Sermon Notes 09/04/11 - Metzora

Tzara’at and the Contagious Smile

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

I didn’t actually give a sermon this week, but on Friday night, I spoke briefly about tzara’at, the mysterious skin-disease which is the major topic of this and last weeks’ parshiot.

Sources are divided as to whether tzara’at was a contagious form of leprosy or similar.  Some, like Chizkuni, understood its symptoms to refer to an infectious illness; others, like Rav Hirsch, insisted that the rules governing the management of tzara’at indicate beyond doubt that it was not infectious.  For an excellent study of this disagreement, see MD Spitzer's excellent article: ‘Is Tsara’at infectious? A unified theory of Tsaraat’.[1]  Yet whatever the nature of the disorder, the rabbis insist that it was visited on the sufferer as a punishment for one of a range of anti-social crimes, such as theft, arrogance or, more famously, gossip.

It occurs to me that whether or not tzara’at was actually contagious, the socially-destructive, toxic mind-set that underlies the behaviour that produced it most certainly is.  Negativity, destructive talk, and the unwillingness to see good in others, all pollute the atmosphere within a community.  Apart from the direct harm they cause, they also preclude positive thinking, stifle altruism and lead to self-seeking individualism rather than co-operation and mutual-affirmation.  It is unsurprising that the Torah removes the pedlars of this poison from society, isolating them and their world-view from everyone else; this allows them a period of reflection and re-orientation before their re-admission to normal life.

And if negativity and anti-social behaviour are infectious, positivity, altruism and the insistence on always seeing good in others are even more so!  We’ve all been touched by a contagious smile or a random act of kindness; these can spread like wildfire and change our world. 


[1] MD Spitzer', ‘Is Tsara’at infectious? A unified theory of Tsaraat’, in Degel: Torah and Jewish Studies from Alei Tzion, Tishrei 5771, Vol. 3 (1), pp. 23-30, available at < http://www.aleitzion.co.uk/contents_files/5771-degel-tishrei-563.pdf>.

Sermon Notes 02/04/11 - HaChodesh and Tazria

HaChodesh and Cautious Radicalism

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

This week marks the conclusion of eight wonderful years at Dunstan Road – we joined the community on 1st April 2003.  It’s another opportunity for Vicki and me to remind ourselves what a privilege it is to serve as spiritual leaders to this wonderful community and to thank all of you for your support and continued enthusiasm for everything that we do.

Such milestones are also an opportunity to reflect on a particular aspect of the rabbi’s role in the community – ensuring that I am actively and constantly engaged in fostering Jewish growth, change and development, balancing those with the need to preserve and continue our community’s legacy.   Every community, especially ours, includes people who would like the rabbi to overhaul everything with little regard to the past, and others who see no need to change anything at all – if it worked last year or century, why shouldn’t it work now?  Striking the balance between these needs is no mean feat.

This week’s special reading of HaChodesh is helpful in considering this issue.  It begins with God telling Moshe that ‘this month (Nissan, which begins this week) will be the first of months for you’ (Shemot 12:2).  Simply understood, it refers to the beginning of independent Jewish nationhood, which is characterised by our own calendar and festival cycle.  And of course, it all happens in Chodesh HaAviv – the month when nature comes back to life after the dormancy of winter.

However, the Sefat Emet of Gur (d. 1905) understands the verse to refer what he calls כח התחדשות   – the ability to renew, change, reform and innovate (‘month’ and ‘renewal’ are the same word in Hebrew).  He explains that this capability is something innate to the Jewish people; yet it was lost when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and, indeed used against them by Pharaoh.  According to Sefat Emet, this is the meaning of the phrase ויקם מלך חדש על מצרים   – a new king arose over Egypt (Shemot 1:8) – a king arose who usurped the ability to change and adapt and used it against the Israelites, heralding the start of the Egyptian slavery.  As such, the redemption dawned when the capability to innovate was restored to them; this is the true meaning of HaChodesh.

Yet while this renewal may have involved national redemption, it did not wipe away the past entirely, just the negative aspects of the slavery.  Their renewal and recreation was based on the promises that God made to the forefathers, and the continuation of their legacy.  Real Jewish renewal requires one to have one eye on the future with another on the past.

So, while the rabbis sometimes gets caught in the crossfire between the changers and the conservatives, proper pro-active leadership ensures that we are constantly growing, changing and re-evaluating, but only in a way that secures the future by neither merely aping the past or disregarding it: it should make both groups slightly uncomfortable, but not too much!  If it isn’t an oxymoron, this might be termed ‘cautious radicalism’.

I have a feeling that the next year in our community is going to be very exciting.  There are hard decisions to be made, but we have a great management team with a terrific plan; we are about to undergo a carefully-thought-through makeover / repackaging, we have innovative ideas for educational and social programming, and do you know, that we’ve had a recent flurry of young couples joining the Shul and expressing interest in our plans.  All these build on the past without being enslaved by it.  This is real התחדשות, something I am proud and honoured to lead and guide, and should, with God’s help, steer us towards a rosy and vibrant future.

A Torah Haven in the Geordie Heartlands

A Sabbatical Trip to my Alma Mater

I have recently spent a week in Gateshead, a Yeshiva town in the north of England, where my wife and I lived when we were first married and I was a student at the Gateshead Yeshiva.  I remain eternally indebted to Gateshead for the outstanding Torah education I received there, and particularly for the encouragement I received to develop into an independent rabbi and halachist.  Yet it was the first time since my departure for the rabbinate some 13 years ago that I’d spent more than the odd day there.

On the surface, very little has changed in Gateshead: the same spiritually-striving and hospitable Torah families hidden behind gloomy ‘Coronation Street’ terraces; the same economic challenges.  Yet the community has doubled in size since the early 90s, necessitating expansion into areas that were once exclusively Geordie, and there is a greatly enhanced infrastructure including a community health-centre (in our former home).  But the most significant ‘news’ has been the appointment of Rabbi S.F. Zimmerman as town Rav following the passing of the esteemed Rabbi Rakow.  A brilliant, articulate and thoughtful American, he seems to have struck just the right balance between preserving Gateshead’s conservative character and instigating changes vital for the community’s development.  These include modernising the education system by facilitating alternatives to long-term Torah study for adults, and encouraging working families to settle and start businesses in Gateshead, fostering greater religious and social diversity and increasing local prosperity.

I am delighted that I found the experience overwhelmingly positive: I was royally hosted by dear friends, sat in my former seat in the Yeshiva for Shacharit, and enjoyed a visit to the colossal Lehmann’s bookshop, where I picked up a couple of hard-to-come-by mediaeval commentaries on Rashi.  I also had the privilege of private meetings with the Rav, the Rosh Yeshiva and the Yeshiva’s spiritual supervisor.  Of course, much of this is nostalgia: it felt good to retrace familiar steps and to show the children where ‘Daddy used to learn’.

I was especially struck by the mature attitude of many of the people I met when confronted with someone (me) whose outlook and objectives differ considerably from theirs.  I recall that this had always been my experience in Gateshead, especially at the Yeshiva.  When I joined in 1990, I was several years older than my class-mates; they had strong backgrounds in Torah learning, I did not; whereas my wife and I had recently graduated from Oxford, most of them had no intention of attending university; they wore the sombre ‘yeshiva kit’, and I was none too keen on the dress-code.  But from the very first day I was welcomed as a full member by staff and students alike.

Those contrasts of twenty years ago are now more manifest.  I spent the entire week in Gateshead working on my doctoral dissertation.  It is well-known that the ‘Yeshiva World’ tends to view academic Jewish studies with distrust, and the potential holder of a ‘Rabbi Dr.’ moniker with suspicion.  Yet everyone, without exception, from the people I met casually to the Rav, were interested in what I am doing, and genuinely enthusiastic about my achievements.

My experience was repeated in conversations with old friends, some of whom have children of the same ages as ours.  I was asked a number of times what our eldest daughter Michali, who is now in school-year 11, will be ‘doing next’.  Here, the differences couldn’t be more pronounced: it is the norm in Gateshead for children to leave school after GCSEs to go to yeshiva or seminary, whereas Michali is choosing her A-Level subjects in preparation for university.  Again, I found the people with whom I spoke to be supportive and encouraging, even though Michali’s plans diverge so greatly from what they would consider appropriate for their children.

I think that this phenomenon reflects the fact that the Gateshead community contains many people who are not just thoroughly decent, but happy and secure with their own life-choices.  I’ve noticed that unhappy and insecure people within our religious world feel a need to run down others in order to validate their own positions; those who are secure can celebrate the choices of others, even when they strongly disagree with them, without feeling threatened.  And while I’m sure that that there are those in Gateshead who do not behave like this, I have realised that this is why I have continued to feel comfortable with the people there, despite the considerable gulf between our aspirations.

Thinking more broadly, this is a good working model for cross-communal cohesion.  Even those individuals and communities with radically different styles and understandings of the world can peacefully co-exist, but this is unlikely to happen unless their leaders are happy and secure with their own identities, and make this manifest in the message they preach.  Regrettably, this is uncommon – in many places, religious life thrives on delegitimisation.  Much rests on our ability to convey a sense of contentment and joy to our children and students.

I was encouraged by my visit to Gateshead: for all its pious insularity, it is a community of people who appear to be secure in their choices, something that can only contribute to harmony in an otherwise fragmented religious world.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle here.

Sermon Notes 19/03/11 - Zachor and Purim

Purim, murders in Itamar and catastrophe in Japan

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

The past few days have been filled with tragedy: in Japan: first the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami which have destroyed countless thousands of lives, I have already posted a little about the unfolding tragedy in Japan here; we must continue to pray for the wellbeing of the survivors, for a successful resolution to the nuclear emergency there and to assist in whatever way we feel we can.

And then, in our beloved Israel, the despicable, unspeakable terrorist murder of the Fogel family in Itamar has shaken us all and our thoughts are with the surviving children and other family members.  On Parashat Zachor are we in any doubt that ‘in every generation they stand up to annihilate us’ (Haggadah) and that remembering the evil of those who will ‘destroy, eliminate, murder all the Jews, women and children’ (Megillah) is just as relevant today.

In the light of this, it is very difficult to be in the mood for Purim – it hardly feels like a time of celebration and victory, with Japan devastated and orphans mourning the victims of another senseless attack.  Yet how can we not celebrate Purim – which recognises Jewish survival throughout history, despite all the odds?

I suggest that what all of us feel at times like this is a sense of hopelessness – a fear that we are, in fact, subject to purely deterministic forces and random chance.  We are despair that nothing we do really makes any difference – if any of us just ‘happened’ to be in North-Eastern Japan last Friday morning or in the wrong house in Itamar last Friday night, we too could have been killed.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (commentary to VaYikra 11) explains that the laws of impurity governing human remains are intended to address precisely this issue:

The human corpse calls attention to a fact that is liable to foster the misconception that is called impurity.  For the fact is that, when a corpse lies before us, a human being has succumbed to the compelling physical forces of nature.

But the following is also true: The corpse we see before us is not the whole man, nor even his essence.  For man’s true being cannot be touched by the power of physical forces.

These are the truths that must be impressed upon the mind of the living person who faces the phenomena of death.  For whereas death brings to mind man’s frailty and his submission to the forces of nature, man must stand tall in the midst of the physical world, proud of his vital freedom.

The notion that we are subject to random forces entirely beyond our control engenders religious and moral torpor and is the antithesis of everything Judaism holds dear.  It is also the ideology of Amalek: Amalek ‘chanced upon you on the way’ (Parashat Zachor) and Haman cast lots to decide when to kill the Jews.  As such, while Purim (and Zachor) certainly remember the evil acts of our enemies past and present, it is also an affirmation and celebration of the most important religious idea of all: the rejection of determinism and randomness.  Of course, this leaves serious theological questions about the nature of calamity and the lot of its victims.  Yet while mustering the strength to celebrate will certainly be more difficult than usual, this Purim offers an unprecedented opportunity to affirm and celebrate the role of God, meaning and purpose in every moment of life.

A Jewish Response to Human Catastrophe

Brief thoughts on the Japanese Tsunami

Around a year ago, following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I wrote a piece for ‘Jewish Action’, the magazine of the American Orthodox Union, entitled ‘A Jewish Response to Human Catastrophe’.  Scarcely more than a year later, a colossal earthquake and tsunami have destroyed a large section of North-Eastern Japan, killing tens of thousands and ruining the lives of innumerable others.  The images defy belief – cars tossed about like toys, entire towns wiped from the face of the earth, huge ships thrown into buildings miles inland, passenger trains simply missing, presumably forever.

Much of what I said a year ago is tragically relevant once more.  Yet there is an additional dimension to the cataclysm in Japan – it has happened in an environment that looks like our own: Japan, unlike Haiti and others locations struck by recent disasters, is a developed, Western-style country.  The photos from the affected areas could have been taken in Manhattan or Cannes.  On previous occasions, we may have assumed that it couldn’t happen to us, perhaps unwittingly associating the disaster with more primitive and unprepared countries.  That self-deception is no longer possible.

There are many ways to assist the victims; one is through a fund launched by World Jewish Relief.

The Art of Judaism

Jewish Literacy

 ‘Illiterate Jew’ is an oxymoron. (Attributed to Lord Jakobovits)

Literacy is not a luxury; it is a right and a responsibility. (Bill Clinton)

Torah, Torah, die beste sechorah – the best merchandise. (Yiddish saying)

Promoting Jewish literacy – familiarity with classical Jewish texts and the ability to manipulate them – is something that every rabbi holds dear.  Happily, the recent growth in Jewish schooling and other educational initiatives has improved Jewish literacy within our mainstream communities, which had for years viewed synagogues as the sole panacea for their existential ills.

Yet there is a recurrent issue with the relatively low level of textual Jewish studies taught in high schools serving the centrist Anglo-Jewish communities.  This is evident from my numerous conversations with British students about their post high-school experiences in Israel: I have lost track of how many times I have heard bright and motivated British teenagers grumble that they lag behind their American fellow-students; this is corroborated by their perplexed and rather frustrated tutors.

It is important to recognise that the US Jewish high school system differs greatly from ours: the separation of Church and State there means that the schools operate independently from the mainstream system, which apart from making them eye-wateringly expensive, allows them to determine their own agendas.  Although UK graduates generally perform better in secular subjects, there is no escaping that notwithstanding the opportunities they have had for extra-curricular learning, ‘text clubs’ etc., the alumni of our schools are usually much less Jewishly literate than their US counterparts.

I have previously mentioned my view that the greatest impediment to Anglo-Jews engaging seriously with Jewish observance and Torah study is the certainty that it will inhibit, rather than enhance, their life-aspirations.  This conviction lies at the heart of the Jewish literacy issue: parents and even some educators associate textual competence with religiosity and poor social integration; as such, they resist including too much of in the school curriculum.  As far as many Anglo-Jews are concerned, Jewish literacy is only for ‘frummers’.  I have even heard from directors of school Jewish-studies programmes that they are often pressured by parents and board members not to increase the quantity or intensity of their provision.

In contrast, many American educators have realised that Jewish literacy is actually the entrée to every aspect of Jewish life.  They understand that training their students to read Bible commentaries and Talmud, as well as teaching them to speak good Ivrit, are valuable ends in themselves – they regard them as indispensable components of a decent Jewish education.  Interestingly, this attitude cuts across the observance spectrum: Orthodox high schools that would describe themselves as ‘very modern’, along with Conservative educational institutions, devote many curriculum hours each week to high-level textual study.  They realise that every facet of their students’ Jewish lives is enhanced by being able to understand and discuss Judaism ‘in the original’.  Irrespective of their commitment to observance, ‘textual aficionados’ gain an unmediated appreciation of their Jewish origins and identity, connect profoundly with other Jews and communities around the world, form a unique bond with Israel and its people, and, quite simply, internalise a deeper sense of the history, development, challenges and aspirations of the Jewish people than their less-literate friends.  It is clear that many American Jews, irrespective of their degree of commitment and conviction, buy into the idea that proper Jewish literacy enhances their lives and expands their horizons.  Sadly, there is no equivalent educational culture among their British counterparts.

Our children have a right to real Jewish literacy and it is our responsibility to deliver it.  Our communities face many challenges; meeting this responsibility is one of the biggest.  Some adult education centres are pioneers in this field; I am proud to be associated with a number of transformational programmes.  I am also aware that some established schools are improving their textual provision and imagine that the newer ones will build their curricula around it.  But until real Jewish literacy is a central aspiration for our children, they will always be playing ‘catch-up’.

I understand parental resistance to intensive textual study: it can seem alien, consumed with obscurities, and for many who have managed adult Jewish lives without it, a diversion from reality.  Yet in reality, attaining Jewish literacy is a, perhaps, the focal aspect of the ‘Art of Judaism’:  Torah study, more than any other endeavour, including even prayer and mitzvah observance, paints the world ‘Jewish’.  It’s not just about the language, although that’s clearly very important, but about the excitement of learning to see every part of the human condition through a Jewish lens.

At the end of a list of important social responsibilities, the rabbis add the dictum ‘but the study of Torah is equal to them all’,[1] on which the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism) comments that ‘through the Torah, everything can be fixed’ – Torah study opens doors to every aspect of Jewish life.


[1] Mishnah Peah 1:1; TB Shabbat 127a

Israel Sabbatical

Israel Sabbatical Thoughts and a Pressing Need

Having been in Jerusalem for most of the winter, I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel, my love-affair with it, and how that plays out in our lives in the UK, where we actually seem to live.  Before sharing these, a little about what I did when not sitting the library staring at a laptop.

Although I usually visit Israel frequently, I hadn’t been there for two consecutive weekends in at least 20 years; this meant that my visits usually follow a pretty conservative schedule.  But during my Sabbatical, I made it to a reasonable number of places around the country, mostly near to Jerusalem, although I did tour in the Galil and venture to the wilds of Ma’ale Gilboa.  I particularly enjoyed visiting the Neot Kedumim nature reserve and hiking to Sataf, although, for the record, I’ve still never been to either Eilat or Bnai Brak.  I’ve had wonderful Shabbatot with friends in Modi’in, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Kfar Sava, Efrat, and in various Jerusalem districts, as well as at Kibbutz Lavi.  I’ve generally preferred to ‘sit in the audience’, although I did speak one Shabbat at the Eretz Hemdah community in Katamon; I also delivered a Friday-night shiur in Kfar Sava and a lectured to a post-graduate group at Bar Ilan University about the challenges facing Anglo-Jewry.  In Ramat Beit Shemesh I was asked unexpectedly to speak at a Kiddush, although after I’d finished, I discovered that they’d confused me with someone else!

But the abiding memories of my extended stay will be of the pleasure of just being there: the sheer numbers of Jews; the view from the bus window of the incredibly beautiful Harey Yehudah; daily duchaning, the melting pot that is the National Library of Israel, where everyone from Chasidic men to non-religious women share ideas in a tolerant and open environment; the deafening Sephardic music so beloved by taxi-drivers; the small Shul which attracts the weirdest group of people imaginable; the American Christians on a solidarity tour wearing tzitziot tied to their belts; the man who could ‘prove’ to me that my watch didn’t need a new battery (and was right).  It cannot be overemphasised that Judaism and Jewish life thrive best in Israel, not elsewhere, and although we do our utmost to create vibrant, meaningful Jewish experiences in the Diaspora, often even succeeding, they will always be a pale reflection of the ‘real thing’.

This thought leads me to more weighty matters.  I have watched from afar the recent controversy over remarks about Israel from Mick Davis, a prominent Anglo-Jewish lay-leader.  I won’t evaluate the entire saga here; both the Chief Rabbi and the Israeli Ambassador offered considered responses at the time, as did pundits from across the political and religious spectrum.  The debate will undoubtedly rumble on as to whether it is appropriate to criticise Israeli government policy, and if so, how, by whom, and in what circumstances.  There is nothing new about this.

The Chief Rabbi was correct to point out that the debate over Davis’ remarks is a ‘sideshow’ (albeit one worthy of serious debate), given that many of Israel’s enemies base their policies on their principled denial of Israel’s right to exist.  Yet this opinion is no longer confined to Arab administrations and would-be governments: while even a few years ago, questioning Israel’s legitimacy only occurred on the fringes of the British media, it is now disturbingly mainstream.  And if, with a heavy heart, I admit that not all forms of anti-Zionism are anti-Semitism, denying Jews a right accorded to other peoples - self-determination in our historic homeland - surely is.

We dare not be oblivious to the impact of media delegitimisation, as well as from boycotts and anti-Israel campus activity.  It has a ‘drip-drip’ negative impact on every member of the community, especially on those without strong convictions or a good grasp of the facts.  It is no longer uncommon to meet Jews, especially young men and women, who have unintentionally internalised the narrative of Israel’s enemies, and at best are embarrassed by Israel and ambivalent about her legitimacy.

More important than debating the rectitude of criticising Israel, and perhaps even more pressing than fighting external threats, the community needs a strong and effective strategy to ensure that Jews of all political and religious affiliations are convinced of the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel and will promote and, when necessary, defend it.

Tenach, ancient and modern Jewish history and political thought are no longer just part of a rounded Jewish education, but are indispensable for meeting the exigent realities of an Israel-hostile environment.  Many of our schools and other educational institutions already do this, some admirably.  Yet it needs to be pushed higher up the agenda, especially among university and high-school students and in communities where few children attend Jewish schools.

Success in this area also confers other advantages.  It transcends denominational and political feuds – a left-leaning liberal and a staunch religious-Zionist rightist may disagree fiercely about almost every aspect of Jewish life and certainly about how Israel should respond to its challenges, but can share a belief in  the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the Land and the synergy between Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people.  But most importantly, mobilising a corps of informed, Israel-positive activists, who comprehend and unabashedly celebrate the miracle of the Jewish return to the Land should enable us, rather than our detractors, to frame the Israel debate.

Reading Sabbatical

What I’ve Been Reading

As well as trying to complete my PhD, I managed to read a selection of books during my Sabbatical.  Some I’d been meaning to read for years, others just took my fancy.  By author, they are:

Yehuda Avner – The Prime Ministers

Several people recommended this book and I wasn't disappointed.  It's an easy, absorbing read, packed with fascinating insights, heavy on adulation of Menachem Begin.

Eliezer Berkovits – Not in Heaven

I am a great fan of Berkovits and his ideas.  The first 70% of this book is a sensitive and thoughtful description of the nature of halachah, its origins, function and development.  However, I found the last section unnecessarily polemical, and much too radical in its objectives.

J. Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish – The Western Intellectual Tradition

I'd been trying to read this one since I was at university.  Delightful and informative, it filled in lots of gaps in my knowledge of the period; it's a little dated, but excellent nonetheless.

Paulo Coelho – 10 assorted books, including The Alchemist and The Zahir

Coelho's writings are at once intense and gentle.  His conviction of the possibility of personal and world-wide transformation no matter the circumstances is endearing.  He clearly has many influences in his understanding of human nature, including the Talmud.  Thought-provoking, sometimes offensive, but always gripping.

Charles Dickens – Oliver Twist

I'd seen the film. but never read the book.  I really liked it and it's encouraged me to persevere with Dickens.

Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Adolescent

The least-known of Dostoevsky's five great novels, it is as insightful and dark as his others, excepting, perhaps, 'Devils'.  It's also funny and easy to read.

George Eliot – Daniel Deronda

Christian Zionism in a novel form.  I'd always wondered why there's a George Eliot Street in Jerusalem.  It's very slow to get going, and a little fragmented, but it offers a fascinating glimpse of a vision for Jews in the Land from the perspective of a non-Jewish supporter.

Jay Harris – How do we know this? Midrash and the Fragmentation of Modern Judaism

A detailed academic, yet readable, study of the development of midrashic and other texts, with a lot of emphasis on modern and post-modern developments, including opposition to and defence of traditional readings, all focused on the impact of these changes on the complexion of the modern Jewish world.

Isaac Husik – A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy

A classic of 100 years ago.  Not especially readable, but invaluable background for almost any modern Jewish philosophical enquiry.  Not enough emphasis on more mystically-inclined mediaevalists, but a worthwhile read.

Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis and The Trial

Kafka-esque, disturbing and thought-provoking.  I particularly liked the former, and how it explores the nature of familial allegiances.

John Milton – Paradise lost and Paradise Regained

A bit of a struggle - just as well the Kindle has a built-in dictionary which includes references to Greek mythology.  What I understood of them was rewarding, especially Milton's understanding of human character and angst, but I need to reread them with a commentary of some sort.

Friedrich Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Troubling and, in places, incomprehensible.  Nonetheless, his nihilism is overwhelming, as is his constant refrain of the power of humans in a godless (or god-dead) world.  It's not hard to see how madmen could and have used his ideas.

Marcel Proust – Swann’s Way

I surprised myself with this one, which I rather enjoyed, even though not very much actually happens.  Proust's effortless portrayal of human interactions and his representation of memory, and specially the impact of involuntary thoughts, is remarkable.  I am hoping to try the other seven volumes some time soon, at least before my next Sabbatical.

Charles Taylor – The Ethics of Authenticity

Challenging and powerful attempt to place individuality into an ethical context, balancing the need for authentic self-expression with responsibility to others and society.  In many ways, a very Jewish approach.

Thinking Sabbatical

Thoughts from a returning rabbi

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost over, but I will be returning to ‘normal’ in a few days, following a wonderful winter Sabbatical.  I’ve spent much of the last few months in one of my favourite places in the world, the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, where I’ve had the opportunity to study, write and consult world-class scholars in my field of Jewish studies; I have even managed to make good progress on my dissertation.

I’m finishing this period feeling renewed and refreshed in many ways: I have in mind ideas for family activities, exciting new projects for my community, fresh perspectives on Israel and Zionism, and complete courses that I hope to teach over the next year.

But most importantly for me, I’ve had the chance to think, something that is a rare and precious commodity.  Away from the concrete commitments, deadlines for sermons, pastoral emergencies, meetings and teaching schedules that characterise my professional week, I’ve actually been able to think for the first time in years, not just about my research, but about every aspect of life.  I brought my mp3 player to Israel, convinced that I’d need to fill the frequent lacunae with music; I’ve used it once.

Without space and time, essential issues scarcely surface, let alone get addressed – I cannot overestimate the benefit of having had an extended period of contemplation and self-discovery, with, I hope, some tangible, long-term results.  While I appreciate that few are accorded the privilege of a Sabbatical, small snippets of personal time and space for contemplation can be carved from even the busiest of weeks.  I know this because my wife has been doing it for years, despite juggling numerous overwhelming personal and professional responsibilities, including managing the rabbi.  I know that many people, including me, are nervous of doing this: we wonder what fears, insecurities or unresolved issues will surface and so avoid it all costs, instead filling our spare time with noise and other diversions.  Yet we sell ourselves short by not conquering these fears.

And during this period, I’ve come to realise something very important.  If we don’t appreciate the need to give ourselves space and time, we are unlikely to recognise and encourage its fulfilment in others.  For community leaders, this is a stark message: our ability to understand, guide and nurture growth in others is impaired by our neglect of our own emotional and cerebral needs.

I am truly grateful to Golders Green Synagogue and the United Synagogue, for granting me this period to think, and most of all, to my family, who have been wonderfully supportive, despite my extended absences.