Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Stolen Lulavs and Stolen Judaism

You can’t use a stolen Lulav on Succot.

A whole chapter of the Talmudic Tractate goes by the name ‘Lulav HaGazul’ – the Stolen Lulav.

It raises an interesting metaphysical idea.

The Lulav looks the same as your neighbour’s.

You shake it the same way your neighbour shakes it.

It just doesn’t fulfil the obligation of Lulav because it’s not yours.

You have to own your own Lulav.


For what it is worth you can’t borrow a Lulav, on the first day of Succot either nor can you rely on someone else to shake a Lulav on your behalf. You need to own your own Lulav.


I think the same applies to every aspect of our faith.

There is such a thing as a stolen Judaism, a borrowed Judaism and there is such a thing as a Judaism lived vicariously – a Judaism that we expect someone else to do on our behalf. And they don’t work.


So what is a stolen Judaism? During the Yom Kippur afternoon Shiur with Joel Stanley, and the Rabbinic Q&A that followed, there was an interesting conversation on the relationship between using the rituals of Judaism to bring one to a place where one feels rooted, in a way that one cannot without ritual ‘support,’ as opposed to the idea of ‘faking’ one’s Judaism – going through the actions devoid of an attempt to find a spiritual connection; doing the actions without bringing the soul along too. This kind of faking, this appropriation of the external shell without the internal commitment is the kind of dishonesty a faked or stolen Judaism entails.

We need to own our own Judaism.


And at some point in the next week of Succot, I urge us all to come take hold of a Lulav and to find a Succah in which to dwell. We have a fabulous Succah, of course, at the Shul and I hope as many members as possible will come and enjoy the sense of feeling this festival; the sense of being outdoors, connected to the season, engaged in the cycle of the year.

Just please don’t expect anyone else to do it for you.


For those members who find it easier to make weekday festivals, we would be particularly grateful for your support on this (and next) Thursday and Friday mornings. Services start at 9:15am. And we will have some Lulavim which we can give you (you can be given a Lulav on Succot – gifts are always good).


Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

Monday, 20 September 2010

Reason (Relationships) and Belief - Kol Nidrei Sermon


I woke up this morning in a reasonable mood.

One of our kids wanted me to get him up.

I rolled over and reasoned whether to wake up my wife and tell her I loved her before I got out of bed.

After thinking about it for a few moments I decided not to, she had been up late the night before and I reasoned she would rather sleep.


I went in to see my son. He said, ‘good morning daddy, I love you.’

I reasoned about how to respond. On the one hand I want him to feel loved, but on the other hand he is old enough to start developing his own sense of the world, and maybe a bland reciprocal response might retard his emotional development.


And then I reasoned about whether to make a blessing before tucking in to my breakfast cereal. On the one hand, I’m a Rabbi – I’m supposed to be in a rather special relationship with God. On the other – what about science? Do I really want to start the day claiming that God is the creator of my breakfast when I know that there are arable farmers, and dairy farmers and Kellogs all chipping in on the creative process.


Being in a reasonable mood can be a little exhausting, no.


Actually – none of that is true.

I didn’t write this sermon this morning.

I don’t subject my relationship with God to the test of reason.

And I don’t subject my relationship with my wife and kids to ongoing tests of reason, I don’t think any of us do.


But I do want to talk, tonight, about reason, God and relationships.


Over the summer I encountered the writing of Damon Linker, and Linker gave me some language with which to engage with what the publishing industry calls ‘The New Atheism.’

Linker suggests that the key that divides those of us who disavow a belief in God from those of us who proclaim a belief in God is our sense of the role of reason in the world.

The key question is this – is reason the path to ultimate truth or do we have to push past reason to reach ultimate truth?


Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the like say reason is ultimate.

If you can double-blind test an idea, they say, and prove or disprove a hypothesis there you have ultimacy and anything less, they say, is foolishness.

But for me reason falls short, it’s a necessary, but insufficient part of what it means to seek ultimacy.

I’m not advocating we become buffoons or unreasonable boors, but we can’t turn only to reason when we encounter claims made on our time, our purse and our heartstrings.


Reason is fine and if we want to focus on a laboratory experiment or trying to puzzle out a tricky Tosafot – reason is terrifically useful.

But when it comes to relationships reason is dangerous.


The problem with an over reliance on reason is that reason only takes place inside our own skull – it’s an entirely internal process.

It’s no co-incidence that one of Dawkins’ most successful books, before he wrote The God Delusion, was The Selfish Gene. It’s a book that suggests my life is driven by the microscopic pursuit of my own best interests, Survival of the Fittest. As if every time I succeed in crushing a weaker competitor for scarce resources my genes cheer me on.

Reason values self-interest too greatly. If I think about whether it’s more reasonable to look after my own best interests or to do something for someone else, reason will tell me, time and time again, to look after myself.


And tonight – Kol Nidrei – is a night to be focussing on our relationships with others;

I believe we should be training ourselves to look beyond reason not only because it changes our relationship with the world, but also because is changes our relationships with the other people in it.


Reasonable selfishness, I think, is the antithesis of relationships, it promotes an arrogance and a blindness to the needs of others.

It’s a serious problem. If we pursue reasonable selfishness we risk our lives becoming ever more lonely, ever more committed to our own material success to the exclusion of all else.

Reasonable selfishness risks tipping our world tipping into an abyss of plundered natural resources.

We become in danger of thinking that what counts is what we accumulate, not the amount of love and care we spend on others.

I came across the Archbishop of Canterbury on great form on this point. Rowan Williams wrote, a society ‘based on nothing but calculations of self-interest, fed by a … distorted version of Darwinism, doesn’t build a habitat for human beings; at best it builds a sort of fortified box room for paranoiacs.’[1]

Maybe we are there already.


Or maybe not. Actually my sense is that none of us want to live in a selfish world. It may be reasonable, but it’s too lonely.

We want to live in worlds imbued with friendship, relationships, love, generosity, kindness. And all these deeply necessary, deeply needed things are, let it be admitted, unreasonable – or beyond reason. And it may be this deep need for connection is the answer to the all-conquering power of the pursuit of the reasonable.


Reason, certainly, is not a useful tool when applied to religious questions, questions about God.

The New Atheists have been tremendously successful in suggesting that religion, God, are indeed things to which reason applies.

They like to suggest that religion exists to explain what there is in the world, the sort of question that reason is very good at answering, the sort of question religion doesn’t answer so well.

Christopher Hitchens claims that, ‘thanks to the telescope and the microscope [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.’

And, of course, if religion is nothing other than an attempt to explain things we can see through telescopes and microscopes, religion crumbles before the challenge of reasonable scientific exploration.

But religion doesn’t stand or fall because of things discovered by science. And Hitchens’ claim ‘is rather like saying,’ and I’m borrowing the phrase from Terry Eagleton,[2] ‘that thanks to the [discovery of the] electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.’


Actually the analogy of Chekhov – novels – and religion is a good one.

Reading a novel is an exercise in letting go of reason. We don’t read a great novel, or watch a great film and worry about whether it depicts true events. Good novels shake us loose[3] from the pursuit of reason above all else. When we read novels we don’t ask the question – ‘do the characters in this book exist?’ We ask the question, ‘do I believe in the characters in this book?’ And that’s a vital distinction when it comes to religion and God.


The New Atheists have been carried away with the question ‘Does God exist?’ But it’s the wrong question. God doesn’t exist in the same way as anything else in the Universe exists. Tables exist, cats, dogs, people exist. Even the Higgs Bosom particle exists – unless of course it doesn’t (and if you want to know if it does or doesn’t of course you’ll need lots of reason and a vast microscope to find out). But whether or not some microscopic particle exists, or not, has nothing to do with God. God isn’t something that is, or is not present, like a table or an electron.

God is the reason for existence, its justification and its source of meaning. God is that on which existence depends. God explains why there is something other than nothing.

Once there is something, science is great at working out how it works, but science doesn’t go back far enough for the religious mind.


Just as the key question when reading a novel is, ‘do I believe in this?’ The key question when it comes to God is ‘Do I believe in God?’

Belief – something we can depend on, something that impacts on the way we live our lives. It’s not just an intellectual commitment – belief drives action.

Can we, do we, live our lives with the conviction that there is something beyond reason, greater than self-interest, beyond the mechanical unfolding of some giant conglomeration of selfish genes?

I try to. And that is what belief means to me.

Can we, do we believe in something we cannot see, cannot test, only feel and respond to?

Do you believe in God? I do.


Belief at its most basic level, means accepting that there is a reason for there being something rather than nothing.

Belief, at least a Jewish kind of belief – the kind of belief that I offer for members of this community – means accepting that something other than pure reason pervades the Universe.

Belief is the antithesis of the self-regarding morality driven by the Selfish Gene.

Belief is about that which is other than our own self-interest.

Belief means believing that there is something else to engage with and care about.

Belief, on the other side of reason, is a kind of anti-selfishness.


If an over-reliance on reasonableness folds us in on ourselves, opening ourselves to belief lifts our horizons above ‘me myself and I’ – and towards ‘me and something, or someone, else.’

And that has to be good news for the world in which we live and for the lives we live in it.


When we believe we acknowledge something beyond wanted us here, we come to feel that our existence and our actions, in some way, matter.

And here we are very close to the grounding of religious morality.

Because when we look around we realise that we are not the only people here, we are not, therefore, the only people mattering, counting, being important.

If they are suffering there is a problem. If we could hurt we must strive not to – for they count.


We tune in not just to some sort of cosmic power, but also to the needs of others.

Belief in something other than us opens us up to believing in someone other than us. Belief opens our souls to believing that other people matter, not just as vehicles for sustaining our own existence, but as people in their own rights.

The step beyond reason is a step into morality.


It’s unreasonable to be told – v’ahavtra lreicha camocha – you should love your fellow.

It’s unreasonable to be told that if we hurt a fellow human being we have to mend that hurt – apologise.

It’s unreasonable to be told that we should observe Shabbat – stop working, stop spending.

These are unreasonable claims, but absolutely vital truths if we are preparedto recognise that there is something other than our own self-interest that counts.

The step beyond reason, into belief, pushes us into an ethical engagement with our world and those we share it with.


Belief is not a totem one can hold onto to hide from scientific reasonableness.

It’s a training in seeing and being moved by others.

Belief is not a guarantee of any particular kind of salvation either in this world or a world to come.

It’s an attunement to the importance of caring about that which lies beyond self-interest.

It’s not about turning away from the world and the people who live in it

It’s about an ever more profound engagement with those around us.


Belief, I believe, makes us better, it lifts up our horizons and allows us to see more deeply.

And I commend it to us all.

I encourage us to believe more deeply, care more intensely and feel more confident as we move beyond the limited power of reasonableness in this coming year.

And in this way, please God, we should all find a sweeter, healthier and happier year.


Gemar Tov, may this be our sealed decree for the year ahead.

[1] Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crises, Citizen Ethics Network (2010) p. 9.

[2] Reason, Faith and Revolution (2009). I am hugely in the debt of Professor Eagleton’s book. His analysis underlies much of what I say here.

[3] A phrase of the literary critic Catherine Gallagher, The Rise of Fictionality.

Shadow Chasers and Shadow Makers - Yizkor Sermon



I read this year the story of Invisible Stanley.

I read it to my four year old and he loved it, but it’s been haunting me.

Poor Stanley wakes up one morning invisible.

His kid brother calls his parents into the bedroom to witness a bulging shape in the bed; there is the clear outline of a child, but no visible child.

I want, this Yizkor morning to talk about this outline.

This palpable imprint of an invisible person.


Often, when officiating at funerals or Shiva services I’m struck by the presence of this imprint of a disappeared person.

I’ve stood around a grave where loss creates a hollow space delineated by the web of family members and friends standing around.

Sometimes I feel I can almost make out the outline of the life lived in by looking at the outline of friends and family.

It can sometimes feel as if the imprint of the deceased remains, even in their invisibility, like the imprint of some invisible child discernable only in the impressions made in the bed-clothes.

And even as the body is lowered into the dust, decomposing already.

There remains something.

Lives leave outlines.


There’s a Hebrew term, actually a term drawn from Lurianic Kabbalah, which captures the idea perfectly - Reishimu.

The Hebrew root – Roshem – has something to do making an imprint or recording something, but the Kabbalasitic term Reishimu has an additional valence


In Lurianic Kabbalah Reshimu refers to the remnant traces of the Divine still present in the world after God’s withdrawal from the Universe.

It’s like the thin sheen of wine in a glass after the wine has gone,

The wine is gone, but the scent, the reiach, the spirit, lingers and provides a connection to what once was.

The specific valence held by the term Reshimu is that the thing which created the impression is gone, to be replaced by a very active absence, a longing and a sense of loss.

I’m not interested today in the sense of Reshimu as part of a complicated Kabbalistic system,

But rather the sense in which we stand here today, at Yizkor, trying to hold on to the lingering scent, trying to remember the impression, trying to hold the shadow left behind when the physical presence has passed away.


Or perhaps there are two things we are doing today, on Yom Kippur. One is we are trying to hold onto that which has gone, and the other involves encountering our own mortality. We think, surely, about what it is we will leave behind when our time comes.

Who will stand by our grave?

What will be the shape of the web our life will leave behind?

What will be our Reishimu?


We are here today as shadow chasers – still trying to hold onto the remnants of lives loved and lost.

And we are here today as shadow makers – casting our lives beyond our own physical possibility.


I have some advice for the Shadow chasers, and the Shadow makers among us.


The Shadow chasers first.

How do we hang on to a disappeared life?

I know for many of us here it’s a nonsense question – the lives we commemorate today suffuse us so completely that any notion of forgetting who it is who bore us, or loved us seems ridiculous, but bear with me.

Because I think the first step in holding onto a shadow is a little counter-intuitive and applies, perhaps most especially, to those among us who hold on most tightly to our disappeared loved ones.

To hold onto a shadow we first have to acknowledge that we cannot hold onto the physical reality.

The first thing to do is know the life has indeed gone.

The Talmud observes that when we die we die with our hand opened, we are no longer grasping after the material.

The dead let go of us.

And we are called upon to do the same.

I think that is the reason for the Shivah, the Shloshim, the first year of mourning rituals. They are designed to allow our fingers’ grasp to loosen, till we no longer cling onto that which has forever gone.

For those of us who have lost loved ones their physical presence is often the greatest way in which they were present in our lives.

But we can’t mourn properly – we can’t hold a shadow – while we look to cling to a physical reality.

Denial is, of course, one of the classic stages of mourning and we all do it in one way or another, but refusing to let go of the corporeal leaves us gripping on to that which has become empty and distracts us from paying attention to what can be, what must be held.


This year saw the passing of the greatest modern Yiddish poet, Avraham Stutskever.

Stutskever wrote a haunting poem about the murder of his mother in the Nazi takeover of Vilna.

Stutskever imagines running into his mother’s room after her death and seeing her torn nightshirt he pulls off his own clothes and climbs into the shirt, desperate to retain a physical connection with his mother.

And then, in the poem, his mother speaks to him, tells him to get out of the shirt. To let go of the physical in search of some other way of keeping her memory alive. [1]


You need to find other ways to hold onto to me, she calls and if you do;

‘I will still be alive

as the pit of the plum

contains in itself the tree,

the nest and the bird

and all else besides.’


So how do we hold onto shadows?

If we can’t hang onto the physical we need to address the emotional, the intangible – the values, the outlook, what the Rabbis call the ziv hapanim – the glow of the face, the life spirit of those we loved.

And then we need to bring our own lives, and the values of our own lives, into engagement with the values of those who have gone.

We need to shuffle our lives around these values, interleafing them with our own sense of self, like a pack of cards rippling together. So they continue to live inside us,

‘as the pit of the plum

contains in itself the tree,’


Actually that might be a touch over-romanticised.

Not every value needs to be, can ever be, internalised.

Some need to be rejected.

Judaism isn’t as simple-minded to assume that we would all wish to emulate every value of our parents. Sometimes relationships are more complicated than that.

But where we do strike out on our own – heading in the opposite direction of those who have gone before us – we should still recognise the impact on our lives of those we remember.


There is a story told[2] of the young Chasidic Master who takes over the court of his deceased father and promptly starts to change everything his father spent his life establishing. One of the father’s loyal servants challenges the son, ‘why are not following in the path of your father?’

The son responds, ‘My father taught me always to do what I think is right and never to assume that what ‘was’ must always ‘be.’

It’s possible to keep alive the memory of the deceased by doing the opposite of what they did.

One just has to act in their memory – b’zichronam.


Zecher – often translated as memory actually means something different from the English term often used to translate it.

Zecher / Yizkor doesn’t mean intellectually noting something in the same way we dig out the answer to a trivia question.

Zechor is not intellectual observance, it’s a full bodied commitment to live our lives in such a way as to make that which we remember live on.

Zachor et yom hashabbat – remember the Sabbath day – means make Kiddush, light Shabbat candles

Ve’Zacharta ki eved hayita beretz mitzrayaim – remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt – means you have to be wary of oppressing others.

A Hebrew sense of memory mandates action.

And Yizkor requires us to hunt through a person’s life in search of the ways in which we can live that life forward.


We live our memories, our zichronot, out in our every day lives.

But sometimes it’s not so obvious we should do this, or the memories have become a little faded, and that’s where ritual memory steps in.


The rituals of Jewish mourning are so are actions to perform b’zicharon – in active memory

We light a candle.

We give a gift of Tzedakah.

We say the Kaddish.

Come to shul to hear the El Malei Rachamim

We create a casing for the shadow.

Ritual allows us, forces us even, to re-encounter those who populated our lives and filled our lives with meaning while they were present for us.

Ritual is a vessel to hold that which, for whatever reason, we can’t hold directly.


And I believe it works.

I believe it is possible to let go of the corporeal and hold on to the shadow b’zicharon actively and meaningfully.

I know that my life continues to be populated by those I have loved and lost.

Holding on to their shadows doesn’t stop raw pain of recent loss, but it does help.

It makes William Faulkner’s exquisite observation almost most real.

It was Faulkner, of course, who said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” [3]


So this is how we hold onto Shadows.

We accept the loss of the physical.

We hunt through the values and the messages of the life lost

And we allow our lives to be impacted, we live out memory as a physical response.

Through our day to day actions and through ritual.


And what of us – those who are still alive.

Thinking today, surely, about our own mortality.

How do we cast a shadow that can last longer than our lives?


There is a Talmudic[4] tale of Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yonatan walking together in a cemetery and the thread of Rabbi Yonatan’s Tzitzit is trailing along the ground – he’s frum, you see, he wears his Tzitzit dangling long.

Rabbi Hiyya tells him to lift them up, so the dead won’t say ‘Tomorrow they are coming to join us, and today they gloat over us.’

Rabbi Yonatan ignores the advice rejecting the notion he should show humility before the dead by citing the verse from Ecclesiastes – The Dead know nothing.[5]

But Hiyya strikes back. He accuses Yonatan of understanding the verse backwards. When the verse speaks of the dead, says Yonatan, it means people who despite being alive are called dead. Meanwhile, he says, there are those who despite being dead, are nonetheless called alive.

There are those who are dead, even though they are alive.

And those who are alive, even though they are dead.


I think this analysis is precisely about what it means to live on after death.

We have to live in such a way that there is something that trails after us, like a wake trailing behind a ship that has slipped over the horizon.


What are we leaving behind?

There is a Jewish tradition of writing Ethical Wills, documents where people, often later in life, record the wisdom they would most wish to share with the generations to come.

As documents they have never particularly moved me.

But earlier this year I caught a web-phenomenon.

A professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University was diagnosed with terminal cancer and gave his last lecture to a crowd of students and faculty at the University.

Go home and google Last Lecture. It’s an incredible attempt to live beyond his life – the life he knew was ending. He gives this lecture, and he writes a book to leave something behind for his 3 children the oldest of whom is 4. The rest of us get to look in.

My favourite part, actually it’s only in the book, is when he gives his eighteen month old daughter some advice about dating, when she gets old enough to date.

‘Ignore everything your suitors tell you,’ Professor Randy Pausch advises, ‘and watch what they do.’

Ignore the words and watch the deeds.

My kids do that already.

I suspect we all do.

But it’s great advice for those of us thinking about our own shadows.

What we say counts for less than what we do.

Far, far less.

We all have opportunities to do things that will outlive us.

We all have opportunities to cast mighty pebbles beyond the reach of our own lives – as parents, friends, Jews – members of this community, as members of this society.

We cast pebbles not only in the grand gestures – the things a person might be able to do once of twice in a life.

We cast pebbles in our tiny actions – the way we greet a friend, the way we greet a stranger, the way we greet the Sabbath, the food we eat.

To re-imagine a Yom Kippur appropriate image, maybe once we are gone the books of our life get passed down to those we leave behind and our every deed and misdeed is recorded therein –

Vhotem yad col adam bo

The seal of every person is inscribed within them.


There are those the Talmud calls dead even while alive.

And there those we all know who are alive even after their death.

We live beyond ourselves – we cast a shadow beyond our mortality – by living our lives deliberately, aware of the wake that will stretch back behind us.

Our actions inscribe the book our mourners will read when we are gone.


Of course the two parts of this sermon – the part about holding shadows and the part about making shadows – are only the opposite sides of the same coin.

We leave for others that which they will remember us by when we are gone.

We remember in others what they leave for us to remember them by.

We are zocher what others hizkir

Books are inscribed, books are read.

There is a roshem, there is a reishimu


Because, in our faith, and certainly on this day, death is not the end.

It merely marks the transition from our casting of shadows, to the holding of shadows that will be done by those we leave behind.


Or in the words of a poem I found unattributed in a eulogy give by Rabbi Louis Jacobs in 1961


There is a haven where storm-tossed souls may go –

You call is death – we, immortality.

Your kindly thoughts and deeds –they will live on

This is not death – ‘tis immortality.

And now you know the thing that all men learn

There is no death – there’s immortality.[6]


Gemar Hatimah Tovah – may we be sealed for a good year

[1] Burnt Pearls:Ghetto Poems

[2] In Schachter-Shalomi Spiritual Intimacy

[3] Requiem for a Nun

[4] Brachot 18a-b

[5] 9:5

[6] Endpage Address in Memory of Hyman Stone 1903 - 1961

Be Involved

Writing In Next Year at New London


To those of you who have been moved not one bit by all this.

To those of you who

  • Have been bored by the Rabbi
  • Or you can’t stand the Chazan & choir
  • If you are unmoved by all this tradition and after nine days and 22 hours of involvement with Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur remain resolutely nonplussed by having to have spent as much time as you have, these last ten days, with the other members of this community


I’m sorry.

The good news is we are almost over and this sermon is not about you.

You don’t have to listen.


This is a sermon for everyone else.

It’s a sermon for people who think this has been special.

All of this or any of this.

If you have been excited, enthused, engaged, provoked, moved – at all – these past ten days.

If you feel you have come to a closer understanding of what it means to be a Jew, a human being, a member of New London Synagogue.

Whether you are all fired up, whether there is but a single spark struck off the flint of your soul.

If this, all this, has touched you at all.

This sermon is for you.


This Shul has no foundation.

Don’t worry, the building isn’t going to fall down.

It’s the soul of the community that has no clump of concrete guaranteeing its stability.

But there is nothing holding this community up, apart from us.

And despite the liturgical heroics of Stephen and the best efforts of the lay leadership and the Professional Team, this community does not rest on any single set of shoulders.

And to the extent that we are strong – and I believe we are strong – we are strong because the burden of carrying this community forward is shared by so many of us.

And to the extent that we are not strong enough – and we are not strong enough – we are weak because the burden of carrying this community is not shared by enough of us.


Being passed around the Shul are some fliers.

The idea was that they looked a little like schnodering slips, from the days when Kol Nidrei would involve being asked for money.

We are not asking for money tonight.

We are asking for involvement, your involvement.


I’m going to take a few moments to talk through the flier and after Yom Tov, during Maariv, we are going to pass round some pencils and ask you to fill in your name and a way in which you can help this community – our community - become even stronger.

I know, it’s a late fast, and no-one wants to hang around.

It should take a minute at the end of the service.

And if you are grateful for the opportunity to being part of this community we would love to ask you to show that, by filling in your name and ticking a box before you rush home.


So …

There are eleven options on the flier. This is what our community needs. From you, from all of us.


Helping Hands is our pastoral support team. We need volunteers to take responsibility for keeping in touch with two or three of our more elderly and home-bound members. Committing to calling once a fortnight and being a communication channel between our members and the office.


There are two options for learning.

The more we know about our Jewish heritage, the stronger we become.

Learn How To is about learning skills, how to live a Jewish life. This winter we are running a How To series about Shabbat. We’re also going to be offering some adult Hebrew learning opportunities. We need members, particularly those who feel least comfortable with their skills, to be brave enough to say they want to know more.


Learn Lishmah means learning just for the sake of learning, so we can gain a deeper appreciation of this incredible tradition, so we can connect to that tradition and the source of that tradition – God. This winter we are running a series on the Talmud, suitable for those both with and without previous experience. We need members who believe that study is a life-long journey and understanding is a worthy goal.


Sponsor a Kiddush – OK, this one does involve money. We have great Kiddushim at New London. They are the heart of our ability to come together as a community over Shabbat. We would love to encourage people to sponsor a Kiddush for a reason – a birthday perhaps – or even for no reason at all – just because, for the other weeks of the year you know someone else is providing the food and you believe a good nosh after Shabbat services is a huge part of what it means to be a Jew.


Kids – It’s been fabulous to see children becoming so much more prominent in the Shul. Children’s services, Cheder, Babes in the Wood and Noam are all thriving and growing, but we aren’t joined up in our approach and we still have a long way to go. We need parental support, particularly with the Cheder, we want to establish a PTA and we need a committee who can ensure that are doing everything we can to inspire, educate and develop the next generation of New Londoners. We need members to inspire and drive forward an agenda for Youth in our community.


Office Support – is about two things. At present a small number of lay members come in on a Sunday morning and staff the office. It’s not complicated work. It involves taking messages when the phone rings and buzzing Cheder Families in and out the building. If you can offer a Sunday morning even every couple of months, that would be great. There are also weekday occasions, about once every couple of months, when we need packers and envelope stuffers, particularly to send out Newsletters. We need people to help the office stay open and focussed on the increasingly busy calendar.


A Minyanaire is someone we can count on – literally – to ensure we are quorate for our prayer services. Of course, by Musaf on a Shabbat morning numbers are terrific, but we need to know we can rely on a Minyan at 9:15 on a Shabbat morning, or a Sunday morning, or once a month for Rosh Chodesh at the most holy hour of 7:15 in the morning. If you would be able to say, ‘yes, you can count on me,’ once every three months on a weekend or mid-week, it would make a significant contribution to our strength as a prayer community.


Programming – We need to offer two kinds of programmes at New London. We need to run exciting flagship events, the sort of stuff that only a shul like ours, here, with our story and our outlook on Jewish life could ever do. And we need to run warm, fun events that make us all feel more a part of this big happy family. We need some sleeves rolled up organisers with spreadsheets and clipboards, good ideas and a bit of marketing nouse.


Justice – Those of you here on 2nd day Rosh Hashanah will know that I spoke about our engagement with the community around us, supporting those who have less, creating a fairer society Mipnei Darkhei Shalom – because that is how we get to live in a peaceful society. Involvement here means developing leadership skills and volunteering with London Citizens, being at the heart of what is the most exciting kind of people-driven politics in Britain.


Welcome – My guess is that only 60% of the people here tonight were here four years ago. That’s how fast this community is growing. We have new members and first time visitors arriving all the time. We need people to be part of our membership team, reaching out to new members and prospective members and offering a warm welcome in services and around the community. Please don’t be put off this piece of work if you have only been around a short period of time, or you feel you don’t know everyone or anything yet. It’s the best way to learn and if you are new, you know, better than anyone, what it needed to make New London an even more welcoming place for those who join us.


Fundraising – OK, this is also about money. But not just about money. New London is a flagship community. We should be ruthless about cutting wastage and unnecessary expenditure – and we are. But we can’t do what we want to do, what we need to do, only with money raised by membership dues. There are capital needs and ongoing expenses that we need to raise funds to meet. We need a larger pool of members to help us tap into the huge wells of support and love of community that exist among our members to raise these funds. The fundraising committee had a bumpy year last year, but we cannot walk away from the obligation to secure and finance the future of our community. If this is a conversation that interests you please volunteer your support.


And there are, of course, a whole host of other ways to make contributions to the community. You can fill in anything else you feel you can offer that you believe that we need.


So, that’s it.

That’s where we are.

This is where we need to go.

Hang on to the slips of paper, and when the pencils come round, fill in your name so clearly that even I will be able to read the handwriting and tick a box or two.

As the book of our last year is being sealed, we begin the work of composing the book of our life in the year to come.


Now I know what is going to happen when the shofar is sounded.

Two voices will start chattering away in our heads.

One voice – let me call is the Yetzer HaTov will say – Halleluyah, I feel great, cleansed, ready for the year, I want in – now where’s that pencil, I’m ready to sign up.

And the other voice – the Yetzer HaRa – will say – Halleluyah, I feel hungry, straight home, kettle on, and let’s see if we can dodge the people standing at the doors to collect these fliers.

Or maybe you have a more sophisticated Yetzer HaRa, the sort of chattering voice that says – well, of course I would love to sign up, but there aren’t enough pencils, or I’ve dropped the slip, or I’ll do it tomorrow – that’s the kind of Yetzer HaRa I have – terrific at finding excuses.


You can think of this as the first test of our year ahead.

Can you focus on the Yetzer HaTov for the time it takes to fill in the form before the siren call of the Yetzer HaRa becomes deafening.


As the book of our last year is being sealed, we begin the work of composing the book of our life in the year to come.

May it come to us all in sweetness and health,

May we all merit a gemar hatimah tovah,


Friday, 17 September 2010

Ageing and the Challenges of the Season

We live in an age where medical science allows our hearts to beat longer than the rest of our body can cope with.

It is a mixed blessing.

The obligation of honouring parents, deemed by the Rabbis of the Talmud as the heaviest of all the Mitzvot, has never been more challenging. Aged grandparents, great-grandparents even, have expectations of being cared for by their adult children that the adult children struggle to fulfil. The financial drain of providing ‘good enough’ care is intense. And it is not even as if unlimited financial and other resources solve every problem. The sheer frustration of no longer being able to do what we once did cuts at the very heart of our sense of self, especially when we have to face these challenges without our life-partner. These are lonely truths to face and my sense is that they are rarely faced honestly. Too often we prefer unspoken expectation, un-uttered resentment and pretence to honesty and compassion.
In my work as Rabbi I encounter these strains all the time. It is the greatest pastoral challenge of my work at New London and I believe the greatest pastoral challenge facing our generation.
These are days for honesty and the reality of our mortality is the biggest taboo we hide behind. These are the biggest lies we tell ourselves and those we love.     Al Cheit Shechatati – for the sin I have sinned …
I don’t want to think about my decrepitude. None of us do. I would much rather pretend that I will live forever, never needing help, never having to cut into my own independence to care for one I love.

But these are days for honesty.
If we can steel ourselves there are enormously important conversations we can have, should have, before the gates close.
How much do we hide behind the pretence that we will live, in full health, forever?
How do we hold love when relationships, forged at a time of bodily vigour become dependent and uneven?
What expectations do we have of our own futures as carers and as those who need or will need caring for?
This is the work of this season.
I commend it to us all, before the gates close.

G'mar Chatimah Tovah to all

Saturday, 11 September 2010

1st Day RH Sermon - Israel and Other Broken Relationships

It’s been a tough year for lovers of Israel. Again.

This year it was the Gaza Flotilla, last year it was Operation Cast Lead.

Admittedly, for the first time in 2 years there are direct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. But I detect no change in the mood in Anglo-Jewry when it comes to Israel. The mood is still pretty dismal.


I rang up a friend, who lives in Jerusalem and works as a facilitator taking Jews to meet Palestinians in the West Bank. I asked him what he was hearing from his contacts about the negotiations.

No-one talking about them, he told me, everyone thinks it’s a joke.

A joke! Here’s a joke about Israel.


Four Jews are sitting in a café enjoying a cup of coffee.

Oy – says one

Oy vey – says the next

Oy vey zmir – says the third.

Listen, says the fourth – if you keep talking about Israel, I’ll take my coffee elsewhere.

I have some sympathy with the fourth Jew.

But I refuse to despair.


Actually despair isn’t even the most serious problem. It would be bad enough if we were just bored of talking about Israel. It’s worse than that. The issue of Israel has become divisive – even amongst Jews. God help us, what has become of us. If I were to honestly talk about how I feel about Israel today, whether my position was hawkish or dovish there would be some of you, some of us, up in arms. How could I possibly … God help us. You used to be able to rely on Israel to unite us.


When Israel gets mentioned we – lovers of Israel – are finding ourselves stiffening up – like a circus-strongman before accepting the punch to the stomach at some fairground sideshow.

We are worried about what happens when Israel gets raised as a topic of conversation at dinner, at the office, on the college campus. We are worried and are retreating from being able to speak out and proud.

Our love of Israel has become bruised – it’s painful to touch, easily inflamed.

Our love is being conditioned into one of two responses.


One is a retreat behind a thick wall where everything Israel does has to be justified and every critique, whether it comes from outside or inside Israel, has to be fought off – often with allegations of anti-semitic this or self-hating that being hurled at whoever has the temerity to criticise. And cultivating that kind of belligerence can’t be good for our souls.


The other response is the ‘oy’ of our coffee drinkers. It’s a relationship with Israel that has become so battered that we are finding it harder and harder to say anything nice about anyone associated with Israel and her neighbours – soldiers, the media, Netanyahu, the Palestinians, Amnesty, the UN – we’re struggling to find a good word to share.

The only response to Israel that is truly forbidden is response of despair, but something is broken. Broken at the very heart of our love of Israel and our Jewish identity.



That’s why I feel I have to speak about Israel today.

And for those of you who will disagree with every word I will say on the subject, I want to say this as clearly as I am I able – we are a community, and I am a Rabbi, who value debate more deeply than we value dogma. This is a community which has always looked at the possibility of speaking in bland, easy-going generalisations and preferred instead to speak about that which is difficult, potentially divisive but nonetheless true.


I want to share, today, three Rosh Hashanah lessons I hope help us mend a relationship with Israel. And, actually, this isn’t just a sermon about Israel, it’s about all our broken relationships and possibility of rebuilding them.


The first religious response is this -

Change is Possible

There is an incredible optimism at the heart of Rosh Hashanah.

Like many of us here, I am sure I’m dealing with my own issues that go back years, and seem intractable, and my yetzer hara encourages me not to bother trying to change.

But the message of the season is that that pessimism and the attitude of resignation have to be fought back at every turn.

We are called upon to believe that things can get better, we must refuse to accept things must always be as they are today.

I believe it is a response we need to feel, desperately deeply when it comes to Israel.


Believing in the possibility of change isn’t the same as being hopelessly naive. Opening a door in hope to a cousin we have never really got on well risks the door being slammed back in our face. And when that cousin has a history of violent aggression the risk is very real.

But if we don’t believe change is possible we are doomed to repeat only the same old, same old. And the same old, same old is not only not good enough, it’s getting worse.


And to those who think that change, peace, is an entirely unreasonable dream, know that at least Bibi Netanyahu, Labour leader Ehud Barak and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni are all united in making the claim that things can be better. This is Livini, speaking just this week in Israel.

‘I say to the [naysayers] that they have no right to take hope aware from the citizens of Israel. An end to the conflict is achievable. There is no such thing as 'I can't.'[1]

They are being very frum by trying again, and again.

The first Rosh Hashanah lesson is that despair is forbidden and change is possible.


The second Rosh Hashanah lesson is even harder to accept.

It involves letting go a little of what we know is right to admit our own fault.

It’s so tempting to think that we are stronger by conceding nothing.

But that’s not a very Rosh Hashanah attitude.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Palestinians and Hamas in particular are blameless, far, far from it.

And on every other day in the year we are absolutely justified in pointing out all the offensive failures of everyone else.

But on Rosh Hashanah we are commanded to turn that gaze inside.

On every other day of the year it’s possible to construct every occasion when we reached out a hand in friendship as utterly genuine, and every failure of the other to shake our hand as their perfidy.

But on Rosh Hashanah we are called to stand before the One who knows our inner thoughts and our hidden actions and doubt ourselves.

What else we could have done?

On Rosh Hashanah we are encouraged to focus on what else WE can do, rather than focus, always, on the shortcoming of the other.


It’s a necessary focus because we rarely heal, or even normalise, relationships with others by increasing our focus on quite how right we are.

We heal relationships by increasing our focus on what we can do to heal our relationships.

And that might require we lessen the focus on matters of strict legalist accuracy and instead pursue paths that create a rapprochement.


An example, drawn from the Talmud.[2]

Suppose someone stole a beam and uses it in a building.

Shammai says we should compel the person to give back the beam, even if they need to tear down the building to do so. They have no right to the beam.

But Hillel says the person ought to pay off the owner of the beam, they don’t have give back that beam.

And the law follows Hillel’s position – it’s called a Takanat Shavim – it’s supposed to make it easier for people to achieve a rapprochement.

Now there is a call, for both Netanyahu and Abbas – what can you do to focus on paths that create rapprochement?

And there is a call for any of us living in broken relationships – the sort of relationship which has, for years, floundered over accusations and counter-accusations, where we too readily blame the other and too rarely have been prepared to look inside and double and triple check ourselves.

Rosh Hashanah demands we admit that we have made mistakes.


And there is another problem with this over-reliance on proving that we are right, and that the other is wrong.

It is that this kind of approach to life – right vs wrong, black versus white is more Greek than Jewish.

A Greek philosopher would say that if I’m right and you disagree with me, you must therefore be wrong and I must prove you are wrong.

And we live in a Greek world massively influenced by this Greek approach.

We grow up thinking that our winning means that the other person loses. We are schooled to think that being strong means standing firm.

But Judaism is more subtle, more willing to admit the presence of conflicting alternate rights.


It’s hard to explain this to someone who has never studied the Talmud, but a Talmudic argument that seems to pitch Rabbi X against Rabbi Y doesn’t tend to end with Rabbi X winning, and Rabbi Y losing.

It ends up, often some pages later agreeing that Rabbi X can indeed feel one way and Rabbi Y can indeed feel another way.

Judaism would suggest that we need to find ways where both parties to an argument can be right.


Judaism is willing to admit that I may be right, you may disagree with me and yet we must both be acknowledged, recognised, given something that can make us feel at peace.


I think it’s an important insight because beating the other in argument might make us feel better, but it doesn’t stop making the other feel worse. And that alone makes peace harder to find.


Eizeh hu gibor asks the Mishnah, who is mighty? One who conquers their evil inclination. Hakovesh et yizro Ben Zoma answers.[3]

He doesn’t say, one who wins every battle.

I wonder if he means that a real hero realises that other people need to be allowed to win also.

I wonder if he means that a real hero doesn’t allow himself to be puffed up by his own rhetorical prowess so he insists on defeating everyone he meets.

I wonder if the really heroic way is to pull back from being convinced of our exclusive right to be right in search of ways to compromise and heal.


This is the opening of the Mishnah in Baba Metzia[4]

Two people come before the court grabbing hold of the same Tallit. One says, it’s all mine. The other says it’s all mine.

You see the problem. Intractable. They both claim the whole tallit. They both want to be acknowledged as right, but their claims are mutually exclusive.

So, continues the Mishnah, ‘You get both of them to swear an oath that not less than half of the tallit is theirs and then you split it in half.’

You find a solution, a solution that appeases both claims even as they are both forced to compromise. Both make an oath which they can agree with. Then both get something. Less than they hoped to get, but more than they feared losing.


Peace, in this dispute over a tallit comes at the moment when the disputants accept that the other has a claim, or rather when the disputants acknowledge that their own claim is not total. That’s a huge spiritual, not to mention political, achievement, but it is a necessary precursor to finding peace.

If we wish for peace we must acknowledge our own claim cannot be total.


This is the challenge for the Netenyahus and Abbases and all of us.

Can we find the way to acknowledge that our own claim is not total and what is mutually seized and claimed by both of us will need to be split if we are both to find peace?


Of course I’m not living in Israel, I’m not serving in the army, or at a checkpoint. I don’t expect anything like the vote of an Israeli. But I’m a Jew and a Zionist.

Israel is at the heart of my Jewish identity and I pray daily for its peace.

And that, especially now, means that I feel the need to share these Jewish truths, these messages for Abbas and Netanyahu, and the rest of us.


Change is possible.

I have made mistakes.

My own claim cannot be total.


I know the Palestinians have made lousy partners for a lasting peace for decades.

But I believe change is possible.

I know that sick Palestinians have received world class treatment at Israeli hospitals, but, today, I don’t claim that Israel has done everything it should have done to encourage an economically self-sustaining Palestinian state where trade, not violence would be the central concern of its leaders. We have our share of guilt to carry also.

I believe that Jews have a right to live, in a Jewish state in the land we have loved for thousands of years.

But I believe in the right of Palestinians to self-determination in the land of their Forefathers also.

And I believe that the tallit needs to be divided.


To everyone involved in the negotiations I pray for your heroic strength.

May this at last be the year when Micha’s vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares comes true – a time when every man or woman, be they Jew or Palestinian, will sit under their fig tree with no-one to make them afraid.


To all of us living with long-term broken relationships, I hope these insights help. And that Micha’s vision of secure, restful peace, be granted to us all in the year to come.


Shannah Tovah.

[1] http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=187318

[2] Gittin 55a

[3] Avot 4:1

[4] BM 2a

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