Friday, 12 December 2014

Dark Places, Thin Flames

I had the honour of visiting one of our members at the St Johns and St Elizabeth Hospice this week. We also have a bereavement. And we had another bereavement just a week ago. Members being rushed into emergency surgery, family members in and out of hospital... it’s been one of those weeks.


When I tell someone I’m a rabbi, and their gaze shifts from displaying a generalised curiosity into a pained, ‘oh dear, that must be terrible,’ attempt at empathy, I know it’s this sort of work they are thinking of. But that’s to misunderstand the nature of this core part of what I do. I never leave a hospice, a funeral or a house of mourning and wonder why I decided to become a Rabbi. In fact quite the reverse. Accompanying our members on their last earth-bound journeys can hurt – I’m under no illusions, it hurts those closest to bereavement far more – but it’s an extraordinary honour. Life seems most precious when it can no longer be taken for granted. We understand what we have only as we acknowledge that what we have cannot be forever. To be reminded of that is an experience I expect never to grow out of.


The sparks of light also help. I think that is part of the magical power of Chanukah – thin beads of flame flickering against a sky that seems to darken at 12:05pm. Flame is always fragile, always fading even as burns most brightly and it is always at its most powerful against the backdrop of the darkest night. First night Chanukah is Tuesday. For a guide to candle lighting and bits of song and other festive treats, please click [here]


Shabbat shalom,

And Chappy Hanukah,


Rabbi Jeremy




Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Role of Women - As of December 2014

The current situation is balanced across a number of different services.
In the main prayer space, on Shabbat and Festivals, the service is led, the Torah is read and Aliyot are given only to men. Seating is separate.
There is a monthly egalitarian, mixed seating participative service held in the Hall – the Minyan Chadash, which also meets on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

On Sundays and for weekday Rosh Chodesh services, the service is egalitarian.

For a Bar, or Bat, Mitzvah, if a certain threshold of engagement in the community is met, the family can request an egalitarian service in the main prayer space, with mixed seating. On such an occasion a non-egalitarian service is held in the Hall.

Friday, 28 November 2014

On the 'Jewish State' Bill, Rembrandt and Favouritism

Have a look at this

It’s Jacob blessing his grandchildren as depicted by Rembrandt


From a story in a couple of week’s

Jacob – whose young love we read about this week – is old, on his death bed.

And he calls his grandsons to bless them.

Joseph – the beloved and fav son looks on.

The story is that Jacob places his right hand – the hand that would traditionally be placed on the head of the firstborn, on the head of the younger grandson, Ephraim, and his left hand – the hand for the younger born onto the head of the firstborn, Menashe.

The Biblical narrative makes a big deal about this inverse act of blatant favouritism.


So this is how I read Rembrandt’s interpretation.

Jacob, the patriarch, is old, but firm. He knows exactly what he is doing.

Ephraim, the younger grandson is busy looking pious, he knows he’s the favourite and he’s playing up to the adoration he believes to be his natural due.

So far so obvious.

It’s the other three characters that interest me.

Menashe stares off to the side, rueful. He knows he’s not beloved. He knows he’s being passed over, and the thought that goes through my mind, is oh-oh – this one’s going to be trouble. He’s going to grow up with a chip on the shoulder. He’ll never forget what it is to be passed over and quite how he’ll behave to others – who knows, but it’s probably not going to be good.

Joseph looks on, the look is wistful, accepting but somehow rueful. Joseph knows exactly what being the favourite of Jacob means – it means the multicoloured coat and the blessings and a bunch of good stuff. But it also means the hatred of your siblings – a hatred that resulted in Joseph being left for dead, only to be sold into slavery. It means years of loneliness and loss. The blessing of being a favourite is a mixed blessing. No-one knows that better than Joseph.

And then there is Asnat – the Egyptian. The mother of both boys. It’s just sad. She’s watching a pattern of favouritism that has ripped apart the family of her in-laws for generations unfold into yet another generation. There is nothing she can do, she’s the outsider to this mail intergenerational unfolding of favouritism, but she knows the seeds of disaster being planted for the future.


It’s this intergenerational engagement with the question of favouritism that interests me this week. It’s a story that stretches back and a story that stretches forwards.

Last week we read of Jacob’s father who loved Esau more than Jacob, and we read of Jacob’s mother who loved Jacob more than Esau.

This week we read of Jacob’s marital situation. The bride he loves and the bride he doesn’t.

Last week’s story is populated with deceit and despair and concludes with Esau wanting to kill his brother.


This week’s story sets up the tsores – the rows and the pains of the future generation.

Leah, the non-favourite, conceives. She calls her firstborn Reuven – ki raah hashem b’onyie – for God has seen my pain. How’s that for a name. How’s he going to grow up.

And so it goes on.

Generation after generation.

Through the first and second Israeli Commonwealths, and now we get to this.


You may have caught this story in the news.

There is a new Bill before the Israeli Knesset, a bill, to enshrine the Jewish characteristic of the State of Israel.

The  proponents of the Bill say that it is required because the Jewish nature of the State of Israel is somehow under threat from those who are questioning the right of Jews to their homeland.

That claim, as the excellent Israeli commentator Anshell Pfeffer suggests in an article is, at best a ‘paranoia-induced illusion and at worst a bare-faced lie.’[1]


The Bill is dog-whistle politics. It’s a Bill designed to send two messages .

One to the Muslims, the Christians living under Israeli rule to watch their step, to know that they are only tolerated on sufferance. Don’t get too big for your boots, or in the words of the American civil rights movement – get to the back of the bus. Or in the image of that Rembrandt painting – I’m not laying my right hand on you. You are not the favourite.


And the other message is being sent to those, within, Israel who might be balancing up their obligations to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living under Israeli rule – ‘don’t care so much’ it says. Don’t side with those who will fight for the democratic rights of every person who lives in Israel. They are not important – lo choshuv – in the Charedi idiom. Their desires, rights and dreams are not your concern.


Even the President of the State of Israel – and Hazak Hazak President Rivlin – is alarmed.

Rivlin’s point is that no-one doubts that Israel is a Jewish state.

“It is a Jewish state because the majority of the population is Jewish, because the dominant language spoken is Hebrew, because most of the books published here are Hebrew books, and most of the songs sung here are Hebrew songs … But most important, because of the Law of Return which enables any Jew, anywhere in the world, seeking refuge or desiring to live in Israel, to come here and become a citizen of the country.”[2]

Of course Israel is a Jewish state.

So therefore, what should such a state do about its minorities, always assuming that such a state makes the claim to care for all of its inhabitants regardless of religion, regardless of race?

Rivlin’s point is that , and I quote , ‘the most important item on the nation’s agenda should be the integration [of Isarel’s non-Jewish minorities] into the fabric of Israeli society and their participation in the Israeli economy. Giving them the feeling of being at home, of being equal citizens.”


The unloved wife knows she is unloved.

The unloved sons know they are unloved.

The unloved grandson knows he is unloved.

Don’t rub it in.

Don’t go round lording your democratic power over a minority in their face.

It’s not, or not just, that doing so puts in danger your claim to being a democracy.

It’s not, or not just, that doing so opens you up to accusations of following such appalling political situations as those of apartheid South Africa, or even – God help us – Nazi Germany

It’s that rubbing in the favouritism is cruel, its pernicious, its counter-productive, its stupid.

It breeds an intergenerational discomfort that we know, as Jews, we know.


The Torah has it right.

The emphasis, when it comes to minorities, and let us not forget that in a society ruled by majority a minority is always going to be on the back foot,  has to be the warning now to offend the minority, not to oppress the minority, never to forget your own experience of being a minority.

Again and again the Torah bangs away on this stuff because of two reasons – the majority forget so quickly the experience of being unloved and unpowerful.

And because the minority, the unloved, is always so fragile.

Like Menashe in that painting, he knows exactly how he is seen and how he is to be cherished.

It’s pernicious.

It’s unethical,

It’s forbidden.

It’s wrong.

And if it doesn’t stop now, it will just unfold into the next generation and the next and the next.


Two things.

We need to be bold, in this country. I know we aren’t living there, but this is our story, this claim is being made in our names also. We need to make the case to our Israeli friends – and I recommend letting the Ambassador know your feelings.

And we should also take this message to heart in our own lives, in our own relationships with our own sense of who we love most and who we love least.

Play down the favouritism that may be in your heart, seek out opportunities to downplay and be balanced in treatment of all.

Because favouritism

Is pernicious.


forbidden and wrong.

And if it doesn’t stop now, it will just unfold into the next generation and the next and the next.

Shabbat shalom,







Thursday, 27 November 2014

On the Role of Women - An Executive Summary

Dear Friends,

With one eye looking back to the classes on the role of women and one looking forward to the meeting, this Wednesday 3rd December, a number of members have asked for an ‘executive summary’ of the Jewish law relating to the three areas under discussion; women reading from the Torah, women leading prayer services and separate seating. This is that summary. It is, of course, selective and reductive. The full source sheets and recordings from those classes are available on-line.

What, I believe, the Halachah does NOT say is that various options are acceptable and one may choose, as one wishes, between different options. That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone with an interest in Jewish law. The phrase ‘and each person did what was good in their own eyes’ is a leitmotif of several biblical books and the phrase denotes a failing, it’s not good. Rather what one should expect is an ‘if X then Y’ approach, and, I believe, that is what we find in this case. Jewish practice is not about seeking comfort and self-satisfaction, but rather an exercise in seeking what is just and good in the eyes of an all-seeing Other.

The central text regarding reading from the Torah is from the Talmud;
All receive an Aliyah among the seven who receive Aliyot on Shabbat, even a minor and even a woman. But the Wise said don’t call a woman to read from the Torah because of cavod hatzibur, the honour of the congregation.
In this foundational statement women are initially counted in, but immediately counted out because of this key term; cavod hatzibur. A survey of the appearances of this term in Talmudic and post-Talmudic discourse suggests it should be understood to reflect the social realities of the community in the time and place in which they find themselves. i.e. it does not describe a timeless absolute immune to the changing tides of history and society. That is to say the reason women were excluded from receiving Aliyot was because it would have been embarrassing for a community to have to turn to a woman to read from the Torah (bearing in mind that in Talmudic times there was no ‘Reader,’ rather the Aliyah involved reading one’s own portion). I believe that a decision to exclude women from receiving Aliyot, today, has to be based on a continued sense that when the Torah is being read ‘the honour of a community’ can only be vouchsafed by giving Aliyot to men only.

There are two key issues to consider when it comes to the question of women leading prayer services; one technical, one, again, sociological.

The technical issue is connected to a basic principals in Jewish law that one person can only fulfill the obligations of another if they are themselves obligated to perform that obligation in the same way. In other words if a room of people sit down to eat together and a Jew makes HaMotzi that exempts the other Jews from having to make the blessing themselves. But if a non-Jew utters the same words it doesn’t exempt the Jews because the non-Jew is not, themselves, obliged to use these words. That is not to suggest superiority of one over the other, it is rather to do with the nature of obligation. Since a key element of the role of a prayer leader is exempting the community from their obligation to recite the Amidah themselves the question, ‘are women obligated to recite the Amidah in the way men are?’ needs to be raised. There is another principle in Jewish law that women are exempt from ‘positive time-bound obligations,’ but it is clear that this second principle is not determinative. For example fasting on Yom Kippur sounds like a positive time-bound obligation – and women are obligated to fast. Similarly saying the Amidah sounds positive and time-bound, but the Talmud and every major legal code are clear that women are obliged to say the Amidah in the same way as men. There are elements of Jewish prayer that women are exempted from having to perform, but the leader of a prayer service is not, when it comes to these other elements, fulfilling the role of the members of the community when they lead those parts of the service.

The sociological issue is this connected to this question – who do you want to represent you before God in prayer? There is, of course there is, discussion of the appropriate character for a prayer leader. They should, the Talmud states, an appropriate prayer leader is one of unblemished reputation, meek and desired by the community. Later legal codes suggest prayer leaders should be chosen only from those who are ‘without sin, about whom no-one has ever had a bad word to say, even in their youth.’ But goes on to say, ‘if you can’t find one with all these qualities [and I’ve abbreviated the full list] choose the best of the community in matters of wisdom and good deeds.’ The question, ‘can a women be the best representative of a community?’ is a valid one – and I am aware of a number of members who feel that they cannot accept being represented by a woman in this way, but my reading of the tradition is that we are encouraged to select our prayer leaders as reflection of our contemporary values – who is the best of our community here and now. The question of whether gender should trump all other considerations in selecting prayer leaders, i.e. whether we as a community should consider no woman regardless of her qualities able to lead services, is, I believe the central question in the consideration of whether to make what indeed be a substantive change in the practice of the Synagogue.

I have not in this summary, considered questions of the possibly licentious nature of a women’s voice, or the question of women counting in the Minyan. Both issues receive attention in the sources on women leading prayer services available here.

There will be material on the question of mixed seating pasted into this blog posting shortly

Thursday, 20 November 2014

More Heartbreak

Deaths in Jerusalem.

In a Synagogue.

In a Synagogue two roads away from my brother and his family – they are safe, thankfully.

In a Synagogue where I have prayed.


And then comes the aftermath; accusations, counter-accusations, finger pointing and more and more hatred. The murder of these five Israelis, four Rabbis and a Druze first-responder, hurts. The loss of the children, both Arab and Jew, who now have no father, hurts. But the notion that the holiest city in the world is descending into yet more violence hurts almost as much.


I found something special in a note written by Amichai Lau-Lavie – who was at New London earlier this year. Amichai has written of wanting to ‘take back’ the possibility and the holiness of being able to stand together, in silence, in communion with the animating mystery of our lives. In the face of this awful invasion of prayer we need to reclaim the value of human beings coming together to sing, to stand with one another in companionship. You are all most welcome at services at New London this Shabbat where we will honour the lives lost. I’m delighted that my predecessor Rabbi Reuven Hammer will be joining us from Israel and we may well make opportunities available for  a conversation with Rabbi Hammer after the Kiddush.

My brother has suggested that those looking for a more concrete way to show their consolation for those bereaved can do that at


It’s Parashat Toledot – a moment in our narrative I dread every year. My ancestor Jacob takes the birthright and blessing that Esau saw as his. The implications of this ancient antipathy are still being felt.

On Women and Leading Prayer


The audio from the session on the role of women in leading prayer can be streamed from

and downloaded at

Apologies that the video did not work this week.




Wednesday, 19 November 2014

On Women and Leader Prayers - Texts for a Shiur To Be Taught at New London

Women and Leading Prayer Services

There are three tasks of a communal leader of prayer.
1.   They must bring the community together; much like a conductor would work with an orchestra. This is in part technical; we must be brought in at the right time with the right tune, but also it is a spiritual, emotional and an artistic task. A great leader of prayer functions as a vessel, drawing a great spiritual response from the community and transforming the printed words of the Siddur into songful prayer.
2.   They must fulfil certain key obligations on behalf of members of the prayer community. This is entirely a practical issue.
3.   They must also serve as our representatives before God. We, the community, stand to be judged not only in our own right, but also in terms of who we appoint as our leaders.

Each role raises a different Halachic question in terms of women’s ability to lead prayers.
1.   The role of keeping the community focussed and united in their prayer raises the question; is there something about women that distracts or otherwise makes it impossible for them to ‘conduct’ prayers for a mixed, male and female, community?
2.   The role of fulfilling ritual obligation raises the question; are women technically able, in the same way as men, to fulfil obligations on behalf of both male and female members of the prayer community?
3.   The role of representing a fully constituted prayer community before God raises the twin questions; who can and should lead a prayer community consisting of both men and women?

is there something about women that makes it impossible for them to ‘conduct’ prayers for a mixed, male and female, community?

I Talmud Brachot 24a
Rav Isaac said, ‘A handbreadth of exposed skin, in a woman is a sexual incitement [erva]...’
Rav Hisda said, ‘A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement…’
Samuel said, ‘A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, For your voice is sweet [erev]’ (Song of Songs 2:14)

II Kiddushin 70 a-b
Shmuel said, ‘A person should have nothing to do with women at all, whether adults or children. [Rav Nahman asked Rav Yehuda,] would you like to send a greeting to [my wife] Yalta. [Rav Yehuda] responded, ‘Shmuel said “the voice of a woman is a sexual incitement… Don’t even ask after her wellbeing.”’

III Prisha Tur EH 21:2
The voice of women who it is permissible to hear [can be excluded from the classification of kol b’isha] for they do not awaken the appetite.

IV Hidushei Ha Ritba Kiddushin 82a.
All is in accordance with one’s fear of heaven, and so, in the halachah all depends on the way a man recognises himself. Therefore if he requires prohibitive fences to curb his intentions, he should construct them and even viewing the coloured clothing of a woman is prohibited. But if he is aware of himself and knows that his desires are subjugated, then it is permissible for him to look at and speak with a woman who is an erva and to exchange warm greetings with a married woman... Only one who is thoroughly righteous and recognises his desires may conduct himself in such a manner… fortunate is one who conquers his passions and toils in Torah.

V Succah 52a
Abaye explained, [The evil inclination] is active against scholars more than anyone else; as was the case when Abaye heard a certain man saying to a woman, ‘Let’s get up and go on a journey.’ Abaye said, ‘I’ll follow them to keep them away from transgression. ’ He followed them for three parasangs across the meadows. When they parted company he heard them say, ‘Our company is pleasant, the way is long’. ‘If it were me’, said Abaye, ‘I could not have restrained myself’, So he went and leaned in anguish against a doorpost, when a certain old man came up to him and taught him: The greater the man, the greater his Evil Inclination.

VI Shulchan Arukh OH 75.3, Rema
But a voice which one is accustomed to hear [kol haregil bo] is not sexually enticing.

VII Ravia (C13) 1:76 p. 52
Applies only to those things which are not usually revealed [shain regilut lehigalot], but it doesn’t apply to an unmarried woman, with exposed hair because there is no licentiousness [hirhur], and the same applies regarding her voice.

VIII Sridei Aish 1:8 col 20
Hungarian [ultra-orthodox] writers were exceptionally strict and expounded from sources that the Mehitza needed to be taller than the height of a woman. Moreover … they prohibited going to synagogues without such a Mehitzah, and moreover forbid women from coming to pray and held it better that they stay in their homes. And for sure, their intentions are good – protecting the modesty which was customary in earlier generations – but in our time the situation has changed, and human nature has changed [nishtaneh hamatzav vnishtanu hateviim], and if women were kept in their homes and weren’t allowed to come to Synagogue, the Torah of Jewish life would be lost for them totally.

The Woman’s Place is in the Domestic Realm
IX Ps 45.14
All the honour of a Princess is internal.

X Exodus 15
Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea…’ And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing. And Miriam answered them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea.’

XI Avodah Zara 38 a-b
An Israelite may set meat upon the coals and let a heathen come and stir it until he gets back from the Synagogue or House of Study, and he need not worry; and [an Israelite] woman may set a pot on a stove and let a heathen woman come and stir it until she gets back from the bathhouse or Synagogue, and she need take not worry.

Are women technically able, in the same way as men, to fulfil obligations of both male and female members of the prayer community?
XII Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8
One who is not obligated in a thing, cannot exempt others from their obligation.

XIII Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7
All positive obligations connected to time – men are obligated, women are exempt

XIV Mishnah Brachot 3:3 & Talmud Bavli Brachot 20b
Women are obligated in tefillah, mezuzah and bircat hamazon.
You might have thought [that tefilah] is a time-bound obligation since the verse states I pray evening, morning and afternoon (Psalm 55), therefore the contrary is specified.

XV Rambam’s Mishneh Torah Laws of Tefilah 1:2-6
The obligation [of tefilah] used to operate like this; a person would beseech and pray every day and speak of the praiseworthiness of the Holy Blessed One, and then ask for their needs to be met … And so it was from the time of Moses until Ezra.
However when Israel was exiled in the days of the Wicked Nebucanezer, they were mixed in with the Persians and Greeks and other peoples… and when one of them went to pray [they erred or omitted things]. When Ezra and his Bet Din saw this they got up and fixed [taknu] the eighteen blessings in order … so they could be fluent for all… and in this way they fixed all the blessings and prayers in order in the mouth of all Israel.

XVI Shulchan Arukh OH 106:1
Women and slaves, although exempt from reading “the Shema,” are obliged to pray the eighteen-blessing prayer, because it is a positive mitzvah which does not relate to a specific time.

XVII Mishnah Brachot 3:3
Women, slaves and minors are exempt from the recitation of the Shema and from [wearing] Tefilin.

But this does not impact on our current discussion. The leader of prayer does not fulfil the obligation of a member of the community by reciting the Shema on their behalf. This is an obligation which, unlike saying the Amidah, cannot be fulfilled by another person, no matter their sex.
The key question is not whether women are obligated to perform each and every mitzvah, but whether there are mitzvot – obligations – that a leader of prayer fulfils on behalf of a community that women are either not obligated to perform or have a partial or lesser obligation than men?

who can and should lead a prayer community consisting of both men and women?
XIX Mishnah Megillah 4:3
Don’t divide the Shema [pores et Shema], lead the prayers [ovrin lifnei hatevah] and don’t do the priestly blessing and don’t read from the Torah … and don’t do the blessing for mourners or … the blessing for a groom … with less than ten.

Should Women be counted among the ‘ten’?
XX Mishneh Torah Hil. Tefillah 8:4
How do you do public prayer [tefilat btzibur]? One prays in a strong voice and everyone listens, and don’t do it with less than ten free adults [gedolim u’venei horin], and the prayer leader is one of them.

XXI Shulchan Arukh Orach Haim 55:1
Don’t say the kaddish with less than ten free adult males [zecahrim benei horin gedolim] who have two hairs, and this is the law for the kedushah and the barachu, we don’t say them with less than ten.

Who May Lead?
XXII Taanit 16a
And who is considered appropriate [regil] to lead prayers [on a fast day]? Rabbi Yehudah said, ‘one who is burdened [with a large family] and has no [means to support them], he works in the field and his home is empty. [Moreover] their youth is unblemished, they are meek and they are wanted by the people, they are pleasant and their voice is sweet and is expert at reading the Torah and other Biblical works and is proficient in various fields of Rabbinic learning and is expert in every one of the blessings.

XXIII Shulchan Arukh OH 53:5
The leader of the prayer community must be appropriate [hagun]. What is appropriate? They should be free from sin and never to have been the subject of gossip [motzi shem ra], not even in their childhood. They should be humble and desired by their community. They must look nice and have a pleasant voice and they must regularly read from the Torah, Prophets and Writings.
Mishnah Brurah ad loc
Their clothes should be long, so you shouldn’t be able to see their legs, and they should be first into the Synagogue and last out, nor should they be foolish or frivolous, rather they should be able to speak of the needs of the community.
And if you can’t find one who has all these qualities, choose the best of the community in matters of wisdom and good deeds.

On the Androcentric Nature of Rabbinics and Rabbinic Language
XXIV Hertz Pentateuch
The Jewish sages recognized the wonderful spiritual influence [of the Jewish wife], and nothing could surpass the delicacy with which respect for her is inculcated. [As the Talmud states] ‘Love your wife as yourself and honour her more than yourself. Be careful not to cause a woman to weep, for God counts her tears. Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of the virtue of its women. He who weds a good woman, it is as if he had fulfilled all the precepts of the Torah.’

XXV Mishnah Kiddushin 1:1
A women is acquired [niknet] in three ways…
Through money, a writ and sexual intercourse.

XXVI Cynthia Ozick, On Being a Jewish Feminist
In the world at large I call myself and am called a Jew. but when, on the Sabbath I sit among women in my traditional shul and the rabbi speaks the word ‘Jew’ I can be sure that he is not referring to me. For him, ‘Jew’ means ‘male Jew’. When the rabbi speaks of women, he uses the expression ‘Jewish daughter’ he means it tenderly. ‘Jew’ speaks for itself. ‘Jewish daughter’ does not. A Jewish daughter is someone whose identity is linked to and defined by another’s role. ‘Jew’ signifies adult responsibility. ‘Daughter’ signifies immaturity and a dependent and subordinate connection.
When my rabbi says ‘A Jew is called to the Torah’ he never means me or any other living Jewish woman. My own synagogue is the only place in the world where I, a middle aged adult, am defined exclusively by my being the female child of my parents. My own synagogue is the only place in the world where I am not named Jew.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Women and Reading Torah

My recent shiur on taught on the Halachah of women and Torah reading is also available on-line and can be downloaded from

(it’s quite a large file, you can also stream it without downloading at


This coming Wednesday I am teaching on women and leading services. 8pm, at the Synagogue, all welcome.


Reading To Be a Jewish Ancestor - Heschel's The Sabbath

Abraham Joshua Heschel was supposed to be a great Chasidic master. His ancestors were great Chasidic masters and he bore the name of his grandfather, one of the greatest of them all. But two things got in the way of that progression. The first was an internal drive. Rather than stay in the Yeshivah world the young Chasid headed to Berlin, to the University. He published poetry in the secular Yiddish Literarishe Bleter. In later life he would march – on the Sabbath - alongside his great friend, Martin Luther King at Selma. When criticized for such apparent sacrilege he responded, ‘He felt  my feet were praying.’


The other thing was the Holocaust that destroyed his family and the way of life of his youth. Heschel fled Berlin to London and later America. As a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary (my own alma mater) he published works that were academic, but also deeply personal. There has never been a scholar, a leader or soul quite like him. This Shabbat, after Kiddush, you are invited to come and share in a discussion about his most popular work; a mediation on The Sabbath and, as the subtitle has it, ‘its meaning for modern man.’ It’s the first meeting of a book club I announced over Yom Kippur. We’ll read books that do more than engage Jew-ishly, but rather books that go to the very heart of what it means to be a Jewish ancestor.


If you have spent the last weeks luxuriating in Heschel’s extraordinary work, I hope you are looking forward to tomorrow as much as I am. Even if you haven’t, do please consider joining us. I’ll have some extracts to share and there will be much to gain even if you haven’t already read the work.


Let me also take this opportunity to announce our next book; Louis Jacobs’ We Have Reason to Believe.  It’s a book that split open Anglo-Jewry to give birth to New London Synagogue. It’s also an extraordinary survey of what it means to believe, as a contemporary Jew. It’s written with in a unique style and with an all-but unique breadth of command. I commend it us all. (Incidentally we have copies for sale from the Synagogue office). We will meet to consider it after services on Shabbat 10th January 2015.


Shabbat Shalom


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Texts on Women and Torah Reading


On Women and Torah Reading


What is Torah Reading?

I.                  Deut 31:12

Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this teaching.


II.               Tosefta Megillah


On yom tov five

On yom hakipurim six

On Shabbat seven…

All go up to make up the quorum of seven, even a minor and even a woman, don’t bring a woman to read before the masses.


III.           Piskei HaRosh Brachot 47

And the fact that a minor and a slave and a woman who are not [obligated] in Torah study are included in the quorum of seven [who receive aliyyot to the Torah on Shabbat] is because the sefer torah is there for the purpose of being heard, and the blessing is not said in vain, for they do not bless “Who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us in the words of the Torah” but rather “Who has chosen us and given us [the Torah].”


How to Read Torah And How to Follow the Halachah – A Test Case – The Baal Korei

IV.            Tosefta Megillah 3:12

In a synagogue which only has one person who can read. That person stands and reads and sits, and stands and reads and sits … even seven times.


V.                Shulchan Arukh:OH 139:2

One who doesn’t know how to read, one needs to protest against them so they do not go up to read from the sefer torah. And if you need one who doesn’t know how to read (if he is a Cohen or a Levi and there is no-one else save him), if when the reader reads for him word after word, he knows how to repeat it and read it from the written text he can go up. And if not, he should not go up.


VI.            Rosh Megillah 21a 3:2

The thing we do now, where the shaliach tzibbur reads, that is so as not to embarrass people who can’t read.


Women and Reading Torah

VII.           Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8

This is the operating principle. Anyone who is not obligated in a thing cannot exempt the masses from their obligation.


VIII.     Masechet Sofrim 18:5

Women are obligated to hear the reading of the book (sefer) as are men.


IX.            Talmud Megillah 23a

Our teachers taught: All go up to make up the quorum of seven, even a minor and even a woman. But the Wise said don’t call a woman to read from the Torah because of cavod hatzibur, the honour of the congregation.


Cavod HaTzibur – The Honour of the Community

X.               Talmud Megillah 24b

Why is someone dressed in rags not allowed [to read from the Torah]? Because of the honour of the congregation.


XI.            Talmud Sotah 39b

The shaliach tzibur is not allowed to take the dressings off the ark in front of the community because of the honour of the community.


XII.        Talmud Yoma 70a

It is not permitted to roll the sefer torah [from one reading to another] in front of the community because of the honour of the congregation.


XIII.     Talmud Gittin 60a

The Galileans asked Rabbi Helbo, ‘Is it possible to read separate humashin [of each book of the Torah] in the synagogue in public? He did not know what to answer, so he asked in the Beth Hamidrash. They [said] that a scroll of torah which is missing of one flap cannot be read from. But this is not conclusive: in that case something was lacking, here nothing essential is lacking. Rabbah and Rabbi Joseph both agreed that separate humashin should not be read from out of respect for the congregation.


XIV.      Mendel Shapiro (C21 Orthodox)

Is kevod ha-tsibbur a durable, timeless perception that withstands shifting cultural sensibilities, or is it a temporal statement of local mores and customs that is authoritative only as long as its underlying assumptions remain vital and convincing?


XV.         Bet Yosef, OH 135 13 D’HM Katav HaKol

Rabenu Yerucham disagrees with the Rokeach who wrote that in a city where everyone was a Cohen, one Cohen would read repeatedly. He wrote that women would read, since ‘all go up to the make up the quorum of seven, even … a woman.’


XVI.      Hagahot vHidushim MeHaRaivetz on Tosefta Megillah, aval amru

It seems that that is possible [to call a woman] and the first part is talking about a time when there are not seven men who are expert readers and there is an expert woman and they can’t do it without her.


XVII.     Or L’Zion - Rav Ben Zion Aba Shaul

This thing needs investigation, because if women would never went up, what would the purpose of saying ‘all go up to make up the quorum of seven.’ Therefore it seems that in a place where there is no worry about the honour of the community – for example in a place where the davenners are all members of one family and the woman is the head of the house, and all the rest of the men are her sons and grandsons, in that case there is no lessening of the honour of the community were she to go up, and it would be fine to include her to go up to the Torah … but the thing needs investigation.


XVIII.           Bet Hadash, OH 53

The matter is simple, when The Wise make an alteration, and worry about the honour of the congregation, it is not in the hands of the congregation to forgo [their honour]. If this wasn’t so every alteration made by The Wise … [would be lost] and that would be horrid…. And moreover it would split Israel into factions, this congregation would forgo, this wouldn’t. For sure they cannot forgo and uproot the alterations of the Wise.

The term cavod hatzibur does not refer to the dignity of the congregants, rather it is not dignified for the congregation to be represented [by an unbearded prayer leader]and commended before the Almighty by a person lacking in imposing appearance. Similarly a woman may not read publically because it is a genai to the congregation.


XIX.     Golinkin, Summaries of Teshuvot of the Vaad Halakhah (Masorti Movement)

If a woman is only excluded from reading the Torah because of kevod tzibbur, may the congregation "relinquish its honor" and allow a woman to read? Some authorities say that a congregation can relinquish its honor while others say no, but in most of the cases we have found, most of the authorities rule that a congregation may "relinquish its honor". This would therefore hold true in our case as well.

However, even if we were to rule the opposite, there is no need in this case for the congregation to relinquish its honor. In the [late Talmudic] period the disgrace to the congregation stemmed from the fact that men learned how to read the Torah and women did not and thus it would disgrace the men to have a woman read in public. Today, of course, this is no longer the case.


XX.         Talmud Eruvin 14b

Go out and look at what the people are doing.


Friday, 31 October 2014

On Swamping Migrants - A Lech Lecha Sermon


I wonder if Abraham should count as an economic migrant.

Actually, I don’t wonder, it’s abundantly clear that he’s an economic migrant.


Vayehi ra-av baaretz vayered avram mitzrayima lagur sham, ki caved hara’av baretz.


Rashi, our greatest commentator, alive in the 12th Century brings a teaching that dates to the first two centuries of the common era; ra’av bair, pazer raglecha – a famine in the city, makes your feet go wandering.

Famines will do that to a person.

No food, no possibility of sustenance, of life persisting for you, for your family.

Pazer raglecha – off you go in search of pastures greener.

It’s hard wired into the human condition since, I suspect, before there was such a creature as homo sapiens.


Jacob, Isaac’s grandson, flees persecution.

Behold, his mother tells Jacob,

Esav achicha mitchatein lecha, lehargecha

Esau, your brother is plotting to kill you.

And off goes Jacob. He flees to Padan Aram.

Who wouldn’t?

I wonder if Jacob would be classified as an asylum seeker in this country if he turned up today pleading a real and immediate threat of his life being ended.

Actually I don’t wonder – I know he wouldn’t have a chance.


I had an interesting Kiddush conversation with a group of French new members of the community.

Et beinvenue mes amis francaises

I was commiserating about the rise of antisemitisim in France and asking about if this ascending threat accounted for their decision to come to England.

No, they responded, it’s the tax system.

Mes amis francaises had come to Britain in search of the opportunity to make what they can of their lives in an open, fair, democracy that in its imperfect way, values those who get on their bike.

How fortunate for our new French friends, that Paris is only a train ride away, and they need no visa.

I suspect my great great grandparents chose this mighty isle for much the same reasons.

Was there oppression in Odessa and the like? Yes, but they came to Britain because the horizons were brighter and the possibilities of life greater. Good on them. Thankfully for me.

I wonder for how many of us that is the case.


This wandering off, escaping deprivations and persecutions is a familiar enough trop.

I could tell the same story on the week we read of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah for the horrendous failure to allow the new arrival Lot safe passage.

I could tell of Joseph’s brothers, sustained during famine in Egypt.

I could tell of the Israelites who so discomforted Pharaoh that he embarked on a programme of mass murder.

Oy mah hayah lanu – as we sing on the 9th of Av – what has befallen us, time after time after time we have been victims of programmes of mass murder for the sin of being strangers in a strange land.


Our identity is formed in wandering and in dislocation. Even before Egypt and the oft repeated Biblical instruction to do right by the stranger because ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’ even before the centuries of exile and displacement, we were a dislocated people.


And here’s an interesting, and very old truth, about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us dislocated folk who can so destabilise an indigenous population.

We don’t know what we are doing at first. We are very liable to do things that the host community find deeply odd

Let me take Abraham as an example.

He arrives in Egypt and thinks the locals are going to take a fancy to his wife.

So he tells Sarah to tell everyone she meets that she is his sister.

Indeed Pharaoh does take a fancy to Sarah and showers Abraham with gifts.

Until that is, he realises he is wooing a married woman.

Mah zot asitah li, lama lo higadatah li ishtecha hi

What have you done to me, why didn’t you tell me she’s your wife?

I wonder how the Daily Mail would have reported that story of an immigrant’s deceit in search of pecuniary advantage.

Actually I don’t wonder.


And here’s another interesting, and very old, truth about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us.

We make quite a contribution, eventually. All the think-tanks and peer review articles tell us so.

Here’s my theory as to why there are so many Jews in the arts, in business, in science and the rest of it.

We are used to seeing things ever so slightly from the outside.

We aren’t accustomed to assuming that what has always been will always be, because we know that life changes and one generation’s well-established Jewish community become, all too soon the Fiddler on the Roof, precarious and hopping along the rooftops in search of another place to call home.

And that lightness of foot, that perspective that brings another viewpoint, that has experience is just a bit broader.

All those things make for success.


And here’s another very old truth about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us.

Narrow protectionism is always unsustainable in the long term.

When Jews were first allowed back into England, in the seventeenth century; we were kept out of the guilds, not allowed to own land, train as Drs all those kinds of things.

There were quotas for Jews at the public schools when I was growing up.

Quota for Jews!

Today, thank God, quite rightly, the kinds of institutionalised formalised racism that was such a marker of Jewish life in this country in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries is criminalised.

But we have such a long way to go.


Because this is the most important truth about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us dislocated folk.

The test of the decency of a society is how it treats the stranger.

That’s why the command to love the stranger, or not oppress the stranger, or open your heart to the stranger is the most repeated verse in the Torah.

The test of our decency isn’t how we treat people who look like us, speak like us and make us feel cosy in our familiatude.

The test of our decency is how we deal with people we don’t understand, don’t like the look of, don’t really trust.

This is the great teaching of the Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas; how do you treat the Other in their otherness, without forcing them to be just like us, without, as Levinas would say, depriving them of their difference from us.

The test of our decency comes when we feel discomforted, challenged, provoked. Being decent isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to require a certain bravery, a certain integrity.


Do I mean that anyone arriving on these shores should be given a council house and income support and ushered straight to the head of the queue to our health service and education service? No, of course there needs to be a more sophisticated approach.

But this, this is not good enough.


This week our government, my government, announced it was withdrawing financial support for search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea – those penniless bedraggled dislocated folk attempting to get to Europe on overcrowded rafts.


Here’s what the Guardian columnist, Suzanne Moore has to say of the decision.

‘The flood of anxiety about immigration is about fear. [she wrote] The current hysteria is about fear of losing elections and now, predictably enough, there is so much fear that we will let these people drown. They will die trying to get here. That will show them. This is what [Moore continues] Theresa May reckons saving the lives of those drowning was a “pull factor” in illegal immigration. Yeah, that will show them, Theresa, [concludes Moore] Drowning.’


Moore diagnoses an epidemic of othering, where it is becoming acceptable to speak of immigrants as a problem, a threat. I’m sure she’s right, it’s felt, this last week, that it’s only borderline unacceptable to speak of immigrants as a swamp.

There is, in all of this, the discourse of Pharaoh, whose fear of the Israelites was entirely predicated on our swarming through his land.

And look where that ended up.


I know there are hard decisions to be made; to preserve a sense of identity in communities, to fairly allocate resources among those with very different relationships to what Rousseau called the social contract.

But it is not right that we slam our doors tight shut in the face of the desperation of others.

It is not right that the fear of a nascent political party can be allowed to spook our political leaders into acts immoral; acts that would spell death for generations of our people dating from Abraham to my own most direct ancestors.

It cannot be right.


Let me conclude with a long extract from Suzanne Moore’s coruscating piece this week. It’s as religious as I could ever be.



In her brilliant book Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas talked about how we classify dirt as “matter out of place” and construct taboos around it. Immigrants now, many of them displaced people, are referred to en masse as less than dirt. We can see pictures of them clinging on to fences or trains for dear life, arriving in only the clothes they stand up in. We see these desperate people as a threat.

Some individuals, of course, may be. Some have come illegally. Trafficking humans is the slave trade reworked for the 21st century. There is money to be made in selling the glimpse of a life to someone in a camp in Jordan.

Sure, I understand it is hard to make the case to those who feel abandoned in Thanet. They feel disconnected from London, never mind Eritrea. But it is a downright lie to tell them that the flow of human capital can stop without changing our entire economic system.

Thus we are in a politics of denial, where those who speak the truth, from Nick Boles to Ken Clarke, appear oddly heroic. The “stop the world I want to get off and have a pint” appeal of Farage has spooked our leaders, who have followed him down an ever more shady path.

Denial and cowardice have resulted in talking about actual people as vermin, as dirt, as not worth saving.

This is truly disgusting and, if we like to think of ourselves as a fair people, we will not look away when someone is dying in the water. If we do not fight this dangerous talk, we will all go under.[1]



As a Jew, as a citizen of this great country, and as a human being, I can only add ‘Amen’

Shabbat shalom,



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