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

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