Monday, 29 February 2016

A Three Part Guide to Jewish Life - Part Three - Otherness

This is the last of a series of three sermons where I am trying to set out the heart of my Jewishness; what I think is and ought to be the heart of our Jewish engagement here, at New London Synagogue.
Let me bring those of us who might need a little refresher, a sense what I think we've covered until now.

Two weeks ago I talked about belief. I tried to articulate a rational supernaturalism where we celebrate everything scientists have found out about this Universe, how it came to be, how it works and how we come be part of this story while celebrating also those parts of this Universe that are beyond measurement and double-blind peer-reviewed scientific review - the nature of love, the very existence of anything rather than nothing. I talked about fostering a sense of radical amazement and practising gratitude as a way of sensitising ourselves to this underlying nature of our existence.
Last week I spoke about love, about how acknowledging our very existence should place us in the habit of loving the God who has created all this and also our fellow human beings who hold in their very essence the image of the Divine. I suggested that even the most apparently love-less alleyways of our faith can and indeed should be understood as acts of love.

I've a couple of outstanding pieces from last week's business I want to return to this week. Last week I noted that the Torah obligates three kinds of love, a love of God and one's fellow - that I dealt with last week. But also a love of the ger - the stranger. I'll have more to say about that today. Secondly, I suggested last week that many of these apparently love-less areas of Jewish life are really trainings in love. Let me pick up that point now.

Odd Mitzvot in Judaism, not wearing Shatnetz - garments of wool and linen, not mixing milk and meat and the like are a training in observance, allowing us to see things and the inter-relation between them and the creator of all things more closely. We are being trained to realise that milk comes from cows, not bottles. The point I made last week is that by becoming more observant we have the chance to make decisions to be better, better consumers - say - of clothes or meat. We become sensitised to the notion that our actions count and that there is a difference between acting well and acting wickedly. And now what?

The problem is that people can do a whole lot of observance and still be brutish. Punctilious observance of the laws of Kashrut, or Shabbat or Shatnetz guarantees no level of decency in behaviour. It's a problem recognised by Nachmonidies[1] who seems to have coined the term naval bereishut hatorah to refer to a person who misbehaves even though they are technically fulfilling each of the black-letter commands of the Halachic system.

We are called upon to live with an underlying ethical approach that is both shaped by our observance, but also becomes ever more apparent at the edges of the observances we are commanded to perform. Once the black letter of law comes to an end what we do at that point is a revealing of our underlined ethic approach to the world; an ethical approach that has both shaped us and been shaped by the practices we have been observing along the way to this point.

Of course, the ethical underpinning of our lives influences us at every step, even if we don't recognise it, even if we are doing the most straightforward things we are in a million tiny, unconscious ways revealing our ethical approach.

So what is the heart of the ethical underpinning that should be at the heart of our Jewish existence? It's the third of the commands to love, the single most emphasised idea in the entire Torah - the command to love the stranger - the ger.

The ger, in the Biblical mind, is the non-Jew who comes to live among the Jewish people in a Jewish state where they have no land and, therefore possibilities of economic survival are slim. They are the most fragile, most poor and most weak members of society. In possibly the most stunning moment in the Torah we are given a precise reason to love the ger - the stranger - 'ki gerim hayitem beretz mitzrayim' - for you were gerim - strangers - in the Land of Egypt.

Nachmanides suggests this reason for this repeated claim; Don't imagine that your status as the landed, secure and powerful is so secure. Once upon a time the Egyptians were in charge and you were oppressed, now you are in charge, don't think that I, God, can't roll the dice again and you will find yourselves back underneath the power of others. It’s about more than an attempt to make us humble and gracious for what we have, it’s the ultimate test of whether we understand what it means to be decent  don we respond as a master in a better way than our masters behaved to us when we were slaves? When God tells Abraham that his descendants are to be oppressed and beaten by others he couldn't have imagined the awful catalogue of abuse and hatred suffered by the Jewish people through the generations. But our experiences of being on the receiving end of oppression can never justify our own oppression of others, in fact, the contrary is the case. Our experience of oppression can perhaps only be justified as sensitising us to the awfulness of anyone being oppressed.

We must love the stranger for we were strangers. We must love those who are different to us, and especially those who are less secure than we are, for we have a profound understanding of what it is to be different and insecure - as insecure as a Fiddler on the Roof.

The third tenet in this journey into an understanding of our Jewish identity is otherness. How do we treat otherness when, as Jews, we meet it, as indeed we must meet it all the time?

We are on the territory of the great 20th C French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas was obsessed; the word is not too strong, by the face-to-face encounter - a phrasing he adopts from the Torah where God and Moses meet Face-to-Face. A face to face encounter is a test, successfully encountering the other face-to-face involves recognising the radical otherness of the other. He's French he writes like this. It involves recognising the extent to which the other person's fate is bound up in the decisions we make. When we encounter another face-to-face we realise that the other is profoundly different to us, different likes and fears that demand respect. We can't just subsume their interests and desires into ours, for they are different to us. More than this, when we encounter the other face-to-face we realise that the other - when we look into their eyes is terribly fragile, mortal. 

We are all just a thin veneer away from being strangers, our surface comforts covering a deeper level of fear and emotional fragility, just as our skin provides a thin protection for out mortality and physical fragility.

For Levinas, the face-to-face encounter is the ethical moment in our lives, the moment when we make decisions about how to treat others; and, in particular, the weaker and the more fragile.
It's much easier to walk past a beggar on the street when we don't have to look at them face-to-face. It's much easier to treat someone with cavalier disdain by email than in a face-to-face encounter.
But if we can become brave enough to encounter others face-to-face, honestly, if we can allow their difference from us and their fragility to shape our actions we can become ethical.
And now, I think, all this training in appreciating otherness in milk and meat and wool and linen in the thousand ways in which a Halachic life sensitises us to the nuances of difference make more sense. They are training in the ultimate encounter with otherness and difference. They are a training in how to respond to that difference recognising so much of what we. OK, I, have been on about these past three weeks.

Can we recognise difference and allow it, not wishing to suppress it as we have been suppressed so many times and in so many ways. Can we treat difference in such a way to as to reveal we understand that all humanity is created in the image of God, our fellow and the stranger alike? Can we love difference, and through that act of love reveal our love of God and our fellow?

Can our acts of love reveal an underlying belief in a creator who is worthy of our love, as we re-encounter again and again the radical miracle of our lives, as humans, healthy humans for those of us so blessed, Jewish humans perhaps most especially. And can we act in ways that reveal our gratitude for that with which we are blessed.

This is the Jewish task. This is the task for us at New London. I commend it to us all.

It’s a task that is worthy of our every effort for the obligation is great, but, I believe, the rewards equally so.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Jewish Care

I had one of the most moving occasions in my Rabbinic career on Thursday. I went to the opening of a new Jewish Care home offering world class dementia care. Here's the story.

Lippe was a survivor of the genocide of Hungarian Jewry. He survived three Nazi labour camps, one liquidated only days after his escape. Zuzie, also born in Hungary, survived the Holocaust hidden by a Catholic Priest. They met in post war Budapest at a gathering for young Zionists. Together, with nothing but what they could carry, they left Hungary for Israel where they married. Lippe worked as a bricklayer, selling yo-yos on the beach on the side to make a living in difficult times. Eventually, now with two children, the family moved to England, again, arriving with nothing. Again Lippe worked heroically; as a comis waiter, mini-cab driver, scissor exporter ... whatever it took. His determination and acumen brought professional success. Together with Zuzie they enjoyed tremendous happiness. In the mid 1960s they joined New London Synagogue, drawn by the magnetism of our founder Rabbi and the message Louis preached for so many years.
By the time I met the family Zuzie had declined. She needed a specific kind of care the family found it impossible to access, and she passed away soon after. Following Zuzie's death Lippe, with characteristic boldness and determination, suggested that he should found a nursing home to allow others to access the sort of care he had to work so hard to provide for his own wife. At this point I get to play a small walk-on part in this story.

I suggested to Lippe and his daughter, our member Dorit, that they might want to have a conversation with the the pre-eminent care-giving charity in the Jewish community, Jewish Care. I was able to join Lippe and Dorit at the first of what became many meetings with the team at Jewish Care, but shortly afterwards, Lippe himself passed away and it was Dorit and her son Alex who took forward Lippe's desires and supported what has now become an extraordinary state-of-the-art provision in the newly named Betty & Asher Loftus Centre where Jewish Care's Lady Sarah Cohen home is situated. The home bears the names of Lippe and Zuzie's fathers, murdered by the Nazis. May the memories of Kun Mor and George Kiss be forever a blessing. And on Thursday, among a collection of the great and good, the Minister for Social Care, Alistair Burt MP attended the opening ceremony.

For me it's a story in three parts. The first about the refusal to be defeated, the drive and determination it took to build a life out of the ashes of Nazi devastation. Secondly this is a story about a, very Jewish, sense that the accumulation of financial success is not an ultimate goal, rather an opportunity to do good for others - a responsibility nobly borne by the family. Finally it is a story of love and respect shown by Lippe and Zuzie's descendants, Dorit and her son Alex, who followed through on the last great wish of their father and grandfather and helped bring to fruition such a stunning testament to the determination and the kindness of their ancestors.

I salute all of the family, across four generations and also the entire team at Jewish Care led with great distinction by Simon Morris. I'm proud that New London comes to be associated with this tremendous story. I hope, in each of its parts that it can inspire us all, to live lives marked by acts of determination and kindness, and to leave legacies for those who follow us.

One final note. I only found out on Thursday that Alex, grandson of Lippe and Zuzie, now resident in Australia, has celebrated his marriage. It's the sort of Mazal Tov that deserves a note in our Weekly Words. Mazal Tov to Alex and Tami and our member, their mother, Dorit.

Shabbat shalom

Saturday, 20 February 2016

A Guide to Jewish Life - Part Two - Love

Last week I gave the first of what I hope will be a three part series of sermons trying to get at the heart of what it means to be a Jew.

I talked about belief - to be more specific a rational supernaturalism - that celebrates the scientific achievements of mankind while still valuing that which cannot be open to rational solution - while still believing in that which is beyond scientific exploration - while still believing in belief.
I had some wonderful feedback, thank you. And also this very good question, 'yes,' said a loyal member, 'that's all very good, but how do you get from there to Shabbat and Kashrut?' I hope, in part to join those dots today.

I want to talk about love, as the next step in underpinning Jewish life, specifically a very Jewish sort of love. There are, in fact, three commandments to love mentioned in the Torah.

V'ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha - And you shall love Adonai your God - that's from the Shema.
V'ahavta et Reicha Cemocha - And you shall love your fellow as yourself - that's the verse Rabbi Akiva, no less, considers the single greatest principle underpinning the entire Torah.
And V'ahavta et haGer - And you shall love the stranger - the single more repeated verse in the entire Torah.

A whole lotta loving. Actually our sister Synagogue, New North London, has these three obligations up in stone on the wall surrounding the ark. It's an impressive site.

I'm going to leave the obligation to love the stranger for next week. Today I want to focus on the twin obligations of loving God and loving one's fellow. In particular, I'm interested in the connection between them.

One the one hand these two ideas, loving God and loving one's fellow seem radically disparate. God is the force beyond all measurement, beyond all constraint of particularity and form. And humans are - breakable, fallible and ephemeral.
But I believe these two ideas are more than linked, they are the equally the necessary outcome of the greatest idea in Judaism.

If I was to be cast ashore on a desert island and given one Biblical verse to take with me, it would be the verse that speaks of the creation of all humanity in the image of God - Btzelem elohim. It's such a radical notion. There's a smart commentary in the Etz Hayim pointing out that all kinds of Ancient Near East religious traditions considered the King, or Pharoah as an embodiment of God. But The Torah goes far, far further - all humanity contains this spark of divinity within. Each of us here, and those not here, the men, the women, the powerful and the powerless, each contain that spark of the creative source of life. How extraordinary is human life. It's such a radical notion, will underpin the value of human rights, democracy, any liberation movement you care to name.

And if we, each of us, are refractions of Divine, containers of Divinity expressed as finite existence - then the command to love God and the command to love one's fellow become more than related.
Certainly it's not possible to claim to love God while treating humanity - any human - poorly. I would say that the reverse is equally true. If you place humanity at the very heart of your every action and motivation then you embodying what it truly means to love God. Certainly the best advice I could give to anyone professing atheism, to anyone unsure about this whole God thing is don't worry so much, concentrate on loving your fellow and let the magic of the utterly profound nature of our existence seep in slowly. The best way to become religious is to be loving.

Moreover, there is something in the loving of either God or our fellow that when we successfully love either God or our fellow we are in some sense protecting and celebrating that which is within us. We are images of God and when I love my fellow I'm loving a cousin, I'm celebrating a commonality, I'm celebrating that which brings us together.

So what do I mean by loving, what does it mean to love God, or our fellow?

I spoke a little about this on Yom Kippur. Loving, certainly as the Torah understands the term isn't an emotional reaction. Judaism cares little for our private emotional state. Loving means acting in a caring way. There's an insight in another of my desert island pieces of Torah, a passage in Talmud Sotah (14b) where the Rabbis are working out how to fulfil the Biblical obligation to 'walk in way of God,' what the Christians would call imitatio dei - how to behave in a godly manner. They come up with a list of Divine accomplishments that are most remarkable for their being least remarkable.
Just as God gives clothes to Adam and Eve as they are exiled from the Garden of Eden, so we are called upon to give clothes to the unclothed. Just as God visits Abraham as he recovers from circumcision, so we are called upon to visit the sick. Just as God comforts Isaac on the death of his father, so we are called upon to comfort the bereaved. Just as God buries Moses we are called upon to bury the dead. Nowhere is there a suggestion that we should resurrect the dead, split the rea, heal the terminally ill. Rather we are called, in that lovely Yiddish phrase, to be Menschen - to be a human through simple acts of kindness, offering basic support and comfort. Loving means acting.


And loving means taking these obligations seriously. If you love someone don't be slapdash, don't be rough and approximate. Take what you are doing seriously. I made the point last week in the context of the construction of the Sanctuary in the desert, the same point could be made regarding today's reading. If you want to be in serious relationship with God, take it seriously. Assume that it matters whether there are 49 poles in the sanctuary, or fifty. Assume that it matters whether one eats a cheeseburger or remembers to call one's mother Shabbat eve. Assume that if we aren't careful we don't get to call ourselves loving.

And here we are at the birth of the entire Halachic system, the entire apparatus of Jewish do-s and don't-s. It's an attempt to do the right thing when the desire to act in a loving way is felt. It's at the heart of the balance of Jewish do-s and don't-s that compel us to act in specific ways towards our fellow human beings and towards our creator.

Should we say a blessing before we eat food, of course we should, it's a taking of the fruits of creation and by inculcating within ourselves that spiritual discipline we condition ourselves to be aware of our place on this planet, we become increasingly aware of what we can and can't achieve of our own volition. And then the pursuit of detail takes over; what do we say before we eat this or that, what should we say after.

Should we give to this charity or the other, and how much should we give; these are all entirely genuine questions faced by the Halachic system - how do we balance up the competing claims of different humans, different refractions of the human image; some close to us, some further away.

There's a great legal responsum on whether and how we should treat the poshtei yad - the beggars on the street. There seem to be more and more of them, have you noticed? What if we don't like the fact they might spend the money on booze, or their dog, or their gang master? Complex this business of being loving to your fellow. Needs thought, needs working through. Thankfully we have just such a system of working these issues through - it's called Halachah.

The point is that it's not acceptable to be generally loving, generally nice. The point is that if we want to act in a loving way we need to be precise. Sometimes, I'll admit it, the pursuit of detail can blind. Sometimes we become so obsessed with detail that we lose the bigger picture - but the bigger picture is acting in a loving way.

Even those parts of the Jewish system that seem a long way away from this idea of love, I believe connect. Let me take the most love-less example of a Mitzvah I can find, Shatnetz - thou shall not mix wool and linen. Loveless, no? Well no, I don't think so. The prohibition of wearing Shatnetz is part of a series of obligations to hold different elements of creation differently. Don't eat meat and milk together, don't yoke an ox and a mule together, don't plant different kinds of plants together in the same field. They are attempts to get us to understand that everything is not the same. It's so easy to lose track of where the products we take for granted come from. Milk comes from cartons, no it doesn't it comes from cows; sometimes organically raised, sometimes bloated on chemicals. If we are paying attention when we walk into a shop and pick a carton off the shelf we can choose one decision over another. But if we only see clothing as something for us to use and not as a result of a process of manufacture, if we are blind, say, to the difference between clothing that comes from plants and clothing that comes from animals how are we supposed to care about the treatment of animals, or the wages paid to cotton pickers in Ukraine, or the working conditions of garment manufacturers in some awful factory in India that collapses under the weight of human greed - ours as much as the manufacturers. A strange Mitzvah, the very strangest Mitzvah is about awakening our powers of observance. As we observe it we become more observant, and the more we see, the more we understand, the more capable we become of taking care, of acting in a loving way.

The gift of having a system, the Halachic system, is that it gives us a headstart on so many of these issues. We don't need to re-invent the entire interplay of morality and ethics and compassion with our every breath and every bite. Instead, we get to observe Shabbat, keep Kosher, even wear non-Shatnatz clothing and we get to use these pathways of love to become ever more loving.

That the Jewish legal system.

A system of walking in the path of the Divine, recognising the image of God in all humanity and trying desperately to be worthy, trying desperately to understand the right thing to do in the ever more complex web of relationships, pulls and tugs that make up our lives.

It's easy, I know it's easy to lose track of the bigger picture, but the bigger picture is love. Love is at the heart of every call to action we know as Jews.

It's at the heart of what I call on us all to do today, and into the future.
Care more, love more, use our actions to demonstrate our commitment to value all humanity as creations in the image of the Divine, use our actions to demonstrate our commitment to value our creator and indeed, our very creation.

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 18 February 2016

For the Love of Torah

I got into this whole Rabbinic thing, principally, because of a love of learning Torah and a desire to be a teacher of Torah. And then the reality of a congregational existence hit. In truth I love pretty much every aspect of this work; the pastoral, the planning, even the slew of emails. But I have not been teaching enough.
Over the coming three weeks I am teaching and 'holding the court' as we have a conversation about Same Sex Love, Sex and Commitment. There first two of these sessions will be a traditional text-based classes (Wednesday 24th Feb, 2nd & 9th of Feb, click here for more).
In addition I am hugely looking forward to our Quest event on the Origins of Life where I will be engaging with two of this country's leading experts on embryology and the formation of life. This event, on Sunday 6th March, promises to be an absolute highlight of our year at New London. Click here for more.
I'm also delighted to announce a new ongoing learning opportunity for New London Synagogue members. I am going to be offering a lunchtime Midrash Shiur on Tuesdays; 12:30-13:30 at the Shul. We will be making our way through the great collection of Rabbinic commentary on the Boof of Genesis - Bereishit Rabba. I'm also hoping to livestream the class for anyone who would like to take part, but is unable to get to the Synagogue. If you are interested, please let me know by email. Our first meeting will be Tuesday 1st March.
Learning is at the heart of what it means to be a Jew. Teaching is - or at the very least should be - at the heart of the work of a Rabbi. I do hope you will take opportunities to join me on this journey,
Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Monday, 15 February 2016

A Three Part Guide to Jewish Life - Part One - Belief

I've never seen it put this before - that's the sort of thing that should make a Rabbi nervous - but I think it's possible to distil Jewish existence into three ideas; belief, love and otherness.
Today I want to talk about belief. What is it, what should we believe in, and how - if the idea of belief feels strange - can we find it.

This is what I don't mean by belief. You might have seen this in today's papers. There is now evidence that gravity waves exist. There was a piece in the  papers yesterday from a contemporary physicist talking how relieved he is no longer having to belief, he now knows. From a scientific perspective, beliefs are provisional theories, dangerous things which can blind a researcher from seeing a reality. Beliefs can distract and the goal of scientific research is to replace this kind of belief with proven rigour. That's all fine and good, but it has nothing to do with the kind of thing I mean when I talk about belief.

When I talk about belief I have in mind a line from the German philosopher of religion, Ludwig Feuerbach. 'What is finite to the understanding,' said Feuerbach, 'is nothing to the heart.' Belief is the realm of that infinite to the understanding, that which is purely an underpinning of a soul.
Belief exists in the realm of love.
I'm not interested in pitching religious beliefs against scientific discoveries. That's a kind of religion I have no interest in whatsoever.
But a person who says they believe they are loved, or that they feel an emotional or spiritual connection to a cause or an idea - you can't double-blind test these kinds of emotional states of existence. You can't objectively prove or disprove the stirrings of the heart.

Actually, there are scientists who think you can, there are scientists who think that our ever emotional reaction is nothing more than a rationally explicable matrix of neurons and hormones. I'll have more to say about that kind of science - and hugely interesting science it is too - later.

I'm talking about a sort of rational supernaturalism. I think we, to be a good New London kind of a Jew you need to be a rationalist, of course you do. The very creation of this community was a refusal to accept a religious dogma in the face of rational disproof. But I also think we need to open our hearts, our souls to something that is beyond the rational. Rather I fear that if we only work from the rational we will fail to understand who we truly are and what we are truly called to be.

On sabbatical, I reread on of my all time favourite books, Stages of Faith by the American 20th Century writer James W. Fowler. Fowler suggests that faith works in stages. As a child, we believe things literally. There really are monsters hiding under the bed, tooth fairies and the like. As we grow we enter into a stage of critique of these childish simplicities. We know that there is no such thing. The adolescent is a great iconoclast. Everything is rubbish and anyone persuading us otherwise is deceitful and to be distrusted. And then there comes another stage, in Fowler's work it's the Fifth, and not everyone gets there. The Fifth Stage of Faith - for those who leave behind the stage of the adolescent - is 'conjunctive.' One comes to acknowledge paradox, complexity, we come to relate to the symbolic nature of truth - the sense that something can be literally untrue, but in some deeper sense emotionally, or spiritually true.

My favourite example of all this is the colour of the sky. As I was writing this sermon the sky was blue. The small child version of this truth claim is that someone had got up on a ladder and painted the sky blue. The adolescent version of this truth claim is that the sky isn't blue, of course it's not. Rather it just appears that way when the sun is closer to us because of the way the molecules of the atmosphere refract sunlight into blue. Doh! claims the adolescent, don't be so daft. But then, for some people, we grow beyond that iconoclasm to appreciate the blueness of the sky as poetic and emotional reality, as a reality whose truth is in some ways more important than the scientific claim.

There is something wilful about this kind of belief - this fifth stage of faith. One has to open one's heart to the possibility of meaning in places beyond the scientifically proven. One has to believe, as it were in the possibility of belief; that there is something beyond the realm of the observable testable physical universe and that notion of a realm beyond has something to do with who I am and who I should be.

So what are we called upon to believe in?

This is Rambam on the subject, at the very opening of his groundbreaking Mishneh Torah;

The base of belief and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a First Cause which is the causation of all causation from heaven to earth and everything in between.[1]

When Rambam made the claim that the basic obligation in Judaism was the belief in God it wasn't at all obvious. For one thing nowhere in the Torah are we ever explicitly commanded to believe. But Rambam is surely right; without some reference to something, 'beyond,' Judaism doesn't make sense; rather it collapses into a grab-bag of Woody Allen movies, falafel and the like. But if there is something beyond humanity, beyond the reach of any calculation then there might be a purpose to this existence. There might be a purpose to our Jewish engagement - even the parts of Jewish engagement that are less tasty than falafel or less funny than Woody Allen.

In one of the great Midrashim of our faith, the Rabbis imagine Abraham, rejecting the nonsense idolatrous world of his childhood, in search of what becomes the birth of monotheistic faith.
They explain his journey with a Mashal, a parable.

Abraham is wandering from place to place when he saw a bira doleket - a castle in flames. He wondered: "Is it possible that the palace has no owner?" The owner of the palace looked out and said, "I am the owner of the palace." So Abraham our father said, "Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?" G‑d looked out and said to him, "I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the Universe."[2]

It is out of this moment of wondering about the purpose of existence that an encounter with that purpose becomes possible. Belief arises from that nagging quest for an understanding of why we are here, who shall we be. And astral physics, as glorious as its achievements is, isn't capable of stretching beyond the realm of the physical. Belief is that which provides the framework understanding more about our lives than the notion we are simply a decaying collection of atomic particles.

Of course to the atheist we are just this collection of meaningless dust, for the atheist there is no external meaning - it's all just random happenstance that we are here. But my call on us all is that we will ourselves to open our heart to the possibility of meaning, the possibility of belief. I know it's a little circular - in order to find meaning we need to will ourselves to believe that there is meaning. But that doesn't worry me. Because acting as if there is meaning and message to my life seems such a more profound way to live than living as if nothing matters and there is no point. There is something of Pascal's famous wager in all this. If I live my life as if there is a purpose I might stumble on that purpose. If I live my life as if there is no purpose, then surely I won't. I'll take that gamble.

I'm also a fan of people who live their lives with this sense of the rational supernatural. I suspect the rational-supernaturalists live better lives than those who don't. The religious fundamentalists scare me and the nihilists, frankly, strike me as too often too selfish, boring even.

Belief has gone out of fashion these past years.
We are increasingly uncomfortable using the language, the atheists are winning the PR battle.
So I want to share two ways to help us feel easier with this notion of belief that is both familiar and unfamiliar. They are deeply connected, one to the other.

The first is borrowed from the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, probably my most significant Jewish teacher. We should, wrote Heschel,

live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

Radical amazement, the single key to unlock a life infused by belief. To live life amazed is a beautiful thing. It's not a retreat into an ignorance about the way science works, in fact quite the reverse. The more I understand about evolution or embryology or quantum physics or neurology the more I am amazed at the beauty of the world. But when I get up in the morning and the sky is illuminated by floods of pink and purple I find it amazing - and the fact that I understand that when the sun is further away from I will see more reds and purples doesn't make my sense of being amazed any less likely.

Develop within ourselves a sense of being radically amazed. Find things glorious, remarkable, miraculous; breath, smiles, the ability to put one foot in front of the other - for those of us so blessed as to be able to walk - how miraculous is that? As we do that we inculcate in ourselves a willingness to find belief, to believe in belief and the possibility of meaning. Inculcating a sense of radical amazement into our lives also, I believe, makes it easier for us to complete this next spiritual exercise.

Develop the practice of gratitude

In so many ways this is integral to a Jewish existence. The very Hebrew term for Jew - Yehudah - comes from the same root as the word for gratitude. Being thankful is who we are. We should say thank you more often, place ourselves in a position of grace - how much we receive. Heschel again, 'The cure for the soul begins with a sense of embarrassment.' How can we possibly be worthy of our lives. We should be moved to grace, gracefulness at all times. The more we pause to show our gratitude the more we place ourselves open to the possibilities of feeling in our souls that which is beyond scientific measurement, that which is beyond the rational.

Try developing these practices of radical amazement and gratitude and see if it does help with this belief thing. Try and see if it becomes easier, or more impossible to believe that there is purpose behind this creation. See if you can feel your way into an understand of that which is beyond the observable Universe. If you can, great, I'll see you there. If you can't I suspect we, as a religion, are indeed in trouble.

So this is how we should believe, we should will ourselves to open our hearts to that which is beyond, we should will ourselves to accept a notion of a First Cause who has created a Universe and everything in it

We find this belief, I believe, in understanding the true nature of a rational-supernatural belief system and we develop this ability through the practice of radical amazement and gratitude.

Shabbat shalom

[1] Mishneh Torah Yesodei HaTorah 1:1
[2] Bereishit Rabbi 39:1

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Good Thing About Being in Hot Water

It was one of Rabbi Louis Jacobs' favourite aphorisms, and he certainly knew what he was talking about; 'The good thing about being in hot water is that it keeps you clean.'

I'm back from Sabbatical and warmly looking forward to Shabbat services.

It's an interesting week. In line with recent decisions of the community it's a fully egalitarian service. There will be male only and women only seating downstairs under the gallery (as is regularly the case). There will also be a mixed seating section in the centre of the Synagogue. To mark the occasion we have invited Chazan Jackie Chernett to join Cantor Jason in the leading of services. Those who have had Jackie lead in the Minyan Chadash or teach will know we are in for a musical treat. I'm delighted to share that Chazan Stephen Cotsen is also taking the opportunity to join us for an important day  in the journey of this special community. Anyone who has been waiting and urging for the community to provide these new pathways to prayer is particularly welcomed to join us this Shabbat. Anyone who is curious, even to the point of having misgivings, as to what a more egalitarian New London will feel like is equally warmly welcomed. I would be most interested to hear the reflections of members on this service. You can always reach me by e-mail.

And there will be Cholent.

In addition, while I was away, Council invited me to share some teachings with the community of the whole question of same-sex attraction within Judaism, in part responding to  the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013. Over the three Wednesdays 24th February, 2nd & 9th of March I will be hosting two learning sessions and an Open House where members will have opportunities to learn, question and share their thoughts on this issue. To be clear these sessions are designed to increase the community's understanding of these issues and are not formally part of a decision making process. More information to follow, this serves as a hold-the-date notice.

And finally, some simpler hot water. I'm very excited to share the line up for the Winter 2016 Quest event at New London, a panel on the origins of life with two extraordinary quests - and myself. Baroness Deech is a former head of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Prof Buzz Baum is a leading expert on cell development and foundation - and I'm the Rabbi. We will be debating the place of religion and Judaism when it comes to some of the hottest questions in medical ethics. More information [here -]
Plenty of hot water, hot enough to warm even the coldest of Februarys.
Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Monday, 1 February 2016

I'm back, and this time ...

My three month sabbatical is over and it is wonderful to get back to New London. I am particularly grateful to all those who have supported the community at this time.
I left feeling tired and with a nagging feeling that I, and this community I love so dearly, were stagnating a little. Among the many books and articles I read during my time away was a report from the Jewish Leadership Council's Synagogue Vitality Project, authored by Steven M. Cohen.

'A synagogue,' the report suggests, 'may succeed in outward ways: increasing membership, high rates of attendance at services and programmes, balanced budgets, lack of conflict, and other features of apparent success. Yet at the same time, it may fail to inspire, instruct, comfort, cohere, and evolve.' Ouch.

In New York I met up with one of the most inspirational Rabbinic leaders of my time at Seminary, Rabbi Roly Matalon, from BJ. He shared the ark of growth of his community, which was growing exponentially during my time in New York. In the 12 years since I had left NY the growth first slowed and even reversed. 'We were stale,' he nodded, 'We were doing the same programmes, same tunes, same, same, same.' So what did they do? They launched a strategic initiative, bringing the community together to reflect. It has resulted in their focussing on a narrower range of core necessities, less responding to the ebbs and flows of every tide, less rolling round the hamster wheel because that the way the wheel had turned successfully in the past. And they are reaping the rewards of that clearer focus in many ways.

We, at New London, also need to be more strategic and focussed. We need to spend more time and effort on doing the things we need to do;  for our members, for the Jewish community and the broader society in which we live.

At services this Shabbat I hope to share more about where I have been, what I have been reflecting on and where we should be heading. Over the coming weeks I will be sharing, in sermons and on the blog, five key centres of Jewish life - five reasons to care about Judaism in the way in which we do Judaism here at New London. There is a wonderful case to be made for the Jewish life we aim to lead here. I want to take this post-sabbatical opportunity to make the case as well as I can. I hope you will join me on this journey.

I'm back, and this time, the plan is to be more strategically focused.

Incidentally this Shabbat will be a fully-egalitarian one with mixed-seating options. This is in line with the decisions of the EGM last year. I am delighted that Chazan Jacky Chernett will be joining Cantor Jason to lead the services. For those anxious to see more possibilities for mixed seating or female participation in the leading of services, or even curious about what such change might feel like this is an important Shabbat. I do especially commend it.

It's good to be back,

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