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.”

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.