Thursday, 27 March 2014


Readers of the Jewish Chronicle will have seen my article in the paper last week on Shmitah; the Biblical mandate that land should lay fallow, loans should be written off and indentured servants should be released on the coming of the seventh year – a year the Rabbis calculate will begin in the coming Hebrew year.

I’ve spent part of this week at an international conference on the subject. What is capturing the interest of the extraordinary array of participants is not some arcane agricultural ritual but rather this idea, best articulated by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, a participant on the conference.


There are two models of economy known in Biblical and Rabbinic thought; Shuk and Shmitah. The Shuk is the market. The markets fuel growth, innovation and creativity. Without markets we would, surely, find ourselves living in impoverished squalor. But markets are built off a single test of value – money – and that commoditisation turns even the human being into a number. Markets are also insatiable and our planet cannot handle much more of our insatiable appetite for possessing more and more and more.


Shmitah is the counterbalance. It’s an economic model based on gifts; we open our fields to the poor, and the experience of finding enough in what we already possess – not what we might be able to get at some point in the future. Shmitah is also about the experience of the common good, rather than the experience of winners and losers. It’s not good for our society to be quite so unequal. Of course Shimtah on an ongoing basis would be stultifying, luddite, even. But Jewish thought has always seen Shmitah in the context of the six years of Shuk, and vice versa. One is the corollary to the other.


I believe we all know we want something more than a permanent chase for more and more. We all know there are other things to value in life aside from the bottom line. Shmitah, and its sister Shabbat, is the Jewish counter-narrative to that rapaciousness. How we should engage practically with these ideas in our post-agricultural local community at New London is a question I hope will, at least in part, be addressed by our scholar in residence, this Shabbat, Rabbi Julian Sinclair. Julian is grandson of our former member, Edna Halle of blessed memory, and a graduate of Oxford University and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.


Shabbat Shalom


You can read my article in the Jewish Chronicle article at


Thursday, 20 March 2014

Looking Forward, Looking Back

I’m offering two very special opportunities to encounter two world leaders in contemporary Jewry; one looking forward and one looking back. This is a great week to be part of the New London family, I urge one and all to make every effort to attend.


This Shabbat our guest is the most creative force in Jewish liturgy in America. Amichai Lau Lavi, founder of Storahtelling and Lab/Shul was the subject of a major New York Times profile just last week. He’s out to transform Jewish worship into theatre, something compelling, dramatic and capable of touching us and transforming our lives. Amichai will infusing our Torah reading with some of his unique brand of engaging with our most central text, starting from 10am, don’t be late.

For more information see


Then, on Tuesday 25th, 8pm, we are partnering with New North London Synagogue to host the greatest historian of eighteen and nineteenth century Jewish life. Professor Ismar Schorsch is a master scholar, a man capable of taking us right inside the forces that shaped Jewish life. Schorsch’s topic is one of the most significant figures in recent Jewish history, Solomon Schechter, Professor at Cambridge University, the lead scholar involved in the Cairo Geniza and the first President of the Jewish Theological Seminary where I trained

For those interested in a serious understanding of ‘our kind’ of Judaism, this is a very special opportunity to hear from a genuinely world-class scholar.

More information and booking information at

(note this talk is taking place at New North London Synagogue in Finchley. It’s not at Abbey Rd.)



Thursday, 13 March 2014

On Shechita - Jewish Ritual Slaughter

This isn’t Purim Torah


It’s customary, at this time of the year, to share something a bit festive, satirical or outrageous. Sadly this is none of the above. Last week the President Elect of the British Veterinary Association has suggested that "I don't think an outright ban is a long way off, there is enough of a view that this practice is inhumane and causes suffering at the time of death.” Denmark has already outlawed slaughter without pre-stunning and there are regular challenges in other international jurisdictions.


Kosher, and for that matter Halal, slaughter requires a single point of contact with an animal to be slaughtered – a swift incision. As a matter of religious law any animal stunned before slaughter is rendered thereby unfit for consumption. The threat of kosher slaughter being made illegal in this country is real. What is even more worrying is the manner in which opponents of kosher slaughter are claiming the moral high ground in making claims which deeply threatening to those with religious convictions.


There is good practice in animal husbandry and there is bad practice in animal husbandry. Anyone concerned about animal welfare might want to turn attention to battery farming of chickens, narrow crate farming of veal, indoor fattening of beef cattle in cramped conditions and on slatted floors, live transportation of animals – often to countries with lower standards of animal welfare than this country ... the list goes on. A focus at end of life, in the context of factory farming methods which place so little emphasis on animal welfare is disproportionate.


There is good practice in animal slaughter and there is bad practice in animal slaughter. Temple Gradin, the world leading expert in assessing the pain and stress on animals in slaughterhouse environments has spent a career remodelling slaughterhouse behaviour to reduce measurable animal distress. As well as oversight to ensure animals aren’t abused by ‘beating, slamming gates, poking etc.’ Gradin has a vast number of simple examples of best practice designed to minimise distress; a non-slip floor so animals don’t panic, restraints should be designed to function smoothly and without causing the animal distress. Gradin’s observations are that in a well run and well designed slaughterhouse animals will go to slaughter without the need for use of electric prods and without ‘vocalisation.’ Gradin’s observations apply equally to ritual slaughterhouses and non-ritual slaughterhouses. Stunning usually works, but doesn’t always. A well trained slaughterer who is ‘yarei shamayim’ – working with a fear of heaven, should be able to dispatch an animal with maximum commitment to honouring that death needs to occur for us to eat meat. Again the focus on pre-slaughter stunning can so easily be disproportionate when there are so many other areas on which to focus to ensure that animals die with an appropriate dignity. That last sentence, I admit, is a little absurd. Death in a slaughterhouse is not dignified, whether slaughter comes with or without stunning. If we profess to care so much about the welfare of animal we should consider veganism, or vegetarianism at the very least. As members of a broader British society, we should advocate for and support best practice in the ritual slaughter and we should be entirely clear that trampling on our freedom of religious expression with no regard to proportionality is to be opposed and challenged – even on the eve of Purim.


For more information on the work of Temple Gradin, please see


For a response of a leading Jewish and Muslim writer on the recent statement of BVA, please see


For more information on the work of Shechita UK, please see


Thursday, 6 March 2014


An American organisation, Reboot, is sponsoring a National Day of Unplugging from sundown Friday 7th until stars out on Saturday 8th. You would be right to guess Reboot is a Jewish organisation, but the language they are using to urge us to unplug is universal. On the homepage kids hold up a sign ‘I unplug to play,’ there’s a woman unplugging to ‘focus on the faces in front of me.’ Someone sent me a Youtube link of Seinfeld demonstrating the ‘slow head down.’

It’s the gentle descent of a line of gaze from a face-to-face conversation to check the electronic screen welded to ones hand, ‘because this is what Blackberry commands us to do.’ Another friend sends me a link to the blog ‘handsfreemama’ – a blog predicated on the notion that we parent poorly because we are always clicking and swiping and tweeting and mailing.


I’m no luddite. Technology gives me extraordinary opportunities and I’m grateful for them, but there is something addictive and something lonely about a life lived only through a screen. Six days a week I plead guilty; guilty of being distracted, guilty of wandering attention, guilty of parenting with one eye elsewhere. But at least I have Shabbat. It is, and here the Yiddishism has it perfectly, a ‘mechaya,’ literally a burst of life, real life, unplugged, face to face. Try it, this week. From sundown Friday, turn off and unplug. Reboot offer, on their web-page, ‘a cell-phone sleeping bag.’ For only $8 you can get a little sack in which to place an electronic best friend for the day. It’s not a bad idea at all. So good in fact that HaKodesh Baruch Hu would approve.


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