Thursday, 21 October 2010

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

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


Monday 25th October 8pm at New London Synagogue


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


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


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

Friday, 15 October 2010

Wandering Wondering about Refugees, London Citizens and Others

I’m a wandering Jew.

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

I’m an outsider here, in England,

I’m an outsider.


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


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

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

We care about others because we are other.

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


It’s hard to be a wanderer – an outsider

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

The guards suggest he has silk in the box.

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

They suggest he has jewels in the box.

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

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


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


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

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


‘Let us worship the fire!’ Nimrod demands.

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

So let us worship water

Why not worship the clouds which bear the water. '

Let us worship clouds!

Why not worship the wind which disperses the clouds.

Let us worship wind

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

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


This is exactly what we should expect from a refugee.

Challenging, seeing our faults from the outside.

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

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


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


V’heye Bracha

And I will bless you

You shall be a bracha


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

And through you I will bless the communities around you

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


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

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

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

They require toleration.

We require toleration.


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

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

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

Simple, really, simple acts of hospitality.

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


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

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


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

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

Immigrants allow a society to test itself.


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


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

Many important things.


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

one bar mitzvah,

four stone settings,

a baby blessing,

a launch for our Noam Youth Group

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

Two families thinking about joining the shul.

Another who want to plan a baby blessing

I’ve taught a Talmud class,

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

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

And been involved with a range of pastoral struggles.

The list goes on.

It’s all important.

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

And we are pretty good at looking after ourselves.

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


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


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

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

We are in danger of losing our soul as Hebrews,

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

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


We need to recapture that sense of being a wanderer.

I believe joining London Citizens will help us do that.


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

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

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

Still holding up a banner,

Still worthy of the great blessing of our ancestors.


V’esacha lgoy gadol

I will make you a great nation


And I will bless you

V’heye Bracha

You shall be a bracha


Shabbat Shalom

[1] BR 40:5

[2] Gen R 68:13

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

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Coming Soon at New London

We have two exceptional events on Shabbat 22nd / 23rd October and I want to take this opportunity to place the marker in your diaries. It’s only a week away.


A Friday Night Dinner with Dr David Ariel – Lecha Dodi, Friday 22nd October.

Dr Ariel is President of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, otherwise known as Yarnton Manor. Yarnton is the home of Rabbi Jacobs’ personal library (some 15,000 volumes) and I have been looking for an opportunity to develop a relationship with this beautiful and important Centre of Jewish learning for some time.

Dr Ariel has a PhD in Kabbalah and, among other academic and professional distinctions, served as a teaching assistant to Gershon Scholem before coming to Oxford. He’ll be looking at the meaning of one of the most beloved songs in the liturgy.

Pre-booking is essential – please visit by the end of Tuesday (members £18, non-members £20, children and students £12).


Storahtelling – Shabbat 23rd October. Circa 10:15am.

Storatelling is a re-inventing of a once cherished part of the Torah reading service dating back to the time of Ezra and end of the First Exile. Torah reading should be theatre, grand and griping – especially as we read the stories of Genesis. Unfortunately for too many of us we can’t understand the Hebrew. It has always been this way. From Ezra’s time until the early Rabbinic period the Torah would be translated into the vernacular, verse after verse, by a specialist ‘meturgaman.’ Over time these specialists would embellish their translations creating commentaries, making observations and, according to many scholars, inventing what we now call Midrash.

This ancient tradition has been re-imagined by some talented Jewish educators and performers and I’m delighted that Joel Stanley, who will be known to many of us, will be bringing Storahtelling to New London. They will offer a theatrical translation of the story of the Akedah during the morning service. There will be no sermon (which may or may not be an added inducement to come but will at least ensure the service will end at its usual time).

All welcome – just turn up.

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