Thursday, 26 July 2018

Why I Love the Talmud

The two reasons I most love the Talmud are rarely discussed, and rarely understood.

Talmud is the way Rabbinic Judaism carries its past into a changing future. It discusses the areas of Judaism that became obsolete before the birth of Rabbinic Judaism (such as sacrificial service) with the same intense engagement as it discusses the elements of Jewish law that remain. That’s not an ostrich-like refusal to acknowledge that time has moved on, but a belief that the central essence of Judaism can still motivate and shape our lives even as the exterior shell changes. When times change we change, of course we change. But by treasuring, as sacred, the essence of what brought us to today we arrive in our present ready to apply all our wisdom to the challenges of tomorrow. As a carrier of ideas, the Talmud can be blisteringly relevant to the challenges of our time. I read broadly, very broadly, but there are Talmudic encapsulations that articulate tomorrow’s challenges; from the ecological to the nature of life, to socio-economic to ... ah the list is endless, so powerfully I turn to this 1500-year-old work to understand the challenges of the age before any other.

Secondly, Talmud understands the nature of disagreement in a way that gives me hope for this battered time. One online dictionary defines ‘talmudic’ as ‘overly-detailed’ or ‘hairsplitting.’ That sniffy, pejorative connotation fails to realise the true nature of talmudic enquiry. A Mishnah will suggest two points of view, each attributed to a different ancient sage. Then the enquiry begins; how could one sage say such a thing when elsewhere he seemed to say the opposite. No, the difference is explained away. Then another objection is raised, and solved and again, and again and again. Then the other Rabbi’s articulation is tested, tested against the totality of their other articulations over thousands of pages of carefully preserved argument until, finally, the passage is deemed complete. At this point the two opinions remain, each protected in their own terms. Neither Rabbi has been subsumed into the other. Difference has been valued. Alterity - as Levinas put it - is preserved. There is - to borrow the phrase - much dignity in difference. To be talmudic means to know that humans are not supposed to agree, we are supposed to be principled in our disagreement; at odds, while still participating in a broader communal enterprise. Oh! We need more talmudicism in these times.

This Shabbat we will be celebrating the Talmud at New London with JTS Professor Dr Sarah Wolf. She will be speaking on Shabbat morning, and sharing more insight at a special afternoon session at my home (from 4:45pm). All welcome.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Jewish Democracy

Within hours of the Kenneset passing a deeply divisive 'Jewish Nation State' Act something utterly baffling happened in Israel.

A Rabbi was arrested, in Israel, for the crime of celebrating a marriage between two Jews according to Jewish law. Yes, you did read that correctly.
Rab Dov Haiyun is a Masorti Rabbi, leader of the oldest Masorti congregation in Israel. He was arrested at 5:30am and taken for interrogation for the crime of celebrating a Jewish marriage in Israel - that's another law passed by the Kenesset. Not that it's the police-officers fault. As Rav Haiyun said, “Unfortunately, the nice young policemen serve as tools for the ayatollahs in Israel,” More on this absurdity here.

Now, I love Israel. I recognise Israel’s remarkable accomplishments, achieved under levels of stress I can barely fathom. I even recognise the power of these Israeli ayatollahs comes from the ballot box - in the country in which they live and I don’t. I know that whenever any of us, Jews living outside of Israel, and rabbis even more so, take up a verbal-cudgel to oppose the actions of the Israeli state a little of the love we all have for Israel gets chipped away. But this is unacceptable.

Worse than that, there is a connection between this offensive, frankly antisemitic, abuse of my colleague and the Jewish Nation State Law which formally enshrines the Jewish nature of Israel in language that the non-Jewish minority and its allies feel to be deeply exclusory. The connection cuts to the very heart of the nature of democracy. Etymologically, a democracy is a society where power is exercised by the populace - which is fine. But the true essence of democracy is the management of power; who gets to vote and crucially how the power of elected representatives is constrained. The treasured epithet, ‘being a democrat’ is not awarded simply to those who win elections. Hitler was elected. So was Hamas. So too - without wishing to overplay any similarity - are the current elected leadership of countries stretching from China to Russia, Hungary Turkey...
Democracies are not characterised by the wielding of power by the majority, but by the constraining of the power of the majority. True democracies constrain the powerful because treating difference and disagreement as sacred is the only way to ensure all members of a democracy thrive - not just the ones who agree with the views of today's elected leader. It’s a vital thing to care about not just because times change and wheels spin round, but because no-one is ever, truly, fully in agreement with anyone. We are each unique. We all have our differences and peculiarities. Our uniqueness and peculiarities are the sources of our humanity. No human should ever cheer for any political or communal body that seeks to suppress difference. We might find that our difference is the next to be suppressed. Moreover, it is only through the encounter with difference that growth and development are ever possible. The deepest task of a democracy is to protect difference, not suppress it.
I’m proud to be a Masorti Jew - one who privileges complexity, nuance and disagreement - above uniformity. I’m proud to be Rabbi of this community - which models exactly this behaviour - even if we sometimes take longer to move than a more autocratic community might. I’m honoured by the support of our membership for this approach to communal life. We need to stand ever more firmly, waving a flag for the values of a space created for this truly democratic approach to the common life.
And somewhere in all of this, I’m frustrated that I feel I have to say this, today. It’s the eve of the 9th Av - the marking of our previous destruction caused by ‘Sinat Chinam’ - pointless acts of hatred. I want to respond to our history with a call to acts of ‘Ahavat Chinam’ - but this is, already, too long a missive. If you are still reading. Thank you. Please consider assenting by coming this Saturday evening for our 9th Av commemoration, jointly with Belsize Square Synagogue (at NLS, learning from 9:15pm, service at 10pm). Come to fold these pains, frustrations and the battered hope of our people ever more deeply into our souls.

Friday, 6 July 2018

A prayer for the England Football Team

Let me let you in into a secret - I'm not really interested in the football.
But sometimes I make the effort.
Today's one of those days.

Arrived in my FB feed this week a special newly-drafted prayer.

May the One who gives salvation to Presidents of FIFA and dominion to Chief Executives of the FA, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom - may he bless
Our England Manager Gareth Southgate, England Captain Harry Edward Kane, Number one goalkeeper Jordan Lee Pickford and all the England Squad and coaching staff.

May the supreme King of kings in his mercy preserve England's world cup run, guard them from defeat and deliver them from dodgy refereeing decisions. May God bless and protect Gareth's back line. May He put a spirit of wisdom and understanding in the heart of our midfield, that they may protect the defence and transition the ball to attack swiftly. May our strikers be blessed with precision and guile.

In their days and in ours may our Heavenly Father spread the tabernacle of World Cup glory over all the dwellers in England and may football finally come home, and let us say Amen.

Well make me smile - and made me say Amen.
It made me smile, because it’s a smart prayer.
And it made me say Amen, because I accept its theology.
Let me do the smart piece first
It t sounded familiar - even if you’ve never heard if before. Regulars in Synagogues will certainly have recognised it - even our first time guests.
We pray this way, almost, all the time.
Just a few minutes ago,
May the one who give salvation to kings and dominion unto princes bless Her Majesty the Queen, and all the Royal Family.
We pray for deliverance and the wisdom of advisers and counsellors.
And the whole rhythm of the world cup prayer is based on our prayer for the Government and its advisors.
And it’s a really old prayer. We’ve been praying this way for the countries in which, as Jews, we have found ourselves since before Jews were re-admitted into England some 350 years ago.
The oldest version of the prayer we know comes from a C15 prayerbook from Aragon, part of Spain.
He who gives salvation to kings and whose kingdom is everlasting… may He strengthen, bless, and uplift higher and higher our Lord King Fernando
But the printing press is already in action by this time and prayer is popping up all over the place; Italy, Poland, France - even Yemen. It’s known by the Hebrew name - HaNoten Teshua.
When the leader of Dutch Jewry, Menassaeh Ben Israel, wrote to Oliver Cromwell in 1655 to persuade Cromwell to let the Jews back into this country - we were expelled in 1190 - he translates the hanoten Teshua into English and tells Cromwell that if he does let the Jews back in, we will pray for him.
And Cromwell was tempted. Actually the story of the re-admittance of the Jews into England is a little more complicated, but Cromwell wanted us back, and eventually we got back.
And this is the great English diarist Samuel Pepys, recording his visit to the ‘Jewish Synagogue’ - I’m not sure what other kinds of Synagogue there are - in Creechurch Lane.
Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.
Actually the tradition of Jews praying for the countries in which they find themselves goes right back to the time of Jeremiah - 2500 years ago.
‘And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.’ Says Jeremiah.[1]
So much for the clever stuff - the intertextual stuff behind this prayer for Gareth
What about the theology? What leads me to say Amen.
Well there are rules for prayers - do-s and don’t-s. And it obeys all of them.
Two don’ts -
Firstly you are not allowed to do what is called a Bracha V’Talah - a wasted prayer. If something has happened already you aren’t allowed to pray for it to be changed. So - and I have to admit this isn’t the precise example given in the Talmud - if you happened to be wandering past a football stadium in some obscure corner of Russia and you heard a mighty cheer go up you aren’t allowed to pray that that was England scoring.
That would be a Brachah V’Talah. Either England scored, or they didn’t.
Similarly you aren’t really supposed to pray for miracles. The best story about this is the classic joke, number 14.
Man wants to win the lottery
God responds, you have to buy a ticket.
The point is that God, even if you pray very nicely to God, God doesn’t take from you the responsibility of dealing with the things you have to deal with.  If you want to win the lottery, you have to buy a ticket. Prayer isn’t going to solve that problem for you. If you are a smoker and you don’t want to get cancer - you are going to have to stop smoking. Prayer isn’t going to solve that problem for you.
There’s a great line in the Haddith I’ve always liked - ‘First, tie up your camel, then put your faith in God.’[2] The Talmudic version of the same idea is the tale of Rabbi Yannai would always check the ferry before crossing the river. Prayer doesn’t replace human responsibility for human matters.
And you shouldn’t pray as if it does.
And judged by these standards - of avoiding a wasted prayer, or pinning one’s hopes on miracles beyond the reach of human responsibility for human actions - our prayer for the World Cup passes master.

Then there are the do-s of prayer. The thing prayer should do.
Jewish prayer is only kosher if it recognises what the Rabbis call shem u’malchut - God’s name and God’s dominion over all creation. One of the things that happen when you prayer, recognising shem u’malchut is that you orientate yourself to the truly important things in the world. When you bring the name of the creator of heaven and earth, of humanity and breath within us, into a prayer - it acts as a gauge of the truly significant.
You might think, when you start praying, that England beating Sweden is the most important thing in the world, but if you pray with Shem u’malchut somewhere in the soul your are reminding yourself that football just isn’t that important. And that if England win, or if England don’t there is still going to be a universe of stars and planets who don’t care about the football at all, and even on this planet of ours the vast majority of the 7.4 billion of us, will get on with our lives regardless of whether a 30cm sphere of leather ball ended up more ofen in one net than the other.
Prayer is a call to our better selves. It’s supposed to lift us to do better, be kinder, make better decisions not for the sake of immediate gratification, but in the light of the web of responsibilities and duties we have as human beings, as members of a family, a faith community, a nation. When I pray to do well on a test what I am really doing is reminding myself of the value of giving of my best, studying and preparation. I’m calling to my better self, trying the strengthen the power of my better angels.
But does it work. What if all of us really prayed, really humbled ourselves before our creator and with sincerity and a spiritual integrity prayed that Jordan Pickford would be the best goalkeeper he could possibly be, or that Harry Kane should - oh I don’t know. Does it really matter?
Does prayer work? I have to be honest. I don’t know. I mean you can find some scientific papers - you pay your money, you make your choice. But I do think so, and it’s the great Jewish theologian Franz Rozensweig who, I think, has put it best.
Rozensweig isn’t the easiest person to read, but let me share this with you
Love cannot be other than effective. There is no act of neighbourly love that falls into the void. Just because the act is performed blindly, it must appear somewhere, [and this is the effectiveness of prayer]. Prayer, though it has no magic powers as such, nevertheless, by lighting the way for love, arrives at possibilities of magic effects. It can intervene in the divine system of the world. It can provide love with direction toward something not yet ready for love, not yet ripe for endowment with soul.  Thus the prayer of the individual, when it enlightens the supplicant, is always in danger of - tempting God.
I think that’s right. We live in a world where the interconnectedness of everything - and our prayers and acts of love in particular - have implications beyond our ability to control. I don’t mind the mystery, I don’t mind that the belief in the efficacy of prayer is ultimately just that - an act of belief, a faith in the ability of human intervention in the divine system of the world.
Prayer is good, it clarifies what we are and what we aren’t responsible for in our existence.
It reminds us that we can’t abnegate our own responsibilities for our own lives.
It reminds us that there is a greater power and a greater significance than our own lives, and even the fate of our national football team - it reminds us that we live in the shadow of our creator.
And it might, just, tempt God.

May the One who gives salvation to Presidents of FIFA and dominion to Chief Executives of the FA, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom - may he bless
Our Manager , Captain, goalkeeper and all the England Squad and coaching staff.
May the supreme King of kings in his mercy preserve England's world cup run, guard them from defeat and deliver them from dodgy refereeing decisions.
In their days and in ours may our Heavenly Father spread the tabernacle of World Cup glory over all the dwellers in England and may football finally come home, and let us say Amen.

[1] 29.7
[2] Hadith, At-Tirmidhi. A Jewish version of the same idea can be find in the name of Rabbi Yannai who would check the ferry before crossing the river, BT Shabbat 32a.

Responding to the Romans at the Walls - And Other Matters

We are marking, this time of year, the destruction of the great Temples that were at the heart of our faith for thousands of years, and the destruction of the Second Temple, in the year 70CE especially. Our commemoration of the 9th Av is on Saturday night 21st September. Do please book, do please come.

We have a remarkable record of the time - written by one of the most brilliant and enigmatic figures in our history. Yosef Ben Matityahu was head of the Israelite forces in the Galil before surrendering or defecting and becoming - as Josephus Flavius - the greatest Roman historian of the period. Quite how he felt about his former fellow Jews is disputed. But the story he tells in his heartbreaking Wars of the Jews is one of anything other than inevitable destruction. Time and time again options are put forward for peaceful solutions and rejected by the zealot guardians of the ancient city. An Roman intermediary - Nicanor - makes his way towards the walled Jerusalem to negotiate - he is shot at, injured by a dart. Later, once the siege is set the zealot defenders of Jerusalem burn the food stores to urge the defenders into greater acts of military valour. Josephus laments the decision - the stores could have been used to keep residents alive, instead, he relates, they are reduced to eating dung and grass.

In one of the Talmudic narratives of destruction Yochanan Ben Zakkai fakes his own death to be spirited from the city to negotiate for some element of survival. And we do, despite everything survive. But - do we survive through our obstinacy or through our compromise. Almost 2,000 years later the lessons are still unclear. Ben Zakkai berates himself for his own negotiation - feeling himself too soft. But surely continued obstinacy in the face of greater military might would have been futile.

To stick, or to twist? It’s the great conundrum of Jewish survival, from times ancient to modern. Do we become stronger through gentle adaption even to oppressive overlords or through meeting opposition with opposition?

Is Chaim Rumkowski, leader of the Lodz ghetto who negotiated and attempted to win Nazi favour for the ghetto he sought to protect, less or more of a hero than Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt who fought tooth and nail rather than accept Nazi awfulness? They both, of course, died.

Even in realms entirely free of the awfulness of the destructions of our history this ‘stick or twist’ conundrum remains. “Rabbi, I don’t really do Shabbat, is that OK?” Do I respond with accommodation or strength - “Yes of course, and we will still love you.” Or “Not really, you lose the sacred connection with your people, faith and creator, and even a quality of life that Shabbat fosters?”

The answer, of course, is that neither polarity can be correct all the time. We need to know when to respond one way, when the other. To meet force with force will ensure mutual destruction at worst, and partial destruction at best. To accommodate the errant trains us to care less about the matters that must be defended. It was Shimon Peres who said, that "When you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look for the third that you didn't think about.”

Amen to that.

Shabbat shalom

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Parashat Balak - Looking Out at Goodness

I used to go to one of those shuls where everyone was in place 1 minute before the Shabbat morning service started. German influenced. Gotta love those Germans.

And when the service began it began with a terrific verse from this week’s Torah reading - Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaacov - How great are your tents o Jacob.

It’s not part of our liturgy here. Probably because we are just a little quiet at the very beginning of services. That’s a shame - because it’s a great verse.

The story is that Bilaam eventually arrives at the camp of the Israelites - the people of Jacob. He’s been paid to curse them and off he goes a-cursin’

But when he finally arrives he lifts up his eyes and sees Israel and he says this;
 נְאֻם בִּלְעָם בְּנוֹ בְעֹר
Thus spoke Bilaam, son of Beor, the saying of the man whose eyes have been opened
מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב
How great are your tents o Jacob.

So what did he see that impressed him so deeply?
I want to share two possible understandings.

One motivated by a book, and one motivated by Rashi.

Let me start with the book.
I’ve been reading the scripts of the original masterpiece documentary television series, recently updated. You may have been watching Civilisations, presented by Simon Schama and others - but I’ve been taken with the original 1969 series Civilisation, presented by Kenneth Clark. I referred to it in my weekly words - I did say there would be a test.

The original Civilisation has been knocked in that revisionist way in which things get knocked, but it’s bursting with tremendously interesting ideas.

Clark opens his masterwork trying to understand what civilisation is. He stands on the bank of the Seine surrounded by stunning beautiful buildings and asks what differentiates the savage barbarian beauty prow of a marauding Viking ship from the beauty of the buildings of what he considers proper civilisation?

In a word he suggests the defining property of civilisation is ‘permanence.’[1]
Wanderers and invaders, Clarke speculates, don’t look beyond the next meal or the next battle. And for that reason, he claims, it didn’t occur to them to build beautiful buildings, or write books.
A civilised person, says Clarke, must feel they belong somewhere specific in space and time. And for that purpose, he says, it’s a great convenience to be able to read and write.
It’s a shock, he says to realise how rare that gift was even in Medieval times. The great military general and Empower Charlemagne born in 742 learnt to read, we are told, but he could never write - too busy chasing the here and now to worry about recording anything for the forever.

Jews, on the other hand, have been big on writing, and reading, and learning, for a very long time. We feel we have an intimate connection to - if not place - then at least time. We play a transgeneration game where the quality of what we have is the quality of what we can pass on to the generations that follow.

So imagine this with me.
Bilaam is a man who is on the make, a mercenary purveyor of curses and blessings to whoever will line his palm with silver.
And when he sets off into the desert to the Israelite encampment he must be assuming he will encounter an  Am Noded, a wandering, nomadic, peripatetic people without commitment to civilisation.
But when he looks out at them - at us - he sees something different.

He sees a commitment to permanence, a commitment to civilisation. I’ll get to what exactly that might look like a little later. But he sees something that strikes him as good - maybe it was our commitment to what Clark considers civilisation, a desire to create for a term longer than even our own lives, a relationship with permanence reflected even in how we set up camp in the wilderness all those years ago.

I don’t think it could have been the buildings - after all the Israelites are travelling - there would have been a beautiful sanctuary in the middle of the camp, but the tents, surely, would have just been tents, ramshackle Succot.

In fact the markers of Jewish civilisation have only rarely and only temporarily been buildings, and more rarely still been buildings as beautiful as this one.
Today is the 17th of Tammuz, the anniversary of the breaching of the walls of the Second Temple, the start of a religious journey reaches its nadir in three weeks time when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple. We are marking the beginning of this journey tomorrow morning - Shacharit. In three weeks time - POSTER

The Jewish civilisation has had a mixed track record with buildings - they tend to get destroyed. But we have never given up on our commitment to permanence; to building for the future with not bricks and mortar, but through a Masorah - a religious and intellectual and emotional traditional to be passed down from one generation to the next. We’ve built our civilisation out of a relationship with the written word - the Torah, and the books and stories and narratives that have unfolded from it over so many years..

The Jewish civilisation has been built out of a commitment to pass something on to the generations to come.

We believe we can survive, we will survive even despite anything. We always have. Perhaps that’s how we have survived when the Hittites and the Jebusites and the Persians and the Romans and even the Nazis have fallen by the wayside. We’ve structured our camps for the forever.
We’ve always looked beyond the immediate.
We’ve always built for the future.
Enormously proud of our Cheder.
All upstairs learning, celebrating, building for our permanence.
Exactly as it should be.
Presenting prizes at end of service - hope you will share your support of how we are still building for our future.

Maybe what Bilaam saw is that marker of Jewish civilisation - permanence -in the construction of the Tents of Jacob.

But what, exactly would that look like?
That’s Rashi’s question
His comment is a little terse.
What was it that Bilaam saw that was good, asks Rashi?

על שראה פתחיהם שאינן מכוונין זה מול זה:
He saw that the tents weren’t set up to face into one another. It wasn’t possible for one person to look in at the tent of the other.

I had always understood Rashi to be claiming that our commitment to privacy was ‘Tovu’ the good thing Bilaam saw.
As if there was something particularly impressive about privacy.

Turns out I shouldn’t have underestimated Rashi.
Here’s the Midrash Rashi had in mind when he penned his commentary.
It’s from a late collection, Tanhuma Yilamdeinu;

‘Back in Egypt even though there were those who worshipped false gods, even still the people still observed prohibitions against adultery. And when they came out of Egypt they were Tzanuah - modest, each one in their own tent - so Reuven didn’t gaze out on the wife of Shimon and Shimon didn’t gaze out on the wife of Reuven. And even when there were 600,000 in the wilderness, this is how they did modesty. No-one placed the opening of their tent infront of the tent of their fellow. And when Bilaam looked out and saw Israel dwelling in her tribes - [this is what he praised.]

The point of the tents not facing one another is not to stop you looking in on me.
But to stop me looking in on you.
It’s an act of self control.

I know there is a gender critical read of the Midrash and, for the sake of stating the obvious let me clear that I’m not at all interested in the notion that a husband owns their wife, but let me let that go and instead take this as a Midrash which suggests that the thing that is good is the exercise of self control over peering salaciously and greedily at our fellows.

What Bilaam saw was not a nation of acquisitorial net-curtain twitchers, but a nation committed not to covet. The modesty here is a sense of security with what one has - I’m reminded of one of my favourite teachings in Pirkei Avot -
Eizeh Hu Ashir - who is rich - HaSameach B’Helko - the one who is happy with what they have.
It’s a much more moving understanding of the meaning of this much abused term - Tzanuah -

Bilaam is a man motivated by money.
He’s allowed money dangled before him to lead him astray.
And he turns up at the Israelite encampments to see a people who aren’t chasing after what they don’t have - certainly not chasing dishonest acquisition.

It’s a captivating image. What would it be to set up my tent in such a way to send out a sign that I’m happy with what I have - I’m Sameach b’Helki?
We could all do with sending out a message into this battered world that we are happy with what we have.

So two thoughts about the nature of what Bilaam saw that so moved him to utter that majestic verse - Mah Tovu Ohaelecha.

Perhaps he saw something about a commitment to permanence, a commitment not only to build a civilisation, but to pass that civilisation on from one generation to another. Perhaps he saw, in the arrangement of ‘Tzanuah’ modest, non acquisitorial, tents a commitment not to covet that which belongs to our fellow.

Maybe these two ideas are nothing other than alternate ways of expressing the same thing. The person who sees something and wants to grab it immediately is a person who lives in the moment. The person who lives with a sense of permanence wants to build something to pass on. They don’t hunger after their fellow’s possessions because they want to be part of a stable society that doesn’t descend into a dog-eat-dog free-for-all.

A desire to build a Jewish life for the future and a commitment to self restraint are perhaps the great markers of our Jewish life.

And they are indeed, great.

[1] P.20
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