Friday, 17 June 2016

In the Aftermath of Murder - Orlando and Jo Cox MP

An awful week which began, late for me post-Shavuot, with news from Orlando limps to a conclusion with news of the murder of Jo Cox MP.

I condemn the loss of life. Regarding Orlando there is something particularly despicable the way gay people were targeted for their sexuality. In Yorkshire the attack on a representative of the democracy we all take so much for granted is an attack on the nature of our society. But this telescoping misses the personal devastation for loved ones, parents, partners and children. I offer prayers of comfort to all who mourn.

I took the opportunity to watch Jo Cox’s maiden speech, given so recently. She observed her constituency was enriched by immigrants, ‘be they Irish Catholics or Muslims from Indian Gujarat or Pakistan,’ and went on to insist that ‘while we celebrate our diversity, we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.’ I was reminded of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s comments in the aftermath of the Orlando attack. Netanyahu remarked on the wickedness of attacking people for their sexuality and went on to say the shooting ‘wasn't merely an attack on the LGBT community. It was an attack on all of us, on our common values of freedom and diversity and choice.’

Particularly if reports of a ‘British First’ inspiration behind the attack on Jo Cox are to be believed, both these attacks seem rooted in an inability to tolerate difference and variety. As Jews, members of a people, who have represented difference, in so many ways, over so many years and in so many societies, we are called upon, yet again, to stand up for the values of diversity. To be a Jew is to believe in the absolute value of human life not despite our differences but precisely because of them. Unstable times tempt us to believe we should retreat into ghettos where we pretend it is possible to surround ourselves only with those who see the world precisely as we do. We all, I am sure, feel this temptation - even if, thankfully, we don’t respond to this temptation murderously. But the temptation needs to be resisted. It is neither holy, nor sustainable nor, in the context of a Jewish history that teaches otherwise, in our own best interests.
May the memories of those who have been murdered be for a blessing,
Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 9 June 2016

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

This is the last of three articles in which I set out an approach to what it means to be Jewish. Previous articles can be read at

Previously I have articulated a rational supernaturalist approach to belief and a way of thinking about love and Jewish observance. In this article I want to articulate a Jewish ethic.

I believe in the observance of classic modes of Jewish practice, but that’s not enough. For one thing punctilious observance of Kashrut or Shabbat, guarantees no level of decency in behaviour. That’s a problem recognised by Nachmonidies who 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. Secondly observance of the letter of the law can only take us ‘so far,’ beyond the strictures of commanded behaviour we need an over-arching ethic to guide us. Finally, for those occasions when the black-letter of the law is contradictory, we need a ‘meta-halachic’ framework to guide the resolution of this contradiction. It’s not enough to follow the law.

The heart of a Jewish ethics is 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 only slim possibilities of evading absolute poverty. Gerim are the most fragile, most poor and most weak members of society. But we are commanded to love them, forbidden to oppress them and, in possibly the most stunning moment in the Torah, we are given a precise reason why - 'ki gerim hayitem beretz mitzrayim' - for you were gerim - strangers - in the Land of Egypt.

Nachmanides expands on this reasoning arguing; 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.

Love of the Ger, is more than a demonstration of our humility and gratitude for the bounty we possess, it’s the ultimate test of whether we understand what it means to be decent. Do 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 central tenet the formation of a religious Jewish ethic 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 French 20th century Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas was obsessed 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 the moment when we are challenged to recognise the radical otherness of the other, to recognise that their fate is bound up in decisions we make. When we recognise the other’s otherness we realise we can't simply subsume their interests and desires into ours, for they are different to us. More than this, says Levinas, when we encounter the other face-to-face we realise that the other is mortal and fragile. If we truly serve as a witness to this fragility our behaviour has to shift to care for their survival and happiness. Seeing the other face-to-face is the central ethical moment of human existence.

But this ethical encounter isn’t something that happens at the expense of our commitment to Jewish ritual, keeping Kosher, observing Shabbat and the like. Rather we can see ritual observance as a training in appreciating nuance; Shabbat is a different day to Tuesdaay, milk and meat are radically different entities and so on. Halachic life sensitises us to difference. Halachah trains us in the encounter with otherness.

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

A Three Part Guide to Jewish Life - Part Two - Love

A Three Part Guide to Jewish Life - Part Two - Love
Last week I wrote about belief. You can find that article at This week I want to connect that analysis to elements of Jewish observance such as Shabbat and Kashrut. The connection is a connection of love.

We are, of course, commanded to love both God (that obligation comes from the Shema) and our fellow (a command Rabbi Akiva considered the single principle underpinning the entire Torah). At first these obligations seem disparate. God is the power beyond all particularity and form, whereas humans are weak and distinct. But they are connected by the single most radical idea in Judaism - the notion that humanity is created btzelem elohim - in the image of God. The Etz Hayim Chumash points out that all kinds of Ancient Near East traditions considered the King divine, but the Torah goes far further insisting all humanity contains divinity. Each of us; men, women, the powerful and the powerless... contain this spark. It's a notion powerful enough to justify human rights, democracy, or frankly any liberation movement you care to name.

Certainly taking these twin obligations as one it becomes impossible to claim to love God while treating any human poorly. The reverse is equally true. If you place the love of all humanity at the heart of your every action you embody what it truly means to love God. Certainly the best advice for anyone unsure about belief is don't worry so much, concentrate on loving your fellow. The magic of the staggeringly profound nature of our existence may seep in slowly, but don’t worry about theology, just get on with loving.

So what does it mean to be loving? Provocatively the Torah doesn’t understand love as an emotion. Rather love means action. In Talmud Sotah (14b) the Rabbis struggle with how to fulfill the Biblical obligation to 'walk in way of God,' - 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 visits Abraham as he recovers from circumcision, so we are called upon to visit the sick, and so on. Nowhere are we called to be anything other than Menschen - humans whose humanity is embodied in acts of kindness.

Lovers are not slapdash, rough or approximate. And so too in our relationship with God. If we love God it matters whether there are 49 poles in the sanctuary, or fifty. It matters whether one eats a cheeseburger or remembers to call one's mother Shabbat eve. And so we arrive at the heart of the entire system of Jewish do-s and don't-s. It's an attempt to articulate how to be a lover.

Should we say a blessing before we eat food? Of course we should. This is how we develop the spiritual discipline that allows us to understand our place on this planet. Then the pursuit of detail follows; what should we say before we eat this or that, what should we say after? These questions, and thousands like them, drive rabbinic Judaism - how do we balance competing claims of different refractions of different divine images? How we should treat poshtei yad - beggars on the street? What if they might spend the money on booze, their dog or their gang master? Thankfully we have a system of working these issues through - it's called Halachah. Sometimes, admittedly, the pursuit of detail can blind. Sometimes we can lose the bigger picture - but the bigger picture is acting in a loving way.

Even areas of Halachic that seem distant from this idea of love connect. Shatnetz - thou shall not mix wool and linen - is superficially unlovely. But it 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 etc. These are attempts to have us understand everything is not the same. That clothing, food and the like are not merely our playthings, they define our relationship with the world. If we treat clothing purely as something for us to use and are blind 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 that collapses under the weight of human greed - ours as much as the manufacturers? Mitzvot are calls to become observant. As we observe it we become more observant, and the more we see, the more we understand, the more capable we become of acting in a loving way.

We don't need to re-invent the entire interplay of morality and ethics and compassion with our every purchase and every bite. Instead we can observe Shabbat, keep Kosher, even wear non-Shatnatz clothing and use these pathways of love to become ever more loving.

That’s the Jewish legal system; a system of walking in the path of the Divine, recognising the image of God in all humanity and trying to do the right thing to do in the ever more complex web of relationships, pulls and tugs that make up our existence.

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

This is what I don't mean by belief. There is now evidence gravity waves exist. Physicists are relieved, they no longer have to believe, they now have evidence. In science beliefs are provisional theories which exist only to be superseded by data. That's fine, but nothing to do with belief as I understand it.

'What is finite to the understanding,' said the German philosopher of religion, Ludwig Feuerbach, 'is nothing to the heart.' Belief is the realm of that infinite to the understanding. It’s not a provisional theory, it’s a spiritual, emotional reality which doesn’t respond to laboratory testing.

There is something wilful about this kind of belief. One has to open one's heart to the possibility of meaning in places beyond science. One has to believe, as it were, in the possibility of belief; in a realm which makes calls on who I am and how I should live.

At the opening of the Mishneh Torah, Rambam expressed this belief as follows; 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. (Yesodei HaTorah 1:1)

When Rambam built all Jewish life from a belief statement it was a radical departure for Judaism. The Torah never explicitly commands to belief, but Rambam is surely right; without some reference to something, 'beyond,' Judaism collapses into a grab-bag of cultural peculiarities. But if there is something beyond humanity, beyond calculation then there might be a purpose to our existence as humans and as Jews.

In the rabbinic imagination Abraham, rejects the nonsense idolatrous world of his childhood and embarks on a search. Abraham wandered 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." (Bereishit Rabba 39:1).

The experience of wondering about the purpose of existence allows for an encounter with that purpose. Belief arises from a quest; why we are here, who shall we be? Belief provides a framework for understanding our lives as something other than a decaying atomic dust.

Of course, to the atheist, we are just this collection of meaningless dust. But my call is that we should open our heart to the other possibility. This is 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. 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, I won't. I (perhaps like Pascal) will take that gamble. I'm also a fan of people who live their lives with this kind of belief. The religious fundamentalists scare me and nihilists, too often, strike me as selfish, boring even.

Belief has gone out of fashion these past years, atheists are winning the PR battle, but let me share two exercises to help us feel easier with this notion of belief.

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 is the single key to unlock a life infused by belief. To live life amazed is not a retreat into ignorance, in fact quite the reverse. The more I understand about evolution or quantum physics the more I am amazed at the beauty of the world.

The more we develop a sense of finding humdrum life remarkable and miraculous - breath, smiles, the ability to put one foot in front of the other - the more we can inculcate a willingness to find belief and meaning. Developing a sense of radical amazement in our lives also, I believe, makes it easier for us to complete the next spiritual exercise.

Develop the practice of gratitude

In so many ways gratitude is integral to a Jewish existence. The very Hebrew term for Jew - Yehudi - comes from the same root as the word for gratitude. 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 be worthy of our lives? The more we pause to show our gratitude the more we open to the possibilities of feeling in our souls that which is beyond scientific measurement, that which is beyond the rational.

In next week’s reflection I will attempt to join the dots between this kind of belief and the doctrines of Jewish day-to-day existence.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Wherever You Go I Go

This time next week we will be on the cusp of Shavuot. The exodus, begun at Pesach, reaches the moment of revelation. But perhaps the most glorious Biblical text, associated with the holiday, is the Book of Ruth.

In this stunning novella Naomi loses both her sons and turns to her daughters-in-law and attempts to send them away. She is too old to have another husband, she tells them, and even if she were to remarry and have more sons, how could they possibly await their maturation? No, Naomi insists, she has nothing to offer these young women, and indeed Orpah does leave her. But Ruth does not.
Ruth’s response to being turned away is one of the great verses of the entire Torah, ‘‘Don’t entreat me to leave you; for wherever you go, I will go, where you will dwell, I will dwell, your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die I will die and there will I be buried.’ It is a verse of utter commitment. We say to converts - in the blessing shared at the Bet Din, that they have ‘thrown their lot in with the people of the God of Abraham.’ Their model - our model - is Ruth.
Naomi has tried to send Ruth away, or at the very least void any responsibility she might feel to stay. She has, she says heart wrenchingly, nothing to offer. But she has failed to understand Naomi’s commitment to her adopted family. Her commitment is not predicated on what she can get. It’s predicated on love. This is the stuff of Buber.

Martin Buber’s great work, I and Thou, suggests there are two kinds of relationships; ones founded on reciprocity - what is there in it for me - called ‘I-It’ relationships, and then there are the ‘I-Thou’ relationships, not predicated on reciprocity. In these latter, far more rich relationships, the things we do for others are done out of love of them, they are not selfish, they are not calculating, they are open hearted. This is why this story becomes such a touchstone for conversion to Judaism - we want converts who convert from love, not because of what they might get out of a relationship with Judaism. This is why this story is such a touchstone for any relationship with Judaism. Indeed any relationship at all. When we do things for love we make Ruth’s declaration - we go with you wherever you go. When we calculate, measure and plot we live our life as a series of I-It relationships. So, as we near Shavuot, come up the mountain, don’t calculate. Just leap.

We are excited to celebrate Shavuot with you. We have a stunning Tikkun Leyl planned, with the wonderful Josh Baum and other guests sharing Torah, and opening hearts - and ice-cream tubs. Come for dinner or come for the evening or stay all night. Come for our regular morning services, in particular the welcome on second day of Yom Tov - also featuring Yizkor, is particularly warm. More information on booking for the Tikkun Leyl dinner is here - hurry booking deadline is soon.
Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Jeremy
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...