Thursday, 14 February 2013

Linking to Hope


You may have caught sight of the story. A group of women, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform – including a number of my friends and colleagues – were arrested this week for the offense of praying at the Western Wall. They are part of the organisation Women of the Wall which has, for the past fifteen years been praying, reading from the Torah and wearing Tallit at the Wall. It was ugly and deeply disturbing to feel that Jews are denied religious freedoms in, of all places, Israel.

You can read more about the events of this last month at

Ripples of the row arrived at New Broadcasting House and I was invited to take part in a BBC World TV debate.

You can watch a clip here.


The question is who owns Judaism? Who gets to say what can and can’t be done in the name of Jewish practice and, more importantly, who gives power to those who want to wield that power to silence all voices other than their own.

The good news is that other voices, especially in Israel, are emerging. This week also saw the maiden Knesset speech of Ruth Calderon, newly elected MK in the Yesh Atid Party. Dr Calderon (PhD in Talmudic literature) takes a volume of the Talmud to the lectern with her and proceeds to talk about how her Zionist, Israeli and entirely secular education failed her, left her empty.


I lacked words for my vocabulary; a past, epics, heroes, places, drama, stories – were missing. The new Hebrew, created by educators from the country’s founding generation, realized their dream and became a courageous, practical, and suntanned soldier. But for me, this contained – I contained – a void. I did not know how to fill that void, but when I first encountered the Talmud and became completely enamored with it, its language, its humor, its profound thinking, its modes of discussion, and the practicality, humanity, and maturity that emerge from its lines, I sensed that I had found the love of my life, what I had been lacking.


She teaches, quite beautifully a section of the Talmud, making the point that it is for everyone and that engaging in its richness can bring people together in greater understanding and respect, even in difference. The Speaker of the Kenesset, from the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party chips in with an interjection. There is debate, smiles abound. On the floor of the Kenesset a secular, entirely modern woman is teaching Talmud while Kippah wearing Ultra-orthodox deputies nod away.

I found the speech deeply moving.

There is a YouTube clip, in Hebrew, at

And a translation at


Israel has its challenges; it’s not easy to be a modern and a committed Jew. All this we know.

The good news is that, this week, there were also glimpses of solutions.


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Who Owns Judaism

I got a go on BBC World TV for a segment about Women of the Wall and who owns Judaism.

You can’t watch BBC World from the UK, but it was good fun and I’ve uploaded the clip at

Featuring Anat Hoffman and also Moshe Freedman from Northwood United.

The clip is available at


Friday, 8 February 2013

Coming Down From the Mountain

Last week’s Torah portion, containing the moment of Revelation itself is intense. But there is far more Rabbinic commentary on this week’s reading. That might sound odd, Mishpatim as a word matches the content. As a word Mishpatim means – sentences – short imprecations and a legal connotation. This is the heart of the civil code, interpersonal relationships. The central texts which allow the Rabbis to work through conceptions of negligence, duty of care, recklessness and the rest all come from this week’s reading.


For those among us who wander through life encountering the outstretched arm of God on a weekly basis, last week’s reading is, I am sure, rich in exegetical possibility. One can read the ancient tale of revelation against one’s weekly experience of the same thing. But I’m not gifted with that level of prophetic possibility. I wander through life encountering other people – their needs and concerns. And I experience duties of care, attempt to avoid being negligent and certainly reckless. This is the reading for me; for most of us I suspect. This is the realm in which we, as Jews, excel. We are far better at engaging in the ‘here and now’ than disappearing off in clouds of spiritual revelry.


Indeed it may well be that the prime driver of Jewish spiritual greatness is precisely the humdrum engagement with the day-today interpersonal relationships which populate our lives. As Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, taught ‘my fellows material needs are our spiritual needs.’ There is no higher calling than the engagement in the challenges of living a life among other people. Even life on the top of Mount Sinai pales in comparison.


Shabbat shalom



Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Yom Masorti Sunday 10th Feb

Sunday 10th February is one of the highlights of our annual calendar, as Masorti Jews in Britain.


Yom Masorti is a day of coming together, across the different shuls in the Movement to learn, share and connect. This year Yom Masorti is being held at New North London Synagogue, our sister community in Finchley, 10:00 – 17:30 though you can go for part of the day.


From sessions on Italian Jewish cooking with Sylvia Nacamuli to Broadway musicals with Laurence Jacobs (occasionally seen on the Bimah at New London) there is a huge range of choice and terrific quality all round.

I’m leading a session on ‘Raising the Next Generation’ and there are sessions on communal affairs, Israel and, even, opportunities for study of the Book of Ester.

Chazan Stephen will be there, as well as a number of the Rabbinic leaders of the Movement.

There are stalls, food, shows, kids’ events ...

It will be a terrific day and I urge all members to attend if they can.


More information, including the full timetable of sessions, can be viewed at

Booking is directly from the Masorti homepage


I hope to see you there,


Rabbi Jeremy


Monday, 4 February 2013

Questions Rabbis Get Asked - Inshallah

A congregant asked:

One of my Islamist clients asked whether we had an equivalent to the word "Inshallah". I assume the answer is Yes, but more interesting is why we don't use it widely.




I'm not an expert at how, exactly, Inshallah works in Islam and in Arabic, but there are a number of Jewish ideas and phrases that seem similar.

They are common in more observant communities. If there is a difference


Im Yirtzeh HaShem is the direct corollary, 'If God wills it'

Sample conversation.

A:        Can I see you on Tuesday?

B:        Im Yirtzeh HaShem


Another similar idea is the tradition of writing in the top corner of a piece of paper the capitalised Hebrew letters in this Aramaic phrase B'Siatah Dishmaya - literally 'With the assistance of Heaven'

Sometimes you will also see the letters of the Hebrew phrase 'B'ezrat HaShem' - with the assistance of God.


Baruch Hashem, Blessed be God, becomes almost a 'tick.'

A: How are you?

B: I'm fine, Baruch HaShem.

Actually it has even, in some communities, replaced a more coherent answer

A: How are you?

B: Baruch Hashem.

There is a sense of not wishing to tempt fate in appearing to gloat over what we have, on sufferance from God, but also a sense of gratitude to God for what we have.


The other common interesting phrase is Bli Neder, literally 'Without a vow.'

Vows are a serious business in Judaism. You shouldn't make them. In Temple times you would have to bring a sacrifice even if you kept the vow and certainly you shouldn't find yourself forced to break a vow, even if that wasn't the intent.


A:        Can I see you on Tuesday?

B:        Bli Neder

i.e. I'm planning on it, but I'm not ramping the commitment up to a theological significant level.




For this I went to Rabbi school!


Friday, 1 February 2013

Way Beyond the Cutting Edge of Orthodox Theology

I was at a conference, this week, on Orthodox Theology.

There were some big name self-defined Orthodox theologians. All doing cutting edge Orthodox theology.

But I couldn’t get over the sense that the cutting edge of orthodox theology is 50 years (and the rest) behind where Rabbi Louis Jacobs pitched his tent in the mid 1960s.


In celebration of Parashat Yitro, and in memory of the founding Rabbi of the Shul I now serve I’m sharing this. I’ll be teaching on the subject at New London, this Shabbat.


Rabbi Louis Jacobs on Revelation


Principles of the Jewish Faith (1964)

It must first be noted that, with the exeption f the very late books of Chronicles and Daniel, there is no claim anywhere in the Hebrew Bible that Moses wrote the whole of the Hebrew Bible. In the Rabbinical literature too there is a reference to the Torah being forgotten and then restored by Ezra (Suk 20a). It would be going far beyond the evidence to suggest that in these passages we have anything like an anticipation of modern critical views which see the hand of Ezra and his associates in the Pentateuch as we have it, but ...

As far as we know the first Jew to challenge the traditional view openly was Hiwi Al-Balkhi who was born in Persia in the ninth century... He had little influence in the traditional Jewish camp. The tone adopted was anti-scriptural [quite unlike] one of the greatest Jews of the Middle Ages, Ibn Ezra (1088-1167), justly hailed by many as the real father of Bible criticism.


Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy 1:2

If you know the secret of the twelve, ‘And Moses wrote,’ ‘And the Cananite was then in the Land.’ and ‘And the Lord is seen’ and of ‘Behold his bedstead was a bedstead of iron’ you will discover the truth.


When the question of authorship is considered it is the task of the student to examine the available evidence and form his conclusions from it. It is facts which make so hollow the battle-cry of Jewish fundamentalism. Whether or not Jewish scholars are followers of Wellhausen is beside the point. Whatever the theory of the scholar concerning the composition of the Pentateuch, he has arrived at it by scientific, not dogmatic, grounds. The only alternative to a scientific approach (which after all only means an unprejudiced and unbiased examination of the facts, allowing these to speak for themselves) is to believe that God dictated the Pentateuch to Moses in such a manner as to allow it to give the impression of being a post-Mosaic and composite work. It is true that on any conception of God His ways are mysterious and unfathomable, but it is neither a general religious or a Jewish view that He wilfully misleads His creatures.


The Midrash records a discussion on the verse in Psalms: The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul. One Rabbi says the meaning is that because the Torah of the Lord is perfect, therefore it restores the soul. The other Rabbi interprets the verse to mean because it restores the soul, therefore it is perfect. It is not suggested that the Rabbis of the Midrash could have anticipated out problem, but here in a nutshell you have the difference between the mediaeval and the modern approach to Jewish observance. [For the Mediaeval] because the Torah is perfect it restores the soul, the subtle alchemy by means of which this is achieved is known only to God who gave the Torah. For the modern Jew the perfection which inheres in the Torah cannot be separated from the effect the Torah has had on Jewish life and Jewish history. On the deeper level the question of whether the Torah is God’s gift to Israel or Israel’s gift to God is seen to be irrelevant for on a profounder view of what is involved in Revelation the two are seen to be the same many-splendoured thing.


From The Sanctification for the Mitwoth (1964)

According to the new picture of the Bible it is both divine and human. As good an illustration as any of what this means is Brunner’s of a gramophone record. We cannot now hear Caruso sing but we can do the next best thing. We play a Caruso record and hear the master’s voice. But, of course, it is far from perfect. There is inevitable distortion. Revelation is an event, translated into words by men.



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