I have an article on some of the issues surrounding homosexuality and morality in this week’s Jewish Chronicle.
I have an article on some of the issues surrounding homosexuality and morality in this week’s Jewish Chronicle.
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
Torah & Mitzvot
From Birth to Death
Israel & Hebrew
Good Things and Bad Things
Kindness and Justice
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 email@example.com.
Rabbi Jeremy Gordon
New London Synagogue
0207 328 1026
Sermons, Blogs and Thoughts
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the sort of story you can only tell once the kids are in bed.
The Talmud 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, prayer – the 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. 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.
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 - 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.
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, 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.
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,
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. 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.’ 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.
‘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.