Friday, 12 February 2010

LDor VaDor - From Generation to Generation

We are hosting, at New London, after Shabbat Services a L’Dor VaDor lunch for founder members and new members. But let me take this opportunity to look into the future.


Last week we held a service and lunch for 10-13 year olds, well attended and well led by our Noam Movement Worker, Ben Russel. In the afternoon, tots abounded at our home for Havdalah in Pyjamas which was as chaotic and fun as any 3 year old could wish. This Shabbat we are celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of Daniel Lubin and, at the children’s services for 0-5 year olds, we’ll be debuting the new Children’s Siddur that Chazan Stephen Cotsen has been working on. A 6-10 year olds Children’s Service will also be running. Our resurgent Cheder is on half-term, but the Monday’s Babes in the Wood special with Mabel’s Monsters is now full and we can’t accept any more attendees.


That’s all very exciting. For a long time we, as a community struggled to find sufficient younger members to create a centre of gravity for youth activities, and while we still struggle when it comes to teenagers, that picture is changing. This creates a new challenge – what should we be doing with and for the generation to come? Many of the children of the founding generation of New London drifted away from the sort of commitment to Jewish life their parents exemplified, certainly only very few remain involved in the Shul today. More gloomily still is the notion that not only did New London ‘lose’ many of a generation who cared too little, it also lost a good number of those who cared too much. A score of families who wanted more Jewish opportunities for their children and a more committed community left in search of these things at other Synagogues. What went wrong? I wonder if one of the failings is connected to the emphasis on a certain vicarious intellectualism. A good New Londoner was a Jew who agreed with the teachings of our founder Rabbi, but didn’t do much about it. Rabbi Jacobs studied the Talmud but I, growing up at New London, was never engaged with serious Torah study, I was never expected to take ownership of this tradition myself. Aside from occasional Synagogue attendance it wasn’t clear to me what I was supposed to do. I don’t recall ever being told, at New London, that it was MY Jewish obligation to keep Kosher, engage more profoundly with Shabbat or even – here is a contentious one – seek out a Jewish life-partner. That needs to change. We – the educators in the community – have to be more articulate about why doing more and knowing more is such a vibrant and vital part of being Jewish. And we also need to be clear about setting standards and calling on our kids, and their parents, to support us in giving the generation to come a serious understanding and relationship with their Jewish heritage.


These are all good challenges to have, but I call on all the community in supporting us as we seek to ensure our Jewish future, not only for the tots and teens of today, but for the tots and teens of the generation to come.


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy

Monday, 1 February 2010

On the Role of Women in the Services at New London


Two women sing in our Bible readings this Shabbat.

Both make rich pickings for those who are, as we all should be, considering the role of women in contemporary religious environments.


The major song is in Haftorah – the song of Deborah; mighty judge and prophet of Israel. Deborah calls on Barak to attack the armies of Sisera and he is scared. He will only go if Deborah accompanies him warning him, ‘there will be no glory for you for this way God is delivering Sisera into the hands of a woman.’

It’s a fascinating insight into the role of women in ancient times – tough and prepared to lead, but it’s seen as an embarrassment for a man to be so led.


And there is another song in the Torah portion – the song of Miriam Haneviah, Miriam the prophet who takes up timbrels and leads the women dancing in the aftermath of the Bible’s recitation of the Song of Moses.

The Mechilta suggests that just as Moses led the men, so Miriam led the women and that may well be true for the dancing, but the Biblical verse says

Vtaan lahem Miriam – Miriam led them and the Hebrew word for them implies the inclusion of men as well as women.

Vataan lahen would be the Hebrew if Miriam was only leading the women in song.


Though there is something very touching about another insight of the Mechilta – how did the Children of Israel end up with timbrels and drums in the wilderness?

They were righteous and they knew that God would do miracles and great deeds as they came out of Egypt, so they made sure they had something to celebrate with.

This is the woman acting with insight and foresight and faith. There is something recognisable in this gendered reading for today, as there was, no doubt, in ancient times.

The women show a level of faith and preparedness perhaps lacking in the male leadership who quickly run out of water and resort to incessant complaining.

Bzchut nashim – it was the merit of women that led to the Children of Israel being redeemed from Egypt, say the Rabbis. And indeed the women take the prime role of hero in many of the Wilderness narratives in both

The Hebrew Midwives, Bat Pharoh, Tzipora, Miriam, the wife of On…

And, for what it is worth, it has been the issue of the role of women in our faith that has been at the heart of my place I have located myself, and the Judaism I believe in.


Having decided I wanted to study for the Rabbinate I was still torn about the issue of denominational affiliation.

Should I study for an orthodox ordination and locate myself on the left wing of orthodoxy?

Or should I study for a Masorti ordination and locate myself as a progressive Rabbi.

Felt the tug of authenticity, it wasn’t obvious that I was going to be a Rabbi and I wanted, if I was going to embark on this terrifying journey to do it properly.

And like many of us I’ve experienced the passion and the fervour and the love of our tradition that exists in the orthodox world.


On the other hand, I grew up here.

Hearing the Rabbi Jacobs Torah that the Torah did not come in one moment, nor has Judaism ever stood still. We are a religion of progression.

And for myself I had already seen problems in the whole-hearted swallowing of tradition within orthodoxy.


I made an appointment to see one of my most admired orthodox teachers.

A tremendous scholar and teacher, he had had a major impact on my religious development.

And I decided to ask him about one of the first blessings in the morning service where the siddur instructs men to bless God for not making me a woman.

I had been struggling with the blessing for some time.

Sometimes saying it, sometimes not, sometimes replacing it with other words.

And we sat, I remember the evening very clearly, for three or four hours, going back and forwards around every argument.

And in the end I left.

Nothing he said could convince me that God wants me to get up in the morning and bless God for not making me a woman.

I had been through every apologetic, every justification, every commentary and every contextualisation.

And none of them worked for my soul.

I left.

I left orthodoxy behind.

I haven’t blessed God for not making me a woman since.


It was a Rubicon crossing moment for me because it was the first time that I internalised for myself and the Judaism I believed in that sometimes I would have to change my Jewish practice because of what I believed in.

And I became clear in my heart that the right way to pursue Jewish is not as an orthodox Rabbi. Because orthodoxy is just too closed to engaging in the demands of a progressive world where I learn new things today that I did not know yesterday.


It’s not that I think that traditional forms of Judaism are, or should be, considered misogynist.

That would be crude and ahistoric.

It’s more that, if there is a failing in hazal – Hachameinu Zichronam L’vracha, it is that they couldn’t rise high enough above their own contemp society.



I want to take the example of ketubah.

It’s an incredibly sophisticated response to problem of the age.

2000 years old, and more.

It’s a response to a problem surrounding women being dumped by their men void of any ability to survive economically, they would have become destitute.

So the Rabbis create a vehicle where if the woman is to be divorced she receives money.

How much money? A standard case 200 zuz.

As any Seder participant knows can get a kid for 2 zuz, so a divorced woman is therefore set up with 100 goats.

She’s no longer destitute, she has a viable economic future.

Brilliant, foresight, compassion.

Quid pro quo – women couldn’t demand their goats. Up to husband to divorce.

Made sense then, now stuck with husbands who refuse to offer a divorce.

In a world where women aren’t so weak.

And civil protections apply in case of divorce, some divorce cases I am told, women can get even more than 100 goats.

Flaw in the Rabbinic system is that didn’t see this far inot the future.

That’s not bad. It’s just human.

But it does need to be addressed, women can’t be left in that place.


So what implication does this sort of analysis have for our services at New London.

Enormously complicated.

Many who turn to New London because they like traditional sep of roles – both men and women, both older members and younger, members of long standing and new members.

But also many who turn to New London because they see that this is a community which is capable of progression without abandoning the tradition. And again many who are looking for what they see as progression at New London are old, many are young, many are longstanding members and many are new members.


I face an enormously difficult balancing act which has little to do with my own personal wishes and beliefs.

Because I am, by far, most committed to a much more important question – what is the best interests of our community, our members and our God?


Asking, pleading for consultation.

Shared decision making process.


But I have been asked to provide leadership and that requires honesty.

So let me be honest about what I see.

It seems clear to me that that radical overhaul is not right for our community.

But I am increasingly gnawed at by the sense that what we do is not good enough, it is not holy enough.


Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s book, Deborah Golda and Me,


In New City, New York, a village largely inhabited by Orthodox Jews, there is a sign advertising a Talmud course: Talmud For Everyone – Men Only.

I have a perverse fondness for this sentence … Men are “everyone,” women are not …

“Jew” means man, because males are the only Jews who count – literally. I learned this when I was most vulnerable, when I wanted to count – to be counted as a Jew…

A strange man was called in to say kaddish for my mother, because he was more a “Jew” than I.

In those first weeks after losing my mother I needed to lean on my religion, crawl into its arms, rock myself to Hebrew rhythms as familiar to me as rain. But how could I mourn as a Jew if my kaddish did not count?

The answer is, I could not.[2]


We are, of course, in better shape than New City New York.

Women count in the minyan, women say Kaddish in their own right.

And there are many bright, successful powerful women in this community and others who don’t feel that sense of exclusion at the male led ship we currently sail on.

But there are women who do feel this exclusion.

And there are men, and I am among them, who feel the loss of not being open in this way to contribution of all our members, male and female.


And I have no good answer to those who feel that when we call only men to the Torah and that when we allow only men to lead services we are falling short of acknowledging that women too are created equally in the image and likeness of God.

It’s not that I don’t understand the Halacha, I know the Halacha very well, indeed I’ve written a teshuvah on the subject.[3]

But even having made that study, especially having made that study, I still have no good answer.


We have a mighty challenge to balance between love of tradition and beauty and holiness of tradition.

And the need to subject our tradition to our contemp sense of the relative roles of men and women.

Those of you wrestling with the best way to move forward, please join me, help me understand how best we can balance these competing tugs.


Those of you who feel that the solution to this problem is simple – either by believing stasis solves all problems or full egalitarianism I have this message and this plea.

The message is – you are wrong.

There is too much that will be lost by taking either pole of stasis or radical change. Too much damage to the community, too much damage to the future of our membership. In either direction.

And the plea is this – it may well be that you personally wish for no change, or only radical change, but I urge you to view this challenge away from the trenches.

View it, as it were, from the balcony.

Look at the lie of the land, all the respective tugs and considerations, and share with me the wisdom you gain when you take a step back from this emotive issue.


I believe however that we are strong enough to have this conversation.

Indeed we are proving ourselves strong enough to have this conversation.

And our commitment must be to developing that strength which grows the more we understand and find ways to respect the position of even those who disagree most radically with us.


Shabbat shalom


[1] Drawn from J. Hauptman Rereading the Rabbis

[2] L. Cottin Pogrebin, Deborah Golda and Me: Being Jewish and Female in America, (1991) pp.49-50

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