Friday, 26 November 2010

Middah Kneged Middah


Opens with Joseph spreading bad reports on his brothers.


What did he say?

Rabbinic invention[1] two guess

Sons of Leah insult the sons of Bilha and Zilpah and call them slaves.

And because of his tale-telling, the Rabbis say, so Joseph was sold as a slave to the Midianites.

Ort alternatively

His half-brothers were accused of eyeing up the local ladies.

And because of his tale-telling, the Rabbis say, so Joseph was beset by Potipha’s wife, who cast her eyes upon him, eventually accusing him of rape.


These responses raise, for me, the question of the relationship of reward and punishment.

Do the things we do have direct consequence in terms of how we fare before the cosmologic whole?

Getting right to the heart of religion.


Clearly important doctrineMaimonedes

As in Yidgal

Gomel Lish Hesed CMifalo – notein lerasha ra crishato

And clearly, at least in the Bible sense that works in the here and now – in this world

Second paragraph of the Shema – do good, get a good rainy season and good crops.

Do wickedly, drought, famine.


But there is a problem –

When we look out at the world we don’t see it.

Rabbis shunt time of reward back, into the afterlife.


Faithful is the taskmaster [meaning God] who will pay the reward of your labour but know the recompense of the righteous will be in the world to come. (Avot 2:16)


In the world to come God will reward every righteous man with 310 worlds (Uktsin 3:12)


What do we do about reward and punishment in this world?

Are we prepared to give up on the notion completely?

Incredibly radical – Gemorah in Kiddushin – ‘there is no reward for the Mitzvot in this world.’

Really hard.

Albo –

Decides that it’s OK, Jewishly to believe either there is, or there is not material reward in this world.

He prefers the notion that there is reward in this world – but he can’t say that the opposite position is heretical.


No surprise what the problem is.

One the one hand – Experience - Tzaddik vra lo, rasha v’tov lo.

If there is a simple process of reward and punishment, why is it so easy to find decent people suffering – babies even, and so easy to see crooks and thugs seemingly blessed.

But if there isn’t a system of reward and punishment then we live in a material universe without a material connection between doing something materially good and some kind of material reward.

And that feels anarchistic, chaotic, amoral.

It’s certainly dangerous, creates a bully’s charter .

Clifford Geertz –

The rain falls on the just and unjust fella, but larger on the just, coz the unjust has his ‘brella.

Recently read a bully’s charter world, devoid of any sense that ones material actions were being somehow met, responded to, cosmically, or Karmically

Cormac McArthy terrifying depiction of such a world, The Road. Terrifying.

Who would live in such a world?

And we did live in such a world, a world created by a God who looked down on such chaos and didn’t set order in place – rewarding the good and punishing the bad, then, God forbid would even reflect poorly on God.


Pages and pages of Mediaeval philosophy trying to reconcile what might look like anarchic, amoral chaos with a sense of order,

Trying to suggest that there is logic behind the response to every action.

Careful and mathematical – God as the divine accountant, balancing the scales and apportioning reward and punishment based on a some kind of scale I cannot understand.

But it doesn’t move me.

Never has, and certainly in the context of my Rabbinic work, never wanted to suggest to someone suffering that this kind of logic might be at play.

Feels horrendous, blasphemous even.


Pages and pages of Mussar literature tries to find ways to encourage us to live lives of decency and propriety without suggesting that there will be this world direct reward. My favourite attempt comes from Luzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim where he suggests that since righteous people are righteous they couldn’t be bribed with the offer of this world reward. They are too pious to be bought off, and if there is no enticing the pious with the offer of this world reward, then


I wonder if a Midrash like the one opened with presents a way round.

The technical terms is

Middah kneged Middah

It translates, as Shakespeare put it, as Measure For Measure.

Or as another Rabbincic text[2] puts it

BaMidah she adam moded bah, moddedim lo

With the measure a person measures, they shall mete to him.

Actually, those with an ear for Christian Scripture will recognise a passage from Luke in this – with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.


Commonly game in Rabbinic tradition to connect things back and forth across, partic, Biblical narratives using this Middah KNeged Middah thread.

Samson – who dies with his eyes gouged out – is held to have sinned by eyeing up the women in general – and Delilah in particular. He gets his comeuppance – Midah Keneged Midah.

Jacob, who deceives his blind father by dressing as Esau gets his comeuppance when he is deceived and doesn’t realise he is marrying the sister with weak eyes and not his beloved. Midah Keneged Midah


Suggested that Measure for Measure could serve as an idiomatic translation for Midah Kneged Middah.

But I think there is a better term poetic justice.

And I think this is the point.

It’s poetic, slightly tongue in cheek.

The connection between action and reaction is post-hoc.

First something happens, and then the connection is made.

A bit like the story of the prince who, riding through the forest, comes across a target drawn on a tree, and an arrow right through the very bullseye.

And then another target – arrow through the bullseye, and another and another.

I must be, the prince feels, in the vicinity of the greatest archer in the world.

Eventually he spies a man with a bow on his back and asks him if he truly shot all these arrows.

Yes, said the man.

Then you must be the greatest archer in the world.

Oh no, said the man. I just shot arrows into trees and then drawn on the targets afterwards.

George Foot Moore – perhaps the greatest historian of the Rabbinic period urged us not to read these equations of cause and effect more seriously than they are meant.

Middah Keneged Middah isn’t meant seriously, it’s not about logic, it’s about finidng some way to join up the dots that result in us living in a world not entirely undone by chaos.


Middah Keneged Middah is a kind of game, where connections that might otherwise be invisible are made. They serve to join the dots, to create a veneer of order where without one the apparent randomness of life might get too much to bear. They provide enough of a reminder to behave decently, I hope, to keep up on the path of goodness, without suggesting an overly simplistic relationship between reward and punishment exists when the proof of what our eyes see makes such a belief an impossibility.


The hope, if we understand and embrace the vaguely poetic, vaguely humorous ebb and flow of Midah Kneged Midah, is that things won’t hurt so because they won’t deprive us of any sense making mechanism. We won’t understand them any better.

We won’t often, feel that the response is justifiable, and indeed they Middah Keneged Middah is a dangerous tool, too easily used, as even the Rabbis do on occasion[3], to explain away that which humans should not try and tritely solve.

But I think that there is something to be gained by having a response that is poetic, humourous even.

Even if it can’t always take the pain of suffering away.

The notion that there is some explanation, that in some way fits,

even if it can’t justify, even if it still feels so unfair

is better than the pious, but ultimately unsustainable notion that reward and punishment do really play out in this world in some direct measurable, logical way.

It makes us feel that it is still worth questing for the decent and the good.


Max Gelberg was seventy-two years old when his wife died. After six months of mourning, Max decided life must go on, so he began a strict program of physical fitness.

After a few months of regular workouts, Max felt and looked wonderful. Friends would stop him on the street and ask him, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look sixty!’

With this encouragement, Max continued on the exercise program, he went on a vegetarian diet and arranged some minor plastic surgery. His friends, seeing him on the street would stop and say, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look fifty!’

Max was delighted and decided to move to Florida so he could take advantage of the sun. He took up a permanent spot on the local muscle beach. The following winter he met up with an old group of friends, ‘Max,’ said one, ‘I didn’t recognise you! You look thirty-five!’

That was all Max needed to hear, he started dating and soon won the heart of a pretty college student. They arranged to be married.

Standing under the wedding canopy, Max’s old Rabbi peered out at the groom with astonishment, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look twenty-five!’

Max was ecstatic, but as bride and groom were preparing to leave for their honeymoon – wham – Max is struck by a passing car and killed instantly.

Reaching the gates of heaven Max is furious and demands to know who is responsible for this tragedy. Eventually he muscles his way into the office of the Almighty.

‘I don’t believe this,’ Max shouted, ‘I finally get my life together and poof! Tell me, what have you got against Max Goldberg.’

‘Max?’ The Almighty replies, ‘Max Gelberg, is that you? You look terrific, I didn’t recognise you!’


Middah Keneged Middah,


Shabbat shalom


[1] BR 87:3

[2] M Sotah 1:7

[3] Miscarriage based on Peah. Mishnah

This Sunday - End of Life


In preparation for the Masorti End of Life Seminar, coming this Sunday at the LJCC, details below, I’ve been reading an extraordinary article by the American surgeon, Atul Gawande. Writing in the New Yorker, Gawande talks about how uncomfortable he feels attempting to explain to a woman he has just met the exact nature of the tumour inside her. ‘Am I going to die?’ the woman asks, ‘No, no,’ he responds, ‘of course not.’ It’s not true of course. Gawande knows that, as does, one suspect, the woman. Later in the article Gawande reports a Harvard study which asked the doctors of almost five hundred terminally ill patients to estimate how long they thought their patient would survive, and then waited. Sixty-three per cent overestimated survival time, on average by five hundred and thirty per cent. And, the better the doctors knew their patients, the more likely they were to err. It’s not just patients who struggle. So how do we learn to face our demise? Are we better off living in blind hope ignorance, or engaging so warmly in the inevitability of our passing that we risk the failure of extracting every day?


At the Seminar, on Sunday, I will be putting these questions to three senior palliative physicians, two hospice directors and a leading neurologist. The panel runs from 10:15 – 11:30. All are welcome, not only for the panel, but also a full day of exploration and engagement.


Shabbat shalom


More info -


Sunday, 21 November 2010

Speech Given at West Londons Citizens Assembly

Good evening Citizens.


I’m Rabbi Jeremy Gordon,

I represent New London Synagogue, a Synagogue of 700 members in Westminster.


I’m proud to be a member of West London Citizens.

And I’m particularly proud to represent the first Synagogue to officially come into membership of London Citizens, proud that my Synagogue takes its place alongside the Churches and Mosques, schools, trade union branches and other membership organisations.


I want to share with you why I feel it is so important for me, as citizen of a great city, and as a Rabbi and a Jew to be in membership of this great organization.


The Hebrew Bible teaches of the obligation ‘to love our fellow.’ One of the great Rabbis of the time of Jesus, Rabbi Akvia, suggested that this must be the base upon which all of Judaism stands. And I know these sentiments are also at the heart of Christianity, Islam – other religions and other decent ways of life also.

I believe we are all called to feel an obligation to care about our fellow human beings.


Do not oppress the stranger.

Do not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.

Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.

If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it, you must help him raise it.

Justice, justice you shall pursue


These Biblical verses – and hundreds of others like them - are at the heart of my faith, the heart of what I think it is to be part of a community, part of a city.

These verses are at the heart of what I think it means to be a citizen.


Jews have been speaking of these obligations and standing up to organisations, individuals and governments who have failed to recognise these obligations, since the time of the great prophets.

I have much to do, as a Rabbi and a Jew to tend to my own flock and keep alive the rituals of my own faith, but I have to be reminded of the prophecy of Amos.


‘Though you offer me burnt offerings and meal offerings [prophesised Amos], I will not accept them; nor will I listen to the melody of your lutes.

Until justice shall roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’


This is why I am here.


And why Citizens?

Why do I feel the need to pursue these agendas of justice through this particular organisation?

For me it is all about the broad-based nature of this work.


There is an ancient Rabbinic text that asks why God created every human being from one original human being.

It is, the Rabbis teach, a way of witnessing the glory of God.

When a King of flesh and blood mints a coin, he creates a single mint and every coin comes out looking the same.

But when God creates every a human being, every human being comes out radically different.

We are supposed to be amazed at the sheer breadth of human possibility.

And standing here today, looking out at you, my fellow citizens, I’m feeling particularly amazed.

Look around you and share in what it is to be amazed at the breadth of human possibility.


We are here as men and women, young and old, people of faith – of different faiths – and of no faith at all.

We are rich and we are poor, we are healthy and we are ill. We are diverse in more ways than a person could count.

And that’s why when we stand together we have such power.

Because when we stand together we show there is no limit to our willingness to care for one another; black or white, refugee or long-standing citizen –

We will stand together when to show we care for one another.

We will stand together when we make our demands.

And there is no force strong enough to defeat the willingness of one human being caring for another.


So, citizens, this is why I am here, this is why the Synagogue I represent is in membership.

And this is why I will work alongside you until justice does indeed roll down like water.

And I hope this is why you will want to work alongside me.


Thursday, 11 November 2010

New London Synagogue is Looking for a Executive Director and Financial Administrator

If you are interested in coming to join the team at a fast growing, buzzing, dynamic Synagogue office, please consider applying.

Any questions, please be in touch.


As part of the restructuring of its administration the

New London Synagogue


is looking for an Executive Director

and a Financial Administrator


The New London Synagogue, a member of the Masorti movement, is a growing and vibrant community.  We are looking to fill two separate part time posts, the Executive Director and a Financial Administrator.

We are looking for self motivated people with knowledge of the Jewish community and relevant experience.  The Executive Director post is 25 hours a week and the salary is negotiable on the basis of experience.  The Financial Administrator post is 15 hours a week at a salary of £15,000 a year.

For further information and a detailed job specification, please phone Julian Dawes on 020 7328 1026 or email

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Pro-Palestinian? Pro-Israeli? Just pro-peace.


So opens the promotional literature of the Bereaved Families Forum, who have just been awarded the Ghandi Peace Prize, and whose representatives will be speaking at New London this Shabbat.


They are a network of over 500 Israeli and Palestinian families united by having lost a loved one in decades of conflict. Their courage and their commitment to respond to acts of personal tragedy by reaching out in peace to ‘the other’ is an inspiration to me and, as many will know, our Director Ronnie Cohen is a long time supporter of the organisation’s UK fundraising arm.


It’s an appropriate weekend. We read Parashat Toledot, a story of a rift between Jacob and Esau who, as the Bible tells us, struggled even in their mother’s womb. The sons’ relationship, such as it ever was, completely disintegrates during the course of this week’s reading with a rare moment of rapprochement occurring only with the death of their father. It is as if death forms the opportunity for those who struggled to sit side-by-side in life, to finally do so in their shared mourning.


There will be no sermon. Our speakers will give an initial taste of their work and experiences at the end of the service and will speak more fully back in the Synagogue once Kiddush is underway. They will also be our guests at the communal lunch, but booking for the lunch are now closed.


Shabbat shalom


Rabbi Jeremy

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