Sunday, 10 February 2019

Napleon and the Jews (and Don't Mess With Trevor Noah)

Here’s some good advice.

Never pick on a late night TV show host.
They will be funnier than you, smarter than you and their producers get to ensure they, quite literally, get the last laugh.

Here’s a good example.
Trevor Noah is one of the funniest and smartest hosts on American Television. Born in South Africa he decided, in the aftermath of the last World Cup to congratulate ‘Africa’ for winning the competition. This didn’t go down well with a number of his French viewers, including France’s Ambassador to the United States, who decided to write to Mr Noah and put him straight.[1]

‘It seems,’ wrote the ambassador, ‘that you are denying these French-born, French-educated soccer players of their Frenchness. France,’ he continued, ‘is indeed a cosmopolitan country, but every citizen belongs to the nation of France. Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin. For us there is no hyphenated identity.’

As I said, a mistake to take on someone like Trevor Noah. And the poor Ambassador was figuratively disembowelled live on prime time television. I’ll come back to that later.

But I was thinking about this spat earlier this week when I was in France, listening to a professor of French History take a group of Masorti Rabbis through one of the most remarkable moments in modern Jewish history; the case of Napoleon and the Great Assembly.

It’s the late 1700s, the Revolution has been, Egalite, Liberte and Fraternite have been declared, but it’s not at all clear that the Jews should be due the same rights as - forgive the term - proper French citizens. Aside from the matter of our strange habits and the fear that we might have a loyalty that would make it impossible for us to be truly French, there is also the business of money. Too many French people owe too much money to Jewish moneylenders and it would be much cheaper to simply declare Jews or their money-lending illegal and not have to pay back commercial debts.

Eventually, the matter comes to Napoleon and he calls a Great Assembly, 110 representatives of the Jews of Empire, from the Portuguese in the West to the Germans and the Italians, everyone is to come to Paris where, seated in the great Town Hall, Count Mole puts before them 12 questions.

‘An assembly like the present has no precedent in the annals of Christianity,’ Mole opened proceedings,  ‘The wish of His Majesty is, that you should be Frenchmen; it remains with you to accept the proffered title without forgetting that to prove unworthy of it would be renouncing it all together.’

You are either in, or out. Remember the French Ambassador and the Football World Cup - no hyphenated identities to be permitted.

Then the questions,

·       Is divorce allowed in the Jewish religion, and if it is, is it allowed even in contradiction to the codes of French law? 
·       Does Jewish law permit a Jewess to marry a Christian man, or a Jew to marry a Christian woman, or may they marry only other Jews? 
·       In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen who are not Jewish, considered to be their brethren or strangers?
·       Do the Jews who are born in France, and have been granted citizenship by the laws of France, truly acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it, to follow its laws, to follow the directions of the civil and court authorities of France?

At this point, we are told, the deputies shouted as one, ‘To the death.’

You can feel the delight the delegates felt at having been called together to correct whatever mis-impressions might have been on the mind of any concerned non-Jews in their answers - largely drafted by the Chief Rabbi of the day, David Sintzheim. We visited the cemetery where he is buried, the largest in Paris, during our trip. This is from the opening of his response.

The assembly, impressed with a deep sense of gratitude, love, respect, and admiration, for the sacred person of His Imperial and Royal Majesty, declares, in the name of all Frenchmen professing the religion of Moses, that they are fully determined to prove worthy of the favours His Majesty intends for them, by scrupulously conforming to his paternal intentions; that their religion makes it their duty to consider the law of the prince as the supreme law in civil and political matters; that consequently, should their religious code, or its various interpretations, contain civil or political commands, at variance with those of the French code, those commands would, of course, cease to influence and govern them, since they must, above all, acknowledge and obey the laws of the prince.


That sets the tone for everything that follows. They deal with the questions as French men one and all - even the one about inter-marriage. And there was, among the delegates the sense that they had succeeded, assuaged any possible concern the French might have, and they awaited the response of the Emperor hoping to be finally, fully embraced as full members of French society.

But no.

Eventually, Napoleon’s response came back. There were to be new decrees against the Jews. The Assembly had hoped that the State would take on the obligation to pay wages to Rabbis. No chance. The Minister for Cults - now that’s a name - was going to prepare a list of the only Synagogues to be permitted in France. Then came the third decree which wound back earlier doctrines of emancipation  - it’s known as the decret infame. Any debt charged at a rate higher than 5% would be wound back to 5%, any debt above 10% was to be annulled.

The whole effort had been a disaster for the Jews. We had been suckered; led to believe we would be treated just like everyone else if we could show we deserved to be so treated, and then treated like unloved outsiders to be tolerated as long as we didn’t get too out of line. It took Napoleon’s death before the search for full acceptance of being a Jew in France could go on. Frankly, it’s going on still.

The point of the story is that Napoleon refused to let French Jews be ... French Jews. They were to be allowed to pray how they wanted, but they couldn’t take their Jewish identity with them into the brave new world of post-revolutionary France. Even being a little bit committed to being Jewish as part of a national, or ethnic identity was too much for Napoleon.

It was then, just as the French Ambassador wrote to Trevor Noah 200 years later - a case of no hyphenated identities. Just as Rabbi David Sintzheim was refused to be allowed to be Jewish-hyphen French, so too Ngolo Kante and Paul Pogba were being refused to be allowed to be African-hyphen French.

Why is it, Trevor Noah asks the French Ambassador, that when a French citizen of African descent is unemployed, when they may commit a crime, or they are considered unsavoury they are African immigrants, but when their children go on to provide a world cup victory for France they are only to be referred to as French.

Noah suggests the same thing could be seen in the case of the African man who climbed a building, in France to rescue a child who was dangling off a balcony some four stories in the air. President Macron gave that man French citizenship.

So, says Noah, is that man no longer African? When he was on the ground he was African? When he climbs up and rescues the baby, all of a sudden he’s French? I mean, what would have happened if he had dropped the baby on the way down, would he have gone back to being African again?

I don’t mean to pick on the French, because we do exactly this in this country, and other countries too.

If someone, a member of this Synagogue, or one like it, runs a profitable business, employing thousands and makes donations to charity - they are a British entrepreneur born to Jewish parents. If it all goes wrong - they are a Jewish stereotype.

And the problem isn’t that we, British Jews, or French Jews, or any other kind of Jew, or any African immigrant, or anyone else from any race or religion or ethnic group isn’t capable to giving good answers to the sorts of questions posed on behalf of Napoleon to the Jews of France in the 1790s. The problem is the assumption behind these sorts of questions.

These sorts of questions, time and time and in place after place, assume that our difference is somehow a threat. I, and my threat to the purity of this place should either be tolerated or not tolerated. Those are the options in the mind of those who ask these questions. And as an assumption, it’s invidious and deceitful. Difference is how a community thrives. Variety in society is about more than the different kinds of takeaway options you can order from the ever increasing range of restraints on our high streets. Variety in society is the source of economic creativity, cultural creativity, scientific creativity ... I could do on.

Why can’t the football players be French-African, or French-Angolan, or French-immigrant? I mean they are, so why not celebrate that, celebrate how someone can be an immigrant of one generation and a poster-hero of a nation the next. And if there is a French-African who commits a crime, why not deal with the vast array of possible causations that might be at play, not focus just on one factor that allows me to feel no complicity, no mercy and no sense of obligation towards the creation of a more fair society for all.

And as for me, why can’t I be both British and Jewish? Actually, if you really want to know who I am and how I can make my most significant contribution to society you’ll need a bunch of hyphens ‘British-Jewish-middle-aged-male-straight-...’ and others.  

When, Louis, I say to you today take this Jewish heritage of yours and tend it, nurture it and hold it close, I’m not trying to take other parts of your identity away from you. It’s about being Jewish-hyphen-everything-else.

The goal of Jewish life, here, now, isn’t to retreat into a single definition of who we are. But rather to become a rounded collection of interconnecting hyphens. The dangerous thing, the deceitful thing if being forced to reject one part of our true identity for the sake of joining or staying a part of another club.

Don’t be fooled, Louis, or any of us. Don’t be prepared to give up the Jewish part of your identity to belong anywhere; you will betray an important part of yourself if you do - and it won’t work. Your truth will always accompany you wherever you go. Rather find ways to celebrate in the true hyphenated nature of who you are, as a Jew and as so much more.

And in doing so, we can, perhaps, help create societies more capable of understanding the richness, the vibrancy and power of all hyphenated identities.

Shabbat Shalom





[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COD9hcTpGWQ

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Parenting, God, Jethro ... And My Son

Here’s the best insight into parenthood I’ve found in these past thirteen years. It started one day when we were teaching Carmi how to ride a bike. It’s lasted pretty well, though it's receiving a reboot just now. But I’ll get to that.

Josephine and I were teaching Carmi to ride a bike and we went to Coram Fields. They have a big concrete area in front of the playground and our 4 year-old son was wobbling along, developing balance and confidence and slowly, he begins to scribe these circles around us. He still wobbled, but he hadn’t fallen - and the circles grew wider and wider until he set off on a loop around the perimeter of the playground and then, off he went, behind the pavilion at the far end - out of sight. And I remember jerking my head from the one side of the pavilion - the side behind which he had disappeared - to the other side of the pavilion - from which he would, surely, soon emerge. And in the seconds between him disappearing out of site and re-emerging triumphant and still upright, I had this insight. This was parenting.

You try, you help and you wait patiently hoping your son or your daughter is indeed getting it. And at a certain point, they head off behind the pavilion, wobbling and out of sight. And as a parent, you spin forward your gaze to the point where you hope they will emerge still upright, and you wait.

In that moment I prepared myself for this life of parenthood. That which I would hope to impart would change, and the thing that, on this day, was the pavilion in Coram Fields, would change. But that twin dynamic of helping, and then waiting to see if my efforts had resulted in a safe-upright child was the dynamic to which I pledged myself.

And as I’ve reflected on this model of parenting, I realised that it’s a model you can see in the opening moments of creation, and the model at play in the opening moments of this week’s Parasha. Maybe I learnt it from the Torah long before Carmi ever mounted a bicycle and hadn’t known.

Let me start with the Parasha.
We encounter Moses, this week, at the foothills of the Mountain doing his best to corral the people. Tricky business, corralling Jews. And his father in law, Yitro, arrives to help. Navol Tivol Gam Atah - You are wearing yourself out Moses, get some other people in here to provide leadership, delegate. Don’t try and solve every challenge yourself. Or Navol Tivol Gam Atah - you’ll wear out. The Rabbis spot something in the Hebrew phrasing; the word  ‘Gam’ meaning ‘also.’ Super-literally we should translate Navol Tivol Gam Atah - as ‘You will also wear out.’ ‘Also?’

Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer[1] want to know who is the also, aside from Moses, who is going to be worn out? They suggest Aharon is going to get worn out and his sons, and the 70 leaders of the tribes, and even the people themselves - everyone gets worn out if the person in charge takes too much on. It’s such an interesting spot; if you try and take on too much it’s not only you who gets worn out, but everyone around you, even the very people you are looking to take care of, get worn out by a leader who tries to do too much themselves and doesn’t delegate.

It’s a great model for a parent trying to teach a child anything. Don’t try and be everything for your child, Navol Tivol Gam Atah you’ll wear yourself out and - Gam - you’ll wear the child out also. You need to let go. You need other people but also, perhaps most of all, you just need to stand back, and let your child cycle round the back of the pavilion. Don’t wear yourself out Gam Atah.

It’s good advice, but, not quite all the way there, yet. The point of Yitro’s advice to Moses seems to be merely that other people can do the things he could do, without bothering him. The aim of the advice seems to be the creation of a perfect replica of Moses’ capacity without Moses having to do it all himself. Now that’s not bad. In parenting terms, the aim of the game would be that Carmi learns to cycle the way I can cycle. Or that if I partner with a school with teachers who teach the A, B C or the three times table, Carmi learns the A, B, C and the three times table. There’s a bit more socialisation, other people get stimulated and I don’t get worn out trying to do too much.

All of that is good. But it’s not enough. And to understand why you need to go back to the Garden of Eden.

When God places the first humans in the Garden of Eden, they have everything they could possibly want. God - and here Michael from the first series of The Good Place will serve as a perfect model - couldn’t be prouder of Gan Eden, the Good Place created for these humans -
Vayar Elohim Et Kol Asher Asah vTov Meod - And God looked at everything God had made, and it was very good.
What could possibly go wrong?
When Adam and Eve do the one thing they are commanded not to do - when they eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God laments - the Midrash tells us - Mikonen Alav[2] God wailed for Adam - Hein Adam hayah c’echad mimenu - That hein is an Oy. Oy, so close.

Let me put it in language Carmi, I’m so sorry, almost certainly you are only going to understand into your capacious future. It’s like a young person full of love who wants to be in a relationship with another person and gives this other person everything they imagine this other person could possibly want. In the language of The Good Place, every flavour of frozen yoghurt is provided. The only problem is the other person doesn’t want someone else to choose their dessert for them. They want to choose their own dessert.

So the other person wanders off, and the lover can’t understand why their beloved isn’t interested, and the lover wails, Hein look at all the frozen yoghurt! And you still aren’t interested in me?!

It takes God a long, long time to accept that being God requires something different than providing everything that their beloved could possibly want. There is a story in the Talmud,[3] almost two thousand years old, but still a long, long time after the stories we read today, where God gets involved in an argument between the same two Rabbis who helped us understand that 'Gam' word in the story of Jethro - Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.

The content of the argument isn’t important. But Rabbi Eliezer argues one way, and everyone else argues the other. Rabbi Eliezer pleads to God to support up his position and God has Rabbi Eliezer’s back. A divine voice arrives in the study hall - ‘Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer, he is right.’ And for a moment you think that this is going to go Rabbi Eliezer’s way. But it doesn’t. Rabbi Yehoshua tells God that God doesn’t get to play a role in the arguments between Rabbis. To do Torah properly, Rabbi Yehoshua says, ‘we don’t pay attention to a Divine Voice.’ God backs down and another reports at that moment that God said, Nitzchuni Banai, Nitzchuni Banai.

Usually the phrase Nitzchuni Banai is translated, ‘My children have defeated me.’ But the Hebrew term Netzach literally means - forever. ‘My children have forevered me. My children have outlasted me or surpassed me.’ It’s an extraordinary thing for a God - who exists beyond time, who existed before time and will exist after time - to say. How can God be outlasted or forevered?
It’s taken me a while, but I think I’ve got it. I think Carmi, you’ve taught this to me. You haven’t learnt your BM portion like I would have done it. You’ve been taught, brilliantly, by Chazan Stephen Cotsen, but you haven’t even done your BM portion like Stephen would have done it. You’ve found a voice in your preparation for your BM that has is unique to your life, it’s a voice I couldn’t have dreamed of, let alone achieved.

Frankly, it was always going to be this way. Faced with a perfectly simple and straightforward option, my dear Carmi, you immediately seek out some route that I could never have seen. And sometimes, to my adult eyes, it seems pointlessly circuitous. But the point is, it’s your route. And on a day like today that experience of self-forging, of seeking out your own glorious ways of getting from A to B has stood you in a place where you can find things in your BM preparation that astound me. And I now understand this thing we say, about ‘becoming an adult’ differently, I understand parenthood differently. I even understand God differently and the very project of being a human. It’s about self-forging, it’s about transcending, outlasting and forevering the environment provided for a child.

And you’ve lit a beacon for that path today.
You’ve lit up a route that no other person in the history of humanity could have found or could ever find. - and that’s not just because you are extraordinary - though you are certainly extraordinary - it’s really because you are a child who is becoming an adult. And you’ve done this with your portion, and you’re doing it with your life.

The new thing I’ve learnt about parenting, Carmi, from watching and listening to you these past weeks, months and years, is that parenting isn’t about transferring, from me to you, the things I think are important in life. Certainly, parenting a Bar Mitzvah is no longer about how to cycle and the A, B and C, and the three times table. It’s about the space in which I can be surpassed, outlasted and forevered.

Like God, who is taught by Rabbi Yehoshua to be more than the jilted lover we meet in the Garden of Eden, you are teaching me growing up as a parent. And you, my dear son, your job is to keep looking for the roads I could never find and outlast me. Just as you have today. That’s the job for us all.

I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I don’t think, adult as both of us are, either of us is quite ready for the full-on detachment just yet. And more than that, it’s too much fun hanging out with you and witnessing your extraordinary journey.
But here’s my real prayer today - from this day onwards you should always know that my greatest joy is watching you find your own paths, and that my greatest wish for you is that you surpass me. And that when I’m old and grey - older and greyer - you’ll still want to hang out with me and light up my future with the light you spill onto the paths that only you can find.


[1] Mechilta ad loc
[2] BR 21 4 & 5 & 6
[3] BM 59b

Friday, 25 January 2019

A Bar Mitzvah Charge - On One Leg


May I be excused for a little self-indulgence this week? It’s my son’s Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat and it’s been on my mind. As many life cycle moments as I have experienced with the wonderful members of this wonderful community - and I am probably in the low thousands at this point - there is something about being a father of a child about to celebrate their Bar Mitzvah at the very Synagogue in which I celebrated my own Bar Mitzvah, and now serve as Rabbi, that has me astounded and humbled and excited.

It’s listening to Carmi practice the last part of the Kedushah for Musaf that really gets me. ‘LeDor vaDor’ - from one generation to another. In two words the liturgy captures the essence of being a Masorti Jew - a person engaged in passing on a gift and a tradition from the past into the future.

Here are three elements of our remarkable tradition for you Carmi; a story, a feeling and an observance.

In the creation narrative the first human - an Adam who is both man and woman at this point - is created in the image of God. It’s the most powerful idea I know, predating the rise of democracy, human rights and equality movements by thousands of years, and more powerful than any of them. To be a Jew is to see in each human being an animating force which is divine and to allow that sensibility to shape our every interaction with every human with whom we share this planet.

In this week’s parasha God tells Moses that the Children of Israel shall be a ‘Goy Kadosh,’ usually translated as a ‘Holy Nation.’ But the root ‘Kadosh’ really means ‘Other’ or ‘Beyond.’ In that line from this week’s Haftarah, God is praised as thrice-fold ‘Kadosh’. And the point of our Kedushah is that we are called to be distinctive in our faith and sense of peoplehood. We are not just another version of everyone else. There are times when our distinctiveness is purely a delight - 8 days of Chanukah!, but there are also times when our commitment to distinctiveness will be tested. There will be times not to do what we might at first flush wish to do, there will be barriers to immediate self-gratification that need to be erected and maintained to allow us to find our own distinct path of otherness. There will be some who won’t understand - don’t worry about it. The great goal of existence is not to long to be the just the same as anyone else; in fact quite the reverse.

And finally Shabbat - what a gift to a child coming of age in 5779. We live in a world that does not encourage us to commemorate that work should not empty each of the seven  days of the week - the reason for Shabbat given in this week’s Torah Reading. There are many ways to rest and I suppose one could eke out every second Tuesday and the alternate Thursday for watching 12 hours of Netflix. But Shabbat is our time, it’s a time for family and a time to step back and be re-souled by rituals and in ways that have been honed by our tradition for thousands of years; from one generation to the next.

That’s all the Torah - as Hillel said after a pithier attempt to pass on our tradition on one leg - the rest is commentary, now go learn.

Good luck Carmi, I’ll be in the front row, snuffling away into a tissue, more proud than I can possibly express.
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