Sunday, 30 November 2014
Friday, 28 November 2014
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.’
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.”
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.
And if it doesn’t stop now, it will just unfold into the next generation and the next and the next.
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.
forbidden and wrong.
And if it doesn’t stop now, it will just unfold into the next generation and the next and the next.
Thursday, 27 November 2014
Thursday, 20 November 2014
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 http://harnofchesed.wix.com/give.
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.
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
Monday, 17 November 2014
I’ve a video up on the Synagogue’s web site from my class last week on Women and Torah Reading,
It would be helpful to have the sources to hand, they are at
Thursday, 13 November 2014
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.
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.
Tuesday, 11 November 2014
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.