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


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