Friday, 24 February 2012

Why & How Religion is Good

Religion has found its way to the front of the newspapers of late.


Baroness Warsi, led a British delegation to the Vatican to argue for the role religion has to play in the public sphere.

The National Secular Society won a case against Bideford Council outlawing prayers at meetings and Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science have produced evidence that not even Christians think of themselves as religious.


Actually the most forceful imposition into my consciousness of this recent flurry of religious newsworthiness came on Wednesday when I was spending my day off constructing IKEA wardrobes while the decorator was at work in the hallways. The decorator likes listening to talk-radio while he worked and there I was, power screwdriver in hand, listening to a presenter on LBC baiting religious listeners with a cascade of denials of the use, meaningfulness and sense of religion.


So what use is religion and should a space be made specially for it?


The piece about the phone in show on LBC that riled me so was the basic assumption, that I’ve heard too many times to mention, that religion is responsible for the great wars and battles of our time. And this is a claim that is made by people who claim to follow only matters of provable evidence.

Let’s take the last century as an example.

The First World War, let’s say 16 million – nothing to do with religion

Stalinist purges, let’s say 2 million - nothing to do with religion

Chairman Mao’s purges, let’s say 5 million - nothing to do with religion

The Second World War - nothing to do with religion, unless you blame religion for the Holocaust, which seems more than a little unfair.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki  1.5 million - nothing to do with religion

Vietnam War - nothing to do with religion.

I could go on – I found a web page[1]

75000 in Sierra Leone - nothing to do with religion.

60000 in Nicaragua - nothing to do with religion.

80000 in Angola - nothing to do with religion.


What multi-million death horror committed in the name of religion could possibly compete?

And that’s even assuming that any outbreak of violence that could be associated with religion can truly be blamed on religion.

Perhaps there were 17000 who died in the Six Day War. That’s 17000 bereaved families, that’s horrendous, but I’m not sure I would blame the Six Day War on religion.

There are certainly several thousand who have indeed been killed in the name of a God mistakenly understood by foolish pseudo-religious devotees to want the death of others of different faiths – and perhaps we would have to count the 3,000 who died on 9/11 in this number – or less anyone would think I don’t have murder committed in the name of Judaism in mind the 30 murdered by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, then surely a person who weighed up the evidence for religion would feel compelled to place on the other side of the scale the extra-ordinary acts of fighting for freedom, peace and liberty that have been profoundly and deeply rooted in religious faith.


Of course I have a soft spot for that pre-eminent act of overthrow of despotic tyranny, the original Exodus from Egypy, but let me again limit myself only to the last century.


You have the Reverend Luther King’s leadership of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

You have the Hindu inspired Satyagraha of Mahatma Ghandi.

You have the role played by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the overthrow of South African Apartheid.

You have the striving of the Tibet people led by the Buddist monk The Dalai Lama.

And that’s putting aside the simple acts of kindness.

The charitable work both inside and alongside the official charitable sector all committed in the name of faithful peaceful religion.

If you were indeed a person who paid attention to the data you should never blame religion for the ills of the world.


I needed to get that off my chest.

Let me make a more theoretical point.

I’m not going to make the claim that irreligious people are by definition immoral or that there is any marker of being a religious person that guarantees moral supremacy. That’s clearly nonsense

But I do believe that being religious helps.


If there is one central tenant that unites certainly the deistic faiths it is this – there is something more powerful than you.

It’s possible, clearly it’s possible to make mistakes about what this more important force wants from you but my claim is this – it helps to be in training, it helps to have an understanding that my grasp is not total. It helps to have a sense of humility.

I think that can make a person more moral.

The problem – and the place where religion is due its critique is the place where this sense of there being an exterior power becomes solved.

That’s the problem of fundamentalism.

But we are not a fundamentalist community and frankly I can’t understand how any Jew could confuse Judaism for a faith that would permit such hubris.

For me the will of God is a mystery.

Finite human with finite understanding stands before the infinite – it’s not even that I am not going to get everything, it is that my understanding is going to be qualitatively errant – if I make the potentially catastrophic error of confusing my understanding with God’s will.

The problem of ascertaining God’s will is that it is simply not a mystery that can be solved. It’s a mystery that one should engage in, but gently – and with the fear of getting it wrong.

It takes study, practice, standing on the shoulders of the great who have gone before us.

And it requires that we never lose a personal inbuilt sense of what a decent God would expect as acts of decency.

For me the central challenge that comes once one accepts a belief in God is what does that God want of me?

And that is a very different kind of challenge that the non-believer faces. The central challenge of the non-believer ought to be where to find a morality, where to find the limits on a self-centred creed.


It does seem to me that the religious person has an advantage over the believer even if the religious person can’t be sure what the infinite God wants, even if the non-believer thinks they can establish their own moral compass all on their own simply because of the will to posit the importance of something outside.


Thursday, 23 February 2012

Of the Making of Books there is No End



It’s Jewish Book Week and I thought I would take the opportunity to share three of the books I’ve enjoyed this past year.


Sacred Trash – by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole – is really two stories. It’s the story of the detritus of a society dumped in an attic in a Synagogue in Cairo over hundreds of years, partly works of religious significance, but also scraps of poetry and receipts for oil purchases that when taken together paint the clearest picture we have of life in pre-Mediaeval Cairo Jewry. It’s also the story of the discovery of this bin, or ‘geniza,’ a story that begins over a hundred years ago when some Scottish explorers gathered some scraps from a street-seller and showed them to a Cambridge Professor. The tales of the scholars who have worked to piece together the morass of documents – told against the backdrop of a horrendous and then miraculous century for Jews of Europe and Israel is just as compelling. The book is written by poets, and it shows. It’s fabulously readable, beautiful and oddly moving. It’s published as part of a new collaboration between Nextbooks and Shoken which has also published Shimon Peres’ biography of David Ben Gurion and Elie Wiesel on Rashi, it’s a fabulous new series and I’ve read nothing in it that hasn’t been terrific.


Dead Funny – by Rudolph Herzog – is so dangerous it feels like it is about to combust. It’s a book about humour during the Third Reich. Jewish humour is covered, but it’s largely the humour of Germans, some of whom went to their death, for poking fun at a murderous vile regime. It asks this question – what difference does humour make, what power can humour wield in the face of jackboots and gas canisters? Some of the humour is staggering, you just can’t read it on the tube. I started it with tremendous trepidation but ultimately felt Herzog pulls off the tightrope walk in a way does no disservice to those who suffered horrors without laughter.


The Frozen Rabbi – by Steve Stern – would suit anyone who enjoyed Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – it’s the tale of a seventeenth century Chassidic Rabbi who meditating by a lakeside is frozen by flood waters. His carcass is excavated from the ice and becomes a talisman for a family over time eventually being transported to C20 Lower East Side. Eventually the family’s freezer fails and he emerges from his ice block to begin life as a wandering charlatan guru of the soul. It’s funny, brisk and a little too salacious for my rabbinic taste. But still well worth reading.


Happy Book Week to all,

Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Keeping Kosher and Christmas Trees


I’ve been intrigued, this week, by a series of graphs about Jewish observance and non-observance in North America. Two graphs and three cities caught my eye.


The first graph details the percentage of Jews who keep kosher. Toronto scores the highest – admittedly only a ‘mere’ 30% closely followed by Bergen County, New Jersey. Las Vegas is at the foot of the table, with 5%.


The second details the percentage of Jews who ‘always, usually or sometimes’ have a Christmas Tree in their homes. In this graph the pattern in the Kashrut graph is neatly inverted. Toronto and Bergen are at the foot (10 & 17% respectively) and Las Vegas – home of all that glitters – scores a heady second position with 34%.


There are perhaps two messages for me, and I hope for the rest of us. The first message is that there is not a single American county or city in the information recorded where the percentage of Jews keeping Kosher is greater than the percentage of Jews who ‘always, usually or sometimes’ have a Christmas tree. That’s depressing.


The second message is the correlation between the assertion of Jewish identity through positive acts of affiliation and assertion through ‘negative’ acts of avoidance of being like everyone else. It has, I suspect, always been thus. The original word for our people – Hebrew – etymologically suggests disassociation; standing apart from and opposing. It’s not politically correct, it’s not necessary cosy, but the maintenance of a healthy Jewish identity requires not only acts of affirmation, but also acts of distancing. Being both a part of our local societies, and apart from them is and has always been the Jewish way. May we never forget it.


More graphs and demographic indicators are at


Shabbat shalom


Friday, 10 February 2012

Write it down, read it and do something about it

On Wednesday evening I had the privilege of attending a reception to celebrate the opening of the stunning new premises of the Weiner Library in Russell Square. It was a particular pleasure since the architect on the project was none other than our member Barbara Weiss. The Library’s director spoke of the vision of its founder, Alfred Weiner, who in 1933 fled Germany for Amsterdam. Weiner dedicated the rest of his life to collecting and disseminating information about Nazi Germany. Weiner was inspired by the notion that truth would defeat forces of wickedness. I think the phrase Ben Barkow used in Weiner’s name was, ‘the truth will out.’


It’s humbling to realise both quite how many had to perish before the Nazi machine could be brought low and also how often we humans slip back into murderous atrocity. But it is inspiring to know that from the very first moments of Nazi power someone cared about disseminating truth. We must continue to care.


Caring for the truth, in the face of powerful deceit is, of course, a very New London thing to do. Solomon Schechter observed it’s always easier to accept comfortable lies than fight for uncomfortable truths, but, he went on to note, since the time of Abraham Jews have always believed in smashing the idols of comfortable deceit. We must continue to bash away. There is still much too much deceit around; some dressed up in the garb of religion, some verging on genocidal. Without a commitment to truth we have no weapon to oppose such deceit. The Library is lovely, and I love the space which now provides the home for New London Synagogue, but a beautiful home is not enough. We need to engage personally with our truths, study them and act as if our lives depend on them, for indeed they do.


More information on the Weiner Library is at

For pictures of the new building, see and click projects, community & public


Shabbat shalom

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