Friday, 21 October 2016

The Scrolls of New London Synagogue - Come and Dance with Us & Them

It appears that the Antiques Roadshow is filming a special edition of the show featuring relics from the Holocaust. My mind went straight to the two Torah Scrolls we hold on behalf of the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust.
In the midst of the Holocaust, Czech Jews worked to bring their most treasured sacred inheritance to the relative security of Prague. Some 130,000 Jews, around 2/3rds of the community, were murdered by the Nazis, but some 1600 Torah scrolls survived. They sat, often in terrible conditions, until the 1960s when they were brought to England. Many have been restored and shared with communities not just back in the Czech Republic, but right around the world. You can read more about the history and work of the Trust [here -]. The two scrolls held by New London are both remarkable. One, from the town of Lipnik, contains all kinds of Kabbalistic scribal notions, strange curlicues on letters and unusual layouts. We don’t know the origin of our other Czech Scroll, but it is one of the most exquisite examples of the scribal art I have seen. You can read a wonderful short talk about Lipnik (given by our member Julian Futter in 2010) [here -].

But if you really want to understand these scrolls and the duty of care we accept for them, clicking won’t do. Instead you have to dance.

This Monday night at 6:30pm (with a tea for Reception-Year 3 from 6pm), we begin our celebration of celebrate Simhat Torah. On Tuesday morning we mark the moment where we finish and begin again our annual journey through our magnificent Torah. And, yes, there will be dancing. We dance because it’s an enormous honour to accept the guardianship of these scrolls and everything they stand for.

We’ll dance with the Czech scrolls.
We’ll dance with the [Kosmin scroll -] - given to the community in 2010, an immaculate piece of work commemorating the memory of Ronnie, a dearly beloved member.
We’ll dance with the Levinkind scroll sent by [Nathan Levinkind -], grandfather of our former member Julius, in 1891 from his home in Lithuania to ensure there would be a Torah scroll in Colesberg, South Africa, where his daughter was to set up her life.

And there are other scrolls we hold, and love and accept as trustees for not only for our members but also on behalf of our people through centuries and across continents. Throughout everything we are a people who have accepted the obligation of being bearers of scrolls that represent so much more than vellum and ink.

To hold these scrolls, to dance with these scrolls, to know what it means to reach the end of the marathon journey through the Five Books of Moses and begin again because you are physically there is an extra-ordinary honour. To anyone who has never experienced it, especially to those who have not experienced Simhat Torah New London style, I urge you to join us. If you have children bring the children (especially if they are on half-term!), they need to understand, to hold and to dance with their greatest spiritual inheritance also.

These scrolls are our most precious physical objects for they are so much more than physical objects. They are our spiritual inheritance, our history as a people and the bridge that connects us to the Divine.

To all our Torah Readers, and especially Lester, who have brought us to the brink of this extraordinary moment, thank you. To our wonderful honourees for the day, Stephen Lerman and Ann Rau-Dawes, thank you for all your support of this community. To us all,

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Jeremy

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Stolen Lulav - Jews and Honesty - Mitzvah HaBa B'Aveirah

I've put a full-ish sourcesheet up on Sefaria. But this is the key text, and really interesting, especially for anyone who thinks it might be smart not to pay taxes.

Mishnah Sukkah 3:1
(1) A lulav which was stolen or dried out is invalid.

Gemarah 29b-30a

It teaches this clearly - there is no difference between the first day and the second day of Yom Tov.

Well that makes sense for the dry; we need a beautiful one, and it's not.
What about a stolen one?

Well it does makes sense for the first day, as it says 'to you' i.e. your own. However what about the second day?

Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai 
because you can't fulfill a Mitzvah that comes through sin. As it says, "You brought stolen, lame and ill [animals as sacrifices], I [God] am not going to accept that]' (Malachi 1:13)."
Stolen is similar to lame. Just as a lame offering can't be fixed, so too a stolen offering can't be fixed.

It does not matter whether it is before yeiush, or after he despaired.
Well, it makes sense, to say before the owner's despair: "A person, when he brings from his," said the Merciful one, and it (the stolen animal) is not his. But after the owner's despair- hasn't he taken ownership when the owner despaired?
Rather, it is for the reason that it is for him a Mitzvah fulfilled through sin, and Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai, "What does the verse, 'For I am God, who loves justice and hates thievery greatly' (Isaiah 61:8) mean?

It is compared to an allegory of a flesh-and-blood king, who was passing by a tollbooth and said to his servants, 'Give the tax to the collectors.' They said to him, 'And is not the whole tax yours?' He said to them, 'From me should all the travelers learn, and not distance themselves from the tax.' So too the Holy Blessed One, says, I am God, who loves justice and hates thievery greatly.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

This is what I am interested in - 5777

A word cloud of my RH/YK sermons from this year.
For the full texts, click here.

Of the making of books there is no end

I was asked to share the titles of some of the books I referred to over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - for those unable to take a note on Yom Tov!

The Hidden Pleasures of Life - Theodore Zeldin
I came across the idea of Fort and Port here. It’s also a wonderful argument for the value of encountering other people.

The Sabbath and Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity - Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Sabbath is the first book I would recommend to anyone wanting to know the point of any of the Jewish stuff. The attempts to articulate the purpose of a human life shared at Yizkor are taken from the last two chapters of Moral Grandeur.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives - David Eagleman
This made an appearance in my Yizkor sermon and at the Q&A. It’s a series of imaginings of the afterlife, fabulously thought-provoking and warmly recommended.

- me
Ahem. Well it came up several times in the Q&A, specifically the chapters on the military ethics of the IDF, the nature of God in a world of suffering experiences of the supernatural.

A Rumour of Angels - Peter Berger
To my embarrassment I mis-remembered the author of this on Yom Kippur. It's a sort of sociology of religion for intelligent people. I haven't read it for well over a decade, but it made a significant impression.

Sacred Trash - Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole
I mentioned this book in the Q&A. It’s a history of the discovery of the Cairo Geniza, telling both the tale of its contents and its discovery. It’s a beautifully written book which will give so much understanding of Jewish history.

Ben Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres
I referred to this on Shabbat Shuvah; fascinating not only for the insight into the founding father of the modern state of Israel, but also into the life of its author, so recently deceased.

Home Deus - Yuval Noah Harari
Part of this I love. Everything he has to say about religion, however (and it’s a lot of the book) is unrecognisable to me as some who has spent a bit of time trying to understand the subject. (That’s a polite way of saying I think it’s nonsense, a point I expand on here).

And on the subject of books, I’m newly published. I am part of a cycle of presenters on Radio 2’s Pause for Thought series and one of my scripts was selected for inclusion in a collection of contributions due to be published later this month. More information here.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Groundhog Day All Over Again - Kol Nidrei Yom Kippur 5777

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.

Hang on, something’s not quite right here. Anyone else notice? A sense of déjà vu perhaps, been here before, heard it before? I’ve just reread the opening of the Kol Nidrei sermon I gave last year. Let me try again.

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.

No this definitely isn’t right.

Or maybe it is. Maybe the way this loop is wrong is somehow right - Kol Nidrei as a loop. The tunes are the same. And then there’s me. I’m the same me again. What about you? It’s harder than it looks not to be the same as we were last time we gathered here.

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.

I went to see the new Tim Minchin musical earlier in the summer, based on the movie Groundhog Day. Warning this sermon contains spoilers.

Groundhog Day is the story of a weatherman sent to Punxsutawney Pennsylvania to report on a rodent related weather phenomenon - which he can’t stand doing. He hates everything about the experience - from the coffee to the inane chatter to the way the police announce closure of the highways - and wakes up the next morning trapped, forced to live exactly the same day again - the same coffee, the same inane chatter, the same announcement about the highways.

And then again, and again, and again - that’s the show and exactly how or why this loop keeps spinning never gets explained.

But the movie, or the musical, never struck me as being about some weird supernatural phenomenon. It feels instead about real life, the loops, the patterns of repeat, the patterns of repeat, the patterns of repeat.

Because I don’t think I can be the only person who feels like they have been here before.

I think there are two quite wonderful lessons in Groundhog Day for those of us who feel a little trapped in a loop. Forgive the spoiler, but the way you escape a loop of you never reaching a different tomorrow is worry less about yourself and worry less about tomorrow.

Our weatherman is a narcissist. He sees everything in terms of what it allows him to do. When he realises that his days are in a permanent loop his first thought is whether he can use this freak occurrence to get the attractive blond who caught his eye into bed. Then he plots the perfect burglary. The test of whether anything is, or is not worth doing, is how it helps him.

It had me thinking of the end of the Book of Jonah. The big fish is a distant memory and Jonah looks out over the City of Nineveh, forgiven its sins and still standing. And Jonah is aggrieved. Histrionically he announces he would rather die than have to put up with the scene. The classic Rabbinic understanding of this outbreak of grumpiness is that Jonah is overly pre-occupied with his own standing as a prophet of truth. He prophesised the city would be destroyed, and now that it’s not, he’s cross.

Jonah’s missed the point. The point of the book of Jonah is not Jonah. It’s everyone else. Jonah’s pre-occupation with his own self-regard blinds him from realising what is really going on all around.

The problem of all this focus on ‘me, me, me’ is that it re-entrenches what is already there. Spend too much time chasing what you think you want and all you will do is re-create ever more precisely the surroundings that got you to yesterday. It’s engaging with other people that opens new horizons. Helping other people, making space for other people to do their other thing right in the way of anything we might have planned for ourselves, is the paradoxical but essential element that allows something different to happen tomorrow.

So this is the first tip, if you are feeling a little looped, repeating the same patterns as last year. Spend more time looking after other people and other people’s needs. And less worrying about your own.

Eventually our weatherman realises this - or at least he gives up on the narcissism and tries helping out others. He’s on caught the glass before it falls from the tray. He spends the day frantically fixing stuff for other people. Delivering babies, catching small boys falling from trees, fixing punctured car tyres for a bunch of little old ladies and the like, until by some cosmic oddity he’s set free from his loop. Our weatherman reaches tomorrow by looking after others.

It’s at once the biggest counter-intuitive insight and the most obvious truth about a life lived well. We become fulfilled through fulfilling the needs of others. We become as rich as that which we give away. Generosity of spirit unlocks for us a different future.

The way to get to a different tomorrow is worrying less about our own needs and worrying more about other people.

The second way to get to a different tomorrow is related. Care less about tomorrow and bring your focus to today.

The most macabre moment in Groundhog Day - the musical and the movie - comes when our weatherman gives up, he’s so frustrated he drives a car over the cliff. It doesn’t work. It’s Groundhog Day all over again. So he tries again. It’s bleak. Feeling trapped can feel that dark. But pinning all our hopes and aspirations on reaching a different future, counter-intuitively, can be the biggest loadstone preventing us reaching that goal.

I guess it is now 15 years ago that I travelled to a wedding in Leeds with Rabbi Pini Dunner, the charismatic founder Rabbi of the Saatchi Synagogue. The train pulled in at Doncaster. He checked his watch, and waved his finger sagely in my direction. “There is clearly,” he said, “a great cosmic need for us to be in Doncaster at precisely 10:42 on this precise day.” It was the sort of thing he would say, one part nurishkeit, one part completely like a worm that lodges deep in the mind and refuses to budge. Maybe the idea wormed its way into my mind because I would need it for a sermon some decade and a half later. What if we all paid attention to the great cosmic significance of every moment. Frankly any moment? Even this moment. What if we lived as if there was a great cosmic need for us to be here, at New London, right now, this Kol Nidrei night?

It’s a Jewish idea expressed most clearly in the ritual of the Hineini Muchan. There are a number of Mitzvot that are preceded with a formula where you say Hineini Muchan UMezuman - here I am, ready and present to perform the sacred obligation of shaking the Lulav or  Counting the Omer. As if to do one of these sacred obligations we need to arrest ourselves into the moment of their performance.

It’s one of the greatest challenge of our time. Arresting ourselves to the moment, rather than running forward to the next thing. We do it so poorly in our lives. But here we are today with nothing else to do but sit in the place in which we find ourselves, making ourselves present before our Creator, allowing ourselves the space to encounter the reality of our failures and achievements in this last year - a Cheshbon Nefesh - literally an account of the soul.

It’s not a skill that is to be practiced only once a year.

It’s the skill of Shabbat. This is Abraham Joshua Heschel in what is still the most important book I could recommend to any Jew wanting an insight into what Judaism offers. In The Sabbath Heschel says,

To set apart one day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily tuned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day in which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day in which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature - is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man's progress than the Sabbath.

It’s not even a skill to be practiced once a week. It’s there for us at every moment.

Spiritual teachers call it mindfulness, therapists call it living in the here and now. For me it’s the moment we acknowledge Hineni - here I am, in this moment with no thought for the next.

There’s a fun parenting blog called Hands-free-mama. The idea is that if you want to parent, put the phone down. Don’t try and parent and do anything else at the same time. It’s not just an idea for mamas, it’s not just an idea for parents. It’s for all of us, all the time. If we skip through the work of this very moment, it will still be there waiting for us tomorrow. But if we give ourselves truly to this moment we fulfil the task facing us and be freed for another tomorrow.

That’s what happens on Groundhog Day. Our weather eventually gives up trying to race through today in search of tomorrow. And instead brings all his efforts to this one day. He attempts to get today right and stops worrying about tomorrow and finds tomorrow sorts itself out.

So try this. Pick one task, it can be as holy as saying the first line of the Shema or as mundane as brushing your teeth, or simply taking a breath in and then out. And mean it. Bring yourself to the present task of accomplishing it without distraction. Try that for a while. And see just how much it might open new pathways for tomorrow.

Hineni Muchan U’mezuman - behold I am ready to do this one thing.

If you want a different tomorrow for yourself, focus less on yourself and less on tomorrow. And more on other people and more on this very moment - each moment in turn.

And who knows we might wake up in a different tomorrow.

I’m going to give the last word to Tim Minchin, the lyricist behind the musical version of Groundhog Day. In the last scene - I did say there would be spoilers - our weatherman wakes up and it is genuinely a different tomorrow and the last lines of the musical are his reflection on the journey that has brought him to this point.

I thought the only way to better days was through tomorrow. But now I know that
I’m here.
And I’m fine.
And I’m seeing you for the first time.
I’m alright.

That would do, it would do for me. I hope it would do for you.
And may the year of tomorrow be one in which we are all here, and all seeing each other as if for the first time.
And all alright.

Hatimah Tovah

Yizkor Yom Kippur 5777 - Meditations on the Lifecyle of a Fruit Fly

To call it a plague would be unnecessarily biblical. But we’ve a minor outbreak of drosophila - fruit flies - at home.

Tiny things half the size of a sesame seed. Too small to buzz. They orbit flowers that arrived for Rosh Hashanah, hover around the compost and seem particularly attracted to toothpaste.
Once upon a time I studied a bit of genetics. Geneticists love drosophila for the brevity of their life cycle. Four days to pupate, two days to reach maturity, then they are ready to mate. Funny how things like the lifecycle of a fruit-fly can remain in the mind. Having mated, of course, the flies die. And it all feels so brief.

Mi Yichiye uMi Yamut - who shall live and who shall die.
Mi b’kitzo uMi lo b’kitzo - who in the fullness of days, and who not at the fullness of days.

And it all feels so brief.
A flash of a moment. We last longer than a fruit fly. But really, what are we capable of achieving? Even our very best efforts. Even the brightest of us. Life a vanishing dream - cchalom yauf.
Yom Kippur can do that to you. So raw an encounter with our mortality that it can become hard to see beyond our terminal state.

Actually Yom Kippur isn’t the worst of it. On the Shabbat of Succot we read the Book of Ecclesiastes; things get bleaker still.

Before the silver chord snaps and golden bowl crashes. The jar is shattered at the spring and the jug is smashed at the cistern. And the dust returns to the earth as it was.
Hevel hevelim amar kohelet - everything is vanity.

That’s an irony, I suppose. A book about the absolute futility of our attempts at immortality, written some three thousand years ago, is still re-read today. The book bears the name of its author Kohelet, and the author lives on through his work.
Despite its antiquity, it’s holding up pretty well.

I have observed, [says Kohelet,] that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the brave, nor is bread won by the wise, nor wealth by the intelligent, no favour by the learned. For the moment of death comes to us all. And no-one knows their time. As fishes are enmeshed in a fatal net and birds in a snare, so is humanity caught by death when it comes without warning.

Sartre would have been happy with that. Kohelet has survived; achieving, if not immortality, then surely a life beyond mortal grasp of its author. That’s a neat paradox. The bleakest, most honest encounter the Bible gives us with the mortal condition reads today as possibly the most contemporary book in the entire Torah.

Here’s another irony. On a day for considering our mortal predicament here we are at, possibly, the most cherished moment in the day, remembering those loved and lost. Giving them, through our memories, a life beyond the grave. The day on which we consider the brevity and fragility of our existence is the day on which those we have loved and lost live on in our reflections on them.

The neuroscientist David Eagleman imagined forty different versions of the afterlife. It’s a great book, called Sum. In one of his essays he imagines an afterlife where the dead gather to live on only as long as there are those who remember them, only to experience a second sort-of-death when there remains no-one who tells stories of their life. He’s right that there is a kind of immortality in stories told about us, even after we have gone.

Woody Allen once said he didn’t want to achieve immortality through his work. He wanted to achieve immortality through not dying. But I’m not sure it works like that. I’m back engaging with Yuval Noah Harari and his new book Homo Deus. This time approvingly.

Harari notes we aren’t dying like we used to. We used to die of pestilence or poverty or violence. Now we get propped up by medicine and prosperity and, as a race, we aren’t even as violent as we used to be. We are living longer and pushing harder at the edges of science to live longer still. We are heading for not quite immortality, but, says Harari, a-mortality.

Future superhumans could still die in some war or accident and nothing could bring them back, but unlike us mere mortals, their life would have no expiry date. So long as no bomb shreds them to pieces or no truck runs them over, they could go on indefinitely.

And here comes a sensational observation.

Which will probably make them the most anxious people in history. We mortals daily take chances with our lives because we know they are going to end anyhow. So we go on treks in the Himalayas, swim in the sea and do many other dangerous things like crossing the road or eating out. But if you believe you can live for ever, you would be crazy to gamble on infinity like that.

His point is that living longer isn’t the same as living better. In fact one might be at odds with the other. Last night I suggested that if we live for tomorrow we are destined never to reach it. Today I’m suggesting that if we worry too much about living for ever we can end up not living at all.

We are mortal.
So we should get on with living.
None of us know how much longer we have.

In the unataneh tokef we read of books, one book for each of us written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed today - v’chotem yad kol adam bo - with the signature of each person in them. We are all writing books. You, me, each of us. And each of our books contains an image of our life. Our values, our efforts, our kindnesses.

And those of us here remembering today, at Yizkor, we are leafing through the books left for us. bo.

We are all writing books and reading books.
So here are a couple of ideas about the books we leave for others to read.

First, make it good.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great American Rabbi of the last century, warned, that the greatest problem is not how to continue, but how to exalt our existence. The cry for a life beyond the grave [he taught] is presumptuous if there is no cry for a great life prior to the grave.’ [2]
What exactly do we want to achieve in this world? We are all too busy running to keep abreast of the speed with which this world turns to pause to think about what we are actually running for.

This, Heschel wrote, is the meaning of existence, ‘to reconcile liberty with service, the passing with the lasting, to weave the threads of temporality into the fabric of eternity.’
Or if that sounds a little too high-falutin, in an interview given just months before he passed away in 1972 Heschel suggested this,

‘remember there is meaning beyond absurdity. Be sure that every little deed counts, that every little word has power and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all frustrations and disappointments.’
‘Above all,’ he continued, ‘remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art. You are not a machine. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

For each of us, with our different lives at our different points in life, that answer will look different.
But how much more glorious would all our lives be if we constructed them as works of art. Not just factors off a production line.

My favourite moment in the story of Ester comes when Mordechai attempts to get Ester to protest the upcoming destruction of the Jewish people. She’s declines the invitation, lacking courage, or perhaps distracted by the trinkets of court life. Mordechai is having none of it.

Mi yodeah im leayt hazot higat lemalchut.
Who knows, perhaps it was for this moment that you became queen?

Who knows, perhaps it was for this moment that you are here.
It’s so precious this life. And the brevity of its existence enhances its beauty. If we knew we would life forever it wouldn’t be so important. Here, today, in touch with our mortality because of the themes of this day, and reminded of our own mortality by this service of Yizkor, we have a chance to pledge our lives to the creation of something beautiful, powerful, meaningful.
Something that justifies our existence and allows the flicker of our flame to burn beyond our years.

So that’s the first piece of advice - live bigger. Live for a purpose. Make your life a work of art.

The second piece of advice is - record it, write it down.

Theodore Zeldin, the academic whose responsible for the idea about Forts and Ports so many of you have responded to since Rosh Hashanah has an obsession for autobiographies. He loves them. Each chapter of his book, The Hidden Pleasures of Life, engages with a different one; Lao She the nineteenth century Chinese humourist, the seventeenth century Earl of Shaftesbury, Haimabati Sen, born in Bengal in 1866. He loves autobiographies because they contain the insights into otherness he feels is so vital for human progress. Write it down, he urges, record stuff. Leave a trace.

There is a lovely tradition of the Tzavah - the ethical will. Through Jewish history the great, and the not so great, have passed on their ethical inheritance in documents, many of which have survived to this day. Judah Ibn Tibbon died in France in 1180 leaving this instruction;

Examine your Hebrew books at every New Moon, the Arabic volumes once in two months, and the bound codices once every quarter.  Arrange your library in fair orders so as to avoid wearying yourself in searching for the book you need. A good plan would be to set in each compartment a written list of the books therein contained. If, then, you are looking for a book, you can see from the list the exact shelf it occupies without disarranging all the books in the search for one. [3]

This is al, of course, pre-Google. But I wonder if the good Reb Judah spotted something in his son that led him to pass on this rather different instruction.

My son! I command your to honour your wife to your utmost capacity. Remember her assiduous attendance on you in your illness, though she had been brought up in elegance and luxury. If you would acquire my love, honour her with all your might; do not exercise too severe an authority over her; our Sages [Gittin 6b] expressly warned men against this. If you give reprove, it is enough if your displeasure is visible in your look; let it not be vented in actual rage.

Most of us are blessed with material goods to pass on to our inheritors. But what about the non-tangible gifts; the really important gifts. Write them down.

Leave a record for those who come later. It needn’t, I suppose, be a physical book, but leave a record.

The pre-funeral visit comes with the job. And I’m always fascinated by how a family reflect, admittedly at such a raw moment. Sometimes I arrive and the photos are out and the letters. And there are stories being told and retold. And sometimes there are emotions, but only scarce specific recollections. If we want to be remembered we should make sure there is something to remember us by. Write it down.

It’s a way to live beyond our years.

Live well and leave a record.
And the proof that it works is our very experience here at Yizkor. Remembering, recalling, giving life to those who have passed and celebrating their achievement not necessarily in the public realm, but in the personal, private realms in which their lives have touched and lifted us.

Live well and leave a record.
And in the fullness of time, we pray, there will be those who will remember us.

Hatimah Tovah


[1] Haimabati
[2] Moral Grandeur p.378

Neilah Yom Kippur - Embarrassment & Refugees

The LBC DJ James O’Brian pulled a stunt in his show the other day.

He said he was going to cite an extract from a speech from in the recent conference season and read this out;

The State must drawn a sharp line of distinction between those who are members of the nation are the foundation of its existence and greatness and those who are domiciled in the State simply as earners of their livelihood there.

Then he revealed that the extract came, not from a contemporary British politician, but Hitler’s Mein Kampf - Chapter 2. And the worrying thing is that the extract did indeed sound as if it could have come from a contemporary British politician, because - too much of the time - it sounds as if we are about to embark on a national programme of erecting sharp lines of distinction between those who properly belong here and those painted as interlopers. It’s not that I think anyone in contemporary British politics is a Nazi, but this rhetoric and these calls for action make me squirm.

Here’s a conversation I get into fairly regularly, I suspect many of us are the same. “Where are you from,” someone asks, “London,” I say. “Where before that?” they don’t say it harshly, just interested, “Been here a while,” I say, “My great-grandfather had a pub in the East End,” I say. But no-one’s fooled. Not even me. My family arrived on these shores as economic migrants from points East. And even if there was the occasional pogrom or unsavoury violence back in the Veld, the notion that my ancestors would have crossed a contemporary threshold for a successful asylum application is ... well they wouldn’t.

I squirm reading reports from Calais or Greece or any of these places where human lives get piled up waiting. The largesse I experience as a British Jew whose ancestors arrived on these shores before the doors swung closed - certainly subject to antisemitism and the rest - but nonetheless able to get on, earn a living and give me such opportunities as Jews have but rarely known in our history - makes me feel embarrassed it’s easier to just turn the page and skip those particular articles. But my goodness, there are so many articles to skip.

And while there are so many problems facing us in the world, as Jews, as Londoners, as human beings it’s this refugee thing that haunts me more than any other. I get haunted because I keep getting pulled back by my faith to the central ethical and central narrative challenge of my people.

Some verses from our Torah, drawn from across the Five Books;

Love the Ger, don’t oppress the Ger, let the Ger rest on the Sabbath, the Ger who dwells with you shall be as one born amongst you.

Ger - it’s one of the most significant words in the Torah. In my Lexicon of Biblical Hebrew; Ger is defined as “a temporary dweller, new-comer (no inherited rights). Kindness to Ger,” it notes, “frequently enjoined.”

It turns out the word may be connected with the verb GaRaH ‘to stir up,’ ‘engage in strife with.’
Maybe that’s the heart of it. The Ger is the person who sticks out because they are new and don’t really know how to behave properly confound them, and what are they doing here anyway taking our jobs and clogging  up the waiting rooms and the waiting lists... Economically powerless and culturally awkward the “new-comer (no inherited rights)” stir us up and draw out the puss.
Hopefully, as I’m getting stirred up, the Torah kicks in; Don’t oppress the Ger, Love the Ger. As if the Bible somehow knew that the new-comer would serve as a lightning rod for whatever gripes and grievances might distract us taking responsibility for our own futures. Plus ca change.

Actually the way the Torah warns us off oppression of the Ger is even more tightly bound to my psyche than simply understanding the nature of my relationship with those who arrived on these shores more recently than my own ancestors.

Love the Ger for you were Gerim, ki gerim haitem b’eretz mitzrayim - you were Gerim in the Land of Egypt.

Ah the Torah sticking its fingers into my ribs jabbing away at my desire to shut the door and kick ‘em out, insisting I should behave well to the Ger because I was once a Ger. Actually not just once. Abraham was the first Ger. Then there was Joseph, and his brothers, and Joseph. Moses was not only a Ger, he even used the word in the name for his son Gershon. All of Israel temporarily dwelled in Egypt, and then in Babylon, and then again, and again, from century to century and from continent to continent.

We are commanded to love the Ger because it’s the very heart of who we are - the original Fiddler on the Roof, unstable, not knowing how confidently to tread in a society where we are “new-comers (no inherited rights).”It’s been only a blink of an eye since we began to feel more cosy in this society and we are already in danger of forgetting our historical, emotion and religious obligation to care for the unsettled newcomer we once were.

Where does it leave us, when facing the news, the reports from Aleppo or Greece or Calais?

There are a number of you here who are and have long been proudly involved in this work. In particular I want to salute members who are supporters of JCoRE, the Jewish Council on Racial Equality, and those involved in a new plan to host a group therapy programme for refugees here at New London, and members who are involved in the work of CARA - the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics and there are others, I know there are others. To all of you, I salute you. You’ve plenty to be getting on with.

But for the rest of us.
I want to suggest a couple of things.
Do one, do both. Do something.

I’m hugely proud of our community’s connection with the Separated Child Foundation, founded in memory of New London member, Ester, who passed away almost exactly ten years ago. The Foundation offers emotional, social, financial and physical support to separated children and young people, refugees, in Britain. It also engages in educational activities that raise awareness of their needs. It’s particular experitse is providing packs - good bags that provide physical assistance, but also offer an emotional recognition and validation of the humanity of those who are, perhaps, most on the edges of our society. The Foundation has an appeal for goods. There are fliers outside listing the sorts of goods they are looking for and what to do about them. On your way home tonight, take a flier. Make a donation.

Some members at our sister Synagogue, New North London, started a drop-in for asylum seekers in 2006. It meets monthly, on a Sunday afternoon. Just one asylum seeker arrived for a meal, some clothes, a travel voucher and a shopping voucher. The Centre has grown these past ten years. Those of you who were at the Q&A in the Hall just now will already have heard about it. Actually the stuff handed out is only part of the story. What the Drop-In offers is human to human contact. It’s a place where seeking asylum isn’t a ugly word. It’s a place where there is welcome and the acknowledgement that behind the headlines and the poisonous rhetoric are real human lives and real human suffering.

This last month over 500 came. The New North London Drop-In has become the largest centre of its kind in the country. And it’s far too large. Several months ago the leadership of the New North Drop-In asked for our help. Could we take some of the strain? Our member Sam Leifer - a long-time volunteer at the NNLS programme is helping us bring together a team. And we have a plan. On Sunday 6th November we are looking to host 70 asylum carefully vetted asylum seekers at a school in Finchley. We are piggy backing on the skills and experiences of the team at New North London, and we have plans and a crack team of volunteers in place. But we need more person-power and we need funds.

And that’s where we all come in. Do you have a few hours on the first Sunday in the month to volunteer? It’s not a particularly skilled job. The most important thing is to smile, and there is some sorting and cooking and the like. We also need some money. The venue is a small cost and the idea is that the asylum seekers get a travel voucher and a food voucher worth a total of £20. We are looking for people to sign up to give £20 a month to cover those expenses. We’ll even take £10 a month, or £5.

Will supporting the Seperated Child Foundation or the Drop-In Centre bring an end to the suffering of those who have arrived in this country in search of something more than “a temporary dweller, new-comer (no inherited rights)?” No.
Will it put an end to the violence and persecution that has driven so many to this country? Also no.

But it will do this.
It will demonstrate that we care. That we remember. That we still love the Ger ki gerim hayitem.
For we were once Gerim too.
And it will help the few individuals we touch. And there is very little more than helping a human who is suffering.
Lo Alecha HaMlachah Ligmor teaches our tradition - you don’t have to complete the work, v’lo atah ben horin lehivatel mimena. - But neither are you free to desist from it.
I also belief that this kind of support will help up be less stricken by embarrassment in the face of the onslaught of tales told about refugees in this and other countries.

In a few moments we will be back to our regular Yom Kippur business of prayer and self examination.
But in an hour’s time, when we blow the shofar and just before you pile off home, please take one of the fliers in the lobby.
Consider a gift of goods or money or your time. They are all most valuable commodities.

I could make a point about the size of the experience of hunger of asylum seekers for whom days without food are not a voluntary once a year interruption in an otherwise replete diet.
I could share some gut wrenching story from some broken life.
But I believe no-one in this community, at this time, needs that.
I believe that this community only needs to be given an opportunity to rise to do the decent thing.
And we will.
Because we do remember, and we do care.
And we know that this can make a difference.

Chatimah Tovah,

A good last chance saloon daven.

And a good year to us all,

Like We Mean It - Yom Kippur

I’ve been making my way through Hilchot Teshuva, teachings on repentance collected by Rabbi  Moses son of Maimon d.1204.

The collection is remarkable for how little emphasis it places on going through the motions. The essential obligation is not fasting, or dressing this way or that, or incanting prayers - as beautiful as the prayers may be. The essential obligation is personal confession; ‘I have sinned by doing this and that.’ In fact one can’t even rely on a confession; “A person who confesses, but does not determine in their heart to leave the matter [and no longer sin], is like one who immerses in a ritual bath holding a creepy-crawly in their hand.” That’s a stunning image to the rabbinic mind - the ritual bath is a place of purification, but lizards and the like are the embodiment of impurity. Certainly, ‘A person who says “I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone,” - repentance is withheld from such a person.’

Yom Kippur only works if we mean it. So I offer us all the chance to let this extraordinary array of observances into our heart. We should say the words as if we mean them. We should share contrition as if we are truly sorry. We should have the courage to open ourselves to the possibility of a better future.

May it come to us all.

Services this evening begin at 6:45pm and start 9:30am tomorrow (10am in the Minyan Chadash).
David-Yehuda will be leading a discussion on confession this evening for anyone who would like to stay back after the Kol Nidrei service.
In the afternoon we offer a class on ‘The Quality of Mercy’ with Aviva Dautch at 2:30pm and I hosting and responding to ‘Q’s with the best ‘A’s I can muster from 4:30pm.

For my errors of commission or omission, and for anything I have done this past year that has caused pain or distress, I am sorry. And seek your forgiveness,

Gemar Chatimah Tovah

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 6 October 2016

There Will Be a Test

My thanks to everyone who helped our Rosh Hashanah celebrations; from the professional team led by Jo and Lennin, Cantor Jason, Lester, the Choir, Wardens and everyone who helped the services run so smoothly, our Youth team led by David-Yehuda, Laurence and the Minyan Chadash team and on the list goes. It was a privilege and a joy to feel the building so bursting with engagement.

Anyone who missed either of my sermons you can catch up [here -] and there will be a test. No, there won’t be a test on the content of my sermons, but there will be a test of the quality with which we have lived our lives. This is the question of this season in these Ten Days that connect Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.

This Shabbat morning, Shabbat Shuva, we will have the opportunity to investigate this great challenge in the company of four great thinkers and writers who have passed away in the past year; Harper Lee, Elie Wiesel, David Bowie and Shimon Peres. It will also be a chance to meet some members of the community we might not know so well. And there will be Cholent. Do join us

One last thought. The great joy of having so many more children around in the community than was the case a decade ago is also the great challenge. Kids make noise. Usually. We are trying this. We are writing to parents of our older children to encourage them to bring their sons and daughters to Kol Nidrei. We know it’s the most special, dignified service of the year, but we want them to have the experience of an adult Jewish engagement. If you have a child you think might ‘get it.’ Please do bring them along. If you find yourself sitting next to a 12 year old. Give ‘em a smile. They are the future of our community.
Shabbat shalom and every good wish for a Chatimah Tovah, may we all be sealed in the Books of life, sweetness and health,

Rabbi Jeremy

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Be Religious - A Second Day RH Sermon

I love Chuppot.
I love doing weddings, and going to weddings - who doesn’t love a good wedding.
But more than that I love the symbol of the Chuppah - the canopy - itself - I love the ideas the physical canopy directs us to understand.

Mostly, if we think about the symbolism of the Chuppah at all, we only get half the story of its power.

The story most often told is that of Abraham’s Tent; open on all four sides, so when some dust-addled strangers appeared over the horizon Abraham could see them, and run out to welcome them into his home. For those of you here yesterday that’s what you might call a Port idea, open, engaged, outward looking.
But it’s only one half of the symbolic power of the Chuppah.

The other idea is that the Chuppah is the bride and groom’s first home, the first ‘roof over their head.’ The Chuppah is supposed to be a place of intimacy, or seclusion. This is the driving intent of the legal literature - [1] which refers to the the Chuppah as a place of Yichud - intimacy. It certainly feels that way, when you are stood there with a couple, almost as if you are, as the Rabbi, invading their private love. And if that is not quite a fort-idea, it’s certainly a long way away from the image of Abraham’s tent. If the Abraham’s tent idea is about being open, the Yichud idea is about being enclosed.

I suspect none of us is worried about this apparent contradiction - the Chuppah as symbol of openness and closedness. For this tension between openness and closedness is exactly how marriage works. Those of us fortunate enough to get to stand under a Chuppah, or even attend a Chuppah pick up, maybe in some unconscious way, something of this relationship between internal strength and outward-looking strength. That’s how religion works of course. In symbols and rituals and liturgies and stories that gently shape us and allow us to pick up something about how we should be living our lives. At its best these symbols and rituals are sophisticated, subtle and enlightening.

The problem is that so often, for one reason or another, we don’t get to understand the full richness of a religious idea. Ideas get half told - like the story of the Chuppah - which isn’t so bad, but also corrupted in the retelling, or hijacked by those with no love for religion who paint some of the most beautiful and sophisticated ideas in our faith as oppressive or childish, or both. That’s more of a problem.
If a person makes a decision to care less about religion, that’s one thing, but to make that decision on the basis of a corrupt version of what is being rejected is desperately sad.

Let me do another example. Actually this example will always be the best example of how Judaism does anything - Shabbat.

Six days you shall work and on the seventh day you shall do Shabbat and - the last word of this verse is hard to translate - vayinafash - be en-souled.

Six days a week get out there. Change the world, drive forward, plan, achieve, create. These are the open four walls of the Chuppah translated into the work of our lives. Six days a week be outward-looking.

And then, one day in seven pause, acknowledge what you have, test what you really need, become a human being, rather than a factor production. Become en-souled. - be inward.

Sound reasonable?
Sounds reasonable to me.
Too much work can exhaust and empty us out.
But let me set it against the most significant challenge of our age; a challenge so severe that it could leave all our blustery concerns about refugees and US Presidential Elections as nothing more than a tumbleweed blowing through what our descendants might say of our time.

We are destroying our planet. And it’s the only one we have. The problem is that we humans don’t know how to stop wanting more. My favourite example is that of the oligarch who decided they needed a new yacht since the first yacht had only one helicopter pad on it. That meant that when he was on board, with his helicopter, there was nowhere for anyone else to land. Such problems we should all have.

The historian of human existence, Yuval Noah Harari[2] in his new compelling, but infuriating book Homo Deus suggests we could learn a great deal by looking at the games we play. From the board game Monopoly to the computer based civilisation strategy games the principles are always world domination or bust.

But what if the world can’t cope with our appetite for dominance?
Harari’s idea is that knowledge will save us, new technologies and the like. Well knowledge develops with astounding pace and the new technologies are exciting, but I’m not sure it will be enough. In fact it might already be too late. Pretty immediately we are going to have to learn to live with less; or more accurately we are going to have to live with a sense that what we possess or what we can bring into our possession is not simply there for our use. We need to find something more important than relentless consuming … and then consuming some more. And that’s where religion comes in.

At its heart religion - this religion anyway - contains a message about what is yours and what is non-yours. Ladonai Haretz Uumeloo - the earth and everything in it is God’s - we say in Psalms. We get what we have as stewards. It’s not ultimately ours.
It’s not ours because there is something more important than we are, even if we don’t understand what that greater force is, we are commanded to observe, recognise and validate that we don’t place ourselves at the centre of Universe.
Shabbat is a training in existential humility and we are in dire need of some existential humility.
Is it OK to be excited about creating and acquiring and accumulating? Yes, but not only to a point. There are limits, responsibilities and most of all the requirement, once a week, to stop entirely and reflect on what all this rushing around is for.

Religion - this religion, on this day - is about standing before one’s creator and being called to account for how one has lived, called to account for our obsessions with material stuff. It’s about acknowledging that no matter how much stuff we have accumulated our end is dust, we are only as strong as a pottery shard, as life-full as withered grass, as permanent as a passing shadow. Those are all images drawn from our tradition.

Shabbat is the tool to inculcate a positive, sustainable, holy relationship with our desire for possessing things and more things.
Religion is the voice that guides us to live in peace with a creation that is not ours to hollow out and devastate.
At least that’s what I think religion is really for.

Noah Yuval Harari on the other hand has a very different concept of religion. Harari thinks that religion is all about forcing a person to do strange and often unethical things for an invented fairy-tale of a fake divinity to ensure the people respect their political overlords.

Harari’s a smart guy, but reading Harari on religion is enough to drive a rabbi to distraction.
Why do people who understand so little about religion spend so much time writing about it? Reading Harari on religion is a bit like encountering a writer on physics explaining billion dollar space programmes are primarily designed to improve non-stick frying pan technology, or a music-theorist who thinks the point of Bach is to teach a person how to play scales.

You don’t reconsider the value of the thing being described because you can’t get beyond the notion that the writer has entirely the wrong end of the stick. At least you shouldn’t.

I don’t mind people pointing out damage done in the name of religion - for there is damage done in the name of religion - even this religion. But if you are going to do that at least give religion points for the good it has inspired - anyone think that slavery would have been overthrown, in this country or the United States were it not for religion, the notion of the creation of every human being in the image of God and that glorious tale of the Exodus

And if you want to put religion on a scale of the various forces that have caused suffering in the world how would it line up alongside Hitler’s non-religious malevolence, or Mao’s or Stalin’s or the atrocities of Rwanda or former Yugoslavia or Cambodia and what about the Congo?
And on what might be blame the relentless destruction of our planet? Where should we place liberal values; or the right to consume on that scale?
I just don’t get the notion that religion, done well, is a force for harm.

The quest to live life well is challenging. Listening only to our own feelings we too easily fall prey to what the Rabbis call the evil inclination. It’s not that human beings are bad, it’s just we get seduced or distracted into wanting what is not good to want. Having boundaries helps, training ourselves to act decently helps, dedicating ourselves to practices of kindness and justice help. Training our children in these practices helps. That’s what it means to be religious. Being religious helps.

Here is the plea. Support this kind of religion. If you don’t want to become a Salafist Muslim or an Evangelical Christian, or even an Ultra-Orthodox Jew - that’s fine. I don’t buy into any of those stripes of religion either. But I do buy into this version of a quest to understand who we are and how we should live in this world. I buy into the way we do religion here at New London Synagogue.

I buy into the idea that the rituals, rhythms and stories are powerful enough to make my life more meaningful, more full of the possibility of doing well in the world.

I believe that if more of us adopted a serious relationship with Shabbat we would stand a better chance of saving the planet. Not just because we would stop buying stuff we didn’t need on the Sabbath day, but because the ideas of Shabbat seep into our lives for the other six days of the week. Because that is how religion works. You make space for it in your life, you give it a chance to change how you see the world and you come out better. Not because of some marxist plot and not because of some fairy-tale nonsense, but because for thousands of years we have quested after the whispers of the divine and constructed pathways to connect our lives to something more important than pursuit of base self-interest.

Maybe the way someone as smart as Harari gets away with writing such rubbish about religion is that he doesn’t hear voices of people who do religion the way we do religion sufficiently clearly. So we need to be clearer, we need to be clearer not just in how we talk about the way we do Judaism, we need to deeper in our engagement with Judaism.

This is the plea; actually two pleas. Engage and talk about it. Engage with religious life, make space to observe Shabbat, come to shul, come to our adult ed programme, read a book - if you want a recommendation, let me know.
And talk about it. Don’t accept the sloppy disregard for religion banded about by the Hararis and Dawkins and the like. Speak up the value of living a life attempting to walk in the ways of Hashem. Share an idea about Shabbat as you understand it, as you love it. Share something you love about Judaism, doesn’t matter if you only get half an idea. There is always more to learn.

And keep an eye on the e-mail in tray. I’ll be running a series of classes a sort of Judaism for intelligent adults who are concerned they don’t quite know enough yet in the winter. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, let me know.

Just don’t be put off by the people who don’t get it, or wilfully seek to subvert the one thing that might just allow us to save this planet, and save our humanity. There is indeed, much at stake.

Shannah Tovah

[1] Shulchan Arukh Even Ha-Ezer 55

[2] Homo Deus p.210
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