Thursday, 30 June 2011

This Sunday, Rabbi David Wolpe at New London Synagogue - 3rd July 7:10pm

Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai, Los Angeles is giving the Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture at New London Synagogue, 33 Abbey Rd, London NW8 0AT.


All welcome.


The following is from the opening of his new bestselling book, The Case for Faith


I stood by the hospital bed of a friend who was dying of cancer.  Isaac wanted to know why he was sick, why he must die, why he must leave his children and grandchildren.  I could tell him that it was part of God’s plan or confess to him that I did not know.  Neither response seemed right.


So instead, we exchanged stories about chemotherapy.  My hair was just beginning to grow back after a bout with lymphoma; Isaac’s, wispy to start, was gone from the drugs that had targeted all the fast growing cells in his body.  They had done a thorough job on his hair but not on his cancer. 


We talked about the strange gratitude we felt for the medicinal poison as it coursed through our veins.  There was a moment of solidarity and then sadness returned.  Battle stories are not nostalgic when they end in death.


“But as least you understand” Isaac said.  It reminded me anew that in many ways, my cancer was a gift; it gave more context to my compassion.  He knew that I really did understand, that my family and I were not unscathed.  Needles seemed forever to be dangling from my arm and I was always being shoved into metal tubes for scans and pictures and tests.  Enduring the survival machines creates a kind of tribal solidarity.


“So”, he asked, “why did it happen to you?”


Shabbat shalom

Friday, 24 June 2011

Smurfette and the Un-named Jewish Women

There aren’t many times when you will hear a Rabbi say, ‘I’ve spent much of the past two weeks thinking about little girls.’ But these past two weeks I have. And though, I know, Dr Anne Lerner shared a sermon on gender last week, I’m going to my take on some of the challenges of gender I believe are facing us, both as adults in our own right, and, for those of us engaged, one way or another in raising the next generation of adults – both the next generation of men, and women.

An unnamed woman plays a significant role in this weeks parasha –

At the openning of the parasha we are told that there are three principle cronies behind Korah, when he launches his assault on Moses’ authority – Datan, Abiram and On, son of Pelet. We hear more of Datan and Amiram, they join Korah in the test of the fire censers and they lose, they are swallowed up by the earth. But On, son of Pelet, disappears from the story. He’s not included in the company of Korah swallowed up by the earth and that leads the Rabbis to this Midrash.

On, the son of Pelet, teaches Bmidbar Rabba,[1] was saved by his wife. She told him not to get involved in the dispute – you are a minion under the leadership of Moses, she told him, and you will be a minion even if the rebellion of Korach succeeds – just under a different master. You are holy already, all the congregation is holy[2], and you stand to gain nothing by joining the revolution. And she gave him wine to drink until he became drunk and fell asleep. Then she sat in the doorway of her tent with her hair disheveled and when the time came for Korah’s other cronies to pick up their mate they didn’t dare cross his wife. And so On, son of Pelet, slept through the revolution – and survived.

It’s the ‘behind every great man there has to be a great woman’ school of understanding the role of women in life. But here the man isn’t great. He is, and Yiddish will it better than English ever could, a putz

But what is so remarkable is the anonymity of the woman. She’s not mentioned by the Bible, only the Midrash, and her name isn’t recorded, it’s as if history left her out. It’s not uncommon. Noah’s wife – unnamed. In the list of names of those who went down to Israel to escape the famine at the end of the Book of Genesis 69 men’s names are recorded and one woman.

Here is the most remarkable Rabbinic example I know of the un-naming of a woman. The woman is Bruria, usually referred to in the Talmud as ‘Bruria wife of Rabbi Meir.’ She’s known as a learned woman from a couple of other stories in Rabbinic literature, but there is a legal debate in Mishnah Kelayim that is worth sharing, it’s a little technical, bear with me.

If someone dies in a room all the metal in the room becomes tamei – ritually impure, spoiled. The Rabbis are having a discussion about an iron door bolt in a room where someone is dying and Bruriah suggests taking the bolt out, and hanging it on the door of your neighbour. The Tosefta reports that when ‘these words were spoken before Rabbi Yehuda, he said ‘beautifully put, Bruria.’[3] But in the Mishnah when the same idea is reported, it’s reported in the name of another Rabbi. Bruria’s contribution is gone.


There are women who feature in Rabbinic literature, but they tend not to be actors in their own right. They tend to be the objects of other people acting. In Rabbinic literature, it’s the men who are out doing things. It is the women to whom things are done. There is a whole order of the Mishnah entitled Nashim – women. There isn’t an order entitled ‘Men.’


There is a problem with the anonymity of women, a problem with the way women are written out of the narrative of our tradition but I think, most of all there is a problem with the way women are treated as ‘other’ from the default. The default is the male.


The problem is perfectly illustrated by the opening of the Rabbis’ discussion of marriage, in Masechet Kiddushin[4] - Ishah Nikneit


A woman, teaches the Mishnah, is acquired by the process of marriage.


He betroths, she is betrothed.

He is the actor she is the object.

And how easy is it to slip from being object, to being objectivised to being objectionable.

It’s not, of course, a uniquely Jewish problem. The American poet Katha Pollitt, some twenty years ago wrote about how difficult it was to find female role models amonsgt the cartoons and TV shows her daughter wanted to watch. She entitled her article The Smurfette Principle.

“Contemporary shows – mused Pollitt - are either essentially all-male, like "Garfield," or are organized on what I call the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined. In the worst cartoons -- the ones that blend seamlessly into the animated cereal commercials -- the female is usually a little-sister type, a bunny in a pink dress and hair ribbons who tags along with the adventurous bears and badgers. But the Smurfette principle rules the more carefully made shows, too. Thus, Kanga, the only female in "Winnie-the-Pooh," is a mother. Piggy, of "Muppet Babies," is a pint-size version of Miss Piggy, the camp glamour queen of the Muppet movies… The message [argues Pollitt] is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.

And it’s neither an outdated analysis, nor one that applies only to pre-schoolers. One look at the excitement surrounding Hollywood’s newest supposed smash comedy Bridesmaids should be enough to dispel that notion. Or just pick a gender for the each of the following couplets. What’s the first gender that occurs to you if I say nurse or Doctor, Chief Executive or secretary, head-teacher or class-teacher?


The prognosis, both in tradition Judaism and so much of contemporary society, is, I think clear. Women are lovely, important, holy, capable of the enormous miracle of childbirth and so much else besides, but they are assumed to be behind men, un-named. They are objects not subjects.


There is nothing wrong in being a nurse, a secretary or a class-teacher, but there is something wrong with the assumption – explicit or implicit – that these are roles for women while the more glamorous positions are to be the sole preserve of men. And part of the reason why having women disappear into the shadows is wrong is that it makes life worse for all of us; male and female alike.


Michael Lewis, one of the most astute observers of financial markets for the past three decades, when asked what the single thing that could best prevent a repeat of financial meltodown that struck three years ago responded, "I would take steps to have 50% of women in risk positions in banks."

Tim Adams, writing in the Observer last Sunday, cited a 2001 peer-reviewed study which looked at the relative success of man and women in managing the family’s finances. The study found that ‘while men were confident in making multiple changes to investments, their annual returns were, on average, a full percentage point below those of women who invested the family finances, and nearly half as much again inferior to single women.’ Adams looked into questions of Neuroeconomics – a study of how our brains and hormones react as, as men and as women, we are faced with economic decision making, both decisions regarding the family finances and decisions regarding the sort of arbitrage default spread bets that landed us all in this economic mess.

‘A more recent study of 2.7 million personal investors, said Adams, ‘found that during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009… male investors, as a group, appeared to be overconfident, the author of this study suggested. "There's been a lot of academic research suggesting that men think they know what they're doing, even when they really don't know what they're doing." I don’t know if that comes as surprise to anyone here. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me.

The wife of On, son of Pelet, is a hero. She’s smart, she spots something her husband doesn’t and she maneuvers a situation until a life-threatening risk is eased gently into abeyance. But I don’t think that’s enough. It’s not enough for me, I don’t want it to be enough for my daughter, or any of our daughters. She should be named. Her role should be recorded front and centre, not buried in a Midrash, and she shouldn’t have to resort to underhand supposedly females wiles in getting her man drunk (as Lot’s daughters did to Lot, or as Yael did to Sisera). She should be able to face Korah down in public debate, just as Moses did.

The question of whether women should remain on the margins or be invited front and centre is one of the places where I feel the need to look at my wonderful, glorious tradition, the Rabbinic, Jewish tradition I love, and be prepared to part from it a little. I know of its ancient andocentrism and I demand that, as Jews living today, with the knowledge we have of the Smurfette principle and neuroeconomics and much else, we need to hear more clearly, more actively and more in their own name from women – of this generation and the generations to come. As a man I’m not scared, I’m excited to think what such a world might look like. Which is why I give my daughter the same blessing recorded in the Bible as given from one man to another – be strong and of courage. my greatest blessing, to share with my daughters and all of us is the blessing given by Moses el kol yisrael to all of Israel[5]

Be strong and of courage, don’;t be afraid for Adonai your God. God will not foresake you. God will not fail you.


Shabbat shalom


[1] 18:20

[2] Citing Num 3:3

[3] Kelayim 1:6

[4] 1:1

[5] Deut 31:6

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Le Dor VaDor - Back from Paternity Leave

I’m back at work. Paternity leave has been wonderful and I am grateful to all who sent warm messages of support to our newborn daughter. She is doing well, while the rest of us are still working out how our newly enlarged family fits together.


But on the subject of generations, let me share this observation.


The map of lay involvement at New London is changing. Last Shabbat we had seven different members leyn the different Aliyot. It wouldn’t have happened ten years ago and five years ago it would have been a huge challenge. This year we had a communal leyning twice in successive weeks, done well – and that is a huge achievement. Perhaps even more remarkable was the age range of the readers taking hold of Torah in this way. One was in his teens, another in his twenties, admittedly no-one in their forties, but two members in their fifties, one in their sixties and a sprightly septuagenarian.


That, to me, is what a Synagogue should be; a place for all generations. I’ve been to many ‘monochromatic’ Synagogues, where everyone fits into a single demographic tranche but I’ve never felt comfortable in them. I miss the spread of ages. I miss the chaos of a child’s invasion at Adon Olam or I miss the wisdom that only comes with age - Ziknut – the same Hebrew word means both wise and aged. Most particularly I miss the points of interaction between young and old, interactions I don’t see ‘out there’ where socialisation and profession compartmentalise us into packages; school kids, professionals, retirees and so on. Judaism should, and must, represent a rainbow’s spectrum of colours and I’m sure everyone in Shul last week would have been delighted to see such vibrancy. There is, of course, much more to do, but we are building commitment and involvement right across the age spectrum and that is terrific.


Another marker of involvement, of course, is our lay leadership. With the AGM just passed I want to salute and thank the outgoing members of Council and give a warm welcome to those who have stepped up to new positions this year. It’s also an important time to say thank you to those who continue to provide lay leadership in the Synagogue, particularly our executive and Julian.


It’s good to be back,


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 3 June 2011

On the Spiritual Significance of Twiddling One's Thumbs


I’m not really on paternity leave but, it should be admitted, I’ve not been at my most productive these past couple of days. My wife calls, I’m ready to leap into action, but it’s just a call about a piece of shopping. Twiddle, twiddle, twiddle. Sort out the filing, clear out the piles of papers that have been accumulating in the corners of my office for really far too long…


Children teach the message that life operates out of one’s ability to control it. It’s not just the run up to birth; it’s life in its fullest panoply of colour and texture. Parents tend to want, and I make no claim to be exceptional in this regard, children to make their own considered decisions to do precisely the things we, as parents, would most want them to do. And life rarely works that way. The only consolation (and it is a mighty consolation) is that this is not a new problem. Not only have I done this to my parents, and so on, it’s also God’s problem – the problem of free will.


God wants human beings do precisely what God wants them to do, through the exercise of free choice. God wants fidelity grounded in love, God doesn’t want to compel obedience, but opening oneself up to the vagaries of a child’s predilection, or human exercise of freedom of choice runs the risk of disobedience, disappointment. As an increasing number of dictators across North Africa are finding out, it could be that compulsion could score some short-term victories. But over a longer-term the relationship between a people and their leader, a people and their God, or a child and their parent, has to be grounded in love and acceptance that people make their decisions in their own sweet good time.


So be it,

Twiddle, twiddle, twiddle


Shabbat Shalom,

Chag Sameach – just in case I’m not around much over Shavuot.


Rabbi Jeremy

On Shavuot and Conversion

New London Synagogue has one of the largest conversion programmes in Anglo-Jewry.

In this pre-Shavuot posting I want to share the bedrock of what I understand conversion to entail.

Chag Sameach

Dear Friends,


It’s Shavuot time, I thought it might be helpful to share a thought or two.

Ruth, of course, is the ultimate conversion candidate and the core verse of the book is the ultimate declaration of what it means to seek to convert;

‘Do not entreat me to leave you, or to keep from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; Where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if even death parts me from you.’


The Rabbis learn, from this story, that a convert should be turned back three times before being accepted, corresponding to the three times Naomi attempts to get Ruth to give up on her decision to join the people of Israel. The threefold piece that drives the conversion programme at New London is different. We are looking to see candidates cross three thresholds in terms of their commitment to Judaism.

The first is a threshold of knowledge. We look for knowledge for two reasons, one is that converts are looking to become part of a people with much history, many glorious and strange norms and traditions and a convert who doesn’t understand these folkways a convert will always be an outsider, not the insider you might profess to wish to be. In part we are looking for the sorts of knowledge that can be looked up in a book – what are the names of the five books of the Torah, what is Kol Nidrei, what is Mishnah? But in part we are looking for the sort of knowledge that comes from being in a room with other Jews (and Jews in preparation) talking, discussing, debating. Jewish knowledge is not a collection of factoids, it is a discursive breathing tradition. We are looking for you to have enough of a sense of Jewish knowledge to become a participant in a continuing journey connecting back to Sinai and forward to generations to come.


The second is a threshold of observance. Judaism, unlike other monotheistic religions, is not based exclusively on faith. In other words believing in the things a faithful Jew believes in does not make a non-Jew a Jew. A non-Jew becomes a Jew by entering a covenant based on an acceptance of the obligation to observe commandments – Mitzvot. We expect converts not to be eating non-kosher meat (not only pig and shell-fish, but non-kosher beef and chicken too) – and if you are a Jewish partner reading this we expect you to support your partner by joining them in this culinary journey. We expect you to have a relationship with the ebb and flow of Jewish time, the Shabbat in particular, Festivals also. If you are in the conversion programme you should be booking the Jewish Festivals as ‘time off’ being a worker ant, as ‘time on’ being a free human soul, being with other Jews and being part of a Jewish community, particularly in Synagogue. It might be that these expectations are above the level of practice of many other Jews, so be it. We have in mind a threshold which can allow a convert to become a player in the future of the Jewish people and that takes a commitment to and familiarity with the classic rhythms of Jewish life. This is a Masorti conversion; ethics and sociability are both important parts of Judaism, but we are looking for a commitment to practice because this is what we believe is the key marker of Jewish identity, for born Jew and Jew-by-choice alike.


The third is a threshold of spiritual connection. We want converts to feel Jewish, to feel that same sense of connection Ruth felt. The blessing shared with converts at the Bet Din includes the phrase ‘thrown in their lot with the people of the God of Abraham’ – I love the phrase. Conversion takes a leap; a leap of faith and a leap into a world that, by definition, will feel foreign from the outside.


Aside from the story of Ruth, Shavuot is marked by the willingness of the Israelites to receive Torah. Like a convert the Israelites stood at the foothills of Sinai and said ‘we will do and we will understand’ (Ex 24:7). The Rabbis understand the order – doing before understanding – to signify the Israelites weren’t sure what they were taking on, but committed to being Jews anyway, such was their delight about entering this covenant. It is certainly the case that Jewish understanding only comes on the far side of Jewish action; true spiritual connection only comes on the back of Jewish knowledge and Jewish action. And that, perhaps most of all, is why we stress knowledge and action so clearly.


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