Thursday, 29 June 2017

On The Kottel and Unrequited Love

 It’s a bit like when you think a girl you like likes you, only to discover they were only interested in your money. When it comes to a decision as to whether to hang out with you, or someone else, they choose the other guy. Sure they’ll tell you to your face that you are important to them, but it just doesn’t feel that way.

I’m having a tough relationship with the State of Israel this week. I love Israel. I’ve spent over three years of my life in the country and probably just as many hours back in England advocating for her, thinking about her and learning her language and ways. This week, as a Masorti Jew, I’ve had - we have all had - two significant snubs. On Sunday, led by the Israeli Prime Minister, more power was placed into the hands of the Ultra-Orthodox on an issue around conversion courts and then came a second Netanyahu-sponsored decision to suspend plans to build a suitable space next to the Western Wall that could be used by those who didn’t wish to pray according to ultra-orthodox rites.

Together with my Reform and Liberal colleagues in this country I’m angered and hurt. We are not alone. Natan Sharansky, celebrated Refusnik and former MK, forged the carefully balanced plan for a permanent pluralist space at the Kottel. He has reacted furiously. The leadership of the Jewish Agency cancelled a gala dinner with the Prime Minister in protest. Within Israel, the suspension has been opposed by those on a spectrum as broad as the leadership of the modern-Orthodox Tzohar organisation and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

But the thing that makes this snub feel most like a trauma of teenage love is the experience that wells up when I consider the other suitor. What does she see in him?! The Ultra-Orthodox leadership, who have fought tooth and nail against this plan, are hardly dashing suitors. They are prepared to prop up the Netanyahu-led government for whatever the kosher version of pork-barrel is, but their vision of a Jewish State is not only alien to me, it’s alien to even the most avid fan of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

So what do I do? I’m not giving up. I’ll share some of my pain in a forum like this. I’ll take up my cudgel in defence of Israel and her current political leadership a little less readily. But I won’t walk away. I need Israel and while I am prepared to admit that those who live in her borders, and certainly those who serve in her defence, deserve a far greater say in her future than I, I will insist on speaking up for the version of Israel that I believe in. That’s certainly what I plan to share with the Israel’s Ambassador next week when some colleagues and I will be making the case that Israel’s rejection of its aspiration to be a home for all Jews is a terrible mistake. If you want to share with me your thoughts - to share with Ambassador Regev - please do.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 16 June 2017

On Homosexuality and the Pressure Put on Relgious Leaders

Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi community of this country gave a speech in which he spoke warmly about some issues around homosexuality. He went far too far for a number of ultra-orthodox Rabbis, in this country and abroad, who have taken against him. He’s been referred to as a ‘heretic,’ ‘unfit’ to serve as Rabbi and even - gevalt - ‘more poisonous that Louis Jacobs’ (sic. as I believe you have to say at this point).

I don’t want, here, to restate my own understanding of the Bible’s approach to homosexual desires for intimacy. For what it’s worth I feature in a BBC Documentary on the subject viewable [here -]. I’m more interested in the application of pressure on Rabbis. It is, of course, something our founder Rabbi and the founder members of this community knew well. Pressure hurts - of course it does - and when the pressure is applied to the very heart of everything you have given your life to, besides from the professional and personal impact, that pressure can be deeply wounding. But some kinds of pressure help. They clarify; not only one’s own position but also one’s sense of integrity. ‘The good thing about being in hot water,’ Rabbi Louis Jacobs used to say frequently, ‘is that it keeps you clean.’ I think he meant that being in hot water ensures one has the opportunity to realise one’s deepest commitment to the pursuit of truth. When personal deceit is an easier option than the truth of hot water one finds out what one truly stands for and what one is prepared to sacrifice for one’s integrity.

Louis, of course, walked away from the attempts of the ultra-orthodox to persuade him to be silent, or recant. As did the 500 founder members of this community. That took incredible courage. And I salute all to found the strength to that step, our founder Rabbi most of all. But there is a cost also in bowing when pressures applied by others. The cost of apologising and recanting what one believes to be true is not only an internal one. It strengthens the hands of bullies and those who wish one no good fortune. You bow to pressure once and the pressure will come again and again.

I’m reminded of a letter written by the former Israeli Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, who refused to back down from an issue involving Mamzerut. “I’m delighted [he wrote to the JTS professor, Saul Lieberman] to note that I have never felt myself so free to deliberate, to teach, to make legal decisions as I see them, according to my own deliberations. I have been set free, blessed be God, from all the impure notions that they continually pursued me with – what would this one say, what would this lot say, or that lot – now I am fulfilling the Gemorah which states that Rabbi should judge only on the basis of what their own eyes see. [Citing BT Sanhedrin 6b. The letter was published by M.B. Shapiro in Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox].”

Hazak, hazak v’Nithazek - we sing at the end of each book of the Torah - ‘Be strong, be strong and be of courage’. It’s based on the blessing Moses gave to Joshua before he took on leadership of the Jewish people. It’s the best thing to wish any Jewish leader.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jeremy
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