Thursday, 26 May 2011

Supping with the Devil


Under the inflammatory headline ‘Sup With the Devil,’ this week’s Jewish Chronicle leader article accuses the Masorti movement of ‘consorting’ with certain individuals (links are below). New London Synagogue, the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues and a group associated with New North London Synagogue are members of London Citizens, the charity which works for local organising on issues such as the Living Wage campaign. Aside from this Synagogue another of the roughly 250 member organisations in membership is the East London Mosque, indeed one of the members of that Mosque serves as trustee of London Citizens.


At the height of operation Cast Lead, this trustee gave a speech entitled ‘Heroes of Palestine.’ In his speech he named two individuals who could serve as examples of heroes for his audience. One was Sheikh Yassin, the founder of Hamas, the other was Sheikh al-Qassam, after whom the military wing of Hamas, the al-Qassam Brigade, is named. I’ve watched the speech and I’m in pain as these people, who inspire violence and terrorist atrocities carried out in the name of Hamas and Islamic resistance in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are held up as heroes. You cannot hold these people up as heroes and then claim, as happened, that you are ‘neither promot[ing] or condon[ing] terrorism’. You are and to suggest otherwise suggests a blinkered disregard of the simple meaning of words such as ‘condone’ and ‘terrorist.’ The leadership of London Citizens should not have defended this speech in the way they did.


But I remain committed to the organisation. London Citizens is not engaged in issues in the Middle East, indeed their commitment to localism probably explains their failure to grasp what was going on in a speech which addressed issues far away from their centre of expertise.  Nor, undeniably, is London Citizens a front secretly promoting a violent terrorist agenda. Citizens believe in, and train activists in, non-violent democratic engagement. They believe in and work towards building bridges between different individuals and communities who might pass each other in the street, but don’t know anything about the shared needs, hopes and fears of one another. They, clearly, are not devils. Someone has to care about bringing diverse communities together engaging in issues that concern us here and now and I have met no-one who does that better than London Citizens. As Jews living in London we have to reach out to our Islamic cousins and hope that they will reach out to us also – indeed that is exactly what has happened as Jews (myself included) have developed our own relationship with London Citizens. But I don’t expect that relationship to be straightforward or comfortable. There is much blood spilt, much pain felt and much hatred still burning. Friends who know the person who gave this speech better than I tell me he is a supportive partner for many issues which I also care about and he wants to work with the Jewish community in London even though he must know we are proud Zionists. I don’t think that we, as Jews living in London, gain anything by demonising him or the organisations he represents as a Muslim or a trustee. I am appalled at the way the demonic epithet hangs over the JC’s coverage insinuating and damning far too broadly. Indeed the reportage of this issue echoes the JC’s attack on the Pears Foundation two weeks ago. It’s inflammatory and divisive and threatens only to burn down what must instead be built up.


Shabbat shalom


Rabbi Jeremy


Thursday, 12 May 2011

Midrash Classes at New London Monday 16th and 23rd at 8pm


I love Midrash more than any other Rabbinic endeavour. Of course I love Halachah, theology and Biblical commentary, but if I were to be stranded on a desert island with only one book for company I would take my giant collection of Midrash – Torah Shleimah (all twelve volumes of it, I’m not going to run out of reading matter).


Midrash is the way the greatest Rabbis of our tradition mined Biblical stories in search of greater texture and colour. They draw out more vibrant psychological insights and create a more vigorous theological relationship with God than the original Biblical texts suggest.


This Monday evening, and next (at 8pm), I will be looking at some Midrashim on some of the great stories in the Book of Numbers. Texts will be provided in English and Hebrew and the classes (which are self-contained) are suitable for those both with and without previous Rabbinic experience. This Monday we will look at the tale of the faithless spies and Korach who was swallowed up by the earth. Next week Moses striking the rock and the zealot who murders and is blessed with a covenant of peace.


All welcome,


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy




Members entirely to be buried at Edgewarebury.

If wanted to buy at Hoop Lane, something like £7,000

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Happy Birthday Israel

On this 63rd Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the Jewish State I offer these extracts from the original Declaration, and some comments.

Readers can also find my sermon from Shabbat, which addressed these issues, on my blog at

‘The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

‘After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom. Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country's inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.

‘THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

‘WE APPEAL - in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.

‘WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.

‘WE APPEAL to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream - the redemption of Israel.’


This extraordinary document retains the vibrancy of its earliest days – a time of visionaries and pioneers.

The most remarkable thing about the 63 year old State of Israel is that it has survived in the face of invasions, terror attacks and other aggressions. Actually survival isn’t a strong enough word. Israel has flourished in so many spheres, from political to social, from technological to spiritual. There is so much to celebrate.

The greatest disappointment of these last 63 years must be that the hand extended in the Declaration of Independence and so many times since ‘in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness’, has been spurned so many times by ‘neighbouring states and peoples.’

The greatest challenges for the year to come are, I think, three fold.

Firstly Israelis, Palestinians and all who support either or both nations, must actively pursue the establishment of a Palestinian State in borders which allow both Israelis and Palestinians safe self-determination. Of course the Palestinians wish for self-determination, but Israel is also hurt by occupation. She cannot become a force for ‘peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel’ as an occupying force. Regardless of who is to blame for the failures of Peace Processes of the past there must be a commitment to a two state peace process in the present no matter how high the obstacles of history or contemporary reality which stand in its way.

Secondly Israel is challenged to engage and re-engage with some of the major social challenges she faces. Too many Israelis live below the poverty line, too much of Israeli society is bifurcated, split between races, faiths and national origin. I feel particular pain watching sections of Israeli orthodox and ultra-orthodox society exercise a heavy-handed self-interest designed to protect only their own interests while depriving other forms of Jewish identification from being able to flourish in a State in which all Jews have a stake.


Thirdly the ‘Jewish people throughout the Diaspora’ must commit, again, to the love and support of Israel. This is not the time to turn our backs on our birthplace as a nation and the home of our deepest national aspirations. I have, this year, made three charitable contributions on this Independence Day; to because of my commitment to the renewal of the Northern Galil; to for their work in civil and human rights, social and economic justice and the environment and the Israeli Masorti movement, who create the kind of Jewish communities I believe in. I would urge every reader to pick the organisations they believe do most to create the Israel they wish to see, and support them to the extent they can.


Happy Birthday Israel.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Associating with Royals, Sacred Time and Israel

Identification by disassociation is the process by which we define ourselves, or those things around us, by what we, or they are not.

I think we, as the New London Synagogue community, as members of Anglo-Jewy and as residents and even citizens of this Great British nation do a lot of identification by disassociation.

We are very good at identification by disassociation. We do it quickly and, I suspect, it is our default setting.

But I don’t like identification by disassociation.

And this is a sermon about its dangers.


The Hebrew word pil is not a table, or a Satsuma, or a rose bush, or calcium carbonate.

And even if you know that a pil is a quadruped you are still not going to be much closer if I tell you that a pil is not a horse, or a mouse, or a dog or cat.

The Hebrew word pil means elephant.

Oh elephant, why didn’t you say so.

It is easier to explain what something is in positive terms, than negative ones.

It’s not only clearer it’s less conflictual.

It’s not only easier for the mind, I think it is also easier for the soul,

You can fall in love with something that a person is.

I don’t think it’s possible to fall in love with the things that a person is not.


It’s a thought that has been going through my mind of late in three ways.

One a week old

One a reflection on the parasha and its relationship to this Synagogue

And one a reflection on a very modern kind of miracle.


A week ago there was a Royal wedding. You might have noticed.

And something odd happened to the British psyche. We seemed to get a little less cynical, a little less busy defining ourselves by what we don’t really care about.

We stopped defining ourselves by how little we consider ourselves Royalists or how much we disagree with Prince Charles opining on this or that, or Prince Harry wearing this or that, or drinking this or that and found a way to smile, be happy, shed a good kind of tear – maybe, or maybe not quite that far.

From where I was looking on, the negative, snippy, association by counter-indication, relationship we seemed to be settling into, when if came to the Royal Family as indeed most other families, seemed to evolve into something more positive.

There was, for a few moments, a softening of the national disassociative traits of cynicism, irony and disassociation.

I don’t know if it will last, but for a moment there, we identified with what moved us, what we shared.

And it felt good, we felt better, brighter, more alive, more human.

I think we are better celebrating than sniping and I think last week demonstrated that.

So much for the event a week ago.


In the parasha we read the story of Jewish sacred time;

Vayidaber Moshe et Moaday Adonai el Bnai Yisrael.

Shabbat, Pesach, the Omer, Shavuout, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Succot

And it had me reflecting on how we, as members of this community tend to define our relationship with this majestic cycle of season and soul.

Let me try this experiment – just pause for a second and consider, do you think of yourself as someone who observes Shabbat.

Yes or no,

When it comes to Shabbat are you in or are you out.

I don’t want to ask for a show of hands, I’ll take a guess.

Correct me if I am wrong – and I am sure you will – but my sense is that most of you will have considered yourselves as non-observant, outsiders.

You will have dis-associated

Am I right?

Let me put it this way, you got up this morning, with many other things you could be doing and you came to spend a sunny morning in Shul, praying, listening to Torah and, God help you, your Rabbi.

A privilege for which virtually all of you have membership fees of several hundred pounds.

And you still identified by disassociation.

That strikes me as odd.

I know that some of you may have driven to get here, and I know that some of you may be off to discard the spirit of Shabbat with all kinds of Hillul Shabbas this afternoon, but you are all here.

That’s impressive, it’s enough to make me feel that you, we, should all consider ourselves observing Shababt.

It’s not enough, just being here, but it’s enough to consider yourselves as insiders, associates, not outsiders.

But I don’t think most of us do that, it’s a peculiar tendency, and one that is not at all helpful.

This identification by disassociation creates a gap between the members of the Shul and the Shul itself.

It creates a gap between Jews and their Judaism.

It makes us feel an outsider.

And, and I think this is a key piece, it allows us to stagnate in our relationship with our faith.

We might listen to the siren call of a Rabbi encouraging us to come to a learning session or a weekday Yom Tov service or sell our Chametz and we already have this big wall erected between ourselves and the faith so the calls just dribble away, falling into the gap between where I speak and where so many of you sit.

Why do you think I want people to sit closer?

I wonder if there might be a problem with the way we too frequently identify ourselves as not-Orthodox and not-Reform, disassociating again.

We don’t spend enough time talking who we are.

I was at a meeting of the Rabbis of Masorti Europe this week and one of my colleagues, rightly, became annoyed at the way an argument between became an argument about whether our commitment to tradition or change should take priority.

We are, said Rabbi Gesa Edeberg, not either / or Jews, we are both / and.

We are both traditional and progressive, inspired by truths both modern and ancient. We are insiders in the great chain of tradition, the Masorah, that connects the holy actions of every Jew back through the millennia to the time we first read the words

Vayidaber Moshe et Moaday Adonai el Bnai Yisrael.


Again, I think, the analogy of a romantic relationship is a good one. If we are busy disassociating ourselves from the person with whom we might find ourselves out on a date, the relationship will crumble even if, were we to allow ourselves to be in an associative relationship we could find ourselves sat opposite the love of our live.

And it’s the same person.

There is so much to fall in love with, when it comes to the Jewish cycle of sacred time – the sensitivity to the time of the sunset, the changing seasons, there is a wonderful moment that comes when you first catch sight of the New Moon. Today the New Moon of Iyyar is three days old, have you seen it yet? Just peeking into the sky.

There is the journey from Purim to Pesach from chaos to order.

The journey through the mystical archetypes of the Omer.

The chance to experience what it must have meant to stand at Sinai that comes having spent the night of Shavuot in study and then davenning as the sky turns slowly blue and the birds begin their dawn-time chorus.

I could go on.

But we are only going to be moved by these intensely powerful, spiritual energies if we open up our souls to identify ourselves as committed observing Jews.

And far too often we arrive here in Shul already busy disassociating.

So try this.

Next time someone asks you if you are religious, say yes.

Next time someone asks you if you care about Jewish observance, Shabbat and the like, say yes.

Even if all we did is light a candle.

We should identify ourselves by what we associate with.

Try it.


I said there were three reasons I’ve been thinking about identification by disassociation.

The Royal Family, Moaday Adonai – the sacred festivals of our tradition – and the State of Israel.


In terms of the age of Sates Israel is a teenager.

But that is no reason for our relationship with her to be that of a teenager, all disappointed shrugs and tsking, eyeball rolling, disassociating as if we prove how cool we are by the extent by which we deem the other not cool enough to be worth our time, our love, our charity and our celebration.


Oh I know there are problems, but I choose to associate myself with Israel as a proud Zionist, proud of a Jewish State’s right to exist,

proud of accomplishments commercial and scientific, social and political.

This tendency we have to identify with disassociation has gnawed away at our love of the State in the Land of our Ancestors to such an extent that we are, as a community failing to find it easy to celebrate, love.

It’s that word again, it’s all about love.

We are falling out of love with Israel and the cost, for Israel, but also for our own identities is great.

Here’s an accomplishment of Israel this last year, a year, let it not be forgotten that has seen Bahrain and Egypt and Syria and Libya all quake and shudder.

Moshe Katzav, the President of Israel, was this year found guilty of foul criminal behaviour. He was prosecuted, found guilty by a jury of ordinary citizens and sentenced to jail and went to jail.

Just like that.

No military coup, no tanks rolling in the streets of Tel Aviv.

Someone once told me that the true test of a democracy comes when there is an election, an incumbent Prime Minister loses and just moves out of the way of power.

Here’s another one – sometimes I get sent links to supposedly vicious anti-Zionist articles in one newspaper or another and I can’t help but smile and wonder if these people actually read the Israeli press. If you want to read criticism of Israel’s failings in any of the many great challenges she faces you can’t read anything in the Guardian that matches the ferocity of criticism found in Haaretz – the joys of a free press.

Or the creative energy of Israel’s contemporary artists, the dancers, the painters, the photographers – it’s incredible.

But this is a country that knows it’s challenges, knows them better than we do, and engages with them with a vigour and a commitment to democracy that beggards belief, especially in the context of existential threat and the levels of freedom showed by her neighbours to their own citizens.

Oh I know there are problems and I know we need, as Rabbi Michael Melchior said from this very pulpit, we need a whole new Mishnah to help Israel know how to handle power and statehood some two thousand years after the Roman destruction.

But wow, there is a state, there is a place to run to, flourish in, believe in, fight for.

How dare we identify ourselves through our disassociation with the State of Israel?


Particularly, how sad it is that when we do disassociate with the State of Israel, as I suspect too many Anglo-Jews do,

I suspect that this disassociating has much to do with a prevailing cultural norm that teaches that the snooty put down is worth more than the loving committed word of support.


It’s Israel’s Independence Day this week.

We should take the opportunity to be proud, to associate ourselves as a Zionists – committed to the right of a Jewish state to exist in the land of Israel.

And we should allow ourselves a celebratory falafel, a celebratory donation to an Israeli charity we hold dear, something that opens up our heart, strengthens our commitment.

Yom Holedet Sameach Isarel

A very happy birthday to you.


We have much with which to associate.

‘Associating with’ opens our heart, allows us to experience love, it allows us to be moved and to move – to change, to grow, to be human.

Associating with allows us to experience the wonders and joys of our own Jewish heritage and it can allow us to fall in love, again, with the Jewish State whose Birthday we must celebrate this week – even if we have concerns, even if we face challenges, we should share those concerns, engage with those challenges from within a committed relationship.

Being ever more proud of that with which we associate allows us to be people who stand for things, as opposed to people who stand against things.

And when our time comes to stand before the one who knows the truths of our lives we will be judged by that which we stood for, not by that which we stood against.


Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 5 May 2011

On Osama and Acts of Evil

As many will know I spent the night of 9/11 2001 at Ground Zero working with the emergency services, inhaling the dust, smelling the scent of hell.

As the news came through of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden this week my memories filled up, again, with the horror of that dark time when it felt as if the world was coming to an end. I remember seeing Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York, striding through the ash on that night. Some ten years later his comments on the assassination matched my own - ‘I feel satisfaction and some emotional relief but I don’t feel great elation. I watch a lot of the celebrating and it makes me feel a little strange, I don’t know,’ said Giuliani, clearly stuttering with the same sense of awkwardness I feel, ‘'Nothing erases the loss of all those lives. I feel satisfaction … but I don’t feel like celebrating.’

Much of the Jewish blogosphere, writing in the aftermath of the assassination, has focussed on a well known Midrash regarding the Song of the Sea. The Children of Israel make it across the dry land and then the waves come down on the Egyptians, ‘horse and rider swept into the sea.’ The Israelites sing a triumphalist ballad, the Angels wish to join in and God interrupts the angelic chorus with the retort, ‘The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?’ (Sanhedrin 39b). We don’t rejoice in the death of doers of evil for even they, yes even him, are created in the image of God.

Another text, on my mind, is Midrash Tehilim (118). Here we read a tale of Bruriah, wife of the Talmudic sage Rebbi Meir, criticising her husband for praying for the death of a wicked neighbour. Using good Rabbinic exegesis Bruriah proves that while we can, and must, pray for the elimination of ACTS of evil we should never pray for the elimination of DOERS of evil. While acting to eliminate acts may, in the most extreme of circumstances, justify the elimination of a doer, it is vital we understand the implications of focussing on acts and not perpetrators.

By focussing on acts we have the possibility of changing cultures and breaking cycles of violence. By focussing on perpetrators we risk creating idols and heroes binding us ever more tightly into precisely the same cycles of revenge and violence we desperately wish to break.

These are dark and murky waters, I shed no tear for Osama, but I offer no triumphalist cheer either.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

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