Friday, 30 October 2015

Looking out of the tent - Parashat Vayera 5776

The Torah portion opens with Abraham sitting in the tent - petach haohel

Tradition open on all sides so can see the coming visitors.

Tradition that open in all four compass directions, Yama V'Kedma, Tzfona, vNegba
Inspiration for the Chupah, similarly open on all for sides - let the love out
And off he goes, even in pain - told the pain is great.
I don't remember, but prepared to take Rashi's word for it.

Interesting idea that at the birth of Judaism openness. Looking out, looking forward. Very New London kind of approach to Jewish life. Not interested in the cloistered, self-ghettoised approach to Jewish life - the sort of Jewish life that cowers in the face of the world 'out there.'

Want to look out from Abraham's tent, and share what I can see from the four compass directions of Jewish life, Yama V'Kedma, Tzfona, vNegba.

Kedma first - literally first or before, the East, the direction of the rising Sun. For me, as a 
Jew today, Kedma is my history.
Where do I come from.

Masorti as a chain of tradition folding back. My ancestors manned the ack-ack guns during the Second World War, came across from Eastern Europe to Brick Lane at the turn of the last century, wandering back through a family tree put together by a third cousin, back into C17 in, of all places Siberia. Several centuries before that, now lost in time, presume my ancestors were Ashkenaz Jews of Central and Western Europe who were steadily expelled during the 13th-15th centuries into the Pale of Settlement. Before that wonder if my ancestors were part of the greatest Jewish settlement of the turn of the last millennia - in Bagdad. Maybe they made their way to Bagdad as part of the great exodus from the Land of Israel that occurred in some 1700 years ago - you knew, I hope that Bagdad was the centre of Jewish life for almost a millenia  - and then, of course, before that the Land of Israel before the Romans made life there too difficult, before the Temple was destroyed. And then before then the first exile, the First Temple, and before that the wandering in Sinai - slavery in Egypt and before that, stretching back beyond the limits of known history the time when Abraham sat in his tent and entered into a covenantal relationship with God - a way or bridging the gulf between the divine and the human, the infinite and the finite.

Not really interested in history as fact, I'm pretty sure that at some point someone converted in, I've no idea if I'm a genetic descendent of Abraham Avinu - that's not the point. The point is, I count myself into the Kedma - the past. And when I look out at the world I carry my past with me, this covenental relationship with God, as articulated through thousands of years of a tradition that unfolds back into the mists of time, back to the time of Sinai, the evolution of Rabbinic Judaism - the writing of the Talmud, the codification of the Shulchan Arukh. My past become my spectacles - the way I look out at the world. I see a shelf of meat in the shop, and I think like someone who cares about Kashrut. I read of the oppression of minorities and I think like someone who still feels the experience of Egyptian bondage. When I look out my tent in the direction of kedma I carry my past.

Tzafona - understood as the North, literally means hidden. Referred to what was behind the mountains North of Jerusalem, the dangerous places where the Assyrians would come pouring down on ancient Israelite territories unseen until, God forbid, it all got too late.
For me, when I look out my tent towards Tzafona I see, or rather I don't see, the hidden future. It's hidden, but that doesn't stop my looking. Doesn't stop me asking the questions about our future as Jews. Who are we going to be.

JPR report, by some increasingly nearby point half the Jews of England will be Chareidi. Partly their high birth rates, and good luck to 'em, and partly our, in that dramatic image from the birth of Jewish Continuity, dropping off the cliff.
Had a conversation with someone this week. Their aged parents are members, she's not. She wanted some rabbinic advice regarding her young daughter, not looking to give her daughter a meaningful Jewish education - oh no - just a once in a decade, perhaps, check in with a Rabbi. And she took great pains to explain to me that she feels very Jewish and she wants her daughter to feel very Jewish - but what, I wanted to ask - did that amount to more than a present at Chanukah and pack of Matzah once a year. And where will that journey from commitment in one generation, to tenuous in the next lead in a generation to come. And I'm not worried about the Chareidim - they will get on with a kind of Judaism that they understand as the will of God - what about our kind of Judaism - I'll have more to say about our kind of Judaism later.

But when I look out at the future I worry about these kinds of things. Joseph - you did great today, you have the potential to do great in the future. But what will your Jewish future look like. Have I, have we as a Synagogue failed to give you a meaningful shot at a Jewish future. I worry about this sort of stuff.
And it's not just about numbers and levels of knowledge. It's about the kind of Judaism. There is a worrying trend within Judaism that Judaism seems, increasingly, to speak in voices that are reactionary, bitter. There are, particularly in a certain segment of religious discourse in Israel, voices that are frankly racist. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the attack on Yitzhak Rabin, killed by a Jewish religious extremist still venerated in the settler community in Israel. And other attacks, both in the last week - in my weekly words wrote of the knife attack - from a settler on Rabbi Arik Asherman of Rabbis for Human Rights - and more murderously on Arabs.
When I look to the hidden future, worried that we are becoming a religion of bitterness and hostility to the other. Want to be part of a different Jewish future. Need more love.
Nachmanides “The Torah commands that there be no jealous stinginess in your heart. The same best wishes you have for yourself, you should have for your neighbour. There is no withholding in love.”

These are things I worry about when I look out towards the hidden future.
And the other two directions - yama v'negba. Understood as West and South, but literally towards the Sea and towards the desert.
Somewhat playfully - when look towards the sea, cooling, it's the Mediterranean, it's a lovely sea, lapping gently at my ankles.
When look towards the desert it's different, deadly exposed, burning sun - threat. Nowhere to hide, life laid bare.

Judaism is both these things for me - the comfortable and the uncomfortable.
Has been said of journalists, Priests and it was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said it of Rabbis.
The job of the Rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Rabbis, and the tradition as a whole is a mix of gentle lapping seas and brutal exposure to the desert.
 Of course comfort. To make Shabbat with my family.
I love it - I love being part of this fabulous community and will miss it while I am away over the coming months. Partic at the difficult times when I look out the tent in the direction of the Yamma grateful for the comfort my tradition can bring to my own life, and to those I care for. Feeling I am being cared for.
Reb Simha Bunem - piece of paper in each pocket.
On one is written, for my sake was the Universe created.
Created in the image of God. When see that in the eyes of those I love, wonderful.
But there is another piece of paper - I am but dust and ashes.
Prophetic texts - what are you worth.
Who do you think you are kidding.
Not doing enough to end the suffering, the poverty and the loneliness of the world.
Not interested in Jewish guilt, not interested in the threat of fire and brimstone. But deeply discomforted by the voice of our tradition that says, 'Nu?' you call that a fast, you call that caring about Judaism, it's not good enough.
Demand that we do better.

When look in one direction see Judaism as a wonderful comforter.

When look in the other acknowledge Judaism as a provocateur, challenging me to live more closely aligned to the values I profess to care so deeply for.

This is what I see when I look to the Yamma and to the Negba - to the sea and to the desert.

So this is what I see when I look out of my tent.
My past, as a Jew.
And our hidden future.
The way in which Judaism can offer comfort.
And the exposure to a critique that insists I am not doing anything like enough.
How many of you look out your tents this way?
I welcome you to join me, because I think this is how we have always looked out of our tent.
Because I think this is precisely how we should be looking out of our Jewish tents.
Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Heading on Sabbatical

Dear Friends,
Those of you who follow our electronic, or other, communications will know that I am shortly to embark on a three month sabbatical. I will be away for the months of November, December and January and again for a month next summer.

I've been the Rabbi of New London for almost eight years now. I couldn't leave during my seventh year - we were without a Cantor, and then last year I served as temporary head of our Youth provision. It's time for me to step back a little from the glorious churn of this glorious job and recharge. It is an incredible privilege to serve this community as its Rabbi; to be with members at the most important times in their lives and to have the opportunity and the responsibility to share our awesome, religious tradition from and off the pulpit in so many ways. I am excited to return, excited to share what I hope to learn in the coming months, but I am tired and I suspect both of us - the congregation and myself will benefit by my stepping back for a while.

In my absence I have scheduled a tremendous array of Shabbat morning speakers, including NLS members, guests new to the community and also my immediate predecessors - Rabbis Weiner and Hammer. You will be able to see the list of speakers on the Synagogue web-site.  There will be adult education shared by the wonderful Rina Wolfson. And, of course, I have worked hard with Cantor Jason and the professional and lay leadership to ensure the pastoral needs of the community will be properly cared for at this time. While I am away my assistant, Frances, will receive emails sent to my usual address and will be able to ensure they are given the appropriate attention by the appropriate person - and I am grateful to her. In case of pastoral emergency members should contact Cantor Jason via the office, his mobile phone number will be on the Synagogue voicemail during out-of-office hours. Other well qualified members of the broader Masorti community are also going to be available to us in case of need at this time.

I will be popping up, as a Jew in the pew, over the coming months, but travelling also - and largely away. So I take this early opportunity to wish the community a joyous Chanukah (yes Chanukah does seem to come earlier and earlier every year), and look forward to seeing one and all February.

Maybe He Heard the Voice of the Angel - Rabbis for Human Rights

Rabbi Arik Asherman, from Rabbis for Human Rights, has spoken New London in the past. In the last week he suffered a particularly bizarre - and awful - knife attack while attempting to film settlers burning Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank. A masked settler, bearing a knife went to attack the Rabbi, kicking and punching him.

It's bizarre - and awful - because this is not how human beings should behave, it is not how religious Jews should behave and, in the midst of other far more deadly knife attacks in and around Jerusalem, the notion that settler should do this to a Jew is particularly repugnant.

The video of the attack has, in that trite phrase, gone viral. But what struck me was that after the initial attempt to stab Rabbi Asherman the attacker runs away, only for Rabbi Asherman to run after the attacker, clearly shouting at him. In a subsequent interview Rabbi Asherman explains he was shouting at his attacker, 'You are desecrating God's name, you are desecrating the Torah.' The attacker kicks out, punches and throws rocks at the Rabbi, but the knife never quite connects, partly a matter of luck, and partly there seems to be something in the attacker's heart which is preventing him from a full attack. Perhaps, Rabbi Asherman wonders, he experiences something like Teshuvah, maybe, he goes on to say, 'like the verses we read in this week's Parasha he heard a voice that made him hold back the knife.'

This is the pre-eminent moment, certainly, in the book of Genesis. God calls to Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice and then the angel calls out twice to stop the patriarch, 'don't send forth your hand against the child.' Is it even possible to read this event, in the hills of the West Bank, as a modern retelling of the story of the Akeidah? A story in which the possibility of violence rises up and - somehow - in the moments of initial plotting and planning it can be justified, explained. We have all, surely experienced moments of anger, and plotted. But then comes the brutal moment when blade is to be placed against skin, and here - at this point - all justification of anyhting which causes harm to another falls away, for there can be no justification. There is something in the encounter between human and human that ought to leech all attempts to justify the hurt of another soul from us. That, taught Levinas, is the essence of the ethical encounter.

Maybe the lesson for those of us living safe from threats of knife attacks from either Palestinian or Jewish terrorists in this strange time, is two-fold.
For those of us for whom plots to damage others occasionally well up in our souls, we need to know that plotting might feel acceptable, but the actuality of hurt can never be justified. We need to train ourselves to listen out for the voice of the angel telling us that the hurt of one human by another can never and must never be justified.

And for those of us who are subject to attack we need to find a way to share our humanity even at the point of a knife. That sounds dangerous. It is dangerous. It's not for everyone, nor for every circumstance. Of course big walls and barbed wire have their part to play in keeping us safe. But someone, somewhere, needs to find the ability to reach towards the humanity of those who wish us harm, and confront that wish with our soul laid bare - as Levinas argues so persuasively. Even writing this feels almost impossibly hard. It is almost impossibly hard. Thank God there are however heroes  - like Rabbi Asherman - who have the strength of soul to fight hatred with Torah and violence with hope. I wish him a speedy healing from the injuries he suffered in the attack and commend the organisation he leads to all,

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Jeremy
You can see the video and interview I refer to here

You can read Rabbi Asherman's reflections on the attack here a URL which offers links to opportunities to find out more about Rabbis for Human Rights and donate to support their important work.

Friday, 16 October 2015

On Noah and Israel / Palestine - Not Another Intifada

Wanted to give a different sermon this week, but events in Israel...
God help us all,
Three moments from this week's Torah reading and three lessons for this tragic, depressing and precarious time.
(ו) שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ
One who spills the blood of Adam - shofech dam ha-adam - in the name of Adam, shall their blood be spilt - bAdam damo yishfaech
Love this rhythm, this chiastic power connecting the blood to the very nature of what it means to be human.
In context of the original notion of Kashrut involving a forbidding of the consumption of blood.
Ach basar, - only flesh are you permitted to eat.
bnafsho damo lo tocheilo - the soul which resides in the blood you shall not eat
Echoes of the Merchant of Venice
But if you can't take the blood of even an animal, you can't - you just can't take the blood of a human.
כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם
 עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃
The human is the image of the divine, encoded into each of us.
All of humanity contains the image of God. So if you want to know what God's image really looks like, you have to take a collective image of the entirety of humanity, male and female, black and white, Jewish and Muslim, Zionist and Palestinian, and you have to imagine every life ever lived and every life still to be lived, and you might get close.
But the point is the image of God is encoded in those we don't like, even in those we hate, and despite everything, despite anything, we can never, must never, profane the image of the Divine encoded into all humanity.
And to the suicide attackers - know that this Rabbinic idea appears also in the Koran.
Investigation into a line we read last week, that when Cain kills Abel, God says damei achicha - the bloods of your brother cry out to me.
Why the bloods! grammar is particular, to teach us that murder doesn't just take the life of the person, but of any possible descendants through time.
We are being taught the utter importance of all human life, you take one life, teaches the Mishnah, and teaches the Koran, and you destroy an entire world. You destroy one life, teaches the Mishnah, and teaches the Koran, and you keep an entire world.
You cannot, you just cannot, drive a car into an innocent bystander waiting by the side of the road. Such behaviour can never, must never be justified.
And this is how bad it has become.
There are now reports of Israeli vigilantes launching attacks against Arabs in Israel. And in an attack earlier this week a man, Uri Rezen, was stabbed by one of these Israeli Jewish racist idiots thinking he was stabbing an Arab. But Uri Rezen is a Jew. And now, under arrest, the judge feels the need to protect the name of the stabber for fear of reprisal attacks against him, How stupid is the notion that the response to violence should be more violence. How immoral, how heartbreaking and how stupid.
I have in my mind, for those of a certain vintage, Neil Kinnock's party conference speech where he called out a Labour Council, a Labour Council for their atrocious failure to stand for what Kinnock believed a Labour Party should stand for. For here we have an Israeli Jew, an Israeli Jew thinking that his love of Israel is best demonstrated by stabbing an innocent stranger whose greatest sin is that he looks a bit Arab. How wrong, how heartbreaking and how stupid.
This is my first point
You cannot spill blood. You must value the image of the Divine encoded in all humanity. You cannot spill blood.
Here's a second thought.
It's an old joke, the one where the pious man prays to God to save him from the flood, waving away the emergency workers who keep coming to attempt his rescue only to be drowned. The man is furious with God for letting him drown, and God responds, who do you think sent the emergency workers?
The joke is old, but older still - in fact dating back well over a thousand years is this Rabbinic commentary on the story of Noah and his ark.
Said Rav Huna in the name of Rav Yossi, God warned the generation of the flood about the oncoming flood for 120 years in the hope they would do change their ways.
Since they wouldn't change their ways, God said to Noah, ‘Make an ark of cedar wood.’ Noah got up and planted cedars.
And the people asked him, ‘what are those cedars for?’ And he said, ‘God wants to bring a flood on the world.’ And they mocked him.
And Noah watered the cedars and they grew, and the people asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ And he answered them similarly. And they mocked him.
And eventually he cut them down and planed them. And the people didn't change, and Noah banged together the ark and the people didn't change and when finally the flood broke loose, they gathered around the ark and implored Noah to grant them protection. And with a loud voice Noah replied; Idiots? For 120 years you didn’t change? And now you want to be kept alive?’
The point is that Noah's flood didn't arise from nowhere. In fact there was this simple decent person quite literally banging on about what was coming - warning that if the people didn't change their ways disaster, loss of life, was coming.
And there are plenty of simple decent people banging on in Israel today, both Jewish and Arab.
There are mothers and fathers who have lost children - both Jewish and Arab.
There are former Chiefs of Staff of the Israeli army, former heads of Shin Bet - Israel's elite counter-intelligence - unit who are banging away, warning that if things don't change we will all be swept away in a flood.
There's a tremendous clip that showed up on my social media this week of the Israeli Arab journalist Lucy Aharish calling out the Israeli Arab and Palestinian leadership for fanning the flames of violence with their dangerous rhetoric and their failure to work towards peace.
We desperately need a new approach to a negotiated settlement which can see a secure and stable Israeli state existing alongside a secure and stable Palestinian State. And it's not enough to make the fancy public pronouncements that play well with the international gallery, or the internal pressure groups.
The problem isn't the belligerent words used by those on both sides, expressing their horror at the other, talking the talk about a belief in a two-state solution, whilst giving support to actions which make the chance of such an outcome ever more difficult to reach. We've plenty of that. It's not enough to play dog-whistle politics with the lives of those living in Israel and Palestine. What we need is the other thing.
We need less big pronouncements, and much more genuine dialogue, less words and more actions designed to send the message that there is another way and that there is a genuine desire to build a new relationship between Israel and Palestine.
Pirkei Avot - gedalti ben hahachamim v'lo matzati tov mi shtika.
Ain a dibbur ha ikkar, eleh ha-maseh
You can't watch on while Noah bangs away at his ark and then express surprise when the flood comes. And the flood is coming. We need more leadership through action, less belligerent words and more courage.
And here's the third point.
Goodness, it's depressing. It's gloomy, and at times it feels irredeemably so.
And that's just reading the parasha - where the entire world is destroyed for being suffused with violence and God promises not to do it again, not because God thinks we are going to change, but even despite our being - in the Torah's words - evil from our youth.
And when you factor in these stabbings and suicide attacks and revenge attacks and the rhetoric and the failure of real commitment to work towards a two-state solution. It's worse.
So here is what happens in the parasha.
After the flood, after the destruction of the entire human race, Noah and his closest family are left floating over Armageddon. And then Noah does something truly epochal. He opens the window of the ark and sends out the raven.
He lets light in, and he sends his hands out. It was my friend Rabbi Marc Wolf who pointed out to me the power of this action. Not to stay in the dark, not to give in to the siren call of despair. Not to give up on their being a future - a bright future.
Despair is forbidden, in Jewish thought. So don't give in.
Don't yield to those who tell you that there is no hope; Don't accept that the Arabs can never be a true partner for peace. Don't accept that Israelis are ever going to make peace. It's fine to pay attention to the mess, but don't forget to open the window and let the light in, don't forget to send out the raven. Don't forget to hope.
Here's a point of light - a point of hope.
Uri Rezen - the Israeli stabbed by the vigilante who thought he was an Arab - he's responding to his being stabbed by going on Israeli TV and proclaiming, ' “We are all human beings, we are all equal. It does not matter if an Arab stabbed me or a Jew stabbed me, a religious, orthodox or secular person."
There's another clip doing the rounds on social media of the Israeli-Arab Mayor of Nazareth calling out a firebrand Israeli-Arab Member of Parliament - while the latter is being interviewed live on the streets of Nazareth, demanding that the people of Nazareth don't want an escalation of violence, don't want an escalation of rhetoric.
There's a rally planned for tonight, in Tel Aviv - hosted by the New Israel Fund, a rally to refuse to despair. And Amen to that.
Look for the points of hope.
And if you can't find them, try these - 

Look for the points of hope. Because even if it's awful, it's forbidden to despair
My three lessons this week.
Never shed blood
Call for a change of ways; a change of leadership
Never give up hope

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Story #37

This is a story about four people; Someone, Anyone, Everyone and No-one.
And a job; Anyone could do the job, as long as Someone did the job that was fine. But when Everyone was invited to do the job, No-one turned up.

I like that story. It seems very much about the life of a Synagogue. There is very little that only one person can do (and as I head off on sabbatical we are shortly to experience how much the Synagogue depends on its Rabbi!). But plenty that requires someone to put up their hand and show up. The great challenge, however is reaching beyond the non-descript open-to-all invitation to Everyone. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a great line about the difference between a Rebbe and a Rabbi. The Rabbi speaks to 100 people and every congregant thinks the Rabbi means the person sat immediately to their left. 

The Rebbe speaks to a 1,000 people and everyone knows the Rebbe means them. It's all too easy to generally ask for assistance and to have the general request disappear amongst the all the other requests that bombard our lives.

I think that is why I was so happy with our Rosh Chodesh Minyan this Wednesday. Around half our regular community were due to be away, so we made a general request for 'Everyone's' help. And there we were, at 7:15am quorate, davening, engaging and celebrating. It's lovely to have lots of people for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But there are many ways to measure the strength of a community, and a good strong Rosh Chodesh Minyan is one of those I'll hold dear, perhaps even more dear than the number of Jews in the Pews for the biggest days (always the temptation of falling prey to matters of ego on that count). As the Talmud teaches, 'Ben Tadir v'Arai, Tadir Adif - between that which is ongoing and that which is occasional, that which is ongoing is preferable.'

So if you want to join us next month - Friday 13th November - do let me know. And did I mention the bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese (and there's whiskey too).

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 24 September 2015

As the Dust Settles

I want to offer my warm thanks to everyone who took part, led, or otherwise supported our services over Yom Kippur. It was a very special day and I was very touched to hear so much warm appreciation from members.
Thank you.
As we look to keep working to improve what we do I've put together a very simple opportunity for members to share feedback on the services. If you have anything to share, or any suggestions for where we can improve, please do.

And coming soon! I warmly look forward to seeing one and all over Succot, beginning this Sunday evening.

Rav Kook, writing on Succot, notes how 'though good for the soul' the journey of Yom Kippur in particular can be a little draining, with all our repentence and this relentless focus on sin we can feel a little beaten up. And that is why Succot comes so close on the heels of the Days of Awe; Succot is a time of celebration and joy. I defy anyone not to smile at the scent of the etrog, I'm always amused by the dance we perform with the weather at this time of year - in, out, in, out etc. Joy is good, celebration is good, eating is good. And, with the high, and heavy lifting behind us, we can prepare to celebrate.
There are services, evening and morning both days of Succot (Sunday night - Tuesday morning), followed (weather permitting) by a Kiddush in the Succah.
Let me also take this opportunity to wave a flag for our Simchat Torah celebrations where we will be celebrating the end and beginning of our Torah cycle and honouring some wonderful New London members; Nathalie Glaser, Brian Linden, David Lewis and Gina Sanders. In particular our celebrations on Monday night, 5th October are a wonderful way to bid the Tishrei season farewell and all are most warmly invited.
Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Jeremy

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Kol Nidrei - A Complex World

A Complex World
I had some time off over the summer, and did what every good Rabbi should do with some time off, and checked myself into Yeshiva. Astonishingly it's been 18 years since I studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, it's not that I haven't done learning since then, but there is something very special about having a run of time to pour through Rabbinic material in detail. And that's hard to squeeze in among the other demands of a congregational life.
The book I wanted to learn was, Meishiv Milchamah, the legal writings of the first Chief Rabbi of the Israel Armed Forces, Shlomo Goren. You might recognise this photo - that's Rav Goren, at the Kottel on the sixth day of the Six Day War. Rav Goren quite literally wrote the book on how the Israeli Army should be keep Shabbat and handle the demands of Kashrut - this is it. Meishiv Milchama also includes sections on dealing with the status in Jewish law of the wives of sailors, who disappeared in military service. Were it not for Goren's interventions these women would have been left in a limbo of being neither widowed, nor married. I enjoyed working my way through these sections, but the sections that originally drew me to the work were ones that attempted to articulate what it means for Israel's army to be holy. How do you balance the brutal, bloody demands of defending a country from existential threat with a commitment to the sanctity of all life? What is permitted in the name of self-defence either in anticipation or as retaliation? What responsibilities does Israel's Army have towards Palestinian non-combatants in occupied territories? And on; these are all questions Goren Wrestles with in Meishiv Milchamah.
I want, if you will join me, to take you inside one of Rav Goren's articles on the Lebanon War, back in the early 1980s.
In 1982 the Israeli Defence Forces invaded Lebanon, and began a siege on its capital, Beirut, in an attempt to bring to an end attacks on the northern Galil. Goren waded into the national debate with an article based on an obscure demand found in Maimonides' tenth century legal code, the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides demands that when a city is besieged an escape route must be left for those who wish to flee.[1] When I first heard of Goren's application of Maimonides' doctrine of the 'escape route' to the siege of Beirut I was stunned. A siege with an escape route seemed  as much use as a bucket full of holes. I read an article suggesting that Goren was driven by an ethical sense that compelled him to advocate having mercy even for Israel's enemies. In fact this was the article that inspired me to spend a summer reading Meishiv Milchamah. I was excited to see someone, actually someone known as a right-winger, a hawk, advocating this sort of merciful ethics.
So I went to Israel, and I got hold of the books and I read them, and in the books I found ... that it's more complicated than that.
It turns out that when you read Goren carefully it's not so clear that Goren is, in fact, motivated by an ethic of extending mercy towards even your enemies. In fact he spends a great deal of time discussing the possibility that the instruction to leave an escape route is merely, an eitzah - a piece of advice based on a Mediaeval conception of military siege best practice - a devar strategi - a matter of strategy - designed to weaken the determination of the besieged population who might, if deprived of an escape route, feel the need to fight to the bitter death. And if this is merely eitzah  - advice, a devar strategi, then, says Goren, it's up to the Generals of the day to decide if they want to follow this strategic advice, or other strategic advice from other quarters.
It was a deflating moment. I was looking for some kind of ethical beam of light to puncture the bleakness of so much that has emerged during and since the War in Southern Lebanon. I wanted a beacon of purity to shine into a world of military ethics I find challenging - and I thought I had one, but on closer inspection it turned out I was mistaken. I was deflated.
And then I remembered a poster that used to hang in the Synagogue of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I trained for the Rabbinate. It's an advert designed to encourage people to apply to the Seminary. In large print is this question;
Two people are crossing a desert, there is only enough water for one of them to make it. Who gets the water?
And then, towards the middle of the poster, in equally large print is this comment.
There is a simple answer to every complicated question... which is usually wrong.
And if you make it to the small print you will find out that the question about the water is discussed in the Talmud and that if you want to really know about what Judaism thinks should happen with this one bottle and the two desert wanderers, you should consider studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
It's an advert for a kind of Judaism prefers complex answers to complex questions. It's an advert that suggests that simple answers are likely to be wrong simply by dint of their simplicity. It's an advert that sums up not so much a specific approach of the Jewish Theological Seminary, but - I would claim - the reality of Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism distrusts the simple, it is, at its very core, a journey through nuance and subtlety replete with a deep understanding of complexity.
And in terms of my desire to find in Shlomo Goren's writings on war a beacon of morality, it's an advert that tells me that maybe there are no easy answers, no simple ethical solutions when it comes to war.
There is a simple answer to every complicated question... which is usually wrong.
When we encounter religion as children - even when I first encountered Goren - we want and we expect simples answers. Do good and get good, say sorry and get forgiven, read a book on the morality of war and expect to find simple morals. And now here I am - here we all are, grown up, at least a little bit, forced to confront the reality that Judaism just like life itself, is more complicated than that.

You may, at this point have realised, that I'm not really giving a sermon about Israel and the complexity of defending a country surrounded by, and even pervaded with, enemies. Or at least it's not merely about that.
It's a sermon about what we think we are doing here as more or less religious Jews, both praying to be sealed in the book of life, and not really believing that there exists - up in the heavens - ledgers in which is written whatever fate lies in store for us this year. Our religious journey is complex, but that's OK.
It's a sermon about the world, a world where - let me return to the subject of my sermon over Rosh Hashanah - we might want to be more open-hearted in our welcome to refugees, but run up against complexities because of one reason or another.
It's a sermon about our relationship with our parents, or our children, or our work colleagues, who we would find it so much easier to love with a full heart, if only they would do more of one thing, or less of another. Ah these families are complex things.
It's a sermon about politics, maybe you want to support one party, but don't like their leader, or the other, but aren't sure their attitude towards the one issue you value more than any other is quite where you would want it to be.
Perhaps above all this is a sermon about what it means to be a Masorti Jew, feeling more comfortable in a place which eschews the appeal of the simple, but wrong, in favour of a more complicated view of the world. It's a sermon that says to those of us who can handle complexity in one area of our life - and that is surely all of us - be more at peace with complexity throughout a life. It's a sermon that wants us all to feel more at home in a Jewish community that contains, and even celebrates, these tensions and counter-tensions. It's a sermon about New London.
There is a story about a community trying to work out what to do about one of the strange calendrical situations that come up only once every several years. The Rabbi, who's not been so long at the shul thinks the community should do one thing, the Cantor who's also a little on the new side thinks the shul should do the other thing. Together they go to longest-standing member to see what happened last time the community faced the same problem. 'Last time this happened we did what I claim we should do,' prompts the Rabbi, right?' 'No,' responds the member, 'Not right.' 'So last time this happened we did what I claim we should do?' responds the Cantor eagerly. 'No, not that either,' responds the member. 'Then what did happen last time?' both clergy demand, exasperated. 'Last time this happened,' the senior member is forced to admit, 'The Rabbi and the Cantor disagreed, and we had a big old discussion about it.' That's my kind of shul.
Have I missed out that this is a sermon about the role of women in our services here? It's a sermon about that too.
This is a sermon about finding the nuanced, delicately poised uneven solution more attractive than the cast-iron clear-cut one in every part of our life.
We have a problem in this world, a problem of being seduced by the simple. Spin-doctors insist that we - the great unwashed of a society - are only capable of responding to the simple statements, repeated with sufficient frequency that we come to believe them by dint of their continual thudding against our eardrums. And they have, I'm forced to admit it, some pretty compelling evidence on their side. But it doesn't mean I have to like it. It doesn't mean any of us should accept it.

Particularly since so many of the failings of the world are due to our pursuit of over simple solutions to the complexities of our lives.
The notion that a claim is better because it is simpler, or that it becomes more persuasive simply by being repeated is one we should reject. Instead we should ... well what exactly? This is the problem with a world of complexity, we can find ourselves stilled, paralysed almost, and that's no good either.
Maybe there is a way out offered by one of my most dearly treasured verses, from the Book of Micah.
God has told you what is good and what God demands of you; only that you should do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.
I like this verse. It has its own complexities. First there is that weasel word 'only' - as if doing any one of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God isn't enough we are called upon to do all three. But more than that, there are so many contradictions in the instruction. Doing justice and being kind are often incompatible. If someone has done something wrong, the just thing to do vigorously oppose it. The kind thing to do is to forgive it. But there is something in this triumvirate of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly that coheres as a single response. Maybe the three legs of this verse serve as a kind of counterbalance on to the other. When we find ourselves getting too strict and disciplined - too much justice, maybe we should try to love kindness a little more and walk a little more modestly. When we find ourselves walking too humbly, we should look to act more boldly; loving more boldly and promoting more justice in the world more vigorously. When we think we've got all the answers, we should walk a little more humbly.
In this year to come we should take opportunities to embrace the complexities of our life, the vibrant spectrum of colour that emerges between the extreme polarities of a life lived in black and white.
The complex is to be welcomed. The balanced approach - do I need a little more kindness, a little more justice, maybe a little more humility - is the one which will mark out our lives for greater glory in the year to come.
And as such, I commend it for us all, for a year ahead of sweetness, health and happiness, a year of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly.
Chatimah Tovah,
A good year to all,

[1] כְּשֶׁצָּרִין עַל עִיר לְתָפְסָהּ, אֵין מַקִּיפִין אוֹתָהּ מֵאַרְבַּע רוּחוֹתֶיהָ אֵלָא מִשָּׁלוֹשׁ רוּחוֹתֶיהָ, וּמַנִּיחִין מָקוֹם לַבּוֹרֵחַ, וּלְמִי שֶׁרוֹצֶה לְהִמָּלֵט עַל נַפְשׁוֹשֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "וַיִּצְבְּאוּ, עַל-מִדְיָן, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה', אֶת-מֹשֶׁה" (במדבר לא,ז)--מִפִּי הַשְּׁמוּעָה לָמְדוּ, שֶׁבְּכָּךְ צִוָּהוּ.

Neilah - Lessons in Love

Lessons In Love

The Maggid of Kozienicz[1] was a great Hasidic leader. But he wouldn't give the sermon on the holiest of days in his home town. You see in those days sermons would be long, technical and full and rebukes and reprimands. But one Yom Kippur the people crowded around him, and insisted. Eventually they succeeded in persuading him. The Maggid went up to the bimah, stood there for some time, and appeared to be ready to start several times, before .... nothing.
And then finally this,
My friends! I wanted to find sins in the Jews – but I have come to see that you are all holy, because your source is holy and your intentions are good. It is really only the exile of this world that has defiled us. So, may the redemption come and bring us out of exile, and let us say, Amen.[2]
And then he sat down.

I like that story. It's a story about a particular attitude towards Jewish leadership. You have to love Jews to be a Rabbi. Fortunately I do, and even if not every one of us keeps every jot and tittle of every legal command, I think you are all lovely.

It's good to love, it's actually an obligation, a Mitzvah no less to love; you have to love your fellow - that's the one Akiva considered the central organising principle of the entire Torah. Then there is the obligation to love God - that's the first line of the Shema, and the obligation, the most frequently repeated in the Torah, to love the stranger. A whole lot of loving.

It's not that I see myself as any particular expert, but I want to share three lessons in love, three challenges, if you will, to determine if we are doing it right, in the hope that we'll do it better, and do it more in the year to come.

Lesson One
Antigonus Ish Socho, on of the most ancient of Rabbinic teaches said this;
אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת שלא לקבל פרס[3].
Don't be like a servant who serves their master in the expectation of receiving a reward, rather be like a servant who serves their master with no expectation of reward.

Antigonus is talking about serving God, but it's a great question to ask regarding all our interactions.

When we are being nice to other people - and we are all nice to other people at least some of the time - are we doing it in the expectation of reward? Doing nice in the hope of getting a reward is OK. It's certainly better than not doing nice things for other people. But the expectation of reward removes the quality of love from an interaction. If you are putting something into a relationship calculating the scale of your investment against the prospect of a dividend you are not behaving like a lover, you're behaving like a financial analyst. Relationships based on mutual reciprocity, calculated on the basis of getting out at least what you put in are what Martin Buber called I-It relationships; not bad, as such, just quotidian, mechanical, dull - the Hebrew word would be Chol - profane.

But when you catch yourself putting more into a relationship than you could ever hope to get out - that's love, that's Buber's I-Thou interaction, that's the fullness of what it means to be a human being, that's holy.

A first test in love - Are you putting in more than you are planning on getting out?

And a second.
You do know, don't you, that love isn't an emotion. It's not something you do, it's something that is revealed by action.

A story.
A colleague, a very successful Rabbi in New York, receives a call from his long-since retired father, who had gone to live in Israel.
Avi, he said, I’m phoning to tell you my plane's been delayed and I'm now coming in to New York on Friday.’
‘Oh Abba,’ responds Avi, ‘That’s terrific, you know how much I love to see you.
I’ll arrange a cab to pick you up at the airport and bring you home and I’ll see you when I get back from the…
‘Avi’ the father interrupts, ‘I said I’m arriving at the airport on Friday.’
‘I heard Abba, and you know how much I’d love to come and pick you up from the airport, but, you see …
‘Avi,’ the voice gets serious, ‘do me a favour, love me a little less, and pick me up from the airport.’

I've told that story before, I love it a great deal. But partly I'm telling it this year because Avi's father passed away in Israel several months ago and at one point, on my Facebook feed, up popped a video of 30 of his congregants who went to the airport to pick up their teacher as returned to New York from the Shiva. They obviously knew that story too - a story in which love is revealed by our willingness to schlep out to the airport; love is revealed by action.

It's a very Jewish approach. The Shema calls us to God, in the Shema, it doesn't mean we are commanded to feel all warm and cosy inside. It means we are commanded to repeat these words night and day, to our children, to put on Tefilin and affix Mezzuzot.

When we are commanded to love the stranger, in Deuteronomy, we are commanded to leave parts of our harvest for them, we are commanded to ensure they have enough to eat and clothes to wear. It's our actions that reveal the nature of love.

Golde was definitely on to something in Fiddler on the Roof;

Do I love you? 

For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
If that's not love what is?

Aside from the gender critique - and there is certainly a gender critique - Golde has  a great point - this, all this activity, reveals love.

Officiating at weddings is great, having the best seat at a Chuppah is the a wonderful  perk of the job, and I am touched by the articulations of love that come from the newly engaged. But I would be much more interested in peeking into their future, and seeing how they are behaving in the moments of normalcy and challenge. How are their actions in those moments revealing the true nature of their relationship?

Do you ever find yourself using the words of love to free yourself from actually having to do something loving? I'll admit it, I do. At least sometimes. It's not really good enough, is it.

Maybe the true test of love is the Martian's test - if a Martian dropped into our homes and watched our behaviour would they consider us loving. Or let me do that in more theological language, with our every action revealed and laid bare before the One who knows all, how loving do we appear before our creator?

Test one - do we put in more than we expect to get out.
Test two - what do our actions reveal about our ability to love.

And one more.
It's a little complex. Love, real love, isn't about the object of love.
The point of love isn't to select with whom we share our love. The point is to be loving not discriminating in our love.

There's a clue in the array of objects of love commanded in the Torah; God and then two categories of human; your fellow (it's often translated as 'your brother') and the stranger. In other words you have to love two types of person, the one like you and the one different from you; the humans you naturally are drawn towards and the humans you naturally draw away from.

Admittedly the Christians have made more of play of loving one's enemies than the Jews, but it's the Hebrew Book of Exodus which instructs, 'if you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down, rescue it with them.'[4]
And it's the Hebrew Book of Proverbs which instructs, 'If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat.'[5] We've plenty to say about the importance of loving those we don't in fact like very much.

I'm quite sure that Akiva, in suggesting that loving your fellow is the central principle of the Torah, must have meant we have an obligation to love those we dislike. What, after all, would be the point of a Biblical injunction to love only those we like already? How can that provide a central principle for anything?

True love isn't to be funnelled only in limited directions.
A love that is too busy selecting what, or whom, to love isn't really love at all. At best it's an exercise in self-gratification, we love that which makes us feel better and we turn our hearts away from anything or anyone who doesn't. At worst a fenced-in love could be the cover for a much nastier emotion - hate.

I've long been amused by a provocative insight into the relationship between a Jew and an antisemite. The antisemite, the saying goes, hates all Jews, but has nothing against Shumli, who lives next door. On the other the Jew loves all Jews, but Shmuli...!

Neither Jew nor protagonist emerges from the tale free of taint.
The case I am making is that there is a link between the pejorative notion of being discriminating - that is to say being an out and out racist, and the supposedly non-pejorative notion of being discriminating - that is to say being picky about who or what we love.
We should be working on becoming less discriminating in both senses of the term.
We should loving a lot more and excluding from the bracket of those with whom we share our love a lot less. 
Be more loving, be less picky.

That's my third test of love.
We need to focus our ability to love on being loving, not discriminating.

So this is my Neilah call, it's both simple and complicated.
Be a lover, love more, love better.

Put more into your relationships than you expect to get out from them.
Check and check again that your actions reveal you to be a lover.
And watch out when you find yourself becoming discriminating in choices around love.

Goodness, what a wonderful world we could create together.
What a lovely world.
May we all work to create it in this year ahead,
Let us take these last few moments, before the gates close to commit ourselves to building this version of a new year for us.
And may we all have the merit to enjoy it,

Chatimah Tovah

[1] c. 1737-1814
[2] I came across this story in a sermon given by R. Tirza Firestone, formerly the Rabbi of the Boulder Renewal Community.
[3] Avot 1:3
[4] 23:5
[5] 25:21
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