as left AND right, as opposed to left OR right.

[3] Pirkei Avot 5:17

[4] Bereshit Rabba 54:3

[5] Ad loc

[6] Ad loc

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