Monday, 29 March 2010

On This Night We Lean

Hope this is of interest.

I’m partic interested in the democratic nature of the unique democratic element of the command to lean specifically including the poor, on Pesach,


Happy Pesach,



Mishnah Pesachim 10:4 (as per Bavli)

They mix the second cup and the at this point the child asks the parent, and if there is no knowledge in the child, the parent teaches them –

How different this night is from all other nights.

For on all nights we eat chametz or matzah, this night only matzah

For on all nights we eat other vegetables, this night maror.

For on all nights we eat roast, boiled or stewed meat, this night roasted.

For on all nights we dip once, this night twice.


Mishnah Pesachim 10:4 (as per Rambam)

They mix the second cup and the at this point the child asks and reads -

How is this night different from all other nights;

For on all nights we don’t even dip once, this night twice.

For on all nights we eat chametz or matzah, this night only matzah

For on all nights we eat roast, boiled or stewed meat, this night roasted.

For on all nights we eat other vegetables, this night maror.

For on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, this night we all lean?


Ester 1:6

There were hangings of white, green and blue, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and pillars of marble; the beds were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of alabaster, marble, mother of pearl, and precious stones.


Tosefta Brachot 5:5

What is the arrangement of reclining? Where there are two cushions, the most important person reclines at the head of the first. The second is below him.

Where there are three cushions, the most important person reclines at the head of the middle, the second is above him, the third is below him.


Josh Kulp: The Schechter Hagadah

Reclining was customary in Greco-Roman banquets and helped distinguish normal eating from formal ‘dining.’ In the Greco-Roman world banquets were typically eaten while reclining on a triclinium, three elevated mattresses arranged in the shape of the Greek letter Pi. In front of each mattress was a table which was brought to the diner and taken away at various points in the meal. People reclined to their left, so that they could use their right hand to eat.


Floor Mosaic, Sephoris


Pesachim 108a

Leaning to the right is not reclining. Moreover he may put [food] into the windpipe before the gullet, and endanger himself.


Mishnah Brachot 6:6

When they sit [yoshvin] each blesses themselves. When they lean [heyseivu] one blesses for all.

Ovadiah M’Bartenura

Sitting without leaning is a sign that they are not coming together to eat.


Mishnah Pesachim 10:1

On the eve of Pesach … even the poor of Israel don’t eat until they are leaning[JG1]  .


Talmud Yerushalmi

Said Rabbi Levi, it is the way of slaves to eat standing up, but here they eat leaning to make it known that they have left servitude for freedom.


Exodus 13

So God led the people around [vayaasev], through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea.

Exodus Rabba 20:18

The Rabbis have learned from this that even the poorest man in Israel must not eat without leaning for so the Holy Blessed One did for them as it says ‘So God made the people recline [vayaasev[JG2]  ].’


Yalkut Halachot Aramchal

HaRav Rabeinu Haim wrote that leaning to the left is spefically in their time, as they would lean on beds, now its fine with any kind of leaning. And HaRav Rabeinu Haim explained that on the contrary, the way of kings nowadays is to eat without leaning [slouching[JG3]  ?],

However since we usually eat without leaning during the year, this is now a marker of freedom.

 The newness is the democracy


 Maharil - not freedom, on the contrary, looks like you are ill.

Contemp sensibilities - German Reform

Friday, 26 March 2010

Top Ten Tips for a Liberating Pesach

Top Ten Tips for a Liberating Pesach

i. A Bittul beats ballistic bothering.
You don’t have to drive yourself mad in an all-encompassing war of destruction waged on Chametz. The minimum standard is remove everything smaller than the size of an olive and then perform a Bittul – a nullification – “all Chametz which is in possession, which I have not seen or removed or of which I am not aware, is nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”  The Bittul is done once on Sunday evening and then again on Monday late morning.

ii. Invite people to the Seder who can’t be there. 
I always like to start the Seder by inviting everyone to welcome one guest, one person who has passed away, or can’t be there, or just someone you would love to welcome to experience our story. It sets the mood and it brings the community around your personal Seder together.

iii. Prep the Seder
Don’t open the Hagadah for the first time as you sit down at the Seder table. Buy a new Hagadah, one with commentaries, spend a while flicking through, pick some aspects that mean more to you. If you are not leading, let the leader know you would like to share something at a certain point. If you need more inspiration, try the internet. Tzedek and JCORE are among many organisations that have special guides with discussion material and questions. Also try

iv. Karpas is Hebrew for crudités
The desultory sprig of parsley is not what Karpas is all about. It’s a Greek custom of putting out snacks before the meal to allow the conversation to flow more easily. We make dips and put out a range of vegetables. Top tip – artichokes, perfect for dipping, noshing and accompanying schmoozing.

v. It’s about freedom
Don’t be imprisoned by the language of the Seder. At some point you need to have a discussion about the nature of freedom. What does freedom mean, what does it mean to be Jewish and free - free from what, responsible for what? What would your values be if no-one was forcing you to do otherwise? What is stopping you from pursuing those values right now?

vi. Do something daft
The Rabbis of the Talmud suggested throwing toasted nuts around the Seder table to keep the kids occupied. We put out finger-puppets, oranges, Miriam’s cup, ah, loads of stuff – anything to keep people interested and engaged.

vii. If at first you don’t succeed
I love the ability to celebrate two Sedarim. And I love the ability to have a more formal and a less formal experience. The two Sedarim shouldn’t be the same. If you will be with the same people, around the same table, with the same food, then change the questions. Pick different conversations.

viii. Allow yourself to be defined
I remember a Pesach, I must have been 14, when I had to take a packed Pesachdik lunch into school; Tupperware and Matzah crumbs. It was a tremendous moment allowing myself to be defined by my actions. I was someone who cared enough about my Jewish identity to do this, and decline doing that. Through my observance I found a deeper relationship to my own identity. And to this day I find I make the clearest statements of my engagement with my faith over Pesach, with the cleaning and shopping and everything else. And that is OK. In fact, it makes me who I am.

ix. You have captured my heart
Ah, the Song of Songs, the Biblical book, said Rabbi Akiva, that makes the whole Torah worthwhile. We’ll be singing it on Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach, together with the Song of the Sea on the seventh day, and Hallel and … these are great Synagogue services, full of melody and joy. It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring, or find, in Shul the communal public engagement with Pesach, to counterbalance the private, familial celebrations of Seder Night. (On the subject of Shul, there are, of course, double points on offer to those able to join us for weekday Yom Tov services.)

x. In every generation a person should see themselves …
Take responsibility for your own Passover journey. If you love it, be proud. If it doesn’t speak to you … take responsibility for finding a way to make this incredible story and the rich universe of rituals that surround it resonate with you. There is no-one else to blame. This is our own life we are celebrating. It would be a terrible thing to run out of the ability to acknowledge our own freedom.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Falling In Love With the Book of Leviticus / Vayikra

Vayikra el Moshe – And God called to Moses

Vayikra – And He called.

The book has a bad reputation.


It’s a book about sacrifices,

Its detractors treat sacrifice is a thing of little value.

We don’t tend to like relationships which make us give up things.

We prefer relationships which give us things.

We don’t like relationships which force us to change.

We would rather everything and everyone could be moulded, carved, to fit us, rather than welcome the possibility of carving away at ourselves se we fit the world around us


Sacrifice is important.

Being willing to give things up is the marker of humanity.

It’s only wild animals who know no sense of the value of delayed gratification.

To me there is something deeply moving in the notion of an entire book of the Bible driven by a notion of what we are supposed to give things up.


But there is something more.

Korban – the Hebrew word translated as sacrifice comes from the Hebrew root – to come close.

While the English term sacrifice suggests a certain asceticism – a self abnegation.

The Hebrew term suggests intimacy, relationship, closeness.

There is something almost romantic in this notion of Korban.

And if, in the lap of our modern comforts, we can’t find romance in the blood and kidneys it might be more the mere passage of time, than any failure of emotional intent on behalf of our holy texts.


I want to read, today, the first verse of the Parasha – the first verse of the entire book as a love letter.

Both in its own terms, and in the way in which the Rabbis have used the first verse, and matched this verse with an extraordinary Haftorah.


Where are we in the story?

Moses and his construction team have finished building the sanctuary, everything is placed perfectly.

But Moses can’t get in.

The book of Exodus ends with a perfectly constructed sanctuary full of the presence of the Divine and Moses outside.


Vayikra el Moshe – And God called to Moses

Midrash Tanhuma[1]

The Holy Blessed One says – it’s not right that Moses should be left out of all this, standing outside, while I am standing inside, so I’ll call to him to come in as it says –

Vayikra el Moshe – And God called to Moses

Like a doorman at some fancy club, beckoning at some shivering soul on the pavement and whisking them around the barriers and past the bouncers into the VIP area.



Rashi wanting to know why this root has been used and not amar/davar/tzav suggests that it is Lashon Hivah – the language of warmth

Vayikra means come inside, see what is here, make yourself at home in my home.


Elsewhere the Rabbis use the notion of Vayikra  - vav yod kuf aleph

To play a game at the expense of one of their favourite knocking horses Bilaam the non-Jewish prophet who is bribed into attempting to curse Israel.


What’s the difference, the second century sage Rabbi Hama Bar Hanina[2] asks, between the prophets of Israel and the prophets of the other nations?

God doesn’t reveal God’s full self to the peoples of the world, for when God calls to Bilaam

Vyikar elohim el bilaam

The translation is – God met Bilaam, but the language

Vayikar – vav yud kuf is an aleph away from the way in which God called to Moses

Vayikra has that extra aleph.

It’s a fuller willingness to encounter

I’m going to come back to this distinction between the Vayikar, lesser calling to the non-Jewish Bilaam and the Vayikra, the greater calling to Moses later.


Rabbi Yisaschar of Kfar Megido[3] goes somewhere else in search of a verse that explains the deeper intent behind the word Vayikra

It’s lashon kedushah – he says, the language of holiness.

He equates our Vayikra to a verse we know well from our liturgy.

It’s the language of the administering angels of Isaiah’s greatest theophany

Vayikra zeh el zeh vamar

And the angels called out one to another


The Rabbis are trying to get at the way this beckoning call from God to Moses – this Vayikra – both the word and the whole apparatus that follows – is a whisper designed for a chosen lover.

God is descending from aloof aloneness – alone in the Mishcan – to engage with a mere human, Moses, drawing Moses in with lashon hiva, loving entreaties.

There is a sense, in reading this verse this way, of God bearing Godself, opening Godself up to the possibility of relationship, like a suitor in the first moments of a new relationship of intimacy

A relationship which bears, of course, the possibility of being dumped, caused pain.

We’ll come back to the pain later.


In Shmot Rabba[4] Moses equates the inside of the mishkan, the place where God’s presence manifests, to the top of Mount Sinai, at the very moment of revelation.

Just as I was unable to stand on the top of the mountain in the direct presence of God’s revelation – God’s revealing – so too, thought Moses, in the minds of the Rabbis, I must be unable to enter into the Sanctuary.

God was after all quite clear in the run up to the revelation in Exodus, whoever ascended to the top of the mountain would die.

And we know, from stories yet to be told, that entering unbidden into the sanctuary of the wilderness also courts death.

So Moses waits outside.

No, says God, vayikra el Moshe, come inside.

It’s a permitted trespass into an inner sanctum.

Actually the more I think about this relational aspect of the verb Vayikra, the harder it is for me to move away from the gestalt of young suitors, at the beginning of a new relationship.

This Vayikra, this beckoning into the forbidden place is meant in the same way that a suitor might be permitted to place a first kiss on their lover.

There is a sense of danger, a risk of a slap across the face, or worse, if the invitation has been misunderstood.


So much for the opening line of the parasha


The Haftorah opens with God in full voice


I created this people, says God, that they should extol my praise.

But you have not called me, o Jacob.

The relationship has gone wrong.

God exposed Godself to the possibility of relationship with Jacob, with us,

And we let the entreaty go, we dumped God.

So far, this is standard Prophetic stuff,


But watch the Hebrew

But you have not called me, o Jacob.

Vlo oti karata yaacov


Karah – call – that word again.

The Rabbis place this failing of calling, vlo oti karata, as the Haftorah alongside the moment of romance when God called vayikrah to Moses in our Torah reading.

You have to admire the Rabbis.

It’s more than brave, there is a poignancy, a pain, a pathos even.


God calls to us, but we fail to respond.

We are not open to the possibility of relationship.

The leap of trust, the leap of faith, which God showed Moses, we don’t reciprocate.

We break the rules of relationships in formation.

The suitor flutters their eyelids at us, we are supposed to flutter our eyelids in return.

Or not.

We let the invitation drop at our feet, and look disdainfully at our prospective suitor.

Vlo oti karata yaacov

We are portrayed much like the sort of strutting buck who, as his date’s face lights up at the prospect of what might be, is already deciding that she couldn’t possibly be gorgeous enough or bright enough or whatever it is.

We are busy backing away before any possibility of true encounter becomes possible.


V’lo oti karata Yaacov.

And you didn’t call Me Jacob

Like a prospective suitor who left their first date promising to call the very next day.

We didn’t call.

And now we are being confronted by our failings.

And now God, in the mouth of Isaiah is castigating us for our false promises.

We are portrayed as the sort of person who behaves as if there is nothing out there, up in the cosmos or on the earth below, that makes it worth our bearing ourselves, of taking the leap of faith, the leap of trust that any true relationship demands.


So what kind of relationships do we enter into, these bucks who don’t, who can’t pick up the phone?

The end of the Haftorah offers an extraordinarily powerful image.

We are compared to a carpenter, a maker of idols.


From Verse 13 of Isaiah Chapter 44

The carpenter stretches out his ruler; he marks the wood out with a pencil; he fits it with chisels, and he marks it out with the compass, and he creates the figure of a man,

Yes, he kindles the wood, and bakes bread; or, he makes a god, and worships it.

He burns half of it in the fire; with this half of it he eats meat and is satisfied;

And with what is left of it he makes a god, his carved image; he falls down to it, and worships it, and prays to it.


God is not impressed

For he has shut their eyes – the Haftorah continues - that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand.


In place of a true relationship, with all the danger, trespass and possibility of a true relationship.

We would rather carve a lover to suit out of a block of wood.

And we treat this newly carved lover in the same way we treat a piece of kindling, for indeed they share the same source.

If it keeps us warm, that’s good.

If it threatens us, demands too much from us, huh – we’ll lob it in the fire and try another one.

We’ve shut our eyes, says God, and built an idol we can see,

What we should have done the opposite.

We should have done the dramatically counter-intuitive, but gloriously powerful opposite.

We should open our eyes and enter into a relationship that which cannot be seen.

The call is clear if counter-intuitive, we need to open our eyes to that we cannot see,


We should be wary of seeing this almost two thousand year old ‘idol’ language as anything other than a most contemporary attack on our most contemporary sensibilities.

Isaiah’s symbol of the carpenter would apply today just as well.

We are all busy carving our own idols to suit our own interests.

We make gods out of those things that keep us warm, or feed our belly, or satisfy our momentary needs.

We, all too often, seek out relationships made to fit us,

Rather than leap towards relationships that cause us to change, to yield, to give up.


I want to come back to one of the Midrashim with which I began – the Midrash that suggested that the difference between the call to Moses and the call to Bilaam, was the difference between Vayikar and Vayikrah.

The difference is a single letter – an aleph.


A letter that, of course, has no sound.

The call, when it comes, the call that is so special, so pregnant with possibility of relationship, is recognisable from every other call in our existence by the sound of nothing.

We have to listen so carefully to hear that which has no sound.

We need to prime ourselves ready to fall in love, rather than swan around deaf to quiet whispers, hearing only the obvious charms of the material world.


The haftorah tells us to open our eyes to see that which cannot be seen.

The Midrash which makes such play of the extra aleph in the call of true romance tells us to open our ears to that which cannot be heard.


For this is the only way to fall in love,

To find God,

To find true relationship.


We find God,

We find love,

We find relationship

By trusting that which has no form,

By caring for things that cannot be measured

By opening our eyes to see that which cannot be seen, and

By opening our ears to hear that which cannot be heard.


This is the message of this innocuous Vayikra

This is my message to us all today.


Shabbat shalom






Aleph of a difference.

[1] Yashar 1

[2] Vay Rabbah 1:12

[3] Ad loc

[4] 19:3

Monday, 15 March 2010

Why oh Why oh Why

Pesach is Coming - Why oh why oh why?

This week we read a Maftir portion designed to awaken us to the arrival of Pesach. Rosh Hodesh Nissan will be marked this coming Monday night & Tuesday and the Sedarim beckon on the 14th (& 15th) of Nissan, this year falling on Monday 29th and Tuesday 30th March. I want to suggest three reasons why; why care about Chametz, why clean and shop and cook and go to shul and don’t go to work, and even why we should put up with the grumbling sense that this is all very expensive. (I will have more to say about the financial piece next week).

Pesach is an obligation. We are ‘mechuyah.’ The word shares an etymological root with words like ‘debt.’ We get to live, to breath and we therefore owe an obligation. As Jews we get to be free, we are not enslaved, we could easily be, and therefore we owe an obligation. As Jews we get Torah, a world-view which enhances the brightest moments and holds us in our darkest times, we get to inherit a tradition of beauty, might, spirit and wit, and therefore we owe an obligation. Pesach, with all its cleaning and cooking is how a Jew pays-back in deference to the incredible miracle of our existence. The place of God as obligator is, for some central, and for others peripheral. I would encourage those for whom God plays only a peripheral role as obligator to consider this difference as semantic, rather than substantial. We have so much to be grateful for, we owe this debt to whomever or whatever we consider awarded us such extraordinary bounty.

Pesach is a ritualised spring-clean. Leaven is fermented; it is part of last year’s harvest. At Pesach we forgo leaven; we use only the new harvest. Pesach is a time to clear out old stock. We check the inventory not just of our cupboards, but also of ourselves. We have the opportunity to scrub away at the accreted grime of another year and through our cleaning and observance of Kashrut we become renewed.

Chametz also represents, mystically speaking, the aspect of impurity surrounding the holy spark inside every human. Other language used, in the tradition, to approach the same idea is that of a husk, surrounding a kernel. We all need husks to protect us. We all need to get mixed-into the day-to-day world with its very real challenges (we all need to knead?). But we also need a moment to cast away the husk, to seek out and discard the Hametz and to allow the pure divine spark inside each of us to shine freely. That is the spiritual essence of Pesach.

Two weeks, two days and counting.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

On the Invention of the Jewish People

Vayak-hayl moshe

Moses brought together


In this moment we are forged into a cahal, a community.

The 2000 year old translation, cum Biblical commentary Onkelos translates Vayak-hayl as uchnas ­– brought together.

That root – canas – recognise from bet hacanaset – Synagogue.

A house of Jewish coming together – the original Synagogue was brought together on the slopes of Mount Sinai, says Rashi, the day after Moses threw down the tablets bearing the original 10 commandments given on the Mountain top at a date the classic Rabbinic tradition would have us think is around 3400 years ago.


Vayak-hayl moshe et col eidat bnei yisrael

Moses brought together the nation of Israel –


That word – edah – usually translated as Citizen


Moses brought together the citizenary of Israel.

Of course the religious piece is central, but this term edah suggests something more than a mere commitment to communal worship.

It suggests something political, national, ethnic.


It’s an interesting time to be thinking about the nature of our experience as Jews.

Pesach is coming soon, soon we will all be seated imaging that we ourselves went forth from Egypt.

The religious energy of the season is one of coming together yet again, another year, another generation,

Both in religious terms, and also as a people.

One of the ideas I love is that all the Jewish people, even those of us who converted in, or have converts in our history, all stood together in Sinai, when Moses called us together.


It’s not always an easy relationship, we may agree or disagree, but we are in this together, not only today and into the future, but also back into the past – precisely because of our shared past.


We’ve been doing this for while,

Coming together as a people, looking back, looking forward,

And doing it as an edah, a faith, a nation.


Or maybe not.


I first came across Shlomo Sand’s book The Invention of the Jewish People when it was featured on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week.

It’s had a lot of press attention.

Not bad for an academic historian.

But it’s not a book I recommend.

Sand is certainly very keen to be seen as a brave and fearless writer, but there is a line between boldness and, intellectually speaking, jumping out of a plane, without checking that your parachute works properly.

That’s the problem.


Sand’s claim is that the Jews were only ever a religion, not a people, not a culture, until the 19th Century when Jewish Peoplehood was invented by the great Jewish Historian, Henreich Graetz.

Now Graetz was indeed a great historian. His masterwork History of the Jews from Oldest Times to the Present was the first great modern history of the Jewish people.

Pleasure to have my dad here – I know the book is on your shelves, it’s eight volumes, your excused not reading it all,

But Sand’s suggests that Graetz, by brining the entire tradition of Judaism into a single work suppressed all the variety, the ethnic diversity, and the multi-cultural reality of Judaism.

Prior to Graetz, says Sands, Judaism was a religious culture, not a strange wandering nation.’

And after Graetz, Sand claims, Jews constructed for themselves a ‘long unbroken geneology.’ And this prepared the way for Zionism which claimed the Land of Israel as the home for a people thrown out of their ancestral land.

So if the Jews were never a people.

Then the central claim of Zionism can be debunked.

And if central claim of Zionism can be debunked, then the Jewish nature of the State of Israel should be rejected.

And if the Jewish nature of the State of Israel be rejected then …

Well … you can see how this might confront some as problematic.


At least Sand, a historian from Tel Aviv, is perfectly clear about his intent.

He doesn’t like the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, he wants that dismantled.


While Sand’s work has been picked up by the BBC, and while it attracted the support in France, in particular, it’s been received with a loud raspberry by Jewish Historians.

Martin Goodman, Professor of Jewish History at Oxford University in a review in the Times Lit Supplement pulls the book’s central claims apart and asks,

‘What has possessed Shlomo Sand, a Tel Aviv historian of contemporary European history, to write about a subject of which he patently knows so little.’


Goodman goes on to suggest dubious motives on behalf of a number of his colleagues, and I quote,

Worryingly, the book has … received praise from historians and others who ought to have known better. These enthusiasts do not presumably know the material about which Sand writes, but they like his conclusions.


Conclusions that tear at the heart of the Jewish state.


The reasons why professional Jewish historians find Sand’s work so shoddy are partly technical and partly blindingly obvious.


I’ll share some technical ideas first.


The big problem with Sand’s analysis of what happened in the 1850s, with the publication of Graetz’s History of the Jews, is that he has the story upside down and back to front.

Sand’s is right that Graetz was definitely interested in showing that the Jews were a nation, but that is only because in the surrounding society, at that time, the idea that Jews were not a nation, was beginning to circulate.

The doors of modernity were being opened to the Jew and Jews were being asked to demonstrate their fidelity to the States where they lived.

Napolean’s Sanhedrin – who would sign up with in a battle between France and a Jew from another nation?


Can hear this sort of wish to strip Jews of our national character in the famous declaration of the eighteenth French Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tennerre that Jews should be [quote] ‘granted everything as individuals and denied everything as a nation.’

Graetz’s claim for Jewish nationhood was a response to a suggestion that we should not be afforded status as a nation.


Sand, claims that before Graetz, no-one considered that Jews were a nation.

Graetz on the other hand is claiming that before modernity everyone knew Jews were a nation.

Graetz, it has to be said, has the facts on his side.


We have records of a certain Benjamin of Tudela who went travelling the world in 1150, 100 years before Marco Polo.

He makes his way from Tudela to France, Greece, Constantinople, Syria, Persia, before travelling back to Spain via North Africa. In all he visited over 300 cities.

And time and time we see his principle focus – the Jews, the numbers of Jews in any given city, their communal leaders, their buildings, their lives

There is information on their surrounding cultures, for which other historians are very grateful, but the focus of the work is on Jews.

I’m quite sure Binyamin MiTudela would have been most surprised to be told that his wasn’t an exercise in meeting his people around the world, for there was no Jewish people around the world at that time.


But we can go earlier still.

Martin Goodman, the Professor of Jewish History at Oxford, notes that the Romans of the first through fourth centuries had a compulsion to categorise the various people they conquered and would ascribe various terms; secta, superstitio, or religio to those who shared a religious outlook.

But the Jews are also referred to in poems, legal tomes and even the great Theodossian Code as ‘natio’ a nation.

The Romans thought we were a nation by the C4.


Actually the very earliest reference to Israel in any archaeological record we posses refers to the Israel as a people.

The Merneptah Stela, was found in Thebes, it’s been dated to 1200 BCE, that would be something like 250 years after the Passover story.

The famous irony of the oldest surviving reference to the Jewish people, outside of our own texts, is that it refers to the destruction of the Jewish people.

The Stela reads,


‘Canaan is captive with all woe. The City of Ashkelon is conquered, The City of Gezer seized, The City of Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed.’


But we, of course, are still here.


In other words, the great constant of the 3000 plus year history of the Jewish people is that, in each and every nation someone comes along to destroy either us, or our stories.

Sand, unlike the Pharaoh of the Bible, is quite OK with Jews living, he just don’t want to allow us to live as a people.


So much for the technical problems with Sand’s thesis

The stuff you need to know about Jewish history in order to rubbish.

The bleedingly obvious problems with Sand’s thesis is that it is bleedingly obviously nonsense.


Sand admits that Jews across time and history were united by a religion, but attaches great significance to the claim that Jews can’t be a people because we lived in different lands, because Sepahrdi Jewish culture and language is so different from Ashkenazi Jewish culture and language and dress and so forth.

But it would never have occurred to a Jew in C14 Morocco that he wasn’t part of the same people as a Jew of C14 Italy, or C14 France.

They would have felt the same kinship to Jews across the world as we still feel today


Two years ago Josephine and I visited Tangiers for a day, popping over from the South of Spain on a speeding hydrofoil for a couple of days away from Carmi who was quite happy playing on the beach with his grandfather.

What did we do?

We looked out for the Shul, the Jewish trinkets in the market, we went looking for the notions of kinship.


I wasn’t trying to touch people who had the same ‘Jewish gene’ as I do.

Because I don’t believe that Judaism exists in the genes.

I wasn’t even trying to find a minyan or a kosher butcher I could use to fulfil various religious requirements of faith, as important as religion is in my Jewish identity

I was trying to connect to people who connect to Jewish peoplehood the same way that I do.

People who wanted to stand in the same edah,

People who wanted to be part of the same kehillah.


In many ways I was doing exactly the same thing Binyamin MiTudela was a thousand years previously, though my journey from Morroco to Spain would have been speedier than his.


And I know this sort of tourism,

This sort of seeking out connections, to our past, our present, our future, is at the heart of the identity of so many of us here.

And has been part of the identity of Jews for, not hundreds, but thousands of years.


So what is the point?

Sand is wrong, factually misleading and blinded by his desire to strip from Israel its Jewish nature.

But he’s not the first person to try and write off the Jewish people, he’s not even the first Jew.

So what?


The point is this.

We ARE part of a people, a great and mighty people with an extraordinary great, mighty and LONG history.

We ARE brought together by religion, by peoplehood, by kinship, by our commitment to our fellow Jews through time and space.

And that should fill us with a tremendous sense of pride.

It should drive us to ensure the bonds that bind us are so strong they create a Jewish future in which we, as a Jewish people are even more clearly agudat echad – one entity.

But I’m not sure it does.

It certainly doesn’t enough.

Sand, at one point, suggests that Jews across the world can’t seriously claim to be a nation since so few Jews bother to learn Hebrew.

He’s wrong that that means we aren’t a nation, but he would be right had he suggested that this means we are weaker than we would be if we all shared safah achat.

Sand, at several points, suggests that Jews across the world can’t seriously claim to be a nation since so many Jews over time have married others who can’t trace their genetic heritage back to Sinai.

He’s wrong that that means we aren’t a nation, but he would be right had he suggested that we are weakened as a nation by the levels of intermarriage that threaten the future of the Jewish people.


This 3000 plus year old story of Jewish peoplehood doesn’t write itself.

It’s not an accident, and while it may be a miracle it’s foolish at best and blasphemous at worst to suggest that God will take care of our future.

Jewish peoplehood is in our hands now.

The way we react to triumphs of our kin across the world

Our commitment to deepening our engagement with our shared cultures, traditions - our shared language –

These are the tests of our strength as a people.

And we are not strong enough.


This year, as we head off to Pesach, and the chance to sit together as a people, in each of respective homes, we should commit ourselves to our strength.

We should commit ourselves to prove Sand wrong not only because he has dramatically misread our Jewish past, but also because he has misread our Jewish present and even, dare we pray it, our Jewish future.


Shabbat shalom

Friday, 5 March 2010

Reasons to be Masorti; 1, 2, 3


I hugely proud to be a Masorti Rabbi, leading a Masorti community, this weekend in particular.


Firstly this is a Judaism I believe in. I believe in a relationship between the Jews and the Divine which requires no dislocation between my faith and my experience, between what I know from academic scholarship and what I read in the texts of my tradition. I also feel embedded in my tradition when I experience it through Masorti lenses; still speaking the same language, lighting the same flames, reading the same texts. I can make myself at home here.


Secondly I believe the Masorti path, in matters both Jewish and general, is a path which can bring healing to our battered planet and our people. The siren calls of fundamentalism and godless secularism beguile some, but they fill me with fear. Around the pole of fundamentalism lurks danger; a dangerous attitude towards religious authority and a dangerous attitude to anyone who believes something other than the fundamentalists’ charter. Around the pole of secularism lurks a hole where values should be; how do we, as a society, limit the siren power of materialism, fashion and the corporeal. Of course we need money in our bank account, clothes on our back and a fit and strong body, but our soul too needs nurturing to the point where it can lift our actions and aspirations beyond the merely material. We need to develop the skills to delay our desires for gratification, to live with contradiction and to chart a course between polarities, whether we are considering matters of religious ritual, social responsibility or global concern. The Masorti path is that path.


Thirdly I’ll stand to be judged by the quality of the company I keep. Across America Masorti Rabbis are at the forefront of the Hechsher Tzedek initiative which campaigns to ensure that Jewish kashrut providers employ workers on a living wage, with appropriate benefits and seeks to bring an end to the embarrassment of Kosher establishment being shut down by various government employment agencies for breech of basic employee protections. In Portugal Masorti Rabbis are working with locals who trace their Jewish ancestry back to 1496 and are looking for a way to reconnect with a tradition they know only by its shadow. In Germany Masorti Rabbis are working to give many of the 150,000 Russian Jews who have moved to Germany opportunities to integrate into German society while developing a Jewish spark Communism almost snuffed out. In Israel Masorti Rabbis are attempting to give the vast majority of traditional Israelis a meaningful engagement with their Jewish heritage, freed of the taint of a Haredi community who seem often to understand only self-interest and desire only power.


New London is part of a movement which with integrity, a unique perspective on matters both religious and secular and the ability to form the future of our Jewish world.


Three things to do about it.

Firstly, use the ‘M’ word. We should be proud of who we are and where we stand.

Secondly, come to Shul this Shabbat, where our guest scholar in residence will be Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the Masorti Rabbinic Assembly.

Thirdly, it’s still not too late to register for the Yom Masorti conference where 200 Jews from nine countries across Europe will be coming to New North London Synagogue to learn, share, dream – and eat. This Sunday from 9:45-4:45, but you can sneak in late or leave early. I hope to see you there.


Shabbat shalom

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