Friday, 27 May 2022

Jubilee Torah - in Honour of Queen Elizabeth ... and a Special Bar Mitzvah


Here’s a good pub quiz question, for this Shabbat, and the coming week.

What connects Sudan, Malaysia, Cyprus, Kuwait and Jamaica?

Well, they all celebrated independence between 1952 and 1962, in the first ten years of the reign of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The list of all the countries who have taken that step towards independence in the 70 years of our Queen’s reign is 50 long – from Belize and Botswana to Vanuatu and Zambia.

And it struck me as an interesting thing on which to speak, on this week, Freddie, of your BM,

Because the English word Jubilee, in Hebrew Yovel, is one of the themes of today’s Torah reading.

You shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty – ukratem dror -  throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Yovel – a jubilee to you; and each of you shall return to their own property, and each of you shall return to their family. 

And then, just a few verses later, again,

In this Year of Jubilee – Shanat HaYovel - each of you shall return to their property. 


There are two things that happen, in the Yovel, that don’t happen at any other time.

Firstly all indentured servants go free. If I fell into poverty, and the only way I could see to get out was to indenture myself, I would have the right to go free in the sabbatical year, and there are seven sabbatical years between one Yovel and the next. But what if I didn’t want to go free, what – asks the Torah – if I quite liked living working for someone else, letting them take the risks of the ebbs and flows of fortune. Well, if I wanted to, I could stay an indentured servant, but only until the Yovel. At the Jubilee – I have to proclaim my own liberty – I need to take the scary steps into freedom, whether I feel ready to or not.

Rashi asks the question – what is this strange Hebrew word – Dror? Usually translated as liberty. He answers with a reference from the Talmud – it means that a person dwells – shedar bechol makom sherotzeh – in any place they wish, vaino breishut acherim – they aren’t under the dominion of others.

And then, secondly, all land transactions reset. Land ownership in the ancient world is a big deal – it’s a big deal still today. But if you were unable to afford to stay on your land, you could sell it to someone else, but they would only have it until the Yovel. At which point, it would go back to the original owner. As if all all land transactions were leases with the same termination date – every lease would run out on the same day, and the original freeholders – people who were forced to sell their land – would get it back.

The great Italian Biblical commentator, Ovadiah Sforno, put it even more strongly –

שתהיו גם אתם בני חורין משעבוד האומות

That you will be free of the oppression of the nations of the world.

The Yovel, the Biblical Jubilee, therefore becomes about two things – a political independence and a personal independence.

Let me start with the politics.

Underlying this sense of a Yovel, a day of jubilation, is the sense that a people should not be ruled by others.

שתהיו גם אתם בני חורין משעבוד האומות

In my Anglo Jewish mind, when I come across these verses I hear, still, the echoes of a very ancient slavery unto the Egyptians, but I wonder how these Biblical verses would have played out in countries such as Ghana, or as it was prior to the independence granted by her Majesty, the Gold Coas, or those Caribbean countries where this book, our Hebrew Bible, plays such a role. I wonder how a verse about the political necessity to be free and independent landed in Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Barbados, Bahamas?

But here’s a more timely question – I wonder how these verses hold a place in the heart of the Head of the Church of England, Her Majesty. How do you feel, as the ruler of the British Empire, when nation after nation after nation wants independence from your dominion?

Machiavelli, of course, would have none of it. For Niccolo Machiavelli, the whole point of ruling was to keep hold of power and disrupt and tear apart any threat to the perpetuation of the status quo. It takes a very special kind of leadership to let go, to do the thing the Queen seems to have done again and again and again in her extraordinary 70 year rule. She seems to have found a greater power than the grasping-for-power that is the marker of those who follow the teachings of Machiavelli. She seems to have been able to let go. I know, it hasn’t always been easy, it has sometimes been bloody – and that’s a huge stain on this country, but, I think it’s still remarkable that so many of these countries have sought independence, been granted independence and then, as independent nations, wanted to be part of the Commonwealth.

How can you, as a person of power, allow that power to leave, to trust that it’s better to be loved than feared, to trust the people who were once ruled by you, when they make the claim that they want to go their own way?

And what of the other side of this – the personal piece – the indentured servant who decided, on a sabbatical long past that they didn’t want to go free? That they are, come the Jubilee, propelled into a freedom they might not understand, or quite feel ready for, that they are given the courage to know that they / we are better forging our own path as free to choose where we dwell, aino breishut acherim – not under the dominion of others.

I wonder Freddie, if that’s you, today. On the cusp of adulthood. Celebrating your Bar Mitzvah, your coming of age in religious terms, not quite able to stand on your own. Your parents aren’t quite yet, planning on kicking you out of the house to seek your own fortune, just yet, I’m reliably informed. But it’s coming – the Jubilee is always coming, the time when a person has to strive to make their own life … their own life, aino breishut acherim.

And in this personal understanding of the Yovel – the Jubilee, the people of power who have to realise that deep passion for freedom that lives in all humanity, even if it doesn’t always seem as if it does, even if once freed, people make terrible mistakes, the people who have to realise they have to let go – like the Queen.

I wonder if those people are the parents.

It’s possible to read the Yovel as a series of instructions for the young adults in our midst – to encourage them to take control of their own lives, and head off, wheresoever they may choose. And simultaneously a series of instructions for the parents in our midst – to encourage us to let go. To find strength in the thing that the Queen has done, letting people turn back to us in love, not ruling in fear.

Ukratem Dror BaAretz – And you shall proclaim a freedom, a liberty in the land, we read today.

Freedom is scary.

There are the powerful of today who have to be scared to let go, to place trust in a bunch of upstarts who don’t know how to run their own lives, because they never have

And there are the powerless of today who have to be scared to take the step up into dominion over their own.

And for us all there comes a Yovel, a time to proclaim our independence and a time to release claims over others. And for those of us who are feeling a little scared, the advice Moses gave to Joshua – I mean talk about having big shoes to step into – is perhaps the greatest advice we could ever receive – Hazak v’Amatz, usually translated as be strong and of courage. But that word Amatz – it really means independent.

Mazal Tov, your majesty, and thank you for modelling a leadership that places compassion and understanding above the pursuit of power by any means necessary.
Mazal Tov Morris, Louise, Freddie, both in that you’ve done well so far, Freddie, particular you’ve done brilliantly today, but also Mazal Tov in that you should have good luck into the future – to let go and to claim your own Atzmaut – independence


And Mazal Tov to us all,

Happy Jubilee celebrations and Shabbat Shalom

Friday, 6 May 2022

Cantorial Future at New London Synagogue


We are delighted to share our plans for the cantorial future of New London Synagogue.

Following Chazan Stephen Cotsen’s announcement that he will be retiring over the summer, we conducted an extensive search including trial visits and interviews. Following this process, we have offered the position of cantorial leads for our community to David Djemal and Yoav Oved on a job-sharing basis. And they have accepted. Indeed, the idea of a job share came from them both - they are long-standing friends as well as colleagues.

Yoav and David will be splitting Shabbat and Festive prayer-leadership evenly and will be taking on additional responsibilities including lifecycle support (particularly around BM) and membership development and programming.

The community is invited to join us in person the Synagogue (also available digitally) on Thursday 19th May 7pm – Lag B’Omer. We’ll have the opportunity to meet David and Yoav, hear a little more about their journeys and background – and hear them sing. Full details to follow.

Chazan Stephen’s last Shabbat as an employee of the community will be on 24/25th June and we will shortly share a booking opportunity for members and guests to join Stephen for a Friday night dinner on 24th June in his honour.

Yoav and David’s first Shabbat will be 1st/2nd July.

At the completion of the reading of one of the five books of the Torah, the reader chants – Hazak, Hazak v’Nitchazek – Strong, strong and may we be strengthened. Blessings of strength to our two new cantorial leads and may we all be strengthened as on this new journey.

We know all members will join us in wishing David and Yoav every success as the guardians of the precious and special position of leader of prayer for New London.


 Rabbi Jeremy, Abigail Levin


David Djemal adds:  As a member of NLS and following my work in recent years at the NLS Cheder, I am thrilled to be taking on the position of Shliach Tzibbur alongside my friend and colleague Yoav. Thank you for your faith in me, and I’m very excited about this opportunity!

Yoav Oved adds:  Having led the community of Westminster Synagogue in singing for many years, it is a pleasure to take on a more active and involved role, within a community of heart and a love for Jewish music. Alongside David, our partnership and friendship will be a flourishing time within NLS for many more years.

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Who Knows Six? – An Invitation to a Very Special Celebration

Who knows six? I know six, six are the books of the Mishnah.


Before the Temple fell, the Rabbis already planning for the future of Judaism. Sacrifices would no longer be possible. The Priestly class had become, variously, corrupt or belligerent. The entire apparatus of ritual purity that was such an important part of Temple-based Judaism was crumbling. What was needed was a way of evolving and protecting our religious heritage. The Rabbis chose a series of terse, sometimes memorable, sayings which could connect the complexity of existence to a Jewish sense of how to behave. They chose Mishnah.

In the dozen decades after the fall of the Temple over 4,000 of these sayings cohered, organised around the six great challenges of life, viewed from the perspective of ancient (male!) rabbinic leaders; Seeds, Sacred Time, Women (I did say they were men), Civil Damages, Sacrificial Offerings and Ritual Purity.


For the last six years I’ve been studying Mishnah at a rate of one Seder a year. I’ve presented my learning annually on the eve of Passover. There is a rabbinic fast, for the firstborn, where we share an empathy with those who died on the eve of that first celebration of freedom. But a feast to celebrate the completion of a Seder of Mishnah trumps that obligation to fast.


This year, this Friday morning, I will be completing my sixth Siyum of Mishnah, and with it, a completion of the Six Orders we sing about over the Seder Dinner. I invite you to join me. We will be davening at 8:30 in our usual Zoom room. The Siyum will be shortly after 9am – you will have to bring your own feast.


And what have I learnt? Let me share three observations.

I often use the analogy of a diamond to describe rabbinic Judaism. It doesn’t really matter where one starts – any facet will serve as a place to begin. The key is to keep exploring and eventually enough facets will emerge to allow an over-arching shape to be grasped. I’m not done with rabbinic learning – far from it – but at this point I’ve passed over each facet of our spiritual diamond. And it is beautiful. Beauty is a huge part of the joy of studying Mishnah; mnemonics, poetry, wit, metaphor are all at play. If you want to survive, it helps to be delightful.


The Mishnah is a celebration of the importance of human action. It’s all but entirely God-free and it has almost no interest in our emotional state. Mishnah calls on each of us to roll up our sleeves and get on with things. There is no waiting around for miracles or divine intervention. There is no interest in how we do or don’t feel. The world, says the Mishnah, is shaped by human actions; so many different human actions – how we dress, how we eat, how we treat one another, we greet life, marriage, death, summer, spring and winter. The message of the 4,000+ Mishnayot is that each of our actions is of incredible importance. That, I think, is healthy, clarifying and powerful.


Finally, Mishnah is about survival. In a moment of tremendous threat, we, rabbinic Jews, chose Mishnah to vouchsafe our existence. And it has worked. We are still here, still learning Mishnah. Mishnah is complex – this last Seder is particularly abstruse; maybe that’s how both it, and we, have survived. Life is complex and it turns out that simplification might not be the best path to follow. Mishnah is also full of debate and contradiction. One rabbi says yes, the other says no. Maybe, in the multi-vocality of acceptable voices, there is a greater strength than we realise. Maybe we are stronger if we know how to disagree with honour and integrity than if we would insist on a uniformity of opinion and practice that effaces the necessary plurality of the beauty that is humanity.


It's an incredible privilege to come to the end of this journey. And I hope you will consider joining me to celebrate its conclusion, again – this Friday, Erev Pesach, in our regular Zoom room, at 8:30 for Shacharit of from shortly after 9am.


And then, on to Pesach.


Rabbi Jeremy

Tuesday, 29 March 2022

Joseph Caro (Yosef Karo) And the First Tikkun Leyl

 The Cast List

Joseph Caro 1488-157, Toledo, Turkey & Safed

Author of the Shulhan Arukh, other legal works and mouthpiece through which an angelic heavenly voice (a Maggid) recited Maggid MeiSharim.


Shlomo Alkabetz c. 1505–1584 Safed & Jerusalem.

Author of a number of Kabbalistic works and, most famously, the Lekhah Dodi. He was the brother-in-law and teacher of Moses Cordevero.



The meeting that this letter records was probably written in Nikopolis between 1529 and 1534.

The Hebrew text comes from the introduction to Maggid Meisharim. The English is from L. Jacobs, The Jewish Mystics (also Jewish Mystical Testimonies).


Possibilities of Understanding the Letter


I . Nonsense

Rabbi Solomon abi Ad Sar Shalom Bazila of Mantuah (1680-1749)

Emunat Hachamim

Either the Rabbi Karo was utterly wicked and invented these things from his heart or else he must assume that Rabbi Karo never wrote these things but others invented them and attributed them to a great man, similarly the telling of the Shavuot vigil must be assumed to be a forgery.

(btemah – Bazila doesn’t mean this to be taken literally)


II . Psychology

Automatic speech, motor speech, automatism


R. Werblowsky, Joseph Karo, Lawyer and Mystic (1962)

Epileptoid type, affected by a chronic hallucinosis but with perfect maintenance of the total personality. (p. 284)


J. Pratt, The Psychology of Religious Belief 10-11

For consciousness cannot be adequately represented by a geometrical point without extension and with no varying grades of intensity, but should rather be symbolised by field of vision, which has a focal point of clearest sight and a marginal field extending out from the center indefinitely with no clearly marked outer limit.



The Maggid [serves] as a compensatory function necessary for the maintenance of a psychological equilibrium throughout a life dominated by a tremendous intellectual and spiritual ambition, calling for extraordinary energy and discipline of abnegation in addition to he normal rigours of ascetic piety as imposed by Kabbalistic theology.


The Maggid is the shadow, the unexpressed alongside the expressed, alongside the halacha lies the mystical experience.


III . The Personification of Torah

'I am the Mishnah'

Israel Ben Jospeh Al-Nakawa, (d. 1391),

Menorat Ha-Meor Ed. Enelow Ot 213

A story about a Hasid who was alone in a certain place and he learnt there Tractate Haggigah. And he went over it and over it many times until he knew it well and it flowed in his mouth, and he knew no other Talmudic Tractate, and he would repeat it day and night. When he died he was alone in his house and no-one knew of his death. Then came an image of a woman and stood before him and raised up her voice wailing and eulogizing and weeping and crying out until a multitude were gathered around. And she said ‘praise this Hasid and bury him and honour his casket and you will all be remembered for eternal life, for this one honoured me all his days.... Immediately all the women sat with her and they made a great and mighty eulogy and the men made busy with funeral garments and all the burial needs and they buried him with great honour, while that woman wept and cried out. They said to her, ‘what is your name’. She said to them ‘My name is Haggigah.’ When the Hasid was buried, she disappeared from their sight. Immediately they knew she was Tractate Haggigah who had appeared before them in the form of a woman.


What is the border line between a person and their Torah?


IV. Nevuah Katanah

Techniques of using dreams to receive Divine advice

Techniques of emptying self in order to receive, we have a sense of recitation of Mishna as rote, as an effective technique.


TB. Brachot 55b

If a person gets up early and a verse falls into their mouth - this is minor prophecy


V. Chaim Vital

Chaim Vital - Shaarey Kedusha 3:5

Vital informs how one should prepare to receive to receive a vision… 'then the imaginative faculty will turn one’s thoughts to imagine and picture as if it had ascended in the higher worlds up to the roots of their soul. Eventually the imagined image reaches its highest source and there the images of the heavenly lights are imprinted on their mind as if they imagined and saw them in the same way they picture ‘normal pictures’ deriving from the world


This is the 'contemplative as if', Werblowsky p. 69


Chaim Vital Sefer HaGilgulim  (Frankfurt 1684) p32b

And now let us explain the subject of prophecy and the Holy Spirit … It is impossible that anything that comes out of a person’s mouth should be in vain … for every word that is uttered creates an angel … Consequently when one leads a righteous and pious life, studies the Law and prays with devotion, then angels and holy spirits are created from the sounds which they utter and these angels are the mystery of the maggidim.


'Vital's opinion of Karo's Maggid is thus in perfect keeping with his general theory, which is based, like most kabbalistic speculation on a really terrifying conviction of the potency and significance of every human act.' Werblowsky p.78


Concluding Thoughts

The repeating of holy texts (Mishnah) is an act of speech (Dibur). Speech is how one (both human and Divine) manifests in this Universe (Shekinah), and is connected to the sfera Malkut. This is where the Divine emanation is most immanent, perhaps so immanent that it can be heard as automatic speech (Maggid).

Mishna = Dibur = Shekinah = Malkut = Maggid


For too many years a tendentious and one-sided picture of Judaism as a religion of pure reason and sweet reasonableness has been assiduously fostered and spread. The lack of irrational paradoxes, the absence of manifest absurdities (or so it seemed) and a soberness which knew of no dizzy raptures at the brink of mystical abysses were brandished by apologists as marks of the incontestable superiority of Judaism. To the lovers of paradoxical profundity these vaunted virtues were of course, only proof conclusive of spiritual poverty. Werblowsky p.290

Friday, 18 March 2022

Homes for Ukraine – a New London Response and a Briefing from the Jewish Community Taskforce on Ukrainian Refugees (Co-ordinated by the Jewish Leadership Council)


Our thoughts and prayers remain with the people and the country of Ukraine. We are mindful of the enormous outflowing of offers of support, and the ‘wait’ in expectation that the United Kingdom will be able to open its borders to welcome in some of the millions who have been displaced.


We are not collecting funds or goods. If you have funds you wish to donate, we recommend World Jewish Relief’s Ukraine Crisis Appeal - (confirming this is a non-parochial appeal, funds will be used to support both Jewish and non-Jewish individuals) And Masorti Olami who are working to support displaced members of Masorti’s Ukrainian communities -


We are also not looking to collate offers of housing for refugees arriving in this country, such offers of support are being co-ordinated by WJR, please see the briefing below.


We are looking for a volunteer(s?) to help co-ordinate other offers of support and assistance. These may include offers of household goods / clothing / friendship / legal support etc. We will be shortly setting up an opportunity for members who have other offers of support and assistance to do that. If you are able to volunteer to help co-ordinate our response please do let me know  


What follows is a Briefing from the Jewish Community Taskforce on Ukrainian Refugees (Co-ordinated by the Jewish Leadership Council).


Rabbi Jeremy



This document aims to explain the details of the Government’s “Homes for Ukraine” refugee sponsorship scheme, its implications for the community and how we can coordinate to facilitate individuals within/connected to the Jewish community to participate as hosts.


Please can we ask you to share this document with your stakeholders (e.g. trustees, other staff members, clergy) and for them to communicate this with their audiences (i.e. the broader public connected to the Jewish community) – it will also be made available on our website We will continue to keep you updated as and when developments happen via regular briefing documents, our website and social media. Please feel free to share our social media posts or to ask me for a copy of the text used that you can adapt for your brand.


  1. Homes for Ukraine Scheme - Details


As you may have seen, various policy announcements were released to the media regarding the Government’s Homes for Ukraine Scheme over the weekend. Michael Gove will be laying out the details of the scheme in Parliament later this afternoon, but following meetings between civil servants, politicians and World Jewish Relief over the weekend, we think that most of what there is to know at this stage has already been released. The details of the scheme that are known at present are as follows:


Homes for Ukraine scheme details:

  • People in the UK will be able to nominate a named Ukrainian individual or family to stay with them for at least six months rent-free
  • Hosts and refugees will be vetted (i.e. DBS checks for hosts) to ensure the scheme is safe
  • Refugees coming through this scheme will be supported through local authorities who will receive £10.5k per refugee + more for schoolchildren
  • Hosts will receive £350 a month from the government as a “thank you”
  • The earliest refugees will start to arrive is in about two weeks’ time.


What we don’t know:

  • How school places will be allocated to children
  • How refugees are going to get here – World Jewish Relief have not been told who will be paying for / arranging flights
  • How organisations (as opposed to individuals) such as charities, synagogues and other groups can sponsor refugees – information on this will be released at a later stage
  • Anything else that is an unknown unknown – this is a rapidly changing context and we will keep you updated on other announcements as and when we hear of them


Registration process:

  • Potential hosts will be able to register their interest in hosting a refugee on the government website today – we will circulate the link once it has been released
  • In order to sign up more formally they will need to have the name of the refugee/family they would like to help
  • World Jewish Relief have offered to seek to coordinate the process of matching a refugee with Jewish community members willing to host (see more information below)
  • Therefore, potential hosts should also register interest with World Jewish Relief to be potentially matched with a refugee / family (see more information below)


  1. Jewish community involvement via World Jewish Relief:


As mentioned above, potential hosts will need to register via the Government with the name of the refugee or family they would like to sponsor. World Jewish Relief are well placed to try and provide a matching service, where they can provide names of suitable refugees that they are in contact with on the ground to members of the community to offer to host. World Jewish Relief are launching an expression of interest form so that individuals can let them know if they are willing to host refugees in their homes and they can start the process of trying to match them. To ensure a coordinated response, please circulate this link amongst your audiences / stakeholders:


As part of the full application process, World Jewish Relief might be able to look at including questions around religious observance of the potential host family to ensure suitable matches if at all possible.


Jewish community response summary:

  • World Jewish Relief is the best placed organisation in the community to seek to coordinate matching of potential hosts with Ukrainian refugees (including Jewish refugees who might be looking to come to the UK). This will be done via their website and an expression of interest form is due to go live today.
  • World Jewish Relief hopes to provide additional assistance  to refugees being hosted by the Jewish community to ensure a successful integration process, supporting both refugees and their hosts. In the longer term, World Jewish Relief also hopes to offer an employment programme to help Ukrainian refugees find work in the UK.
  • The Jewish Community Refugee Taskforce will continue to explore collectively how we can support refugees through making them feel welcome, helping meet their immediate needs, supporting integration and longer term housing and employment assistance. Further meetings are planned for this week.


World Jewish Relief is a small organisation working at pace to ensure the Jewish community can respond swiftly and effectively. Please refer any questions from your key stakeholders to Michelle Mitchell at the JLC ( so that she can help them respond to enquires coming in from individual members of the public. Thank you.


Friday, 11 March 2022

On Ukraine - Buber and Gandhi


Martin Buber was, of course, one of the great figures in 20th C Jewish Thought. His most popular work, I-Thou, written in 1923, is probably the single best-selling book of Jewish thought published in the last century, read by millions.


Born in 1878 in Vienna, Buber was raised by his grandfather in Lvov – that city whose national affiliation has ebbed and flowed so over the last century, as anyone who has read Phillipe Sands' remarkable East-West Street will know.

Lvov is now, of course, Ukrainian, that is to say, all our thoughts are drawn to the besieged nation of Ukraine. Ahh.

In 1930 Buber was appointed professor in Frankfurt, but resigned from the post immediately after Hitler's election as Chancellor in 1933. Buber loved the Germany he knew before the rise of Nazism. Beginning in 1925 he worked with that other giant of Jewish thought of the age, Franz Rosenzweig, on a translation of the Jewish Bible into German that could challenge Luther's translation. But in 1933 he turned towards trying to provide strength to the Jewish community. He founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became increasingly important as the Nazis banned Jews from public education and lingered in Germany as long as he could, but by 1938 at the age of 60, Buber knew he had to leave. He moved to Jerusalem and spent the rest of his career at the Hebrew University.


Mahatma Gandhi was, of course, one of the great figures of the last century, A towering political genius and a man of extraordinary bravery. And a man deeply committed to a very particular vision of how to improve the world. At the heart of Gandhi's worldview was Satyagraha - non-violence. It was how Gandhi fought for the rights of human beings in the country of his birth - South Africa and, of course, in the independence movement in India, the movement to which he gave his life.

Gandhi had Jewish friends and fellow journeyers in South Africa, particularly Hermann Kallenbach who helped found the Tolstoy Farm. And the suffering of the Jews under Nazi rule clearly weighed heavily on his mind. In November 1936 Gandhi wrote, in his weekly Harijan newspaper;


"My sympathies are all with the Jews. I have known them intimately in South Africa. Some of them became life-long companions."[1]


And he wrote to advocate non-violent resistance to the Nazis, by the Jews of Germany.


"Can the Jews resist this organized and shameless persecution ? Is there a way to preserve their self-respect and not to feel helpless and forlorn ? I submit there is.”


Gandhi suggested the plight of the Jews of Germany had much in common with the Indians of South Africa who had harnessed the remarkable power of Satyagraha. And he urged the Jews of Germany to change the heart of their oppressors in the same way. In fact, Gandhi wrote,

“The Jews of Germany can offer Satyagraha under infinitely better auspices than the Indians of South Africa.” “The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of Jews (but) to the God-fearing, death has no terror… No person who has faith in a living God need feel helpless or forlorn. ” (1938)’.


And in February 1939, Buber responded,[2] with a public letter [3] to the man he called, “My dear Mahatma Gandhi,”


The letter opens full of respect for the Indian sage,


“When a voice that he has long known and honoured, a great voice and an earnest one, pierces the vain clamour and calls him by name, he is all attention. Here is a voice, he thinks, that can but give good counsel and genuine comfort, for he who speaks knows what suffering is; he knows that the sufferer is more in need of comfort than of counsel; and he has both the wisdom to counsel rightly and that simple union of faith and love which alone is the open sesame to true comforting.” But ...


And the letter continues with a juddering ‘But’


But what he hears - containing though it does elements of a noble and most praiseworthy conception, such as he expects from this speaker - is yet barren of all application to his peculiar circumstances. These words are in truth not applicable to him at all. They are inspired by most praiseworthy general principles, but the listener is aware that the speaker has cast not a single glance at the situation of him whom he is addressing, that he neither sees him nor knows him and the straits under which he labours.


Buber accuses Gandhi of missing, terribly. Gandhi has, Buber accuses, allowed his general love of praiseworthy generalities to deprive him of paying attention to the very facts on the ground.


Buber writes that he has "read and re-read these sentences in your article without being able to understand.” He has weighed the words of his friend and inspiration, but


no, it is not a just [suggestion for behaviour]! And the armour of (my) silence is pierced. The friendly appeal [that is to say Gandhi's words] achieves what the enemy's storming has failed to do; [I] must answer.


Particularly, Buber claims, in his suggestion that the fate of Indians in South Africa, as victims of a racist precursor to formal Apartheid, is similar in its cause and in how it can be overturned, Gandhi has missed the nature of the Nazi oppression of the Jews.


He continues;


In the five years I myself spent under the [Nazi) regime, I observed many instances of genuine satyagraha among the Jews, instances showing a strength of spirit in which there was no question of bartering their rights or of being bowed down, and where neither force nor cunning was used to escape the consequences of their behaviour. Such actions, however, exerted apparently not the slightest influence on their opponents. All honour indeed to those who displayed such strength of soul!


An effective stand in the form of non-violence may be taken against unfeeling human beings in the hope of gradually bringing them to their senses; but a diabolic universal steamroller cannot thus be withstood.


I don't think it will come as a surprise why this remarkable, and crushing rebuttal of Gandhi's good intentions, comes to my mind this holy Shabbat.


It didn't take the woman, standing next to me at the demonstration outside the Russian Embassy yesterday with her placard reading ‘Poland 1939 = Ukraine.’


It didn't take Putin's deceitful gaslighting of the Ukrainians as Nazis to put me in mind of where the civilized world stood just a blink of an eye ago - 80 years, less than the life of our beloved member Michael Morris whose passing we commemorate today.


And while I'm not suggesting Putin a reincarnation of Hitler, he is, I believe he has exposed himself to be this week, entirely as incorrigible, and without a care for what anyone outside his inner circle think. He is an autocrat megalomaniacal and deeply terrifying.


As Jews we love debate, we love peace, we believe that peace can come through debate. But through time we've been aware of the line that exists between the debate partners we can debate with, and the debate partners who are in some other place


a place where debate is laughed at - as Putin so clearly has been laughing at the West for months now,


a place where protestations of human dignity and decency are seen as weaknesses – as Putin so clearly does,


From the time of Amalek, to the time of Edom and on and on, Jews have known that such a debate exists. To be clear, I'm not advocating an all out war against Russia, I'm not advocating a specific geo-political solution at all. But I am clear in my mind that the invasion of the last week has revealed the political leadership of Russia to be, in a phrase that I mean in its deepest historical sense, Beyond the Pale.


It's inappropriate to hope that this will calm down. It's unacceptable to decry this invasion with words that are not matched with strength


It's unethical to mourn our own losses at the hands of autocratic bullies and not be prepared to stand with Ukraine at this time in ways that are meaningful and profound.


I accept that this invasion is an attack on the civilized way of life we have taken for granted, it is not an attack on a mere Soviet satellite out of mind and out of the concerns of our heart and our tradition.


I'm at the Stand with Ukraine demonstration in Central London this afternoon in spirit. I've given to the emergency campaign to support the terrified Jews of Ukraine run by World Jewish Relief.


Al Taamod Al Daam Reicha - do not stand by the blood of your fellow, teaches our scripture.


For we all created in the image of the divine, and we all have a right to self-determination, security and peace.



Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Human-Washing the Olympics - Parshat Terumah and the Beijing Winter Olympic Games

 The first Olympics I remember is the 1980 summer games in Moscow, the one where Alan Wells won gold for Great Britain in the men’s 100m .

Four years later, I was on a school trip to Ireland during the LA Olympics. I sat up through the night holding a tiny radio to my ear listening to table tennis.

I’ve even loved the winter Olympics, even beyond the ice rink glory years of Cousins and Torvill and Dean. I watched Eddie the Eagle in 1988 Calgary, again, staying up far too late. And was furious when Elise Christie was disqualified in the short-track. I’m a bit of an Olympic geek.

But I’ve never thought of the Olympics as a safe space far from the cut and thrust of politics. In 1980, in Moscow, the British competed, but under an Olympic flag with no God Save the Queen anthem when Wells was presented with his Gold Medal. The USA boycotted the event completely – without which it’s hard to imagine how Wells could have won.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first started to read about Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936 – a black man proving himself faster, better, than the Aryans who were supposed to dominate in Nazi Europe. And when I think of the 1936 Olympics in my mind’s eye are the black and white images of the gleaming buildings, the Leni Riefenstahl shots of the teutonic stadium.

But I do remember first falling in love with Ai Weiwei’s extraordinary Birds’ Nest Stadium in 2008. I was reminded of it looking at the photos of the stunning ski jump in the papers this morning – the role of architecture as a bulwark, or as a herald to the greatness of a nation is old. And Olympics provide opportunities to build impressive buildings.

Of course Ai Weiwie the stadium’s designer withdrew from the opening ceremony and at great personal risk – he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 81 days – spoke out against the Chinese regime. In the run up to the London Olympics Weiwei wrote this;

My memory of the Beijing Olympics has not changed. It is a fake smile, an elaborate costume party with the sole intention of glorifying the country. From the opening to the closing ceremony, from the torch relay to the cheers for gold medals – these all displayed the might, and the desperation, of a totalitarian regime. Through authoritarian power a country can possess many things, but it cannot bring joy or happiness to its people.

If it was bad in 2008, it’s worse now. What we know about Uyghur oppression is appalling, and as a Jew, terrifying. I watch the very same attitudes that resulted in the annihilation of millions of our fellows play out in the face of a bullying surgent ruthless dictatorship. There should be, surely there cannot be, any illusion as what makes the Chinese so excited to host these new Olympics. It’s the same thing that makes the Qataris so excited to host the next World Cup. And it’s appallingly unJewish. I want to come back to that.

I want to acknowledge the work of Rene Cassin and the Stop the Uygur Genocide Movement and so many others who are standing up to the bullying might, and the shiny-baubled draw of these Chinese Olympics, to acknowledge the call made on me to speak up, here and to our political leaders, and the commercial sponsors whose financial support of these tainted Olympics play to directly into the hands of the autocrats. And to call on us all to donate our time and our money and even stick our heads above the parapet to say that we do not accept that a sporting event is just a sporting event, and we do not accept that it should be possible to genocidally attack a people on the one hand, and open a hand towards the nations of the world so we can all turn up and tune in and say how wonderful China is on the other.

The 20th Century teaching that haunts us as Jews when it comes to this issue is, of course, so clear it bears only to be referenced.

I want to go back further, much further.

To the key verse at the opening of this week’s Torah portion

Taasu Li Mikdash V’Shechanit Betocham.

Make for me a sanctuary and I, says God, will dwell among them.

That last word comes as a bit of a surprise. It’s out of keeping with the front of the verse. As if God has said, bake for me a cake and I will eat salad.

A sanctuary, is a fancy building, with gold and silver and drapes and leathers and all manner of colourful pretty things. But, says God, I dwell in the people. I don’t dwell in the building.

Don’t confuse the building as the essence. It’s only a vehicle for the human relationship I, God, am looking to build.

And when the relationship with the people goes wrong, the building doesn’t offer any kind of protection – that, of course, is the central prophetic message of so much of the Bible – partic, of course the incredible Haftarah of Yom Kippur. Don’t tell me you are building impressive buildings, says God.

There’s an interesting series of portmanteaus in common parlance, greenwashing – where an environmentally destructive organisation does something that is supposed to look impressive to buffer their green credentials, while continuing their environmental destruction. Or pinkwashing, or well you get the idea.

There’s a kind of humanwashing that involved Olympics, and Olympic stadia and Olympic sports venues. Don’t watch the people we are beguiled into accepting, look at how beautiful our buildings are, and it’s so very unJewish.


The place of the human, in Jewish thought, is theological. Created in the image of the divine in our radical difference, man from woman, black skin from white skin, Uyguhr muslim from London-based Jew. We are all equally in the image of God.

In Mishnah Sanhedrin the rabbis ask why God created the world from one primordial Adam, one first human being. To teach us that we all have the same father, so no-one can say my father is better than your father.

As Heschel said, there is only one human race. Don’t be humanwashed.

In fact the only guarantee about the buildings is that the buildings will crumble. Prepared history unit on a bunch of archaeological rubble. It’s the message that are passed on between humans that have, despite all indications to the contrary outlasted the ziggurats of Ur and the hanging gardens of Babylon.

Don’t be humanwashed by impressive buildings.


What, say the Rabbis, is the problem of the Tower of Babel? After all, if you read the Biblical verses, it just looks like a tall building for the purposes of banding together, and what’s the harm in that? With incredible insight into the way that big buildings can so easily be connected to human suffering, Midrash when a brick fell and when a human fell.


Don’t be humanwashed by impressive buildings.

It’s the humans who count, especially when they are hard to see.

Heschel, again, was the one who noted that when we, as Jews, built out Temples out of brick and stone, the Romans could come and destroy them, and in so doing almost destroy us. But, instead, we built a cathedral in time, a way of treating one another by not building, that has allowed us to outlast the Roman Empire also.

 So I’m not going to get up early, or stay up late to admire the buildings, and my sympathies with the remarkable athletes who should be able to dazzle with their human achievements. But by such a greater measure my sympathies are with the Uyghur. And I urge us to speak out.

Shabbat Shalom


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...