Friday, 24 October 2008

Coming soon - No more festivals

One last thought on the season just ended…

The gates have closed, but this is, nonetheless, a good week to cast our minds back, on the season past. Rambam teaches that the fulfilment of teshuvah comes when a person finds themselves in the same position in which once they made an errant decision, but this time they demonstrate they have changed.

For me, I have no difficulty recognising the beckoning and admonishing finger wag of teshuvah during the ten days of penitence and even through Succot. My problem is that, once I get back into the rest of year, all good resolutions disappear into the business of ‘normalcy.’

So this week is the test.

If you felt, over Rosh Hashnah, that you wanted to spend more time part of the New London Synagogue family in the coming year – come on Saturday. If you felt, that a more serious relationship with Shabbat would help inure you from the pains of the credit crunch – abstain from spending money this Shabbat. If you felt inspired to make a gift to tzedakah to support the New London Kol Nidrei Appeal, or any other valuable cause – make sure the money leaves your bank account now.

If any of the sermons, prayers, discussions (or even blog postings) of the last month gave you the inspiration to change, then now is the time to see if you have the strength of faith, personality or conviction to make that change real.


Thursday, 23 October 2008

Playing Dice with God

An article published in the Autumn 2008 edition of the Jewish Quarterly

Playing Dice with God

The Large Hadron Collider has been switched on. Somewhere between France and Switzerland protons are colliding with a force unknown since the first moment of creation. It’s a good time to look back at one of the most important scientific and religious debates of the last century – the question of whether or not God plays dice with the Universe. Einstein’s expression is more than a neat turn of phrase; understanding what he meant provides a key to the physicist’s world view. Indeed understanding what Einstein meant when he disregarded a dice-playing deity unlocks not only a central obsession of one of the greatest minds of all time, but also offers a way out of the, largely weary, tit-for-tat that passes for the contemporary debate between religion and science.

Until the 1900s, physicists believed it would be possible to reach a precise understanding of the relationship between cause and effect. If you dropped a weight from a certain height it would take a certain amount of time to reach the ground — that sort of thing. As long as a physicist had enough information about a system they expected to be able to work out precisely how any part of that system would respond at any given time. Einstein was an archetypal classical physicist in that he believed in this type of approach. He was a self-defined ‘determinist;’ a passionate believer in strict rules of cause and effect. He didn’t have the arrogance to believe he understood all these rules, indeed his humility when confronted by the majesty of the world was the prime source of his special kind of religiosity — but he believed such rules did exist and that they applied to every element of the Universe, ‘for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player.’ 

Einstein’s determinism seeped into his understanding of the workings of the brain and soul, ‘Human beings in their thinking, feeling and acting… are as bound by causation as the stars in their motions,’ he wrote. And that meant, for Einstein, that there was no such thing as free-will. A person might be able to decide what to do, thought Einstein (following Schopenhauer), but they couldn’t decide what they chose to decide – that higher decision was determined by the same universal, if unknown, rules as govern everything else in the world. 

Then came quantum mechanics. The discovery of quantum mechanics in the 1920s was built on the foundations of Einstein’s own discoveries, but Einstein never fully accepted the single most provocative truth of the field of studies his own work begat.

It is possible to ‘charge up’ a cloud of atoms by pumping electricity into it. This results in some of the atoms in the gas absorbing energy and emitting photons. As long as one doesn’t wish to look too closely it is possible to use these emitted photons in a very focussed manner — this, after all, is how lasers work. But while an applied physicist might be content working out how to focus a laser beam to perform any particular task a theoretical physicist, like Einstein, has to grapple with how this stream of photons is produced. And this is where the science becomes murky.

The problem is that atoms in a gas do not emit photons according to precise laws of cause and effect. There is no way to determine which atoms in the gas will emit a photon at any given time and there is no way to determine which direction any particular emitted photon would travel. In general terms the majority of atoms will behave in a particular way, and that is fine for practical applications, but on an individual basis no amount of information about the system of gas and charge can allow a physicist to predict which atom will behave in which way under any given set of circumstances. Three identical atoms could go through identical experiences and two could emit photons in totally different directions while the third atom would emit nothing. While classical theoretical physics speaks in terms of ‘causality’ and predicts certainty, quantum theoretical physics speaks in terms of ‘indeterminacy’ and predicts only probability. Quantum mechanics is not nihilism. It doesn’t reject order, but rather the attempt to pin down the precise nature of this order. As long as one is content to generalize, a certain order can be predicted, it is only when the individual explanations are sought that clear-cut answers are impossible.

Einstein doggedly refused to accept what experiment after experiment seemed to prove — that, on an individual level sub-atomic matter failed to behave according to laws of cause and effect. ‘I find the idea quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will not only its moment to jump off but also its direction’ he wrote to his colleague Max Born. ‘In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee of a gaming house, than a physicist.’  Indeed it is another letter to Born that contains the first appearance of the now-famous aphorism. ‘Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing,’ wrote Einstein, ‘but an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but it does not really bring us any closer to the secrets of the Old One. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice.’ 

Does the world operate according to strict causality or is there another ordering power? This is the essence of the argument between Einstein and the school of quantum mechanics led by Niels Bohr. It is no minor detail; it threatens not only the determinist position of classical physics but also the philosophical/theological framework of determinism’s greatest advocate — Einstein himself. Indeed physicist John Wheeler suggested, ‘in all the history of human thought, there is no greater dialogue than that which took place over the years between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein.’ Turning the clock forward some seventy years Bohr seems to have won. Despite the best efforts of Einstein, and classical and quantum physicists since, physics – at a quantum level – has abandoned the absolute ordered determinism that was the marker of Einstein’s world view.

It is a dialogue and an outcome that fascinates me, as a Masorti Rabbi, in two ways. Firstly it is an argument predicated on a belief in the essential unity of 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 Einstein’s claim, accepted by Bohr, that what applies to apples falling from trees must also hold true for the innermost secrets of the heart. If religion and science aspire to revealing truths, they have to overlap. If science predicts only pure causality and I choose to believe in free-will or Divine intervention 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 are trained to reject superseded truth claims (with every new scientific discovery textbooks are re-written, old editions are dumped into the recycling), 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. 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.  As Jews we have to be in search of truth, 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.’  As such the rejection of determinism at a foundational, albeit sub-atomic, level is important. It may well be that the world in general behaves according to predictable rules of cause and effect, but this, according to the laws of quantum mechanics, does not exclude the possibility that on an individual basis strict causality takes second place behind some other unknowable, unpredictable force.

Secondly the argument about the behaviour of the quantum can also be understood as an argument about whether, at the heart of the universe, the world is a paradigm of order (per Einstein), or, if not chaotic as such, then a good deal less straightforward (per Bohr). This, in turn, feeds two totally different ways of understanding suffering. If we suffer but feel the world is ultimately ordered along determinist principles (Einstein), we will, consciously or otherwise, acknowledge our own pain fits into this mechanistic system. This, in turn, often leads to a search for causation; why did this happen to me? On the other hand if we perceive the world as less clear; with layers of order and complexity folded one on top of the other like a giant fractal (Bohr), another response beckons. It might be possible that there is no reason why one small baby died, and another lived; maybe there is no reason for the triumph of the wicked and the destruction of the good. As a Rabbi I am often grateful for this latter response (of Bohr) when confronted by suffering that defies determinist causation.

Many Jews (especially those who are distant from religious study) assume that, on the question of causation of suffering, Judaism sides wholeheartedly with the determinist Einstein, but that is incorrect. A more nuanced and accurate representation of the tradition should acknowledge precisely what Bohr suggests – at a certain level we can predict order but when it comes to individuals we need to acknowledge an absence of causation. Nowhere is this common fallacy and accurate reality better expressed than in the first verse of the Hebrew Bible. The opening of the Bible as translated in the Christian King James Version reads ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’ It’s a beautifully balanced, ordered reading of Genesis 1:1. It’s a translation that might make a person think the Hebrew Bible believes that everything in the world is in order, determined, but as a translation it is wrong. It fails to communicate a clear element of the original Hebrew. The Hebrew suggests a far less ordered creation and the Jewish JPS translation is more accurate when it translates, ‘When God began to create heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — God said, “Let there be light.”’ In other words at the first moment of creation there is a void — tohu vavohu.                

Mystics from Isaac Luria to Nahman of Braslav have understood this emptiness — also referred to as a place of tzimtzum or the hallal hapanui — as the primordial location of indeterminism  In the beginning chaos and order stood side by side, each competing for the upper hand, just as we find in the argument between Bohr and Einstein.

There are, in these encounters between Judaism and physics different ways of framing very similar perspectives on the Universe and everything in it. The science acts as a testing ground for the religious claims — if it fails the test of science it cannot be claimed as ‘true,’ while the religion provides a broader framework for the claims of science — a way of setting scientific claims against a broader canvas. At the very least engaging seriously with Einstein’s dice playing (or otherwise) deity has to be an improvement on arguments about whether God does or doesn’t exist and, if he does, whether he gave dictation on Sinai all those years ago.

Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue.
The author is grateful to Prof. Louis Lyons (University of Oxford) for looking over the physics discussed in this paper.
Citations from Einstein’s work are taken from Walter Isaacson’s 2008 biography Einstein.

Monday, 20 October 2008

On Leadership, Obama, McCain and Moses

I'm interested in models of leadership,

In particular I'm immersed in the model of Moses' leadership.

On the middle Shabbat of Succot we read of the very apex of Moses' career of leadership and on Simhat Torah we read of its end.


Actually, that's not quite right.

What draws me to consider the issue of leadership, today, is a fascination with the American Presidential Election.

Leadership is a religious issue.

So what is the religious nature of leadership?

What can be learnt from the life of Moshe Rabeinu?


There is in fact a book, of course there is a book, as we would have heard this morning if we had made it to the 12th chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes – of the making of books there are no end.

Moses on Management: 50 Leadership Lessons from the Greatest Manager of All Time is written by David Baron, Lynette Padwa

Actually it's not bad.

Some of it is a little trite, but there are chapters on

  • How to bring your staff out of the slave mentality
  • Why it's essential to make your staff believers
  • Tell people the rules and the consequences of breaking them
  • Watch for burning bushes
  • Don't place a stumbling block before the blind
  • Prepare an exit strategy


That's a raft of good and important lessons, no doubt.

But when it comes to viewing Moses as a model leader I shift a little uneasily.


The first treatise on leadership I read was a book by the Jewish  socialist trade union organiser Saul Alinksy, who died in 1972.

Alinsky was a thoroughly awkward character. He wrote a book, Rules for Radicals which opened;


'What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on the how to hold on to power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-nots on how to take it away.'


You did not want to get on the wrong side of Alinsky, he would seek your public humiliation in the cause he sought to defend.

Any means was justifiable to reach what he perceived to be a justifiable end,


For Alinsky leadership meant revolution, it was aggressive, it took no prisoners.

'Work out who the problem is,' advocated Alinsky, 'isolate them, humiliate them, demonise them, bludgeon them into surrender' – these were his credos.


And while no frum yid one can definitely feel in Alinsky's writing the tough uncompromising language of leadership and revolution used in the Bible.

To an extent, Alinksy's model is Moses' model the model applied in Egypt.

The story begins with an attempted compromise.

Moses negotiates for only for a three day exeat for his people, but that doesn't work and soon the story develops its characteristic theme.

God hardens the heart of Pharoah, presumably to allow Pharoah to be a butt for the demonstration of Moses' leadership and God's great might.

Pharaoh is not to be simply defeated in his engagement with the Israelites.

He is to be crushed.


He is to see his firstborn son die and his troops drowned in the sea of Reeds.


The pestilence, the slaughter of first-born, the destruction of a people are all justifiable means en route to the Bible's most dearly held goal – the demonstration of God's love and care for the Israelite people.

In terms of the current political battles in the States this would be going all-out with negative campaigning.

Hurling the mud in the hope of some of it sticking and not really caring unduly as to the ethics of process.

This is the leadership of an Alinsky.


Moses' entire career seems cut through with this all-out-attack mentality that seeks the destruction of those who disagree with him on a regular basis.

First, of course, there is the Egyptian task master.

Moses sees the Egyptian beating an Israelite

Vayifen koh vacho – he looked one way then the other and slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.


This is the model of leadership that explains Moses crie de couer on Mount Sinai.

The Children of Israel have failed, they have created and turned to worship the Golden Calf and Moses calls for their destruction.

Vayichar af moshe – and Moses' anger grew

'Who is on the Lord's side?' he calls out and when the Levites come to stand next to him he orders them, 'Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.' (Ex 32)

The Rabbis attempt to explain this action as a pre-emptive strike, Moses trying to get some early killing in to stop God coming in with a plague of doubly violent death, but the sense remains that this is a hot-headed leader.

A leader to brook no failure among his people.

A leader who does not do negotiation.

In the language of the current holder of the office of President of the United States, this is the 'you are either with me or against me' school of leadership.

And if you are against me, I come with my military might to cut you down.


And while this kind of leadership may appease some.

And while it may prove successful in the short term it is a form of leadership I have grave problems with, for two reasons.

Firstly it does the leader no favours,

Secondly it does those led no favours either.


The 'with me or against me' form of leadership does the leader no favours.

In the language of leadership theorist Ronald Heifetz these kinds of leaders tend to get shot.

In the language of the Bible these kinds of leaders tend not to make it into the Promised Land.

It was of course the same hot headed quality seen in the face of the Egyptian taskmaster and in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle that caused Moses to strike the rock and lose his place at the front of the people who entered the Promised Land.

Leadership is a dangerous business – putting one's head above the pulpit, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin…

Perhaps the single greatest inducement to this anti-religious violence is the tendency to divide, to create an 'us and them' attitude.

One might be able to win a couple of battles,

But the war will be lost if we set out to humiliate and ground the noses of those we oppose into their own defeat.

A leader should never allow their opponents to be demonised, dehumanised.

A good leader will find ways to bring even those who they disagree with along with them on the journey through the promised land.

All those denizens of electoral dark arts would do well to remember what could be the single greatest act of Nelson Mandela's life of extra-ordinary leadership; the moment he appeared on the pitch of the Rugby World Cup final wearing the jersey of the Springboks, the Afrikaner Sprinboks, hated by so many blacks, hating so many blacks.

The Afrikaner were not to be demonised.

'No us and them' attitude was to be allowed to develop and splinter the rainbow nation.


Good leaders do everything possible to prevent the emergence of an 'us and them' attitude for good leaders get shot when such an attitude develops.

We learn this from Mandela,

Though we have Biblical models too.

Hillel was wont to say

Havei mitalmidaiv shel Aharon (Avot 1:12)

Ohev shalom vrodef shalom

A person should be like Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.

כיצד היה אהרן אוהב שלום [1]

How would Aaron pursue peace?

When he heard of a dispute, he would go to one party and then the other  pointing out areas of agreement, cooling the dispute, making peace.

And when there was a person who was sinning, failing, he would go to them and makdim lo shalom, lead out with the hand of peace and spend time with that person and the more gentleness and peacefulness that Aaron would advance, say the Rabbis the more the person would begin to feel ashamed and feel 'Oh, if he only knew, he wouldn't let himself be seen with me,' but Aaron would persist until the person turned in their ways and mitkarev letorah – and was drawn to Torah.

This is religious leadership.

Rabbinic leadership.


From the sublime to the parochial.

This is a message we do well to hear in the context of those issues that divide us in this community.

We are, as a community, struggling over the issue of the role of women in providing religious leadership during prayer services.

And struggle we may, and disagree we may, but we must never allow an 'us and them' attitude to develop.

As leader of this community, I will do all I can to ensure that this 'us and them' attitude never develops.

And if it means we lack consistency, clarity so be it.

For this is a better model of leadership than the point scoring knockabout of American politics or the heated 'with me or against me' of Moses.


The great leader, says, Ronald Heifetz, doesn't offer black and white solutions to complex problems.

They reframe, direct attention, occasionally tweak up the pressure, occasionally go round, like Aaron, making peace and building bridges across – in political terms – opposite sides of the house.


The great leader leads with a pragmatism forged not by a wishy-washy inability to make up their own mind, but rather forged by an awareness of the dangers of leading.

And this, indeed, Moses did get absolutely right.

When God called on Moses, Moses was reticent, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" (Ex. 3:11)

The Midrash has Moses remind God that He promised personally to take the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt – 'I will go down with you to Egypt and I will take you out', and now God suggests that this stuttering nobody does the job.[2]

Do you really want me? Says Moses

With my temper, my hot-headed inability to suffer fools, disagreement, failure, even in myself?!

That's good to see in a leader.


One who wants to lead, one who finds themselves in a position of leading needs to remember who is the boss.

Who is the real leader.

And it's not me, and it's not John McCaim, Barack Obama or even Moshe Rabeinu.


A leader looking out over a crowd of acolytes is forbidden from thinking that this is their doing, the fruits of their might and their power.

The Talmud[3] calls on one who sees a crowd of Israelites to make the blessing

'Baruch Hacham Razim' – Blessed be the one who knows secrets'

Who can look out over this crowd of fragile human lives, each encoding the image of God, and know what each is thinking.


This, perhaps is the greatest skill of a great leader.

To know that there is one who knows the secrets of every heart, and it is not  you.

This, perhaps is the greatest wish that I have for the outcome of this most interesting of elections.

That the victor will find a way to shoulder both the mighty burden of leadership, and also the necessary humility that comes from the reality of our finite human frailties.

If John McCain, Barack Obama, your Rabbi or any of us forget this, then we are all in a great deal of trouble.


Shabbat shalom,

[1] Avot d Rabbi Natan ad loc, see also perush of Ovadiah MiBartenura ad loc.

[2] Shmot rabba 3:4

[3] Brachot 58a

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Don't Worry - Be Happy - It's Succot

Orot HaTeshuvah 9:10 – Rav Kook (early twentieth century)

י. התשובה וכל ההליכות המעשיות שלה, עם הרוח הכללית השולטת בעיקרה בימים המיוחדים לתשובה עם גודל התועלת שלה לזכך את הנפשות, לעדן את הרוח ולטהר את המעשים מכעורם, היא מוכרחת להיות סופגת עמה איזו חולשה, שלא נמלט ממנה אפילו הגבור שבגבורים. כשמקמצים את הרצון, כשכופפים את עז החיים ע"י הסלידה הפנימית, והנטיה לשוב מכל חטא, מתקמץ ג"כ הרצון של הטוב, ועז החיים הטהורים מתחלש גם הוא. נמצא האדם סובל מטהרתו המוסרית חולשה כזאת, שסובל חולה שהתרפא ע"י הזרמה אלקטרית חזקה, שאמנם גרשה את הארס שבמחלתו, אבל החלישה את הכח החי והבריא שבו. שבים, ע"כ, ימים של שמחת קדש, של חדות הנפש, לקומם את הרצון הטוב ועז החיים הטהור. אז תהיה התשובה שלמה.

Teshuvah and all its associated rites and rituals, put together with the pervading spirit which rules especially at the special days of Teshuvah with all the hard word it entails purifies souls, delights the spirit and cleanses ugly actions. But it necessarily brings with it some sense of weakness that even the most heroic of all heroes can escape from.

When we suppress the will, when we fold in the might of life through inner withdrawal and the desire to turn from all sin, the will to do good is also suppressed, and the might of life lived in purity is also weakened.

It seems that a person suffers from their purification as one who suffered when treated by means of an electric shock where, even though it dispels the poison of the illness it nonetheless weakens the force of life and health in the person.

So along comes days of holy joy, of gladness of the soul to lift up the desire to do good and the vitality of a pure life. That is fulfilment of Teshuvah.


Sefat Emet 5:199 (late nineteenth century)

ימי הסוכות שנק' זמן שמחתינו כי השי"ת זיכה אותנו לישב בצלו. והיא מעין בחי' הג"ע דכתיב וישם שם כו' האדם. ועיקר הבריאה הי' להיות דירת האדם שם. ושם הי' השמחה כמ"ש כשמחך יצירך בגן עדן. והגם שכ' ויגרש את האדם. אעפ"כ יש זמנים שמתנוצץ קצת הארה מבחי' הג"ע. והשי"ת הכניסנו לדירה זו שחל עלי' שם שמים כדאיתא בגמ' והשמחה במעונו. לכן דירה זו מביאה השמחה. ובוודאי ע"י טהרתן של ישראל ביוכ"פ יש שמחה לפניו במרום. לכן יש לנו לשמוח בשמחת הבורא ית'. וז"ש לפני ה' תטהרו. ומלבד שזכינו לטהרה יש לנו להתענג בשמחת השי"ת בנו:

The days of Sukkot are called, 'zman simchateinu' since the Blessed One gave us the merit of dwelling in His shade.

It is the essence of the Garden of Eden as it says, and God placed the Adam …(Gen 2:8). And the essence of creation was that the Adam should dwell there, and there there was great joy as we say [at wedding celebrations] 'As your creation rejoiced in the Garden of Eden of ancient days.'

But it also says And He expelled the Adam …(Gen 3:24), nonetheless there are times when a piece of the light of the Garden of Eden sparks again.

And the Blessed One brings us into this dwelling, a place that belongs to the heavens, as it says in the Talmud [and also in the grace at a wedding 'shesimcha bmamono, there is joy in His dwelling place.' So this dwelling place brings us joy.


And certainly by means of the purity of Israel on the Day of Atonement there is joy before God, therefore we can celebrate with the celebrating Blessed One. And this is the verse for the sake of  God you shall be purified (Lev 16:30), not only are we happy because we are purified, but there is also joy in God's joy in us.

Friday, 10 October 2008

A Neilah Sermon - Don't Forget the Horse

Too much thinking can prove problematic.

There is even a problem with too much spiritual investigation.


A parable;

Told in the name of the eighteenth century master Reb Simchah Bunam.[1]

A prince bought a pure-bred stallion and to protect him from thieves, locked him into a stable built of stone.

The stable gate was bolted and guarded by an armed watchman.

One evening the Prince was strolling past the stable and saw the guard was looking perplexed. 'Hey' he called to the guard, 'what's on your mind?'

'There is this question is bothering me,' said the guard, 'when you sink a nail into the wall, where does the mortar go?'

'An important question,' said the prince, 'you do well to think about it.'

And the Prince went to sleep.

But the Prince couldn't sleep and so, some time later, the Prince went out for another stroll and again passed the guard looking perplexed.

'What's on your mind this time?'

'There is another question that is bothering me; when you eat a bagel where does the hole go?'

'Another important question,' said the prince, 'you do well to think about it.'

And the Prince went back to sleep.

But yet again sleep would not come, so yet again, he went out and yet again passed the guard looking perplexed.

'What is on your mind this time?'

'I have another question.' Said the guard, 'I can see the stable and I can see the stone walls and the gate, but the horse - where is the horse?


This is the problem of spending too much time in spiritual retreat and intellectual engagement.

We forget that we are supposed to be looking after a horse.

With too much thinking and sitting around we can forget what we are supposed to do.


So let me offer one simple and concrete request for action, at this time, this time when the simple and the concrete are the messages we should be hearing and the commitments we should be making to ourselves and our God.


I want you to do something before you start to eat this evening.

Doing something before we start eating is a well attested Rabbinic tradition. The medakdekim – the precisely observant amongst us –go home and bang in the first nail of our succah before eating.[2]


But I want to suggest something else.

I want to ask that we go home and write a cheque before we start to eat.

Ach, who does cheques anymore.

Go home, log on, make an on-line donation.

Wait, if you have to, in frustration and hunger for the computer to whirr into life before you allow yourself the luxury of moving on from pull of this day.


I've never, in honesty, understood why we call it a Kol Nidrei Appeal, who carries money around on Kol Nidrei?

And then you have a day of ashamnu and bsefer chayim and achat v'achat and before you know it we are stuffing our stomachs full of all the goodies we have done without these past twenty-something hours and then we fall asleep.

And tomorrow we get up and go to work.

If we only speak about giving on Kol Nidrei we leave ourselves too many opportunities to forget about the horse.


So let me speak about money tonight and ask for action tonight so there is less time to forget, less time to lose the momentary impulse we might feel to support charities facing, this year, the same ferocious economic climate in which we all find ourselves.


We have chosen, this year, our own Shul and the UJIA as the charities we would wish you to support most strongly.

New London Synagogue, your Jewish Community – you can't pull off a day like this without office staff, without a full time Chazan, without a year-round choir. That costs.

We have a conversion programme bursting at the seams, an influx of new young adult members, we've had fifteen baby-naming ceremonies since I have been here; parents and toddlers turning to us to help them find meaningful points of entry into Jewish life and community. We are taking our pastoral responsibilities more seriously.

It all costs.

This autumn we are launching our education programme, we want to return New London to its rightful place as the centre for the most important conversations in Anglo-Jewry, the most important conversations in the global search for a place to stand between the rival poles of rampant secularism and religious fundamentalism.

New London is uniquely placed to be that centre, this is a challenge we must rise to meet. And it is a challenge that costs.


And our second beneficiary

We ask for support for the UJIA with whom we are building a resource centre in the Galil, the north of Israel, a centre which will bear the name of our beloved founder Rabbi.

And aside from honouring the memory of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs zichrono livracha.

And aside from helping some of our least advantaged brothers and sisters in a troubled land we all treat as home,

Aside from all this, this resource centre is part of a bigger effort to ensure that the Galil becomes a place where young Jews can find education, employment and a future.

For a Galil void of these things threatens the very soul of the State of Israel.

And that costs.


Go home and before you start eating support this. Support us. Support these.


Actually I don't even mind if you find a different charity to support.

I have a folder, in my office, with letters from a vast range of worthy organisations. Each asked me, asked us, to include them in our Kol Nidrei Appeal.

Each includes sometimes harrowing, sometimes moving accounts of the work they do and the even more extraordinary work they wish they could do.

And these letters haunt me. Let them haunt you.


British Friends of Neve-Shalom, Wahat al-Salaam

British Wizo

JAMI – The Jewish Association for the Mentally Ill

JAT, formerly the Jewish Aids Trust

Jewish Women's Aid

New Israel Fund

Nightingale House


One Plus One Association of Immigrant Youth

The Ashdod Emergency Medical Centre

The Bar / Bat Mitzvah programme for Children with Special Needs run by the Masorti Movement in Israel

The Jewish Bereavement Counselling Service

The Jewish Council for Racial Equality


World Jewish Relief

It's not even the full list, I lost some letters.

Al cheit shechatati, for the sin I have committed ….


Hey, you could even give money to an organisation that has nothing to do with Jews at all.

That too would count.

You want to give money to cure cancer, care for the needy in this country or abroad, you want to give money to for any charitable purpose, that is fine.


Just do this.

Go home, write the cheque,

Before you feed your own needs - give.

Begin this Year with an act of generosity.


Before we forget or get distracted or overly satiated.


I know. It doesn't feel like a good time to giving money, we are all feeling a little spooked by the financial collapses out there.

So let me share some Torah to give us strength.


We all have to give, says the Talmud, אפי' עני המתפרנס מן הצדקה יעשה צדקה – even one who survives solely on charitable handouts has an obligation to perform acts of financial giving.[3]

There is no level of financial destitution that absolves us of the need to support others.


And as for those of us in the blessed fortunate position of being a step or more away from destitution, let me offer this.


Rambam, in his laws of gifts to the needy, examines the obligation to leave the corners of the fields for the poor.

How much of a corner do you have to leave? He asks[4]

There is, according to the Bible, no minimal amount.

According to the Bible you could leave a single sheaf and fulfil the obligation, but the Rabbis mandated that we must leave at least one sixtieth of our crop.

ומוסיף על האחד מששים

לפי גודל השדה

ולפי רוב העניים

ולפי ברכת הזרע,

And we add to that 1/60th depending on the size of our field, the scale of poverty and the blessing of our crop's yield.


It's not a bad way to approach how much to give.

Regardless of the size of your field or the bounty of our harvest you have to leave a 60th.

If our field is larger, we have to give more.

And if the needs of the poor are great, we have to give more.

If we are having a good year, we have to give more, maybe we are not having such a good year, but this is only one part of the equation. It must not be allowed to overshadow all else.


I'm going easy on us here. When it comes to tzedakah most Rabbis talk about the obligation to tithe – a tenth, but my sense is that tithing applies in a world free of taxation.

So it's a 1/60th, plus.


For many of us it is not a great year, I'll accept that.

But the needs of the poor are definitely great, and may be increasing at a faster rate than our share portfolios are shrinking.

And for most of us our fields are still pretty large.

It's a 1/60th plus.


Let me share one last text, before the gates close

There are four kinds of person, say the Rabbis of the Mishnah[5]

One is the person who says,

שלי שלי ושלך שלך

 what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours - 


Some of the Rabbis say this is acceptable mediocrity, but yesh omrim – there are those that sheli sheli vshelcha shelcha is the way of Sodom.

There are those who say that the attitude

what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours -

Is the attitude of a city so evil it needed to be wiped from the face of the earth.


The attitude

 what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours - 

is an abdication of the notion that other people, other needs, impact upon me.

It is a sealing myself off from these other needs.

And we are back where we started, ten days ago when we began this magical journey.

Back at the sermon I gave on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the sermon where I asked us to allow ourselves to be broken in upon, affected by those around us.[6]


'What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours' will not do.

Even if we aren't feeling generous, even if we are scared for the value of our portfolio.

It's still 1/60th plus.


We have some last moments of prayer together.

Before the gates close we should let our souls to be touched once more by this glorious liturgy.

We should reflect once more on our failings and our opportunities for improvement.

We should reflect once more on our mortality and the lives of those we have loved and lost.

And then we should go home.

And we should remember the horse.

And we should write out a cheque and only then eat.

And then, please God, we should be blessed to get on with a year of health, sweetness and joy.


Gemar Chatimah Tovah – may it come to us all.

[1] Retold based on Elie Wiesel, Souls  on Fire p. 224

[2] Rema OH 624:5

[3] TB Gittin 7b

[4] MT Matanot Levyanim 1:15

[5] Avot 5:10

A yizkor sermon - Mortality Therapy

Yizkor: Mortality Therapy


My first experience of death came when my grandfather Monte, alav hashalom passed away. He was in his late eighties. He coughed and hacked his way past my bar mitzvah - no-one had ever told him smoking could kill - and died when I was fifteen.

He would have loved to have seen me as Rabbi of this community.

This year Josephine and I have had the enormous honour of naming our son after my grandfather.

I give this sermon in his memory.


Yizkor is the most terrifying of services to speak at, for me, at least.

Because I really don’t know.

Because when I confront this awesome and impossible challenge of knowing how to speak about those we have loved and lost I struggle.

We are all, quite rightly, pulled short.

We are all, quite rightly scared of death.


The tradition mandates that when a loved one dies we tear our garment.

We are ripped.

The tradition mandates that when a loved one dies we cover the mirrors, we stop washing, perfuming, coiffuring  and preening.

None of it can ever replace the life lost.

So we sit and we receive comfort.


The experience of death of another is a sad business.

It makes us shrink

It makes us smaller.

For very good reasons we normally think of death as an anti-life force

As a loss.


But I wonder if there is not something quite different that happens when we contemplate our own mortality.

I wonder if becoming more aware of our own mortality might even make us stronger, more vital, more alive.

Many of us loathe the idea of turning our attention to our own mortality.

We would rather ignore any suggestion of our ageing, our own loss of vitality.

Hide from it,

Pretend it isn’t happening.


But there is another power in death that is not at so emptying, so draining.


It may well be that a life lived with an awareness of death is a greater, a bolder and a brighter life than a life lived hidden from the reality that we will all, at a point hopefully many miles away, pass on from this world.


In our Torah reading we are right up to the end of the Bible.

We are soon to read how Moses, standing on the banks of the Jordan, gave one last speech to the people he led out of Egypt.

He knows he is soon to die, but this knowledge, if anything, lifts up his oratory. The speech is surely the most poetic and powerful in Moses’ extraordinary life. It opens with this cry;


Listen up oh Heavens, let me speak, let the earth hear the words I utter.


The Rabbis want to know why he calls on heaven and earth in this way.


Behold, the Rabbis have Moses say to the heavens and the earth, The Holy Blessed One has decreed that I shall die, so know with what honour you should receive me. Know this O Heavens.[1]


What panache,

On the edge of death,

Aware of his imminent mortality Moses is lifted to ever higher levels of greatness.

With the consciousness of his mortality weighing on his mind, Moses is not cowed, not browbeaten or defeated. He comes out brighter and more focussed than ever.



I want to share an extraordinary tale I found written by the psychotherapist, Lauren Slater. It was published in the journal Guilt & Pleasure.


The patient was depressed. He was a wet rag. He was suicidal. The psychiatrist had tried every pill and combination of pills he could conceive of, you name it. And still the man was depressed. He underwent a series of six shock treatments, lying bound on a bed while they juiced his brain, waking up in a fog, his eyes burning. And still the man was depressed. He tried to hang himself, to slash his wrists, to overdose on pills; he even tried to shoot himself but missed and survived without so much as a scar. And now the psychiatrist had grown bored with him. Three times a week, the man came in and either said nothing or talked about his failures. The clock ticked away. The man began to complain of headaches. He felt physically ill. The psychiatrist suspected it was psychosomatic. He paid little attention to the man. Still, his complaints grew louder. At last the psychiatrist referred the man to a neurologist, who could see inside his skull using instruments. Three days later, the neurologist called the psychiatrist. “There is nothing wrong with him,” the neurologist said. And the psychiatrist sighed, almost disappointed.

When the man came in for his next appointment, he asked, “Did you speak to the neurologist?” The psychiatrist nodded gravely and said, “Yes, I did.”

The man leaned forward in his seat. His dull eyes flickered — with terror, but listen, light is light. “And?” he said. “Well,” said the psychiatrist, drawing it out, with no plan or premeditation. “I’m sorry, but the neurologist says you have only three months to live.” The man shot back in his seat, stared for a long time at the ceiling, and then left abruptly.


The man was now in a rush. He booked a flight to Greece, and travelled to Crete, and saw dazzling white sand and women. He ate from a big buffet in the Caribbean. He sent his psychiatrist postcards from countries all around the world. Here I am in Russia, he wrote. I was in a bar all night, he wrote. I am taking cooking classes in Taiwan. I swam in the Dead Sea. Eventually, though, the months passed and the man did not die. Nor did he seem to be dying.

When? He thought.[2]


The story continues.

The man, of course, doesn’t die. He keeps burning brightly. Eventually he goes back to the psychiatrist who tell him his disease is in remission. And a year later he goes back again, only to find the office door open and the psychiatrist away. He takes the opportunity to open the filing cabinet and read his own file.


He flipped to the end of his chart and read: Tried to inject some existential urgency into the Man’s condition. Ethically questionable.

Will seek supervision. Death as tonic? Spoke to neurologist who confirmed my thoughts — nothing wrong. Pure psychosomatic disorder.

Radical intervention. Told patient he was dying. Three months to live. Patient’s affect changed considerably. And the next note said: Postcard from patient. Depression in complete remission. Will continue with intervention. Benefits outweigh risks.


The man slowly closed his folder. On the doctor’s desk, he saw the American Journal of Psychiatry. Next to an advertisement for Effexor was an article written by his doctor. He looked at its title: “Mortality Therapy: A Case Study.”

Patient M suffered from severe treatment-refractory depression for over a decade and was unresponsive to all treatment, pharmacological and otherwise. Patient M’s depression went into complete remission when he was told he was dying. The purpose of this paper is to examine the ethics, risks, and benefits of using Mortality Therapy (MT), which may have the potential to ameliorate if not alleviate treatment-refractory depression.


Mortality therapy.

What would you do if you thought you were going to die tomorrow?

What would you do if you thought you were going to die in a year from now?

What is stopping you from doing it now?


This, my friends, this service, this day, is the closest the Jew gets to Mortality Therapy.

Mi yechiye umi yamut

Who shall live and who shall die.

And what will you do with the time, that unknowable, indefinable time that awaits each of us.


The aim is not hedonism.

Not to be running free of responsibility and care,

But to live well,

To tell those we care for, that we love them.

That we are sorry for ever hurting them.


The aim is to live well, like Moses who greeted his last days, as the Bible tells us, with undimmed eyes and a passion unabated.

The aim is to be worthy of the gift of existence, an aim reached by living so passionately and with such commitment to decency, kindness and justice, that, when our time does eventually come, we can stand before heaven and earth proud of the work of our hands.

Listen up oh Heavens, let me speak, let the earth hear the words I utter.


The savage irony of existence is that when we think we have forever we waste the gift of the time that we have.

It is only when we know, or believe, or can touch the place inside ourselves that is genuinely mortal,

It is only then that we become capable of living our lives to fullest.


To hide from our mortality is to miss the point of life.

To live with a sharpened sense of mortality allows the possibility of living a life that is truly alive.


In just a few minutes w will stand here, remembering those we have loved and lost. Remembering their mortality, their passing, their lack in our lives.

This year may we use this brush with mortality to inspire ourselves to make more of our own lives, to live with more passion, more commitment and a clearer sense of the limited period of time we will have here.


Before, before the gates will eventually close.

[1] Tanhuma Haazinu 2

[2] Radpills, Guilt & Pleasure Vol 3.

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