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
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