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.”

Holiness, the Jewish State and a Rendezvous with History

Sermon Notes 20/04/13 - Acharey & Kedoshim / Yom HaAtzmaut Shabbaton 5773

This week’s parashah starts with perhaps the most famous exhortation in the Torah:

Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them: be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. (VaYikra 19:2)

This raises the perennial issue of the nature of holiness.  It is discussed by the mediaeval philosophers and has major ramifications for the State of Israel.  Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari) understood that holiness is innate not just to God, but also to people, places and even languages.  He believed the Jewish people and the Land of Israel to be intrinsically holy, in comparison with other peoples and lands.  In contrast, the Rambam (Moreh Nevochim) believed that only God is inherently holy.  For the Rambam, holiness is not innate, but instrumental – the Land of Israel offers the best environment (determined by climate, resources, location, etc.) for practising Judaism’s lofty spiritual goals.  Similarly, the history, experience and temperament of the Jewish people best empower us to pursue the objectives set out in the Torah.

The Kuzari's view has largely prevailed and informs much of modern thought about the role of the Jewish people and the contemporary state.  Yet it can be dangerous if misapplied – a view that sets one people or place as holier and somehow better than others risks fostering a destructive sense of superiority and triumphalism, and encouraging people to fight the wrong battles with the wrong people.

I believe that despite its marginalisation in recent centuries, the rationalist, instrumental perspective of the Rambam should be re-examined; it has important lessons to teach a modern, fractious Jewish state.

An important 20th-century philosopher who donned the Maimonidean mantle in this respect was Professor A.J. Heschel.  In his monograph, ‘The Sabbath’ he notes that the:

Holiness of the land of Israel is derived from the holiness of the people of Israel. (The Sabbath)

For Heschel, the laws and ideals of land, and, by extension, the state, must reflect the moral values and spiritual aspirations of the Jewish people: an ethical monotheism that recognises the divine image present in every member of society and strives to bring blessing upon them all.  The land’s holiness is not innate – it is a reflection of the moral conduct of its inhabitants.

In Heschel’s later book, ‘Israel: an Echo of Eternity’, written following his visit to Israel just after the Six-Day War, he adapts the answer to the Kotzker Rebbe's well-known question ‘Where is God?’ (Wherever you let Him in):

God is no less here than there.  It is the sacred moment in which His presence is disclosed.  We meet God in time rather than in space, in moments of faith rather than in a piece of space. (Israel: an Echo of Eternity)

But if God is mostly encountered in time, rather than space, what of a Jewish homeland, now the State of Israel?  It must certainly provide the Jewish people with a haven from persecution, as Herzl intended.  It must be a place where Jewish life, observance and culture can flourish and where true Jewish ambitions can best be expressed, as articulated by Ahad HaAm and later, in a more religious iteration, by Professor Eliezer Berkovits.  It must be a place where foreign influences can be cautiously filtered and incorporated where appropriate, rather than being the prevailing Weltanschauung, as they are in the Diaspora.  And it must encourage and implement Messianic aspirations for the Jewish people and for the world.

True to his Maimonidean leanings, Heschel explains the creative potential of the land for the Jewish people:

For the Jewish national movement, therefore, the land of Israel was not merely a place where, historically speaking, the Jews had once dwelt.  It was the homeland with which an indestructible bond of national, physical, religious, and spiritual character had been preserved, and where the Jews had in essence remained—and were now once more in fact—a major element of the population.  It is here where the great works of the Jewish people came into being: the Bible, the Mishnah, the Palestinian Talmud, the Midrashim, the Shulhan Arukh, Lurianic mysticism.  No other people has created original literary works of decisive significance in the land of Israel.  The words, the songs, the chants of Jewish liturgy, which have shaped the life of prayer in both Judaism and Christianity, were born in the Holy Land.... It is not only memory, our past that ties us to the land; it is our hope, our future. (Israel: an Echo of Eternity)

Heschel also coined a beautiful phrase to describe the role and aspirations of the State of Israel – ‘a rendezvous with history’, one which must be constantly renewed and reinvigorated.  In a section of ‘Israel: an Echo of Eternity’ by that name, he demands a ‘re-examination’:

The major weakness was to take the State of Israel for granted, to cease to wonder at the marvel of its sheer being. Even the extraordinary tends to be forgotten.  Familiarity destroys the sense of surprise. We have been beset by a case of spiritual amnesia. We forgot the daring, the labor, the courage of the seers of the State of Israel, of the builders and pioneers.  We forgot the pain, the suffering, the hurt, the anguish, and the anxiety which preceded the rise of the state.  We forgot the awful pangs of birth, the holiness of the deed, the dedication of the spirit.  We saw the Hilton and forgot Tel Hai.

The land rebuilt became a matter of routine, the land as a home was taken for granted.

The younger generation seeing the state functioning normally has the impression that this has been the case all along.  They have no notion of the distress and strain, of the longing and dreaming of generations. The miracle of Israel became a state like all states, with neither mystery nor sacrifice permeating it.   Habit is our downfall, a defeat of the spirit.  Living by habit is the destruction of creativity. (ibid.)

My generation (I was born a few months after the Six-Day War) have no recollection of a time when one couldn’t hop on a plane and visit Israel; when we visit Jerusalem, we need a tour guide, rather than a military vehicle, to point out the Israeli-Jordanian pre-’67 battle-lines.

Yom HaAtzmaut is a great opportunity to consider the real potential of the Jewish state and to ensure that we never take its existence – so long a distant hope – for granted.  Nor for that matter, our responsibility to build a land and a state that truly reflects the values of the Torah and the Jewish people – a life of holiness and a way of being that elevates us and all of humanity.

Kashrut and Mindfulness

Sermon Notes 06/04/13 - Shemini 5773

The second half of this week’s parashah (VaYikra 11) is devoted to the laws of permitted and forbidden birds, mammals, fish and insects.

Today it is easier to observe kashrut than at any previous time.  That’s not to minimise the challenges for those travelling, at work meetings etc., but the range of products available, the advent of easy-heat kosher meals and the growing societal tolerance to ‘odd’ eating habits mean that a fully-kosher diet is more manageable than ever before.

Yet kashrut is also subject to more stringencies than most other areas of halachah and is sometimes the subject of political turf-wars between supervising authorities.  That’s not to say that I don’t support healthy competition: some duplication is a small price to pay for competitiveness; yet it is noticeable that stringencies are less popular in the areas of business ethics or gossip than in kashrut.

In a world where it’s easy to eat kosher, are we able to return to the core values that kashrut observance was intended to promote?  Actually, the Torah is not specific about the purpose of these laws, leading some mediaevalists to assume that they were health-related.  Many thinkers, however, speak of holiness as their goal, as indicated by the verses at the end of VaYikra 11:

For I am the Lord your God; you shall make yourselves holy and be holy, because I am holy.  Do not pollute your souls with any creeping thing that crawls upon the ground.  For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be God for you; so you shall be holy because I am holy...  To distinguish between the pure and the impure and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten. (VaYikra 11: 44-45, 47)

Elsewhere, Rashi remarks that since it’s simple to differentiate between a pig and a cow, a more subtle distinction is intended.  On our verses, Rashi, citing the Talmud, notes that the reference to the Exodus is intended to convey the importance of these laws – should the Israelites be able to sanctify themselves through them, God considers that it was worth bringing the Israelites out of Egypt.  What is the self-sanctification demanded by these verses?

I suggest that the Torah expects us to recognise that eating – fuelling our bodies – can be a base, animalistic and purely sensory experience, or it can be an opportunity to develop profound sensitivity to our food, its sources, what it means to eat and to those who may not be as fortunate as we.  Do we think before we eat?  Do we think about the intricate chain of processes that have made diverse foodstuffs available to us?  If we are eating meat or fish, do we consider the fact that our food was once alive, moving, feeling, breathing?  Do we recognise the privileged existences we have in comparison with the lives of so many who are less fortunate than we?  In short, does eating enable us to become more sensitive, more in tune with our world and its complexities, or less so; do we become more or less human when we eat?  Do we live to eat or eat to live?

I support this contention from a curious gemara that seems to read one of our verses out of context:

‘You shall make yourselves holy’ – this refers to pre-prandial hand-washing;

‘And you shall be holy’ – this refers to post-prandial hand-washing. (TB Berachot 53b)

Washing one’s hands before a meal is a ritual intended to foster reflection and mindfulness.  Before we begin a meal, the Torah requires us to consider the import of what we are about to do – this is ritualised by the rabbis as hand washing.  Similarly, the less-familiar ‘mayim acharonim’ – rinsing the hands at the end of a meal – encourages us to contemplate the significance of what we have just done.  These rules ensure that we are able to transform the act of eating into a meaningful and sensitising experience.

Mindfulness and reflection are an essential component all meaningful religious life.  The kashrut laws, when observed in their sprit as well as their letter, lie at the heart of Jewish spiritual strivings, surely ample justification for the Exodus:

For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be God for you; so you shall be holy because I am holy...

Moshe and the Fallible Leader

Sermon Notes 01/04/13 - 7th Day Pesach 5773

The Song at the Sea is prefaced by the phrase:

…they (the Israelites) trusted in the Lord and in Moshe His servant. (Shemot 14:31)

The equation of God with Moshe troubled early commentators.  The Targum Onkelos renders the verse ‘they trusted in the Lord and in the prophecy of Moshe His servant’, whereas the mediaeval commentator/grammarian Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra rereads it as ‘they trusted in the Lord and that Moshe was his servant’!  The almost complete absence of Moshe from the Haggadah is often cited as a deliberate attempt on behalf of the text’s authors to move the spotlight away from Moshe, the human intermediary in the story, and focus exclusively on God’s direct intervention in bringing about the plagues and the exodus.

Recent problems both in the rabbinic world and beyond naturally lead us to question the role of charismatic leaders and recognise the inability of their most devoted followers to accept that they may have erred.  Of course, these issues are nothing new; indeed they are as old as Moshe himself.  Let me first examine two famous, diametrically opposed visions of Moshe, both offered by Jews of rather different allegiances.

Sigmund Freud opens his final major work ‘Moses and Monotheism’ as follows:

To deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest of its sons is not a deed to be undertaken lightly-heartedly especially by one belonging to that people.  No consideration, however, will move me to set aside truth in favour of supposed national interests.

Freud devotes his work to just that – a demolition of the traditional picture of Moses.  Briefly and scarcely doing Freud justice, Moses was an Egyptian, who strove to impose a form of pre-existing Egyptian monotheism on a fractious group of ex-slaves.  Unable to tolerate his demands, the people rebelled and murdered Moses.  Because of the heinous nature of their crime, they sublimated, but did not totally eliminate their memory of it, which has resurfaced in Jewish national angst throughout history and manifested itself obliquely in the origins of Christianity.

Of course, this narrative is utter anathema to a believing Jew.  Yet it raises important and pointed questions about how we view leaders in general and Moshe specifically.  Interestingly, Freud himself is aware of the inadequacies of his own thesis; as he says in a footnote:

When I use Biblical tradition here in such an autocratic and arbitrary way, draw on it for confirmation whenever it is convenient and dismiss its evidence without scruple when it contradicts my conclusions, I know full well that I am exposing myself to severe criticism concerning my method and that I weaken the force of my proofs.

All of which makes one wonder why write the theory at all, given how successfully Freud undermines his own ideas.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov proposes a view that makes the ‘tzaddik’ virtually infallible:

Every ‘tzaddik’ in the generation is an aspect of Moshe – Messiah (Likkutey Moharan I:2)

Rebbe Nachman’s writings are permeated with this and similar ideas (he clearly regarded himself as the near-perfect ‘tzaddik’), a perspective on leadership that many of us likely find deeply worrying, as it can so obviously lead to abuse by a charlatan or his followers.

So is it possible to forge some middle ground – to devise a model that produces leaders who are inspirational role models yet accountable; capable of strong, assertive leadership, yet who obviously share the frailties and is subject to the same temptations of other human beings?  Actually, one needs look no further than Moshe himself for inspiration.

At the end of Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz’s commentary to Nashim, the author cites an un-sourced, rather controversial midrash (it is missing from some editions).  Briefly, it tells the story of an Arab king who wanted to know about the character of Moshe, the great leader who had brought the Israelites from Egypt with signs and wonders.  He dispatched a painter to the Israelite camp in the desert to prepare a likeness of the great man.  When the painter returned with his work, the king gathered his experts to pass judgement on the character of Moshe; they universally agreed that he was a wicked man: arrogant, mean-spirited and angry.  The king rejected their opinion and turned on the painter, assuming that he had been incompetent.  Yet the painter insisted that he had painted Moshe accurately and that the experts must have misinterpreted his character.  Unsure who was correct, the king travelled to meet Moshe himself and determined that the painter had depicted him accurately.  The king questioned Moshe who admitted that all of the deficiencies that the experts had identified were indeed native to his character, but that through a long process of self-development, he had conquered them and transformed his personality. (Tiferet Yisrael to Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14)

This midrash offers a new perspective on Moshe and a model of sustainable leadership.  The leader is human, yet is a role model of self-development; he or she is immersed in Jewish knowledge and has developed an understanding of the world through the eyes of the Torah that can be brought to bear on individual and communal issues, yet is subject to the same lack of personal objectivity and failings as other human beings.  We should not forget that according to Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, Moshe spoke with difficulty precisely to remind the people that he was a fallible human being – not the originator of the divine message, but merely its amanuensis (Derashot HaRan 3)

Maintaining the right leadership balance is a ubiquitous problem, but one that remains central to the Jewish experience.  Ernst Sellin, who influenced Freud’s view of Moshe wrote:

The final and most important question for all research into the Israelite-Jewish religion will always remain: who was Moses? (Cited by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in ‘Freud’s Moses’)

Deciding who our Moses will be may be just as important for us.

Seder and the Body-Soul Experience

Sermon Notes 26/03/13 - Pesach 5773

Near the start of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari (1:11), the king of the Khazars asks his rabbinical interlocutor why God introduced Himself at Mount Sinai as architect of the Exodus rather than creator of the world:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Shemot 20:2)

The rabbi (ibid. 12) answers that an experiential attestation (the recipients of the revelation had seen God’s hand in Egypt) is more powerful than an intellectual proof, which can be subject to refutation.  This principle is important in understanding the role of the Seder and its unique combination of ideas, rituals and experience.

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, a second-generation disciple of the Vilna Gaon, reminds his readers throughout his ‘Yad Mitzrayim’ Haggadah commentary that the concepts explored and promoted by the Seder – that God controls nature, that He can choose at any moment to overturn the natural order and that He intervened in Egypt to free the Israelites from bondage, thereby precipitating their independent nationhood – are the very core of Jewish belief.

But, following the Kuzari, these ideas must seem real and not remain merely in the realm of the intellect.  This objective may explain the Haggadah’s requirement that:

Even if we were all sages, all erudite, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, we would remain obliged to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt... (Haggadah, s.v. ‘Avadim Hayyinu’)

This is illustrated by the story of the five Roman-era rabbis:

It once happened that Rabbi Eli’ezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi El’azar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining [at Seder] in Beney Berak.  They were telling the story of the exodus from Egypt all that night until their disciples came and said to them, ‘our teachers, the time for the morning Shema has arrived’. (ibid. s.v. ‘Ma’aseh B’Rebbi Eli’ezer’)

The Seder is not simply about acquiring information or even ideas, but about experiencing them in ‘real’ time and space.  It is unlikely that the rabbis discovered any new information in the story, yet they discussed and relived the old tale until daybreak.

This serves as a paradigm for all of Jewish life – Judaism certainly demands of its adherents that they understand and internalise a number of profound beliefs, yet it also requires us to actualise these beliefs within our very physical, human world.

In a fascinating essay, Professor Eliezer Berkovits discusses the function of mitzvah observance.  He insists that:

Since man is neither only soul nor only body, but both joined together, both these constituent elements must be related to God, each in a manner adequate to its own nature.  On the level of the soul, the relationship is spiritual and conscious, but it cannot be expressed in action; on the level of the body, the relationship has to become “materialized” in action.

These two expressions of the religious life are not meant to exist parallel to each other as the religion of the soul and as that of the body.  The mitzvah is the union of the two...  In its ideal form, the mitzvah is a deed; and, like all true deeds, it is of the spirit and of the body at the same time. (Law and Morality in Jewish Tradition, reprinted in Eliezer Berkovits, Essential Essays on Judaism)

Berkovits uses this typology to launch a stinging attack on Kant’s idealisation of the separation of mind and body in religious life (citation from Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason):

It is comparatively easy to serve God as a spirit; the challenge is to serve him in the wholeness of man’s earth-bound, and yet soul-indwelt, humanity.  Immanuel Kant once wrote: “The true [moral] service of God is... invisible, i.e., it is the service of the heart, in spirit and in truth, and it may consist... only of intention.”’  This, indeed, is the noble formula for the historic bankruptcy of all “natural,” as well as “spiritual,” religions.  The invisible service of God is the prerogative of invisible creatures.  When man adopts such service for himself, he makes the dualism of his nature itself a religion.  He will expect Gesinnung (sentiment) and noble intentions of the soul, and will readily forgive the profanity of the body; he will have God “in his heart” and some devil directing his actions.  He will serve God on the Sabbath and himself the rest of the week...

Contrary to Kant, Judaism teaches that man’s “true service of God” must be human.  It should be invisible, as man’s soul is invisible; and it should be visible, too, because man is visible.  It must be “service of the heart, in spirit and in truth” as well as of the body.  It must be service through the mitzva, the deed in which man’s spiritual and material nature have unified.  It is a much higher service than that of the spirit alone. It is the religion of the whole man. (ibid.)

Seder, the annual membership ceremony of the Jewish people, exemplifies this harmonistic approach and recommends it as a model for all ritual throughout the year.

Religious Inequalities Between Genders - Tablet Article

To accompany the recent debate mentioned here, there is an article in this week's edition of The Tablet, the international Catholic weekly.  My contribution follows in the body of the post, and the entire article is below.  It had been scheduled for a couple of weeks ago, but it was bumped by the election of the new pope!

An Orthodox Jewish perspective
Rabbi Harvey Belovski

‘We must ensure that we celebrate our differences rather than exploit them, and recognise that even the slightest unexplained gender distinction may seem insensitive and even alienating'

The Jewish world has always included brave and spirited thinkers who promoted equality of opportunity even in the most inequitable of times, reflecting a strong and authentic stream of ancient Jewish wisdom. Yet the same wisdom rejects the notion that we all have the same spiritual needs. Though this is especially unpopular in the realm of gender, failure to recognise difference prevents us from celebrating our innate strengths and risks robbing religious life of much of its subtlety.

The notion that self-awareness and perception of the world commonly differ between men and women is something that every adult experiences and grapples with in day-to-day life, even though it falls outside the ambit of "acceptable" beliefs for contemporary Westerners. These differences are not good or bad, but a reality; acknowledging them strengthens society. Of course, there's no "one size fits all" even within genders; Judaism recognises the uniqueness of each individual both before God and Man, and validates each personal spiritual quest.

From a Jewish perspective, religious practice is less about everyone fulfilling a fixed set of rituals and prayers, and more about gaining personal insight, sensing the magnificent presence of God, celebrating self- and people-hood, building a just society, and, through the holy books, understanding the ways and thoughts of the divine. Prayer, ritual and study are important tools in achieving these life goals, which are identical for both genders. Yet innate gender distinctions mean that men and women experience their relationship with the divine differently.

It is well known that Jewish religious life focuses on the home. It is primarily here, rather than in the synagogue, that traditional practices are properly experienced and Jewish values are transmitted to the next generation. In the home, as in most areas of Jewish life, men and women are afforded complete equality. However, in some aspects of public ritual, there is an obvious gender disparity in traditional Jewish communities. In Orthodox synagogues, most ritual performance, including reading from the Torah, is led by men.

These distinctions are rooted in a profound understanding of the genuinely different spiritual needs of men and women, yet play successfully to their shared need to commune with God; as such, they serve a valuable and timeless function. For example, Jewish worship incorporates the reality that men and women experience the socialising impact of group worship differently. The creation of a traditional prayer quorum (which is defined first by ten men and only then augmented by other men and women) forces competitive, often self-focused males, to regularly function as members of a harmonious co-operative, in ways that women often do intuitively.

However, while it would be a mistake to equate a religion, especially Judaism, with the conduct of its formal prayer services, as the public face of a faith, they are often assumed to characterise its attitude to important issues. In this context, I acknowledge that part of the gender imbalance in religious life may reflect the sharply-defined gender distinctions of the past, which are, perhaps, shaded by a hint of misogyny. The Jewish world, like all traditional faith societies, is innately conservative; this means that change happens slowly and only after much debate and careful reference to time-honoured sources and processes. Yet distinguishing genuine, ageless realities from some of these inequities and ironing them out where possible must be an important aspiration of every vibrant, forward-thinking religious society. It is a privilege to be part of that process in my own community - I have pioneered advanced Jewish scholarship for women for many years and I regularly guide communities on gender boundaries in ritual life - and encourage others to engage with it

So a cautious "yes": it is right, albeit within carefully-defined parameters, for religions to treat men and women differently. We must ensure that we celebrate our differences rather than exploit them, and recognise that even the slightest unexplained gender distinction may seem insensitive and even alienating. Sometimes, the greatest challenge is to struggle with the dissonance between tradition and modernity. Acknowledging nuanced gender distinctions benefits us all and, when treated with sensitivity, remains one of the great strengths of religious life.

Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski is the spiritual leader of Golders Green Synagogue in London. He is an orthodox rabbi, creative educator, organisational consultant and writer. See www.rabbibelovski.co.uk and @belogski



Why I'm Migrating My Websites to Posthaven

Making the Move to Posthaven

I am gradually moving my websites to the new Posthaven platform ahead of the impending demise of Posterous at the end of next month.  This site (Belovski: A View with a Room) has already migrated, as have my Book Review site (yes, I know it's out of date - it'll be having a facelift in the next couple of months) and my Phd page.

At the moment, Posthaven is quite minimal and missing many core features - I can't yet make new posts that include audio and documents and I can't yet adjust the static pages (so some of the stuff down the side of this page isn't yet working properly - please bear with me), but I know that all this and more will follow very soon, as the founders have been responsive, responsible and generous with their time.

I plan to move my shiur/lecture site (Belovski's Shiurim) as soon as the media features are operational.

I'm confident that Posthaven is going to be an excellent choice for me.