Thursday, 8 December 2011

A Cutting Paper Cut

For the third, and the last (for now), of my weekly words on contemporary art I’m returning to the paper cut. In this case a most cutting cut. Fair disclosure, the artists Jacqueline Nicolls is a good friend.


In the Ladies Guild Collection, viewable at

Nicolls uses a most conservative form – a paper doily, perhaps the sort of thing one might find under the biscuits at a Shabbat Kiddush. But look closely and the doilies turn out to be made up of a text surrounded by images – shocking texts and shocking images drawn from the Talmud and similar texts that depict women in dark and, frankly offensive ways.

“One cup of wine is becoming to a woman, two are degrading, three she solicits publicly, four she solicits even an ass in the street and cares not.” Ketubot 63a

It’s true – texts like this, and worse, do exist on our tradition. Nicolls however refuses to buckle under them. The carefully cut out designs around the central text are largely of women embodying the worst nightmares of the, presumably, men who spoke these texts. The texts are, in many ways, bullying, unfair, certainly one-sided. The images, coupled with the fragility of the medium – the paper-cut – stand up to the bully and face down the misogyny. The texts reflect the male-only environment from which so much Rabbinic culture emerged. The images ensure that women are very much in mind. No longer a ‘less-seen-the-better’ afterthought to the central Rabbinic preoccupation with men. It’s a fascinating marriage of form and content and it’s a brave critique of andocentric Rabbinic culture that could only be made from a place of knowledge and understanding.


Shabbat shalom


Thursday, 1 December 2011

Joseph - Adi Nes

At first glance Nes’s portrait of Joseph (whose birth is recorded in this week’s Torah reading) feels wrong. The child is too young.


You can see it here

Please click through, it’s hard to explain just in words.


As readers of Torah, our collective memories of Joseph properly begin with his dream stories (stories we don’t come to for a couple of weeks). He seems arrogant, tactless, almost goading his brothers with dreams of his greatness. But in Nes’s photograph the boasts are revealed as nothing more than the bravado of a little boy who has lost his mummy. The glorious ‘coat of many colours’ is revealed as the sort of shirt one can buy in the markets of the Middle East. There is certainly a Middle Eastern quality to the photograph, but after that it’s difficult to pin down. I presume the child is Jewish, but he could be an Arab. The street behind him is indistinct and blurred. It could be a beautiful Galilean Moshav, or some godforsaken refugee camp. There is an ‘everyman’ quality to the suffering of this small child, coupled with a certain bravery. He’s prepared to meet our stare but he doesn’t know what it coming. Who does?


When we read these wonderful stories we have the end, perhaps, to easily in mind – Joseph, hero of Egypt, Viceroy over the Nile. But this photograph, and the others in the series, bring a freshness, a challenge and a raw quality that opens up more questions than it answers.


Other photos in the series can be seen at


Shabbat shalom

Adi Nes - Joseph

Joseph by Adi Nes. For more

Monday, 28 November 2011

Chanukah Post

A woman goes to the post office to buy stamps for her Chanukah cards. She

says to the clerk "May I have 50 Chanukah stamps please."

"What denomination?" says the clerk.

The woman says "Oy vey... has it come to this?

Okay, give me 32 Masorti, 12 orthodox and 6 Reform."


Thursday, 24 November 2011

Peter Callesen's Transparent God - words

Rabbis specialise in words.

And I love words, especially the words of our tradition.

But other forms of creativity can sometimes open doors to ideas words alone cannot reach.


Over the next few weeks I want to use this e-mail to look at some contemporary works of art that seem particularly powerful for a Jewish community like ours, or at least for a Rabbi like me beginning with Transparent God by the Christian Danish papercut artist, Peter Callesen.


Photos of the work are at


Transparent God is constructed from one giant piece of paper and from a distance looks like a large slightly tattered headless human-like form.

As you approach it becomes apparent that the form is made up of a myriad smaller cut-outs of human forms which are held together to create the shape of the human-form.

From directly above the piece you get to look down at the giant piece of paper and see the negative space left as these cut-outs were extracted. The range of cut-outs includes singles, couples, groups, vibrant young things, more sedate gentlefolk and more – a true cross-section of humanity.


This myriad of human forms which make up the God-form is a wonderful meditation on the Biblical verse that suggests humanity is created in the image of God (Gen 1:26). It’s not just one particular human, it’s the mosaic of all of humanity that need to be integrated into a vision – as if such a thing could be possible – of God. It’s not an idol, there is too much deliberately missing, much like a person choosing to write G-d, rather than God. You can’t see God’s face  – as God explains to Moses (Ex 33:20). But there is something to connect to - God’s garb, the Hebrew word would be Levush, as seen by Isaiah (Chapter 6) and featured in a number of Psalms, including the concluding Psalm of the Kabbalat Shabbat service – 113. And God’s hands – the outsretched arms of Exodus 6:6.


The human forms are two dimensional, simple paper-cuts. The God-form is three dimensional. We are being asked to imagine God existing in an extra dimension above human perception. If we exist in three or four, then God exists in five dimensions, or more.


But perhaps the most striking element of the God-form is its fragility, a fragility encapsulated by the title of the work – Transparent God. There is pathos and vulnerability in the God-form. It doesn’t tower over its human carpet aloof and full of foreboding. As an image of God it is intimate, delicate, unfinished and all the more provocative for that.


Shabbat Shalom

Peter Callesen's Transparent God

Copy to follow For more of Peter Callesen's works go to

Thursday, 17 November 2011

On Humour


You mean you haven’t heard about ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’ yet?

It’s a You Tube hit and BBC4 have begun to serialise half hour programmes.


An Italian, a Frenchman and a Jew are waiting to be killed by a firing squad. They are given the choice of last meal. The Italian asks for a bowl of pasta, he eats the pasta then they shoot him. The Frenchman asks for a fillet steak, he eats the steak then they shoot him. The Frenchman asks for a bowl of strawberries. ‘Strawberries?’ the prison-warden asks in amazement, ‘where can I get strawberries, strawberries don’t come back in season until the summer.’ ‘That’s OK,’ the Jew responded, ‘I’ll wait.’


More like this at

 (but beware, some of the jokes and much of the language is hardly rabbinically appropriate)


Of course Jews aren’t alone in being proud of our ethnic humour but … well I think Jewish humour is pretty special. Remarkable among the sub-genres of the Jewish joke is the joke where the Jew triumphs over adversary. Many are the jokes told at the expense of Polish guards and others who, at various times, have presented all too real physical threats. Perhaps the secret of Jewish humour lies in the ability to find an area in which the Jew can triumph. We may be attacked, in the ‘real’ world. But in the world of humour we can find a way to triumph and defeat, or at the very least, cheat an uncomforting fate. Humour cannot change outcomes, but it can lighten our tread and lift up our hearts. Actually that reminds me of a story.


A Jewish grandmother thrusts her way to the front of a crowd gathered around a man, lying prostrate at the side of the road, ‘Give him some chicken soup, Give him some chicken soup,’ she demands. ‘Madam,’ responds a doctor, ‘I’m afraid it is too late for chicken soup, this man is already dead. Chicken soup cannot help.’ ‘Give him some chicken soup,’ the woman insists. ‘It wouldn’t hurt!’


Shabbat shalom


Friday, 28 October 2011

On Gay and Morality

I have an article on some of the issues surrounding homosexuality and morality in this week’s Jewish Chronicle.


Shabbat shalom


Monday, 24 October 2011

Aleph Course coming soon


The Aleph Course @ New London Synagogue   


The Aleph Course is a ten part look at the heart of what being Jewish can and should mean to us. Each week we look at one of ten building blocks of Jewish life and thought. We will study some ancient primary sources and hear more contemporary voices – including our own.


I believe a Jew has to have some kind of relationship with ten aspects of our tradition for Judaism to be meaningful and alive for them. This is a course for anyone who feels these relationships might be a little flimsy or overly reliant on childhood memories.”

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon


7th Nov 2011


30th Jan 2012

Year Cycle

14th Nov

Torah & Mitzvot

6th Feb

From Birth to Death

21st Nov

Israel & Hebrew

13th Feb

Good Things and Bad Things

28th Nov


20th Feb

Kindness and Justice

5th Dec


26th Feb



8:00 – 9:30pm at New London Synagogue, 33 Abbey Rd, NW8 0AT.

No charge for members, non-members £10 per class. Come to one, to some or to all. To book, or with questions, please contact


Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Welcome Home Gilad

Impressed at Bibi knowing his way around the Haftorah portion. This comes from his remarks following the release of Gilad Shalit.

This coming Sabbath, we will read in synagogues, as the weekly portion from the prophets, the words of the prophet Isaiah (42:7): 'To bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison-house.'
To me it comes down to the question, how much is a single life worth.
And to that question there is no answer.
Welcome home Gilad.



Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

New London Synagogue

0207 328 1026


Sermons, Blogs and Thoughts


Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Looking for a Teccy - Volunteer Help Request

We would like to start podcasting some of the terrific educational and other events at New London.

Getting MP3 material is easy.

Getting that material into the cloud and set up as a podcasting channel for itunes or other downloading formats is beyond our technological capacity.

If you, or anyone you know, would be able to help set up a system and/or process the occasional MP3 we would be hugely grateful. Please respond to


Friday, 7 October 2011

Kol Nidrei - The Ethics of Halachah

It’s night-time.

This is the sort of story you can only tell once the kids are in bed.


The Talmud[1] tells of a Yeshivah student who particularly loved the Mitzvah of tzitzit – the command that a person should wear a four cornered garment with fringes.

And he becomes fascinated with a prostitute who charges 400 gold coins for her services. He hands over the money and the woman invites him in. He’s confronted by a cascade of beds, each higher than the next – six beds of silver and a bed of pure gold. The woman climbs to the golden bed and strips naked. He’s climbing up after her, pulling off his clothes as goes, when, all of a sudden, his tzitzit slap him across the face, and he slips down and scurries away.

It gets better. The woman, so startled by the way in which this man has resisted her siren charms, performs teshuvah, leaves her former life, and it all ends happily ever after.


A man, saved from his prostitute by a four cornered garment with fringes.

A prostitute saved from her life of harlotry by a strange Biblical ordinance.

A person saved from misdeed by a Mitzvah.


This is the third in my series of sermons this Rosh Hashanah season. I’m trying to articulate a Jewish ethic – a Jewish way to live better lives. My point has been not that we are wilfully sinful – most of the time – but rather that we don’t see things sufficiently clearly, and that failing to recognise what we should recognise, we lapse into patterns of behaviour that lessen us and lessen our ability to reach our potential.


On First Day Rosh Hashanah I spoke about how we should see other people, on Second Day I spoke about how we should see God – both those sermons are now up on the web if you have missed them – there will be a quiz. J

And tonight, I want to talk about how we should see Mitzvot – the commands that make up the ritual ebb and flow of our faith. To be a Jew means to be part of a covenant which mandates we observe a body of practices some obvious, some strange. This body of practice is the Halachah and these mandated actions are the Mitzvot.


Actually I’m not going to address all the Mitzvot tonight. For tonight I’m going to ignore all the nice friendly non-sectarian commands like not killing people or loving your fellow – as important as they are. I’m going to focus exclusively on the odd stuff – Tzitzit, Shabbat, prayerthe things that make Jews unique and strange. I’ve been universal in my last two sermons. Tonight I’m going to be particular. I’m going to try and make the case that – seen correctly – these particularistic observances make us ethical, make us better. My point is that without working out this piece of our identities we are not only fail as Jews, we fail as humans.


I’m not saying that people who aren’t Jewish can’t be ethical – of course not. Rather I’m with Anton Chekhov who said that it is only when we are most local that we can be most universal.

I’m a Jew. To work out how to live a better, fuller life, I need to work out what to do with the specifically Jewish piece. If I get that right and if my Sikh friends work out how to live well as a Sikh, and my if my Muslim friends work out how to live well as a Muslim and so on – we’ll all do fine.


I’m also not saying performing Mitzvot guarantees ethical decency, I’m not suggesting that no one wearing tzitzit has ever visited a prostitute, al avay – a fine dream that would be. The Rabbis have long known that a person can be an observant scoundrel.[2] But I am suggesting Mitzvot help. Not only do they hold us back from the bad they also propel us towards the good.


Judaism’s pre-occupation, and some have called it an obsession, with Mitzvot and Halachah is easily misunderstood. From Paul’s accusation that Judaism is a religion only of law, while Christianity is a religion of love, to Spinoza’s suggestion that Judaism is not a religion at all, rather, purely a legal system the nature of Halachah has been traduced. That’s an error and a shame. And particularly shameful because so many of us, as Jews, have accepted Paul’s cosy critique; cosy because it gets us off the hook of having to be so odd, take so many days off work, bother so much with menus and the rest of it. I want to interrupt this cosy consensus. I want us to take Mitzvot a lot more seriously.


Halachah is not mechanistic; it’s not about externalities. Halachah demands the fusing of external action with the internal emotion. When the internal compass is out of kilter with the external action the action is rendered meaningless.

The Codes of Jewish law state a Torah scroll written by a faithful scribe must never be destroyed, but a Torah scroll written by a non-believer can be burnt like so many scribbles on a piece of paper.

The Codes of Jewish law state a shofar note blown by a person practicing achieves nothing. The same note blown to fulfil the commands of Rosh Hashanah does just that.[3]

The internal and the external must be aligned.

It is not enough simply to perform a Mitzvah, we are called to live the thing we do[4]  - we are called to become our actions.


Let me try an analogy from the world of music. A pianist is not a musician because they play the right notes in the right order, but rather they become a musician when the notes become music; there is a point at which their own self ends and the music begins and that point must become reached. So too a Jew is not holy because they get the right ticks in the right boxes, rather they become holy at the point their engagement with Mitzvah touches the beyond – at the point the person stretches beyond their physical span and up towards the heavens.


Let me try and explain the same idea by talking about Jewish observance.


When my wife was pregnant with our first child I made a decision to say the night-time Shema to the growing bump and feeling rather foolish leaned over and started mumbling familiar words in the direction of my wife stomach. ‘And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart …’ and so on. And then I got to the phrase ‘vshinatam levanecha’ – you shall teach them to your children – and I suddenly realised what I was saying – you shall teach them to your children. I realised this growing bump was indeed that very thing – and in that moment I felt stunned. I suspect it was the same sense of stunning shattering possibility the Yeshivah student must have felt when he found himself being smacked around the face by his own Tzitzit. I suddenly realised something of the beyond. I felt bound by a connection to a past and a future that had probably existed in some theoretical way in my mind, but was – at that very moment – exploding all around me. For the first time in my life, having said the words vshinantam levanecha goodness knows how many thousand times, I got it. Suddenly the very enormity of becoming a father, a Jewish father, opened up for me and transformed me. It changed me not only as a Jew, but as a human being, not only in my relationship with our own, still unborn, child, but in my relationship with my own parents, other parents, other children – a web of interconnected humanity. I suddenly understood something about the sheer astounding possibility of life and its creation and its Creator.


That is what Halacha aspires to be, it’s a way – it’s the Jewish way, to respond to the incredibly surprising fact of our existence in ways that connect us more intimately to the rest of humanity and God.

That’s the goal of lighting a Shabbat candle, of coming to Shul, of eating Kosher. It’s not about getting the notes in the right order, it’s about becoming a person who builds their relationship with the source of goodness and creation in the Universe through their observance of Jewish practice.


The big picture isn’t something we are going to be able to handle, or recognise on a day-to-day basis. So on a day-to-day basis we concentrate on the micro; say the Shema, eat kosher food, come to Shul.

Halacha is not always going to explode our sense of who we are every time we engage with it, it’s a practice. It’s a discipline that sharpens our senses to the nature of our existence and gives us the possibility of elevating a humdrum mundane encounter into a moment of beauty.

And when it is not elevating our souls, Halachah is holding us on the straight path. When the Halacha compels us to switch off the television on Shabbat it’s not always going to give us a transcendental experience, but it will always give us the space to enter into conversations that are far harder to eke out when the one-eyed monster is droning on in the corner of the room.


Being good is fine.

But Judaism doesn’t believe that simply telling a person to be good is enough, naked of a structure, without a training, without a context in Halachah.

I suspect that is largely because, left to our own devices, we will define ‘good’ in terms of what makes us comfortable rather than push us to reach beyond what our own eyes are prepared to see.

I believe we need a way to reflect our lives back at us in a way that is not entirely dependent on our own internal vagaries and fallibility.

We need an external practice peculiar to our own lives and our own challenges and fragilities – as Chekhov would have put it – we need to be local, particular and parochial in order to reach the Universal. And for a Jew that means Halachah and Mitzvot.

The Jewish way is to respond to the gift of a Jewish life is to adopt practices that alert us to the food we eat, the resources we consume and the rise and fall of the sun. We keep Kosher, keep Shabbat and pray and in so doing partner with a God who is the source of ethics, the source of goodness and justice. These peculiarities are the ladder we can ascend in search of what is beyond. And we can’t just leap.


Enough theory, what do we do?

This is the difficult part.

My fear is that there aren’t so many of us here today who have anything like the relationship with Halachah I’ve been describing.

My fear is that so many of us are so used to sloughing off the entire Halachic system as a dusty legalistic museum piece that we no longer have the bedrock of practice that allows Halachah to prove its worth.

My fear is that we are so out of practice that the internal resonances that are supposed to echo in our souls when we perform Mitzvot just don’t have a chance.

I wonder if an analogy would be a person at their first yoga class, so stiff that the notion of relaxing into a posture that requires touching our toes is intimidating rather than relaxing. We’re more likely to pour scorn than feel energised. We’ve become spectators to our own faith.

Even when we do perform Mitzvot, unless we are comfortable doing them, we pretend to do them, rather than be immersed in the performance in a way that our actions can truly be said to be a part of us. That’s terribly sad.

Perhaps particularly sad because where there are truly committed practices left they tend to be deeply held – Friday night candles, the Seder night, the Bar Mitzvah, the Shivah. All dramatically peculiar, all beloved, all doing their work of making us feel more connected and more engaged with our lives as Jews and as humans.

But outside these few bedrock commitments my sense is that we have lost track of what it means to be able to turn to Halachah to lift us and heal us.


Where now?

Two thoughts, and I’ll return to this topic at Neilah.

The first is to do some learning, become more familiar. I’m running a class on the First Ten Things a Jew Should Know, beginning on Monday nights in November. It’s a guide to Shabbat, Kashrut, and also Israel, Prayer, Theology and more. It’s designed to give smart, capable adults who, in yoga terms, can’t touch their toes, enough of a sense of what a relationship with Kashrut is really about that the synapses and the resonances can fire.


The second is practice.

The analogy of the musician is good. If you want to be able to feel the music, you have to work at it. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers,[5] suggests that it takes 10,000 hours practice to become expert at something, to reach the point where the edge of the person and the beginning of the skill begin to blur.

My sense is that, as a Jew we can reach that point in less than a single hour.

Pick something you don’t yet do – lighting candles on a Friday night, saying a blessing before you eat anything, saying the Shema before you fall asleep.

Something that could take no longer than a minute – if done with some fluency and familiarity.

And start practicing.

I’m asking for an hour, sixty times until it starts to feel comfortable. Give it a chance. Let me know how you get on.


Again, I’ll be sharing some more specific thoughts on this at Neilah. For tonight, I wanted to share what, I think, is at stake.

Halachah is the climbing frame of a Jewish identity. We can climb it and we can rise above the ground using it. We might need to re-learn how to climb, but if there is that hunger, then we are already on the right track.


Gemar Chatimah Tovah,

May we all be sealed for a good year and a Tzom Kal – a good fast.

[1] Menahot 4

[2] BM 30a

[3] MT Yesodei HaTorah 6:8, MT Hil Shofar 2:4

[4] A.J. Heschel, God in Search of Man p.315. Much of this sermon is shaped by Heschel’s approach.


Thursday, 6 October 2011

On Burning Mosques

Following the appalling burning of a Mosque in Israel it’s warming to see quite so many Rabbis sign up to this



The stages of Teshuvah

There are, according to greatest codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides, four stages in Teshuvah; each requiring work.


Firstly comes Viddui – confession. In Jewish law a sin cannot be cleansed unless it is verbally articulated. It cannot be liberated from the soul if it can’t get passed the lips. And generalities don’t count. Mass e-mails requesting forgiveness, ‘For anything and everything that I might have done to hurt you’ suggest more of an attempt to whitewash sins than truly heal them. Saying sorry, admitting fault, is not easy; particularly when a wronged person still harbours resentment. Nonetheless we are called on to be specific, personal and honest.


Secondly comes making good. Items taken need to be returned. This is fine for some sins, but incredibly difficult for others. It has always struck me that the Jewish pre-occupation with the harms committed through speech is best understood this way. Damage committed through speech is most especially difficult to make good. It’s better to be careful ahead of time.


Thirdly comes stopping the wrong action. Rambam details two categories of Baalei Teshuvah – Masters of Repentance when it comes to this stage. The standard case is a person who manages to stop, maybe because they no longer can be bothered to do the wrong again, maybe because they fear of being caught – it counts either way. Then there is the Master of Total Repentance, the person who stops even though they still lust after the thing they did wrong. They find the strength to cease from wrong purely through their commitment not to perform the acts which they now know are wrong.


Finally comes letting go of the desire to do the thing. The Talmud proposes an image of a person with their hand clamped tightly round a Sheretz – an entirely impure and unkosher insect – getting into a Mikvah thinking the waters will somehow take the impurities away. We need to prise back our own grasping, we need to open our hand to let go of what we should no longer carry with us in the year to come.


We should, of course, be doing this work throughout the year, but these special days are, Maimonides teaches, especially beneficial, less, I suspect because of any astrological juju, and more because this is the time when we most come together and share in our willingness to go on this journey as a community.


May we find strength and humility in that shared task, and may the year be sealed for us all for good.


Gemar Chatimah Tovah,


Rabbi Jeremy

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Second Day Rosh Hashanah - God and Ethics

Did you look in the mirror this morning?

What did you see?

Are you, in real life, a little greyer than in your mind’s eye.

A little chubbier, perhaps, or maybe there is a newly appeared wrinkle creeping across your brow?

I suspect many of us have a mental picture of our physical appearance that is a little smarter, a little more attractive, a little more polished than an external observation would allow. Actually we are the lucky ones. There are others here who look in the mirror and see something ugly – despite their beauty. When we look in the mirror we rarely see what is truly there.


I suspect the same goes for the mental picture we have of our character – many of us consider ourselves a little kinder, a little wiser, a little funnier than is really the case. And then there are those who see an undeserved emotional ugliness. We all view ourselves through subjective lenses. We all view distortions.


At the heart of Rosh Hashanah is this challenge – can you see yourself from outside yourself? Can you see yourself the way God sees you?


I spoke yesterday about interpersonal relationships - ben adam lechavero and how if we could place the needs of the other person before our own we could lift the quality of our life, improve us as humans living on this planet.

I spoke about Levinas’ phrase, ‘Apres Vous’ as the marker of an ethical, and holy, way of life.

Today I want to speak about another way to pull up our actions and improve our life, and that involves the way we relate to God. I want to suggest two ways in which we should understand God, two ways in which a relationship with God can lift us and improve us. The first is God as a reflection of our true selves.


The Rabbis talk about God as HaMakom – the Place.

Try this as definition of that Place.

God is the place where our actions matter. It’s the place where our actions are recorded and the quality of our good deeds and the failing of our misdeeds are laid bare.

God is the place where we gain few plaudits for money begrudgingly given to a charity in the hope of tax rebates and social acclaim.

God is the place where the private decision not to download, illegally, some pirated something is greeted with acclaim.

The Talmud notes that a person can feed their parents the sweetest foods and still deserve eternal punishment, and that a person can yolk an elderly parent to a millstone and still deserve eternal reward.[1] God knows the difference between what others might see on the surface and the truth behind our actions and inactions.

To see ourselves as God sees us is to accept that there is an objective view of who we might like to think we are. Our subjective selves might like to think we are entirely worthy – or entirely worthless – but today we are called to acknowledge a more truthful view. I believe this can help us live better.


Back to the riots – those outrageous pictures of hooded youths ransacking and looting with their faces covered by bandanas – thinking, perhaps, that they could escape opprobrium because no-one could identify them. God saw, God knew and God laughed off the disguise. A little bit of a sense of God the all-seeing judge would have gone a long way on the streets of Tottenham or Croydon.


Or what about the Newspaper executives busy suggesting they weren’t aware of hacking on their newspaper. God knows precisely what they knew and had those executives felt the presence of a Divine record that might have helped.


From the perspective of the heavens the hoodies and their bandanas and the newspaper magnates and their tortured testimony are revealed as little more than the trick of a small child who places their hands over their own eyes and tells their father – “you can’t see me.” I wonder the extent to which we all behave like this small child, imagining that no-one sees beyond our own superficial view of our self. I wonder the extent we all fail to realise the extent to which our actions and inactions are rendered clear and obvious to one prepared to see more honestly than our two year old selves.


The message is that someone hears when we curse the deaf person, that someone sees us place a stumbling block before the blind. Someone – the Ultimate One – records us when we mistreat someone who doesn’t have the ability to protest against our treatment of them. There is a record.


This is classic Rosh Hashanah Torah. We joined together, just now, in the Unataneh Tokef prayer; the one which speaks of a God who ‘judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; who writes and seals and counts and numbers and remembers everything forgotten.’

Don’t over literalise. Don’t become bogged down in a cartoonish characterisation of a celestial accountant. That’s not theology, in the words of Maimonides that’s rank foolishness.

To understand God, taught Maimonides, we first have to understand what God is not. God has no physical form, no ledgers, no quill pen, no ink-pool and the literal language of our sacred texts is there to open up our appreciation of the numinous, not narrow it down.

The reality is more abstract, more transcendent than our minds can grasp so we make little raids on the outer edges of reality – a bit like a judge, a bit like a prosecutor, a bit like a recorder … no single human word carries the totality of what we are supposed to realise on this day – and throughout the year.


The central point is that are to realise there is an account and that ought to be an easier idea today than ever before.

The idea exists in contemporary ecological discourse.

Every time we consume something we leave a carbon footprint behind. There is a record even if we cannot perceive it.

The same idea exists in contemporary discourse regarding chaos theory.

Every action we perform sets off trails of reactions echoing out from our initial endeavour into the distant corners of the planet, beyond our ken.

The same idea pervades our lives in this new digital world in which we live.

Every time I log onto my preferred news web-site I’m greeted by adverts for an on-line lighting store. They clearly know we’re refurbishing.

The things we do are recorded.


Again it’s not about a celestial filing cabinet, there is nowhere to go to see this great library of human record, it’s not that kind of a database. There is one extraordinary phrase in the Unataneh Tokef prayer – this prayer about the books. Vhotem yad kol adam bo it says. The seal of the hand of every person is in these books. The books are made up out of our deeds. The books don’t contain words. They contain us, we are part of them and they are part of us.


This idea is key. The books are us, the record and the recorder and the recorded are all bound up together. There’s no a heavenly accountant sitting in some celestial HMRC cubicle in Slough, there is instead a cosmos where God is folded through us, each of us, and then stretches beyond us.


If the first point about God is that Gold holds us to account, the second is that God is within us, part of us and on our side – God is intimate.

It’s difficult to explain, and harder still to understand, but we are, after all talking of God – it’s not always going to be simple.


The language of the accountant describes an external God, beyond and outside. That can anatomise us – make us feel spied on like a character in Orwell’s 1984. And that is not right; it’s certainly no way to talk about God. Rabbi Louis Jacobs always referred to himself as a panentheist; that is to say someone who believed God was both in everything and beyond everything. God is in me and beyond me. There is no God ‘out there,’ looking on like a Stasi agent. God is part of me, I contain godliness  even if godliness isn’t contained by me.


Rabbi Rami Shapiro, trying the express this panentheist sense of the Divine talks about the experience of going to Aspen and seeing colonies of Aspen trees; each ‘individual tree sharing a single root system with all the others.’[2] It’s not as if the roots are God and the trees are us. For God is in both the trees and the root system.

Rabbi Richard Rubinstein uses the metaphor of the ocean – God – and the waves – us to express the same idea. There is no way of separating out the wave from the ocean. It is, as the Kabbalists would tell us, all one – kula chada.[3]


‘We operate under an illusion of separateness,’ says Rami Shapiro, ‘we are like an aspen tree that refuses to accept its relationship with the root system and its fellow trees. We are like a wave of an ocean that insists it is other than the ocean [but] there is no possibility of separation. There is just the ocean waving.’

There is no God outside of us, there is just the ocean waving.


This, I think, makes this notion of God as judge and recorder less clinical and cold than the Big Brother notion of an externalised snooper. God is in our selves, God wishes for the best from ourselves. The holding to account I am talking about is a bit like the good friend who tells us we have hurt them. And because we have a relationship with this intimate friend we accept the critique. We know it to be grounded in truth and shared in our best interest. And we know that this intimate friend is not going to abandon us because of our failings because our friendship is predicated on what we share together – we are folded in on one another.


The externalised critique of the Divine, the God as judge imagery I shared in the first part of this sermon is balanced by this sense of intimacy, the interconnectedness of all things within God. Held together these two sense of God as a judge and an intimate are at the heart of how we should perceive God in our lives. Indeed they are frequently balanced against one another in our liturgy at this time of the year. Ki anu amecha, v’atah eloheinu – for we are Your people and You are our God we say on Yom Kippur before we confess our terrible sins. Adon Haslichot we sing dover tzedakot – Master of forgiveness, speaker of justice – the intimate and the judge balanced together. We will only allow an intimate friend to judge us because we only trust someone folded into our lives. We don’t want to be abandoned, but of course God isn’t going to abandon us – there is nowhere else for God to go.


This is the way I believe we should perceive God – as an external view, objectively recording our successes and failings, and simultaneously as an internal part of our own selves, folded through us. I think these two aspects of the divine can check us when we look in the mirror and see only how wonderful we think we are. And I think it can lift us when we look in the mirror to and see only failure. These two aspects of a relationship with God can lift us, improve us and help us live better lives. May they do that, and may we, in turn be granted the year of health and sweetness we long for.


Shannah Tovah

[1] Kiddushin 31a-b Rashi

[2] Rami Shapiro, Rabbi Rami Guide to God p.60

[3] ‘Only the ocean waving’ is Rami Shapiro’s line. Rubinstein’s image is in Morality and Eros.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Apres Vous, A Jewish Ethic for Rosh Hashanah



Many of my favourite Jewish folk tales feature a Yetzer Ra and a Yetzer Tov.
A good inclination and an evil inclination.

These two inclinations perch, one on each shoulder whispering, cajoling, encouraging and dissuading their minions – us. They are the externalised voices of our soul.

But what is so remarkable – we don’t realise the Yetzer Ra is there.

The Yetzer Hara has become adept at lurking in our blind spot. We can’t hear its ministrations as it quietly persuades us we are doing just fine. No improvement needed here.

The Yetzer Hara has become expert at quietly persuading us that it is all someone else’s fault. I’m hardly to blame at all.

And the Yetzer Hara whispers that we are owed something by someone else; we’re always in the right.

It’s a remarkable achievement to persuade me of my own competency, blamelessness and sense of privilege without my being aware of it.

But the truth is that we have work to do for we are not good enough, we do shoulder blame and we owe more than we realise – all of us.


And so, if there is a central theme to these days it is this – can we unpick this sense of competency, blamelessness and privilege?

Can we spot the blandishments of the Yetzer Ra and thereby awaken our souls and our selves?

It’s not necessarily that we are abject, worthless sinners – it’s just that there is a more real, more meaningful version of our life awaiting more honest scrutiny.


Several days ago I busied my way up the concourse at Kings Cross underground station. It was quiet, only a few people were ahead of me all bustling along to catch their mainline trains. I could see a young woman approaching each person on the concourse in turn and being turned away in turn. As she set her sights on me I felt myself stiffen, I was preparing that shrug, the kindly ‘so sorry,’ as I too bustled past. After all everyone else was doing it. She was probably drunk or a drug addict. She was surely after money and her penury was clearly her fault, I wasn’t not sure I had any appropriate coins on me, I was running late myself. I was competent, blameless, it was my right. I’m sure we have all been there – it’s one of those encounters we Londoner experience too frequently.


But as she came close. She said this, ‘I’m hurt, can you help. It was my boyfriend’ And it was only at this point that I saw she was blooded and bruised. I had decided I wasn’t going to give her money before I looked to see her face or heard what she had to say. And I’m less interested in what exactly one should do in such an encounter, and more interested in that internal conversation – the flooding series of excuses and self-justification that steers a person past another human being – in pain.


Another case - the phone hacking scandal. In a panel debate on 'How Far Should Journalists Go?,' a former News of the World investigative journalist explained how he and the paper he worked for justified the hacking of phone records, medical records and the like. “Privacy is the place where we do bad things,” said the journalist, “in order to have a free and open society,” he went on,” you must treat privacy as the demon.”[1] If one believes privacy is the devil then hacking is angelic. All very convenient if you are under pressure from voracious readers and editors to produce sensational scoops. Wrong behaviour too easily justified.


And one more example – the riots. News coverage of the riots that ripped up High Streets in August featured rioters justifying thievery based on the notion that everyone else was doing it, or that there was some kind of right to have a flat-screen TV, or it was the governments fault, or the bankers, the bakers, the candlestick makers … anyone.


Easy, I know, to mock the absurd self-justification of outright criminality. But there is a definition of a person who sins against society deliberately – that person is a sociopath. The rest of us, normal sinners, you and I my friends, we specialise in self-justification – even when we act selfishly, immorally and even criminally. Well done the imperceptible Yetzer Hara, take a bow.


My theory is this; if we could train ourselves to spot the Yezter Ra lurking in our blind spot, we could detect the self-justifications for what they really are. We would know we could do better and we would do better. Today, tomorrow and on Yom Kippur I want to look at three ways we can spot our selfishness and our shortfallings, three things we should be seeing differently if we want to stop self-justifying our failures and lead us to a more holy way of life. I’m going to try and spell out a Jewish ethic of decency.


Today I want to talk about other people.

I don’t think we see other people properly. I certainly, too often, don’t see other people properly. I didn’t see the woman on the concourse at Kings Cross. The rioters didn’t see the small store owners whose livelihoods were destroyed and the hacking journalists didn’t see the subjects of their more odious invasions of privacy properly.


There is religious doctrine on the matter of how to see other people – a theology of humanity, if you will. Such a theology begins with the notion that human beings are created in the image of God – folded up in each of us is a glimmer of transcendence.

Such a theology would include the Rabbinic text which articulates the notion that a person who takes the life of another is considered as if they have destroyed an entire world.[2]

Such a theology of humanity would eventually settle down to consider the work of the French Jewish writer and thinker Emmanuel Levinas.


Levinas’ great question was this – where does moral behaviour come from? He suggested morality was born out of the encounter with another person. When you look at another person – really see them – suggested Levinas, you realise they are fragile. You realise the possibility of hurting them, wounding them. And it moves you. The more you see another person the more you feel obligated by being in their presence, by being part of their fragile life, by the awareness of how flimsy life is – ‘like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.’[3] We just prayed that prayer together. It’s fine to acknowledge your own fragility on this day, but it’s more important to recognise the fragility of the other.


A tale from the Talmud –

Rabbi Eleazar was ill and Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, he saw Rabbi Eleazar was weeping and asked why he was weeping. Rabbi Eleazar replied: I am weeping because of this beauty that is will rot in the earth.

Rabbi Yochanan replied, ‘For this you surely have a reason to weep; and they both wept together.[4]


The biggest perk of my job is that I get the best seat in the house at a wedding. Under a Chuppah I watch a bride and groom cry, and I think, most often, they are crying because they understand precisely what Levinas meant – they get the fragility of it all.


Levinas calls this the ethical encounter, the moment when the fragility of another breaks in on our own fa├žade of self-sufficiency. It is the moment when we feel compelled to decency, called to relationship.


There is an apocryphal tale about the Professor of Ethics at some fancy University who didn’t seem to care about his students. Eventually a student challenged the master, ‘Professor, you teach ethics, but you behave so rudely.’ ‘What,’ responded the professor, ‘if I was taught geometry would you want me to be a triangle.’ Judaism just doesn’t work that way. There is no Jewish ethics which isn’t tested as we walk down the street, as we go about our work and as we come back home.

Jean Paul Sartre coined the phrase ‘Hell is other people.’ What he meant was that other people can compel us to present a false version of ourselves as we attempt to appear nice before them. Says Sartre this stops us being true to ourselves, it limits our self-actualization – whatever that might be. It may indeed by true that if we spend too much time worrying about other people’s view of us. But where Judaism would separate from Sartre is over the notion that worrying about ourselves is important, particularly. Naval gazing is not a particular Jewish goal. It’s fine to acknowledge your own fragility on this day, but it’s more important to recognise the fragility of the other.

As one of my teachers, Rabbi David Hartman, quoted in the name of his grandmother, ‘stop looking at your pupik, get off your tuchus and do something already.’ When we worry about other people we shouldn’t be worrying what they think of us, we should be worrying about what we can do for them. As the founder of the Mussar Movement, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, taught – ‘let the other person’s material need be your spiritual need.’

‘Apres-vous,’ – ‘You go first,’ says Levinas is the ultimate ethical utterance, placing the other person before me, serving their needs before my own is the mark of decency.


Another wedding story; I conducted a Chuppah this year for a couple who were observing the custom of not seeing each other on the days before the ceremony. They both came to Shul on Shabbat and they both decided to wait in the Synagogue so the other could go into the Kiddush and fifteen minutes later they were both still in the Synagogue, one downstairs hiding in the men’s section, the other in the gallery, hiding amongst the ladies’ seating. They were both waiting for the other to go first. That’s the stuff of a well matched couple. But ‘apres-vous’ is more than the mark of a decent spouse, it’s the mark of a decent human-being.


Good Jewish life isn’t lived by concentrating on self-actualisation – this, perhaps is one of the dangers of all this talk about Teshuvah as a private process. It is lived by concentrating on other-actualisation. It is lived in the space between the self and the rest of humanity out there, testing us, challenging us, discomforting us, jostling against us in the tube, waving their bruised faces up against us on the concourse and asking if we want to buy a Big Issue as we exit the station. The possibilities for ethical heroism or ethical disaster come every time we see another human being, friend or stranger, beloved or casual acquaintance.


When we fail to see the other person properly, we fail to spot the Yetzer Ra lurking in our blind spot. So I call on us all to look to see others this way and more clearly. I believe that this awareness of the fragility of the other can alert us to the self-justifying blandishments of the Yetzer Ra, the evil inclination that tells us not to worry, not to be swayed by the appeals of others, the evil inclination that stops us from being affected.


One last thought, especially for those amongst us who might think this ‘Apres-vous’ approach to the ethical life a little too self-effacing, a little too wet. It comes, again, from the founder of the study of Mussar – Jewish ethics – Rav Yisroel Salanter. ‘People say,’ said Salanter, ‘that only the fool gives and that the wise person takes. But they are wrong, it is more accurate to say it’s only the fool who thinks they are giving. The wise person knows they are taking.’

It’s only the fool who thinks they are giving. The wise person knows they are taking.


May we all have a year more filled with the commitment to Levinas’ ‘Apres-vous’. And may this year give to us in the measure in which we give to others.


Shannah Tovah,

A good, sweet year to all.

[2] Sanhedrin BT 37a, Mishnah 4:5 according to the Kaufman MS

[3] Untane Tokef

[4] Brachot 5b

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...