Monday, 26 March 2012

Pause for Thought - World Poetry Day

My Pause for Thought for BBC Radio 2, broadcast 21st March is available on-line at


It’s World Poetry Day and though there’s much wonderful poetry out there I find myself irresistibly drawn to the poetry of the biblical Book of Hosea.


Hosea has the roughest assignment of any of the Hebrew prophets. He is told to marry and told in the very next breath that his wife will be unfaithful to him. His wife will chase after other men, Hosea’s warned. God wants Hosea to experience God’s own sense of frustration with a people who have been running off after other gods.


In one verse Hosea is told to ‘Love a woman who loves another lover, like God’s love for Israel who look to other gods, and love raisin cake.’

 It’s this last piece – the love of raisin cake – that seems so heartbreaking. It’s as if God is a jilted schoolboy whose girlfriend’s been snatched from him by the class heartthrob whose dad runs the sweet shop.


‘Doesn’t she know,’ says God, ‘that I gave her gold and silver that she uses for earrings and necklaces to go after other gods.’


Here God is cuckolded, lonely and miserable while the wife runs off in search of better looking models. The whole book of Hosea paints the relationship between God and Israel in these graphic poetic terms.

Of course it’s not supposed to be read as theology. It’s poetry.

Of course God doesn’t get married. Hosea, like so much of the Bible isn’t putting itself forward as a historical record. It’s as true as the claim that Wordsworth’s daffodils danced or the claim that our heart breaks when we’re hurt.


Poetic images don’t work like precise reportage. Poetry touches us, it makes us feel, makes us empathise – it’s not scientific analysis, it’s more powerful than that.


The poetic truth of the Book of Hosea is that we are too easily given to chasing after seductive false gods of gold and silver.


We are too easily led astray from truer relationships by something new that glitters prettily. The poetic images of Hosea make the point better than more rigorous language ever could.


Friday, 23 March 2012

Enjoy Pesach

My first serious study of the Halachot of Pesach took place in the Conservative Yeshivah fourteen years ago. The teacher, Menachem Pitkowsky, handed out a faded sheaf of notes, clearly at least a tenth generation of photocopies and we made our way through the note’s detailing of what needs to be disposed of, what needs Kosher supervision and how to Kosher a Pesachdik kitchen. The notes were taken from a talk given in the 1980s, by Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, who passed away this week at the age of 102! A graduate of the pre-war Mir Yeshivah Rav Scheinberg founded the Torah Ore Yeshiva first in New York and then Jerusalem.


The notes are incredibly touching. Headed, ‘Clean for Pesach and Enjoy the Seder,’ they are driven by a concern that cleaning for Pesach shouldn’t be too oppressive. The document is of wonderful historic interest, you can see a man who grew up a century ago, but also a little anachronistic. Nonetheless the sweetness and the concern shines through.

‘In former times, wealthy people who had large houses also had many servants who did their every bidding, while poor people, who could not afford servants, lived in small homes with one or two rooms. Understandably, the pre-Pesach chores of the rich were performed by the servants, while the poor, who had only their one or two rooms to clean, a few pieces of furniture a minimum of utensils, and some clothing, took care of their needs themselves. In those days, the cleaning was hard. Tables were made of raw wood, requiring them to be scrubbed or even to be shaven to ensure that no pieces of food were hidden in the cracks. Earthen or wooden floors also needed to be thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned.

Today, we seem to be caught in a trap. The average modern home is larger than formerly. Furniture, utensils and clothing are much more plentiful. The average home today could compare with the more affluent homes of previous generations. However, we do not have the servants that they had, so that today, all the chores fall on the housewife. At the same time, she still feels obligated to clean and scrub as they did formerly, even though she has laminated furniture and tiled floors, making this type of cleaning unnecessary.’

The command to enjoy the Seder weighs heavily. So he sets out standards that are some way below what many in the Haredi world would expect. A full copy of the notes – now somewhat sadly freshly typed up and uploaded, can be read at; and my own guide to Pesach is at at,  

But I can’t do better than to conclude with the Rav Sheinberg’s parting words. May his memory be blessing.


‘Try to make the Pesach chores easy for yourself Don't do unnecessary hard work. Don't do unnecessary cleaning. You must enjoy your Pesach!’

Thursday, 15 March 2012

And Now for Pesach

Two events for the attention of NLS members and friends.


This Monday I will be looking at the history of the Seder ritual. Why are there four cups, what were the original Four Questions and where did the Four Sons come from?

8-10pm at the Synagogue, more information below. All welcome.


And the following Sunday, 24th March, we will be holding our Flagship pre-Pesach event, a roundtable on freedom. I’m delighted that we are going to be welcoming Rev Nadim Nasar who was born in Syria. In the months since he first agreed to join life in Syria has become ever more fraught and I am most keen to hear his reflections and concerns. The other speaker, Lord Glassman, is a good friend and co-founder of the Masorti community in Stoke Newington. He’s also a leading political theorist whose been ruffling feathers in and beyond his own party on issues around immigration and communities. These are important issues of our time – with the offer of added richness to infuse your seder with the true taste of Freedom. I hope you will be able to join me.


Shabbat shalom


Rabbi Jeremy


Pause for Thought on Radio 2 - Mothering Sunday

I’m presenting Pause for Thought on Radio 2 for the next five Wednesdays at the bright and early time of 5:45am. This week’s script is on-line at


As you know, it’s Mothering Sunday this weekend; a time for children of all ages to buy cards, chocolate boxes and floral bouquets for our mothers.

Mothering Sunday is a post-biblical phenomenon, but the Bible certainly stressed the importance of honouring parents. It’s one of the Ten Commandments. As a Rabbinical student I remember feeling genuine shock as I realised how the great collection of Rabbinic teaching known as the Talmud understands this command.

I’d assumed honouring your mother had something to do with being an obnoxious teenager and I knew a lot about being an obnoxious teenager. But it turns out that the Talmud has in mind adult children honouring aged mothers.

‘How far do you have to go to honour your mother?’ the Talmud asks.
Take the case of Dama ben Netina, Mayor of the ancient city of Ashkelon. Dama was presiding over the City Council when his mother came up to him and beat him over the head with her slipper and he didn’t embarrass her. She beat him so hard the slipper fell from her hand and Dama picked it up and handed it back to her. That, the Rabbis say, is honouring one’s mother.

Or another story – this one of a man who stood by and watched his mother fan money off the back of a ship, money he had presumably been imagining would come to him as an inheritance.

These tales, 1500 years old or more, feel starkly contemporary. To me Dama’s mother seems to be suffering some kind of dementia, she’s not fit for civilised company, but what’s Dama supposed to do – drop her off in a care home?

And the man who watches his inheritance be frittered away reminds me of many in my community who struggle as the costs of providing care for elderly parents eats up the value of homes and savings they might have thought would come to them.

In the Jewish tradition the real test of honouring one’s parents comes when honouring comes at a cost, it might be embarrassing, it might be expensive, it might be distressing. Caring for the mothers who in our earliest days cared for us so completely brings many challenges but these are the women who brought us into the world and we need to be prepared to do better than a card, a box of chocolates and a floral bouquet.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Purim is Coming

All are invited to the Shul’s Purim spectacular, beginning with a kids’ pizza party at 5:45 on Wednesday 7th March and concluding in a party for adults, with Maariv and Megillah at 6:30. More information below. We read this Shabbat the tale of the attack on the Israelites led by Amalek. We read this Wednesday the tale of the attack on the Israelites led by Haman and in a month’s time we read, at our Seder tables, of the attack on the Israelites led by Pharaoh. Ancient history. The contemporary destruction, which I read about day after day, is being visited by forces loyal to President Assad of Syria on his own people. The parallels are striking. First the forces opposed to Assad are assumed by those loyal to the regime to be plotting treacherous anti-Syrian activities – just as the Jews in the beginning of the Exodus narrative were assumed to be intent on joining Egypt’s enemies. Secondly the violence in Syria seems unutterably random, wrecking devastation among innocent children as well as attacking those who are genuinely waging aggression against the Assad regime. Just as, in the Purim narrative, it was man and woman, adult and child threatened. Thirdly the violence seems to be driven by the nothing more than a hunger for power that corrupts the powerful the closer they come to power; Haman’s hatred of Mordechai an Jews deriving from the affront perceived by Haman Mordechai refusing to bow to him. Through time, across nations innocents are defamed and murdered to allow bigots to retain power. It has always been thus but, the message from Jewish history teaches, justice will out, tyrants will fall. It takes courage and a willingness to stand firm in the face of bullying might. Happy Purim, Shabbat shalom.
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