Friday, 27 March 2009

Preparing for Pesach - Food

The new moon of Nissan is behind us. By the time the moon is full we will be celebrating Pesach.

Let me offer, this week and next, some thoughts on the technical side of preparation for Passover. This week – food, next week - cleaning.


There is a problem with food on Pesach and it has nothing to do with Jewish law.

With so many kosher l’pesach goods now available, not only in Golders Green, but even at the major supermarkets, many people feel an urge to buy certified everything. This can be wasteful from both financial and baal tashchit – ecological – perspectives. For many years I would spend 51 weeks of the year not eating jam – who needs jam? – only for Pesach to come by at which point I would feel the need to own four different flavours which would spend the rest of the year cluttering up the fridge. Pesach is, or at least ought to be, a time for simplification of consumption and yet many of us consume more white flour, desiccated this and sugary that over Pesach than at any other time of the year. Try, this year, a Pesach which provides the opportunity to eat more non-processed, freshly prepared foods.


Chametz is only food which is made from five species of grain; wheat, barley, oats, spelt, rye which has been allowed to leaven. If it is not food it is not chametz. There is no need to buy kosher l’pesach toothpaste, for example.

As well as avoiding chametz we are also commanded to avoid taarovet chametz – food in which chametz has been mixed in with non-chametz. Food science has grown ever more complex with grains used in all kinds of ways laypeople might not realise. As such foods that are subject to anything beyond an absolute minimum of processing should have a kasher l’pesach certification. Raw foods, and products subjected to a minimum of processing (fresh coffee, fruit juices, spices, ground nuts, etc.) do not need certification if they are bought before Pesach, though I would only use certified products if I needed to buy any of these products during the festival.


More information on these issues (and more) can be found on the NLS web-site (from Monday). And, of course, all are welcome to the adult-education evening on 30th March where I will be addressing some of these issues, as well as looking at the history behind the manish tana.


Shabbat shalom,


Friday, 20 March 2009

What does it mean to the Rabbi of New London Synagogue

Dear Friends,


I am just back from the New London Synagogue UJIA Mission to Israel.


The highlight of the trip, undoubtedly, was the opening of the Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs Resource Centre at the High School of the Western Galil. The UJIA has a long-term strategic relationship with the Western Galil and some years ago this particular project was adopted by our Synagogue. Many of you have been more than generous in your support of this project and it was hugely exciting to see the centre finally open and buzzing. The Centre allows for smaller-group teaching to ensure every student is taught at the appropriate level. It allows for full disability access. It contains multi-media provision so students can develop skills which will equip them professionally into the future. And all this is happening in an area which has traditionally suffered social and economic hardship.


At the opening of the Centre, I was asked to explain Rabbi Jacobs’ legacy to a large crowd of NLS members, representative of our philanthropic partners, members of Rabbi Jacobs’ family and teachers and pupils from the school – a daunting task.

I chose three lessons which have always been at the heart of our work at New London. They are at the heart of how I understand my own task.


Firstly – be a mentsch.

As I arrived at New London I spent some time speaking with founder members about why they created this Synagogue. More than Rabbi Jacobs’ intellect the thing they referred to again and again our founder Rabbi’s decency, kindness and presence at times of pain.


Secondly – do not be swayed from what is right by the temptations of honour.

After the publication of We Have Reason to Believe, Rabbi Jacobs was given the opportunity of distancing himself from his work and beliefs.  Indeed this was the ultimatum offered in return for the office of the Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Jacobs rejected the inducements of high office. He chose a more lonely, less prestigious path, but a ultimately this was the path that allowed him, and all of us, the freedom to believe in what we know to be true.


Thirdly – be proud to walk the middle way.

We live in a world that beckons us to extremes. Secularism and religious fundamentalism are dangers not only in the UK, but Israel also. Rabbi Jacobs forged a path which engaged both with an ancient holy tradition and also the modern world – modern science, modern philosophy and so forth. My claim is that we need to walk this path not only to understand how to live as better Jews, but also how to deal with many of the most important and challenging issues that face us as human beings.


It is a true honour for me to serve a congregation with such a special history and founding narrative. I hope only that you share with me this sense of pride and commitment to our future.


Shabbat Shalom

Friday, 13 March 2009

Shabbat Comic Relief

This one isn't fully written up,


Hope it still amuses.



Forty days and forty nights spent Moses on top of Mount Sinai.

But, the Bible tells us he was delayed.

Ki boshesh moshe they gathered together to create this golden calf.

The Talmud[1] picks up the slightly unusual word boshes – delayed - and use it to create an  entire conversation between the people and Satan.


 "Where is your teacher Moshe?" taunted Satan

 "He has gone up to heaven." Responded the people

"It's six o'clock he's not back yet. He must be dead."


It's a pun. The Hebrew word boshesh – being read not as delayed, but as in 'at six'

And my how we laughed.

Well maybe not.

But this is Rabbinic humour at work.

And in a week, when we have lurched from Purim to Comic Relief it is perhaps especially worth having a look into Jewish humour.


Remarkable how many elements of what we would now recognise as quintessentially Jewish humour have ancient roots.

The children of Israel are fleeing Egypt. Before them lies the sea, behind them Pharaoh's horsemen are in hot pursuit. "And the children of Israel lifted up their eyes… and said to Moses,

המבלי אין קברים במצרים לקחתנו למות במדבר

'What, are there no graves in Egypt that you had to take us into the wilderness to die?'" (Exodus 14:11).

It's a perfect line.

The grammar, the attitude, the psychology it's all there, some three thousand five hundred years ago.


And what about this?

I'm making my way through tractate Hagigah and came across[2] the following debate between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania and a philosopher at the Court of Caeasar in Rome.

They debate, neither in Latin nor Hebrew, but sign language.

The philosopher made a gesture to symbolise a people from whom God had turned his face.

The Rabbi made a gesture to symbolise God's hand stretched over us.

The Romans asked the philosopher, what did you show the Rabbi.

He said, a people from who God had turned his face.

And what did he show you in return.

Said the philosopher, 'I do not know.'

Said the Romans, 'a person who doesn't understand what they are shown in gestures shouldn't debate in gestures before the King, and they took the philosopher off to kill him.


Maybe the joke has lost something in the last 1500 years, but when I read it I thought immediately of the greatest Jewish joke I learnt from my father.


Many of the great Jewish jokes, of both ancient and modern times involve a triumph over the non-Jewish potentate of their age.

And specifically a triumph over their scholars, philosophers and intellectuals.


The great Professor of Loic wanted to learn Talmud.

Never manage.

Give me a test of logic

Two Jews come down a chimney, one has a dirty face, the other a clean face – who washes their face.

Dirty, no dirty looks at clean and thinks clean. Clean looks at the dirty and thinks dirty, washes his face

Oh, give me another test

Two Jews come down a chimney, one has a dirty face, the other a clean face – who washes their face.

Clean, no both. The clean looks at the dirty and washes his face. The dirty sees the clean and thinks, if he, with such a clean face is washing his face, surely I should also.

Oh, give me another test

Two Jews come down a chimney, one has a dirty face, the other a clean face – who washes their face.

Both, no nether. The dirty one looks at the clean one and thinks his own face is clean. The clean one looks at the dirty one and seeing that the dirty one doesn't wash his face he doesn't bother either.

Oh, give me another test

Two Jews come down a chimney, one has a dirty face, the other a clean face – who washes their face.

Neither? No, how is it ever possible for two people to come down the same chimney and to be dirty and the other clean. The whole question makes no sense.

This is Talmudic logic.


In the world of the absurd.

In the world of humour we can always triumph. And maybe the tougher it is to survive in the real physical world, the more our energy and intellectual passion is directed into the world of the absurd.

There are even jokes told in which the Jews triumph over the Nazis.

But this is one of my favourites – Jews triumphing over the Communists, told at the height of Soviet power.[3]


At four in the morning a line forms infront of a baker in Moscow. At six in the morning the vendor appears and says, 'comrades. I'm sorry there won't be enough bread for everyone. We have to ask all the Jewish comrades to leave.'

At eight o'clock the vendor re-appears and says, 'we are sorry we've just been informed we are going to get less wheat than we thought. We have to ask all the non-Communist party members to leave.

One hour later the vendor re-appears and addresses the Communist party members, 'I am so sorry we've just been informed that our allocation of wheat for the week has been cancelled. We won't have any bread this week.'

And the members of the communist party file away cursing under their breath, 'Those damn Jews, get all the privileges.'

Jewish humour will even take on God.

Most of these gags paint God as something not far away from a bumbling, gullible fool.

And these gags base themselves on the opening moments of the book of Job, a moment that feeds one of the more extraordinary Midrashim in the tale of the Binding of Isaac.


God is boasting to Satan about how wonderful Abraham is

When Satan says, ha!, you've hardly tested him at all.

If I were to ask him to offer even his own son as a sacrifice, the Rabbis have God responding, indignantly, he wouldn't resist.

Go on then – says Satan, calling God's bluff.

God's been suckered! As one might say some three thousand years later.

Less funny, this one, more poignant.

And it is here that Jewish humour finds its strength.


In the world of the absurd, in a world where the normal relationships of power and the normal stresses and strains of existence are turned upside down humour allows for a New World Order, not only in the world political, but also personally.

It takes a brave soul to tell jokes in the face of tragedy, and I don't personally do much joke telling in the hospital room or the house of mourning.

But even here a joke can reframe, take the sting out of our pain, not by changing what is beyond our powers to change, but by reframing the experience we are having.


One last joke.

Max Gelberg was seventy-two years old when his wife died. After six months of mourning, Max decided life must go on, so he began a strict program of physical fitness.

After a few months of regular workouts, Max felt and looked wonderful. Friends would stop him on the street and ask him, 'Max, is that you? I didn't recognise you! You look sixty!'

With this encouragement, Max continued on the exercise program, he went on a diet and arranged some minor plastic surgery. His friends, seeing him on the street would stop and say, 'Max, is that you? I didn't recognise you! You look fifty!'

Max was delighted and decided to move to Florida so he could take advantage of the sun. He took up a permanent spot on the local muscle beach. The following winter he met up with an old group of friends, 'Max,' said one, 'I didn't recognise you! You look thirty-five!'

That was all Max needed to hear, he started dating and soon won the heart of a pretty college student. They arranged to be married.

Standing under the wedding canopy, Max's old Rabbi peered out at the groom with astonishment, 'Max, is that you? I didn't recognise you! You look twenty-five!'

Max was ecstatic, but as bride and groom were preparing to leave for their honeymoon – wham – Max is struck by a passing car and killed instantly.

Reaching the gates of heaven Max is furious and demands to know who is responsible for this tragedy. Eventually he muscles his way into the office of the Almighty.

'I don't believe this,' Max shouted, 'I finally get my life together and poof! Tell me, what have you got against Max Goldberg.'

'Max?' The Almighty replies, 'Max Gelberg, is that you? You look terrific, I didn't recognise you!'


There is no blind stupidity, no claiming that the physical place in which we have found ourselves through time is not horrible.

Just that a chink of light has been brought to bear on the shadows.

A chink bright enough to shine even in the gloomiest of political and personal situations.


Thank God, quite literally for Jewish humour.

Happy Shabbat Comic Relief.

[1] Shabbat 89a

[2] Hagigah 5b

[3] From Telushkin, Jewish Humour, p.121

Friday, 6 March 2009

Parashat clothing

The central concern of Parashat Tetzave is clothing.
Clothing, like so much else in Judaism, can be both holy and dangerous.
In honour of clothing's dangers I offer this glorious story told of the prophet Elijah.
I'm only osrry I no longer remember where I heard if from.


A tale told of Eliayhui Hanavi - Elijah the prophet,

Eliyahu appeared in a strange town just in time for the wedding of the daughter of the most wealthy man in the village. But he is traveling in disguise, no-one, least of all the host of the wedding knows who he is.


Eliyahu arrives at the wedding dressed like a tramp.

His shirt is worn and torn and filthy.

His pants are covered in patches

His pocket of the jacket is ripped.


The father takes one look at this bedraggled stranger and insists the tramp is shown to the door. No hospitality, not accepted.


So Eliyahu leaves, only to return but this time dressed as a prince.

The silk ruffle of his shirt shimmers.

The crown on his head glistens in the candle light of the banqueting suite.

His suit, clearly made-to-measure, is styled after the very heights of fashion.

Peeking out from the sleeves of his jacket are cufflinks set with diamonds and sapphires.


The stranger, suitably attired, is welcomed with grace and honour that would be due a Prince, seated at the top table and served the very finest food.

But Eliyahu takes the soup and dips his crown in it.

He takes the delicate mousse and rubs it into his fine shirt and then smears the main course all over the sleeves of his fine jacket.


The host looks at this mysterious stranger in surprise, unable to get a get a question past his tongue that now seems just too big for his mouth.


But, but ..


Eliyahu responds, ‘You see, it seems that all this respect was not paid to me, but to my clothes. So I thought it only fair that they, not I, should enjoy the menu.’


All seems a little ridiculous

A little like the story of the clothes of Eliyahu.

The message of the Eliyahu story is clear – clothes do not ‘maketh the man’ or the woman.

If we allow ourselves to be beguiled by the clothes that people wear, we seemed destined to be blinded by false externalities, unable to see who really is underneath.


We are all, are we not, perfect creatures, each created in the image of the Divine. Clothing, then at its highest becomes a necessary bore, and if we are not careful, it becomes spiritually dangerous. It blinds us from being who we really are. It stops us from ever truly being able to see one another.


Why Put the Megillah of Ester in the Bible

Purim is Coming

This Monday night, at New London we start services at 6:30pm services with Feast to follow.


The megillah is a strangely irreligious work. Its heroine hides her faith to marry a non-Jew and triumphs largely due to the not terribly spiritual concept of skin-deep beauty. Indeed the whole destiny of the Jewish people hangs on a thread, the fall of a pur – a lot, meanwhile God is entirely hidden. And then, at the end, comes a massacre.

What happened to God’s presence? What happened to the triumph of honesty? What happened to lions lying down with lambs, at the end of the day?


There are perhaps two things that redeem the megillah and allow it to take a worthy place in the Hebrew Bible. The first is - it’s funny. There are shaggy-dog moments, pantomime villains and puns galore. OK, humour has changed in the centuries since we first entered the court of Ahasuerus but there are still laughs to be had, particularly when the megillah is read in a pink wig and accompanied by sound effects. Religion is a serious business, but religion can never be allowed to become too serious. There is a reason why Jews have a reputation for humour. We learnt most of what we know from the Bible.


The other redemptive glory of megillah, is that … it is true. We can tell all the stories we like predicated on God riding to rescue, but sometimes God doesn’t. We can tell stories that suggest that the world doesn’t orbit around skin-deep beauty, but all-too-often it can feel like it does. We can persuade ourselves that Jews always marry Jews. It just ‘ain’t necessarily so.’ Ester is the anti-Cole Porter member of the Biblical canon; so chaotic and godless that no Dawkins, Hitchens professional atheist can get a look in. It’s the vaccine to inoculate us against overly pious flights of dishonest fancy. And that makes it a very welcome addition to the Biblical canon.


Ester is the test of our religious honesty. It is the escape from the overly sober and dull. It’s well worth its inclusion in the Bible, and well worth our coming to hear its being read.


Shabbat shalom and Purim Sameach,


Rabbi Jeremy


Reading Texts of Terror - Shabbat Zachor


Last week I gave a sermon about simple things.

I spoke of the gentle power of straightforward acts of building community and Jewish life.

But much as I feel, still, the importance of simple actions, this week I feel the need to address something more intellectual.

Indeed much as I fear that we as a community overlook simple actions in favour of complex thoughts too often, this week I feel compelled to address something more dangerous and less obviously about building the strengths of this community.


I want to talk about what the critic Phyliss Tribble calls, 'texts of terror,' texts so dark that we would rather flick quickly by in favour of speaking about something nicer and less disturbing.


This is, after all, a community born out of a willingness to engage in a complexity.

As Rabbi Hammer, pointed out so eloquently in his talk here on Thursday, this is a community born out of a feeling that if there is a truth hidden in something we would rather not admit, our religious duty is to admit.

And not to hide.

We pride ourselves here, at New London, for being open minded, and that means we need to read our tradition without blinkers.


Ki macho emche et zecher amalek mi tachat hashamayim

I will truly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens – says God to Moses in the special Maftir portion we read today.


Vayomer Shmuel el Shaul.

עַתָּה לֵךְ וְהִכִּיתָה אֶת-עֲמָלֵק, וְהַחֲרַמְתֶּם

אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלֹא תַחְמֹל, עָלָיו; וְהֵמַתָּה מֵאִישׁ

עַד-אִשָּׁה, מֵעֹלֵל וְעַד-יוֹנֵק, מִשּׁוֹר וְעַד-שֶׂה, מִגָּמָל


Samuel said to Saul, now go and strike Amalek, wipe out everything that is his, have no mercy for hi, kill whether man or woman, whether aged or infant, whether ox or sheep, whether camel or ass.

That comes from the special haftorah.

It turns out that Saul does indeed show mercy or for some other reason spares the King and his sheep and for this Samuel demands that he loses his hold on the monarchy.


And there is a word for a command to wipe out an entire people

And it is a word we, as Jews, have come to dread.


And so we have, in our holiest of scriptures a command to genocide.

And it's not our only terrifying text.

I wrote in the recently delivered NLS Newsletter of the massacre at the end of the Book of Ester and there are others.

We need a way to deal with these texts, these texts of terror.

And in a world where there are those, and sadly we must include Jews among these idiots, who read texts of terror and commit acts of terror in their name, we need to be much more explicit about how we handle these texts.


Let me begin with Martin Buber,

The great existentialist C20th philosopher of Judaism.

'I once met on a journey an observant Jew who followed the religious tradition in all the details of his life-pattern.

'I no longer remember exactly in what connection we came to speak of that section of the Book of Samuel in which it is told how Samuel delivered to King Saul the message that his dynastic rule would be taken from him because he had spared the life of the conquered prince of the Amalekites. I reported to my partner in dialogue how dreadful it had been to me, even as a boy, to read this as the message of God (though my heart had compelled me to read it again [and again]) … how the heathen king went up to the prophet with the words on his lips, "Surely the bitterness of death is past," and was hewn to pieces by him. I said to my partner in dialogue: "I have never been able to believe 'that this is a message of God. I do not believe it."


This, of course, is one response to texts of terror.

We believe in a God of goodness and when we see a text so steeped in what strikes us, no matter how long we study it, as immoral or, at the very least, amoral, we could simply deem it wrong and walk away.

One can share with Buber in refusing to believe that these texts, despite their location in our Bible and our liturgy do indeed reflect the will of God.


It is a beguiling response to these texts, but, ultimately, I believe it has to be rejected.

To believe that there is a space between the perfection we believe invests in the Divine and the, at the very least, humanly influenced prophecies recorded in the Bible is, of course very Jewish.

But this approach of Buber goes very far.

It is the approach of a nuclear weapon.

It works – the texts no longer terrify, but the debris, the aftermath is too severe.

What would it mean for us to strip any text of its power on the basis that we felt it problematic?

One day we might remove these worrying texts so bound into the story of Purim, the next we would delete any uncomfortable references to the special relationship we Jews feel we share with the divine.

The next we would remove any reference to not engaging in business affairs on the Shabbat, it's become too impractical – there is a recession on, don't you know.

And the next and the next and the next …

Until there will be nothing left but pareve children's tales devoid not only of terror but also of bite, or reality, of guts and of passion.

Buber, of course, felt no compunction in rewriting Judaism around his own morals, but that takes, for me at least, matters too far.

We need always to remember that the entire basis of the Jewish faith is that we posit authority beyond us, not in us.

We need to reject an approach to texts of terror based purely on our instinctive gut response.

So much for the approach of Buber.


Next port of call would be the approach of the Biblical scholars.

This requires the anatomisation of our Biblical texts.

The scholars view the antipathy called upon Amalek and Agag as part of an ancient society where the kinds of violence Moses and Samuel speak of is entirely normal.

Ancient near eastern civilisation after ancient near eastern civilisation wiped out one another and that shouldn't be considered odd and certainly should be considered immoral, or even amoral.

That was then, this is now and of course, say the scholars, we no longer pay these relics serious attention!

And as for the massacre in Ester, its lashon guzma – an exaggeration for dramatic effect. It's a fictional, say the scholars who know that there never was a King Ahasuerus who reigned, from Hodu to Kush, over one hundred and twenty seven provinces.

Ester is, say the academics, a satire, and just as the authors of Spitting Image presented Margaret Thatcher in Stormtrooper jackboots and just as Steve Bell presented George W. Bush as a chimpanzee, so too the author of Ester presents an unfolded Jewish unconscious. It's a dream, it's not a historical record and it's not supposed to be taken literally.

This is beguiling also.

Not least since these sorts of academic insights have a great deal of truth behind them.

But again their seductive power must be constrained.

For, like the Buberian approach, elevating this kind of read of texts of terror to a level so exalted that one is capable of overturning a clear injunction of the scriptures based on an argument from history, is too dangerous.

Let me give one example.

It says, in the Shema, that you shall write these words on the doorposts of your gates. And every Rabbinic Jew knows what this means – this means fix a mezuzah.

But history teaches us something else. History teaches us that the ancients would write, or carve, imprecations and amulets quite literally onto the doorposts. Indeed we have remains of these doorposts in museums and archaeological sites around the world.

And it would be wrong to say, as a matter of correct contemporary Jewish approach, that we should abandon the process of writing mezuzot and fixing mezuzot at a characteristic incline simply because we have learnt something different from our enquiries into history.

The correct approach to contemporary Jewish life cannot be shaped purely by our historical enquiries. We risk, again, the disintegration of everything we hold dear.


And this leaves one other response.

A response I believe is not only profoundly Jewish, but profoundly Masorti.

It is an approach wherein we hurl the parts of the tradition against one another in a battle for the soul of Judaism.

This hurling of one side of the tradition against the other is, of course, profoundly Jewish.

Rav Abba taught in the name of Shmuel, for three years the house of Hillel argued against the House of Shammai[1]

Teaches the Talmud,

It's so non-exceptional that the content of the argument isn't even recorded.

The important thing is that the argument is legitimate.

Vayatzah bat kol vayomar, elu v'elu divrei elohim chayim.

A Divine voice came forth and said, both these and these are the words of the living God.

Continues the Talmud,


So how does one argue with a Divine command to wipe out a people.

We turn to our religious books and find our archetypes, our models for lifting Judaism out of the genocide commands of our texts of terror.

I want to share an extract from a new book by one of my most influential teachers, Rabbi Harold Schulweis.[2]



Schulweis' point is that our tradition is full of the voice of human consciousness engaging in problematic Divine orders.

Abraham cites theology argues God on behalf of Sodom and Gemorah.

And Moses, time and time again, uses the voice of the tradition to take on God.


In another fabulous extract from the tradition – Midrash Bmidbar Rabba[3] Moses is recorded taking God's first attempt at a command to be given in the book of Deuteronomy, in which, we are told, there was a promise to visit the sins of the father on the children.


Ribono shel olam, says Moses hearing the news, doesn't Kind Hezekiah do good, and didn't he spring from the loins of the wicked Kind Ahaz?

Doesn't king Josiah do good, and didn't he spring from the loins of the wicked Amnon?

And far from criticising Moses, God responds, 'By your life Moses, you have instructed Me. I will nullify my words and confirm yours. And let the verse instead read, 'The father shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death because of the fathers.' (Deut 24:16)


And following the end of the sort of direct encounter Moses had with God, oOther great heroes of Jewish consciousness take on the remnants of God's will in prophetic calls and the books of our tradition.

Hannah takes on the prophet Eli who thinks that a pouring out of the soul is a mark of drunkenness. He recants and recognises in Hannah a higher way of prayer than he knew before.

The Rabbis of the Talmud, as Rabbi Hammer discussed on Thursday night, took on verses and commands in the Bible they felt unconscionable and stripped them of their unacceptable affect.

There are almost too many examples to mention.

My favourite example comes from the last body-blow given by the Rabbis to the doctrine of capital punishment.

It comes from the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zara[4]

Forty years before the destruction of the Temple the Sanhedrin abandoned [the Temple grounds] and held its sittings in Hanuth…Why? Because when the Sanhedrin saw that murderers could not be properly dealt with they said, 'Rather let us be exiled from place to place than pronounce them guilty of capital offences. As it is written, 'You shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place will chose.' (Deut 17:10)


It's a fabulous moment in Rabbinic history.

The Rabbis decide on the basis of a verse that could easily be read in so many other ways, that capital punishment can only be carried by a Sanhedrin seated in Jerusalem. And so they exile themselves so they can no longer demand a capital sentence.

They insist a technicality overturns a morally impossible text.

There is, I admit a kind of absurdity, almost a madness in this kind of Rabbinic reading, but who among us would not wish a religious tradition to tie itself in logical knots before allowing a human being to be killed in the name of Divine Law.

Of course Judaism should, and must, be engaged in this kind of logical dance, for this is a logical dance that strips our texts of terror of their power.


And these texts lose their power without explicitly rejecting these texts as Buber does, or as the academics would do, but by applying the other voice – the counter voice of the tradition itself to the tradition.


What is remarkable about this approach – the approach of using the tradition to respond to the problems thrown up by the tradition is that, as it overturns texts of terror, it does so from within.

The tradition is strengthened even as it is weakened.

Indeed this strengthening of the tradition happens not only in terms of how we respond to the texts of tradition, but also in terms of what is required to be engaged in the process of healing terrifying texts.

In this third kind of approach to texts of terror one does cannot rely on the emotions of one's own moral compass.

One cannot even rely on any body of hitzoni – secular, academic knowledge. To engage in this kind of profoundly moral exegesis one needs to study Torah, one needs to turn the pages of Talmud, Midrash and Halachah, learn the ropes of the system.

One needs to learn to submit not only to its obvious charms, but also its methods and madnesses, madnesses used to confront the seemingly impossible – the texts of terror.

And it is in this process of study and submission to the ebbs and flows of Rabbinic discourse and practice that we find a protection against taking a too free – reforming – approach to the tradition.

The more we study and practice the more we deepen our sense of what it is to be a Jew.

But this never comes – at least it should never come – with an acceptance of texts of terror.

For Biblical mandate to wipe out Amalek there are some thirty something calls to tend for and care for the stranger.

For every Biblically mandated death penalty there are commands to honour the image of the Divine in every human, obligations to love our fellow, obligations deemed clalim gedolim batorah – the great principles of our tradition.


This is, I argue, the correct approach to these texts of terror.

It is an approach that has been our way, as Jews of every stripe from the age of Abraham to the beginning of the modern period.

It remains the approach of Masorti Jews, Jews cut from the same cloth of our founder Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, to this day.


Shabbat shalom


[1] Eruvin 13b

[2] Conscience: The duty to obey and the buty to disobey, (Jewish Lights 2008)

[3] Hukkat 19:33

[4] 8b

Sunday, 1 March 2009

How (and where) to build a place for God

Vasu li mikdash vshechanti betocham


I want to give a sermon about an idea and a verse.


The idea is this.

It is hard for the Children of Israel to feel a connection to the Divine when the magic is turned off.

The thunder and lightening of the moment of revelation has passed and we are left with a bunch of laws and a sense, somehow, that God wishes us to follow them.

And so we stumble, we turn back to old ways and build a gloriously idolatrous cow so we can have something concrete on which we can focus our worship.

And God realises we need something more concrete, Jewish not idolatrous, to ground our worship.

Ain mukdam umeuchar betorah – teach the Rabbis. I know the story of the Golden calf will only be read in the future, but the order of the Torah is not chronology. The calf happened first, and then received the instructions on how to build the sanctuary.


And the essential verse in all this pre-occupation with a sanctuary is the verse at the heart of this week’s parasha

Vasu li mikdash veshochanti betocham.

Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.


And the mikdash  - the sanctuary – begat the beit habehira – the First Temple.

And the First Temple begat the second temple.

And the second Temple begat the first synagogues.

And here we are today.

Still finding our access to our faith and our heritage in the shadow thrown by that first mikdash.


What I want to do today is look at each of the words of this verse.

Unpack, a little, what Heschel would call the soul of these words and see how, by doing this, we can understand more about what we are doing here, at New London.

How did that mikdash function, religiously,

And how can this community function religiously. What will it take and what can it achieve.


Vasu li mikdash veshochanti betocham.

Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.



And make.

It’s an innocuous word.

It’s not the special word ‘create’ or ‘form’ or ‘fashion’

Asu has no connotation of particular spiritual insight. It’s the sort of word one would describe to building a lego model.

The point, I think, is this.

There is no magic involved in creating a place where the divine can dwell. It just takes work. Turning up, volunteering to be part of a building effort.

The work of creating a holy place, a place for dwelling is simple.

Simple acts of welcome, simple conversations. How are you, who are you?

My point is this.

We can build this place of Holiness.

We can build a structure to hold that which is unholdable, beyond.



Usually translated as sanctuary really means a place of Holiness.

And Holiness, in Jewish thought is often misunderstood.

There is a ritual, we will read of it once we get on to the book of Leviticus of rendering an animal, a sheep, a cow kodesh.

It doesn’t mean that it becomes, suddenly, vested with a religious aura, rather it means you, the owner, can no longer have it.

Holiness means beyond.

That’s why we talk of God being Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh – utterly beyond all human reaching.

Because God is beyond.

Rudolf Otto the great twentieth century academic of religion, writes of God as the Holy Blessed One as the Wholly Other.

Swapping Holy [spell] for wholly [spell].

But if God was only about being beyond, wholly other, relationship would not be possible and the key to this relationship is in the next word of our verse.



And I will dwell.

The Hebrew root sochen is from the same root as the Hebrew word for a neighbour, or a neighbourhood.

It’s the same root as the aspect of the Godhead which is most accessible, nextdoor to our lives – the shechinah

This is the sort of God who you can pop round to see, borrow a cup of sugar – who borrows sugar these days?

The word suggests an intimacy, an approachability.

In Kabbalastic thought the Godhead is sub-divided into different realms, called sephirot.

Some are untouchable, unknowable.

Others are closer.

The Shechinah is as close as we can reach.

Just beyond us, just next door.

So in the idea, in this verse is that through our building of this place the utterly beyond becomes a little nearer.

That which is Kadosh becomes the shechinah.



Amongst them.

R' Shmuel Tayib , Tunisian C19th

It does not say that I may dwell in it, but rather among them, in order to teach that the Shekhinah [Divine Presence] does not rest upon the Sanctuary because of the Sanctuary, but rather because of Israel

(Tzeidah La-Derekh  in Iyyunim be-Sefer Shemot, p. 353)


The idea is this.

That all the building, all the material stuff that we do, ultimately it’s not about these exteriorities, these bricks, these curtains and carpets, this silverware.

All this building is a means to an end.

And the end, as Kant would surely have recognised, is us, you and me.

The end is that we feel a sense of connection, to God, to the world in which we live, to one another betocheinu.

A whole slew of Rabbinic commentaries make the point that God doesn’t need a mikdash, God’s glory fills the world.

The need for a structure is ours.

This is very Jewish.

And it applies as much to the notion of a mikdash as it does to any of the formal physical elements of our faith. The candlesticks, the bits of matzah, the sound of the prayers, even the reading Torah.

None of these things are in themselves ultimate.

They are the tools to allow a sanctity to manifest inside us.

And if you have never felt it, I’m sorry.

But it does work, it’s been working for thousands of years.

It’s a form of practice. We have to throw ourselves into our practicing, let go of the little voice that says, why is it really important to light these candles, because ultimately we all know that it is not.

But the candles are the mikdash – the frame which allows the sense of the Divine to find itself in us.

The Jewish experience of the presence of the Divine is designed to be found inside us.


So this is a verse about a dance

A dance between two sides of the divine – the transcendent – the Holy. And the immanent – the tangible.

Between side that is beyond and the side which we can have a relationship with.

That is the promise, the deal, of Synagogue life.

That which is beyond can be discovered betocheinu inside ourselves.

And how do we find it? Through simple acts of commitment, connection, building.


Shabbat shalom


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