Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Good Nittel Nacht



Of course there are Jewish customs associated with 24th December. How could the Rabbis let something like that go by. Since the 1500s a number of traditions have grown up around Christmas Eve. The central tradition is abstaining from Torah learning. In part the tradition might be seen as an act of mourning (as Jews refrain from ‘normal’ Torah study on 9th Av. Or maybe it is driven in part by a fear of pogroms – a common occurrence in Medieval Europe – in any event Yeshivot would close for the night.


So what is a Rabbi to do? Some would play cards, or chess (usually considered a waste of learning time). The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, would sew!


And the name ‘Nittel’? No-one quite knows. Maybe it comes from the Latin – Natale Dominus means Birth of our Lord. Or maybe it’s an acronym – Nolad Yeshu Tet L’Tevet – Jesus was born on the Ninth of Tevet.


Of course the political climate that gave rise to the Medieval fear of violence doesn’t apply today and, thankfully, the prospect of pogroms in St Johns Wood seems remote. So all are most warmly invited to join us for Shabbat services. I might even share a few words of Torah.


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy


Hat tip -

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Lighting Candles and Passing Heros

Two giants of twentieth century Jewish studies have passed away in the last week, both Rabbinical graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary where I trained.

Professor Yosef Yerushalmi z’tl was held the Chair in Jewish History at Columbia University and made major contributions in a variety of historical periods including the history of the Jews of Spain and Portugal. He will, however, be most remembered for his shortest work, Zachor. This 100 page masterpiece attempts to examine the relative power of historical fact and communal memory. It’s an extraordinary work to find issuing from the pen of fully fledged academic historian for Yerushalmi is deeply sceptical about the ultimate value of historical fact when compared to memory. It is memory, he says, which serves as the bulwark not only of Jewish identity but of communal endeavour in general. It’s a perspective that would have been close to the heart of our founder Rabbi who also knew that the power that drives our commitment to Jewish life lies beyond the raw historical data and lives, instead, almost mythically, in the subsumed communal memories of the Jewish people.

Professor Yochanan Muffs z’tl was Emeritus Professor of Bible and Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. When I arrived as a student at JTS tales were told of how, filled with passion for his text Yochanan (he was always called Yochanan) would begin writing something across a classroom boards and be swept along until his Hebrew would stretch across half the wall. I never got to meet that Yochanan. Instead I met a physical shadow, struck down by Parkinsons, but so alive in his mind. For a semester a fellow student and I would sit in his office with an unpublished masterpiece and we would try together to engage in study. Yochanan would often manage five or six coherent sentences over the hour, but those sentences have haunted me and transformed my reading of Bible more than any other Bible teacher I have encountered. I understand that Yochanan and Rabbi Jacobs were friends (if anyone has stories, please let me know). I recommend Yochanan’s a newly published work of popular scholarship On The Personhood of God warmly. In it he makes the case for accepting the anthropomorphic nature of the Jewish (or at least the Biblical) God. We shouldn’t be ashamed of God’s outstretched arm and flared nostril, instead we should read and celebrate the Bible on its own terms, full of passion, pathos and vitality.

So this Chanukah, when I light my Chanukah candles, aside from remembering heroes of past millennia I’ll be committing myself to keep the memories and the messages of these most recently deceased mighty heroes alive.


An (un)original midrash - The Flask of Oil


In our year long journey through the Biblical narrative text Jacob is preparing to meet his estranged brother. Fearing for his life he sends all his goods and even his wives and children before him across the River Yavoc. But Jacob remains behind. We know, from the written text that he ends up wrestling an angel, but why hasn’t he gone ahead? The Talmud (TB Hullin 31a) suggests he has gone back for some small flasks and suggests that this proves that righteous people don’t like to leave valuable property lying around, but I want to suggest a slightly different interpretation to explain why Jacob turns back. These were not just any old flasks. What follows is an (un)original Midrash I wrote on the cusp of Chanukah some time ago. It weaves together a number of elements in the written Torah and the classic oral Torah and, please God, it can help us arrive at Chanukah (first night next Friday, 11th December) suitably illuminated.


Shabbat shalom,



An (Un)Original Midrash – The Flask of Oil


Adam and Eve grabbed out at whatever they could reach as they were dragged from the Garden of Eden. Eventually, lost and alone in the wilderness, they opened their hands to see what reminders of paradise they had smuggled away. There wasn’t much; some seeds, some fruit and the first pair of tongs (Avot 5:2). They tilled, hoed and planted the seeds and waited for harvest. It was bitter, inedible. Eve tried pressing the fruit, which drew out the bitterness, but it was hardly tasty. She put the oil aside for safekeeping.


As the days passed into weeks Adam noticed the nights getting longer and the days shorter. He wailed, ‘This is the punishment for our sin. Darkness is overtaking the world and we are sliding back to the primordial state of darkness and void.’ (Avodah Zara 8a) Meanwhile Eve created a small lamp for the olive oil and during the darkest nights she would light the oil and she, her husband and children would sit in its light and the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.

Generations passed and Eve passed the flask on to her descendents. And a great miracle happened; the oil never ran out.


Many years later Noah’s wife took one look at her husband’s craftwork and reached for the oil. The ark had been fully covered with pitch, inside and out and was totally dark. (Genesis Rabbah 31:11) The bats and the badgers were happy, but the rest of the animals refused to enter. So she lit the oil and she, her husband and children and all the (diurnal) animals would sit in its light and the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.


Many years later the flask had been passed to Jacob. ‘Light it when you are most afraid,’ Rebecca counseled as she pressed the oil into his hand. And now Jacob was afraid. He had sent his wives, his children, his servants, all of his possessions across the river and he forgot the flask of oil. He turned back ‘for he had left behind some small jars’ (Hullin 91a) and, in darkness, he lit his lamp and wrestled the angel and the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.


So goes the story of the oil.

It was the last remaining possession of the ‘woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets’ who didn’t understand its miraculous properties until Elisha told her to keep pouring oil from the flask, knowing it would last forever and that the revenue could pay off the creditor who had come to take her sons into slavery (2 Kings 4). Samuel used the oil to anoint Saul, the first King of Israel, and also to anoint David, his successor (I Sam. 10:1 & 16:3). It was used to light the everlasting light that would light up the sanctuary and the Temple. And always the oil brought comfort, in its light the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.


When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks and re-entered the Temple they searched and could find only one flask of oil, and to the untrained eye it seemed as if there was only enough for one day’s lighting. (Shabbat 21b) But this was no ordinary oil, and of course it lasted.

And today, when we light our own Chanukiot, we remember all the great miracles bestowed upon on our ancestors and upon us. But perhaps the greatest miracle is the miracle of a flame. For when we sit in its light, the darkness no longer seems so terrifying.



Monday, 7 December 2009

One less hero

Yochanan Muffs was one of my great heroes, as a teacher and scholar.

I only knew him when he was already greatly physically restricted by illness, but what a mind, what passion and what a sense of love for the Bible.

He passed away over the weekend.

May his memory be a blessing.


For a taster, try this.


Thanks to


Chanukah is coming and we are running out of oil


A short trip through a fascinating piece of Jewish legal history.


There have been very few great Rabbis have had the power to transform the communities they served.

One of these few greats was Rav Moshe Feinstein, a true giant of twentieth century American Orthodoxy.

Rav Feinstein was asked, on a number of occasions during the 70s and early 80s if Judaism permitted smoking.

And had Rav Moshe Feinstein said no, had he said that smoking was forbidden, tens of thousands of orthodox Jews would have stopped smoking – thousands of lives could have been saved.


Judaism believes in saving lives.

But on five occasions Rav Feinstein, in five separate legal responses to the question – if smoking forbidden, Rav Feinstein refused to deem smoking forbidden.

He said one shouldn’t start, he said one should probably try and stop, but he didn’t give ultimate priority to the legal principle,

Pikuach Nefeseh – saving lives takes almost absolute priority in Jewish law.

He didn’t give ultimate priority to the Mishnah that teaches that a person who saves a single live is considered as if they have saved the entire world.[1]

He didn’t give ultimate priority to the principle cited by Maimonedes that– guf bari vshalem midarchei adonai hu[2] keeping yourself healthy is the Godly ordained way.

He didn’t even give ultimate priority to the Biblical verse vnishmatem meod lnafshotechem[3] - a person should take great care of their self.

I could go on.

I don’t think Judaism permits smoking.


But the question is this.

What did Moshe Feinstein rely upon, what did he give ultimate authority to when he abstained from prohibiting smoking.

There are a couple of things, all, I think, absolutely rejected by, among others Rav David Golinkin, head of the Masorti Vaad Halacha.[4]

But the most interesting is this.


Rav Feinstein relies on the legal principle shomer petaim adonai – God protects the innocent/the simple – it’s a hard word to translate perfectly. It’s actually a Biblical verse, from Psalm 116.

On several occasions in the Talmud a certain course of action is deemed dangerous, and yet the Rabbis decree that this apparent danger be overlooked and when confronted by the accusation that the Rabbis are putting the people in danger they respond - shomer petaim adonai – God protects the simple.


One example, from Yevamot. (72a)

It seems that the people have a sense, presumably some old wives tale – that it’s dangerous to let blood, or even perform a circumcision when there is a South wind blowing.

The Rabbis, from Talmudic times, decree that circumcisions should take place on the eighth day regardless of the wind direction and when confronted by the fear that a South wind may prove somehow dangerous respond - shomer petaim adonai – God protects the simple – don’t worry about the reports of danger.

And the other appearances of the term in the Talmud work similarly.

And this is what Feinstein relies on.

There is a suspicion that smoking is harmful, but don’t worry says Feinstein, especially since so many Rabbis smoked, God will look after those who smoke, shomer petaim adonai. We’ll be OK ignoring the evidence.


It’s a tragic tale, precisely because Feinstein could have saved lives had he relied on more mainstream halachic arguments,


It’s tragic because shomer petaim adonai – is not about putting the Rabbis of the Talmudic period on the other side of established medical and scientific fact, it’s about giving Rabbis the ability to disregard nourishkeit – nonsense.

The issues the Rabbis of the Talmudic period rejected with their appeal to shomer petaim adonai – God protects the simple – are  superstitions such as the effect of the way the wind is blowing on medical procedures. Can you perform an operation on a Friday when the demons are out and about? Etc.


Rav Feinstein, and I say this with sadness, got the issue back to front.

The point is that the Rabbis of the Talmud disregarded the nonsense pseudo-science in favour of mainstream common sense and halachic reasoning.

Feinstein rejects mainstream science, mainstream common sense and mainstram halachic reasoning in favour of some appeal to the Holy Blessed One that will safeguard smokers from lung cancer and the rest of it.

This is a genuine tragedy.

I know giving up smoking is difficult, but sometimes, oftentimes, Judaism asks of us what is difficult.

And failing to ask, because we know it is difficult, failing to ask, based on a legal nonsense, is an affront to yiddishkeit.


But today, I’m not really interested in the issue of smoking.


I’m interested in ecology.

For those of you who have heard me speak on this issue before, I make no excuse for continuing to be interested in this as an issue.

I am quite terrified and I have no idea what to answer my own children when they grow up and ask what on earth I would thinking when I continued to use carbon at levels beyond anything remotely sustainable.

What am I going to say to them - shomer petaim adonai?


There’s a lot of news about these leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia

And I suspect that in their wake are a lot of people sighing and saying, phew, told you it wasn’t serious.

And they are wrong.


I’m interested in the way we treat scientific evidence.

And I’m interested in the way we allow, or refuse to allow scientific evidence to impact upon our life decisions.


I saw recently the documentary on the environment ‘The Age of Stupid’ – it’s not a subtle film.

But there was one idea shared in the film that has stuck with me.

First we saw the % of scientists who disagree with the scientific consensus that human action is causing climate change at a terrifying rate – it is 1% of scientists.

And then we saw the % of lay people who disagree with the scientific consensus – and up comes the number – 60%.


60% of people, who know little or nothing about climate change think there are problems with the scientific consensus agreeing with only 1% of scientists.

What, exactly, are all us ignorant laypeople relying on – I think it’s some version of shomer petaim adonai

Somehow we look at all the scientific evidence and it all looks a little too difficult and so we look away from the common sense, we look away from the halachic demands of baal tashcit – that we shouldn’t needlessly destroy, we look away from the Biblical notion that we are placed in this world lovdah ulshomrah – to work and protect her and we look away from the warning, in the Midrash,[5] that if we  destroy this world there will be no-one to repair it, and we rely instead on some kind of version of shomer petaim adonai


I’ve declined five recent invitations to get on a plane, because I can’t justify flying anymore.

And I’m wandering round my house turning off lightswitches and cycling and recycling and I’m giving this sermon because

I can’t rely on shomer petaim adonai

Because I don’t think any of us should be relying on shomer petaim adonai


I don’t think I am one of the petaim on this issue – I’m not ignorant. I believe we are stripping this world of its resources beyond its ability to adapt.

I don’t think this Biblical verse is about saving us from scientific realities.

And because I don’t think God works that way.


There are two things happening in the coming week.

Firstly there is the Copenhagen Conference on the environment.

And I am desperately hoping that there will be some kind of breakthrough and that the message will begin to seep through, from every level of society that we all need to engage in serious personal change.

And secondly Chanukah is coming.


Chanukah is coming and we are running out of oil.

How pathetic.

And instead of desperately trying to coax maximum use from the small flask of wine we have left here we are, cranking up the flame because we don’t like sitting in the dark, using the flame to heat our patios and siphoning off the oil to power our trips around the world.

shomer petaim adonai – no I don’t think God does, not this time, not on this issue.


OK, that’s the bad news.

The good news.

Some easy ideas.


i)                  Don’t buy disposable consumerist anything for Chanukah.

Certainly don’t buy consumerist junk for any adult. We have enough ties and socks and bottles of perfume and the rest of it.

Look for an sustainable gift – rechargeable batteries, low energy something, go on-line and do some good with your Chanukah gelt – buy an acre of Rainforest with the World Woodland Trust. Protect the oil we have left.


ii)               Call the Green Homes Concierge

They are an organisation, set up with the LDA and the office of the Mayor of London. They’ll come into your home, show you how much fuel you are using and suggest the best ways to cut down, costing everything, even sourcing everything – a report is less than £200.


And turn off the lights of every room you leave

Before the oil runs out.

shomer petaim adonai – I don’t think so,


I prefer this Mishnah

Lo aleacha hamlacha ligmor


Or this wonderful and exceptionally Jewish title of a recently published book.


It’s Never too Little, It’s Never too Late and It’s Never Enough.

We don’t need to be scared, we don’t need to run away and pretend, we just need to bold, brave and willing to change our lives.


Shabbat shalom


[1] Sanhedrin 4:5


[3] Deut 4:15

[4] Golinkin’s treatment of Feinstein’s work, including bibliographic references can be found here - with an English summary here - (volume 4). This part of this paper owes a significant debt to Rav Golinkin’s work.

[5] Kohelet Rabba 1 on 7:13

Thursday, 26 November 2009

On Evolution



This Sunday, 10am – 4pm at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, a number of my Masorti colleagues will be engaging with evolution. It is part of the celebration of 150 years since the publication of Origin of the Species.


I’m sorry I won’t be able to be there (wedding season), not least since I love the book which changed the way I looked at the world when I first encountered it as a teen. I’ve always loved reading up on evolution; Richard Jay Gould, Steven Jones, Matt Ridley, even Richard Dawkins (well at least early Dawkins), have all helped me understand better life’s richness and my place among those with whom I share this planet.


And what of the furore? What of the Scopes Monkey Trial, the spat between the contemporary Richard Dawkins’ acolytes and the Creationists? I admit to feeling nonplussed. Of course if one takes a literalist interpretation of the Bible, then our holiest of texts can look foolish when compared to a twenty-first century scientific work, but Rabbinic Jews have never confused a love of and belief in Torah with a literalist blinkers.


This is Rav Kook, d. 1935 engaging with the question of why the Bible details creation as occurring over six days.

‘Creation, by definition is outside our frame of thought. If time exists only as a mode of our thoughts, then the act of creation is necessarily non-temporal; 'above time.' [But] since creation does not take place in time we must ask why the Torah describes it as taking six days. The answer is that the Torah wishes to teach us a lesson in relative values. Everything has value only in relation to its spiritual content.’ (cited in Slifkin, Challenge of Creation).


Or how about this, from Maimonedes explaining why so much early Rabbinic astronomy is revealed as errant when viewed from the perspective of his time.

Don’t ask me to reconcile all that they [the Sages] have said on astronomy

with the facts as they are. The sciences at that time were deficient, and their

statements on these matters are not based on prophetic tradition but on

what was available to them at that time.’ (Guide to the Perplexed II, 14)


Rabbinic Judaism reads neither the Torah nor the Talmud as a scientific textbook. Proving the Bible falls short as a matter of scientific record is akin to proving Pele’s failings as a concert pianist or Elgar’s lack of composure on the football pitch. We ought instead to be grappling with the truths we learn from science and seeking to test them ethically and morally. How can we use what we know about genetics to eradicate Tay-Sachs, how can we encourage use of selective breeding to increase yield and minimise disease, where are the limits in terms of the sorts of interventions into animal and human genomes that we should limit, even if we could manipulate human lives in ever more dramatic ways…


The conference on Sunday will engage with issues around heresy, time, tradition, revelation and education. The keynote lecture will be given by Prof Geoffrey Cantor of Leeds University author of Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism. It should be an excellent event.

For more information


Shabbat shalom


Friday, 13 November 2009

Mitzvah Day is Coming


Four weeks ago I used these weekly words to offer a view of a series of New London events that I hoped would light up this dark time of year. From the Friday night dinner jointly hosted with Tzedek, to the Interfaith panel on Prayer, to last week’s talk with Reb Zalman I have been honoured and delighted to feel and share the sheer quality of our engagement, as a community, in such vibrant and important programming.


In the last week we started our major series of evening classes on Prayer. This Monday evening at 8pm, Stephen Cotsen will be teaching on the Kedushah. It is the highpoint of our prayers, both spiritually and musically and I know we have a treat in store. All are most welcome.


And then on Sunday we have Mitzvah Day. New London is joining well over 100 other Jewish communities and organisations volunteering and engaging in projects to improve the lot of those less fortunate. New London’s project grows out of our ancient commitment to the refugees – the stranger in our midst – for we were once strangers in a strange land. In more recent years our project has been influenced by our relationship with the Separated Child Foundation, founded to honour the memory of our member Ester Gluck z’tl.


We are asking for stuff; anything non-electrical or non-perishable that a refugee could use; clothes, tins, rice and pulses, nappies, phone cards …

You can bring donations in the morning or early afternoon.

And then be part of the packing and sorting from 12:30pm onwards.


I’m delighted we are involved in Mitzvah Day. I’m delighted we are supporting refugees communities. I just hope that we, as a community will take this opportunity to come, to bring and to volunteer.


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy


Friday, 6 November 2009

What a Time to Be A Jew

Several weeks ago I was invited to a reception at Number 10 Downing Street where Sarah Brown helped launched the UJIA ‘myfund’ initiative. Myfund matches funds teens, and especially those celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, give to charity. It helps train budding philanthropists to understand their obligation to those less fortunate and trains them to understand Jewish approaches to giving. At the launch a gaggle of Rabbis wandered around the State Rooms and suggested how various items of silverware could be put to use around a Shabbat table.


This week I was invited to Windsor Castle for a conference on religion and the environment hosted by Prince Philip and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. At the core of the conference is a document, or series of documents produced by leaders of a vast range of different religions, from Chinese Buddhists to American Evangelicals talking about how they are working, from a religious perspective to protect and save the environment. It’s an attempt by religious communities to strengthen the hand of the UN in the run up to Copenhagen.


The Jewish response was led by Hazon founder Nigel Savage working with Rabbi Yedidya (Julian) Sinclair  and another born-British now abroad, Michael Kagan. Hazon is the pre-eminent American Jewish Environmental organisation. Also among Jewish delegates were Nomi Tzur, Deputy Mayor for Jerusalem, Rabbi Michael Melchior (our most recent Jacobs Memorial lecturer) and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi founding father of eco-kashrut (who will be joining us on Sunday). Information about the Jewish Climate Campaign is here

And I will be sharing some more observations on Shabbat.


I’m struggling to think of another time in Jewish history where Jewish leaders have been welcomed at the top tables of our national homes. I’ll count Spain in the early fifteenth century and then … Certainly it is a very short list. What a time to be a Jew! Britain is looking towards Jews and Jewish organisations to provide leadership on some of the most important issues of the day; how do we encourage our youth to develop a sense of communal obligation, how can we instil within us a shift in our relationship with energy and consumption large enough to save our planet? And we are responding, with wise words, meaningful gestures and eloquence.


But enough talking, now we have to walk the walk. Sunday week, 15th November, we celebrate Mitzvah Day at New London. We are one of some 200 organisations across the Anglo-Jewish spectrum who will be coming together to engage in meaningful volunteer activity ‘to reduce hardship and poverty, to help our environment and to bring a little joy all through volunteering – not by fund raising. It is a way for all of us to make our mark.’ Our project, ‘Bring it On’ is a collectathon. On the morning of 15th November, we are asking members to bring

  • phone cards
  • non-perishable food
  • clothes and shoes
  • toiletries
  • stationery and art materials
  • toys, games and children’s books
  • household goods and products

Which will be sorted, packed and delivered to a number of local refugee supporting organisations including the New North London Asylum Drop-In and The Seperated Child Foundation. Your contributions and your time to volunteer are gratefully appreciated.

For more information please see


Friday, 30 October 2009

Last of the Mohicans

Next Sunday, 8th November we have a huge treat in store at New London.

Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi will be speaking 2-4:30pm.

I want to share two peeks into the life and work of our guest.


Reb Zalman’s PhD thesis was written on spiritual counselling in Hasidism, and in particular the interview between Rebbe and Chasid known as the Yehidut. In his book-length treatment of the subject Reb Zalman relays the following story.


Once two children, the sons of R. Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch were playing at the game of rebbe and hasid. R. Zalman Aaron, then seven years old, was playing rebbe, while his younger brother, R. Shalom Dovber, then 5 years old, played hasid. The younger brother girded his loins with a prayer sash and knocked softly at the door, and when asked to enter approached his brother [to ask what he should do having] not recited the blessing after eating an apple. R. Zalman Aaron replied, ‘For the next forty days you are to recite a blessing out of a prayer manual after eating any food.’ ‘You did not do it right’ his younger brother reproached him, ‘How can you say this?’ R. Zalman Aaron argued. ‘I myself watched Daddy through the keyhole when a hasid asked him the same question and I gave you his reply.’ ‘I too watch Daddy,’ R. Shalom Dovber replied, ‘But you don’t do it right. Daddy always sighs before he answers.’ [And so it was] R. Shalom Dovber who later became rebbe, and not his older brother.’


In 1990 Reb Zalman was one of a series of Jewish teachers who were invited to share insights into the nature of exilic survival with the Dalia Lama in Dharamsala. The story of their journey is recorded in the book, The Jew in the Lotus. In one extract the Buddist monks are sharing the extra-ordinarily drawn technical training they and their predecessors have undertaken for centuries. ‘Zalman told them in response, ‘First of all, I’m the last of the Mohicans from our end. I still have memories from before the Holocaust of what spirituality was about and you guys are the last from yours. And you’re looking ahead, you’re getting old, so the urgency to hand over what you have received, without change, to make sure it is authentically absorbed, I can understand in full. But the other side is it still takes too long because our technology outstrips our spiritual and moral development, we need to hurry it up. We can’t take twenty years to do the sutras. We have to break it out for people.’ So Zalman, with characteristic chutzpah suggested that his fellows do some research and development exploring … transpersonal psychology and planetary consciousness.


‘At that point Zalman’s translator told him, ‘We don’t need this stuff, Buddhist practice doesn’t need to be psychological or ecological.’ But Zalman, who’d taught psychology at Temple University disagreed.’ The Monks and the Rabbi disagreed until Zalman remembered and recounted a story of how he once taken a group of people to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe who when asked what he did responded, ‘“I [won’t] talk about myself, I’ll talk for what my master was for me. He was for me the geologist of the soul. There are great treasures in the soul: there’s faith, there’s love there’s awe, there’s wisdom, all these treasures you can dig – but if you don’t know where to where to dig you dig up mud – Freud – or you dig up stones – Adler. But if you want to get to the gold, which is the awe before God, and the silver, which is the love and the diamonds which are the faith, then you have to find the geologist of the soul who tells you where to dig.” The rebbe added, “but the digging you have to do yourself.”’


So this is our invitation to come and hear Reb Zalman, last of the Mohicans, geologist of the soul and a man who knows the value of a good sigh.


Friday, 23 October 2009

Three Attempts At Prayer




I have lived on the lip of insanity,
wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door.
It opens. I've been knocking
from the inside.



For neither lips nor the brain are the limits of the scene in which prayer takes place. Speech and devotion are functions auxiliary to a metaphysical process. Common to all who pray is the certainty that prayer is an act which makes the heart audible to God. Prayer is not a thought that rambles alone in the world, but an event that starts in man and ends in God.



There must be a time when the man of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in his life he had ever prayed; when the man of resolutions puts his resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and he learns a different wisdom: distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill.




One of these citations comes from a Jewish spiritual master, another is Christian and the third a Muslim. (For a ‘who is who,’ see below). For me all three touch on basic truths about the journey of prayer, a journey that must begin inside, must reach beyond the self and also re-engage the self.

Of course Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayer traditions are different, but, of course, all spiritual practices aimed at bridging the gap between a finite individual a shared conception of a singular deity will overlap.


I am hugely excited that next Sunday, 1st November 8pm, I will be joined, at New London by our local parish priest, Rev Dr Andres Berquist and the librarian of the Muslim College, Imam Dr Mamdou Bocoum. The Director of the Council of Christians and Jews, David Gifford, will be in the chair.


I expect that, in contra-distinction to last nights BBC Question Time, our discussions will be enlightening and spiritually engaging. This is an important event for New London (indeed the first inter-faith programme since I have joined the Synagogue), you are all most warmly invited to join us.


Shabbat shalom


Rabbi Jeremy




The first extract in the Rabbi’s weekly words is a poem by the thirteenth century Sufi poet Rumi.

The second is from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Man’s Quest for God.

The third is from the writings of the twentieth century monk Thomas Merton.

On Women and Wearing a Kippah

You have to be wary of asking Rabbis questions.
I was asked my thoughts about this issue and thought it might be interesting to share this responsa by the doyen dayan of 20th Century Sephardi halachah Rav Ovadiah Yosef.
He is writing about the practice in the strictly orthodox girls' schools in Israel, Beiss Yaacov.

Aside from the issue, it's interesting to read between the lines how to implement difficult the ruling is going to be felt by students and the community around these schools where issues of wearing man's clothing are huge and an uncovered head is the sign of an unmarried woman, even in prayer and study.

Shabbat shalom,

Part II: Kippah

Responsa of Ovadiah Yosef: Yheveh Daat 5:6


Is it permissible for young unmarried women, who regularly go about with uncovered heads to pray and say blessings without a covered head?



In Tractrate Sofrim it states,

'One with holes in their clothes so that you can see their knees or whose hair is disheveled are permitted to lead the saying of the Shema.

But there are those who say that   those whose knees are exposed and whose clothes are holed can lead the Shema, but not those whose head is uncovered, it is not permitted that announcements should come from their mouth.'

And the Bet Yosef writes that, 'The argument is about whether it is permitted or forbidden to say blessings with an uncovered head. Rebeinu Yerucham decides that it is forbidden to bless with an uncovered head. And we hold this way.'

And this is the language of the author of the Shulchan Arukh, 'there are those who say it is forbidden that announcements should be made from the mouth of one with an exposed head. And there are those who say that we should protest so that people with an exposed head should not come into the Synagogue.

And the Master decides likewise elswhere in the Shulchan Arukh and this is his language, '[a person should not bless when naked] and even if he is not naked, if his heart sees the nakedness, or the head is exposed it is forbidden to bless. You should know [atah horeitah ladaat] that the Master of the Shulchan Arukh decides that it is forbidden to bless with uncovered head...

However the Rambam decides, 'A person needs to fix their clothing and make ready and make glorious and after this pray as it says bow to GOD in glorious holiness. Therefore a person should not stand to pray [the amidah] with an exposed head.' And from this we prove that the rest of the blessings can be prayed with an exposed head. And this is the opinon of the first teacher [of the passage from Masechet Sofrim] above. And so wrote Rabbi Yehudah Ayash in the book, Lechem Yehudah, 'The Rambam thought that theonly prohibition regarding parying with the exposed head was the Amidah, but the rest of the blessings were fine…'

whose head is exposed should not lead the shema nor read from the Torah…


And in the legal responsa of Rabeinu Shlomo Luria it is written that,

'Even though The R'IE says it is simple that it is forbidden to mention the Name with an exposed head, behold I have found in Masechet Sofrim a disagreement about this.

Rebeinu Yeruham finds according to the position that forbids, however (even thought I am not accustomed to go counter to the earlier teachers if I don't have a serious scholar to support me), I am still going to be lenient about blessing with an uncovered head, according to the Midrash which says about the verse 'where did I weary you, testify against me!, (Micah 6:3) 'Rabbi Isaac said it was like the case of a king who sent out his proclamation to a province. What did the people of the province do? They rose to their feet, uncovered their heads, and read it with reverence, fear, awe, and trepidation. In the same way the Holy Blessed One, blessed be He, As regards that proclamation of Mine I did not put you to any trouble, and I did not ask you to read the shema', either standing upon your feet, or with your heads uncovered, but When thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up' (Deut. VI, 7).

And so it is proved in the explanations of the Vilna Gaon on Brachot that it is only a midat hasidut – an exceptional measure of piety that a person should not mention the Name with an uncovered head. But as a matter of law it is permitted.


But we haven't anything else to go by other than the decision of the Master of the Shulchan Arukh mentioned above who forbad blessing with an uncovered head.


On the matter of exposed heads, for married women who are obliged to cover their heads when they go out in public, everyone obliges them to cover their heads when they mention God's name in praying [the Amidah] or blessing or reading the Torah. However on the matter of single women who work in the Beis Yaaacov School, which are run according to the Greats of the World, the girls aren't accustomed to cover their heads when they are doing blessings or reading in the Tanach or when mentioning the name of God.

And it seems that those who agree to have different postions on this, between the men who as a matter of simple courtesy cover their heads before the teachers as explained in the Talmud, and therefore if they were to bless with exposed heads it would be thought of as a thing taken lightly towards their teacher in heaven. But this is not the case for single girls who go about with unvovered heads until their weddings and therefore do not need to cover their heads when saying the Name who is in Heaven.

And this is a according to the opinion of the … Rambam who think that it is permissable for people to bless with an uncovered head (even men), and the opinion of the first teacher in Masechet Sofrim, since in matters of Rabbinic law we incline to be lenient…

However single girls, deserving of honour, who cover their heads at all times when they mention the Name in verses and blessings, let them be, according to the essence of the law. For sure they should not be stopped with force on account by the hands of those who are leneint in this, for they have what to rely upon.

And in general it seems preferable that ad initio it would be appropriate to teach also the single girls to cover their heads when they are blessings, and how much the more so when they do the Amidah (even the Rambam was strict about this)

And so decided Rabbi Matzliach M'azuz, 'That there are those who also have unmarried girls cover their heads at times when they are blessing of doing the Amidah or reading the Tanakh or mentioning the Name of God. And so was the custom in a number of places in the East.'…

And this is a holy obligation on the heads and principles of the Beis Yaacov Schools, to stand firm and to teach to the female students of the school to cover their heads when praying, blessing or reading from the Tanakh, and at the very least during the Amidah.

And the words of the wise are heard gently so the ear hears their words and they shall receive a blessing from God.




שו"ת יחווה דעת חלק ה סימן ו


 שאלה: האם מותר לנערות רווקות, שרגילות ללכת תמיד בגילוי הראש, להתפלל ולברך ברכות ללא כיסוי ראש? 


תשובה: במסכת סופרים (פרק יד הלכה טו) איתא: פוחח שנראים כרעיו או מי שראשו מגולה, מותר לו לפרוס על שמע, ויש  אומרים מי שכרעיו מגולים ובגדיו פרומים פורס על שמע, אבל לא מי שראשו מגולה, שאינו רשאי להוציא אזכרה מפיו. וכתב  הבית יוסף /או"ח/ (בסימן צא), שנראה שמחלוקתם היא אם מותר לברך בגילוי הראש או אסור. ופסק רבינו ירוחם (סוף  נתיב טז) שאסור לברך בגילוי הראש. והכי נקטינן. ע"כ. וזו לשון מרן בשלחן ערוך /או"ח/ (סימן צא סעיף ה'): יש אומרים  שאסור להוציא אזכרה מפיו בראש מגולה, ויש אומרים שיש למחות שלא להיכנס לבית הכנסת בגילוי הראש. והדבר ברור  שדעת מרן לפסוק כדעת היש אומרים (שהביא מתחלה) שאסור לברך בראש מגולה, וכדבריו בבית יוסף, והיש אומרים  בתראי, באו להוסיף שגם להיכנס בלבד בבית הכנסת אסור, ויש למחות על כך. (וזוהי סברת רבינו פרץ שהובאה בבית יוסף  בשם הכל בו, וכן הוא בארחות חיים דיני בית הכנסת אות ז', דף ח' ע"ב). וכן פסק עוד מרן בשלחן ערוך /או"ח/ הלכות  ברכות (סימן רו סעיף ג') וזו לשונו: ואפילו אם אינו ערום, אם לבו רואה את הערוה או שראשו מגולה אסור לברך. אתה  הראת לדעת שמרן השלחן ערוך פוסק לאסור לברך בגילוי הראש. וכן דעת הגאון רבי ישראל איסרלן בשו"ת תרומת הדשן  (סימן י'). ע"ש. (וראה בפסקים וכתבים למהרא"י הנ"ל בסימן רג, ודו"ק). אולם  הרמב"ם   (בפרק ה' מהלכות תפלה הלכה ה')  פסק, שצריך לתקן מלבושיו ולציין ולהדר עצמו ואחר כך יתפלל, שנאמר השתחוו לה' בהדרת קודש. לפיכך לא יעמוד  להתפלל בראש מגולה. ע"כ. ומוכח ששאר ברכות מותר לברך בגילוי הראש, וזהו כדעת תנא קמא שבמסכת סופרים הנ"ל. וכן  כתב הגאון רבי יהודה עייאש בספר לחם יהודה (פרק ה' מהלכות תפלה דף יט ע"ג), שהרמב"ם סובר שאין איסור בגילוי  הראש אלא בשעה שעומד בתפלת שמונה עשרה, אבל בשאר ברכות מותר, וכדעת תנא קמא שבמסכת סופרים. ע"ש. וכן כתב  בספר מטה אפרים ארדיט (פרק ז' מהלכות ברכות דף טו ע"ב). והאור זרוע חלק ב' (סימן מג) כתב, הכל עולים למנין שבעה  ואפילו קטן, נראה בעיני שצריך ליזהר שקטן לא יקרא בתורה בראש מגולה, כי שמא הלכה כיש אומרים שבמסכת סופרים  פרק יד, שמי שראשו מגולה לא יפרוס על שמע, ולא יקרא בתורה וכו'. ואפשר שבקריאת התורה גם תנא קמא מודה. ואין  נראה בעיני מנהג רבותינו שבצרפת שמתירים לברך בראש מגולה, ואיני יודע לקיים מנהגם אם לא כדעת תנא קמא שבמסכת  סופרים. ע"כ. ובשו"ת רבינו שלמה לוריא (סימן עב) כתב, שאף שמהרא"י פשוט לו שאסור להזכיר השם בגילוי הראש, הנה  מצאתי במסכת סופרים פרק יד מחלוקת בזה. ורבינו ירוחם פסק כהיש אומרים לאסור. ואלמלא שאינני רגיל לחלוק על  הראשונים, אם אין גדול שיסייעני, הייתי נוטה להקל לברך בגילוי הראש, על פי המדרש (ויקרא רבה פרשה כז), לא הטרחתי  עליכם לקרוא קריאת שמע בגילוי הראש וכו', אבל מה אעשה שכבר הורו לאיסור. ע"ש. וכן דעת הפרי חדש (סימן צא סעיף  ג'). גם מדברי הרא"ש בפסקיו פרק הרואה (ברכות ס ע"ב) מוכח, שמן הדין מותר לברך בגילוי הראש. וכן הוא דעת הרשב"א  בתשובה (סימן קנג). וכן מוכח בספר המכתם (ברכות ס ע"ב), ובארחות חיים (הלכות מאה ברכות אות ה'). וזאת לפי פירושו  של מרן הבית יוסף /א"ח/ (סימן מו) בענין ברכת עוטר ישראל בתפארה. ע"ש. וכן הוכיח במישור בביאורי הגר"א (סימן ח'  סק"ו) מהגמרא ברכות הנ"ל, שרק מדת חסידות היא שלא להזכיר השם בגילוי הראש, אבל מן הדין מותר, וכתנא קמא דמסכת  סופרים. ע"ש. ואנו אין לנו להלכה אלא כפסק מרן השלחן ערוך הנ"ל שאוסר לברך בגילוי הראש. וכן פסק מרן החיד"א  בספר טוב עין (סימן יח אות לט), שהעיקר כדעת מרן השלחן ערוך שאסור לברך בגילוי הראש, וכל שכן שאסור להתפלל  בגילוי הראש. וכן פסק הגאון רבי רפאל אנקאווא בשו"ת קרני ראם (סימן רכב). וראה עוד בזה בשו"ת קרית חנה דוד חלק ב'  (חלק אורח חיים סימן לד), ובשו"ת לך שלמה (סימן ז'), ובספר גדולות אלישע הלכות כיבוד רבו (סימן רמב ס"ק יז). בגילוי  הראש, לנשואות שחייבות לכסות ראשן כשיוצאות לרשות הרבים, שכולם חייבים בכיסוי הראש בעת שמזכירים שם ה'  בתפלה ובברכות ובקריאה בתורה. אלא שעיננו הרואות שבבית הספר החרדי בית יעקב, שנוסד על ידי גאוני עולם, אין  הבנות נוהגות לכסות ראשן בשעה שמברכות או קוראות בתנ"ך ומזכירות שם ה'. וכנראה שסוברים לחלק בזה בין אנשים  ששורת דרך ארץ היא לכסות ראשם בפני גדולים, כמבואר בקידושין (לג ע"א), ובמסכת כלה (שהובאה בהר"ן קידושין נ  ע"א). ולכן אם יברכו בגילוי הראש נחשב הדבר כזלזול במורא שמים, מה שאין כן בנות רווקות שדרכן ללכת תמיד בגילוי  הראש עד לנישואיהן, אינן צריכות לכסות ראשן גם בשעה שמזכירות שם שמים. וזאת בצירוף דעת רבותינו שבצרפת  והרמב"ם שסוברים שמותר לברך בגילוי הראש (אפילו לאנשים), כדעת תנא קמא שבמסכת סופרים, ומשום שבשל סופרים  הלך אחר המיקל (עבודה זרה ז ע"א). וכן כתב (לדעתם) מרן החיד"א בשו"ת חיים שאל חלק ב' (סימן לה). ועוד שמסתמות  דברי הש"ס שלנו בברכות (ס ע"ב) מוכח להקל, וכמו שכתב הגר"א, על פי הראשונים הנ"ל. וכן דעת המהרש"ל והפרי חדש  מעיקר הדין. לכן נערות רווקות שיכבד עליהן לכסות ראשן בכל עת שיזכירו שם ה' בפסוקים ובברכות, הניחו אותן על עיקר  הדין. ואמנם טעם זה יכון כדי שלא למחות בתוקף בידי המקילות בזה, שיש להן על מה שיסמוכו, מכל מקום נראה יותר  שלכתחלה ראוי להורות גם לנערות פנויות לכסות ראשן בעת שמברכות, וכל שכן בעת שמתפללות תפלת שמונה עשרה  (שאף לדעת הרמב"ם צריך להחמיר בזה). וכן פסק הרה"ג הקדוש רבי מצליח מאזוז זצ"ל בשו"ת איש מצליח (חלק אורח  חיים סימן כד), שיש להנהיג שגם נערות פנויות יכסו ראשן בעת שמברכות ומתפללות, או כשקוראות בתנ"ך ומזכירות שם  ה', ושכן היה המנהג בכמה מארצות המזרח. ע"ש. וכן העלה הרה"ג רבי עובדיה הדאיה זצ"ל בשו"ת ישכיל עבדי חלק ז' (דף  רפט ע"א). ע"ש. וחובה קדושה על ראשי ומנהלי בתי הספר בית יעקב, לעמוד על המשמר, ולהורות לתלמידות בית הספר  לכסות ראשן בעת שמתפללות ומברכות וקוראות בתנ"ך, ולכל הפחות בשעה שמתפללות. ודברי חכמים בנחת נשמעים כדי  שימצאו אזן קשבת לדבריהם. וישאו ברכה מאת ה'. 


Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Reb Zalman Coming to New London

Heavenly days right here on earth A unique opportunity to hear Reb Zalman & Eve Throughout his life Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has studied deeply, both his own Hassidic heritage and the spiritual teachings of all religions. Having spent a lifetime working with fellow spiritual seekers ranging from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to the Dalai Lama, he is universally recognised as one of the most important Jewish spiritual teachers of our time. Together with his wife, Eve IIsen, he has always campaigned for greater respect for our planet. This lecture will examine the special role that faith can play as we seek to protect our environment. Sunday 8th Nov 2009. 2.00 – 4.30 pm. New London Synagogue. 33 Abbey Rd, London, NW8 0AT. Admission £7 (£5 concessions). Tickets can be booked, but not paid for, in advance. Email : Cash only on the door. Co-sponsored by the Ruach Chavurah, Moishe House and New London Synagogue

Friday, 16 October 2009

Month Past, Month to Come



Tishrei, with all its festivals, is almost behind us.

To all who took part and made this past month at New London so special, thank you.


The new moon of Cheshvan appears this Saturday night.

The month is characterised as ‘bitter’ – devoid of Jewish festivals. That may be true, but for us at New London it is a sweet month to come packed full of wonderful opportunity for Jewish engagement at New London.


Among the highlights of the month to come we have a Friday night dinner with the director of Tzedek, a Jewish charity supporting the developing world, next Friday 23rd November. We will be infusing our meal with tastes both social and socially active.


The following Sunday, 1st November 8pm, I will be on a panel to be chaired by the director of the Council of Christians and Jews with other local clergy representing Christian and Muslim faiths. We will be discussing prayer in our various faith traditions and launching the New London adult education series on Prayer. More information on the weekly classes beginning Monday 9th November can be found below.


On Sunday 8th November, from 2pm, New London is hosting Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Reb Zalman is one of the greats of twentieth century Jewry, doyenne of eco-kashrut and a vast range of spiritual and interfaith initiatives. This is another world-class Jewish leader due to speak at New London.


Then, on the 15th November, we are marking Mitzvah Day, for the first time at New London. Mitzvah Day is one of the most exciting developments in Anglo-Jewry; a request that Jews of all streams and stripes work ‘to reduce hardship and poverty, to help our environment and to bring a little joy all through volunteering – not by fund raising.’ Among a score of other Jewish organisations we are hosting a Mitzvah Day event, collecting and preparing packs for refugees. More information on this important event is emblazoned around the Kiddush Hall.


We are working, at New London, to enrich our programme, to offer better education provision, to continue to bring the very best scholars to New London and to engage in walking the narrow bridge which connects an authentic understanding of Jewish tradition to a meaningful engagement in the world in which we live. For many members and friends the Shabbat and Festive Prayer Services are the heart of what we do, for others it is our youth programming, and, indeed, both are vital parts of what we do. But there is more. In the month to come I hope all our members will take the opportunity to avail ourselves of the incredible opportunities to enrich our engagement with our unique Jewish identity.


May the month to come be as sweet as the month just past,


Shabbat Shalom,

Chodesh Tov,


Rabbi Jeremy

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...