Friday, 22 May 2009

Up late, Must be Shavuot Coming

The count-up to Shavuot is reaching its climax.

The Omer has been ticking away these past 43 days and this coming Thursday evening we will celebrate.

Our celebrations at New London will involve food – of course – and learning.


Shavuot is curiously bare as a festive celebration. In Temple times it was the festival of the first fruit and pilgrims would present the priests with baskets of fruit while reciting a special formula which spoke of their place in the holy narrative of their people. When the Temple was destroyed that ritual ended and even the special formula (which begins, ‘Our ancestor was a wandering Aramean’) was stripped away from Shavuot – it is now a core part of the Passover Seder.

But just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too the Rabbis, and particularly the mystics.

First Shavuot is connected to the moment of revelation – on Sinai.

Next comes a charming midrash that suggests that the Children of Israel overslept on the night before revelation and God had to wake them/us up.

So develops the tradition of fixing the error of the night of Shavuot –literally Tikkun Leyl Shavuot – preparing ourselves through the night to arrive at the dawn ready to consider ourselves as if we personally received the revelatory experience of Sinai (and now Shavuot draws from the narrative of Passover – as if you yourself went forth from Egypt).


The theology of our community is one of liberal supernaturalism.

We are rational, we understand history, but we remain ‘souls open,’ turned towards the miraculous.

So, when it comes to Tikkun Leyl, we know it is a Rabbinic construction and we can date the origins of this piece of the ritual and that.

But to spend the night in study, to watch the sun rise in the morning and to greet the dawn with prayer is a glorious way to plug into the power of the day, the history of our people and the moment, at the heart of our Jewish experience, when God spoke at Sinai and the mountain quaked and the people saw lightening and heard thunder.


There will be Shacharit next Friday morning beginning at the normal time, but if you are persuadable, do join us for the dawn chorus. The learning through the night will be great fun, the angels may well appear and there is no better way to re-experience the moment of revelation.

Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy


Friday, 15 May 2009

Your Vote or Theirs


It has been a depressing week for the British political system; not only the ongoing expenses embarrassments, but also the suspension of Parliamentarians for suggesting they would be willing to shape the law of this land in return for cash – death to the dignity of the Mother of Parliaments by a thousand pin-pricks.


The temptation is to walk away from the whole messy business of democracy, especially in the run up to local and European elections just a few weeks away. But this is philosophically, politically and halachically unacceptable. I believe we have a crystal clear obligation to vote in these upcoming elections and to do everything we can to encourage others to vote. I believe abstaining from voting or even spoiling a vote is impermissible.


It may well be that, despite the mire, we might feels a strong need to support one candidate or another, that is all well and good. I want to address these words to those who are tempted to demonstrate their disgust at the entire political system by abstaining. I heard a radio interview this morning where the participant suggested voting in the current climate was a little like being forced to choose between being killed by a bus or being killed by a car with no available choice not to be killed at all. Not voting is not a vote not to be governed by ballot box, it is the failure to exercise that small amount of political power we do possess. Not voting opens the door to the political fringe and particularly the BNP. In 2004 Nick Griffin achieved 6.4% of the vote in European elections, 7.5% could be enough to secure him a seat in the European Parliament. The BNP, for all their bigoted stupidity, are smart enough to realise the opportunity the current malaise affords them; their web-site urges supporters to punish ‘disgusting Tory, Labour and Lib-Dem pigs’ by voting for the BNP and even without extra votes they must be licking their lips at the prospect of a reduced turnout bolstering their share. Anti-fascist campaigners are bracing themselves, we should all be. So much for philosophy and politics.


The Halachic reason to vote, and to encourage all others to vote, is perfectly expressed by a passage in the Talmud, Kiddushin 40a-b


A person should always consider themselves half guilty and half meritorious: if they perform one good deed, they weigh down for themselves the scale of merit; one sin, they weigh down for themselves the scale of guilt.

Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Shimon said, ‘Since the world is judged by its majority, if an individual  performs one good deed, they turn the scale both for themselves and the whole world onto the side of merit; one sin, they turn the scale both for themselves and the whole world onto the side of guilt.


I know of no text that so accurately describes the importance of exercising our single, seemingly paltry, votes for indeed this election, like so many others other, will be decided more by whether, than how, we vote.


I would like to draw your attention to a Board of Deputies ‘Your Vote or Theirs’ initiative on this very issue. More information is at;


Shabbat shalom

Friday, 8 May 2009

Disabled Torah


Disability and Parashat Emor: Reading for Holiness in Difficult Places


Sometimes it is easy for me to excited about my Judaism, easy to be excited about Torah and the paths to goodness it opens up for me. Sometimes it is harder. In this trip through parashat emor I want to look in one of the more difficult places.


The opening part of the parasha sets out rules concerning the priesthood. We are told that the right to serve God comes with certain conditions and in the context of setting out these conditions that we find the following verses.

‘The LORD spoke further to Moses: Speak to the Aaron and say: no man of your offspring, throughout the ages, who has a defect [lit. muum] shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a sunken nose (per Rashi) … who is a hunchback, or a dwarf … having a defect he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God.’ (Lev 21:16-21)


I don’t claim that these verses, even after careful massage, can be seen as benign, but I do believe that we can find something redemptive in them.


I want to make use of two tools – Rabbinic interpretation and historical contextualisation.


The Shulchan Arukh (O.H. 128:30, based on T.B. Megilla 24b) responds to these verses in a perfectly straightforward manner – it prohibits the kohen with a muum from ‘lifting up their hands’ - taking part in the priestly blessing - since the community may be distracted by the mark. Then comes a moment of bravery, ‘but if the person is known in their town, and people are used to seeing them and know they have such a mark – they do lift up their hands.’ Then – in another moment that seems to owe nothing to pshat interpretation – rather than allow communal prejudice to judge whether a certain person is well enough known to meet the criteria set out above, the Shulchan Arukh states that if a person has been in a town for 30 days they are deemed to be a customary sight in the town. If we feel uncomfortable with the special needs of others after this time we must consider that we are the ones who lack holiness, we are not to blame our discomfort on anyone or thing else.


We also need to ensure that our discomfort with these verses is indeed warranted as a matter of pshat – context. In the very next verses we learn that even though those with muumim are unable to serve as Priests, they receive the very same payment for their non-service as active Priests. Those with a defect ‘may eat the food of God and of the holy’ (Lev 21:22). These verses may well be a reaction against those Ancient societies who excluded certain groups from avodah – holy service or work – without providing a safety net – a welfare system.



Worth a pause to consider what other ancient societies made of those with disabilities.

On Radio Four this week there was a programme about a debate between Clive James and Gore Vidal. The debate was about whether Christianity contributed anything to the moral standards set forth by the Greek philosophers who were of course pagans. Gore Vidal waxed lyrical about how wonderfully moral the Greeks were. And Gore Vidal is a very intelligent person, but this is nonsense, certainly nonsense if you were disabled.

Aristotle: “Let there be a law that no crippled child should be reared!”

Plato: “This is the kind of medical provision you should legislate in your state. You should provide treatment for those of your citizens whose physical constitution is good. As for the others, it will be best to leave the unhealthy to die, and to put to death those whose psychological condition is incurably corrupt. This is the best thing to do, both for the individual sufferer and for society.”

Maybe in Ancient times the notion that one with a defect would be able to serve as a Priest was so unconscionable that it need not be stated, and that the hiddush - the radical newness and the importance of Torah - is that society owes support to such a person.


We are not given a benign Torah, but nor are we powerless in the face of the difficulties our tradition poses for us. As Israelites may we always find the energy and the will to wrestle boldly with those texts that cause pain and may we prevail.

Shabbat matters


The heart of parashat emor is a journey through the Jewish sacred calendar. It is a journey built, of course it is, off the foundation of the Shabbat – ‘for six days you shall do work but the seventh day shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion, you shall not work.’


A member of longstanding told me a new version of a tale I have heard a number of times about our founding Rabbi. They used to live near to Rabbi Jacobs and when the young-adult son was tinkering with his car on a Saturday as Rabbi Jacobs would be walking back from shul, Rabbi Jacobs would cross over the road and then cross back again in order not to walk past the ‘mahalel shabbat’ – the profaner of Shabbat – for fear of causing him embarrassment. The tale captures much of what was great about Rabbi Jacobs, but it also captures many of failures of our community these past forty-some years; concepts central to the Jewish tradition – growth, development, observance … were peripheral at best. Of course we don’t want to become a community of judgemental pedants, but if we turn a blind eye to every fracture of the fabric of Shabbat we lose the greatest treasure we, as Jews, possess. So what should a Rabbi of New London say when they see a phone being used in Shul, when they are passed by a congregant coming out of a shop on Shabbat? It’s easy to be patronising, it’s easy to be offensive, it’s easy to feel that, as a gate-keeper and evangelist for Jewish observance, the Rabbi should always duck and hide. But all these easy options are deeply flawed.


Maybe the answer lies in speaking more passionately about why the observance of Shabbat matters, even in 2009, especially in 2009. Let me share this from Heschel’s The Sabbath;


He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.


Or maybe the answer lies in my being clearer about what it might take, to become more serious about Shabbat. Let me share this recession busting, eco-friendly, soul-saving tip for Shabbat this week;


Turn things off; the computer, the mobile phone, the stereo, the rooter, the background buzz of electrical noise that suffuses our work lives. Just for a day, from half-past eight tonight to quarter to nine tomorrow. And listen to real people and yourself.


Shabbat shalom

Friday, 1 May 2009

Desert Island Torah


Perhaps the most famous verse, we read this Shabbat, is, ‘And you shall love your fellow as you love yourself. (Leviticus 19)

Rabbi Akiva, in the Sifra, suggests this is the ‘clal gadol’ - central principle of the Torah, the grounding standard from which all decent Jewish behaviour can be learnt.

What is less well known is that another Rabbi of the first century, Ben Azzai, suggests another verse as an even more foundational ‘clal’. Ben Azzai offers, ‘this is the story of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5).


At first glance it hardly seems a fair fight. Not only is Akiva a more significant figure than Ben Azzai, but Ben Azzai’s verse doesn’t seem to demand anything in terms of our behaviour. In its Biblical context the acknowledgement that ‘this is the story of the generations of Adam’ is merely a bridge connecting the story of the first human and into the narratives to come.


That said, there are problems with Akiva’s mighty ‘clal’. What if you don’t love yourself? What if you think, God forbid, that a bit of domestic violence is compatible with love? What if you think that love requires only an emotional feeling, and not action? Akiva’s verse can run out of power.


Ben Azzai’s verse on the other beckons the reader in, you have to start thinking, looking things up – that’s good news. You can find yourself, all of a sudden, a descendent of Adam yourself. ‘This story’ becomes ‘my story,’ and then one is forced into an engagement with Adam’s creation in the image of God. That means I am, you are, each one of us are created in the image of God and that means that anything done to hurt any human is an affront to the Divine. It doesn’t matter whether you like ‘your fellow’ or not, you can’t hit another human being, you can’t oppress another human being, the responsibility for another human hangs heavily on all our shoulders.


There is much that is wonderfully inspiring in Parashat Kedoshim, read this year with the added bonus of Parashat Acharei Mot, but cast adrift on a desert island, I would take Ben Azzai’s verse with me, before even Akiva’s ‘clal gadol.


Shabbat shalom

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...