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,


First Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon - Act



There was once a ruler who wished to favour two subjects. So the ruler gave each a gift of flax and a gift of wheat.

One subject went home and kept the precious wheat and the precious flax safe and sound. We can imagine it in a box, in a cupboard, under the stairs.

The other subject went home and spun out the flax, wove it into cloth, dyed, cut and stitched the cloth and turned it into a magnificent garment. Then they took the wheat and winnowed it and ground it into flour and turned the flour into dough and the dough into a magnificent loaf.

And then the ruler called the two subjects back to the palace, with their gifts. And one set out with their flax and wheat and the other set out with their garment and their loaf.

You have to imagine the subject with the carefully preserved flax and wheat felt pretty good with their efforts. You have to suspect that they thought they were doing the right thing, a good job, but the tale pours scorn on their inaction. This subject is called foolish, ‘alas for their shame and disgrace’ – ends the tale

And it’s the second subject who is praised, called wise and venerated.[1]

It’s one of my favourite Jewish tales, actually it’s not just a tale. It’s a Rabbinic text at least a thousand years old, and probably far older. It’s a parable, a code to be deciphered and mapped back onto reality. The ruler is a reference to God. The subjects? They are us. The gifts of flax and wheat are understood to be the Written and the Oral Torah which we are supposed to study, work over, winnow, knead, cut and stitch back together. Perhaps more generally we can see them as the gifts that come with our creation – our birth or our entering a covenant as Jews. The recall to the palace is usually understood to be the moment of our death but let’s imagine this as a Rosh Hashanah story – let’s imagine this moment of being called back to give account is today. Rosh Hashanah – the day of judgement. What have we done with our flax and the wheat? We all have great gifts, in our creation as humans and especially in our life as Jews. Do we lock them in a cupboard to accumulate dust, or work at them?

The Midrash suggests you can’t be a good Jew by locking your gifts in a box in the cupboard under the stairs. Actually I don’t think you can even be a good human being by simply protecting what you have. If you have a gift, a blessing, you have to work at it, justify it, pay back a credit to pay off a debt. To receive is to accept an obligation to prove worthy. And these are obligations that are paid back in action.

I’ve been thinking about two major challenges to Jewish life, in the run up to this sacred time. One is a certain kind of liberalism that seems to be becoming endemic. The other challenge, which also threatens to overwhelm, is the challenge to Brit Milah. The challenges are, as I hope to share, linked.

The problem I have with a certain kind of liberalism is that it leads in the direction of accepting doing nothing as a reasonable response to the gift of life. The central question, in classic Liberal political philosophy, is, ‘what is the scope of things a person should be able to do without external interference?’[2] The default assumption is that this scope should be as broad as possible with any interference having to be justified. It’s as if we start off free of any obligation whatsoever and those demands that anyone or anything has the temerity to demand have to be justified. This sort of ‘what right do you have to make demands on me?’ is seeping into the contemporary conscious. It’s incredibly un-Jewish. It’s a philosophical approach that defends the right of the first subject to put his flax and wheat in a box in the cupboard if that is, after all, what they want to do. It’s an approach predicated on the supposed notion that no one and no thing should dare insist we work at our flax and our wheat. It’s an approach to life that can all too easily result in a nation of couch potatoes disavowing any sense of responsibility to help others, to pay back.

Judaism on the other hand, is so committed to a conception of life predicated on the importance of action, of paying back obligations picked up as a result of our very existence, that the idea of inaction is anathema. To be fair it might be a little more complicated than that. It is true that in the 1800s, under the influence of German Protestantism, some Reformers felt that action wasn’t important, that being Jewish could just be feeling but that’s the influence of German Protestantism, it’s not our essence. We are a collection of intellectual, spiritual feelings, but that we are also a people, a nation, a culture. With rites and rituals, we practice. We do things.

For me Judaism is a collection of tales and commands whose origins tumble back through millennia to a point where they are touched by God. These commands have held us in relationship with each other, our creator and our world for centuries as we winnow, weave, bake and sew them into the foods that sustain our souls and the clothing that protects us from the elements through time and across distance. Andrew Brown has suggested that religion is born from myths that make us dance. It’s the dancing, the observing and the engaging that justifies our lives. Intellectual assent and the theology are fine and dandy, but what really counts is action.

And this brings me to Brit Milah. Members of this Shul don’t need a First Day Rosh Hashanah sermon to tell them that the Germans, The Germans!, ought to be a lot more wary before they start arresting Rabbis for conducting Britot Milah – though of course they should. I wouldn’t even give over a Rosh Hashanah sermon to counter the emerging anti-milah ravings in the blogosphere – though so many of the arguments adduced are specious and if anyone really wants to know why, drop me an e-mail and I will send you a sermon I gave during the year on the subject. The point I want to make, today, is this. I don’t mind Protestant Germans thinking that German Protestantism is all about intellectual, private emotions and feelings. But I don’t want these people to confuse my Judaism with their perception of religion. And I don’t want any Jew being complicit in their confusion.

Of course if Judaism is only a religion based on belief propositions Milah only makes sense if you are a fundamentalist. But Judaism is not only about belief propositions.

Of course if Judaism is only a religion based on intellectual assent Milah will feel far too corporeal and in-your-face. But Judaism isn’t just about feelings and thoughts. It’s about what we do with the flax and wheat. It’s about actions.

Today’s Torah reading captures the point perfectly. Sarah and Abraham finally are blessed with a child. Abraham’s immediate response is Milah – vayamal avraham et Yitzhak c’asher tziva oto – and Abraham circumcised Isaac as commanded. He responds with action – a Jewish action, a commandment, an obligation. He doesn’t just think about being grateful and nor does he invent some new way of justifying this miraculous gift – he’s a Hebrew, so he responds the way Hebrews are called to respond. Considering Milah important isn’t about a theological intellectual thought process. It’s not a response based on whether we think God did or didn’t dictate this story to Moses. It’s about who we are, our identity, our culture, our sense of belonging. This is our dance.

So I have this to say to the authorities in Bavaria who want to criminalise ritual circumcision – know that this rips the heart out of who I claim to be, as a Jew. If you take the possibility of this action – this central, foundational action – away from me you are destroying my possibility of being Jewish in your jurisdiction now and into the future.

But since I don’t suppose there are any Bavarian legal authorities here today, let me instead share this with all of us. Particularly those of us infected by this German sense that one can be Jewish without the rituals, without the actions, without the discomfort and the ache and the nervousness that, frankly, many elements of Jewish practice – and certainly Milah – impose upon us.

Don’t be like the foolish subject. Don’t be scared of action. Action helps us understand things that no amount of thinking and talking can explain. Ritual actions – ancient, holy actions that are at the heart of the Jewish journey – have a power that is beyond words. I’ve been blessed to stand in some extraordinary places and do some extraordinary things, but nothing has helped me more understand the meaning of a gift received than the Brit Milah of our first son. Even now, some years later, there is a quality to that moment, that action, that moves me more deeply than I know how to explain. That’s the moment, more than the birth, more than the arrival of proud grandparents at the hospital, more than any of it, that made me realise the obligation and the responsibility I face as a parent, a Jewish parent.

It’s not just Milah, it’s the whole panoply of ‘Jewish do.’ I can’t explain intellectually or even theologically how Shabbat makes me realise and internalise the gifts of the week. I can’t explain how Kashrut redefines everything I feel about food and particularly meat. I can’t even explain, intellectually what it means to hear the Shofar today. I am, we are all, as Jews ‘ergetic.’[3] That means we come to understanding through action. You probably haven’t come across the word ergetic before – it was made up by a Jewish scholar of the history of knowledge who couldn’t find an existing word to describe a process he must have understood from his own Jewish life.

Don’t be afraid of action. We can’t simply think ourselves through life. Life won’t make sense until we live it. And only then can the actions begin the process of integrating themselves into our souls, justifying our lives and making meaning in a world where intellectual sophistry without action tends to nihilism and emptiness.

Don’t be afraid of ritual, Jewish, action. When you feel like giving thanks for the wages showing up in your current account - give tzeakah. When you feel you’ve worked hard this last week - light some candles on Friday night. Make Kiddush and turn off the television. When you feel a spark of connection to something Jewish in your heart and in your mind - come to Shul, daven. And if you are blessed with a son, a healthy son, arrange a Brit Milah. This is my request for us all this Rosh Hashanah – don’t be afraid of action, Jewish action most of all. We all have such gifts, kneed them, spin them, weave them into magnificent offerings, justifications for the gifts we have and lives we are blessed with. Challenge any thought processes or emotion that doesn’t inspire you to act, to do, to prove yourselves worthy. Just don’t become foolish subjects with flax and wheat in the cupboard under the stairs.

Our actions are the great justification of the gifts we receive. It is only through our actions that we take our place as decent Jews and decent human beings in this community and broader society. It is only through our actions that we merit the healthy, sweet year for which we crave.

Shannah Tovah and Ketivah Tovah.


[1] Seder Eliyahu Zuta, Chapter 2

[2] Pace Mills

[3] A. Funkenstein Theology and The Scientific Imagination  from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton), 1986, pp 296-299.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Every Soul Needs to Express Itself


Three Quick Thoughts (And One a Little Longer)


Rosh Hashanah is nearly upon us.


This  Shabbat, at the end of the service Stephen and I will be looking at some of the tunes and meanings behind the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service (in lieu of a sermon). It will be a good chance for a singalong and a great chance to feel more prepared for the services on Tuesday and Wednesday.


Also, this Shabbat, at 4pm at my home, I will be teaching the second part of ‘This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.’ Do please join me for a bite to eat and plenty to think about.


Thirdly – I’ve been thinking about Second Day Rosh Hashanah. It’s one of my favourite services of the year. The tension and unfamiliarity of our First Day are behind us and there is more space for reflection and being present in the moment. I’ve never really understood the claims of those who feel, ‘it’s just the same.’ It’s a point Heraclitus made some 2500 years ago, ‘You could not step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing on to you.’ Please do plan on joining us on Wednesday also.


Finally this.

I’ve been preparing to teach from Alan Lew’s work on this time and he shares this thought; things that cannot be seen are more important than things which can be seen. While, Lew argues, other peoples pitted the sea against the earth or one god against another, Judaism came to say that ‘beneath the appearance of conflict and caprice there was a singularity,’ worthy and deserving our attention and praise, but nonetheless invisible. Lew goes on to say that the tension between the seen and the unseen should also guide how we should approach this season. ‘In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy lives. We have jobs, families and house… Beneath the surface of this world the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding.’ What lies beneath, what cannot be seen, is the more important than our surface display of normality. Rosh Hashanah works on what lies beneath. It is ‘only there that the horn sounds, that the gate between heaven and earth opens and there that the court is convened, that we rehearse our own death.’ Lew’s point is that we can fool most of the people most of the time, hiding what is going on beneath the front we present to the world with our business and outward competence while our soul lies underneath devoid of attention, withering slowly. ‘Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient of ancient human yearnings and they are fully expressed in the pageantry and ritual of the great journey we make between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.’

I’m excited to be celebrating these special days with this special community. I urge us to treasure the tremendous heritage which carries us through these special days and prepare ourselves to make the most of this opportunity for our ‘soul to express itself.’ In doing so may we all be blessed with a year of health, sweetness and joy.


Shabbat Shalom and L’Shannah Tovah,


Rabbi Jeremy



Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

New London Synagogue

0207 328 1026



Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Questions Haven't Changed - Have Your Answers

Some thoughts on the coming season.

The questions haven't really changed since last year, but what about our answers?

Who are you today?
How have you changed in the last year?
Where do you want to get to in the time to come?

There are really three directions in which I would encourage you to approach these questions.


The inwards direction has to be our point of departure. How do we relate to ourselves? Are we frustrated, tired, lost, angry or confused? Or maybe we are delighted, proud or clear-of-focus. How are you relating to yourself today, how has this relationship changed in the last year, where do you want to get to in the year to come?

The outwards direction is our relationship to our fellow human beings. Run through the list; begin with your family members - your wife, husband, your children, parents. (Incidentally there will comparatively few of us with 'all of the above.' This is also a time for being grateful for those family members we have, remembering those we have lost and turning to consider those we may one day find). Think of your work colleagues, friends, acquaintances, even those flash encounters, those passers by in the street whose faces you can recollect because your encounter touched your heart, somehow.
How would you consider these relationships over the last year, where do you want to get to in the year to come?

The 'upwards' direction is not to be taken literally. It is the direction of our relationship between ourselves and our Cosmos, our Creator, our God. How are you doing in the context of the world? It's not a trite question. We all have a little piece of a broken Universe it is only for us to put back together. You are here for a reason, do you know what that reason is? At the very least we must leave the world no worse than we find it, how successful are you in that endeavour? How can you and the Big World Out There get on better in the year to come?

The questions haven't changed since last year. The danger is that our answers may not have changed either. Please take a few minutes to begin the process of applying yourselves to these questions in the coming days. Your life depends on it.


Friday, 7 September 2012

Love and Elul

This Saturday night is our Slichot service. The music, the rhythms and themes of this Rosh Hashanah season make their annual debut. It will be a very special evening, 9:30pm at the Shul. All welcome. 

My diary is increasingly Rosh Hashanah focussed, but I’m spending Thursday evening with a group of twelve New London members getting married in the coming Hebrew year. And then on Sunday I have a Chuppah. All this wedding related activity, coupled with the two Chuppot Stephen and I officiated at last Sunday, adds up, as Led Zepplin would say, to a whole lotta love (not sure I’ve ever referenced Led Zepplin in a weekly message before!).

We are deep in the month of Elul. The classic Rabbinic play, in this month, is to equate the letters which spell Elul to the first letters of the most famous verse in the Song of Songs - Ani Ldodi Vdodi Li – I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. Elul is a time to consider love even without the, wonderful, profusion of wedding related diary entries.

Elul and love are connected, at their deepest place, in two ways, both associated with conceptions of Teshuvah. First there is the matter of apology and forgiveness. Love inspires a desire to apologies for the things we do which hurt the ones we love. There is a, frankly, childish, notion that it is somehow weak to apologise, a personal failing to admit failing. This is absurd, or perhaps more accurately something one might expect from a person out of love with the world. Measuring the quality of a person by the levels of sensitivity they demonstrate and the quality of relationships they create and maintain we should all apologise a lot more than we do.

Secondly there is a less well understood connection between Teshuvah and love. Too much attention is paid, particularly in the Yom Kippur liturgy, to our failings and shortfallings (we have sinned in this way, and that way and on the list goes). But the goal of Teshuvah is not to leave us snivelling in a corner beating our chests. The goal is to produce fuller, deeper, more trusting and more powerful relationships. I once asked a couple, celebrating their golden wedding anniversary,  what had changed for them over the past 50 years, ‘the opportunity to fall back in each other’s arms ever more trustingly’ – they said. Lucky people indeed. But this is goal of Tishrei, to come out of this month of love and fall back into the arms of our Creator, our people and our tradition and, if we are lucky enough, the arms of our lovers.

Shabbat Shalom


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