Friday, 13 December 2013

The Death of Jacob and the Future of the Masorti Movement

New London Synagogue was well represented at the Masorti Dinner, held last Sunday at New North London Synagogue. In total over 260 members of the movement – supporters of the movement – were part of the evening which was in part good fun and in part an opportunity to celebrate what we are becoming and what we might become.


We read, this Shabbat of the death of Jacob, Israel himself. His deathbed scene is one of passing on blessings, prophecies and charges to his children – and grandchildren. Jacob’s concerned for a future that will survive his own death. He understands that the things that matter to him – as the father of all Israel – need to be carried on beyond his own individual reach. It’s a lesson that should strike us, at New London, in two ways. We have struggled with the mortality of a single dominant, powerful leader and if the community is strong today – and I believe we are strong – it is because the leadership and vision of this community is owned and shared by many. It cannot live solely with a single person if the community is to be about more than a one person’s dream. Secondly we should understand that New London Synagogue, even as a busy and virbat community, is rendered all but meaningless if it is only about meeting our own private Jewish needs and desires. If we stand for a Judaism that is open-minded and committed to our tradition, that is something we have to make meaningful for others. We need a youth movement to inspire and engage our children, we need a Bet Din, to welcome in converts and ensure we don’t always need to run to the Reform or the Orthodox to provide for our religious needs.  We also need numbers. Of course Jews have never placed ultimate value in sheer numbers, but we are, as a movement, too small to engage publically and even within the Jewish community at a level that could transform Jewish life in this country.


So here is the advert.

On Sunday 9th February my colleagues, Cantor Green and I will be among the teachers at Yom Masorti. It’s a day of learning and sharing for members of Masorti synagogues across the movement, from Leeds to Bournemouth and from the founding community – that would be us – to the newest member of the team – Stoke Newington. It’s always an extraordinary gathering and the programme for the day will offer something for everyone.

There is more information at

And I will be taking opportunities both on Shabbat and in the early part of 2014 to encourage members of New London to attend.

It’s how we live on after our time has passed.


Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy


Friday, 6 December 2013

On the Death of Mandela - And Parashat Vayigash

This isn’t a eulogy.

That would be inappropriate, and besides there are many far better placed than I.


Want to give a sermon in honour of the passing of a giant in my life, and that of the world.

And I’ll have a word of two to share about Joseph, another leader who knew darkness and imprisonment and came through that experience of oppression to provide great leadership.


He was in a category of one, an elder to the world and his life touched mine.

I believe he provided a leadership unmatched in our times.

Three insights into his life and death.


Mandela had great faith.

When I suggest he had faith, it’s not the classic relationship with God I have in mind.

Mandela’s religious convictions were complex. Clearly great love for Desmond Tutu in particular.

But not talking about religious dogma and belief in a particular kind of deity.

True faith is that which exists when the physical corporeal environment gives nothing to rely on.

When all that goes, what is left, what inspires a person to believe in the possibility of a future and human possibility when left to rot in a prison cell for more than 20 years?

The thing that is irresolute in the face of such physical depravity is faith.

It’s the thing that makes no sense to hang on to, it’s the thing that cannot be taken away by oppressors whether the oppression comes dressed as prison wardens, or cancer cells or P45s or anything else.

Faith is that thing we should all pray never to have tested.

But it’s the thing that keeps us believing even in the darkest of times.

Mentioned Joseph – in fact spoke about this last week.

In the darkness of the pit, in the experience of being sold into slavery, in the experience of being imprisoned because of the false accusation of Potifar’s wife, Joseph demonstrated faith.

And through his experiences on Robben Island, even through the death of his own son, it’s clear that Mandela also demonstrated faith.

And that faith is the source of hope and of love and that faith is the source of what makes us human.

And the greater the faith, the greater the human.

And Mandela’s faith was great.


The second thing is this.

Mandela worked out how to look at a human being and see a creation in the image of God.

Again I don’t want to co-opt Mandela religiously – he had his own stunningly poetic way of explaining his life and work – but this is the way I have to talk about the outstanding moral contribution of his life.

Exactly what he did and believed as a young man, I make no claim.

In his

But from the time he walked out of those prison gates he looked at the face of the hated Afrikaner opponents to everything he, Mandela, believed in, and saw humanity.

Maybe that’s a little over-romantic.

In his autobiography Mandela records how he and those who followed him even in prison worked to befriend the prison wardens, ‘hostility’ wrote Mandela was self-defeating. There was no point in having a permanent enemy among the wardens.’

But he goes on to say, ‘It was ANC policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies; we believed that all men, even prison service wardens, were capable of change.’

It’s this commitment to the possibility of ‘all men, even prison wardens’ that, surely, explains some of the great acts of leadership in Mandela’s earliest days as President of a truly democratic South Africa – I wrote last night of his wearing the Springbok jersey to the World Rugby Finals. I read today of the invitations to his inauguration sent to his jailors, his prosecutors and his interrogators.

That’s the truly remarkable moral strength, the strength to live through oppression and refuse to come out hating.

The strength to live through the experience of having your humanity stripped from you and still to believe in the inherent decency and goodness of all humanity.

It takes great strength to refuse to fight violence not with violence but love.

And were it not for that strength, God help us, God help Africa.


There is, perhaps, an equivalence in the story of Joseph.

Joseph has, of course, had a difficult relationship with his brothers who were prepared to leave him to die, only to decide to sell him into slavery.

In this week’s parasha we get the moment Joseph reveals himself to his long-lost family as his brother.

And his first words.

He seeks to reassure his brothers, don’t be angry that you sold me into this, for this is all God’s doing.

He’s able to open his heart and not carry the hate.

It’s an extraordinary achievement. And one that, thank goodness, we read of from any number of people who have experienced oppression and rise beyond it.

They talk of not wanting to carry the hatred as an additional burden.

I’m sure that’s right.

But I don’t know how you open a person’s heart that there is another way beyond the playground battles of he hit me, so I’ll hit him back.

Or rather I know of only one way.

It takes a witness.

It takes someone you trust and respect who finds a way to respond to hatred with an open heart. And all of a sudden a different way opens up.

It takes a combination of that person’s experience of oppression and their standing and that witnessing can change – well in the case of Mandela it changes a country, it might even have changed a world.


So where now.

Mandela was no saint – his own life was – of course just like any other life – sprinkled with foibles and failures.

And South Africa remains a country still struggling with its share of strife, inequity and violence

But maybe that is the point.

Jonathan Freedland, writing earlier in the year, warned off seeing Mandela as a saint in that that suggests something ‘beyond’ about what he achieved. Freedland’s point was that Mandela’s achievements were human achievements, achieved by a human being, just like you or me.

There is no-one to wait for to make the changes needed in our own post-Mandela world. There is only us, simple human beings, just as Mandela was ultimately human.

Mandela himself, I suspect understood this perfectly.

Tony Blair was on Radio 4 this morning recording how Mandela came to a Labour Party conference after his retirement an introduced himself as an ‘out of work pensioner with a criminal record.’

I understand that when asked what he wanted his tombstone to read, Mandela replied, "I would like it to be said 'Here lies a man who has done his duty on Earth.' That is all."

I suspect he said it with a smile on his lips, but he said it knowing his own humanity.


There are rabbinic teachings that make the same point. From Pirkei Avot we learn

Lo Hamlecha Ligmor, aval lo atah Ben Horin L’Hivtel mimena

It is not up to you to desist from the work, but you are not free to desist from it.

Mandela certainly did that and much much more.


Uvmakom she ain anashim, hishtadel lihiyot ish

In a place where there is no humanity, be a human – an ish – a Mentsch

Mandela was certainly a man in world desperately bereft of men of true faith, morality and courage.


This is the conclusion of Mandela’s massive autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. I took the well thumbed book back off the shelf this morning.


When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved, but I know that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free. We have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journety. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but t live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just the beginning.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter. I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.


Mandela’s death should remind us of the importance of faith, as the source of hope and the source of humanity.


His death should remind us of the importance of seeing every human as being a creation in the image of God, even our enemies. It should serve as a witness to the power of fighting hatred with an open heart and an embrace.


And Mandela’s death should remind us that he was only a man, just like you and I, and in his absence, the responsibility to complete his legacy, now falls on us all.


May he rest in peace, his memory will surely always be for a blessing.


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Nelson Mandela, may he rest in peace

I want to share three brief thoughts in the aftermath of the death of one of the defining figures of my life, Nelson Mandela, who has passed away this, Thursday, evening.


Mandela believed, as a young man, in the power of violence and was prepared to walk the thin line that demarcates between one man’s terrorist and another’s freedom fighter. But he changed and embraced a way of peace. The change was genuine and the power of his commitment to peaceful transformation allowed an entire nation to change with him.


I remember watching the Rugby World Cup Final in 1995, on the first occasion the defiantly Afrikaner Springboks were allowed back into international sporting competition. South Africa made the final at a time of tremendous fear in the nation. Many feared a bloodbath with fierce opposition to the end of apartheid among some in the white community and fierce anger against the whites from some in the black community. Mandela took to the field, to greet the finalists, wearing the Springbok jersey, for so many the very symbol of apartheid. It eliminated in a stroke the sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’. It was an extraordinary act of leadership and bravery.


And perhaps above all, this is a time to remember something that President Mandela taught me as I grew up in the midst of the anti-apartheid struggle. Freedom is only one long walk away.


The world has lost an icon whose life illuminated the possibility of change, the power of peaceful protest, bravery and leadership and the hope for freedom and unity of all humans. It was a remarkable life.

May he rest in peace.


Shabbat shalom


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Wingate Jewish Book Award 2014

Delighted to be part of the judging panel for the Wingate Jewish Book Award

Shortlist has just been announced


PRESS RELEASE for immediate release




London, 26 November 2013 - The shortlist for this year's JQ-Wingate Prize has been revealed. The winner will be announced at a ceremony during Jewish Book Week at Kings Place on Wednesday, 26th February 2014.


The shortlist is as follows:


Edith Pearlman Binocular Vision (Pushkin Press)


Otto Dov Kulka Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (Allen Lane)


Shani Boianjiu The People of Forever Are Not Afraid (Hogarth)


Ben Marcus The Flame Alphabet (Granta)


Anouk Markovits I Am Forbidden (Hogarth)            


Yudit Kiss The Summer My Father Died (Telegram-Saqi)


Chair of the Judging panel Rachel Lasserson: "As ever, the judging panel has focused upon the quality and currency of the work, rather than the identity of the author. Strikingly, this year's shortlist is dominated by hitherto unknown female voices who offer fiction and memoir of urgent currency. The shortlist introduces the reader to new and shocking worlds: from the female underclass of the IDF to the choice-less tower of Satmar Hasidim via the wreckage of communist Europe and the family lager of Auschwitz. These singular six books attest to the infinite diversity of Jewish experience in 2013."


The JQ-Wingate Prize is awarded to a book that explores themes of Jewish concern in any of its myriad possible forms either explicitly or implicitly. Previous winners include Amos Oz, David Grossman, Zadie Smith, Imre Kertesz, Oliver Sacks, WG Sebald and Shalom Auslander.


For more information, or to contact the judges, please email Marion Cohen at See also Notes to Editors below.











BINOCULAR VISION by Edith Pearlman

Tenderly, observantly, incisively, Edith Pearlman captures life on the page like few other writers—its dilemmas, its loves, its complexity. Spanning 40 years of writing—and from tsarist Russia to London during the Blitz, from Central America to the coast of Maine, from Jerusalem to the fictional suburb of Godolphin, Massachusetts—these astonishing stories show a writer of the most exquisitely turned prose, with a sensibility all her own: imaginative, compassionate, funny and wise.


Edith Pearlman, born in 1936, published her debut collection of stories in 1996, at age 60. Binocular Vision won The National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. She has published over 250 works of short fiction in magazines, literary journals, anthologies and online publications. Her work has won three O. Henry Prizes, the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature, and a Mary McCarthy Prize, among others. In 2011, Pearlman was the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award.



Translated by Ralph Mandel, this is a memoir of astounding literary and emotional power, exploring the permanent and indelible marks left by the Holocaust and a childhood spent in Auschwitz. As a child Otto Dov Kulka was sent first to the ghetto of Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz. As one of the few survivors he has spent much of his life studying Nazism and the Holocaust, but always as a discipline requiring the greatest dispassion and objectivity, with his personal story set to one side. He has nevertheless remained haunted by specific memories and images, thoughts he has been unable to shake off. The extraordinary result of this is Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death - a unique and powerful experiment in how one man has tried to understand his past (and our history).


Otto Dov Kulka was born in Czechoslovakia in 1933. He is Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.



Lea, Avishag and Yael are school friends in a small town in northern Israel. During dull lessons they play the game Exquisite Corpse and daydream about the boys they fancy. When they hit eighteen they are conscripted into the army.

Stuck on checkpoint duty with fellow soldiers she hates, Lea relieves her boredom by creating an imaginary family life for a dishevelled Palestinian man that passes every day; Yael takes to sleeping with a boy she is training, in between breaking up and getting back together with her boyfriend at home; and Avishag's days are spent guarding the Egyptian border, catching smugglers and watching Sudanese refugees throw themselves on the barbed wire fence. 

They wait in the dust for something to happen, caught in that single, intense second before danger erupts.


Shani Boianjiu was born in 1987 in Jerusalem, and served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years. Her fiction has been published in Vice magazine, Zoetrope and the New Yorker. Shani is the youngest recipient ever of the US National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 Award. Her first novel, The People of Forever are Not Afraid longlisted for the Women's Prize. She lives in Israel.



The speech of children has mutated into a virus which is killing their parents. At first it only affects Jews – then everyone. Living quietly in the suburbs, Sam and Claire's lives are threatened when their daughter, Esther, is infected with the disease. As the contagion spreads, Sam and Claire must leave Esther behind in order to survive. What follows is a nightmarish vision of a world which is both completely alien and frighteningly familiar, as Sam presses on alone into a society whose boundaries are fragmenting. Both morally engaged and wickedly entertaining, The Flame Alphabet begs the question: what is left of civilization when we lose the ability to communicate with those we love?


Ben Marcus was born in Chicago in 1967. He holds degrees from New York University and Brown University, and is an associate professor at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of four books and a forthcoming collection of short stories, Leaving the Sea (Granta, March 2014).


I AM FORBIDDEN by Anouk Markovits

I Am Forbidden is a powerful portrayal of family, faith and history which sweeps the reader across continents and generations, from pre-war Transylvania to present-day New York, via Paris and England. Immersive, beautiful, moving, it explores in devastating detail what happens when unwavering love, unyielding law and centuries of tradition collide.


Anouk Markovits grew up in France, in an ultra-orthodox Satmar home. She attended a religious seminary in England instead of high school. She left home at the age of nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage. Her first novel, Pur Coton, written in French, was published by Gallimard.




Yudit Kiss grew up a communist in Budapest, soaking up her father's ideology unquestioningly. As her father lies dying, Yudit tries to understand the enigma surrounding his life. As she digs deeper into his tragic history, Yudit is forced to confront the contradictions and lies woven into the life of her family – and her country – through the dramatic twists of twentieth century Hungary.


Yudit Kiss moved to Switzerland in the early 1990s, where she currently lives. A researcher in economic development, she is the author of a number of articles, research papers and academic works. This is her first literary work.



The Jewish Quarterly — first published in 1953 — is the foremost Jewish literary and cultural journal in the English language.

The Wingate Prize was established in 1977 by the late Harold Hyam Wingate.   It is now known as the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. The winner receives £4,000.

The Harold Hyam Wingate Charitable Foundation is a private grant-giving institution, established over forty years ago. In addition to supporting the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize it has also organised and supported the Wingate Scholarships.




RACHEL LASSERSON is the Chair of this year's judging panel. Founder of the Anglo-Brazilian Shakespeare Forum, she directed plays and taught physical theatre in England and Brazil. In 2007 she became Editor of the Jewish Quarterly, overseeing its redesign and securing its international distribution before retiring earlier this summer. She is currently developing a think tank on women's issues.


JOSH COHEN is Professor of Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths College, London. He is the author of four books - most recently The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark (Granta, 2013) - and numerous reviews in various publications including the Journal of American Studies and the TLS. He has presented over 30 research papers in the UK, USA and Europe, and organised a number of conferences and symposia. Completing his training as a psychoanalyst in December 2009, he now maintains a private practice of around 30 hours per week alongside his academic post.


JEREMY GORDON has been Rabbi of New London Synagogue since January 2008, following ordination in 2004 and four years at St Albans Masorti Synagogue. He studied Law at Cambridge University and worked in television before studying at the Hebrew University and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he graduated with Rabbinic Ordination, a Masters in Midrash (Rabbinic Exegesis) and a number of academic awards. He regularly appears on Radio 2 's 'Pause for Thought', has published numerous articles and appeared in various documentary projects.


CATHERINE TAYLOR was until recently Publisher at the Folio Society, and in that role was instrumental in the setting up and running of the inaugural Folio Prize for global English-language fiction, as well as numerous sponsorships and partnerships, including with Edinburgh International Book Festival. She has worked in the book industry for 20 years, for companies as diverse as the British Library and Amazon.

Catherine is also a prolific literary critic and was the Guardian's monthly debut fiction columnist from 2007-2012. She has a particular interest in the short story and in literature in translation.



Thursday, 21 November 2013

A Guide to Chanukah in the Home

A Guide to Chanukah In The Home, 2013

Hanukkah begins on the eve of the twenty-fifth day of Kislev and lasts eight days. This year we light the first candle on Wednesday evening 27th November.

One light is kindled on the first night of Hanukkah; an additional light is added each succeeding night, so that eight lights are kindled on the eighth night. In general the lights should be kindled immediately after sundown. Three blessings are recited before the lighting on the first night and the first two are also recited on each of the seven subsequent nights. The shehechiyanu is recited on the first day only.

On Friday night the Hanukkah lights are lit before the Sabbath candles (and before sundown). On Saturday night we light before Havdalah.

The first candle is placed on the far right as the person lighting the Menorah looks at it. The second candle (on the second night) is placed directly to the left of the first candle, and so on, always moving leftward, The kindling starts on the left and moves toward the right. The first candle to be lit each day is the new candle for that day. Hanerot halalu, is sung while kindling the lights, followed by maoz tzur. The Menorah should be placed where it is visible from outside the house in order to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah to passers-by--l'farsumei nisah.

In addition to the candles that are lit for each day, there is a special candle known as the shamash. This extra candle is necessary because the Hanukkah lights themselves should not be used for kindling other lights, as we say in the passage Hanerot halalu, ‘These lights are holy and we are not permitted to use them in any way.’

First Blessing
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloyheynu Melekh Ha-oylom Asher Kiddeshanu Be-mitsvoytov Ve-tsivanu Lehadlik Ner Shel khanukah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.

Second Blessing
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloyheynu Melekh Ha-oylom She-oso Nissim La-avoteynu Ba-yamim Ho-hem Ba-zman Ha-zzeh.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who wrought miracles for our ancestors in days of old, at this time of year.

 Third Blessing (only on the first night of Hanukkah)
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloyheynu Melekh Ha-oylom She-hekheyonu Ve-kiymonu Ve-higgi'onu La-zzman Ha-zzeh.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this time.


Friday, 15 November 2013

On Typhoon Haiyan and the Lisbon Earthquakeof 1755



There is an irony that this Synagogue was founded because of a theological argument about who wrote the Torah, because the thing I’m worried about, when I am called before my creator to give account of such heresies as I believe, has nothing to do with the authorship of the Torah, and much more to do with the supposed doctrine of reward and punishment.


Gomeil lish hesed kemifalo

Notein l’rasha ra v’rishato


Gives to the righteous person according to their actions

Sets for the wicked according to their wickedness


That’s a phrase from a song based on the key outlining of Jewish theological dogma by Maimonides, Ramabam.

God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous.

And this week, with these horrendous pictures of the aftermath of a terrible typhoon I’m struggling, again.


I wanted to share my theological wrestling and suggest other ways to respond to these horrendous acts of destruction that are equally Jewish and a little more sophisticated than simply blaming this destruction of sinful practice,


But I’m ashamed to be waxing theological over the dead bodies and the destroyed homes and obliterated infrastructure. So I’ll tell you now how this sermon will end. This sermon will end with the plea that we take a moment to support World Jewish Relief’s Typhoon Haiyan emergency appeal.


On with the theology.


In 1755 there was an earthquake which struck Lisbon, one of the greatest cities in Europe of her day; capital of a mighty Empire, with architecture rivalled only by Rome.

The city was largely destroyed.

Even those buildings that survived the initial quake were brought down by the 40ft waves that roared up the river Tejo

Up to 50,000 of the 270,000 inhabitants were killed.


Lisbon was a deeply religious city and in the immediate aftermath of the destruction clerics were quick to justify the destruction as a deserved Divine response to the infidelities of the city and it’s inhabitants.


John Wesley, the founding father of Methodism, in a sermon on "The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes," claimed "sin is the moral cause of earthquakes, whatever their natural cause may be,"


Reason, as well as faith, doth sufficiently assure us it must be the punishment of sin, and the effect of that curse which was brought upon the earth by the original transgression,’ Taught Wesley citing, let it be admitted a slew of Biblical verses that buttress his teaching, ‘Let us then conclude,’ he went one, ‘both from Scripture and reason, that earthquakes are God's strange works of judgment -- the proper effect and punishment of sin.’


The Lisbon earthquake drew the attention of every great thinker of the C18, from Leibniz to Voltaire and Kant.


Leibniz’s philosophical position is not so different to Wesley’s pure theology. He suggested that that since this world exists it must a good world and everything that happens in it is for the good. In other words if there is a disaster and we cannot understand how or why it could possibly be justified, we should just admit to our own shortcomings and know that somewhere, from the perspective of the Divine, it all made perfect sense. Everything could be lined up and the sense of the world could be assumed. The technical term is ‘theodicy’ Leibniz justified God the omnipotent and all good creator of the world, earthquakes, typhoons and all.


This was too much for one of the other great thinkers of the day, Voltaire. The earthquake in Lisbon sent Voltaire into a deep depression. "Why is Lisbon engulfed, while Paris, no less wicked, dances?" he wanted to know. Voltaire eventually produced Candide which made a mockery of Leibniz’s theodicy. The world is not all good, insisted Voltaire. He was utterly unable to accept the notion that a good all powerful God could possibly allow an earthquake on the scale of the destruction visited on Lisbon.


Classic theodicy, the classic view that God is all good and everything in this world fits into the plan of an all good and all powerful deity has never recovered.

In some ways this is the dawn of modernity in the non-Jewish world; the end of the assumption that everything is going to be just fine and the beginning of the realisation that we have levels of responsibility over our own lives and that the world will unfold in ways utterly unpredictable.


What’s any of this got to do with Judaism,

I don’t think it’s unconnected that the way in which most people have come across Voltaire’s critique of Leibniz is through the words and music of two great 20th Century Jewish artists, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim – whose Candide has been performed across the world.


Because the rejection of the sort of utter conviction in perfect power and beneficence of a God lurking up remote and obscure in the heavens has, despite the language of the Yigdal, has never the only Jewish way to approach questions of disaster and loss.


There are places in the Torah and Rabbinic thought that makes the sorts of claims Welsey and Leibniz make, that this is all God and this is all good. But there are many other insights that cut against this classic theodicy which I find simply unacceptable.


Before God destroys Sodom and Gemorrah he is subjected to probing examination of His motives by Abraham – what about the good people in the city, Abraham wants to know, ‘ha-af tispe tzaddik im rasha’ – will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked. Abraham is millennia ahead of Kant, another C18 philosopher fascinated by the Lisbon hurricane. It’s not just to treat good people as casualties in the destruction of the wicked. It is unacceptable. For Jews it always has been.


And then there is the book of Job.

Job is the most sustained engagement in the question of why bad things happen in the Torah. There is a good man and he suffers. And he wants to know why he has suffered and friend after friend try and explain how this suffering might be deserved, and Job rejects every suggestion that his suffering is somehow justified.

He rejects any suggestion that the destruction wrecked on him and his family is somehow his own fault.

Eventually God arrives in a burst of zoological fury, demonstrating volcanoes, typhoons and earthquakes and insists that every human attempt to make sense of the world worthless.

‘Have you comprehended the expanse of the world, declare if you know all.

‘Where is the way light lives, and where is the place of darkness.’

How can you possibly make any assumptions.


In part the Book of Job is a mockery of the approach of Leibniz who claimed this was the best of all possible worlds and everything is for the best.

Don’t make the assumption that this is good, warns God, in the book of Job.

You have no idea what good is.

Goodness and evil, creation and destruction exist beyond human’s ability to wonder.

This might sound quite classical, as an approach to that age-old question – why do bad things happen to good people.

You can’t know.

Just get on with being good anyway.

But there is something else.


I mentioned the book of Job opens with God punishing Job, actually that’s not quite right. The book of Job opens with God boasting about Job to Satan and getting involved in a bluff which Satan calls.

‘He’s only nice to you,’ Satan suggests, because you are nice to him, try making him suffer. So God makes Job suffer.

That’s extraordinary.

God is caught out in a game of poker by a better player and ends up destroying everything Job has because of His own, God’s, ego.

God emerges from the first chapters of the Book of Job as a naïf egotistical simpleton.

And that’s what the Bible says.

And quite why Wesley, and so many other theologians ignore that, surely has more to do with their Christianity than their reading of the Hebrew Bible.

The point is that there is no point.

There is no over-reaching goodness that makes everything the best of all possible worlds.

The point about the earthquakes and the thyphoons and the destructive power in nature is that, that’s nature.

It’s not to be gainsayed, or justified or excused.

It’s horrible, indefensibly so, whenever any innocent died.

And in this most recent thyphoon many many innocents have died.


And so what.

In this world which is not the best of all possible worlds,

In this world which is bruised and battered by storm and quake

In this world where bad things happen to good people for no good reason.


As it says in Mishnah Avot

Bmakom she’ain ish hishtadel lehiyot ish

In a place where there is no ‘ish’ – no force capable of acting in goodness and kindness – be that force.

That’s the call.


Actually there was something else that happened in the aftermath of the earthquake in Lisbon, all those years ago.

There was an international relief effort – the first in history. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake England provided £100,000 pounds sterling in economic aid, back in the days when £100,000 was a lot of money. And that brings us back to where I started.


In a world where we cannot assume that this is the best of all possible worlds. In a world where we should not, must not attempt to justify the loss of life and property that follows these horrendous natural disasters.

In that world we should respond with the offer of relief, an open hand shared in kindness and brotherhood for we know how fragile the life we take for granted truly is.

In that world, in this world, we should respond with a donation of funds.

And I recommend World Jewish Relief.

You can go on-line after Shabbat –

Shabbat shalom



Thursday, 14 November 2013

Who Remembers Devorah - Parashat Vayishlach

There is a mention of an otherwise unknown woman, in this week’s Parasha. We are told ‘Devorah, Rebecca’s Nurse, died, and she was buried just below Beth El, under an oak tree.  The tree was thus called the Oak of Weepings.’ There is no other information about this Deborah anywhere in our story – just this.


A good friend, and now Rabbi, Eric Yanoff, created an entire sermon from this one mention, and the mention, in the Midrashic collection Bereishit Rabbi, that there must have been more than one weeping at this oak, the site of the death of this otherwise unknown woman. He suggested that at some point ....


“Somewhere along the way – a class of students, the next generation, were sitting around, and a teacher, or a parent, said, “Oh, you all know the story of Devorah, right?  You know – Rebecca’s nurse.  You know what I mean.”  And in that class, in that group, no-one knew.  It just hadn’t come up.  And even worse no one asked.  No one raised a hand and asked. “Tell us the story of Devorah.”  None of the older generation bothered to go through the motions of telling the story – maybe they were afraid to bore the kids, they didn't want to elicit that groan, that response of “we've heard it all before.”  And at that moment, in that silence, Devorah was buried again – and now we have to mourn her twice. Once for the loss of her life, and once for the loss of her story.”


In the provocative collection of imaginings on the afterlife, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman envisages just this. We die, suggests Eagleman twice. Once when we die physically, and once when the memory of our life dies. We are a people with a story. We tell our own story and we tell the story of those who have touched us. And in that way we live on and so do those who death we mourn as we keep their memories alive.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy



Questions Rabbis Get Asked - What Kind of Tefilin Should I Buy

The Knotty Question of Buying Tefilin


I love Tefilin.

I love the ritual of putting them on and I love the detail, the raised, strange 4 pronged ‘shin’, the specific way of tying this knot ....

But buying Tefilin isn’t easy. When I bought my first set of Tefilin I could have been sold anything by the frum looking Sofer with the big white beard and I would have handed over my Shekels knowing nothing of the choices and questions a person should have to mind when Tefilin shopping.


There are two questions to consider; Minhag and Hiddur

And there are three elements to a set of Tefilin; Batim - boxes, Klaf – parchment & Retzuot – straps.


Minhag – Custom

There are, broadly speaking, three different customs when it comes to Tefilin; Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Chassidic (Sephardi-ish, but reworked in the time of Isaac Luria). There are some technical differences in the style of the Batim and some differences in handwriting on the Klaf, but the most important difference is how the Retzuah around the arm works. Ashkenazim go one way round, Sephardim (and Chasidim) the other. The knot of the tefilin for the arm needs to be tied so the strap can go round the right way. There are also two different ways to tie the knot for the Tefilin for the head.


You want Tefilin dependent on your custom – Ashkenaz/Sephardi/Chassidic


On a related issue is the question of on which arm to wear the Tefilin. Right-handers wear Tefilin on the left arm, left-handers wear Tefilin on the right arm and, again, the knots need to be tied to make that possible.


You want either right handed or left handed Tefilin


There is a debate (obviously) about the order of the passages written on the Klaf. There are four passages and Rashi thought they should go in one order and his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam thought they should go in a different order. Everyone follows Rashi, but once, in an airport lounge, I davenned next to someone with Rabbeinu Tam Tefilin. They davenned virtually all the service ‘by’ Rashi, then took them off, put on the Rabbeinu Tam Tefilin and finished the service that way. I’ve also seen photos of people wearing double sets simultaneously. No-one in any community I have davenned in does any of this.


You want Rashi Tefilin, which your sofer will almost certainly assume.


Mehudar – Honouring – also Hiddur

The idea is that we should bring the best we have for God. A Kiddush cup is better than a kitchen mug, silver is better than tin etc. I have a love of beautiful ritual things, but there is a balance to be drawn. Too much ostentation can be just that (there is a wonderful Hebrew word – Yoharah – literally turning yourself into a mountain – idiomatically self-aggrandising, which is also not good). Hiddur can also get prohibitively expensive, especially when it comes to Tefilin. And part of the issue isn’t ever seen. There are Klafim, parchment, which are beautifully written with immaculate calligraphy, and there are Klafim which are obviously scribbled out. They are Kosher, but not Mehudar.


But the really significant issue around Hiddur is the Batim. Broadly speaking there are two kinds, Peshutim – simple and Gassot – fat. Gassot are made from a single piece of leather bent this way and that to create the various compartments and the form of the Bayit. It’s a time consuming process and requires a particular, and expensive, cut of leather. Peshutim are made from multiple pieces of leather and are easier (and cheaper) to manufacture.


I have Gassot Tefilin. I love them. I helped select the Klafim and stitched them together with the assistance of a scribe I know and trust. They are Mehudar, they were expensive, but I take huge pleasure in wearing them and believe, in some way I can never fully comprehend, that that counts before the God I stand before in prayer. There are other options which are equally kosher, and much cheaper.


Here are some links to the Federation of Jewish Mens Clubs, part of the American Conservative Movement. They are committed to providing Kosher, relatively inexpesive, tefilin


You can reach the Golders Green-based Sofer I recommend via


There are many on-line providers, but I would always recommend doing additional research, or checking with a Rabbi, before sending off money to a web-site to buy something as individual as Tefilin. One last point. Tefilin need to be used, left in a bag, untouched for weeks on end is a terrible waste.


Friday, 8 November 2013

Note for a sermon on the 75th Anniversary of Kirstallnacht

Kristallnacht a series of attacks on Jews and Jewish property, while the Nazi leadership looked on approvingly, or at the very least looked away.

9–10 November 1938 75 years ago this very weekend

At least 91 Jews killed 30,000 arrested and taken to concentration camps. Over 1,000 synagogues burned and over 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed or damaged.

Name from the broken shards of glass

Perhaps more bleakly than even that account of loss of life and property, Kristallnacht was the last death knell of German Jewry, got out before, or didn’t get out at all.

And we’ve just commemorated that loss with a song.

Singing over the souls of those destroyed by the Nazis.

Even more, conceivably bizarre and strange, it’s a song whose words are about belief, in the coming of the Messiah, bemunah shleimah – with a perfect faith.

How could anyone have a emunah shleimah after all this?

Story that Hasid of the Modzitzer Rebbe came up with this niggun on the train to Treblinka, what difference does that make?

In the aftermath of a murder of 7 million Jews, the gypsies and the gays and the communists and the Jehovas Witnesses and every other precious human life snuffed out in humanities darkest hour, what difference does any of it make?

Theodor Adorno’s warning about the barbarity of poetry in the aftermath of Auschwitz sticks in the craw. Maybe all singing, all forms of response, all pompous prayer, pious mutterings, maybe all of it is barbaric.[1]

What kind of a response could make any difference?

Never forget has become a kind of sop, what did we do during the genocides in Cambodia, or Rwanda or former Yugoslavia.

Isaiah Berlin argued that the only conceivably appropriate response to the Holocaust is one of savage irony.

Here’s a piece of savage irony,

Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann” said his secretary, ‘I notice you are reading Der Sturmer! I can’t understand why you are carrying a Nazi libel sheet. Are you some kind of masochist, or God forbid, a self-hating Jew?”

“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I leaned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine and assimilation in America, but now that I read Der Sturmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate the arts, that we are on the verge of taking over the world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better.” [2]

God help us, laughing as we walk over the Broken Glass.

There’s an art installation in the Jewish Museum of Berlin – started in 1997 by the Israeli artist Menahem Kaddishman, Shalechet, by now some 10,000 iron chunks of metal, cut into faces, screaming mouths and all, and you tread over them, and as you do the metal rubs against itself and cries.

Here we are treading over the Broken Glass and the broken burns and the burnt up bones and the burnt up everything – that, of course, is the meaning of the Greek Term for burnt up everything – Holocaust.

So what does count?

This is the best I can offer.

In the early 1980s Emil Fackenheim was a well regarded philosopher, he had come up with a notional commandment not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory some 20 years earlier, but he was struggling with the questions I’ve mentioned – what counts as authentic after the Holocaust.

And then he has a moment of epiphany. He recalls it in his work, To Mend the World.

[While studying the story of Pelagia Lewinska] I made what to me was, and still is, a momentous discovery: that while religious thinkers were vainly struggling for a response to Auschwitz, Jews throughout the world had been responding all along … with an unexpected will to live – with under the circumstances, an incredible commitment to Jewish group survival.[3]

The evil of the Holocaust world is philosophically intelligible after Auschwitz in the exact sense in which it was already understood in Auschwitz – and Buchenwald, Lublin and the Warsaw Ghetto – by the resisting victims themselves… No deeper or more ultimate grasp is possible for philosophical thought that comes … after the event. This grasp – their grasp – is epistemologically ultimate.[4]


His point is this, if it happened then and if meaning was found in those actions, even in the face of barbarism and horror we cannot even begin to imagine, then meaning can be found in holding, perpetuating those actions still.

The partic interesting piece about F’s book for those who follow trends in Jewish narratives is the term he adopted for this claiming of integrity, and perpetrating an action in memory of something utterly crushed and broken – he used the term Tikkun. We live in a world where the term Tikkun has been so used and overused that it’s lost any connection to standing up on the other side of a moment of utter shattered destruction and insisting in the possibility of an authentic response.

But’s that what the term meant to F.

Tikkun is a response using the broken fragments of what has been destroyed. It’s as meaningful now as it was then.

Singing is as meaningful now as it was then.

Singing a tune that was sung in the train on the way to Treblinka is meaningful now because it was important then.

So is humour, and prayer and coming to Synagogue and all the rest of everything we do to prove that despite our brokenness we are still here, and still seeking authentic Jewish response.

And it’s not just the Jewish stories that are authentic, as they survive the brokenness. Here’s a story about a German non-Jew.

The Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue was the centre of Berlin Jewry from the time of its construction in the 1860s, seating 3000 people, and clearly a place of interest to the violent mobs set on destruction on that horrendous night 75 years ago. The mob broke into the Synagogue, smashed furniture, desecrated the Sifrei Torah and started a fire, but then a lone police officer, Otto Belgardt arrived and commanded the mob to disperse. And disperse they did, because one man insisted that they should. And the fire was put out and the building survived.

We should all commit ourselves to being that one person who can stand infront of a mob and demand they cease from their violence. That would indeed be an authentic Tikkun.

Today the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue is home to a thriving Masorti community, still in Berlin, still making meaning by walking on the fragments of broken glass, still believing there is Tikkun in appropriating the broken wreckage of the Jewish story we inherit and live.

We sang earlier because we believe in the validity of singing after the Holocaust, because there was singing in the Holocaust. WE sang to offer a Tikkun in the aftermath of the brokenness/

We’ll stand in the Kiddush and Kibbitz and tell jokes, because we believe in the validity of kibitzing and joking even as we walk over the broken glass. Even as kibitzing and joking were never snuffed out by Nazi oppression.

And next week, please God, we’ll celebrate an aufruf for a couple getting married using a Ketubah illustrated by the son of a Holocaust survivor, because Ardyn Halter, like his father, the Auschwitz survivor Roman, belived before him, that love is possible after the Holocaust.

For even as we mourn the broken glass and so much else, we believe in the power of these actions of Tikkun, as authentic, as important and as necessary today as they were 75 years ago.


Shabbat Shalom


[2] Un-attributed joke found in ed. W. Novak & M. Waldoks The Big Book of Jewish Humour New York, Harper Perennial 1981 p.61

[3] Fackenheim, E. The Quest for Past and Future (1968, Bloomington IN, Beacon) pp. 19-20

[4] MW p. 248.

Keeping the Doors Open - Attitudes to Conversion

I’m just back from a Bet Din.   As usual it was exceptionally moving.   As usual the candidates demonstrated levels of commitment, knowledge and practice that would embarrass many ‘born Jews".   And, as usual, I’m left feeling a certain head-scratching frustration with the approach taken to matters of status by other denominations.

And that was before I opened the email from the Jewish Chronicle.

At the Bet Din we met with a woman who, as a child, was told she was Jewish.   She grew up thinking she was Jewish with an ancestry that stretched back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.   It was only in her twenties that she found out that her Jewishness ‘only’ came down on her father’s side.   She told several stories of having orthodox communities wanting nothing to do with her, even after she and her Jewish partner had a child.   It was an honour to see the journey she had been on, in her Masorti community, and to feel a part of a Tikkun – a healing for the whole family.

Then in the e-mail sent out by the JC was a piece from an orthodox Rabbi explaining why he didn’t believe in going to Limmud.   The Rabbi acknowledged that some find their life-partners at Limmud, but he went on to warn ‘some have met partners who they thought were Jewish since they had Jewish surnames and appeared Jewish, but then discovered later that only the person’s father was Jewish and therefore they ended up marrying someone outside the Jewish faith’.

I don’t think that a person with a non-Jewish mother is Jewish. I do think that they would need to go through some kind of conversion programme.   But where my orthodox colleague and I would part is on the question of whether a Shidduch between someone with a Jewish father and someone with two Jewish parents at the most exciting celebration of Judaism anywhere in the world is such a bad thing.   Surely when faced with an opportunity – and that’s the key word – like this, you do what you can to make this Shidduch into a Kosher celebration, and that means working to keep conversion programmes meaningful, serious but also open minded and open hearted.   That’s what we do at New London, it’s what I do as a Dayan – judge – on the European Masorti Bet Din.

It’s the annual Masorti Dinner on  08 December 2013.   Yom Masorti, a day of learning for the whole Movement, is on 09 February next year and, of course, with New London celebrating its 50th Anniversary in the coming year, it’s a good time to re-commit to the importance of keeping the gates to Judaism open.   It’s also a good time to re-commit to being part of a Movement which works to keep these gates open for those who live beyond the immediate vicinity of our own very special community,

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