Monday, 17 December 2012

On the Appointment of Rabbi Mirvis as Next Chief Rabbi

Some immediate thoughts on the recommendation of the search committee that Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis should be appointed next Chief Rabbis of the United Hebrew Congregations (British and Commonwealth Orthodoxy).


Mazal Tov – meant both in the sense of congratulation and good luck with the task to come. I wish Rabbi Mirvis every blessing for success. I offer my support in anything I can do to promote Achdut Yishrael – a coming together of Israel – alongside his leadership of the United Synagogue.


Three brief observations.

I don’t know Rabbi Mirvis personally, but his community is a powerhouse; growing and vibrant across the fullest sense of what a Shul ought to be. He’s a community Rabbi, community Rabbis get their hands dirty, it’s not an aloof life predicated on theory.

My sense, from the outside, is that there is a plurality of opportunity within the community. There are different Minyanim, pursuing different customs and aimed at different kinds of Jews. It’s a community which empowers its members. That’s a marked shift from the overly centralised United Synagogue of previous incumbents.

Rabbi Mirvis is not a PhD. I don’t think one should read too much into the matter. He’s clearly highly intelligent and learned, but this appointment is an endorsement of focussing on ‘real people’ – the Jew in the pew – rather than the glittering ivory towers of academia and the expectations of the non-Jewish world.


He faces many challenges. If he can inspire the United Synagogue with the same success and energy that he has brought to Finchley United Synagogue – ‘Kinloss’ - in these past years he will do mighty things not only for the United Synagogue, but Am Yisrael – the People of Israel and our broader society also. May he be blessed with the kindness, the learning and the courage to be that force for goodness, holiness and change.


Friday, 14 December 2012

The Story of the Oil - An (Un)Original Midrash

The Story of the Oil, An (Un)Original Midrash

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon


Adam and Eve grabbed out at whatever they could reach as they were dragged from the Garden of Eden. Eventually, lost and alone in the wilderness, they opened their hands to see what reminders of paradise they had smuggled away. There wasn’t much; some seeds, some fruit and the first pair of tongs (Avot 5:2). They tilled, hoed and planted the seeds and waited for harvest. It was bitter, inedible. Eve tried pressing the fruit, which drew out the bitterness, but it was hardly tasty. She put the oil aside for safekeeping.


As the days passed into weeks Adam noticed the nights getting longer and the days shorter. He wailed, ‘This is the punishment for our sin. Darkness is overtaking the world and we are sliding back to the primordial state of darkness and void.’ (Avodah Zara 8a) Meanwhile Eve created a small lamp for the olive oil and during the darkest nights she would light the oil and she, her husband and children would sit in its light and the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.

Generations passed and Eve passed the flask on to her descendents. And a great miracle happened; the oil never ran out.


Many years later Noah’s wife took one look at her husband’s craftwork and reached for the oil. The ark had been fully covered with pitch, inside and out and was totally dark. (Genesis Rabbah 31:11) The bats and the badgers were happy, but the rest of the animals refused to enter. So she lit the oil and she, her husband and children and all the (diurnal) animals would sit in its light and the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.


Many years later the flask had been passed to Jacob. ‘Light it when you are most afraid,’ Rebecca counseled as she pressed the oil into his hand. And now Jacob was afraid. He had sent his wives, his children, his servants, all of his possessions across the river and he forgot the flask of oil. He turned back ‘for he had left behind some small jars’ (Chullin 91a) and, in darkness, he lit his lamp and wrestled the angel and the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.


So goes the story of the oil.

It was the last remaining possession of the ‘woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets’ who didn’t understand its miraculous properties until Elisha told her to keep pouring oil from the flask, knowing it would last forever and that the revenue could pay off the creditor who had come to take her sons into slavery (2 Kings 4). Samuel used the oil to anoint Saul, the first King of Israel, and also to anoint David, his successor (I Sam. 10:1 & 16:3). It was used to light the everlasting light that would light up the sanctuary and the Temple. And always the oil brought comfort, in its light the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.


When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks and re-entered the Temple they searched and could find only one flask of oil, and to the untrained eye it seemed as if there was only enough for one day’s lighting. (Shabbat 21b) But this was no ordinary oil, and of course it lasted.

And today, when we light our own Chanukiot, we remember all the great miracles bestowed upon on our ancestors and upon us. But perhaps the greatest miracle is the miracle of a flame. For when we sit in its light, the darkness no longer seems so terrifying.

Monday, 19 November 2012

New London Synagogue is looking for our next Chazan

If you, or anyone you know might be interested, please direct them to for a person specification and information on the application process.


‘New London Synagogue offers a unique combination of tradition and modernity.  We are traditional in practice and non-judgmental in outlook.  It is a blend of contemporary Judaism, we think, at its best. We are proud of our history; from our dramatic foundation nearly 50 years ago by our esteemed founder, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs z’l, to our pivotal role in establishing the Masorti movement in Great Britain which now consists of 13 communities and is the fastest growing synagogue movement in the UK. We are equally proud of our vibrant present.  New London Synagogue is gloriously busy and growing fast; our cheder has tripled in size in the last two years. We are looking for a Chazan who can help us grow and be excited by our future.


‘We enjoy the traditional liturgy done well. The moments when the community comes together in prayerful song are very special to us and we want to participate with a Chazan who will skilfully lead us. We are looking for a Ba’al Tefillah and a Shaliach Tzibbur, rather than a concert soloist.’


This position will also be offered through the Cantors’ Assembly Placement process.


If this could be you I hope you will be in touch.

Any questions please contact 


Friday, 9 November 2012

Torah That Dares Not Speak Its Name


Part One - Homosexuality

A couple of months ago one of those regular waves of communal debate about the place of homosexuality in Judaism broke over the Jewish Chronicle. Reform and Orthodox voices chipped in. Masorti was silent. In truth we, the Rabbis of Masorti Judaism, have been nervous and uneven on the issue. Some are more in favour of taking public positions, even on contentious issues. Some are more in favour of keeping our heads low. Some are more in favour of Halachic moderation. Some are more inclined to enforce more traditional standards. Certainly we would all condemn the idiocy of the extremist Orthodoxy that led Rabbi Noson Leitner to opine that the ‘same-gender marriage recognition movement’ were to blame for Tropical Storm Sandy, but nor would any of us articulate the language of halachic disregard that Reform and Liberal Jewish leaders have adopted.


In a new Masorti publication on relationships I am publishing the first public attempt to plot a path ‘What Should Gay Jews Do’ in the Masorti Movement. The essay is also available on my blog and I will be teaching on the subject at the Masorti Seminar on Judaism and Relationships this Sunday from 10:30 at the JHub on West End Lane. See for more information. Any members who would like to discuss this issue further are welcomed to contact me to do so.


Part Two – The Palestinians

In other news that dare not share its name, this has been an extraordinary week for those who closely watch the American Jewish community’s relationships with Israel. 70 of 71 candidates supported by the liberal NGO JStreet won their elections. While the vast majority of candidates endorsed by the hardline rhetoric and dollars of Sheldon Adelson lost. Meanwhile PA President Mahmoud Abbas gave up on a personal ‘right’ of return and, speaking to Israeli TV, declared, ‘Palestine now for me is the ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.’ Is this an opening for peace or, with Bib Netanyahu predicted to win comfortably in the upcoming Israeli election, should we expect (and will) the perpetuation of the status quo. Last Monday saw a packed hall welcome, and challenge, security commentator Anshel Pfeffer at the excellent opening night of New London’s Israel Voices education series. This Monday, 8pm we welcome Hannah Weisfeld, founder and director of Yachad, Britain’s leading pro-Israel pro-peace NGO. I was delighted to see such interest in Israel’s relationship with the countries on the other side of the post-’67 borders. This Monday we will be looking at challenges closer to hand. All welcome.


Shabbat shalom.


Thursday, 8 November 2012

What Should A Gay Jew Do

What Should A Gay Jew Do?


The issue of homosexuality is complicated and tests our legal and practical sensibilities in a vast range of ways. It’s also hugely emotive both among those who are gay, or are gay supporters, and among those who fear Masorti is sliding away from the acceptance of the binding nature of our tradition. Faced with these complications we, as Rabbinic leaders in the Movement, have largely kept ‘shtum.’ We have hoped that members and others will deduce a general welcome of anyone regardless of sexuality without making that welcome explicit, partly out of our own discomfort and partly out of a desire to avoid the inevitable scorn that greets anyone perceived as treading too liberal a path on these matters. I’m not convinced that this silence is tenable or appropriate. For a Movement founded on the principle of speaking truths even if they bring criticism, this equivocation fails our raison d’etre.


I don’t get asked – ‘Rabbi, should I be gay?’ The question simply doesn’t come to me. Rather I get what the rabbis call ‘bd’ieved’ questions, post-facto questions – Since I am gay, am I still welcome in your shul? Since I have a gay partner, will you recognise us as a family? Since our son has same-sex parents, can you accept him in the Cheder? Actually even these ‘bd’ieved’ questions overstate what passes my metaphorical Rabbinic in-tray on issues around homosexuality. Many gay Jews feel traditional Judaism views them and their heart’s inclination with such opprobrium that they simply avoid anything to do with us – do I want to encourage them to be more involved or should I watch them disappear for our people? Others sit in the very back rows of our Synagogues ducking eye contact, not sure who to trust and from whom they should hide – dishonesty fostered in what should be a house of truth.


I am not, in this short paper, going to offer a fully worked through Halachic position, rather I am going to offer a whistle-stop trip through the principles which underlie how I read our Masorah – tradition – on this issue.


False Paths – Rights and Privacy

‘Rights’ based discourse dominates much secular discussion of these issues, but that kind of language is largely foreign to Jewish thought. I don’t, as a matter of Halachah, have a right to free speech or certainly any right to engage sexually with a chosen other. Judaism is built around systems of responsibility – I have the responsibility to speak carefully and kindly. So when I say Halachic Judaism does not recognise the right of a person to chose a life-partner or sexual partner of any gender that’s not because I don’t care about ways in which a heart moves a person who is gay, but rather because I don’t accept that Halachic Judaism should use this sort of discourse.


Equally I am unmoved by claims that ‘what goes on in the privacy of a bedroom’ is not a religious concern. Judaism believes that whatever we do, we do it before God. ‘Know Before Whom You Stand,’ is a phrase often found above the Synagogue arks and it applies equally under the covers. To the traditional Jew, everything matters – there is Halachic discussion of the order in which a person should put on their socks, Halachic discussion of the materials from which socks can made, Halachic discussion of the way in which the cotton can be picked and so on and so on. Viewed in the context of Judaism’s concern with every aspect of life the insistence that our sexual practices are of religious concern isn’t to obsess over sexuality, rather it fits into a concern for all parts of life.


Halachic Nuance

The Halachic system requires Rabbis show a sense of proportion when opining on matters of same-sex attraction. As a general matter Judaism is very slow to castigate internal emotional states and feeling drawn to a person of the same sex is no sin in itself. But even when it comes to acts, as opposed to ‘mere’ feelings, there is more nuance than an oversimplified view might suggest. Male-to-male intercourse is deemed an ‘issur d’oratia’ - a Torah mandated prohibition, but lesbian sexual engagement is considered ‘pritzut d’alma’ - ‘generally lewd’ - the same level of disdain as is shown towards the wearing of red clothing (Yevamot 76a and Berachot 20a). Acts of male-to-male sexual intimacy short of penetration are prohibited, but less severely. And there are strange byways in the Talmudic corpus where actions that might be connected to homosexual intimacy are glossed over. This is not the place to fight out the precise meaning of these often elliptical texts but, for example, in Kiddushin 82a the Wise accept two men can ‘share a blanket’ in a context which suggests an awareness of same-sex intimacy. There are positions taken by the American branch of our Movement which do overturn many, if not all, of the prohibitions in the classic Halacha but I am not going to argue that the forbidden be deemed not forbidden, but rather that a sense of nuance is preserved, especially when we are dealing with the need a person might feel for intimate companionship.


Morality, Halachah and Disobedience

Morality - acts of goodness – and Halachah – the Jewish legal system – are not one and the same. Judaism is not amoral, but the web of prohibitions, permissions, compulsions and exemptions are not only about morality. This is a particularly important point to make in the light of some of the moral opprobrium directed towards those who are gay by some religious leaders. The Bible outlaws male to male intercourse as a ‘Toevah,’ but the King James translators perhaps let some of their own discomfort with homosexual intercourse impact on their choice of ‘abomination’ as a translation of this strange word. The Bible considers eating pork or shellfish a ‘Toevah’ (Lev 11:10, Deut 14:3) but I don’t consider a person who eats ham is acting immorally, even if they are Jewish. The very first time the Bible mentions the term ‘Toevah’ (Gen 43:32) it refers to the way Egyptians perceived what it would mean to eat with a Jew. Most frequently the term refers to Jews committing acts of cultic idolatry (Deut 7:25, 12:31, 13:15). A ‘Toevah’ is a national and particular wrong, it’s not universal, it’s not moral. A committed intimate relationship between two people of the same sex is not immoral, even if it involves a breach of the Halachah, and I oppose the use of verses such as Lev 18:22 to suggest that it is.


It’s worth noting that the Halachic system imposes significant limits on physical intimacy between a married couple and certainly has much to say on intimate relationships between unmarried Jews, let alone relationships between Jews and non-Jews. There are many, let it be said, in our communities who, in their intimate relationships with life partners (and more casual partners) breach acts of Halachah. We need to ensure that our response on issues of homosexual intimacy bears a sense of proportion to our responses on issues of heterosexual intimacy.


What Should A Gay Jew Do?

This question goes to heart of the responsibility I feel in my engagement with this issue. 


The vast majority of my Orthodox colleagues expect a Jew who is clear about their gay sexual identity to live alone, without a central sanctified relationship with another they can love spiritually, emotionally and erotically. Frankly this has to be better counsel than the advice to marry a woman in pretence, or the suggestion that a firm gay sexual orientation can be ‘reversed’ through therapy. But there is a verse which speaks about such a life-sentence of loneliness – ‘it is not good for a person to be alone.’ (Gen 2:18). The Hebrew term used here – ‘Tov’ can only be translated to mean ‘good.’ Goodness is not cultic or particular. Goodness is the language of universal morality. This verse weighs particularly heavily on me especially in the context of the huge blessing I find in my own finding of a partner with whom I hope to share the rest of my life in every way. It makes it impossible for me to feel called or able to insist gay Jews live a life devoid of the intimacy which I, as a married hetrosexual, enjoy so profoundly. I am deeply moved by this Aggadic claim but I accept there is also a theological issue at work. Maybe if my theology was more classically orthodox I would absolutely accept the inerrant truth of Halachic prohibitions on gay sexual intimacy and vocally oppose all forms of it. But I am a Masorti Jew. I accept the obligation to observe the Mitzvot, but I am niggled by the belief that human discomfort with gay sex may be influencing our Halachic sources and that compounds my refusal to demand gay Jews live lives of loneliness. Seeing committed gay and lesbian Jews creating passionate and committed Jewish lives together also strengthens me to push towards the edge of what traditional Judaism has maintained in previous years.


What do I want? I want Jews to find other Jews with whom to make lives together. I want them to commit to one another and treat that committed relationship as sacred. As a Rabbi I want to support such couples as they build ‘Batim neemanim b’yisrael’ – faithful houses in Israel, and if such couples are blessed with children, through means natural or assisted by science or adoption, I will do everything I can to support the children growing as committed Jews who feel rooted and inspired by their Jewish families and tradition. I want Jews who can only find such a partner among members of the opposite sex to do that, and I want Jews who can only find such a partner among members of the same sex to do that also. When it comes to matters of sexual intimacy I would hope that couples both straight and gay allow the restrictions the Halachah imposes on all of us to influence the decisions we make, sexually, and I hope and believe it is possible for couples both gay and straight to find opportunities for meaningful and profound intimacy within the corpus of permissions and regulations the Halachic framework allows. But I am not going to use such power as I have as a Rabbi to point fingers at those who might fall short of obligations to observe the rules on sexual propriety gay and straight Jews face.


When it comes to the question of ceremonies which recognise these committed gay unions I struggle. For me the ability to perform both religious and civil wedding ceremonies for heterosexual couples is a tremendous honour and I understand the way in which many gay Jews will want their relationships to be sanctified by a representative of their own faith. Ceremonies are important; public blessings also strengthen a commitment between couples and allow friends and family members opportunities to share their own ‘Amen,’ but many of the elements of a traditional Chuppah are not suitable for the consecration of a partnership between man and man and I don’t advocate plucking them from their hetrosexual realm and dropping them into a homosexual one. That said I know that offering gay Jews what can be perceived to be merely a quasi or ersatz-marriage can be seen as demeaning, even if that is not the intention.  It may be that one way forward would be to explore using shutafut – partnership - language and ritual for both straight and gay celebrations, moving away from the traditional marriage rituals associated with kinyan – acquisition of a woman by a man in ways very close to the patterns of acquisition of chattel. Personally, as the Rabbi of New London Synagogue and as a Masorti Jew, I feel there much more to do in terms of exploring appropriate religious rituals (including, should it be necessary, in the case of separation of a gay couple) around this issue. That said I welcome and support the governmental sanction and recognition of intimate committed relationships between gay couples not only as a marker of commitment but also for the important civil legal protections that these arrangements offer.


There is danger in putting these thoughts in writing. The issue can be one which divides and fractures religious communities. My hope and prayer is that we, Masorti Jews, are sufficiently used to the range of opinions which mark our engagement in complex issues such as this and sufficiently convinced of the importance of articulating the nature of our welcome to gay and lesbian Jews to make this contribution nonetheless welcome.


Rabbi Jeremy Gordon


Friday, 2 November 2012

A Busy Week

A busy week.

Our thoughts and prayers are with those suffering in the aftermath of storm Sandy. I know of a number of members on the East Coast and many more with friends and family who’ve been in the eye of the storm.


My thanks to everyone involved in the wonderful send off to Stephen on Monday. It was a wonderful evening. Those who wanted to see copies of my words can find them on the blog.


As we move into a future I want to urge members to give as much support as they can to the community as we look to get used to something new. IN particular, if you are considering coming on a Friday evening or Sunday morning, please do join us. And if you are planning on coming on a Shabbat morning do please make the effort to be with us close to the start of our services as you can.


What I really wanted to mention, in this weekly posting, is Israel. This Monday, 8pm at the Shul we have one of the top analysts joining us to open the Israel Today series. Anshel Pfeffer, from Haaretz, will be looking at issues around security; from Iran, to the Arab Spring and the possible impacts of the US Elections. Over the coming five weeks we’ll be hearing about Israel from experts, venture capitalists, peace activists, rabbis, film curators (really one of each). It’s a chance to engage, through a Shul likes ours, with an issue at the heart of contemporary Jewish identity. I know many members are struggling with their relationships with Israel and I know many members are unsure of where to go for ‘truth.’ This is our attempt to assist with that quest.


Shabbat shalom,



Monday, 29 October 2012

Then You Can Be a Chazan - A Tribute to Stephen Cotsen

If you can command a pulpit when rabbis around all about you

Come and go and the shul depends on you;

If you can lead so all can follow you

But make allowance for their leadership too;

If you can sing all day and neither be tired by singing

Nor make us tired to hear your song;


If your weekday, Shalosh Regalim, Shabbat, Yomim Noraim

Nusach is always impeccable;

If your Yitgadal and your Yitgadash are always evocative

Of correct time and place;

If you start and even more magically

If you finish at precisely on the dot.

If your Tefillat Geshem makes the heavens weep

And your mere presence guarantees sunlight on the walk to shul


If you can fill the unforgiving Day of Kippur

With Avodah of beauty and passion;

If you can bury and wed - or both in the same day

If you sit with spotty adolescent or home bound congregant

And love us all, and we know that, so we love you in return


If you can be the fulcrum of our thoughts and prayers

And still retain that humility – for it’s not to you we pray;

If you can sing with unstinting passion and commitment

And still know that being our Baal Tefillah isn’t

About your vocal pyrotechnics

We’ll love you even more.


If you can cater – and boy can you cater

Or even as you give up the catering

If you inspire others to try

If you raise the money or produce the leaflet, or the concert or Boojah or ...

Oh so many many things


If you can sit through meeting after meeting

With a gnomic smile;

If you can sit through sermon after sermon

And not make it too obvious

That, of course, you know far better;

If you can put up with this Rabbi

Who speaks too much and starts too many things

That fall through the net for you to catch;

If you can make the office groan

At yet another quickly turned pun


And if, despite all the love we have for you

You know there is no higher call than the care of your sister and mum

Then there will always be a special place in our heart, in my heart, for you

We are all in you debt

Our Chazan, our songstrel

My friend and colleague good and true,

Then, indeed, yours is the Earth and everything in it,

And what is more – you’ve been a mighty Chazan, my son!


Thursday, 27 September 2012

YK Sermon on Prayer (and our Prayer leader)


            Just ten days ago sometime after 12 on the morning of Rosh Hashanah I completed my tour of children’s services and arrived back in the Main Service in the middle of the repetition of the Musaf Amidah. And it was noisy. Bustle and chat and hubbub. And I went up onto the Bimah and tried to capture something of the meaning of these days – what it means to present our lives to a God who sees through every vagary, bluff and mask. And I couldn’t. There was no space to pray. We w  ere all, as a community, too busy presenting of ourselves to each others, masks on, roles being played. And so much chitter chatter.


This is a community of people who love going to the classical music concerts; a community of people who would never dream of chatting though an opera. And the problem is not that, as wonderful a singer he is, Stephen falls short of the heights reached by soloists who grace the stage at Covent Garden. The problem is that we don’t know what to do in shul confronted by a bald spiritual message and a book filled with strange Hebrew and an even stranger English. So instead of praying we fall back on what we know. ‘How’s business, how are the kids this year, how are the parents.’


Teshuvah u’Tefilah u’tzedaka maavirin et roa ha gezerah

Repentance, prayer and acts of justice take away evil from the decree we face.

Repentance requires we stop doing things we have already realised are wrong.

Tzedakah requires we act to support that we have already realised is right.

Prayer is how we realise that which we don’t yet understand. It’s supposed to be strange, it’s supposed to be difficult.


Let me try and ease some of the qualms.


Prayer, or at least prayer as I understand it, doesn’t require a particular literalist theology. God isn’t a Springsteinian Santa who knows if we’ve bad or good and distributes presents and blandishments accordingly. If we pray, even if we pray really hard, we still have a pitiful chance of winning the lottery. If you want to do well in this year it’s hard to improve on a teaching from Islam – first tie up your camel, then put your trust in God.


Prayer is also not about any special spiritual gymnastics. The Rabbis discuss the appropriate level of spiritual intent to fulfil the obligation to say the Shema. Their conclusion – the only thing you need to have as a spiritual intention when you say the Shema is that you have to intend to say the Shema. You don’t need to meditate on the meaning of a singular God or anything like that.

You just have to intend doing the thing you are doing.

To pray well the only thing that is required is that you intend to pray. In some ways it’s simple. To pray, you just have to want to pray and stop doing anything else.

Praying is making the decision to care more about the spiritual message of the day than the worldly messages being twittered or whispered around you.

What worth is your life, who have you failed this last year, what is stopping you from becoming kinder and better?

Those questions deserve the pause of a moment. And because approaching these kinds of questions straight on is daunting we have prayer – a place to be quiet, a ritual to follow, a form of words to use. And the idea is that these practices open us up to understand that which we cannot otherwise understand.


There is a story of a Chasid who went to the Kotske Rebbe,

Rebbe, he said, I have a problem, and he told the Rebbe about the problem.

You should pray, the Rebbe responded.

But Rebbe, I don’t know how to pray –

Ah, then you really do have a problem.


If you know anything about the Kotske Rebbe you will know that he didn’t believe that if we pray well enough God will solve any problem we face any more than I do, or any of us.

The point of the story, I think, is this.

When we pray we allow ourselves insights that are otherwise beyond us.


When we pray we step back from the grindstone, we become able to see beyond the tip of our noses, we get to feel sensations that are important, not merely whatever is pressing in that precise moment.

When we pray we ally ourselves to broader views, loftier horizons, and in that place we become capable of insights deeper and more powerful than those that arrive from more selfish modes of problem solving.

We can justify all we want, we can blame everyone else all we want.

When we pray Al cheit shechatanu – for the sin we have sinned before you – we admit of that which is truly our fault.

Prayer brings other perspectives, let it be admitted more important perspectives.


Perhaps the most important prayer is line that precedes the Amidah - 

Adonai Sefatai Tiftach ufi yagid tehilatecha - God open my lips and my mouth will tell of Your praise.

It’s a prayer about the ability to pray. It asks for the help to pray.

We have other similar phrases and verses.

Ten belibeinu l’havin ulehaskil – place in our heart the understanding to serve You.


Return to me and I will return to you, teaches the prophet Malachi.

We just need a nudge,

So call for today while the gate is still open.

Leave the material behind, just for a little bit longer and ask for the possibility to pray.

Don’t worry unduly about what to pray for, those answers only emerge slowly, just pray for the chance to pray.

Two things to do

Submit to the ritual and turn off the chatter.

Submit to the ritual and turn off the chatter.

It sounds simple, but it is hard, especially in this strange language, with this even stranger translation.


And this brings me to our dear Chazan, Stephen, this brings me to you.


In truth I decided I would speak about prayer at Neilah, long before I lost the possibility of praying at the end of Rosh Hashanah. I decided I would speak about prayer at Neilah, the week you announced he would be leaving New London. I offer this sermon bizchutecha – in your merit.


Prayer is hard. It’s hard if you understand and can read the Hebrew fluently, it’s hard if you can’t.

And so the tradition allows for someone to lead us.

Someone on whose coattails we can ride.

We hang onto Stephen’s Tallit and he leads us through the drama of a Neilah.

That’s the point of a Stephen – we don’t need to figure it all out ourselves, we just need to join in.

And, frankly, a few moments on Rosh Hashanah apart, we are pretty good at riding on Stephen’s coattails – hanging onto your Tallit. It’s one of things we are best at doing, at New London.

Where Stephen leads us, we follow.

Shema Koleinu, Ashamanu, Adonai, Adonai – You lead and we sing along, pray along, joining together in leaving our pettifogging chitter-chattering behind. When we sing together, it works.

Hundreds of us, harnessed together in prayer, pulling simultaneously on ropes, coming closer to an understanding of what is means to be a member of this community, a Jew, a human being.

It’s a great thing for a community to have a great Chazan.


I think having a great Chazan means to things, two things our own very special Chazan brings to this very special community.

Actually the term Chazan, wasn’t originally a term used to apply to people who lead the prayers. There were two other terms, Baal Tefilah – literally Master of Prayer and Shaliach Tzibur – Emissary of the Community.

One of the special things that Stephen brings is to do with his being a Baal Tefilah and the other is to do with his being a Shaliach Tzibur.


Prayer is about getting beyond individual need, about seeing ourselves from the outside.

You can’t be a Master of Prayer when you lead prayers for other people based on your own individual needs – you can’t be a Baal Tefilah if you care more about how you sound, and how extravagantly you can show off your singing prowess.

You can only be a Baal Tefilah if, when you pray, you pray so others can come along with you.

And Stephen does that, and we all know he does that, and that’s part of why it works.

That’s why you are a Baal Tefilah.


And the other term is Shaliach Tzibur – emissary of the community.

To be a true messenger of the community you need to care about the people you lead, and the people you lead – we – need to feel that, and give you the zchut – the merit to serve as our emissary.

You have be there for adolescent Bar Mitzvah boys and eighty-three year olds who want to reprise a Haftorah they last read 70 years ago. You have to turn up at Shivah houses and sick houses. And the strains and the sheer physical efforts are intense.

Serving a community like this is about putting yourself in-front of a train and I don’t know how many people here know the sacrifice involved.

It’s not enough to turn up on Shabbat and sing. You have to be the glue which holds the community together so there is a community to appoint you emissary.

And Stephen does that, is that, and we all know he does that, and that’s the other part of why it works.

That’s why you are our Shaliach Tzibbur – our emissary.


And we will all, and I most certainly, will miss all this and much much more, Stephen, when you are gone.

And we have Succot to go.

And we have a good few Shabbatot to go.

But this is the last time we get the chance to be led by you in that most difficult of challenges on this most special of days.

So, dear Stephen, our beloved Baal Tefillah and our Shaliach Tzibbur - lead us home.


And to all of us, let’s jump on the coattails, let’s hang onto the Tallit

As we sing along, pray along, lose ourselves and find ourselves again, all through the magic of prayer.


Adonai Sefatainu Tiftach ufinu yagid tehilatecha

God open our lips and our mouths will tell of Your praise.


And in so doing, may we be sealed for a year of sweetness, happiness and health.

Gemar Chatimah Tovah.


YK Sermon - Kol Nidrei, Honesty, Science, Ancestors and Descendents

When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and say a prayer and what he had set out to perform was done.

When a generation later the Maggid of Mezeritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say, We can no longer light the fire but we can still speak the prayers and what he wanted was done.

Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said, We can no longer light a fire nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs – and that must be sufficient. And sufficient it was.

And when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task he sat on his chair in his castle and said, We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And he had the same effect as the other three.

It’s a well known tale, Gershon Scholem and Shai Agnon have told it better than I.[1] And more than that, it’s a common motif – we Jews are, as Simon Rawidowicz put it, the ever dying people. In every generation it can seem as though we are dribbling away until all that will be left is a story and some ultra-orthodox ghettos.

It’s the sort of challenge Rabbis like me, in a communities like this get every now and again, the sense that there are better keepers of the flame than Jews like us; the notion that if Judaism is to survive at all we ought to lend our support to those who do it ‘properly.’ It’s the sort of challenge that is not always so easy to rebut. We are stronger, as a community, than we have been for decades – over 60 children in the cheder, more weddings, more Bnei Mitzvah celebrations, as vibrant on a Shabbat morning as I could wish. But let’s be honest, for this is a day for honesty. For how many New London members is this whole Jewish thing serious? To measure in perfectly calculable terms, how many New London members took a day of leave to be at Second Day Rosh Hashanah Services? For how many members was the rest of their life too high a priority for a day that, a generation ago, would have been sacrosanct? How many of you here tonight, after work, care enough about their Judaism to be here tomorrow?

Maybe, despite the buzzing on the surface, we, at New London, are watching over the attenuation of Yiddishkeit, as fewer and fewer of us know where to go, how to light the fire and how to say the prayer. Perhaps the problem is that we are too distracted by contemporary culture, maybe Judaism can only flourish in a more secluded protected environment than anything we promote here.

This is the stuff that keeps me awake at night.

And awake at night I caught a recording where an orthodox Rabbi and an atheist physicist debated the relationship between science and religion.[2] It wasn’t actually a debate – all the editorial power in the programme was with the Rabbi. And the Rabbi made his case for the place of religion alongside science and the physicist nodded benignly, ‘as long as it works for you.’ And the interview ended and the Rabbi continues in voice-over.

‘Despite our conflicting views on how the universe was created, we are ...’

And I bolted upright. Did the Rabbi just say, ‘despite our conflicting views on how the universe was created’? I rewound. He did. The Rabbi went to see an eminent cosmologist to discuss the relationship between science and religion and, safely in the confines of the voiceover studio, he said he disagreed with the cosmologist on the subject of how the universe was created. And it didn’t sound like a disagreement based on an interpretation of the latest data from the Large Hadron Collider. It sounded like a disagreement based on what it says in Genesis. In fairness it was a good programme and the Rabbi made some important points well, but this is the point I give up on Orthodoxy.  Despite how nice it might look on one level, it simply isn’t true. If you want me to take you seriously you can’t go around disagreeing with cosmologists on the basis of Genesis Chapter 1. When it comes to the competing claims of religion and science, what I really want to hear, in the words of Gershwin, is that, some of the ‘things you are liable to read in the Bible, they ain’t necessarily so.’ That, if you like, is the calling card by which I know that you are serious about the pursuit of truth. It’s how I know that you aren’t living in self-imposed ghetto, screening out the wisdom of all other sources of knowledge.

The same goes for the so-called perfection of the Torah. I love the Torah, it’s my life, but I don’t think it’s word for word the perfect encapsulation of God’s will. I’ve learnt from Bible scholars and archaeologists and certainly from scholars like Rabbi Jacobs, from this very pulpit, that the Torah has a history.

It is of its time, its various different times, and it shows the finger-prints of humans who are responsible for an attempt to encapsulate a Will that is beyond any form of words. And if you want me to take you seriously, as a religious thinker committed to truth, I want to hear you acknowledge that. It’s the calling card by which I know that you aren’t living in self-imposed ghetto, screening out the wisdom of all other sources of knowledge.


Shabbat has become more and more relevant, the more crazy the world becomes. Jewish conceptions of Justice and decency are more and more relevant, the wider the gap grows between the haves and the have-nots in society. There are so many truths in Judaism that are becoming more and more important. It’s just a shame that there most dominant voice of our faith is engaging with truths that come from outside of Judaism less and less. But when the facts change you have to change too. You can’t keep commanding the tides to retreat when the water laps at your ankles, at least you can’t behave like King Canute and be considered a trustworthy member of society.

And it’s not OK to live and let live on an issue like this. It’s not OK to allow those who won’t admit that the Seven day story is scientifically incorrect to get on with looking and sounding like the future of Judaism will be safe with them. It’s not OK to cede an upper hand to those who claim that the Bible did indeed drop down, fully formed, on Mount Sinai in a singular flash of revelation 3300 years ago. It’s not OK for two reasons.

Firstly allowing this sort of blinkered practice to go unchallenged causes unnecessary pain.

Religion in Israel, God help her, is in the control of the ultra-orthodox. Because of their literalism and closed-mindedness they are currently precluding 300,000 Israelis with Jewish hearts and commitment to the Jewish state, from getting married or even buried in Jewish cemeteries. They are stamped – pisulei hitun – forbidden to marry because of a concern about their status, a barrier that could be lifted so easily if only the Rabbis responsible weren’t so literalist and closed minded. That’s 300,000 people excluded from marriage because of closed minded literalism. Then there are the women, and girls, in ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods who are called on to stand at the back of the bus, even if there are seats at the front, because men get to ride at the front of the bus – a sexism based on a literalism that God cursed womankind to be ruled over by their men. Thankfully that last nonsense seems to be on the wane thanks to groups like the Masorti Movement in Israel, the Reform led Israel Religious Action Committee and the New Israel Fund who have successfully reminded the national bus company that Israel is a country where equal treatment of women and men is constitutionally protected.

And we aren’t so far behind this kind of lunacy in this country, where orthodox Jewish leadership is capable of deeming a person a mamzer – an outsider for evermore, even their children and children’s children. It’s nuts and again based more on a blinkered literalism than any true sense that this is God’s will. And I, as a Rabbi in this community, get to see the results of this blinkered literalism every year – people in pain not because God wishes them to suffer, but because religious leaders won’t acknowledge that the Bible is not a letter-perfect account of the will of God. Of course the Torah touches the Divine at its most beautiful and moving, but some of it is earth-bound. Some of it is time-bound and not for how we live our lives today.

And this is the second point. Judaism has always evolved and to proffer a version of Judaism unchanged by history misrepresents Judaism. When Greek philosophy emerged, Judaism imbued some of the wisdom of Greek philosophers. When we carbon dated dinosaur bones to 200 million years ago, Judaism evolved and that, as the dinosaurs learnt to their cost, is precisely what you need to do to survive. And when Bible scholars and Biblical Archaeologists prove that the Bible has a history, that it is not literally, word for word, the record of the will of God, we have evolved again.

Of course there is a cost, of course when we learn that the God did not dictate word for word the Torah it lessens the levels of blind fidelity you can find in parts of the orthodox world. But that’s not the same as saying that the relationship we have with Judaism is worth less than the relationship of those with blinkered faith. It’s worth more precisely because is it true.  And the developments of the day do not merely weaken Judaism. For the first time in Jewish history there are now significant numbers of women studying and teaching Torah, a vast world of Jewish knowledge and insight is opening up for the first time history. We have a State of Israel – a very modern miracle. And for the first time in millennia we get to understand, and struggle with, what it means to be a Jew living in a land so hungered over and wished for and there is plenty to learn. And we have the web – I can access, from anywhere in the world with a web connection, copies of the Talmud at the touch of a button, even with manuscript variants, in umpteen different languages with hundreds of different commentaries and even audio and video classes. Never has it been so easy to learn more about Judaism. New is not a threat. There is no zero-sum game being played out between Judaism and modernity.

So what about this story of the Rabbis, one generation after another in the forest telling their story, attenuating and dribbling away. The point of the story, I think is not the attenuation, but the perpetuation. It still works, in each generation, even unto the point when there is only a story being told, but for this reason, and this reason only. These Rabbis – they weren’t watching their Judaism gently attenuate. They are all heroes of Hasidim. They created dynasties, they achieved greatness. They weren’t just the descendents of those who came before, they were committed ancestors of those yet to come. And so it must be for us.

If we abnegate our responsibilities to be ancestors of a Jewish future then the Jewish future will not look like us. It will become increasingly fundamentalist and increasingly blinkered to the truths of our time.

But if we take the responsibility for the future of Judaism seriously.

If we commit ourselves to shaping a future for Judaism, it will be so shaped.

And if that future is open hearted and open minded, if we use what we know to care more, to learn more and to do more, we can create an extraordinary future for Judaism.

There is tremendous hunger for a spirituality that can engage open-minded and open-hearted with the world. It’s a version of Judaism that is kind, just and powerful – but it has to be serious. It has to be lived with a commitment to be ancestors.

It’s a hunger that exists within and beyond Judaism. It’s an approach to the glories, and the travails, of our time that a Synagogue like ours, a Masorti Synagogue, with a a membership, like ours we are spectacularly well placed to meet.

So that is my call, that we should become, not merely the descendents of a great Jewish past, but ancestors of a great Jewish future, one that is open hearted and open minded and capable of sharing the tremendous truths of Judaism within and beyond this community.

Shannah Tovah and Chatimah Tovah, a good year, may we be sealed in the book of life.


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Permeability - A Yizkor Sermon


This summer I finally got to see the Damien Hirst piece, A Thousand Years. It’s a big glass box – a vitrine – in which lies a severed a cow’s head; big mournful eyes, blood gently seeping into a pool. And around the head are flies – it revolts – vast numbers of densely packed tiny winged insects, breeding away as the cow lies rotting. Then, above the head, suspended inside the vitrine’s is a fly killing machine, blue light radiating, every couple of seconds a flash as another fly wanders too close and dies. Actually not all the flies die in the insectorcutor. Some seem dead of natural causes, lying on the floor on the far side of the glass box, away from the bright blue light.

The piece feels as if it is about me. Here I am, inside this big ol’ vitrine, buzzing around and facing only a singular certainty. Like a withering leaf and a passing dream.

But the thing that struck me most, looking in at this stark ecosystem was its sealed quality. I expected the work to smell, but the smell is sealed in. You expect the zapping insectorcutor to make a noise, but you can’t hear anything. Nothing emerges from within. Nothing goes anywhere. It’s a closed system. And that was the thing that struck me as false, emotionally and spiritually. That’s the element that felt inaccurate. We buzz around and we die – for sure. But my question is this. Is there the possibility of transcending, is there something beyond or is everything forever to be locked inside a sealed box? My question doesn’t seem to interest Hirst much, either in this work or any of the others at the exhibition. But it nags at me. Are our lives lived in a closed-in ecosystem, sealed inside a glass box, or is there a permeability to existence? Can we touch something beyond, can that which is beyond touch us?

I admit I desire a permeable Universe. If our lives are truly lived inside a hermetically sealed box, what’s the point? If there really is nothing that emerges from all this strife, frankly, so what? Even humanity’s greatest achievements, from Ghandi to Einstein to Mozart amount to no more than a brief buzz inside a vitrine. This is the game Hirst plays with his choice of title – A Thousand Years – as if the flies last more than a measure of days – as if any length of time makes any ‘real’ difference if everything we are, everything we were and everything we will become exist only inside a glass box. On the other hand, if there is permeability, some point of connection from this mortal world to somewhere beyond, then even my most paltry of actions might count, might emerge in some unpredictable way in a parallel universe, an unknowable future an Olam Haba – a world to come. If we live in a world where the realities of life and death are, somehow, permeable then there is the possibility of a line of connection connecting with those I have loved and lost. It might still be possible to talk about a living relationship with the loved ones we remember on this day.

I’m no physicist, but I’m fascinated by astral physics and quantum mechanics – tales of parallel universes and strange subatomic existence which scramble my sense of what we know about our Universe. Black holes seeming to suck in matter which goes where, exactly? Electrons disdain normal laws of motion travelling from place A to place C not via B, but by every point in the known and unknown Universe. Off they go, escaping from their vitrines left right, centre and in directions and dimensions I don’t understand.

And what of memories, emotions, our sense of self? Will it, could it, be possible to download everything we are onto a circuit board, will it be possible to create a human purely inside a test-tube? Or will there always be something about being human that needs to be created in a in a world beyond measure? It’s a day for speaking about memories of those who have passed away leaving imprints on us. Is that all happening in a sealed ecosystem, or is there a place from which and into which memories and emotions emerge in ways that cannot be contained, replicated, measured or understood?

Certainly religion, my religion anyway, has an answer to these questions. My faith is predicated on just such a notion of permeability. Judaism teaches that our actions permeate beyond the realms of classical physics or any other force known to humanity. The Talmud teaches, Gedolah Teshuvah Shmigaat ad Kiseh Hacavod[1] - how great is Teshuvah, for it reaches the Throne of Glory. Judaism is theurgic, we believe our actions can change God, change everything. That relationship between a person and God is called Ben Adam L’Makom – literally, between a person and The Place – God is That Place which lies beyond the vitrine, beyond our ability to reach, understand and order. But a Place no less real for its lack of a quantifiable location. Religion can be rational and there are all kinds of vital things rationality can teach us about our lives inside the vitrine. But religion is ultimately about that which is mysterious. It is about what lies beyond the observable and the measureable.

Julian Barnes, in his wonderful book, Nothing to be Afraid Of,[2] cites a passage from Madame Bovary in which Homais, who he calls ‘the bigoted materialist,’ declares the notion of Christian Resurrection to be not only ‘absurd’ but ‘contrary to the laws of physics.’ It’s a nonsensical argument suggests Barnes, predicated on things we can’t understand being ridiculous because we can’t understand them. It’s the spiritual equivalent of the drunkard who looks for his fallen keys only in the small pool of light emanating from a streetlamp. The drunkard rejects the notion that the keys could have fallen outside what he can see and so is doomed to never find them.

It’s easy to misunderstand religion by imagining God is somehow part of the world we are supposed to understand. It’s an error made by both atheists and fundamentalists. There is a certain kind of atheist who believes that if they can just manipulate a beam of electrons sufficiently quickly they will understand everything there is to know about the Universe and its creation. There is a certain kind of fundamentalist who is wont to believe that God can be manipulated by obeying certain prescriptions; if you keep kosher and light Shabbat candles you will be rewarded with good exam results and a new tricycle for Chanukah. But that is to misunderstand God as part of the measurable and manipulable Universe – existing inside a vitrine along with us flies. But that’s not how religion works. God is the space beyond measurement, permeating inside as our actions and inactions permeate beyond in ways we cannot understand.

Religion is often accused of tending towards authoritarianism,[3] but the kind of religion I’m trying to describe doesn’t incline towards absolutism. The only things I absolutely believe about that which is beyond is that there is such a Place, I can’t understand it but my actions permeate to it as it permeates through me. More than that is mysterious.

Perhaps the two most honest and holy lines in the entire Yom Kippur liturgy are to be found in the Book of Jonah.

First is the speech of the captain of the ship, being tossed around in the sea, while Jonah sleeps, having fled to Tarshish.

What are you doing asleep, get up, call to your God and MAYBE that God will save us and we won’t perish. Ulai – maybe.[4]

And then later - the King of the Ninevah having been told his whole city is to be destroyed seeks to repent. He calls on the city to turn away from their violent evil ways.

WHO KNOWS, maybe God will return and take pity and turn from God’s anger and we won’t be destroyed. Mi yodea – who knows.[5]

Ulai – perhaps and Mi Yodea – who knows.

The point, I think, is this. Far from turning us into bigots or fundamentalists, living with belief should make us throw our lot in with those who are trying to create a more decent and kind world for us all. It should make us better. Living with belief is not a crutch to prop up a childish fantasy or a tool to ensure we all get given tricycles for Chanukah. Belief isn’t about certainty. Indeed there is less certainty in this kind of religion than in many brands of atheism. Belief is the attempt to engage with the permeable walls of the vitrine in which we buzz around. It is about the courage to engage with that which we cannot know with the sea captain’s sense of ‘Ulai’ – maybe this will work.

I had a strange experience at a funeral this year. One of the mourner’s, not a member of the family, accosted me as I was washing my hands on leaving the cemetery. ‘Will I see my father in heaven,’ they wanted to know. ‘I asked’ – and here they mentioned the name of a well known Rabbi – ‘and they told me I definitely would, what do you think?’ I told him I didn’t know. I wanted to offer the answer of the captain of Jonah’s ship - ulai. He was having none of it, ‘What use was I,’ he insisted, if I couldn’t even promise him this.

But there is use in this gentle form of faith, a belief in something beyond comprehension, but there – nonetheless and permeable. Not only does acting with such a belief improve us, it also trains us to listen out for the whispers of that which is beyond. It’s a kind of mindfulness in which we can experience that which we cannot understand. It’s a state of life which allows for moments of transcendence, permeability. On this day, when we stand and knock at the permeable walls of our mortal selves, it is the blessing I have for us all – that we should feel that sense of the transcendent, that sense of something beyond knowledge but nonetheless present. And for those of us here to touch a memory of a departed, loved one my blessing is that we can find a way to keep the impossible connections alive so the memories of those we have loved and lost can continue to be a blessing.

Yehey Zichronam L’varuch

May their memories always be a blessing.


[1] Yoma 86a

[2] P.77

[3] Even by the more ‘gentle’ atheists, e.g. Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Afraid Of, p.82

[4] 1:6

[5] 3:9

Thursday, 20 September 2012

On a Wonderful Rosh Hashanah

We had a wonderful start to the New Year.

My thanks to everyone involved and while singling out a few risks errors of omission I want to share particular thanks to;

Stephen for his wonderful prayer leadership,

Lester Kirshenbaum for his leadership and leyning,

Stephen Lerman and everyone who led and participated in the Minyan Chadash

Natalie Glaser and everyone who led and participated in our bursting-at-the-seams-children’s services,

Jo, Michelle, Sam, Arlene and Jonathan for the huge efforts made behind the scenes caretaking and providing office support.


This is also the first Rosh Hashanah for our new choir master, Ben Seifert, and our newly reconstituted security team, our thanks to Dan Levy and Rupert Nathan who all marshalled their teams wonderfully. Thank you and congratulations.


Shabbat shalom, Gemar Chatimah Tovah – May we finish this sacred time sealed in the Books of life, sweetness and health.


Rabbi Jeremy


Sunday, 16 September 2012

Second Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon - Opening Ceremony

An Opening Ceremony

If you were put in charge, how would you open the Games of the Hebrew Year 5773?

What would be in your Jewish version of the trampolining hospital beds, the mighty towers bursting from a Green and Pleasant Land? What would be the Jewish version of Propsero’s Isles of Wonder speech? I didn’t get to see the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony and wasn’t going to catch it until a slew of people told me I had missed something about more than fun. The Opening ceremony, casting our minds back that far, shaped a narrative, it wanted to define what it means to be British today and largely succeeded. It was a ceremony built on our past, but in such a way as to shape our future. And those are all things, from a Jewish perspective, that are on my mind today.

Some bits come easily to mind, we have a Torch lighting moment in the Torah – Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal before calling on the Divine to torch a sopping wet pyre. I’d certainly book Elijah, preferably to abseil down from the very heavens.

And a Jewish do without food – whoever heard of such a thing? Forget about flashing pixels, I imagine a Stadium where, secreted under each chair, would be a nice hot bowel of chicken soup or a falafel in pita.

I’m being facetious. But the questions are still good. If you were alone on a bimha, with 18 minutes and only words with which to paint pictures and touch souls, how would you frame who we are, what we have been and what we must strive to become.

My version of a Jewish Opening ceremony would come in three acts.

My first act would feature mirrors, or maybe one of those fancy photographic montages where a vast image turns out, on close inspection, to be made of thousands of tiny photos. It would be entitled – btzelem - image. Torah teaches that Adam, the first human being was created btzelem elohim – in the image of God. And the Rabbis understand every human ever since minted from that same cast, imprinted with that same image. That is to say that every human being ever created is created in the image of God. Or to put the same idea the other way round – you want to know what God looks like, imagine a collage of every face that ever was and ever will be and somewhere just beyond all of that, will be the Divine.

It’s a powerful idea. Male and female, black skinned and white skinned, paralympically classified or olympically classified, we all contain within ourselves an imprint of the Divine. In the Ancient Near East all sorts of ancient peoples and religions felt certain people could be godly, but godliness was always the exclusive right of a King, a Pharaoh – never something for a mere commoner. Rich and poor, healthy and sick.

This Torah verse, this idea, is at the heart of a religious conception of human rights – how could we mistreat a person created in the image of God, it’s at the heart of a religious conception of democracy – how could we deny a say to someone created in the image of the Divine?

But more, even than that, this idea is at the heart of a Jewish morality. It determines how we should treat our fellow human beings. How can we say something or do something that hurts or wounds another human being created, just like us, in the image of God. One of the wisest things I’ve ever heard came from a therapist who suggested that when a 70 year old man comes into his consulting rooms complaining of being pregnant his job is not to tell the man that he is not pregnant, but to work out the way in which he is pregnant.

The Jewish version of the same idea runs like this. When a person annoys you, frustrates or hurts you, your job is to work out the way in which the image of God is annoying you and respond from that place. When you find yourself responding to another human being in a way that fails to recognise that they, like you, are quite that special, you’ve failed to act appropriately and a piece of Teshuvah may well be called for.

A moral task for us, for this year just starting. When you are annoyed, frustrated or hurt by someone, before you respond remind yourself that they are created in the image of God. Meditate on that idea for 5 seconds, and then respond.

The first act – Btzelem – in the image of God and the heart of a Jewish morality.

The second act would feature a gigantic hamster wheel. It would be called Shabbat. ‘For six days serve, do all your work, but on the seventh day rest and be re-ensouled.’ Goodness we need it. The pace at which modern life is lived, the pressures to be permanently available, yoked to the millstone.

We live in a world where we are continually squeezed. It’s the rare employer who says, ‘you know, that’s fine for now, go home and celebrate the fact that you are not a hamster on the wheel.’ Where do we find protected places that allow our souls to flourish, our sense of who we are to be celebrated, where do we find the encouragement to spend time with our families, across generations, having proper conversations free of the background noise of television and celebrity chitter-chatter? How do we learn to be happy with what we have, how do we learn to be less tied to consumerist enticements to spend more and more on things we need less and less? It’s astounding to me that the most anciently rooted observance in all of Judaism is quite so contemporary in its importance and power.

‘For six days serve, do all your work, but on the seventh day rest and be re-ensouled.’ Shabbat is the protection we, as Jews, erect around these essential bedrocks of our lives. It’s how we ensure that, at least once a week, we have time to celebrate as a human being. Shabbat is the way we prove to ourselves that, as hard as we work, no-one owns us, it’s how we prove we are free, it’s how we demonstrate that we have enough.

So a call to make on our ever more hectic lives - on Friday evenings, pick a time, if you can make it sundown, great, but don’t give up just because you can’t. And turn off the wi-fi, the rooter, the TV, the Radio, the phone, everything. Light candles and enjoy life off the hamster wheel.

Act One – Btzelem – the creation of the human being in the image of God.

Act Two – Shabbat

Act Three – Tzedek

The big prop in the middle of my Act three would be a pushke – a charity collection box. I looked up, for the first time, the other day, the etymology of charity – turns out it is caritatem, meaning affection. I was stunned, it’s so non-Jewish. The Jewish conception of Tzedakah has nothing to do with feeling affection for those who are needy. It’s not a sort of patronising beneficence. Tzedek is the Hebrew word for justice. Justice demands that those who ‘have’ to help those who ‘have not.’ Incidentally justice also demands those who think they ‘have not’ to give to support others. No-one escapes the responsibility to make the world a just place. And it’s not just about money. Do not favour a poor person or a rich person, the Torah teaches – don’t be dissuaded from doing what is right by material considerations. At the heart of a Jewish perception of Tzedakah are two ideas. One is empathy the other is sensitivity towards those who are disenfranchised – the unvoiced.

Ger lo toneh ci gerim hayitem beretz mitzrayim – don’t oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It’s a command that appears over thirty times, in one way or another in the Torah.

You’ve been there, you know what it is to be mistreated, insulted, picked on and abused, let your experience of oppression inure you from ever becoming an oppressor make you a liberator. Let empathy inspire your commitment to justice.

Arur mateh mishpat yitom v’almanah – cursed be one who perverts the justice of the widow and the orphan. In ancient times, without a pater-familias, a widow or an orphan would be at the whim of anyone more powerful than themselves. There are people, today, in our contemporary communities who are at the whim of power they cannot hope to wield themselves; refugees perhaps most clearly among them – a single class who deserve our support both because of our empathy, for we have certainly been refugees, and also because of their status, at the whim of forces they cannot control.

A call, in the next ten days do something for the sake of justice. Do it with your credit card, do it with your time, do it with a simple act of kindness and decency, but show empathy and show an awareness of the plight of those who are powerless.

Btzelem – Image – The next time someone does something that annoys you, provokes you, remind yourself that this is an image of God you are about to respond to.

Shabbat – this Friday stop, turn off the chitter-chatter and light two candles.

Tzedek – Justice – do something just, do something to make this world a fairer and better place for us all to live in.

The Opening Ceremony of the Olympics captured something wonderful about what it means to be British. The Olympic Games fulfilled on that promise. Let our Opening Ceremony, this Rosh Hashanah inspire and motivate us to fulfil our promise as Jews in this New Year,


Shannah Tovah Umetukah – A sweet and happy year to all,


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