Thursday, 31 March 2011

Belt Braces and Something Else

Pesach is just over two weeks away. First night seder 18th April. Let me share this extract from the New London Pesach Guide.


The Rabbis offer a three stage way of ensuring that a home is free of Chametz for the Festival.


First you should remove any Chametz. A good spring clean is a lovely thing to do, but the standard of the Rabbis is not Chametz – Armageddon, but rather removal of Chametz crumbs larger than the size of an olive. Chametz is food made with the five grains wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats mixed with water which has risen. Other foods, even foods which we would not eat on Pesach (for example rice, for Ashkenazim) do not need to be removed, they can simply be put aside, or sealed in a cupboard.


Next you should perform a ‘bittul’ – nullification. This is done twice, once during the search for Chametz (Sunday 17th April at sundown) and once on Monday morning (before around 10 a.m.). The formula can be recited in English as follows:

‘All Chametz in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be nullified and be ownerless as the dust of the earth.’

This is a key part of the preparation process. Even if you have cleaned perfectly, it should be said.


Finally, you should authorize me, or another Rabbi, to perform a Mechirah – or sale to a non-Jew –of any Chametz you do not wish to nullify or throw away. This is an extraordinary leniency from the Rabbis, bending over to make Pesach less onerous and less costly. It is designed to allow us to hang on to bottles of whiskey etc. It has been mocked, but I always delight in the flexibility and sensitivity this notion allows. I would recommend it even if you think you have cleaned perfectly and you don’t think you have anything physical to sell. To sell Chametz you must contact me to let me know that you wish me to sell your Chametz. Please do this in writing (e-mail is best using the following form of words.

You should then put the Chametz in a sealed container or room and leave it until after 10pm the night that Passover goes out.


‘I authorise Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, or any agent appointed by him, to sell all Hametz in my possession, whether held knowingly or unknowingly, whether in an admixture or otherwise. This permission applies to all Hametz at the address [complete as appropriate].’


A happy and Kosher Pesach to all,


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy

Jews and Food - Gefiltefest II

Last summer I spoke at the first Gefiltefest.

It was fabulous.


For anyone interested in Jews, Food and intersection ‘twixt one and ‘tother I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Info including booking info below,



Hi everyone,
Tickets for Gefiltefest: The London Jewish Food Festival are now on sale!  If you buy soon you'll save £5 per ticket.  The line-up of more than 40 speakers is on the LJCC website, at: 
Alternatively, look at Facebook event 'Gefiltefest' or  The date of the event is Sunday, May 22nd.
The list of speakers is growing but already includes Dame Hilary Blume, Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, Alexei Charkham, Linda Dangoor, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, Judy Jackson, Maureen Kendler, Rabbi Natan Levy, Silvia Nacamulli, Lisa Roukin, Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz, Fabienne Viner-Luzzato and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg.
We're raising money for a range of food-related charities so please forward this email on to anyone who might be interested - in coming, eating, or helping out.
Many thanks,





Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

New London Synagogue

0207 328 1026


Sermons, Blogs and Thoughts


Tuesday, 22 March 2011

When is a Shankbone not a Shankbone?

Ask a child what the Zeroa, or shankbone, on the Seder Plate is supposed to represent and they should say something about the lamb whose blood was daubed on the doorposts of the Children of Israel. If they were particularly impressive they might say something about the command that the Pascal sacrifice be roasted, hence the roasting of our Seder Plate Zeroa. That’s entirely correct, but there is another valence which only makes sense in the Hebrew.


When we tell the story of Exodus we speak of a God who acted with a ‘strong hand and an outstretched arm.’ (Deut 26:8) And the Hebrew word translated here as ‘arm’ is our friend ‘Zeroa.’ In other words the shankbone sitting on the Seder plate is also a reminder of God’s outstretched arm arrayed before us as we eat our Matzah and drink our four cups. If you understand Hebrew it’s so obvious as to already be buried in one’s understanding. If Hebrew is entirely foreign it’s an impossible insight to discover.


Translation, said the great Hebrew poet Bialik, is like kissing a bride through her veil. Approaching the Hebrew texts of our tradition without Hebrew means that we will forever feel separated from them.


This is the insight behind the adult education classes we are offering on the next two Sunday mornings (10:30am in the Rabbi’s Office). We will read the Hagadah for understanding. What does the Hebrew actually mean? How does the grammar work and, most importantly, what are the insights that understanding the Hebrew will bring for us. Hebrew’s a simple language, fewer letters than English and far, far less exceptions and complex grammatical rules. These Sunday classes are designed for people who can read, but can’t decode simple Hebrew sentences. I hope you will enjoy them.


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy


Thursday, 17 March 2011

Purim - And A Certain Kind of Jew

Purim is But Days Away

(Maariv 7pm Saturday evening, Shacharit 10:15am)


I’m returning, in this week’s Weekly Words to Elliot Horowitz’s work on Purim, Reckless Rites.


Horowitz charts how Christian scholars would decry the Book of Ester, particularly the violence committed by Jews in the latter chapters. The American Christian scholar Lewis Paton suggested that the book shows, ‘a malignant spirit of revenge more akin to the teaching of the Talmud than to the teaching of the Old Testament.’ He went on to suggest ‘The Book is so conspicuously lacking in religion that is should never have been included in the Canon of the O.T.’’ Charming. And both deeply offensive and completely wrong both as an analysis of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.


Horowitz also digs out a 1948 commentary by a Danish Christian scholar Aage Bentzen which suggests Ester behaved reprehensibly in concealing her true identity a Jew. It’s a criticism Horowitz suggests is obtuse coming ‘shortly after his country emerged from four years of Nazi occupation.’ Then there is the Methodist commentary, by W.L. Northridge (1937) which suggests Ester revealed ‘Jewish vindictiveness at its worst’ … setting [in] contrast [the] unworthy elements in Judaism and the Christian spirit of love to all.’ Herbert Loewe responded ‘What seems so terrible in Dr Northridge’s arguments is the fact that they were written in 1937 when current events should have taught him to take a different view.’ If the book of Ester, Loewe continues, does indeed typify ‘Jewish vindictiveness at its worst’ shall we go on to say that Hitler’s barbarity typifies ‘Christian vindictiveness at its worst?’


What is going on? I suggest these Christian scholars find it tricky to know what to do with an ‘uppity’ Jew. I remember my first trip to New York where I passed a hotdog seller on the street whose vending station was emblazoned with a Kashrut certification – Gevalt. Then I overheard the seller accusing a purchaser of ‘trying to Jew me.’ There is a certain kind of antisemitism that doesn’t mind Jews, as long as we make falafel, tell good jokes and don’t cause trouble. That’s not really fair. Judaism is indeed a religion of sweetness, charity and love. But it is also a religion (and indeed a people and a history) featuring clandestine schemes perpetrated just to survive and, even, occasional outbursts of violence. Jews are normal people too. And for me Purim, with all its recklessness, is the festival which gives voice to these other, less sweet, parts of our history and our selves. The good news is that we know it’s only a story. We live out our fantasies of triumph overcoming threat in the pages of a great tale that turns on the fall of the lot, we don’t launch pogroms or exterminations. Then, once this day passes, we get on with the more serious business of preparing the world for the overthrow of oppression (Pesach) and the revelation of God’s loving kindness (Shavuot).


Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach,


Rabbi Jeremy


Thursday, 10 March 2011

Purim - To Stand Firm or To Look Away?



I’ve been reading Elliot Horowitz’s excellent ‘Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence.’[1] It’s inspired this analysis.


The very last verse of the Book of Ester reads ‘[Mordechai] ratzui lerov achav.’

While the sense of the verse is surely captured by the acceptable translation ‘Mordechai was accepted by the multitude of his brothers,’ a hyper-literal translation suggests he was ‘accepted by a majority of his brothers.’ In other words a minority refused to accept Mordechai. (The trials of trying to lead Jews).


Horowitz notes the French scholar Joseph Kara (born around 1060) commented that there were those who ‘maligned Mordechai by saying, ‘Look what he did to us, for he provoked Haman and on his account we would have been sold to be destroyed, slain and annihilated, were it not for God.’’ The provocation, of course, was the refusal to bow. Surely Mordechai could have just ducked his head, pretended to tie up his shoe-laces; surely he didn’t have to anger a haughty, massively powerful antisemite? Even the great Spanish commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra wondered why Mordechai had ‘insisted on endangering his own life and the lives of other Jews by flagrantly refusing to bow down before him, rather than discreetly leaving the vicinity when he saw Haman approaching.’


 The question of ducking or discreetly looking away versus standing proud in the face of a challenge is perhaps most sharp at the time of Purim. Ester is the Biblical book most ‘in the face’ of the surrounding culture. It’s uncompromising, defiant pugnacious and vicious. There is, as Kohelet might have said, a time to look away and a time to stand firm. And Purim is the time to stand firm. There is certainly something to stand firm against. I am no scare-mongerer when it comes to the spectre of anti-Semitism in this country but I am feeling increasingly uneasy at the shifting way in which Jews are being expected to look down and look away, particularly from defending Israel in this country. Norman Lebrecht put it very well, in his analysis of the John Galliano debacle in last week’s Jewish Chronicle.


‘Outbursts such as Galliano's do not sprout spontaneously. They are nurtured by a climate in which casual antisemitic utterances have become increasingly prevalent - indeed, acceptable, so long as they are couched within the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

‘Jews are held to account as presumed extensions of Israeli occupation policy in a way that, for example, overseas Chinese are not held responsible for Beijing's occupation of Tibet. A Norwegian colleague was challenged on television to condemn Israeli policy before her views on social harmony could be heard. I, too, after discussing the cultural implications of the Galliano affair on BBC Breakfast was beset by emails demanding that I take a position on Gaza - as if one were related to the other.

‘This is new antisemitism, 2011-style. The requirement that Jews must in some way atone for Israeli deeds and misdeeds is the latest manifestation of two millennia of crucifixion guilt. It is a pervasive atmosphere and one that disinhibited a dress designer from allegedly extolling the extermination of Jews.’[2]


This is not the time to discreetly walk away.





Tuesday, 8 March 2011

This Sunday - Professor Michael Fishbane at New London


The University of Chicago is the sort of place to make academics go a little weak at the knees. It’s a very serious University. The Doctoral Programme in Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago is renowned for its quality and, frankly, the vast amount of work a candidate has to put in before they get the letters ‘PhD’ after their name. It is the toughest of the toughest place to excel as a scholar of Jewish thought, and much of the credit for this, at least in the last twenty years, belongs with our Quest lecturer, Michael Fishbane.


Of course Prof Fishbane has the rigorous grounding in Ancient Near East culture, history and language that one would need to – for example – take single-handed responsibility for all the Old Testament entries in the Harpers Bible Dictionary or write the best single volume work on the Haforot for every occasion in the year. But more than that he’s documented the way the text has been read and understood by Jews over thousands of years. He’s done more than any other contemporary scholar to unpack the way early-Jews and Rabbinic Jews venerated the Bible, not as a record of historical actuality, but as a myth – a story told to move us. This academic engagement has, more recently, driven a remarkable work of theology. In ‘Sacred Attunement’ Professor Fishbane tries to do personally and today the very thing he has spent a career observing others doing in the ancient past. His claim is that, even in today’s ‘dark and disorientating time’ we can come to an understanding of God by reading texts and becoming increasingly attuned to their nuance and wisdom. It’s a tremendous, and tremendously beautiful, work.


This Sunday 13th March, 7pm, Professor Fishbane will share his insights into how Jews have read the Song of Songs. It promises to be very special evening. If you are interested in why and how we, Jews, read our Bible and even more so if you are interested in what we have gleaned from centuries of engagement with the most poetic and passionate of the books of the Bible, I do hope you will join us.


We are grateful to the Quest Lecture co-sponsors, the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Hebrew Studies where Professor Fishbane is a Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation Visiting Fellow.

Friday, 4 March 2011

What do you say at the Kottel?



At the age of fourteen I was taken on my first trip to Israel. I remember coming up to the Wailing Wall and I remember feeling the same chain of emotions I have felt on every visit since. As I look over the plaza from distance I feel bemused by ‘all the fuss’ paid to a bunch of bricks. As I get closer the wall remains unmoving and I feel equally unmoved; the Haredim in their piety and the tourists in their cardboard ‘skullcaps’ leave me equally cold and my mind is drawn to the way the wall is co-opted by the ultra-orthodox and turned into a gender divided space where women are arrested for the crimes of wearing a Tallit and want to read from the Torah.


But then, finally, I get close up to the stones, so close that the stones are the only thing I see, so close I feel their heat, doubtless ‘only’ the heat of the Jerusalem sun, but also a heat that evokes ancient horrific destruction. Stood there, with my nose pressed up against the stones everything else just melts away. It’s just me, my history as a Jew and my relationship with my God. The stones want to know what I have to say.


There is a glorious short story told by the Yiddish master of letters, Y.L. Peretz about Bontse the Silent who never complained about anything his entire life. Eventually he dies and in heavens there is tremendous excitement at the arrival of such a man known for his stoicism in the face of struggle. His reward is to name his paradise and with the heavenly court rapt Bontse decides he would like a nice cup of tea and some toast. Bontse, it seems, was no great righteous sufferer, he just didn’t have very much to say. I wonder how true that is for many of us. When it is just us and the stones, what do we say for ourselves, our existence as Jews and our relationships with God. As a fourteen year old I remember saying the Shema, it was the only piece of Hebrew I knew off by heart.


Of course personal prayer, in English, private and individual is important, but we don’t just stand before the Kottel as individuals, we stand there as Jews. What do you say as a Jew? What do you know off by heart (the English idiom matches the Hebrew of the Shema perfectly – ‘you shall place these words on your heart’)? It’s a question I’ve been wondering about since a conversation with our Chazan this week. His thoughts are that so few of our members are in Shul in time to hear the Shema on a Shabbat morning that perhaps even the Shema is lost. Shacharit is the most important part of the Shabbat morning service, ironic that it’s the least well attended. Some time ago we ran a special education service on a Shabbat morning, perhaps we need to do that again because without a relationship with words ‘placed on our hearts’ I don’t know what we should say when we stand before the Kottel.


Saturday morning services begin at 9:15. I hope you’ll be able to join us then.

Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy


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