Too Much Dancing is Bad for the Simchah

What to do if you don’t like all the Simchat Torah frolics

Simchat Torah is an emotional day, concluding the Tishri Yomtov season and ending the entire festival sequence that started with Pesach. As its name, Joy of the Torah, indicates, it’s a day focused on the Torah, when we complete the annual cycle of Torah reading and begin it all over again amid singing, dancing and communal festivities.

Yet lovely as it sounds, some are at best ambivalent towards Simchat Torah, others even regard it as an annoyance. Some of my most loyal congregants, among them daily attendees, arrive very late on Simchat Torah and others fail to turn up at all. And I’ll admit that in the years before I was a communal rabbi, on Simchat Torah I attended a “naughty boys” minyan that completed the hakafot — dance-circuits — in 15 minutes and had me home for kiddush by soon after 10am.

Of course, by the time Simchat Torah arrives, people are shuled out after a long and gruelling Yomtov season and nothing less than a day off shul will satisfy them. And it’s also obvious that no experience, however exciting, can work for everyone. Nonetheless, some aspects of the way we celebrate Simchat Torah should be re-examined in the hope of making it more attractive.

I am not a member of the “more is more” club. If dancing on Simchat Torah for an hour is enjoyable, it does not follow that two or even three hours’ dancing is more enjoyable. In fact, it can easily turn into a drag. In some shuls, Simchat Torah celebrations are even longer than Rosh Hashanah services and are chaotic experiences, major disincentives to participation, especially when, as this year, Simchat Torah falls on erev Shabbat.

The Torah reading often takes far too long (there are ways of speeding it up) and long before it’s over, people have lost interest and wandered off to the kiddush. Shuls should publish clear timetables and have enjoyable hakafot that are not too long and allow people to get home at a reasonable time.

This leads inexorably to the subject of excessive liquor consumption on Simchat Torah. There is no basis for the drunkenness that prevails in many shuls: Simchat Torah is not Purim, the only day in the year on which inebriation is sanctioned, even then in the very limited context of home feasting.

The spectacles of adults sneaking whisky bottles into services and intoxicated teenagers staggering from shul to shul are hardly among the most edifying of the Jewish year. And while there is no harm in adults having a glass of wine or the odd lechaim (it’s actually a mitzvah to drink wine in moderation at Yomtov meals), what has evolved in some places is a Simchat Torah that is too much simchah and not enough Torah, akin to barmitzvah celebrations that are too much bar and not enough mitzvah.

For many women, much of the Simchat Torah service is boring and frustrating. While some are entirely comfortable watching their menfolk sing and dance, others would love to dance with the Torah themselves, in celebration of their connection to Jewish life and learning. Many shuls have recognised this need as part of the extraordinary transformation of women’s Torah study that has taken place in recent decades and make separate provision for women’s dancing with Sifrei Torah on Simchat Torah.

And what about those — men or women — who for whatever reason, don’t dance? Some are physically unable to dance and others simply dislike dancing. And some can’t dance but don’t know it (always the fellow next to me).

The Torah itself reminds us that it is the “heritage of the community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4), the legacy of every member of the Jewish people, irrespective of age, gender, state of health or competence at dancing.

For those seeking an alternative, some shuls provide learning programmes to coincide with the dancing and Torah reading. I think there is room to expand this to include family programming and introductory Torah classes, as well as encouraging private study. And while these shouldn’t detract from the main event in shul, they should be professionally run and of a high standard rather than a lifeless alternative for those who can’t be bothered to dance or do anything else.

We may take as the role model for brief hakafot and alternative modes of celebration no less a figure than the Vilna Gaon (died 1797). It is said that on Simchat Torah he would emerge from his private study to dance with tremendous passion for a short while and then return to his learning. If you currently feel disenfranchised by the end of Yomtov, these relatively small changes might just restore the simchah to Simchat Torah.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle

Summer Reading 2013

Several people have asked me what I've read during the summer holidays, so here is a list in no particular order:

The Addictive Organization, Wilson Schaef and Fassel

Can I Recycle My Granny? And 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas, Greenhart

What Is History?, Carr

No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, Wisse

Gagging Jesus: Things Jesus Said We Wish He Hadn't, Moore

The King Of Schorrers, Zangwill

In Defence Of History, Evans *

Anti-Judaism, Nirenberg *

A Curable Romantic, Skibell

The Jewish State: An Attempt At A Modern Solution Of The Jewish Question, Herzl

Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change, Beck and Cowan

The Definitive Book of Body Language, Pease and Pease

A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens

* Thanks to Daniel Hochhauser for these recommendations

Self, Family and Children

Sermon Notes 17/08/13 - Ki Taytzay 5773

This week’s parashah includes more mitzvot than any other in the Torah – somewhere between 70 and 85, depending on how they are counted.  They cover the entire range of human activity – from marriage and divorce to business ethics; from warfare to the correct treatment of animals; from hygiene to public safety and purity – and they appear to be assembled somewhat randomly.

Yet Devarim is a single text – Moses’ great valedictory sermon – and as such, forms a cogent whole, which means that the order of the mitzvot in this parashah is significant.  The rabbis interpret some of the juxtapositions quite creatively; two follow.

The parashah begins with three consecutive mitzvot: a) how to treat the beautiful woman captured in war; b) the prohibition of disinheriting the son of a hated wife in favour of the son of a beloved wife; c) the elimination of the rebellious son.  The rabbis comment:

The Torah speaks only to the evil impulse, for if God does not permit the beautiful captive, he will marry her anyway.  Yet if he marries her, he will come to hate her and will eventually father a rebellious son with her. (Rashi to Devarim 21:11, paraphrasing Midrash Tanchuma Ki Taytzay 1)

The parashah ends with two mitzvot: a) the requirement to have honest weights and measures; b) the obligation to wipe out the memory of our arch-enemy Amalek.  The rabbis comment:

If you deceive people with weights and measures, you will worry about the assault of the enemy. (Rashi to Devarim 25:17, paraphrasing Midrash Tanchuma Ki Taytzay 8)

These explanations may seem a little far-fetched and devised solely to explain away the juxtaposition, but I believe they are underpinned by a profound, yet simple, psychological message, one that is certainly germane to the upcoming Yom Tov season.

A common Chassidic interpretation of the ‘war’ with which our parashah begins is that is refers not just to an external war against a physical enemy, but to the internal war that each of fights with our own demons.  Going ‘out to war’ is a symbol for the inner struggle that constitutes a good part of all of human experience.  And if we don’t win the battle against crass desires, selfishness and the tendency to exploit others, we risk transporting the unresolved demons into relationships that could fail, and, in turn, dumping the problems on to our children.  This is the meaning of the juxtaposition of the three mitzvot at the start of the parashah.  Similarly, when we exploit others by robbing them with dishonest weights and measures, we should recognise (and fear) that we have really fallen victim to the demons within – the Amalek that prompts to behave selfishly and destructively.

The fact that the Torah worries not just about how we behave, but also our motivation, is illustrated by the final phrase of the mitzvah of restoring lost property, also in this parashah.  Having told us that we must not pretend that we haven’t seen the item, rather attempt to return it to its owner, the Torah says:

לא תוכל להתעלם (Devarim 22:3)

This phrase is usually translated as ‘you shouldn’t hide yourself’, or similar, but it really means ‘you should not be able to hide yourself’ – i.e. you should not be capable of turning aside when you encounter an item that has been lost by another.

So the Torah regulates how we think – in this case, about a lost object – but this is only illustrative.  We need to understand what motivates us: why and how we think about things, and to try to uncover what unarticulated needs or desires prompt us to act.  Only then can we avoid pernicious chains of experience in our lives and the lives of those we love.

Dancing in the Vineyard Today

Sermon Notes 20/07/13 - VaEtchanan and Tu B'Av

With Tisha B'Av behind us and a delightful cluster of weddings this year, today affords an opportunity to discuss a little-known day in the Jewish calendar: Tu B'Av, the 15th of Av.

Said Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel: there were no festive days for Israel like 15th Av or like Yom Kippur, on which the daughters of Jerusalem went out dressed in white and danced in the vineyards.  What did they exclaim?  Young man, please direct your eyes this way and decide what to choose for yourself. (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:8, paraphrased)

It is remarkable that the Mishnah places Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year and Tu B’Av, a day completely forgotten until modern times, side by side.  And equally remarkable is the unexpected dedication of Yom Kippur, a fast day usually associated with introspection and abstention, to matchmaking.

Yet putting each of these days into its original historical context will explain their connection and unexpected focus.  Yom Kippur is of course, the anniversary of the day on which God finally forgave the Israelites for making the golden calf, hence its selection as the annual day of  national atonement.  But the origins of Tu B'Av are more obscure.  The Talmud (Ta'anit 30b) offers a number of possibilities, one of which is that it was the day on which those condemned to die in the desert 'stopped dying'.  Rashi (ad loc.) cites a midrash which explains that each year on the evening of Tisha BAv, the anniversary of the fiasco of the spies, some of those doomed to die in the desert would lie down to die.  But on Tisha B'Av of the 40th year, no-one died.  Assuming that they had miscalculated the date, they tried again the next night, and the next, but again, no-one died.  Finally, when they saw the full moon on 15th of the month, they knew that the decree had expired and all those remaining could now enter the land.

So both Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av are days of affirmation - festivals of survival.   Either the sin of the calf or the debacle of the spies could have ended the Jewish people there and then, yet we survived and thrived.  In that sense, Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av are, indeed, the greatest moments of the Jewish year.

And when we affirm our survival, sometimes against all the odds, how do we celebrate?  By creating opportunities for singles to meet, to create loving, happy relationships and build new families.  We refute the prospect of our demise by making shidduchim.

In our community and across the Jewish world, it has never be more difficult for singles of all ages to meet each other.  Many live increasingly busy, atomised lives and create complex personal realities that are difficult to match with others. Yet most would dearly love to meet someone with whom to share their lives and despite all their professional and personal accomplishments, cannot.

There are many events in the Jewish community designed to bring people of all types together - dinners, trips and classes as well as agencies and individuals geared to this purpose.  Some are well established, others, like the initiative, are new.  (Don't assume that matchmaking is only for the very observant - singles from across the spectrum can benefit from a sensitive introduction).  All deserve our support and encouragement, and with God's help will facilitate many matches.

But I remain convinced that the best way for singles to meet is round your table, at your social event, through your introduction.  By which I mean that everyone in the community ought to be creating opportunities and comfortable spaces in which those who would so like to meet a life-partner can get together.  It's the responsibility of all of us, one that represents the greatest and most powerful affirmation of the Jewish future and our way to ensure that everyone has a chance to dance in the vineyard.

Hesped for Joe Friedman ז"ל

Delivered outside Golders Green Synagogue

GGS 19/05/13

Few rabbis or communities are privileged to have a Joe Friedman in their midst.  It has been my tremendous blessing over the past 10 years and the great good fortune of our community for many more to have had Joe among us. 

Joe was the kind of ba’al ha-bayit with unswerving communal and personal loyalty, a man who gave everything of himself with no desire for any recognition; all he wanted in return was that his beloved community should thrive and be successful.

In 2005, I took the unusual step of reviving an ancient, yet dormant, tradition – the awarding of a ‘chaver’ title, of course, to Joe.  This turned him into a ‘companion’ of the community, a status he richly deserved.  The decoration took Joe and Yaffa by surprise; we gathered on a Shabbat morning on some pretext and I presented him with the award.  There was, of course, no other way to do this, as had he been asked in advance, he would never have accepted.  I looked back at the certificate we presented Joe on that occasion, which included the following:

He served as gabbai of our Shul for many years, faithfully worked for the community, whether in gabbayut or acts of chesed, including visiting the sick, accompanying the dead, comforting mourners, discreetly giving charity to the poor, arranging meals of visitors to the community; he strengthened Torah and awe of heaven.

On reflection, to many, many other contributions, I add these:

Hosting, together with Yaffa, more than 15 years of fantastic Shavuot-night programmes, holding the hand of a youngish rabbi as he found his feet in the community, being constantly available for sage advice and fighting for the Shul in every way.

The latter became quite literal when on one Shabbat morning, Joe physically wrestled a suspicious visitor to the floor of the bimah!

In every respect, Joe was a gibor – a warrior; how remarkable that he left this world on the Shabbat on which we read the Haftorah from Shoftim 13 about the birth of the original warrior – Samson.  At the time of the ‘chaver’ presentation, I described the award to Yaffa as a kind of knighthood for Joe, a knighthood for a gibor, a man who might be described elsewhere as a ‘knight of faith’.  Joe was a gibor for his family; a gibor for his Yiddishkeit, a gibor for his friends, a gibor for his rabbi and a gibor for his beloved community.

Although I am flooded with memories, I will offer just three brief vignettes to illustrate the kind of man Joe was.

On the day (1st April 2003) that my family and I arrived in this community, we moved into a house in Woodstock Road.  I recall that there was an old-fashioned single-legged telephone table in the hall which I was unable to remove from the wall where I wanted to erect a bookcase.  A man called Joe Friedman, whom I hardly knew, had mentioned that if I needed anything, I should give him a call, so I did.  Within five minutes, he was round at the house, holding a crowbar, with which he first ripped the table from the wall and then completely demolished it.  My wife reminded me that his pockets were also stuffed with sweets for our children.

A few years later, I was in the process of buying a family car, something I’d mentioned to Joe.  He was absolutely insistent that he accompanied me, as he was sure that I would get ripped off if I went on my own.  He test-drove the car, negotiated a good deal with the garage and for a few days, even covered a considerable shortfall.

And who could forget Joe’s appearance on Yom Kippur?  On several occasions, my wife remarked that with his white tallit and kittel complementing his white hair and shining face, Joe looked like an angel.  Whether leading the davening, reading Maftir Yonah or concentrating on his own tefillah, he presented a memorable and inspirational vision.

Joe’s given name was actually Shmuel Yosef, although no-one ever called him that – he was always known as Joe, Joseph or to Yaffa: Yossi.

It is written about the great prophet, the original Shmuel:

והנער שמואל משרת את ה

The lad Shmuel served God… (I Shmuel 3:1)

This verse sums up our ‘Shmuel’ – he regarded himself as just a lad, an ordinary person, although, of course, he was not.  And, quite simply, Joe ‘served God’.

At the start of Shemot, we learn about the transition of generations as the period of the Egyptian slavery begins.

וימת יוסף וכל אחיו וכל הדור ההוא

And Yosef died along with all his brothers and all of that generation. (Shemot 1:6)

This depiction hits a nerve for us.  Our ‘Yosef’ was of a type and from an era that will not be seen again.  Joe’s passion, generosity of spirit and deep commitment came from a generation that passes with him.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has asked me to include the following personal tribute to Joe:

I remember Joe Friedman as a warm, friendly, deeply committed member of the Golders Green Synagogue, loyal to Judaism, the Jewish people and the state of Israel. He was always quiet and modest in manner, but always felt a sense of responsibility and always had a strong conscience and a determination to do the right and menschlich deed. It was a privilege to know him, and Elaine and I will miss him deeply. Our deepest condolences go to his loving wife Yaffa, his lovely children, Gaby, Ben, Annette, and Dana and the other members of his family. He was a blessing in life, and may his memory continue to inspire us.

To Yaffa, who stood by Joe’s side, supporting him in every endeavour, we say: your loss is huge and we try to share it and cry with you; we admire your fortitude and love.

Gaby, Ben, Dana and Annette, be comforted in the knowledge that your father Joe was a true gibor – a warrior who is a blessing to you and to all of us, an inspirational man whom I and no-one in our community will ever forget.

To Judith and Michael, we mourn with you the loss of a remarkable brother.

I conclude with the words of a congregant who was not able to attend today’s funeral, as he has summed up all our feelings so beautifully:

Please let Joe’s family know how fond all people were of him, and quite literally, how loved he was by all who met him.  He was truly a most wonderful and charming man.  His passing is a terrible loss to the community.

בלע המות לנצח ומחה ה אלקים דמעה מעל כל פנים

He will swallow up death forever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from upon all faces... (Yeshayahu 25:8)

יהי זכרו ברוך

May his memory be for a blessing.

'Autopilot' and the Spiritual Quest

Sermon Notes 04/05/13 - Behar-Bechukotay 5773

If you walk in My statutes, observe My commandments and perform them. (VaYikra 26:3)

This verse, which opens the second of today’s parashiot, is subject to much discussion in the classic sources.  A key difficulty is the unexpected use of הליכה – walking – to describe adherence to statutes, divine laws for which no reason is known.  Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (commentary ad. loc) explains that הלך means to ‘move towards a goal’.  Spiritual life involves constantly moving towards spiritual ambitions, relentlessly striving to attain communion with the divine, exemplified by the statutes.

This interpretation is supported by a beautiful midrash:

If you walk in My statutes… As the verse writes: I considered my way, but I returned my feet to Your testimonies. (Tehillim 119:59)  King David said, ‘every day, I decided that I would walk to a particular place or home, but my feet brought me to the Shuls or Yeshivot’.  As the verse says: but I returned my feet to your testimonies. (VaYikra Rabbah 35:1)

This reading identifies a phenomenon we might term our ‘autopilot’ – the direction in which we are led when we aren’t thinking by habit and subliminal interests.  I recall a long-retired senior colleague who mentioned that his car ‘went to Bushey on its own’ – that is, wherever he started driving, he ending up steering towards the Jewish cemetery in Bushey (outskirts of London), somewhere, sadly, he had frequented throughout his career.

King David records that despite his plans, he always found himself automatically led towards houses of prayer and Torah study.  As such, the midrash has reinterpreted the phrase ‘if you walk in My statutes’ as an exploration of our subconscious desires.  Have we sufficiently internalised our spiritual mission that we follow it without concentrating, even when we’re focusing on something else?

This passage is always read soon before Shavuot (see TB Megillah 31b and Yad, Tefillah U’Nesiat Kapayim 13:2).  The obvious rationale for this is that it contains the rebukes that are the consequences of disobeying the laws given at Sinai.  But perhaps there is another reason – prior to renewing our connection to the revelation and its laws, we are encouraged to consider where our true loyalties lie, those best characterised by where our ‘autopilot’ takes us.

Ten Years at Golders Green Synagogue

Last Week's Celebratory Shabbat

The following article appeared on the US 'You and US' Website this week here

Golders Green United Synagogue marked the tenth anniversary of Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski’s taking up the position of rabbi with a special Shabbat Kodesh programme last Shabbat.

Following the service, Rabbi Dr Belovski gave a textual presentation entitled, “Frankenstein, Choni HaMa’agel and the Power of Companionship” (source-sheet follows), which he used as a springboard to express his feelings of affection and gratitude towards the community. The chairman of the shul, Professor Benjamin Chain then spoke briefly on behalf of the shul, to thank Rabbi and Mrs Belovski for their continued efforts in all aspects of the shul’s life and development.  Professor Chain presented Rabbi Belovski with a specially-made glass shofar, made by Michael Gore of Chicago, the same designer who is responsible for the shul’s new parochet, which has been donated by members as part of GGS’s redevelopment project. The service was followed by a celebratory Kiddush.

On Monday evening, more than 70 people attended a facilitated discussion in the new shul hall, on the theme of “Shaping our Future”, which was an opportunity for  Rabbi Belovski to set out his vision for the GGS community and for the members to share and discuss their views on how the kehillah should develop. Following Rabbi Belovski’s speech, Professor Chain expertly managed a lively, but good-natured, discussion on topics as diverse as seating arrangements in the remodelled shul building, educational programmes and provision of suitable social activities for both older and younger members. 

Professor Chain said, “Over the last ten years, both Rabbi Belovski and GGS have grown and developed immensely. It is an excellent partnership, which we hope will continue for many more years.”

Rabbi Belovski added, “It remains a tremendous privilege to lead such a wonderful community. It is particularly exciting to be planning the future of the kehillah at this time, as we come to the end of our magnificent redevelopment project.”