Friday, 30 August 2013

On Whether to Bomb Syria - Laws of War

(these are notes for a sermon to be given 30th August 2013, the day after a Commons vote on whether the British Government should partake in military strikes against Syria in the aftermath of chemical attacks presumably perpetrated by the Syrian Govt against its own people)


Been in a Rosh Hashanah frame of mind,

Internal, spiritual, Jewish.

All of which is fine, unless one is being gassed.


Want to reflect on the gas attacks in Syria and the extraordinary scenes in the House of Commons last night.

Interested in what happens when confront a millennial old tradition with a very contemporary horror.

Actually the challenge is greater than that.

Jewish law came into formation at a time when Jews had no military power. All the discussion was hypothetical, no experience of real politik

How does Jewish insight hold up to the very ugly, very real challenges of the contemporary world.


For those not following.

Months of murder in Syria.

Most recently nadir, gas attacks – clear breach of International Law

Cameron came to Commons for general permission for some kind of military response, short of invasion, short of regime change, if intelligence further suggested what international community assume, that the chemical weapons were authorised by Assad and his govt.



Murder, image of God in every human form.

These videos of civilians being murdered by gas disturb us to our core.

Notion that this is a government doing this to its own people beggars disbelief.



We have obligation to respond.

Al taamod al daam reicha

Is this our fellow?

Don’t much like Assad and not entirely sure what welcome awaits, especially for Israel, an opposition whose connections to Islamist groups is unclear.

All irrelevant – we still have obligations to enemy, especially when their lives are threatened

Shmot 22:1 – see ass of enemy wandering off, bring it back to them.

Not so much turn the other cheek, but keep things distinct. If have an obligation to return the lost property of a person, then have that obligation to return the lost property even of an enemy.

If have obligations to oppose murder by chemical weapons then those obligations apply even if not sure whether those we hope to save will thank us for it.

An obligation to oppose use of chemical weapons is an obligation to oppose use of chemical weapons.



There are Jewish categories for military engagement.

Hilchot Rodef

Bible allows killing a thief who breaks into your house, on assumption that they will kill you if they find you there. Ex 22:1

‘If someone is coming to kill you, act first and kill them.’ Says the Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) – doctrine of self-defence

Broadened further

If see someone going to kill, or for that matter rape another person, under an obligation to kill them first – din rodef.

Doctrine of intervention to save the lives of others – a sort of Jewish Blair doctrine of international intervention.

Dangerous stuff reined in by the Rabbis

Can’t apply din rodef

i)                   If could stop with less than murder

ii)                If might entail death of a third party

iii)              If using more force than minimally demanded

iv)               Killing after the act, as a form of punishment[1]

So din rodef isn’t really applicable to Syrian situation.

Noting that Commons vote last night wasn’t even about Rodef – putting an end to Assad.

I will come back to precisely what was proposed in the vote and the implications of that later.


Other permitted forms of war.

Rambam, MT Hil Milchamah

Two categories of Halachic, legal, war, obligatory and optional.

Obligatory, against enemy attacking Israel

Optional, broader, including prestige of the leader

Interesting, for optional, have to go to Sanhedrin – the court – vote on whether a leader, partic a leader who might be proposing war for the sake of prestige, should be allowed to risk lives of soldiers in that war.


How should the Sanhedrin decide

What are grounds for launching an optional war?

Rambam, Hil Mamrim 4

‘The sole aim and thought of a King who launches [optional war] should be to uplift the true religion, to fill the world with righteousness, to break the arm of the wicked, and to fight the battles of the Lord.’


How compare to Syria?

·         Some sense that, if let get away with it, could result in danger to us, certainly to Israel on the border.

·         Certainly the sense that this would be ‘breaking the arm of the wicked

·         Could poss make the case that this is fighting the battles of the Lord

But towards the edge


Certainly clear have to offer peace before launching war.

Vayikra Rabba Tsav 9

Said Rabbi Yosi Hagalili "How meritorious is peace? Even in a time of war one must initiate all activities with a request for peace"


Rambam ‘If they respond positively and accept the seven Noachide commandments, one may not kill any of them’ (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1) 

7 Noahide laws e.g. legal process, robbery and crucially – shifchut damim – bloodshed. (Sanhedrin 56a)

Clearly there has been no accepting of the obligations not to spill blood.

The offer of peace has been rejected.


So where are we?

This is our problem.

There are grounds to consider that this might be a case where an optional war could be launched.

But should go to the Sanhedrin.

Should be voted on.

Shouldn’t be in the sole power of a political leader whose feelings might be influenced by questions of their own prestige.

All very contemporary.


So if I were on Sanhedrin, voting on whether to go to war against Syria, how would I consider whether to authorise?


This would be on my mind.

Torah mandates doing a number of ferocious things to deter people from acting badly.

Sotah –

Egel Arufah


In all cases, didn’t work.

Numbers grew and the initial bravado looks a bit foolish.

Left with more of a mess than expected at the beginning.

Empty out range of responses.

Not clear how the sort of limited engagement proposed would work.
Not defending Syria.

Not abandoning those who are suffering so terribly

Not even saying there isn’t a case for an Optional War to be made, but this wasn’t it.

This was an attempt to show a willingness to intervene and solve Syria’s problems, while simultaneously being very clear that there no willingness to intervene and solve Syria’s problems.

Poker analogy. If go to bluff, don’t raise by pennies.

The government seems to be doing precisely this.


And I think that pointing that out is precisely the point of a parliament, precisely the point of ensuring that the King has to go to the Sanhedrin before launching an optional war.

The Rabbis of the Sanhedrin, the MPs of our Parliament, are charged with thinking these issues through ore broadly, without the distractions of being the King, or Prime Minster, and having Obama on the phone, or thinking about poll ratings.


I think I would have said that a case for an Optional War could have been made, but this was not what was on the table last night.

What was on the table last night was a half-threat whose outcome could in no way be assumed to be the end of chemical attacks in Syria.


And for that reason we do well to be grateful that we live in a society with a legislature who take their obligations so seriously.

We do well to be grateful that our political leaders consider themselves bound by laws of constitutional propriety and despite their own wounded sense of honour acknowledge the voice of Parliamen.


And dear God, we do well to be grateful that we live in a society where our political leaders don’t attempt to gas and murder those who oppose their dictatorship.


May we always work to strengthen the democratic values of this society

May we work to support our leaders with the wisdom and insight to find other ways to oppose the murderous intent of leaders far away.


And may this new year come to all of Israel, and indeed those suffering the appalling treatment of the Assad regime in Syria, in peace,


Shabbat shalom

Shannah Tovah


[1] See generally Michael Broyde’s article

A Time for Heroism

There’s a recording, played this week on the Today programme, of an extraordinary woman in an extraordinary situation.   Last week a young man walked into a school in Georgia, USA, with 500 rounds of ammunition and an assault rifle.   He took as hostage Antoinette Tuff, the school bookkeeper.   You expect ‘another of those horrors’ but, simultaneously on the phone to a 911 dispatcher, Tuff talks the shooter into surrender.   No-one is harmed.   What struck me so powerfully listening to the recording – literally, I had to pull over – was that this heroine overpowered a man seemingly set on violence with nothing more than empathy.   She empathises with how tough it must be for him, she shares tales of her own loss, she calls him ‘sweetie’ and tells him to ‘go through something in life’.   The first thing that strikes me is that love is powerful.
Watching an interview with Ms Tuff, several days later, now in a CNN studio, having just received a phone call from President Obama, it clear that she had been prepared for this extraordinary moment by her faith.   She’s a woman of faith, clearly, and she’s spent time developing this power of empathy.   She knows how to offer hope to others, because she’s found hope for herself.   Richard Blumenthal, author of The Banality of Good and Evil:  Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition, talks about inculcating ‘prosocial behaviour’ in people deliberately.   Teach how to be good, teach altruism, teach the power of empathy.   He believes that just as people can be prepared to drift into evil, they can be prepared to drift into acts of heroism, decency and kindness.   Religion is good at doing this.   Rosh Hashanah is the time we do this, as Jews.

You can listen to the tape at 2:22:27 in
The CNN interview is at

Pass Through, Pass Through the Gates - Haftarah Nitzavim-Vayelech

There is a line in today’s Haftorah which always prods me into the work of the coming season:

‘Pass through, pass through the gates, turn towards the way of the people. Build, build the highway, remove the rocks. Lift up a banner for the people.’

Historically the verse is about the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile. Spiritually it’s all about Teshuvah.

Passing through gates is about having the courage to set off, a dissatisfaction with accepting that the way things are is the way things always will be. The greatest barrier to personal growth is habituation – we become so used to the mediocre or the genuinely poor that we no longer realise the way things are is only one option for the way things will be. We suffer an internal Stockholm Syndrome, so confused by our oppression that we become comfortable with whatever messed up jumble of failings and shortcomings are our current loadstones. First pass through the gate.

Turning to the way of the people is about the source from where we can derive sustenance and growth. Reading biographies of the great is fine. There is inspiration to be found in every religion and even vibrantly anti-religious icons can serve as muses. But we are Jews. There are truths that can only be found in our own narratives, teachings, prayers and rituals. I like the apocryphal story of the Jew who sought eternal bliss atop some great mountain with some great Guru only to be told, ‘Go back to your mother.’ If the goal is to live to our fullest we need to turn to the way of our own people to work out who we must be.

Building up the highway and removing the rocks both refer to the process of change. Some of the rocks are deeply embedded and take prising out, others will be easily flicked aside as soon as we bring our attention to noticing them lying in our path. Building the highway is about creating easier opportunities to be better.Mitzvah goreret mitzvah teach the Rabbis (Pirkei Avot 4:2) – one Mitzvah drags another behind it. Build up pathways of decency; practice being kind, giving charity, speaking kindly. Before we know it our lives will be transformed.

Lifting up a banner for the people is a plea to become an ancestor. We focus too easily on our history, but this verse calls on us to inspire others, specifically it calls on us to inspire others to greater love of commitment to Judaism. The word for ‘banner’ – nes – is the same word for ‘miracle.’ We are called on to demonstrate something miraculous; that we are here, that we care enough to do more ourselves and in so doing we inspire others to do more along with us.

‘Pass through, pass through the gates, turn towards the way of the people. Build, build the highway, remove the rocks. Lift up a banner for the people.’ It could change your life.


Friday, 23 August 2013

A New Translation of the Rosh Hashanah Hineni

I’ve been looking at translations and haven’t found one that captures the staggering multi-valence of this text.

There are good, and less good, reasons for that.

It’s never going to be possible to capture all the allusive nature of the original Hebrew giving a nod to staggering numbers of liturgical and Biblical moments

I understand a misgiving about translating the utterly unforgiving declarations of worthlessness of the Chazan.

And I suppose some uneasiness about translating ‘satan’ as ‘Satan’, particularly in more progressive environments is natural (I’ve offered my version of that particular phrase below; I’m attempting a literal fidelity even without using the word Satan).


I’ve used ungendered language to refer to God, but have translated the original text, with no interpolation of matriarchs.


Let me know any thoughts,


Rabbi Jeremy



Here I am, utterly bereft, shuddering and afraid, in fear of the One who sits in judgement of the prayers of Israel.

I have come to stand before You and plead on behalf of Your people, Israel, who have sent me, as unfit and unworthy as I am.

I beseech You, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, Oh God, God of mercy and grace, God of Israel, Mighty One, exalted and awesome - may this path on which I tread - to stand and beseech mercy for myself, and those who send me - come to success.


Don't let them be punished for my failings, don't hold them guilty for my sins, for I am due punishment for my failings. Let them not be embarrassed by my failings. Let them not be ashamed of me and I won't be ashamed of them. Receive my prayer as a prayer of one wise and decent, of kind ways, great experience, of sweet voice and bound up in the ways of creation. Hold back The Distractor, so he shouldn't distract me. Pour out love towards us. Wipe away our sins in love. And overturn all our woe and pain, the woe and pain of all Israel, into joy and delight, life and peace. Love truth and peace.


Place no stumbling block before my prayer. May it be Your will, God, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob, the great mighty and awesome God, God on high, the One who Is and Will Always Be, may each of the Angels  who receive prayer bring my prayers before the seat of Your glory and spread them before You for the sake of all the just, kind, pure and decent, and for the sake of the glory of Your great and awesome name, for You are the One who hears the prayers of Your people Israel in mercy. Blessed are you the One who hears prayer.




Wednesday, 21 August 2013

New Cantor, New Year

We welcomed Cantor Jason Green, and his family, to the community on Shabbat for what was the first of what we all hope will be a long and fruitful relationship, for us all.   It was wonderful to have him, finally, here, and to enjoy his Shlichut from our Bimah.   He’s made a terrific start and I have every confidence in him, but it’s a big change for him, and his family, and it’s a big change for us.

I wanted to share some thoughts about newness, and change.   They apply to our new relationship with our new Cantor, and more broadly to the new relationship we are seeking to create and attend to in the coming year.

We bless God, in the run up to the Shema as the One who ‘renews each day the stuff of creation’.   Creation is continuous, whether we recognise it or otherwise.   It’s also good;  the medical term for something that does not change is ‘dead’.

But newness disturbs.   As Isaac Newton noted, we tend – us NLS members, us Jews, us humans, all the fabric of the Universe – to entropy.   We like homeostasis, it feels comfortable, even if we know that comfort is not the touchstone by which all else should be judged.   Change disturbs.   More than that, distance lends a certain tint to memories of the past even if the realities of the past were hardly rosy.   The Torah reports the children of Israel looking back to their time in Egypt (which entailed genocidal mass-murder) with a remarkable fondness, ‘we remember the fish we had for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons ...’.

Synagogues in general tend to be particularly poor at dealing with change.   New Cantors, new tunes, new ways of doing things that, even if they aren’t ‘wrong’ feel different.   And the mammoth Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season is a fierce challenge.   Not only is there just so much liturgy, but, for good reason, these are the services which we feel most deeply and care about most passionately.

Many of us view ‘our Shul’ as the island of constancy when change elsewhere seems so constant.   But I do believe among the markers of the best communities, Shuls just as corporations, is the ability to celebrate and thrive in the face of change.

Of course it helps to have a new Cantor who is excellent, experienced and highly competent, and, in Cantor Jason we have that.   It helps to have a detailed and careful induction into our particular ways and traditions, and Stephen Cotsen, Lester, the Services Committee, Jo, myself and many others have been doing that.   And then it is down to the rest of us.   Hospitality takes many forms, food, of course counts (we are Jews, after all), but a warm smile and a kind word makes a huge difference – as would a brief e-mail (   Show your welcome by coming to the Slichot service – 31 August 2013 at 9.30 pm – or one of the educational events Jason and I are running in the coming weeks.   But the real key is to cultivate an open heart.   It’s something that ‘the other’ can feel and also it helps us deal with our own discomfort with change.   Judgementalism and a closedness that insists that ‘what was’ has to ‘always be’ are dangers, and not only in the matter of welcoming new members of a Synagogue’s clerical team.

If all this fails, here is the request I mentioned from the Bimah on Shabbat;  if Cantor Jason does something that lifts you, warms you, brings you into a closer relationship with our liturgy and Creator, please do tell him.   If, God forbid, he does something that disturbs you or something that feels wrong, please let me know –   You can also, of course, contact Ed Teeger, chair of the services committee or indeed our Chairman, Stephen Greene.

These are exciting times, may we celebrate the new year well and together.

Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 2 August 2013


This is something I’ve written for a new Masorti project – 1,000 words on various subjects of Jewish importance. I got Halachah.


Halachah, law, is the sister of Agadah, lore. It is, in the words of Bialik, the skeleton which holds the space for our Jewish soul to inhabit. Without rhythms, rituals and boundaries less tangible markers of Jewish belief such as feeling, ethics and spirituality would, it is argued, slip away like so much sand. There is wisdom in that claim. As a Rabbi I’m always wary of oft-articulated sentence, ‘I feel Jewish, but …’ and then follows some variation on the notion, ‘… I don’t have much to do with Halachah.’ If a comedian who doesn’t tell jokes isn’t a much of a comedian, if a pianist who doesn’t practice isn’t much of a pianist then a Jew who doesn’t practice their Judaism …

Actually law is a poor translation of Halachah, etymologically the word is connected to the verb ‘to go.’ Halachah is way we go, as Jews. There is Halachah about how to put on shoes, how to use the toilet, what to do after a disturbing dream and so on. If the great Gospel critique of Judaism is that God only cares about what comes out of our mouth (our speech) and not what goes into our mouth (Kashrut), the Halachic response is – how could there be anything about which God does not care! The all-embracing nature of Halachah is a training in an embodied philosophy that everything counts. Not only does the Halachic person observe Halachah, but through this practice we become observant. We come to notice that which could otherwise drift by. Has the sun set yet, is that a bug in that lettuce, what should my relationship be with that poor person I might easily just step around?

Some elements of Halachah find explicit grounding in the written Torah. Blessing after a meal, for example, is commanded in a verse which makes its way into the Grace After Meals – vachalta vsavata uvrachta – ‘when you have eaten and are full, you shall bless.’  Some elements of Halachah have remarkably little grounding in Biblical verses. The protection of Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments, but the wealth of detail we recognise as traditional modes of Shabbat observance is all but absent from the Pentateuch. There is no Biblical verse that commands lighting Shabbat candles for example. The Rabbis consider Shabbat a mountain of Halachah hanging by a Biblical hair. And some practices have no Biblical basis at all, or to be more exact, some practices require great ingenuity on behalf of the Rabbis of the Talmud to find any kind of Biblical connection or asmachata. No Jewish practice escapes rooting in a Biblical verse that ultimately connects it, and its observers, directly back to Sinai. And no Biblical verse makes it into Halachah without being extensively worked over by the Rabbinic hermeneutic endeavour. ‘Don’t seethe a kid in its mother’s milk,’ is hardly honoured in its literal sense, and the verse that demands the stoning of a ‘stubborn and rebellious child,’ once the Rabbis of the Talmud have exempted, limited, stretched and tugged, ends up having no practical murderous consequence at all. There is a dance between torah sh’bichtav – the written Torah (usually understood as the Pentateuch)  and the oral Torah – torah sh’baal peh – the sense of what Halachah must be almost regardless of what any Biblical text directly mandates. It’s not a competition – it’s not that one is more and one less important – the aim is unity. At some point everything has to fit. While on the face of the Talmudic page the challenges of apparent contradiction are often highly technical – how can Rabbi X say one thing on one page of the Talmud while stating something different in an apparently identical situation many pages later? – the underlying appeal to unity is, ultimately, theological, as I will argue below.

To understand the way a Mishnah creates a category (2nd century), which the Gemarah justifies (6th century), which Maimonides encodes as a law (12 th century), but in a way Joseph Caro reworks (17th century), all to arrive at a direct contemporary practical application – perhaps at the very cutting edge of 21st Century technology – is to become a link in the unfolding chain of tradition which is Rabbinic Judaism. That’s why every Masorti Jew should spend time at the Conservative Yeshiva; learning Halachah is less about the accumulation of facts and more about becoming an insider into a heritage which is our own. (End of commercial break)

Halachah is pulled in two different directions. On the one hand it is pulled into real life, today. The psak – direct response to a practical situation – is the point at which all theorising and complexity needs to be resolved into a ‘yes’ or ‘no;’ Is this chicken Kosher? Can this woman be called to read from the Torah? Should Israel engage in dialogue with leaders of Hamas? To continue to be applicable, and worthy of application, Halachah needs to (and does) encode within itself an openness and a dynamism - who can tell what challenges tomorrow brings?

On the other hand Halachah is drawn back into the mists of time. Ultimately every contemporary application of psak – whether gene therapy or hemlines – is about God caring and God revealing; making God’s care known to the people – us – who walk the path of Halachah. It’s a mysterious connection which can’t be directly pinned down – one can’t gaze directly even at the sun – but the connection, the Rabbinic Jew claims, nonetheless exists. The appeal to unity, which so motivates the Talmud, is only secondarily about solving complexities within Rabbinic hermeneutic – the human realm. Ultimately it is about the unity of God – understood as the place (in Hebrew hamakom) where human perceptions of brokenness, paradox and confusion are solved into peace, grace and justice. Indeed HaMakom is precisely the term the Talmud uses to refer to God. Ultimately Halachah, no less than Agadah, is about faith and a particularly Jewish vision of spirituality.

Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue



Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

New London Synagogue

0207 328 1026



Evening Slichot Service- 9:30pm  31st August

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