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


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