Thursday, 16 December 2010

Green Shoots

Our sons are sent home from school, every once in a while, with a packet of seeds, some instruction and the request that we bring any plants back to the school on a specified date to get a certificate attesting to our (or our sons’) horticultural prowess. Invariably we find ourselves with a droopy stalk and no foliage and little or no prowess worthy of certification. But this time we’re doing well. The bulbs arrived in October and, planted in pots on the kitchen windowsill, the green shoots are poking though the soil, even as the temperature dips and the snow threatens.


It’s a dark week, not only in terms of the calendar and the seasons, but also in terms of our Torah cycle. Parashat Vayehi is the story of death – of Jacob and then Joseph; it marks the end of the Genesis narrative. It’s easy to see it as the end, but it is not. Of course it isn’t, already the seeds for the future are germinating. The seventy descendants of Jacob are in Egypt, ready for the opening of the Exodus narrative, poised for the future. We are ready for the journey from darkness into light.


It’s been a dark week for a number of our members also; we wish a long life to Stephen Lewis on the passing of his mother and Ian Thomas on the death of his father. I’m also writing this having returned from the stonesetting of our member Raymond Westbrook and we wish his family comfort and a long life also. But the seeds for the future are planted, and under the frozen soil there is germination and life renewed.


I’m taking a couple of weeks of leave from after Shabbat. It’s been a glorious four months for the Shul, there have been highlights all around the community, from services, to education, to providing much more focussed pastoral support and our involvement in the holy task of healing the world. I look forward to coming back, ready to nurture the blooms that mark our future – at New London and on the kitchen windowsill.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 10 December 2010

Vayigash - counting 70 names which count


I always get a thrill from the list of names of the Children of Israel who go down to Egypt – a list at the heart of this week’s parasha

The list contains the first mention in the Bible of Carmi – the name Josephine and I gave our firstborn son.

But I realise that for most it’s a dull passage.

But there is always plenty to teach.


Two observations about the counting of names.


Last week we had extra Torah readings from Parashat Naso – the list of the different sacrifices brought by the specific people on each of the days of the original dedication of the Tabernacle.

Symbolically read when we celebrate the rededication of the Temple under the Maccabees.

Every day, the entire sacrificial offering is repeated, word for word, with only a name changed.

Why the need to repeat.

Because recognise individuality.

In context of theological – don’t repeat unless have to.

In context of having to handwrite everything – temptation to use a shorthand.

Commitment to preserve the recognition of individual achievement.

That counts.


Classic opening Midrash in Sefer Bmidbar – Sefer HaPikudim – censuses, Book of Numbers

Rich people like to sit and count their money.

So God likes to sit and count the Jews.

We run through the names to show we care.


No better way of showing you care about someone than using their name.

And conversely – and as a congregational Rabbi I hate that this is true, but true it is – you get someone’s name wrong, or can’t remember their name you give a clear signal that you just don’t care enough.

Harold Kushner suggests we always remember the name of those we consider more important than ourselves and always forget the name of those we consider less important than we are.



First observation

Using names count.

We should make every effort to know them.

And the excuse that ‘I’m bad at names,’ usually laughed off, just isn’t good enough.


A second observation – in the details.

And as is well known – God is in the details.


The list comes in four parts.

First the children of Leah,

Then Leah’s concubine, Zilpa

Then Rachel.

Then Rachel’s concubine Bilha.


Bilha has 7 children.

And Rachel has fourteen – precisely double.


Zilpa has sixteen and Leah has –you might be expecting double sixteen – well you would be sort of right. If you count up the list of names there are 32 children called. But having run through the 32 names the Bible tells us that the sons that Leah bore to Jacob were 33

Someone is missing.

There is a list of thirty-two sons. And the Bible tells us there are 33 in the group.


The Midrash[1] asks,

Who is missing number.

"Some say: Yaakov completed the number.

R. Yitzchak said: This may be compared to two legions of the king: Decumani and Augustiani (the two most important legions in the Roman army). When the king is counted together with one legion, its number is complete. And when he is counted together with the other legion, its number is complete."


The two legions in Yacov’s army are the children of Leah and the children of Rachel.

And this time he is lining up with the children of Leah.

I think the message is this.

You have to count yourself.


It’s a story told of the wise men of Chelm, the fictional pantomime fools of the Chasidic imagination.

Once waiting for a minyan they asked their wisest of their number to check there was indeed a Minyan present.

The man counted one – to nine, and sadly acknowledged there wasn;t a minyan.

It was only when a stranger from a faraway city entered the room that began to pray.

Why hadn’t you started, the stranger asked.

Because we weren’t quorate, the Chelniks replied.

But there are eleven of us here, the stranger replied.

It turns out the wise man had forgot to count himself.


Reminded also of a fabulous vox pop quote I heard before some election while I was in America. Some man was complaining about taxes being too high.

I don’t want to have to pay for health insurance, he said, I want the government to pay for health insurance.

Too often in our lives we look for someone to do something and we forget to count ourselves.

Too often we bemoan the absence of something, someone, volunteering – and we forget to count ourselves.

Just as the counting of the children of Jacob is only complete when Jacob is counted among them.

So too we are a community, and indeed as a people, only complete when we remember to count ourselves.


So names count.

And we must remember to count ourselves.


Shabbat shalom

[1] Bereishit Rabba 94:9

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Vegetarians need not read this - Queasy Meat Eaters Should

Vegetarians need not read this.

Queasy meat eaters absolutely should.


Rabbinic tradition dictates that until God tells Noah, ‘Every moving thing that lives, shall be food for you' (Gen 9:4) humanity was vegetarian.


The truth is that eating meat requires animals die. As neat and tidy as some butchers make chicken escalope appear, they once came from a live, feathered chicken. Judaism, I believe, wants us to encounter this truth, not hide from it.


And now there is an amendment before the European Parliament which, if passed, would mean that meat originally intended for Kosher consumption, but subsequently found to be not Kosher, but nonetheless suitable for human consumption, would be ladled ‘meat from slaughter without stunning.’ The suggestion, of such a label, is that Shechitah is cruel in a noteworthy way. The suggestion is that animals stunned before slaughter die in a sweet and cuddly way, while animals Shechted suffer terribly. The fear is that if this legislation is passed non-Jewish butchers and abattoirs will stop taking the healthy non-kosher meat because they won’t be able to sell this meat on the open the market. The fear is real, but the suggestions are fallacious.


Shechted animals become unconscious in a matter of seconds. They are stunned at the point of slaughter. Meat stunned before slaughter is usually rendered immediately unconscious, but sometimes isn’t. Sometimes the captive bolt driven into the brain of sheep or cow misses, or fails to function perfectly. Sometimes the electrical charge used to stun poultry is set too low, or the chicken dodges being dipped into the fluid used to stun it. Sometimes the animals regain consciousness after stunning. In all these, disturbing, cases the animal continues on its journey towards slaughter and there is no suggestion that meat from such a carcass should be ladled ‘ineffectively stunned.’ More importantly, for those of us who care about animal welfare, is the environment around the point of slaughter. In well designed, well run abattoirs, sheep will indeed ‘go like lambs to the slaughter.’ In poorly designed, poorly run abattoirs or in the hands of poorly trained slaughterers, animals will become distressed and there are no plans to label meat in a way that will allow a concerned consumer to know if an animal suffered distress in this way. Animals don’t die for our consumption sweetly, whether stunned or not.


I don’t claim the proposed EU regulation is driven by anti-Semitism, I suspect anti-Islamism is a more likely source of this invidious deceitful attempt to associate Shechitah with suffering. But regardless of intent this proposal is a threat to the economic sustainability of Shechitah in this country. Something Shechitah opponents understand all too well.


I encourage, urge, all members who are concerned about the continued possibility of Shechitah in this country (and across Europe) to take this opportunity to communicate with the MEPs who will decide if this proposal will be tabled before the Parliament. Their names, a suggested form of words and a great deal more information is available at I am delighted that Henry Grunwald of Shechitah UK will be our guest at New London later in the year, but I, again, urge members to write immediately as important decisions will be being taken at a European level before Henry will be joining us.


Shabbat shalom



Friday, 26 November 2010

Middah Kneged Middah


Opens with Joseph spreading bad reports on his brothers.


What did he say?

Rabbinic invention[1] two guess

Sons of Leah insult the sons of Bilha and Zilpah and call them slaves.

And because of his tale-telling, the Rabbis say, so Joseph was sold as a slave to the Midianites.

Ort alternatively

His half-brothers were accused of eyeing up the local ladies.

And because of his tale-telling, the Rabbis say, so Joseph was beset by Potipha’s wife, who cast her eyes upon him, eventually accusing him of rape.


These responses raise, for me, the question of the relationship of reward and punishment.

Do the things we do have direct consequence in terms of how we fare before the cosmologic whole?

Getting right to the heart of religion.


Clearly important doctrineMaimonedes

As in Yidgal

Gomel Lish Hesed CMifalo – notein lerasha ra crishato

And clearly, at least in the Bible sense that works in the here and now – in this world

Second paragraph of the Shema – do good, get a good rainy season and good crops.

Do wickedly, drought, famine.


But there is a problem –

When we look out at the world we don’t see it.

Rabbis shunt time of reward back, into the afterlife.


Faithful is the taskmaster [meaning God] who will pay the reward of your labour but know the recompense of the righteous will be in the world to come. (Avot 2:16)


In the world to come God will reward every righteous man with 310 worlds (Uktsin 3:12)


What do we do about reward and punishment in this world?

Are we prepared to give up on the notion completely?

Incredibly radical – Gemorah in Kiddushin – ‘there is no reward for the Mitzvot in this world.’

Really hard.

Albo –

Decides that it’s OK, Jewishly to believe either there is, or there is not material reward in this world.

He prefers the notion that there is reward in this world – but he can’t say that the opposite position is heretical.


No surprise what the problem is.

One the one hand – Experience - Tzaddik vra lo, rasha v’tov lo.

If there is a simple process of reward and punishment, why is it so easy to find decent people suffering – babies even, and so easy to see crooks and thugs seemingly blessed.

But if there isn’t a system of reward and punishment then we live in a material universe without a material connection between doing something materially good and some kind of material reward.

And that feels anarchistic, chaotic, amoral.

It’s certainly dangerous, creates a bully’s charter .

Clifford Geertz –

The rain falls on the just and unjust fella, but larger on the just, coz the unjust has his ‘brella.

Recently read a bully’s charter world, devoid of any sense that ones material actions were being somehow met, responded to, cosmically, or Karmically

Cormac McArthy terrifying depiction of such a world, The Road. Terrifying.

Who would live in such a world?

And we did live in such a world, a world created by a God who looked down on such chaos and didn’t set order in place – rewarding the good and punishing the bad, then, God forbid would even reflect poorly on God.


Pages and pages of Mediaeval philosophy trying to reconcile what might look like anarchic, amoral chaos with a sense of order,

Trying to suggest that there is logic behind the response to every action.

Careful and mathematical – God as the divine accountant, balancing the scales and apportioning reward and punishment based on a some kind of scale I cannot understand.

But it doesn’t move me.

Never has, and certainly in the context of my Rabbinic work, never wanted to suggest to someone suffering that this kind of logic might be at play.

Feels horrendous, blasphemous even.


Pages and pages of Mussar literature tries to find ways to encourage us to live lives of decency and propriety without suggesting that there will be this world direct reward. My favourite attempt comes from Luzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim where he suggests that since righteous people are righteous they couldn’t be bribed with the offer of this world reward. They are too pious to be bought off, and if there is no enticing the pious with the offer of this world reward, then


I wonder if a Midrash like the one opened with presents a way round.

The technical terms is

Middah kneged Middah

It translates, as Shakespeare put it, as Measure For Measure.

Or as another Rabbincic text[2] puts it

BaMidah she adam moded bah, moddedim lo

With the measure a person measures, they shall mete to him.

Actually, those with an ear for Christian Scripture will recognise a passage from Luke in this – with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.


Commonly game in Rabbinic tradition to connect things back and forth across, partic, Biblical narratives using this Middah KNeged Middah thread.

Samson – who dies with his eyes gouged out – is held to have sinned by eyeing up the women in general – and Delilah in particular. He gets his comeuppance – Midah Keneged Midah.

Jacob, who deceives his blind father by dressing as Esau gets his comeuppance when he is deceived and doesn’t realise he is marrying the sister with weak eyes and not his beloved. Midah Keneged Midah


Suggested that Measure for Measure could serve as an idiomatic translation for Midah Kneged Middah.

But I think there is a better term poetic justice.

And I think this is the point.

It’s poetic, slightly tongue in cheek.

The connection between action and reaction is post-hoc.

First something happens, and then the connection is made.

A bit like the story of the prince who, riding through the forest, comes across a target drawn on a tree, and an arrow right through the very bullseye.

And then another target – arrow through the bullseye, and another and another.

I must be, the prince feels, in the vicinity of the greatest archer in the world.

Eventually he spies a man with a bow on his back and asks him if he truly shot all these arrows.

Yes, said the man.

Then you must be the greatest archer in the world.

Oh no, said the man. I just shot arrows into trees and then drawn on the targets afterwards.

George Foot Moore – perhaps the greatest historian of the Rabbinic period urged us not to read these equations of cause and effect more seriously than they are meant.

Middah Keneged Middah isn’t meant seriously, it’s not about logic, it’s about finidng some way to join up the dots that result in us living in a world not entirely undone by chaos.


Middah Keneged Middah is a kind of game, where connections that might otherwise be invisible are made. They serve to join the dots, to create a veneer of order where without one the apparent randomness of life might get too much to bear. They provide enough of a reminder to behave decently, I hope, to keep up on the path of goodness, without suggesting an overly simplistic relationship between reward and punishment exists when the proof of what our eyes see makes such a belief an impossibility.


The hope, if we understand and embrace the vaguely poetic, vaguely humorous ebb and flow of Midah Kneged Midah, is that things won’t hurt so because they won’t deprive us of any sense making mechanism. We won’t understand them any better.

We won’t often, feel that the response is justifiable, and indeed they Middah Keneged Middah is a dangerous tool, too easily used, as even the Rabbis do on occasion[3], to explain away that which humans should not try and tritely solve.

But I think that there is something to be gained by having a response that is poetic, humourous even.

Even if it can’t always take the pain of suffering away.

The notion that there is some explanation, that in some way fits,

even if it can’t justify, even if it still feels so unfair

is better than the pious, but ultimately unsustainable notion that reward and punishment do really play out in this world in some direct measurable, logical way.

It makes us feel that it is still worth questing for the decent and the good.


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 vegetarian 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!’


Middah Keneged Middah,


Shabbat shalom


[1] BR 87:3

[2] M Sotah 1:7

[3] Miscarriage based on Peah. Mishnah

This Sunday - End of Life


In preparation for the Masorti End of Life Seminar, coming this Sunday at the LJCC, details below, I’ve been reading an extraordinary article by the American surgeon, Atul Gawande. Writing in the New Yorker, Gawande talks about how uncomfortable he feels attempting to explain to a woman he has just met the exact nature of the tumour inside her. ‘Am I going to die?’ the woman asks, ‘No, no,’ he responds, ‘of course not.’ It’s not true of course. Gawande knows that, as does, one suspect, the woman. Later in the article Gawande reports a Harvard study which asked the doctors of almost five hundred terminally ill patients to estimate how long they thought their patient would survive, and then waited. Sixty-three per cent overestimated survival time, on average by five hundred and thirty per cent. And, the better the doctors knew their patients, the more likely they were to err. It’s not just patients who struggle. So how do we learn to face our demise? Are we better off living in blind hope ignorance, or engaging so warmly in the inevitability of our passing that we risk the failure of extracting every day?


At the Seminar, on Sunday, I will be putting these questions to three senior palliative physicians, two hospice directors and a leading neurologist. The panel runs from 10:15 – 11:30. All are welcome, not only for the panel, but also a full day of exploration and engagement.


Shabbat shalom


More info -


Sunday, 21 November 2010

Speech Given at West Londons Citizens Assembly

Good evening Citizens.


I’m Rabbi Jeremy Gordon,

I represent New London Synagogue, a Synagogue of 700 members in Westminster.


I’m proud to be a member of West London Citizens.

And I’m particularly proud to represent the first Synagogue to officially come into membership of London Citizens, proud that my Synagogue takes its place alongside the Churches and Mosques, schools, trade union branches and other membership organisations.


I want to share with you why I feel it is so important for me, as citizen of a great city, and as a Rabbi and a Jew to be in membership of this great organization.


The Hebrew Bible teaches of the obligation ‘to love our fellow.’ One of the great Rabbis of the time of Jesus, Rabbi Akvia, suggested that this must be the base upon which all of Judaism stands. And I know these sentiments are also at the heart of Christianity, Islam – other religions and other decent ways of life also.

I believe we are all called to feel an obligation to care about our fellow human beings.


Do not oppress the stranger.

Do not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.

Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.

If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it, you must help him raise it.

Justice, justice you shall pursue


These Biblical verses – and hundreds of others like them - are at the heart of my faith, the heart of what I think it is to be part of a community, part of a city.

These verses are at the heart of what I think it means to be a citizen.


Jews have been speaking of these obligations and standing up to organisations, individuals and governments who have failed to recognise these obligations, since the time of the great prophets.

I have much to do, as a Rabbi and a Jew to tend to my own flock and keep alive the rituals of my own faith, but I have to be reminded of the prophecy of Amos.


‘Though you offer me burnt offerings and meal offerings [prophesised Amos], I will not accept them; nor will I listen to the melody of your lutes.

Until justice shall roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’


This is why I am here.


And why Citizens?

Why do I feel the need to pursue these agendas of justice through this particular organisation?

For me it is all about the broad-based nature of this work.


There is an ancient Rabbinic text that asks why God created every human being from one original human being.

It is, the Rabbis teach, a way of witnessing the glory of God.

When a King of flesh and blood mints a coin, he creates a single mint and every coin comes out looking the same.

But when God creates every a human being, every human being comes out radically different.

We are supposed to be amazed at the sheer breadth of human possibility.

And standing here today, looking out at you, my fellow citizens, I’m feeling particularly amazed.

Look around you and share in what it is to be amazed at the breadth of human possibility.


We are here as men and women, young and old, people of faith – of different faiths – and of no faith at all.

We are rich and we are poor, we are healthy and we are ill. We are diverse in more ways than a person could count.

And that’s why when we stand together we have such power.

Because when we stand together we show there is no limit to our willingness to care for one another; black or white, refugee or long-standing citizen –

We will stand together when to show we care for one another.

We will stand together when we make our demands.

And there is no force strong enough to defeat the willingness of one human being caring for another.


So, citizens, this is why I am here, this is why the Synagogue I represent is in membership.

And this is why I will work alongside you until justice does indeed roll down like water.

And I hope this is why you will want to work alongside me.


Thursday, 11 November 2010

New London Synagogue is Looking for a Executive Director and Financial Administrator

If you are interested in coming to join the team at a fast growing, buzzing, dynamic Synagogue office, please consider applying.

Any questions, please be in touch.


As part of the restructuring of its administration the

New London Synagogue


is looking for an Executive Director

and a Financial Administrator


The New London Synagogue, a member of the Masorti movement, is a growing and vibrant community.  We are looking to fill two separate part time posts, the Executive Director and a Financial Administrator.

We are looking for self motivated people with knowledge of the Jewish community and relevant experience.  The Executive Director post is 25 hours a week and the salary is negotiable on the basis of experience.  The Financial Administrator post is 15 hours a week at a salary of £15,000 a year.

For further information and a detailed job specification, please phone Julian Dawes on 020 7328 1026 or email

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Pro-Palestinian? Pro-Israeli? Just pro-peace.


So opens the promotional literature of the Bereaved Families Forum, who have just been awarded the Ghandi Peace Prize, and whose representatives will be speaking at New London this Shabbat.


They are a network of over 500 Israeli and Palestinian families united by having lost a loved one in decades of conflict. Their courage and their commitment to respond to acts of personal tragedy by reaching out in peace to ‘the other’ is an inspiration to me and, as many will know, our Director Ronnie Cohen is a long time supporter of the organisation’s UK fundraising arm.


It’s an appropriate weekend. We read Parashat Toledot, a story of a rift between Jacob and Esau who, as the Bible tells us, struggled even in their mother’s womb. The sons’ relationship, such as it ever was, completely disintegrates during the course of this week’s reading with a rare moment of rapprochement occurring only with the death of their father. It is as if death forms the opportunity for those who struggled to sit side-by-side in life, to finally do so in their shared mourning.


There will be no sermon. Our speakers will give an initial taste of their work and experiences at the end of the service and will speak more fully back in the Synagogue once Kiddush is underway. They will also be our guests at the communal lunch, but booking for the lunch are now closed.


Shabbat shalom


Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 21 October 2010

An Entirely Partisan Guide to the Denominations, in the Company of Genesis 18:8


I’m usually wary of speaking on behalf of other denominations, but I’ll venture an attempt on this occasion with apologies for the inevitable infelicity of generality.


Genesis 18:8 presents a classic Rabbinical problem. Abraham is entertaining the angels who come to visit him after his circumcision and he serves them ‘butter, milk and the calf he had prepared.’ To a Rabbinic mind this could suggest that Abraham served milk and meat together.


The Talmud (BM 86b) suggests, and Rashi adopts the following response; ‘He prepared and then brought each food [separately] before them.’ In other words Abraham brought the dairy products first. He then took the dairy away before bringing the meaty products. For the authors of Midrash Ha-Heifetz this verse teaches us that ‘one starts with butter and milk, and follows with meat,’ with Halachah prohibiting only consumption of dairy AFTER milk. Abraham’s Halachic bona fides is thereby preserved. He is capable of serving (as the Rabbinic leader of one of Britain’s most well-established Orthodox Synagogues suggested to me in a meeting this week) as the first Orthodox Jew.


To a Reform Jew the notion that Kashrut played a part in Abraham’s menu selection seems nonsensical. To a Reform Jew the verse teaches us a message about hospitality and welcoming guests and has no connection to Kashrut one way or another.


And to a Masorti Jew – to me – both sides are both right and wrong. The Reform Jew is right, surely, in suggesting that Abraham did not separate between milk and meat. To claim otherwise seems to rely on a level of Midrashic gymnastics that defies sense. But that is not to agree that the verse has nothing to say about Kashrut. This verse, indeed all verses, exists as part of a Masorah – a tradition. Each verse trickles down through the generations that separate us from its origins developing its force precisely through the process of transmission. Over time Genesis 18:8 has indeed become a verse about the permissibility of eating milk before, but not after, meat in the same way that the verses outlawing boiling a kid in its mother’s milk can indeed be said to explain the impermissibility of chicken parmesan (fowls, of course, do not lactate). Kashrut is formed in the process of transmission, it’s not a historical artefact to be excavated and defaced in order to make whatever we dig up agree with whatever we now practice. Jewish observance in general is not an attempt to escape the developments of history, but a desire to become part of the way the past infuses the present on its way forward into the future.


I love this Rashi and I believe that this Rashi speaks to my obligations as a Kosher-keeping Jew, as a descendent of Abraham and as an inheritor of the Masorah. But I don’t think Abraham separated milk and meat.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

This week in the Talmud Shiur - Honouring Your Parents - Kiddushin 30


Monday 25th October 8pm at New London Synagogue


Forget about being ranked in the ‘Ten Commandments’ – the Rabbis consider the honouring of parents the single ‘heaviest’ of all the Mitzvot. All the examples in the Talmudic passage we will consider on Monday evening concern aged parents, perhaps losing mental and or physical ability. It’s an incredible series of observations, clashing against aspirations and the realities of caring for those who once bore us, but who now need our care.


This is the Rabbis at their most honest and insightful and nothing has happened in the 1500 years since this passage was finally redacted to make any of their insights any less poignant and important. The class is suitable for anyone who is, has, or may one day become an ageing parent.


Texts will be available in original and translation, all welcome.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Wandering Wondering about Refugees, London Citizens and Others

I’m a wandering Jew.

I’m still wandering some four thousand years after God told Abraham to ‘go,’ to leave the comfort of his land, the place of his birth, the home of his father.

I’m an outsider here, in England,

I’m an outsider.


And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan. And Abram passed through that land


We Jews have been economic migrants and asylum seekers for far far longer than these terms, so contemporary in their valence, have existed.

No wonder we care, so much, about the treatment of other refugees, strangers, with the Bible repeating again and again our obligation to care for the stranger in our midst.

We care about others because we are other.

And we want to live in a society that knows how to care about others.


Our otherness, our own strangeness, our sense of difference, goes right back to the very first moment that God spoke out to our patriarch Abraham and said ‘go.’ We have been refugees ever since.


I have been thinking about an event I chaired several years ago, hosted by the Jewish Community Centre and the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, in London.

On the panel was a woman who had fled political persecution in Uganda and Trude Levi – the Auschwitz survivor.

They were both refugees, wanderers, outsiders. And, boy, did they have a lesson for us.

The Ugandan woman shared a story, a brutal distressing story of her life in Uganda, the disappearance of her father and daughter, the rape and torture she was afflicted by in Uganda, and then she turned to discuss England. She couldn’t understand why she was being threatened with detention in this country. She couldn’t understand why she, a qualified nurse, was compelled NOT to work for a living while her asylum application was being processed – an application that has been under various forms of review for four years.

She couldn’t understand why she gets spat at in the street, why gets called dirty, when, why she gets accused of being a leech on society when the government refuse to allow her to work for a living.


It’s hard to be a wanderer – an outsider

Trude Levi, the Auschwitz survivor on the panel shared an appalling story of her abuse, in France AFTER liberation.

After Auschwitz and the Death March, she was taken in by a French man who she thought loved her, until he tried to pimp her.

Sickening, this inability to let a stranger pass through our lands in peace.


In this week’s parasha Abram and Sarai, our first wanderers, encounter physical and sexual threat when Abraham flees to Egypt in search of some food because, as the Bible puts it ‘ki chaved haraav ba-aretz’ - the famine was very severe. I suspect the Daily Mail would have called Avraham Avinu a benefits’ scrounger.


The Rabbis create a story around Abraham’s experience on the border.

He knows that his wife is likely to be taken away from him as a sexual slave to the Egyptians, so he hides her in a box as he crossed the border.

The border guards insists he pays border taxes on his goods and suggest he has garments in the box.

Abraham offers to pay tax on a box full of garments.

The guards suggest he has silk in the box.

Abraham offers to pay tax on a box full of silk.

They suggest he has jewels in the box.

Abraham offers to pay tax on a box full of jewels.[1]

It reads like a contemporary story of refugees being blackmailed, ripped off, scammed and stung .


Why is it that, through history, societies have struggled so mightily with immigrants, refugees, wanderers, asylum seekers, call them – call us – what you will?


Refugees, wanderers have a different perspective on everything the natives take for granted.

In the minds of the Rabbis, Abraham, in his wanderings challenges the idolatry of the society he was born into. He gets arrested, dragged before the local king


‘Let us worship the fire!’ Nimrod demands.

Why not worship water which puts out fire,’ says Abraham.

So let us worship water

Why not worship the clouds which bear the water. '

Let us worship clouds!

Why not worship the wind which disperses the clouds.

Let us worship wind

Why not worship human beings, who withstand the wind.’

At this point, the Midrash tells us, Nimrod loses his temper and throws Abraham into the fire. [2]


This is exactly what we should expect from a refugee.

Challenging, seeing our faults from the outside.

Holding up a mirror to force us to see our own ridiculousness.

Helping us become better because of our engagement with those who pass through our lands.


I think this is the meaning of the blessing God shares with Abraham.


V’heye Bracha

And I will bless you

You shall be a bracha


Be prepared to stand outside the commuities in which you find yourself, confronting them with your difference and I, God, will bless you. – vevarech’cha

And through you I will bless the communities around you

V’heye Bracha – and you shall be a blessing – to them.


But it’s not easy finding the blessing from the other.

Because they query whether the things we thought were important are really important.

They topple our applecart of values by virtue of their difference.

They require toleration.

We require toleration.


The wanderer, the refugee sees the values of a society differently.

The refugee sets no store by the i-pod, or the fancy ring tone.

Rather what moves the refugee are simple acts of kindness, gentle moments of hospitality, a stamp in a passport, a work permit, a chance to build a life anew.

Simple, really, simple acts of hospitality.

And it threatens our sense of privilege, and it threatens the values we are comfortable measuring our successes and failures by.


The wanderer is a walking provocation to the status quo. Our very existence presents a novel experience for the societies around is, something new needs to be countenanced. We, us wanderers, push our face; pink, or black, or shrouded in a veil, or wreathed in a turban, up against the window and ask questions about toleration, pluralism and possibility.

These are deeply valuable questions; they offer a measure of societal decency. And they are questions that can only be asked in the presence of one who is different.


Without welcoming wanderers in our midst we cannot know how we, as a community, treat strangers.

Without welcoming immigrants we cannot know, as a nation, how we respond to the disaster and even gross poverty in far away lands.

Immigrants allow a society to test itself.


As many of you will know I have been advocating that we, as a community, join London Citizens


There are many things that occupy us, as a community.

Many important things.


In the last week we, as a Synagogue, have been involved in

one bar mitzvah,

four stone settings,

a baby blessing,

a launch for our Noam Youth Group

I’ve had two meetings with couples shortly getting married.

Two families thinking about joining the shul.

Another who want to plan a baby blessing

I’ve taught a Talmud class,

Written an article for the London Jewish News, and weekly words and a sermon

Hosted fifteen families with little kids at my home for a Tots for Tea.

And been involved with a range of pastoral struggles.

The list goes on.

It’s all important.

But that list, and I think it’s an impressive list, is all about looking after ourselves.

And we are pretty good at looking after ourselves.

I only wish we were as good as looking outwards as we are at looking inwards.


A story is told[3] of a young student who desperately wanted to meet the angel Elijah. The boy’s father told him that if he stayed up all night and studied with his whole heart, Elijah would come and greet him. The student did as he was instructed but nothing happened. Then one evening, while he was getting on with his studies, there was a knock on the door. It was an old man who wanted something to eat. The student was too busy for such a distraction so he sent the old man away.


We are, as a community, in danger of forgetting to look outside.

We have become, dare it be said, a little too insular.

We are in danger of losing our soul as Hebrews,

as descendants of Abraham who passed through the land, engaging with the society around him.

as descendants of Abraham who left the land of his parents and his birth to learn more about what it truly important in society.


We need to recapture that sense of being a wanderer.

I believe joining London Citizens will help us do that.


Those of you who are interested, please let Julian, our chairman know.

There is a Council meeting on Monday to make a decision on the issue.

At issue is how we remain the true ancestors of Avraham AVinu and Sarah Imeinu,

Still holding up a banner,

Still worthy of the great blessing of our ancestors.


V’esacha lgoy gadol

I will make you a great nation


And I will bless you

V’heye Bracha

You shall be a bracha


Shabbat Shalom

[1] BR 40:5

[2] Gen R 68:13

[3] Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, in Hineini in Our Livesp.153

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