Thursday, 24 November 2016

‘Abraham was Old’

Old age, the Rabbis suggest, began with Abraham. It’s a typically rabbinic observation. The word, ‘Zaken’ appears for the first time only in this week’s parasha, and so ...

Perhaps the more historical observation would be that ageing used to be so much rarer than it is today. We are, notes Noah Yuval Harari, the first humans to face age as the greatest threat to our mortality. In generations past violence, pestilence and famine accounted for so many more of us. Now what?

In Bereishit Rabba Abraham asks God for a sign of ageing so everyone will know who deserves more respect when ‘a father and a son go to a place,’ indeed the word Zaken, means both ‘aged’ and ‘wise.’ Zaken also means ‘beard’ - a sign of age? Certainly. A sign of wisdom? Well as long as it’s a reasonably neat goatee, I think so.

The great American teacher Reb Zalman taught much about ‘saging’ a process where the aged are duly celebrated for their wisdom, not only the real depths of insight that come with age, but also the wisdom of declining intellectual perspicuity. And there is the rub.

In ancient times death, in times of peace and plenty, would usually be preceded by illness, untreatable and therefore brief. Nowadays we survive, physically, longer and longer, perhaps outlasting our mental strength, perhaps outlasting financial sums put aside, perhaps outlasting the reservoir of care and love that we imagine our due. The absolute connection between age and wisdom is severely threatened. Indeed this may be the single greatest challenge of our age.

Two thoughts to share, neither renders the work of caring for the aged easy or alters the stark physical challenges so many face, but hopefully thoughts that can ease a spiritual burden.

Firstly when the Talmud discusses the obligation to honour one’s parents - one of the Ten Commandments - the examples cited are without exception about aged parents; perhaps senile and certainly no longer at the height of their power. A jeweller forgoes a significant sale since his father is asleep using his keybox as a pillow. A man watches his mother fan money off the back of a ship without attempting to stop her. When the Rabbis suggested honouring one’s parents to be the heaviest of the obligations they knew the challenges posed by ageing. Acknowledging the gift of our parents is something that takes place not when our parents are at the height of their powers, but afterwards.

Secondly, there is this notion of the creation of the human in the image of the Divine; every human, at every stage in that person’s life. It is the greatest challenge in our faith and it applies equally to the young, the old, the fit, the infirm, the perspicacious and the demented. To bear witness to the divine nature in a person, no matter how challenging they might be, no matter how much a shadow they might be of their former selves, is, I believe, the key to understanding how we should care for our most aged and sage-ed. It is certainly how we should all wished to be cared for ourselves.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 18 November 2016

Same Thing Over Again

Every once in a while hope for a progressive orthodoxy in this country bubbles up. Learned, committed self-defined orthodox Jews start talking about changing women’s roles, an openness towards critical scholarship and the like, and a new dawn is heralded. For those - our founder Rabbi among them - who waited for decades for Orthodox leadership to emerge from intellectual culs-de-sac these flickers of hope seem to offer so much. But then pressure is brought to bear from extremists, the so-called middle-ground buckles - not so much from being persuaded of the justification of the right-wingers, but simply from threats of exclusion. And the leaders of any new progressive development are whipped back into place, or cast adrift.
I’ve been reflecting on this pattern, centuries old at this point, this week as I’ve read two very similar stories. One regarding one of the most highly regarded educators operating - or attempting to operate - on this seam. Elie Jesner has found himself banned from the notionally modern-Orthodox, London School of Jewish Studies for the ‘sins’ of teaching at the pluralist Jewish day-school JCoSS and as part of a series organised by the Friends of Louis Jacobs. He’s written about it here.

Miriam Lorie found her invitation to speak with Bat Mitzvah students at Elstree and Borehamwood United Synagogue rescinded for the ‘sin’ of being involved in Borehamwood Partnership Minyan. More here.…/im-on-my-shuls-blacklist-and-it-…/

In a world with plenty of big problems these tiny vignettes can seem petty, but they raise the most important questions about the nature of the religious quest. 
On whose side do we stand? 
Are we prepared to give support to organisations whose intolerant fundamentalist beliefs we do not share and who practice the gentle art of persuasion with threats (and acts) of excommunication?

I fail to understand why the great masses of Anglo-Jewry continue to allow their commitment, their memberships and their money to be attached to a denomination that behaves this way. It’s unacceptable. Since Louis was treated similarly it has happened time and time again and the position of orthodoxy at the ‘top-table’ of both Anglo-Jewry and national religious engagement seems poisoned by such behaviour.

It’s an honour to serve a community founded because of a refusal to tolerate such orthodox bullying. It’s an honour to wear, proudly, the badge of being Masorti and non-orthodox. The badge stands for a willingness to engage with truths from wherever they may be found and a desire to celebrate, within our communities, the broadest range of diversities on issues of gender, sexuality, belief and even commitment. Yes, I believe we are a stronger community because we value ‘even’ those Jews who don’t believe full observance is the only goal of a Jewish life.

If you have friends who affiliate Orthodox, please pass this note on to them. Tell ‘em they are welcome here. Or I can put them in touch with communities more local. And if you share in my fortune of being a member of New London, support us; come more often, give more generously, be more committed to making our future brighter so the ‘other’ option - a Judaism of open-minds and open-hearts can prove ever more tempting to those who no longer wish to affiliate as Orthodox.

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 3 November 2016

What does success look like?

The glorious month of Tishrei is over, Rosh Hashanah is a long forgotten memory and even the succah and the flayed willows are tidied up and gone for another year.
What is left?

Measuring the success of the Rosh Hashanah season is a strange business. Did more people come? Did they have more fun? Did they pay more money? Did we finish on time? All important, but drastically incomplete scales of measurement. Maybe better markers of success can be found in these sorts of question; Did more people come the Shabbat after all the festive decorations are dismantled? 
Will we be, as a community, stronger next year than we were last year? 

I never know how to answer the question, ‘are you ready?’ put to me with remarkable regularity in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The answer I usually give is that I have no idea. I’m wholly persuaded by the sagacity of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked in 1972, what he thought of the eighteenth century French Revolution, reportedly responded, ‘It’s too soon to tell.’

But here are a few observations that interest me.
We had visiting grandparents. One of the most savage markers of the decline of a Jewish community is when grandparents leave to be closer to their children and grandchildren. It’s something I’ve seen in a number of provincial communities in particular. For some years we were that community. Our youth went elsewhere and a number of grandparents followed. But now we are experiencing the reverse, visiting grandparents, often, interestingly spending time with us rather than their home orthodox communities because of the welcome we have provided their children, in-laws and next generations.

The new Machzor went down very well. I had only excellent feedback on the new Sacks/Koren Machzor we debuted this year. Well one member raised a concern that the commentary was too interesting and distracted them from prayer, therefore proving that you really can’t please everyone. A development like this is a huge challenge, and the fact that it didn’t feel that way is a testament to the openness of the community (and in particular Ed’s sterling work on page number duty). We know there were a few periods where it was very difficult to follow Cantor Jason’s Routledge-led service in the Koren, and that will have attention over the year. Please do let me have any other feedback.

Some people listened to my sermons. I had a correspondent share they were writing stuff down, in the context of my Yizkor sermon. I found someone using the image of the Port Jew I had shared on Rosh Hashanah. I even had someone share their best advice on how to treat an invasion of drosophila. Most touchingly my sermon on refugee and in particular the work of the Separated Child Foundation and the Asylum Drop-In Centre (which launches this week) seems to have struck a chord. Many of you have been generous with your funds, your clothes and other gifts and your time. I salute your generosity and feel very humbled by the impact the services have made. For more information on ways to support these important projects - in particular for more information on how to volunteer, please be in touch.

There is plenty to do; to continue our open-hearted and open-minded approach to Judaism. We remain utterly dependent on people coming, taking part and supporting the community financially as well as physically and spiritually. To everyone who supported us in this last month in any way, I am deeply grateful.

So normality returns. We need your support on dark Friday evenings, at the start of Shabbat morning prayers, the Cheder is back, we’ve a communal Friday night dinner to look forward to and I hope all this, and so much more, will have your support.
Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Jeremy

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