Friday, 31 July 2009

Dying Well, Debbie Purdy and the Shema

Week when read Shema

Want to talk about death.



From the Talmud

When R. Akiba was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema’, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, are you prepared to accept the Kingship of Heaven even now?

He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, bcol nafshechah ‘you should love God with all thy soul’, [which I finally understand to mean, you have the love God,] ‘even if He takes thy soul’. And now I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Shall I not fulfil it? He prolonged the word ehad as he died, and died saying it. A heavenly voice went forth and proclaimed, ‘Happy are you Akiba, that your soul has departed with the word ehad!’[1]


This recitation of the Shema is the classic death-scene of the Rabbinic period.

What the Rabbis would consider the ultimate a good death.

And there are others.


Moses, who, we are told, dies with the kiss of God – the original kiss of death.

And Rav Hiyya who is trapped by the angel of death who appears at his door begging for bread. First the great Rabbi sends out a minion. The angel insists Rav Hiyya hiself comes out.

He angel reveals himself to the Rabbi and the Rabbi amtzei lei nafshei - ‘yields his soul’[2]


Judaism knows such a thing as a good death.


Reflecting on this in the context of the reports of last ever decision of the House of Lords, sitting as a court.

Debbie Purdy, who has MS, wanted to get the Director of Public Prosecutions, to be clear about what her husband could and could not do if he wished to safeguard himself from prosecution if he assisted his wife in taking her own life.

And the Highest Court in the land has agreed that the DPP has an obligation to set out the situations in which it would or would not consider prosecuting someone who assisted a relative to die in what has been referred to as ‘circumstances of compassionate assisted suicide.’


It appears that religious pressure groups as revolting and protesting this decision.

Protesting at what they see is the legal world removing the absolute sanctity of life.

But, and it’s not for the first time, I find myself siding entirely on the opposite side of the argument from these so-called religious pressure groups.

And for entirely religious reasons.


Of course start from position that Jews love life and life takes pre-eminence over much else


1. Leviticus 18:5

And you shall keep the laws and ordinances and by doing them, live by them. I am GOD.


And not die by them.


Every human life is created in the image of God and you don’t need to tell a Jew what can happen when governments begin to suggest that some lives are worth more than others.

You don’t need to tell a Jew about the dangers of genocidal euthanasia.


But, and it is a huge BUT, we cannot view every religious decision from the crucible of Auschwitz.

Because the reality of our lives, and our deaths, thankfully free of the horrors of genocidal mania, is that end of life is complex.


Some nine years ago, right around this time of year, I was embarked on a training scheme at New York Presbyterian Hospital, as a Chaplain, and I would wander the wards and the waiting rooms listening to those who were suffering, and their loved ones.

I encountered a medical specialism I had never heard of before – the palliative care consultant whose job was not to cure the patient, but rather reduce pain, suffering, severity of symptoms.

And sometimes choosing to alleviate the severity of symptoms means that death will come on more quickly than if one continued to aggressively treat for cure.


I became involved in many of these conversations and found them always deeply moving, holy encounters.

Palliative care physicians, in my experience, are men and women of deep and serious spirituality. They spend a lot of time experiencing life and death at their sharpest.

And they care deeply. And they never walk away.

In many cases, though palliative care is of course more broad than this, they are trying to give their patients a good death when the other choice is not more life, but a worse death.


I’m aware that for many of us these terms are can feel meaningless.

If we’ve never been in these hospital rooms.

If we’ve never been part of these conversations on behalf of our loved ones.

We would rather pretend that these conversations don’t exist.

We would rather pretend that decisions never have to be taken.

And there is nothing wrong with a bit of this kind of innocence.

But the reality, like the Angel of death who came to visit Rabbi Hiyya is not easily put off.


Another tale, from the Talmud.

This one tells of the death of Yehudah ha-Nasi, known as Rebbi.

He died at the start of the C3.


On the day Rebbi died the Rabbis decreed a public fast and offered prayers for heavenly mercy. They announced that whoever said Rebbi was dead would be stabbed with a sword. Rebbi's handmaid went up to the roof and prayed, ‘The heavenly want Rebbi and the earthly want Rebbi. May it be Your will that the earthly overpower the heavenly.’

[The handmaid is, in contemporary terms praying for cure, but the story goes on]

When, however, she saw how often he had to go to the toilet, and take off the tefilin and put on the tefilin in pain, she said, ‘May it be your will that the heavenly overpower the earthly.’

[The handmaid starts to pray for Rebbi to be taken, she’s making a judgement about the quality of his life, at the end of his life]

And the Rabbis kept on with their prayer for mercy, she took a jar and threw it down from the roof to the ground. They ceased and the soul of Rebbi departed.[3]


I hope the technicalities of the story don’t detract from its message.

To me it feels like hospital bed-side with the patient and the one person who is able to understand what the patient is going through.

And the world outside refusing to see that the end of the patient’s life is coming.

I’m sure it’s a message poor


It’s a message about offering care and companionship to a person who is dyeing.

It’s a message about being willing to overturn a well meaning, but ultimately unhelpful piety of the praying students, replacing it with another kind of piety; one more dark, less obviously safe from heavenly prosecution, but ultimately a better kind of piety.


Let me be clear I am certainly not advocating open season on anyone who might have a disability, but who is not facing the end of their life.

I am certainly not advocating that, as soon as an end of life issue appears on the medical horizon cure care should be abandoned.

I am not even advocating doing away with the crime of assisted suicide. I am quite sure that certain acts, currently criminalised under the 1961 Suicide Act should remain criminal.

But not every act of accompanying a dyeing person on their last steps in this world should be criminal.

Certainly not every act of accompanying a dyeing person on their last steps is halachically illegitimate.[4]

This last statement is not only one I feel able to make from a halachic perspective, but also from an emotional perspective, a spiritual one.


The notion of standing with a person who is dyeing is incredibly important.

So many Jewish attitudes towards end of life are shaped by this notion of providing an escort.

The great mitzvah in the context of illness is bikkur holim – visiting, turning up, escorting a person through illness even if, especially if cure is not a possibility.

Escort – in Hebrew the term would be leviyah – the very term we use for a funeral.


Maybe this explains why the shema has come to so connected with the last moments in life.

As we are forced to leave behind those who have accompanied us on this planet, so we place our lives in the hands of God who we pray will accompany us in the World to Come.



One last thing.

When I began my Chaplaincy training we were asked to write down some learning objectives.

I wrote, and I dug out the paper this week, that I wanted to know what it meant to die a good death. How it was possible.


I remember my supervisor, a woman of incredible insight, responding, that people tend to die the way they live.

She wasn’t saying that good people live longer – or that good people don’t get ill or injured.

But rather that when the time comes to accept that which must be accepted people who have lived well find ways to do this well too.

In my experience since then it’s an insight that has occasionally failed, but it remains one of the most important observations I know, and certainly one well worth sharing here, amongst the living.

To die well, one must first learn how to live well.


Shabbat shalom


[1] Brachot 61b

[2] Moed Katan 28a

[3] Ketubot 104a

[4] AZ 18a, Sefer Hasisim 234, AZ 27a and Tosafot ad loc. DHM Le Chai Shah

On Testimony, God and Torture


These weekly words are in honour of my sister-in-law Isabel and her fiancé, Zachary, whose aufruf will be celebrated at New London this Shabbat. Zachary is the legal director of the legal charity Reprieve, and represents a number of Guantanamo detainees.


We read, in this week's parasha, verses which are at the foundation of our faith - the Shema. Its appearance in our weekly, as opposed to our daily, liturgy gives an opportunity to focus on how these verses are written in the Torah scroll; the ayin of the word shema is oversized, as is the dalet of the word echad.


שמע ישראל יקוק אלקינו יקוק אחד


The Talmud offer two explanations, I will focus on one. The two enlarged letters, read together, produce the word 'witness.' We read the Shema as an act of testimony to our belief in one God and the notion of giving testimony in our recitation is held not only in the words, but also in the very act of scribing them.


This twin action of giving testimony to our faith by reciting the first line of the Shema is of tremendous importance in Jewish life. This is, after all, the first Biblical verse a child learns to recite, and the last verse recited before death, witnessing is also the subject of one of the ten commandments. Without the giving of testimony no act of Jewish significance can be said to have happened; weddings, sighting of the New Moon, criminal cases and more all depend on witnessing. Giving testimony is of theological import and this makes extraction of illegitimate testimony so distressing, from a religious perspective.


I listened, on Tuesday evening to the File on Four investigation into the complicity (or otherwise) of the British Government in aiding and abetting torture at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre. The claim is that questions were sent to American interrogators by the British who understood the treatment that was being meted out there.


Judaism abhors torture. It believes in legal process and the dignity of all humans, even military detainees. It also believes that self-defence,  din rodef and other halachic claims cannot, did not and do not justify the sorts of interrogation practices condoned by American and, even, British secret services. We featured an article in the 2008 volume of Quest, the New London Synagogue publication, on the subject.


But there is another safeguard against torture, in Jewish law, the notion ain adam meisim atzmo rasha – a person cannot give testimony against themselves (Sanhedrin 9b). The derivation of this absolute prohibition in Jewish law is perhaps surprising. Rava learns this principle from the Biblical verse, "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers…" (Deut. 24:16). For Rava, if a direct kinsman cannot give this evidence, how much the more so it should be evident that a person cannot give evidence against themselves. The principal is enshrined throughout Jewish jurisprudence, 'It is a scriptural decree that the court shall not put a man to death or flog him on his own testimony. This is done only on the evidence of two witnesses.' (Rambam, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 18:6) It's a far stronger bar on self-incrimination than exists in English law, of course. And its purpose, surely, is not only to protect the witness from themselves, but also to protect the society from overstepping boundaries of appropriate behaviour when interrogating suspects.


Scholars of International and American law will, I am sure, recognise the same ideas in the UN Convention on Torture or the American Constitution, but the point, in Judaism is this; the giving of testimony is a holy act. At its best, the giving of testimony is a way of proclaiming the holiness of our God and the heart, might and soul of our faith. At its worst, the illegitimate, degrading and short-sighted use of torture to extract testimonies of dubious practical worth is therefore particularly distressing and contrary to everything we, as Jews, believe in.


Shabbat shalom


Rabbi Jeremy Gordon


For more information on Jewish attitudes to torture, see


Friday, 24 July 2009

Narrowness, Mourning and hope

We are deep in the ‘Three Weeks,’ the period which commemorates the destructions of the Temple and other Jewish national catastrophe (there is much to commemorate). The Rabbinic term is ben hamitzarim – between the narrow places. Meitzar being connected, of course to mitzrayim – Egypt.


And this is how our succour comes. Egypt was harsh, horrid, but led to redemption. It’s not an unredeemable suffering. Caught in a narrow places one doesn’t have a choice as to which way to turn, one simply has to move forward. The liturgy of the 9th Av can be read as one long dirge, bitter and sorrowful, but there is a beauty in the tunes and tremendous beauty in the kinnot – the poetry associated with this time, and tight structure. Kinnot are written to specific literary conventions, a sort of Hebrew equivalent of a sonnet, as all around there are disasters and calamity these kinnot hold the pain, give it a shape, a construction, a way to head forward through the narrow places.


Perhaps the most well known kinnah – Eli Zion – contains yet another prod to assist us forward out of our narrow spaces. ‘Wail O Zion and her cities, like a woman giving birth.’ That’s an extraordinary image. Of course childbirth is intensely painful, but it’s not an unredeemable pain. On the contrary it’s a pain which brings, following it, the promise of tremendous joy. It’s something I have written about in the recent Quest journal (copies still available from the Synagogue office), our ritual serves to hold us, lead us, at the pace we are able to travel, from darkness to light and from mourning to hope.


For those of us carrying sorrow at this of  year – and it should be all of us – my blessing is that the pain should be the pain of childbirth, as intense as it may be, so shall it be, that after it should bring joy, hope and celebration.


Our Synagogue commemoration of Tisha B’Av is this Wednesday evening at XX and Thursday morning at XX. All are welcome, as it says in the Talmud (Taanit 30b), ‘Those who mourn for Jerusalem and its destruction will merit rejoicing over Jerusalem rebuilt.’


Shabbat shalom



Friday, 17 July 2009

The Quest for Authenticity

The Quest for Authenticity


‘I could revive the dead, but I have more difficulty reviving the living,’ said Reb Simhah Bunim


I’ve been reading The Quest for Authenticity by Michael Rosen. Rabbi Rosen, known to all as Micky was the creator of Yakar, first in London, then Jerusalem and most recently Tel Aviv. A huge personal inspiration he passed away recently, may his memory always be for a blessing.


The book tells the story of Reb Simchah Bunim and his successors, alive in the first half of the nineteenth century. Their watchword was a commitment to truth, integrity, spiritual honesty, no matter how prickly or discomforting it might be. Truth emerges in the book as a complex unsettling paradox, only a whisper away from away from heresy.


“Once Reb Bunim was crying and he said, ’Do you know why I am crying? Come and I will tell you an incident. When I was with the holy Reb Ephraim of Sedilkov he said that there is no wise man in the world except me and one other who, at just this moment has become an apostate.”


The relationship between a commitment to truth and heresy is one long-trodden at New London, indeed, that is precisely the dynamic that drove our founder rabbi and the treatment of him by the United Synagogue. But a commitment to truth cannot only be a commitment to the sorts of issues that made New London what it was, it also requires that we acknowledge the truth behind what we must become, and to do that we need to acknowledge that a Jewish future for this special community means we must commit to deepening our commitment to Jewish observance, learning and education. There is much to be done, but the first step is the choice of which path to choose to walk on. And I chose the path of questing for authenticity.


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 10 July 2009

Writing on an Empty Stomach

Thursday was the seventeenth day of Tammuz – shiva esreh ltammuz. It’s a minor festival, commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem at the time of the fall of the Second Temple. It marks the beginning of the ‘Three Weeks’ culminating in the 9th Av which we will commemorate at New London on Wednesday 29th July.


I’ll admit, this time last year I had a five week old baby to contend with and fasting passed me by, it was tough enough keeping my eyes open. This year I was home in the middle of the day to see my, now, one year old son teething. I cut a piece of cucumber for him to suck on. He wasn’t interested, I was about to stick the cucumber in my mouth when I paused. I was fasting this year. Even though the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem 1939 years ago I’m still torn up over issues around the power and politics of Jerusalem – some things never change. Then I realised something else; I didn’t need to eat today. I’d eaten well yesterday, I’m blessed enough not to have to worry about malnutrition. I looked back at the stick of cucumber, non-organic, plastic wrapped, probably flown in at some earth-busting carbon-welly boot-print expense, and I put it down, went to my study, made an on-line charitable foundation and began writing this reflection.


This is how observance, I think, is supposed to work. It’s easy to mock quaint traditions like fasting on the 17th of Tammuz, abstaining from use of electricity on Shabbat or not eating milk with meat. Expressed without the accompaniment of lived experience all of Judaism can look ridiculous. But from the inside the web of ritual and obligation serves to direct our attention inwards to our national history and our heritage, and outwards to our God and the world in which we live. Our observance of Judaism is supposed to make us more observant, closer watchers of our lives and the lives of our fellows, more careful and thereby more caring. This is why we have, as a people, made such a big issue of the verse-fragment naaseh vnishma  – we will do and we will understand. When confronted by the prospect of Torah the Children of Israel accept first and assume understanding will follow. Greater involvement in Judaism doesn’t take a leap of faith, it takes a leap of action.


Shabbat shalom,


P.S. This Sunday I am taking part in a sponsored cycle from London to Southend. For more information please see


Tuesday, 7 July 2009


As many will know the Court of Appeal has decided that the entrance requirements of JFS breach race-relations legislation. The court ruled, “The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or by conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act 1976… No faith school is immune from the prohibition on race discrimination.”
I know very well why the court case was brought. JFS has rejected applications from Jewish children whose mothers were converted under Liberal, Reform and Masorti auspices. This causes pain and distress among many, including some Masorti members who brought the case and have fought it through the courts.

JFS is clearly an outstanding school, assessed as such in each of 39 measures measured by OFSTED in its most recent inspection and it clearly enjoys its status as a school for the Jewish community. ‘Many [of our students] come from families who are totally committed to Judaism and Israel,’ states the School’s website, ‘others are unaware of Jewish belief and practice. We welcome this diversity and embrace the opportunity to have such a broad range of young people developing Jewish values together.’ But there should be no doubting how the school understands the meaning of ‘Jewish values.’ ‘The outlook and practice of the School is Orthodox,’ states the web-site. And again, ‘JFS has always sought to provide a Jewish education to members of the orthodox Jewish faith so that all Jewish children may be provided with an orthodox Jewish education,’ I find this disavowing of interest in those who are not members of the ‘orthodox Jewish faith’ disturbing and sad. Certainly the school has no interest in educating its students in the ways of non-orthodoxy. I’ve been to a range of Catholic and Church of England schools as a visiting Rabbi. It’s only the Jewish schools where I am not welcome as an educator. And of course my tax contributions support JFS and the infrastructure and Jewish education at JFS is supported by many in the broader community, of many denominations.

Rabbi Harvey Belovski, writing in last week’s Jewish Chronicle, made explicit something that JFS and the United Synagogue rarely make so public. Pluralism and Orthodoxy are inimical bedfellows, wrote Rabbi Belovski as he gave up on any desire to be seen as a pluralist. The Orthodox and schools run under Orthodox aegis are not cross-communal. They are sectarian and interested only in those who they deem of being of sufficient Jewish status and interested in Jews who are not Orthodox to the extent that we can be ‘educated’ into becoming Orthodox. So be it.

But is it racist? Not really. The notion that religious ‘faith’ is an emotional or theological state of belief, unconnected to matters such as birth and practice, is a Christian perspective on religious identity, not a Jewish one. Jews have always looked to ritual – a ‘religious’ person is someone who lights candles on Friday night. A woman is a convert if she passes a Bet Din’s enquiry and goes to the Mikvah. And so on. But I do have sympathy for the judges who felt that state-funded religious schools should not be able to access the millions of pounds of taxpayers funding when they act in sectarian ways, blocking access to those who have serious and grounded reasons for wishing to attend, but are rejected on the basis of a sectarian fiat. My hope and prayer is that Jewish education in this country can be more of a cross-communal effort. Indeed there is a tremendous possibility that the soon-to-open JCoSS (Jewish Community Secondary School), due to open in September 2010, will be just such a place. Our efforts, philanthropy and prayers should be channelled in the direction of strengthening  those Jewish bodies that will support the kind of Judaism we believe in. There – a sentence that even the Orthodox would agree with

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