Friday, 25 April 2014

Kedoshim and Same Sex Marriage

Parashat Kedoshim contains much that is lovely. And one verse that has kept me awake, a lot. The verse, ‘a man who lies with a male in the way of lying with a woman; they have both performed a toevah,’ has haunted my Rabbinic journey. It’s been a battleground over which my relationship to textual tradition and faith has been most shaped and tested.

The verse prohibits a particular homosexual act as toevah, but King James’ translators misrepresent the Hebrew with the word ‘abomination.’ Other toevot include eating shellfish and pork, intercourse between a man and a menstruating woman and offering a blemished animal as a sacrifice. Toevah is not kinds of sexuality; a Rabbi who feels no desire to marry, for example, is allowed to absent himself from the obligation to have children.


I can’t perceive of God as cruel. Or rather I can’t understand my religion as cruel. There is a balance. I don’t insist that religion must buckle to my desire to watch television on Shabbat, or eat bacon. But the desire for intimacy, and the nature of that desire in different people, is, I believe, of an entirely different sort. The Rabbis understand that, before the creation of Eve, Adam seeks a mate amongst the entire animal kingdom rejecting everything, waiting for something to be the ‘fitting helper’ he sought. I understand God’s decree that ‘it is not good for man to be alone,’ to be about the darkness of living a life alone. It’s impossible for me, as someone who enjoys the delights of intimate companionship, to insist that others live alone, in that ‘not good’ state.

As a Rabbi I have to make a decision, what do I want a gay Jew to do, and what can I do to support those aims? For me the first part of the question has a clear answer, I want gay Jews to build decent, holy and Jewishly committed intimate relationships with other Jews.  At that point I feel compelled to work out how to walk that walk, even if it does mean rethinking old and creating new ritual practices in ways that are novel and even, for many, uncomfortable.

This is a conversation engaging all my Masorti Rabbinic colleagues and we would welcome your thoughts, questions and feelings on the matter. 


Yom HaShoah

This Sunday, Yom HaShoah, a number of members and I will be joining with others from Belsize Square and The Liberal Synagogues on a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Centre. Time has passed, decades already. And what have we learnt, as a society in the decades since the greatest atrocity committed by man against man, by man against Jew.


Below is an extract from the transcript of an interview with Walter Stier, the official responsible for the “special trains” that transported millions of Jews and others to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. You can watch a longer excerpt of the interview, from the 1985 documentary Shoah, here []

Q: What’s the difference between a special and a regular train?

A: A regular train may be used by anyone who purchases a ticket. . . . A special train has to be ordered. The train is specially put together and people pay group fares. . . .

Q: But why were there more special trains during the war than before or after?

A: I see what you’re getting at. You’re referring to the so-called resettlement trains. . . . Those trains were ordered by the Ministry of Transport of the Reich [the German government].

Q: But mostly, at that time, who was being “resettled”?

A: No. We didn’t know that. Only when we were fleeing from Warsaw ourselves, did we learn that they could have been Jews,  or criminals, or similar people.

Q: Special trains for criminals?

A: No, that was just an expression. You couldn’t talk about that. Unless you were tired of life, it was best not to mention that.

Q: But you knew that the trains to Treblinka or Auschwitz were—

A: Of course we knew. I was the last district; without me these trains couldn’t reach their destination.

Q: Did you know that Treblinka meant extermination?

A: Of course not!

Q: You didn’t know?

A: Good God, no! How could we know? I never went to Treblinka. I stayed in Krakow, in Warsaw, glued to my desk.

Q: You were a . . .

A: I was strictly a bureaucrat! …But as to what happened, I didn’t…

Q: What was Treblinka for you? Treblinka or Auschwitz?

A: Yes, for us, Treblinka, Belzec, and all that were concentration camps.

Q: A destination.

A: Yes, that’s all. For example, a train coming from Essen, or Cologne, or elsewhere, room had to be made for them there.  With the war, and the Allies advancing everywhere, those people had to be concentrated in camps.

Q: When exactly did you find out?

A: Well, when the word got around, when it was whispered. It was never said outright. Good God, no! They’d have hauled you off at once! We heard things…

The website Ask Big Questions are using this extract to encourage us to engage with those things we chose to ignore. What have we looked past, what have we chosen to focus on to avoid having to focus on other challenges that are, perhaps, more uncomfortable.


I’m nervous.

It’s still far too easy to look past the suffering of others. It’s still far too easy to explain away complicity with dissembling. It’s still far too easy for those who prey on the weakness of others to get away with appalling acts of antisemitism, racism and other despicable acts.

I don’t think we have the right to say ‘Never Again.’



Thursday, 24 April 2014

New London Synagogue is looking for a part-time Head of Youth

This is an exciting opportunity to lead one of the fastest growing and most successful Synagogue youth programmes in London.


New London Synagogue is looking for a new part-time Head of Youth. The job, which principally focuses on directing our vibrant Cheder as headteacher, also involves leading and supporting youth provision from 0-18 working with an exceptional team of teachers, clergy, professional staff and members.


We are looking for a passionate advocate for education, youth and Masorti Judaism and a member of the leadership team of the Synagogue.


For more information including information on how to apply, please go to

I,, or the lead on the search committee, can be contacted with any questions.


Please pass this email on to anyone you think  might be interested in the position. Closing date 2nd May.


Friday, 18 April 2014

Reflections on the Song of Songs

This Shabbat we read the Song of Songs,

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is better than wine.


It’s a series of stunningly passionate love poems, verging on the erotic.

For Rabbi Akiva this book is the holy of holies of the Biblical canon.


Perhaps that is because of a Rabbinic claim which insists that these poems are to be understood as a metaphor for the love between God and Israel, and what a love it is.

God becomes the comely youth, Israel the blushing bride.

In the hands of Artscroll, the great ultra-orthodox publishing house, this claim becomes axiomatic and any suggestion that the Song of Songs encapsulates human to human emotion is carefully erased; even to the point where an admiring glance at the breasts of the beloved (4:5) is translated (that’s translated!) as an admiring glance at the qualities of Moses and Aaron. Praise of Yaffa B’Nashim – the most beautiful of women is translated as ‘the most beautiful of nations.’

What drives this complete sublimation of the inter-personal love, so redolent in the Song of Songs? Perhaps an embarrassment about such corporeal language in a biblical book, perhaps a desire to be so Frum as to lose sense of the literal meaning of the verses themselves. Nonetheless there is something stirring about reading these verses, as Rabbis have done for thousands of years, as a metaphor for Israel and God.


But that doesn’t erase these verses’ romantic, corporeal appeal. Personally I like to think that the reason Akiva places the Song of Songs so highly is that he himself was a desperate romantic who served and slaved away for the heart of the woman he loved. He loved a book about inter-personal love because he knew inter-personal love.


For me the Song of Songs is both corporeal, lusty and romantic and also a tale of a relationship between a nation and her God. I know one of these claims comes close to the original intent of these beautiful verses and I know the other is a Rabbinic overlay that might conceivably lurk behind some of the locutions, but is, as a matter of historical record ‘only’ a commentary. That strikes me as an resolutely appropriate way to relate to this, and so many other religious claims. Just as I believe in the truths of our ancient tradition and the claims of modernity, just as I claim that the Torah is a composite document brought together over a thousand years and nonetheless the product of an encounter with a momentary Sinaitic revelation, so too I believe in the Song of Songs in two different ways at the same time. The ability to hold multiple ideas in the same moment is, I have always believed, a mark of sophistication.  It’s certainly a mark of what it means to be a Masorti Jew.


May we enjoy great love in this time of Freedom,

Shabbat shalom,

Moadim L’Simcha



Thursday, 10 April 2014

Critiquing Freedom from the Inside and the Outside



This is the perhaps the biggest challenge for Jews like us – do we focus our energies inside or outside? And as we do one what implications does this have for the other?


By looking inside I mean focussing on the internal rhythms of Jewish life, standing in long queues in Kosher supermarkets , chasing bits of Chametz around the house with candles and feathers and – finally – dipping our sprigs of parsley into salt water while proclaiming that we, ourselves, went forth from Egypt.


By looking outside I mean focussing on the external challenges of freedom in a world which demarcates increasingly brutally between the free and the deprived. Last week I was contacted by a producer of a new film on the Falun Gong alleging practitioners in China are not only imprisoned in conditions akin to slavery but subject to having their organs harvested for transplant from their still living bodies! And there is plenty to be concerned with closer to home also.


I love the rhythms of Jewish life and I do genuinely believe that these rituals; the dips and cups of wine and everything else matters in a cosmic scheme grander than I can truly comprehend. But there is a line, for me. I came across some photographs of the grand Rebbe of Satmar in a field in Yuma deep in the American mid-West to supervise, personally, the harvest of wheat for Shmurah Matzah. Click here: to see Rabbis, tzitzit billowing, examining wheat kernels through a gemmologist’s eye-piece in search of fermentation. For me, at such a level of insatiable pursuing legal minutiae, I fear for our people’s ability to differentiate the wood from the trees.


I feel struck to the core when I come across contemporary abuses of freedom and I do genuinely believe that, as a Jew, I have an empathy, a responsibility and an insight to share into the desperate importance of liberty and the appalling truth of deprivation.  But what, of this bleeding heart, amounts to more than a shrug of the shoulders as I get on with my cosy privilege and what, of such activism as I do provide is actually ‘Jewish’ aside from a general universal ethical decency. Universal ethical decency is no bad thing, of course, but is this really what Rabbis and Jewish communities should be focussing on?


For me the balance is found in this way. We are habituated by life, exempted from engaging particularly in anything by the sheer volume of everything that bombards our daily existence. Our secular existence lulls us to consider every day the same, every season and every relationship becomes little more than another entry in a demand/supply ledger where I attempt to satiate every immediate hunger for the least financial cost. Judaism is a radical counter-narrative to this. Judaism insists that I pay extraordinary levels of attention to the passage time and Judaism insists I focus on every human interaction as though I interact with a creation of the Divine encoding in their existence the image of the Divine. Judaism commands I stop with all the absolute elevation of the material above the spiritual. And, I believe, that if I develop these practices within myself and the community I am a part of, we will begin to see the world differently. We will develop understandings and levels of empathy and action that are particular to our Jewish journey. There are, of course there are, many wonderful things shared by other faiths and cultures, but my path to freedom is a Jewish path, a path that connects me to Exodus and Sinai. My engagement with the universal – the outside – is forged by my engagement with the particular – the internal.


Pesach is coming. May we all be lifted higher and driven to an increased engagement with these, and other, questions of freedom. May we all be blessed with a wonderful Chag.


Rabbi Jeremy


Pesach - Other Things

Happy Pesach – Other Stuff


Aside from the dominant tropes of Pesach observance – going Chametz free and the Seder – are some important, less celebrated opportunities to connect to the heart of this season.

I want, this eve of the Shabbat before Pesach, to wave a flag for four special opportunities of this time of year.



Monday morning 14th April, 7:15am, we convene a special Shacharit to commemorate the destruction visited on the Egyptian firstborn. It’s, officially, a fast day. Traditionally there is a Siyum – a presentation based on completing the study of a tractate of Talmud – which occasions a celebratory meal that overrides the obligation to fast. But this is an extraordinary moment designed to test our empathy, our ability to connect to the suffering of others as we exalt in our own freedom. All welcome, breakfast will be served.



Tuesday night around the Seder table and for the following forty nine evenings, we count the Omer. It’s a journey from Pesach to Shavuot, from Spring to Summer gently testing our ability to find ten seconds daily to acknowledge the passing of time. The Kabbalists created a highly psychologically attuned pathway correlating each day of the Omer to a different aspect of our selves. For more click here []. One of my favourite Jewish organistations, Hazon, instituted an Omer challenge to provoke us into a healthier and more sustainable existence. For more click here []



B’Rov Hadrat Melech, the book of Proverbs notes – The King is glorified in the presence of many. The Rabbis understand this verse as a command to come to Shul. Big, bustling prayer services filled with song and vibrancy fire up the soul and allow our private  celebrations of Seder part of something broader, something about the strength of our community and our people. These are weekday Yomim Tovim, but the seventh day of Pesach falls on a Bank Holiday. Come, help our communal celebrations truly reflect the breadth diversity and quality of our community.



Yom HaShoah was instituted by David Ben-Gurion in 1952 on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Actually that’s not quite right, the uprising began on the eve of Passover so it was decided to postpone the commemoration to the week after Passover. The Holocaust haunts the Seder, most especially as we read ‘in each and every generation someone has risen against us, to destroy us.’ We have two very special opportunities to connect to this most dark moment of our history and I commend both to all the community even in the midst of our more joyous celebrations. On Sunday 20th April, 4:30pm, we will be honoured by a talk from Peter Lantos, who survived Bergen Belsen – author of the extraordinary Parallel Lives. For more information about Peter click here [], no need to book, just come.

And on Yom HaShoah itself I will be leading a trip from New London Synagogue and two other local Shuls to the Holocaust Memorial Centre, Beth Shalom. For more information click here [] booking for this special trip closes shortly.


It’s a busy time.

There is much to celebrate and we should celebrate well,


Shabbat shalom

Chag Sameach,


Rabbi Jeremy


Monday, 7 April 2014

Rav Kook on Pesach

Some of the teachings of Rav Avraham Yitzhaz Kook on Freedom and Pesach


Moadei Harayah

There are two aspects to attaining true freedom. First, one needs to be physically independent of all external oppression. But complete freedom also requires freedom of the spirit. The soul is not free if it is subjected to external demands that prevent it from following the path of its inner truth.

The difference between a slave and a free person is not just a matter of social standing. One may find an educated slave whose spirit is free, and a free person with the mindset of a slave. What makes us truly free? When we are able to be faithful to our inner self, to the truth of our Divine image — then we can live a fulfilled life, a life focused on our soul's inner goals. One whose spirit is servile, on the other hand, will never experience this sense of self-fulfilment. Their happiness will always depend upon the approval of others who dominate them, whether this control is legal or otherwise.


The exodus from Egypt only appears to be a past event.  But in truth, the exodus never ceases.  
The arm of God that was revealed in Egypt to redeem the Jews is constantly outstretched, constantly active.  

Opposed to the degradation of the spirit of slavery (which degrades all ethical feelings) remembering the exodus from Egypt, in which God brought us out with a strong hand from slavery to freedom, lifts up our refined, exalted feelings, which guide us to the supernal purpose of man in the world.

Our goal is not only to be redeemed from Egypt, not only to be healed from wounds and delivered from disease, not only to come forth from the bonds of poverty and the darkness of blindness.  
We yearn to be filled with greatness: with the great wealth of the soul.  We thirst for a fresh life, filled with brilliance.
And we come to the land of Israel.  We hope for redemption so that the unveiling will be total, so that rays of eternal life will stream from the source of the holy of holies.


Olat Rayah

These years symbolise to us the essence of the Festival of Redemption – the Festival of Pesach, the time of our Freedom.

What can we learn from the generations from these two subjects, so dependent each on the other?

The essential answer is that there are two conditions for redemption.

Personal freedom – freedom of the body from all foreign subjugation and from all subjugation that breaks the image of the Divine which is in each human to be working for all the power which is their particular portion, their great glory and their holy beauty.

But this freedom is only acquired by means of spiritual freedom. Freedom of the soul from everything that pulls it off its straight course and its cast-iron foundation - the essential essence of the person.


However these two kinds of Freedom can only come … by means of the biur – annihilation of every border and every thing which holds back that freedom. For that is its hametz, the bitterness in the dough, which harms the search for what is better, the spark of the light of redemption within them.


We need to educate ourselves how to treasure this great spirit of freedom which shines upon us, especially in these illuminating times, a spirit which burst forth like lightening. It has the appearance of the first redemption, the redemption from Sinai, when the King, King of Kings, the Holy Blessed One was revealed to us in God’s great might, and God brought us close [karavnu] to worship God, and that is complete freedom, and God lifted us up from the depredations of foreign slavery which is useless as a form of Divine service.


And the difference between the slave and the free person is only a difference of internal state of mind… One can find a wise slave whose soul is full of freedom, and the reverse, a free-person whose soul is the soul of a slave. The vibrancy of freedom is an elevated soul, for a person and also a nation, through all their elevated efforts can become inheritors of their inner independence, the spiritual preparation of the image of God within them, and by means of this intention one can feel life in amongst the fragility of existence, for this is the measure of their worth, as is not the case for someone whose soul is defined by their labour. For their life and their energy  will never illuminate the purpose of the independent soul, unless it is through something good and beautiful done for them by another who has some kind of control over them, whether this be officially or spiritually.


And we get the inner light of personal freedom [herut], ‘carved [harut] on the tablets’ – don’t read harut, rather herut. Come, come, let us stress more and more our bright inner independence, which is gained through the revelation of the shechinah, that same freedom that is gained by means of the great unique miracle of the world that was done for us when the Blessed God brought our ancestors out of Egypt to freedom forevermore. Come my brothers, all of us, to the Seder, and know that we are all the children of Kings, and if freedom is the eternal portion, Israel shall never be enslaved …Protect freedom and protect the annihilation of hametz and bring speedily full redemption.



Questions Rabbis Get Asked - Wedding Dress Modesty

Dear Rabbi, 


I am writing with a question, about my wedding dress. 


The dress I bought covers my shoulders but not my arms.

It is not this one, but the top looks very similar to this one: [link]. I will be wearing a veil that will cover my arms. 


Is this appropriate or should I cover my arms further? If so, I will find something to wear on top of it. I thought it'd be ok because the cleavage and shoulders are covered, but now I have a doubt, so I prefer to ask you to make sure I am appropriately dressed. 


Thank you very much for your help. I hope you have a nice day, 




Dear X


I find questions like this really hard to answer.

Which isn’t to say it’s an unusual question for me to be asked.

Aside from whether or not it’s really the sort of thing Rabbis should be getting involved with, there are so many different ways the same dress can look on different women, even the same women, let alone the difficulties of basing an opinion on a different dress on a different woman.

Added to which different hemlines, shoulder lines and the rest of it feel differently in different spaces, in-front of different invited guests and I can’t really judge all of that either.


A chuppah is a holy space. You are standing before God.

A wedding is also a time when you pledge an exclusive relationship with your husband – there is a beauty that is only for him, and not the rest of congregation or world.

Quite how that manifests itself in terms of different levels of sheer-ness, lengths of sleeve, necklines etc. is ultimately a question for you.

Sorry not to have a simple answer,



Thursday, 3 April 2014

What Do All These Laws, Rules and Ordinances Mean To You

The question, ‘what do all these laws, rules and ordinances, that God has commanded you?’ triggers an instant reflex response – that is not entirely correct.

We recognise the question, surely, as the question of the wise child from the Haggadah – the answer trips off our tongue – ‘and you shall teach the child the laws of Pesach’ even to include a detail about the Afikomen.

But the question is actually a Biblical quote, from Devarim. Here the question, placed into the mouth of an future descendant of the generation who wandered in the wilderness, is answered, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt and God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.’


So there are two answers to this one question – a question that looms over us at this time of year. One is technical, legal and practical. The other is existential; about our human condition and our relationship to oppression, freedom and identity. These two answers will shape our intellectual engagement over the next two Shabbatot that separate us from Pesach.


This Shabbat I’ll be sharing practicalities, some of the laws of Pesach and trying to get to an understanding of what the Rabbis really had in mind when setting out what it means to go Chametz free – and what it doesn’t. It will be a time and money saving exercise and also one that will, I hope, open up our understanding of the Halachic process. I’ll do a bit as a sermon and will be able to do some Q&A in the post-Kiddush slot. This Shabbat we will engage with the answer to the question given in the Haggadah.


And next Shabbat, 12th April, we will be joined by two guests working to promote freedom and overthrow oppression in our contemporary world. Yonatan Berger and Charlotte Fischer are working to remind us that the meaning of all these laws, rules and ordinances is not just the laws, rules and ordinances, but the message that no person should be oppressed.


I hope you will be able to join us.


(and I’ve reposted my top ten tips for a liberating Pesach for anyone interested -


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

10 Top Tips for A Liberating Pesach

i. A Bittul beats ballistic bothering.
You don’t have to drive yourself mad in an all-encompassing war of destruction waged on Chametz. The minimum standard is remove everything smaller than the size of an olive and then perform a Bittul – a nullification – “all Chametz which is in possession, which I have not seen or removed or of which I am not aware, is nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”  The Bittul is done once on Sunday evening and then again on Monday late morning.

ii. Invite people to the Seder who can’t be there. 
I always like to start the Seder by inviting everyone to welcome one guest, one person who has passed away, or can’t be there, or just someone you would love to welcome to experience our story. It sets the mood and it brings the community around your personal Seder together.

iii. Prep the Seder
Don’t open the Hagadah for the first time as you sit down at the Seder table. Buy a new Hagadah, one with commentaries, spend a while flicking through, pick some aspects that mean more to you. If you are not leading, let the leader know you would like to share something at a certain point. If you need more inspiration, try the internet. Tzedek and JCORE are among many organisations that have special guides with discussion material and questions. Also try

iv. Karpas is Hebrew for crudités
The desultory sprig of parsley is not what Karpas is all about. It’s a Greek custom of putting out snacks before the meal to allow the conversation to flow more easily. We make dips and put out a range of vegetables. Top tip – artichokes, perfect for dipping, noshing and accompanying schmoozing.

v. It’s about freedom
Don’t be imprisoned by the language of the Seder. At some point you need to have a discussion about the nature of freedom. What does freedom mean, what does it mean to be Jewish and free - free from what, responsible for what? What would your values be if no-one was forcing you to do otherwise? What is stopping you from pursuing those values right now?

vi. Do something daft
The Rabbis of the Talmud suggested throwing toasted nuts around the Seder table to keep the kids occupied. We put out finger-puppets, oranges, Miriam’s cup, ah, loads of stuff – anything to keep people interested and engaged.

vii. If at first you don’t succeed
I love the ability to celebrate two Sedarim. And I love the ability to have a more formal and a less formal experience. The two Sedarim shouldn’t be the same. If you will be with the same people, around the same table, with the same food, then change the questions. Pick different conversations.

viii. Allow yourself to be defined
I remember a Pesach, I must have been 14, when I had to take a packed Pesachdik lunch into school; Tupperware and Matzah crumbs. It was a tremendous moment allowing myself to be defined by my actions. I was someone who cared enough about my Jewish identity to do this, and decline doing that. Through my observance I found a deeper relationship to my own identity. And to this day I find I make the clearest statements of my engagement with my faith over Pesach, with the cleaning and shopping and everything else. And that is OK. In fact, it makes me who I am.

ix. You have captured my heart
Ah, the Song of Songs, the Biblical book, said Rabbi Akiva, that makes the whole Torah worthwhile. We’ll be singing it on Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach, together with the Song of the Sea on the seventh day, and Hallel and … these are great Synagogue services, full of melody and joy. It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring, or find, in Shul the communal public engagement with Pesach, to counterbalance the private, familial celebrations of Seder Night. (On the subject of Shul, there are, of course, double points on offer to those able to join us for weekday Yom Tov services.)

x. In every generation a person should see themselves …
Take responsibility for your own Passover journey. If you love it, be proud. If it doesn’t speak to you … take responsibility for finding a way to make this incredible story and the rich universe of rituals that surround it resonate with you. There is no-one else to blame. This is our own life we are celebrating. It would be a terrible thing to run out of the ability to acknowledge our own freedom.


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