Thursday, 31 October 2013

How The Grinch Stole Halloween

I dislike Halloween, and Jews ‘doing’ Halloween most especially.


I know some find it cute, others find it harmless and some really quite enjoy it, but I find it entirely objectionable.


I apologise to those who find my Grinch-like attitude odd; humour me a little. I’m going to share just one element of my harrumph.


Twice in Leviticus the Torah counsels the Jew not to follow ‘Chukkot Ha-Goi’ – it’s a difficult phrase to understand in its original usage, let alone in translation. A Jewish ‘Chok’ is a part of our practice that can’t be explained as ethically a good thing to do; keeping Kosher, fixing a Mezuzah, lighting Shabbat candles... ‘Chok’ suggests a strangeness and something characteristic – the sort of thing which marks the Jew out not only as a decent human being, but also as having a particularity which is, not to the exclusion of other elements, religious.

‘Chukkot Ha-Goi’ would, therefore, be the oddities of the nations among whom we live which connect, at least in part, to a foreign religious sensibility. Rashi cites two ways to understand the phrase; firstly social practices that have assumed coercive power and secondly superstitious practices (Darkei HaEmori). The thing to watch out for is the sort of thing that, if not followed, might be perceived as ‘bad sport,’ or a failing to keep up with the next-door neighbours, but which nonetheless conveys an acceptance of a view of the world that is un-Jewish.


So if you like dressing up, dress up for Purim, if you want to give gifts to kids, try a charity whose benefactors truly need our support. At the very least care twice as much, spend twice as much time and effort – and even money - on imbibing for yourself and imbuing in your family a love our own Chukkim – those things that mark out our Jewish particularity, faith and identity. Certainly I believe it's worth girding our resistance to Chukkot Ha-Goi as the winter months continue their roll in towards the end of the secular year.

One last thought - I pinned the following message to our front door this evening, with a pen;


Dear Trick or Treaters,


We are a Jewish home and a trick or treat free zone.

But if you would like, please make a note of any charities that you support below and we’ll be making a donation in the morning,


Sadly, no takers, despite all the excitement up & down our street. I'll be making my donation to Jewish Childs Day -  


Shabbat Shalom,


Monday, 28 October 2013

Questions Rabbis Get Asked - Jewish Attitudes to Terrorism


Dear Rabbi Jeremy Gordon,


my name is [my correspondent uses an identifiably Muslim name, let’s say Mohamed] and I am a law student from Germany.

Currently I continue my studies [elsewhere in Europe] as an Erasmus student.


The reason for getting in contact with you is because of a paper I work on.

This paper deals with the term "Terrorism" in Christian, Jewish and Islamic criminal law.


To be more precise I want to know whether Jewish criminal law knows a crime called "Terrorism"?

If not are there crimes which can be subsumed under the legal definition of the term "Terrorism"?


This is my first work on religious law so I want to avoid mistakes.


Thank you in advance.

Hoping to hear from you soon.


Best Regards





Dear [Mohamed],


What an interesting project.

You've some difficult waters to navigate.

A couple of thoughts.


There is no such thing as 'criminal law' in the world of Halacha - Jewish law.

Murder is a gross sin as most clearly defined by Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 (a central text for you).

But terrorism simply isn't a category identified in Halacha.

There is terror (have a look at Deuteronomy 28:20 and subsequent), but that comes from God.

Gideon, Judges Chapt 7, wins a military campaign using tools of discombobulation, but I'm not sure that is terrorism.


How about this one.

Amalek, (Deut 25:17 and subsequent) attacks the stragglers in the rear and is pilloried for it, but I would consider that more a breach of what we would today call a breach of the laws of war, rather than terrorism.


Trying to pin down Jewish law in terms of a contemporary term like terrorism is going to be anachronistic.

Most of the material about the limits of force in justified and non-justified military contexts is going to come up in the context of the Laws of War. It's not that Judaism would accept the trite over-simplification that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but rather the distinction between civilian and military is more modern than the major texts of Jewish law.

I just threw this at google and you might find some of it helpful.


On the subject of the justifiable and unjustifiable use of force in war and war-like environments you might be interested in this journal

The article on Jewish attitudes to War and Peace is by someone whose opinions I agree with :-), I don't know any of the other contributors, but I suspect there might be a great deal of material there that could be of interest.


I hope that is helpful - it's a very interesting subject.


Do let me have a look at any material you get to, I would be interested,


Very best wishes,

Rabbi Jeremy



On Slurring Gypsies and Others - Parashat Chayei Sara

Note form only

A sermon from Shabbat


Two people who make up the back story.

Foreground Abraham, seeking for a burial ground for his wife and a wife for his son.

In the background, Ephron, who own a cave that would be suitable, and Lavan, brother of Rebecca.

Both relatively blank canvases on the surface of the text, both painted darkly by tradition.


Laban – pure white in wickedness.

Eliezer sent to find a wife for Isaac finds a kind generously spirited woman.

Gives her gifts.

Laban runs out to welcome him in – when he sees that Rebecca has been given gold.

A generation later, a similar story, Rebecca’s now adult son Jacob, arrives on the horizon, again, Laban comes running, hugs him – Rabbis say to check if has gold in his pockets, kisses him – Rabbis say to check if has gold hidden in his mouth.


One of the best known verses in the whole Torah – Arami oved avi, Passover seder, my father was a wandering Aramean – in its Biblical place, without question referring to Abraham, becomes, at the Seder table, a story of how an Aramean, now identified with Lavan, wanted to destroy our father – now identified as Jacob.


Laban painted as a cheat, money grabber.

Bogey man.

For what exactly – sins that are not explicit on the face of the text, certainly failures that could be read the other way round. Neutral, in charge of the house.

Takes, gladly, the opportunity for his sister to marry into a clearly well-to-do family, but hardly unusual.



Abraham negotiating a purchase of a burial plot.

Formal procedure – as anyone whose bought property knows – takes time, technical, often intemperance creeps in.

But, again, painted as greedy

Proverbs 28:22 – he that has an evil eye runs after riches.

Another Midrash suggests that the occasion on which his name is written without the vav, a bit like spelling Annabelle without the normal double ‘l’ ‘e’, it’s a sign of his avarice.

Again, on the face no need.


What’s going on?

These commentaries date from a time of Jewish exile.

Kicked out from being able to work the land, only hope of survival was to trade, to work with money.

One of the great antisemitic caricatures – the money grabbing Jew.

So we respond by turning those blank canvases into the very thing we are continually being accused of.

Analysts call it projection.

Needs to be teased out into the open.

Dangerous to others, dangerous to allow ourselves to fall into patterns that are offensive, racist even.


Pondering this in the light of stories being told about Roma,

Long time victims of a racist slur – the gypsies are coming to steal your children.

Roma – seizure of the blonde girl in Dublin, only for DNA test to reveal that she is, indeed, the daughter of her parents.

Similar story – still somewhat unclear, in Greece with a blond girl whose taken from Roma parents who are not her birth parents, only to now appear that the child was handed over in a story that seems to have more to do with poverty than child-kidnapping.


The point is we don’t like outsiders.

The point is that certain kinds of outsiders rile us, bring us out in a kind of aggression where our worst fears get lumped onto them.


Revolting the way this racist slur was allowed to bubble up.

And especially horrendous because we – as Jews – have so often been at the receiving end of this kind of cheap, abusive, racist slurs.


For millennia the great libel against Jews was that we would murder Christian babies and let their blood to make Matzah.

Just to be entirely clear, Judaism forbids kidnapping kids or mixing blood with Matzah.


It also forbids us from wanton defamation, it obliges us to see the good in all human beings.

It compels us not to rush to judgement, especially if those we are rushing to judge are part of an underclass, less educated, less wealthy, less obviously part of mainstream society.


Have to train ourselves in these tough obligations.

And in the obligation not to stand by when evil is being done to others.


The antisemtic slurs haven’t entirely gone away – certainly in some of the countries where libelling gypsies is still normative, but here in England, for me, to be a Jew means to stand up against this kind of cheap slurring.

We need to work to throw off the desire that allows us to project our fears onto others who have committed no crime.

We need to do it, not only because where the libel of the gypsies goes first, the libel of the Jews surely follows,

But also because we are called to a standard higher than mere self-presevation.

We are called to a standard of recognising and justifying the creation of every human being in the image of the Divine,


Shabbat shalom



Thursday, 17 October 2013

Pussy Riot Abraham and Religous Revolution


I caught, this week, a few moments of the BBC Storyville on the Pussy Riot protesters who, following a protest in a Moscow Cathedral, were arrested and sentenced to prison terms. The show is available at


The programme had access to the court where, prior to the verdict being read out, the defendants were given a chance to have ‘the last word.’ Yekaterina Samutsevich read her statement in which she rejected the state’s accusation that she being anti-religious and instead claimed her protest was an attempt to take religion back from the cosy relationship between church and power that, she claimed, exists between Putin and the Orthodox Patriarchy. She attempted to lay claim to her religion as a religion of protest, even in the face of power. Samutsevich is now on probation. Two of the other members of the group are in prison. I don’t want enter into a conversation about the rights and wrongs of Putin or the Russian Criminal System, but there are two thoughts, and a plug, that this short piece – of a much longer and more complex story – drew me to share in this message.


This week’s Parasha contains what is, for me, the greatest moment in Abraham’s extraordinary Biblical journey. God tells Abraham that Sodom and Gemorah are to be destroyed for their iniquity, and Abraham protests. Abraham stands up in the face of power and rails against it. That’s very dangerous, it’s also very Jewish. ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth not do justly?’ demands Abraham. It is the origin of the prophetic voice in Judaism. It’s a response that drives every subsequent Jewish engagement with the inequitable abuse of power by any person, any government and even our deity. Any religion that claims the Hebrew Bible as a source must acknowledge this revolutionary aspect of religion, this refusal to accept that which is wrong.


I know this not only because of Abraham and this week’s Parasha, but also because I’ve read the Prophets. The willingness to stand before might and expose hypocrisy runs right through Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and on the list goes. This is what makes the prophets so vital and necessary – again especially for anyone who wishes to claim these moral heroes as part of a spiritual and cultural heritage.


And here comes the plug. This Monday I’m going to try and share the entire Hebrew Bible as part of my series on ‘The Sources’ (8-9pm at New London). I want us to know what it means to be People of the Book, I want us to feel an ownership of this Prophetic language; we should know where it comes from and we should feel it’s part of who we are and how we engage with the iniquities of our own age. Feeling a part of our Torah-heritage should strengthen our willingness to engage and our insight into in the complex contemporary stories that populate our front pages, in-tray’s and attention. It should make us better Jews and better human beings. This is why it is worth coming to know more about our Sources.


Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Jeremy


This is what I'm interested in!

A Wordle of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons


I'm impressed - a Green Wedding Policy

I’m doing a wedding for a couple and they sent out an e-invitation with a link to a web-page with all the useful information and these two pages;

One on gifts


What we want most for our wedding is to have all of our friends and family together. We know it's traditional to give gifts, but we are very serious when we say that you are welcome not to give us anything. Except perhaps a hug. Or even a card.


We don't want to contradict the above, but if you are sure you want to give a gift here are some ideas:

  • We know that you are a creative and skilled bunch. And we love learning and doing! So if you have a fun skill you'd like to teach us, or a creative contribution to make on the day, we would be delighted.
  • There are a few carefully chosen, and often second-hand, things we need to set up home in our new flat. It would also be lovely to make our honeymoon a special treat. You can contribute at
  • We appreciate donations to environmental and homeless charities, such as World Land Trust and Centrepoint.
  • Edibles and services are always appreciated, e.g. a jar of organic honey or a massage.

No other objects please - we are fortunate to be blessed with everything we need, and very much prefer not to receive more 'stuff'. The world is full of beautiful things, but we really can't fit any more of them in our flat! We also try to minimise the number of new things we buy (you can see why here and here). So other than the few things mentioned above please don't give us objects.


If you plan to give us a gift, you're very generous, thank you. And if you plan not to give us a gift, you're helping to change a social norm, thank you.



One on a green policy for the wedding


We want our everyday values to carry over into our wedding. And Daniel already feels guilty enough about the events he's overseen where we bought loads of sweatshop nik-naks, used them for an hour, and then landfilled them. 


We have therefore created our official smug green policy....

  • No flowers.
  • No disposable plastic things.
  • No new clothes we'll never wear again (thanks eBay).
  • Almost all food vegetarian, mostly organic.
  • Minimal waste, all leftover food frozen and eaten later!
  • Almost all waste recycled or composted.
  • Email invitations.
  • Venue near public transport, and coaches provided from xxx


I thought that was really impressive,



Thursday, 10 October 2013

Neilah 5774 - Insider or Outsider

Here’s a snap question. Don’t think too much about it; just pick one answer or the other. Do you consider yourself an insider or an outsider to Jewish life? Is this, all this, yours? Or do you feel you can’t make that claim – you don’t want to make that claim, it would be disingenuous to make that claim. Do you feel Judaism is something for other people. Here’s one of my favourite stories of the process of conversion. A woman who – whatever this sentence might mean – a woman who doesn’t look Jewish, still a number of months shy of completing the conversion programme, found herself out at a business lunch. She relayed to me that she was struggling to keep her mind on the task at hand because, from the table just behind, she could hear diners spouting antisemitic drivel. And as the lunch progressed so did the antisemitism until this candidate for conversion excuses herself from her meeting, wheels round to challenge the anisemites on the other table and demands they leave off their offensive jibes. ‘What’s it to you luv?’ they respond, ‘Are you Jewish?’ ‘Why yes,’ the woman responds, ‘actually I am.’ Actually, technically speaking, she wasn’t. She hadn’t come to the Bet Din, yet. But there’s a Talmudic term used to refer to converts when discussing a triumphant response to the challenges involved in a conversion process, ‘atah mekabel otah miyad’ – you receive that person immediately. Because in that moment she got what it means to be an insider. It’s a great story, but not really what I am after tonight, because I’m sure all of us here, in response to antisemitism, would ally ourselves among the insiders to the Jewish narrative, peoplehood and religion. I spoke a little about that on second day Rosh Hashanah, feeling an insider to all things Jewish when the antisemites come knocking is almost too easy, it’s certainly insufficient. And I’m not really after how you feel right now on the cusp of Neilah of Yom Kippur. God help us, if after some 24 hours here beating our breasts in tune to these beautiful Hebrew tunes, if all of this doesn’t open in our heart a sense of being part of this great journey of faith and peoplehood, then maybe all is lost. What I’m really after is how you feel on a normal day of the week, when you get handed the menu in restaurant for the business lunch and your potential client recommends the beef, or how you feel when you’ve a choice to charge home on a Friday evening, or finish just one more email, or when you get up on a Saturday morning and it’s a choice of football in the park or Synagogue. How do you feel then? At those points, do you consider yourself and insider or an outsider? Here’s a text form our tradition; a comment of our greatest of our commentators, Rashi on a verse from Psalms, Psalm 1 talks about the righteous person. Torat Adonai heftzo, uvatorato yehege yomam v’laila I have to translate in gendered language, forgive me. The Torah of God is his delight, and in His/his Torah he immerses himself day and night. Can you see the problem, it’s a floating pronoun. There is God’s Torah, and there is the man studying the Torah, but when the verse says ‘His Torah,’ does that suggest that the Torah belongs to God, or the man? And here comes Rashi to solve our problem. In the beginning, says Rashi, it’s called God’s Torah, but when a person amal bah - struggles with it, it becomes theirs. That’s stunning Rashi is telling us how to own Torah. Mi she amal bah – We work at it and it becomes ours. We leave it there, in the ark, and it will always remain God’s Torah – aloof, foreign, outside of us. That Rashi is one of my desert island pieces of Torah – if I could only take three or four short pieces to a desert island with me, I would take that. You work at it and it becomes yours. But in truth, I’ve been nervous to teach this little vignette from the Bimah, it’s a little technical and I don’t want to lose anyone with the a technicality – on a night such as this. How sad it is that I’m that worried that explaining a Rashi – Rashi – our pre-eminent commentator, commenting on a verse in Psalms – our most treasured Biblical book – might be too technical. That it might distance us rather than help us feel that sense of ownership and insider-ship I’m wishing for us all. We are not, after all, a community that amal ba – struggles with and takes ownership of our tradition. There is no nice way to say this, we are, as a generation of British Jews, and certainly as a community, Jewishly illiterate. How many of us could name all 24 of the books of the Hebrew Bible? How many of us knew there were 24 books of the Hebrew Bible? Our illiteracy doesn’t merely hold us back from appreciating our literary heritage; it alienates us from our Jewish heritage. And so instead of being able to turn to it for challenge, comfort or inspiration, instead of feeling like an insider, we feel an outsider to it. And at this point it gets dangerous, at this point, instead of acknowledging our own shortcomings the massive temptation is to transfer our shortcomings inadequacies onto Judaism. We consider Judaism childish, simplistic and lacking in contemporary relevance when in truth we simply are unable to give the richness of our tradition the informed adult consideration it deserves. Oy. That’s the bad news. But here’s the flip side. When you are an insider to all this no-one and no thing, can take that feeling of ownership away from you. We are coming up to our 50th anniversary as a community and most of us will know we started our life when 500 supporters of Rabbi Louis Jacobs came to his support when he was unable to return to his former position at the New West End Synagogue. But I’m not sure how widely this piece of detail is known. The immediate prompt that left Rabbi Jacobs looking for a new job was the decision to withdraw his certificate of competency by the Chief Rabbi of the time, that’s why he couldn’t go back to the New West End. It’s an extraordinary notion, that you could withdraw a certificate of competency from someone who was as much as an insider into the very heart of what it means to be a Rabbinic Jew as Rabbi Louis Jacobs. It’s ridiculous because you can’t make someone an outsider to something which is inside their hearts. You can’t destroy a person’s connection to Jewishness by tearing down our Temple or tearing up a certificate. You can’t take something away from us, when it’s inside. So this is the invitation I want to make, as the gates swing shut. Just in case you are in the mood to make a promise to yourself about your relationship with Jewish life in this year to come. The invitation is to become more of an insider to your own heritage. The invitation is to feel what is means to have this Torah be inside, intimate, a part of you. Actually there are three invitations. Three learning opportunities, three invitations to become insiders to our own tradition. Two here, one somewhere else most special. I’m teaching a series of classes called ‘The Sources’ on Monday evenings starting on 21st October. There’s some information on a flier in the hall, there will be more in email bulletins nearer the time. It’s an introduction to the what, the why and the how of the great works of our faith. A chance to accustom ourselves with the bookshelf and a chance to delve in and feel these texts from the inside; what are they saying, how do they say it. It’s a chance to become a little more of an owner of our Jewish tradition. If you are interested, please drop me a line and I’ll offer more encouragement nearer the time. And then from January we are going to be making adult Hebrew classes available, on Tuesday evenings. We know many of you have asked for them, nervous that the levels will assume too much or too little. We’ll be offering three classes starting with ‘this is an Alef.’ Again there will be more information later in the year, but let me know by email if you want specific reminders. It was the great Hebrew poet, Bialik who said studying the Hebrew Bible in translation was like kissing a bride through her veil, but the journey into, shall we say it, a fuller embrace is gradual. Every step, every piece of letter recognition, word combination, grammatical titbit and vocab eases that sense of outsiderness. It will bring you closer. The more Hebrew you know, the closer you will feel to your own tradition. And the third offering is in Jerusalem. How do you fancy three weeks in Jerusalem, at the Conservative Yeshiva – one of my favourite places in the world. They have a Summer programme, actually two three week long programmes running from the back end of June to July, or from the middle of July to the beginning of August. You could even do both. Can you imagine sunny skies above a shady courtyard where you’ll get the chance to amal bah – struggle with the great texts of our tradition. Learning some Hebrew, working over a Mishnah, a Chassidic text or a contemporary Halachic challenge in the centre of our Jewish journey. Three weeks – for a pittance of a charge, massively subsidised - to become more of an insider. Maybe you are a student or a teacher and off work at that time of the year. Maybe you can take leave, give yourself this treat. Or maybe, and this is really something I hope a number of members here will consider – you can take what’s becoming called a ‘grey gap year’ or a ‘grey three weeks.’ Maybe after a career of looking after matters professional and financial, you can take three weeks to look after matters of the soul. Again, more to follow during the year, but, again, please let me know if you might be considering that. I want more insiders at New London. I want that because a community needs insiders, people who feel at home and even so much at home that they can provide leadership. But I also offer it as the greatest gift a Rabbi can offer – the gift of the Jewish heritage we have, but too often feel is beyond or other to us. The Sources – a course on the great books of our tradition. Adult Hebrew classes – pulling back the veil on what it means to encounter our own tradition in the original language. The three week summer programme in Jerusalem, at the Conservative Yeshiva. That’s my invitation, my wish and my challenge, And it comes with the blessing that if we can do this. If we can appreciate from the inside what it means to be a Jew it will sweeten and enrich this year for us all. Gemar Hatimah Tovah
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