Friday, 29 January 2010

Women, Organic Growth and Petrifacation


Dear Friends,


This week I will be addressing, in the Shabbat morning service, the role of women in our services. As many will know it’s a discussion that has been through a number of iterations at New London. At our last major engagement, two years ago just as I arrived at New London, a General Meeting split 71-70 in favour of making no change to our current arrangements. More recently I was asked by Council to provide some rabbinic leadership as we plot a way forward. In the most recent Newsletter I asked for anyone with feelings on the issue to contact me. I am available for meetings, phone conversations as well as e-mail. As I am firming up the recommendations I will make to the Services Committee and Council I feel it is vital that I understand as well as I can the fullest range of feelings in the community.


It is, of course, no surprise to find this issue bubbling away at our Shul. New London, of course, was founded on the back of a change in our understanding of the history of our Torah. Rabbi Jacobs acknowledges that an intelligent person simply couldn’t accept a ‘pre-modern’ theory of how our most important text arrives in these most modern times. He is of course right, but biblical archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern philology are not the only schools of thought that have transformed our understanding of our religion. At a time when many of the great ideological revolutions of the last century lie largely broken (Communism, Nationalism…), feminism retains, if not all the burning power of its foundational rhetoric, nonetheless a transformational hold over the mind of the intelligent modern. In an era where both Israel and the United Kingdom have known women Prime Ministers, it’s simply not possible to look at any woman in a position of leadership as an affront to men unable to lead the community themselves – as Deborah suggests to Barak in this week’s haftorah. This much is clear. But the implications of these transformed conceptions on our religious practice is less easy to plot. On the one hand our founder Rabbi claimed that there was no need to change religious practice just because our theology had changed. On the other hand Rabbi Jacobs dedicated much of his scholarship to showing how Judaism does change as societal influence impacts upon our tradition which has never been closed to the world around us. Rabbi Dr Elliot Cosgrove brings a fascinating example of Rabbi Jacobs advocating change in the face of societal change dating back to 1948 when, in the aftermath of the foundation of the modern State of Israel the question arose of how, religiously, to treat this new arrival. In an article entitled ‘Organic Growth vs Petrifaction’ Rabbi Jacobs insists that, “every thinking person must protest against the attitude which bids us to relinquish the project [of change in Judaism] merely on the grounds that we of this generation have not the merit to take an important step unknown to our ancestors.” And goes on to offer this extra-ordinary analogy.


“A year or two ago a process was discovered by means of which the paintings of the old masters in the National Gallery could be cleaned. At first there were shocked

outcries of “sacrilege.” Many of those who protested seem to have considered the very grime that had accumulated through the ages to be an essential part of the pictures. The protest went unheeded, the pictures were cleaned, the grime removed, and new beauties formerly obscured, were revealed to the eye. We should keep this in mind in our approach to the renewal of Jewish life. We must never identify the dust of the ages with the living Jewish faith; but as traditional Jews, while attempting to remove this dust, we must ever be on our guard not to wreak irreparable damage to the picture of Judaism by removing its paint with our too vigorous cleansing.”


We must neither wreak irreparable damage, nor must we venerate accreted grime. The balancing act that has always been at the heart of our journey as a community continues. I urge us all to play our part in it.


Shabbat shalom


Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Cosmic Seismography


Fitting in some ways, sickening in others.


In a week where we read in ancient papers of rivers turning into blood and plagues and storms in one set of books, modern papers tell of the devastation befalling Haiti.

The American Jewish World Service (an organisation I have worked with for a number of years) has launched an emergency fund, more information at, and they have also provided some educational material. My eye was caught by this quote, from a Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz;

‘The seismograph has taught us that a tremor in any part of the world can be felt by a sufficiently sensitive instrument everywhere in the world. The same is true of a person’s deeds. One should not think that his actions do not affect others. Everything one does in some way affects everyone else in the world.’

The tool for measuring the destructive power of earthquakes is reclaimed as a spiritual calibrator, a tool for measuring our own actions – be they destructive or constructive – how much are we moved, how much do we move. It’s an image clearly driven by a deep understanding of the Rabbinic conception of the precarious nature of our existence and the terrifying power of individual action. ‘A person should see themselves as if they, and the whole world, balanced between being half-worthy and half-guilty.’ (Rambam MT Teshuvah 3:4) Our every act tips over the scales of both man and world, in one direction or another.


And maybe we need a third seismograph also; a way to measure how we are impacted as others suffer – what tremor is set off in our own hearts when we see the devastation wrecked in a desperately poor country which has seen more than enough tragedy? Maimonides again ‘One who sees a poor person begging and hides his eyes and does not give him charity transgresses a negative commandment, as it says (Deuteronomy 15:7), “Do not harden your heart or close your hand from your poor brother.’ (MT Matanot LaEvyonim 7:2). The attitude of the hard of heart is, as again we see from this week’s parashah, the attitude of Pharaoh.


These are, perhaps, the two ways where we, as Jews and humans, are most likely to fail in our engagement with this most modern catastrophe. We might close our eyes to the suffering of others, because they are too far away or too dark skinned for us to see their devastation, or we might believe that there is nothing we can do that would make a difference. Neither belief can be countenanced. Instead we need to tip the seismographs in the direction of good and believe that in so doing, cosmically and practically we can make a difference.


Those who wish to give to a Jewish organisation, using Gift Aid are warmly encouraged to support World Jewish Relief’s Earthquake Emergency Appeal   or call 020 8736 1250.

Shabbat Shalom

Jeremy Gordon


Friday, 8 January 2010

It's Been Snowing


Snow, of course it does, makes an appearance in this week's Torah reading. Moses, standing before the burning bush is told to remove his hand from his garment and finds it  'diseased, white as snow.' Indeed snow makes two other appearances in the Hebrew Bible as  a descriptor of the strange leprous-like Biblical curse of ‘tzarat’; Miriam becomes as white as snow  having slandered Moses and Elisha's manservant Gehazi  is similarly afflicted in II Kings.


The Bible also uses snow as a useful counter image, its ob    vious connection to cool winter days offering itself up for more poetic uses. In Proverbs we desire snow to cool the temperatures of a hot ancient harvest (Prov 25) and we suggest that that honour is due the fool to the same extent that snow is due in summer (Prov 26).  As a symbol, however, snow is most powerfully associated with purity from sin. In words central to our Rosh Hashanah liturgy we cite Isaiah, 'though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow ' and  Psalms, 'Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.'  Uncomprehending and looking out over a  destroyed Jerusalem the narrative voice of the book of Lamentations can't understand what went wrong, 'Her Nazarites were purer than snow, whiter than milk.' Snow is the symbol of sin-free purity, and the image reaches its zenith when Daniel looks out and sees God, sat on a lofty throne, clothed in a  garment 'white as snow.'


Symbols are glorious, of course, but the Bible certainly knows real snow. Jeremiah looks out at the 'snows of  Lebanon' and two of the Psalms recited in our daily service  take the opportunity to ensure that we know that the power behind snow is divine, 'God gives snow like wool, he scatters hail like ashes.' 'Fire and hail, snow, clouds and stormy wind fulfil His word.' (Ps 147 & 148).


At the end of the book of Job, God puts on a display of all the great natural forces of the world in a bid to get Job to understand how little of the secrets of the Universe a mere human could possibly understand and there, amongst the volcanoes and earthquakes, we read of a storehouse of snow, saved up as munitions for  a battle against the forces of evil.


Snow's  radiance draws our attention to the heavens. It reminds us of the power of nature - it stops us taking gentle cycles of seasonality for granted. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to heat our homes and wrap up as we crunch our way down icy pavements snow should also remind us of our obligations to  those without the economic ability to banish miserable shivering or the physical ability to  leave their homes in what is a dangerous time to be frail and unsteady.


Shabbat shalom

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