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.

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 I 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.

The Art of Judaism

Shabbat and Self-Awareness

More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel. (Ahad ha-Am)

Rav Yehudah quoted Rav: anyone who delights in Shabbat is given all the desires of his heart. (Shabbat 118a)

I am, indeed, a king, because I know how to rule myself. (Pietro Aretino)

As I’m on Sabbatical, I thought that I’d begin my ‘Art of Judaism’ series proper with some thoughts about Shabbat and self-awareness.  I realise that even for Jewish aficionados, the connection between them is not obvious and may even be counter-intuitive, but I will try to explain.

Apart from having a few months of Shabbatot when I’m ‘not the rabbi’, while I’ve been in Israel on my own, it’s been a rewarding experience being the Shabbat guest rather than the Shabbat host.  I've had a chance to think about what Shabbat means to me rather how I can make it meaningful for other people.

In a previous life, I used to conduct pre-Bar and Bat Mitzvah basic Judaism tests.  One of the questions was, ‘tell me four things about Shabbat’.  Invariably, the response started with ‘can’t watch TV and can’t drive a car’ and continued in the same negative vein; in effect, the answer was always, ‘all the fun things that I want to do when I’m not at school, like going out and watching TV, I can’t do on Shabbat’.  This reflects the prevalent Anglo-Jewish ‘straight-jacket’ perception of Shabbat observance: a tedious day of unfulfilling and largely meaningless prohibitions.  It’s no wonder that most people wouldn’t even consider giving it a try.  Yet for the experienced Shabbat-observer, who ‘calls Shabbat a delight,’[1] the restrictions provide only the lightest of backdrops to what is an overwhelmingly positive experience.

I’ve been struck by the references to Shabbat as a ‘queen’ or a ‘bride’.  This idea may enable me to unravel some unfamiliar aspects of Shabbat, so I’d like to explore it a little.  It originates with two third-century Galilean scholars, Rabbis Hanina and Yanay, who would dress in their best clothes to greet Shabbat.  The Talmud[2] records that Rabbi Hanina would say to his disciples: ‘Come!  Let us go out to greet the Shabbat Queen’, whereas Rabbi Yanay would proclaim: ‘Come, O Bride, come O Bride’.  This practice was revived in sixteenth-century Tzefat, where the circle of mystics around Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ari) would go out into the fields at sunset on Friday to welcome Shabbat.  Rabbi Shelomoh Alkabetz, a prominent member of this coterie, composed the most cherished of all Shabbat hymns, ‘Lekha Dodi’ – ‘Come my beloved’, sung in all communities on Friday night; the most famous line of this song is: ‘May your God rejoice over you like a groom rejoices over his bride’.

Why have rabbis and mystics throughout the ages chosen to compare Shabbat to a queen or a bride?  And if Shabbat is the bride, who is the groom?

For Rabbi David Abudirham (fourteenth-century Seville), God himself is the groom: Shabbat and God experience a wedding-like transformation in their relationship over the course of the day.[3]  Friday night is the marriage ceremony, Shabbat morning is the simhah, and in the waning moments of Shabbat, the union of the ‘happy couple’ is consummated.  And as if to mark this transition, the two, separate candles which celebrate the beginning of Shabbat are twisted into a single havdalah lamp, whose luminescence marks the end of the holy day.

For others, however, we are the groom,[4] and Shabbat is a weekly opportunity to consummate our relationship with God, allowing us to spend at least a seventh of our lives basking in the presence of the Divine.

While this seems rather abstract, it has a real and accessible aspect.  ‘Meeting’ God on a weekly teaches us to see ourselves as God sees us and to benefit from a powerful and renewed sense of purpose and self-understanding.  But this can only occur in an environment of mutuality: if we wish to profit from the gift of contact with God, then we must attune ourselves to His way of being on Shabbat.  On the very first Shabbat and on each Shabbat thereafter, God ceased all creative activity, choosing instead to infuse theworld with spiritual meaning.[5]  As such, we can only take advantage of our encounter with the Divine if we emulate God by refraining from creative activity during Shabbat, investing ourselves in spiritual matters instead.  Hence Shabbat observance consists of positive, spiritually-focused activities balanced against a blanket prohibition of creative activity.

During the week, how many of us have the time or composure to think about the purpose of life and who we really are?  How often do we re-evaluate our aspirations and consider whether we are actually achieving them?  Which of us feel that we ever attain sufficient self-awareness to delight in our strengths and address our weaknesses?  Shabbat, with its inimitable combination of delightful family meals, complete cessation from productive activities, opportunities for Torah study and contemplation, special prayers and physical rest, affords us the opportunity to achieve all of these and much more.  As Professor A.J. Heschel notes, Shabbat is ‘more than an armistice, more than an interlude; it is profound conscious harmony of man and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above’.[6]

Of course, none of this means much to children, not least those who answered my test.  Clearly, for little ones, Shabbat should be filled with wonderful play, delicious treats and relaxing family time.  As they get older, they could also be encouraged to think about what is important to them, their priorities and how a day away from their regular routine focusing on 'meaning' might be valuable.  If Shabbat has always been a delightful and positive day, they will probably be capable of internalising some of its more esoteric and 'adult' aspects as they mature.  This requires us to think hard about how we celebrate Shabbat as families and communities, something that I will address in a subsequent article.

The art of Shabbat observance provides not just a break from the endless banality of weekday activity, but a profound opportunity for self-discovery in a safe, nurturing and holy environment.  This transformational opportunity is, I believe, what the Sages meant by the neshamah yeteirah[7] – the extra soul granted for the duration of Shabbat, something to cherish, cultivate and celebrate.


[1] Isaiah 58.13.

[2] TB Shabbat 119a.

[3] Abudirham, Order of Shabbat Evening Service and its explanation, 1963 edition, p.147.

[4] Commentary of Rabbi Menahem Meiri to TB Shabbat 119a.

[5] Cf. Commentary of Rabbi Hayyim Attar (Ohr ha-Hayyim) to BeReishit 2:2 and Shemot 31:16.

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951, repr., 2005), pp. 31-2.

[7] TB Beitzah 16a.

The Art of Judaism

Prologue – learning from everyone

Ben Zoma asked, ‘Who is wise?’ He answered, ‘Someone who learns from everyone’. (Avot 4:1)

The problem to be faced is: how to combine loyalty to one's own tradition with reverence for different traditions? (Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘No religion is an island’)

I’ve often thought that Anglo-Jewry, and especially the United Synagogue, is vague about what it actually stands for.  We’re good at defining what we’re not – not too frum, not too Zionist, and generally not too excited about overt expressions of religiosity – but rather poor at settling on who and what we are.  In a world where attractive alternatives to Orthodox Judaism abound, it is unlikely that we will successfully capture the hearts and minds of educated people (who, like all of us today are ‘Jews by choice’), without a clear sense of who we are and what we stand for.

We have a wide range of self-descriptions for our spectrum of the Orthodox world.  These include ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’, ‘Torah u-Madda’, and ‘modern’, ‘open’, ‘centrist’ or even ‘contemporary’.  Whatever the description, they all believe in two key principles: the historical truth of the Divine revelation at Sinai and the binding imperative of halachah, as understood by the Talmud and other traditional sources, as discussed in more detail here.  While scholars continue to discuss the  ramifications of these ideas, they remain the indispensable tenets of normative Judaism.  As such, they are the principles on which the United Synagogue stands, together with the rest of the Orthodox world.

However, I don’t plan to add yet another designation to the burgeoning lexicon of ‘Orthodoxies’.  Instead, I have in mind a broader project, which leads me back to the theme of this series – ‘The Art of Judaism’.  If the centrist Orthodox community is to have a distinguishing motif, I suggest that it should be ‘to learn from everyone’, in the words of Ben Zoma.  While this can include those within and even outside the Jewish world with whom one may fundamentally disagree, in this series I will focus on the plethora of ideas, outlooks and approaches within the Orthodox world.  The epigraph from Professor Heschel refers to tolerance of traditions outside of Judaism, but I have taken the liberty of applying it within the Orthodox world.

If Judaism is an art-form, then producing an appealing and sophisticated picture requires us to paint with every shade in the ‘paint-box’ of the Jewish world; this means recognising that each part of the traditional world has something to contribute to a modern ‘post-denominational’ Orthodoxy, even if we do not accept any one in its entirety.  While not an exhaustive list, our outlook will certainly draw on the warmth and traditionalism of the Sephardim, the Litvaks' utter commitment to Torah study, the infatuation with God and love of every Jew of the Chassidim, the great Jewish philosophers' intellectual rigour, the passion for the Land of Israel of the Religious Zionists, Chabad's sense of mission, the synthesis of Torah and modernity of the Modern Orthodox, and Rav Kook's mystical zeal and  revolutionary belief in the Jewish people.

I will draw my inspiration from these and other traditions and others in the forthcoming articles, the first of which will discuss Shabbat and self-awareness.

The Art of Judaism

Introduction

Be of glad heart, those who seek God… (Psalms 105:3)

Life is too short, or too long, for me to allow myself the luxury of living it so badly. (Paulo Coelho)

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about the religious complexion of Anglo-Jewry and why so few of us seem to engage seriously with Jewish ideas and observance.  Of course, many are very generous to Jewish causes, identify strongly with Israel and ‘drop in’ on various festival and life-cycle observances, and all of us enjoy the odd Jewish gastronomic experience.  Yet it is fair to say that despite feelingly proudly Jewish, for most of us, this does not translate into observance or an interest in learning more about Judaism and its approach to life.

This is not a new phenomenon and many explanations have been offered for it.  A popular suggestion is that most Jews simply know very little about Judaism and what it has to say about the world.  Although the recent proliferation of Jewish educational opportunities has improved things considerably, I think that the actual cause of disinterest in Judaism runs rather deeper.

I’ve realised that many of us perceive the prospect of increased involvement with Jewish life as an impediment to achieving our most important life-goals.  As someone who loves Judaism with a passion and has the great privilege of living as a ‘professional’ Jew, this is a difficult thing to admit, but  I’m convinced it’s true.  For those who have thought about it, greater identification with the Jewish world through observance of Jewish law and Torah study is considered stifling a life-option that prevents, rather than facilitates, personal fulfilment.

Torah study is considered a dreary endeavour, focused on antiquated ideas and rules; Jewish law a ‘dead hand’ preoccupied with minutiae that have no relevance to the modern world .  For example, a common view of Shabbat observance is that it consists of a group of random and irritating restrictions, producing a frustrating experience far removed from one’s aspirations for a day off from work.  Scrupulous kashrut observance imposes on one’s social and professional life, not to mention one’s vacation options, and religious life appears to revolve around attendance at synagogue services that even those  familiar with liturgical Hebrew would find it a struggle to sit through.  And I admit that there are members of the religious world who reinforce this view; we have all come across those who seem judgemental and unsophisticated and, sadly, some who are obviously rather unhappy and unfulfilled.

Yet I think that this perception is a distortion of what properly understood and sensitively deployed Judaism can enable us to achieve.  Far from frustrating one’s objectives, serious engagement with Jewish learning and observance offers a powerful opportunity for the realisation of the ideals to which all of us aspire.  While these obviously vary from person to person, they likely include: raising balanced and well-mannered children, developing appropriate values and priorities, sensitivity to the lives and needs of others, social justice and improving the lot of the less-fortunate, contributing to one’s society and to the betterment of humanity, and gaining a sense of the purpose of life and what lies beyond it.  Most importantly, it will certainly include the attempt to attain self-knowledge and to grapple with achieving a sense of personal mission, which empower one to make a unique contribution to the world.  And while happiness and self-fulfilment are not the explicit goals of Judaism, it is correct to say that when its project is properly implemented, contentment and a sense of meaning are a natural consequence.  As King David said, ‘be glad of heart, those who seek God’.

But to achieve this, I suggest a different approach to Judaism and its potential is needed – this demands treating it not as an obligation, but as an art-form.  To master it requires commitment, patience and the investment of time and resources; in common with all worthwhile art-forms, Judaism enables its connoisseurs to understand the mind of its (Divine) creator and be profoundly transformed by the encounter.

In this new series of articles, I will attempt to explain this alternative approach to Judaism and to demonstrate how its majestic ideals can enhance and elevate every aspect of life.  I have entitled them ‘The Art of Judaism’ to reflect this goal.[1] Do join me on what I hope will be an interesting journey.


[1] I am grateful to Rabbi Dr. Steven Gaffin for agreeing to the use of this series-title: several years ago he and I dreamt up the idea of referring to Judaism as an art-form.

Ironies and opportunities

Reflections on the JFS ruling

Last week, the new Supreme Court of the UK dismissed the appeal of JFS, an Orthodox Jewish school, against a judgment that had branded its admission policy discriminatory. The details of the case (which hinged on how the Law views the unique blend of ethnicity and religion that defines Jewishness in the context of the Race Relations Act) are mystifying even to insiders; the final result is deeply disappointing.

Despite this, there are fascinating and surprisingly positive aspects to the judgment, as well as some delicious ironies that cannot go unmentioned. The ruling itself, which was handed down by only the slimmest of majorities (5-4) offers the most extraordinary vindication of Judaism, the motivation of the Chief Rabbi and of the governors of JFS. Is it not remarkable that Lord Phillips, the president of the court, should open a judgment about Jewish status with excerpts from Deuteronomy about intermarriage? All of the justices asserted that the Chief Rabbi (who is the arbiter of Jewish status for the Orthodox community) acted in the best possible faith and that ‘no-one doubts that he is honestly and sincerely trying to do what he believes that his religion demands of him’. The governors of JFS were also deemed ‘entirely free from moral blame’. Put simply, despite falling foul of the Law, the school’s admission policy, and, by extension, Judaism itself, are not ‘racist’ according to any normative understanding of the word.

Yet the greatest irony is the justices’ realisation, in the words of Lord Phillips, ‘that there may well be a defect in our law of discrimination’. How astounding that legislation drafted to outlaw anti-Semitism, among other evils, has been utilised to achieve what Lord Rodger calls, ‘such manifest discrimination against Jewish schools in comparison with other faith schools’. Catholics and Muslims are entitled to admit children to their schools according to their faith criteria, but following yesterday’s ruling, Orthodox Jews are now not. Lady Hale, who, incidentally, voted against JFS, reflected on whether Jews ‘should be allowed to continue to follow [Jewish] law’ in this regard. Indeed, could one fail to agree with Lord Rodger’s assertion that ‘one can’t help feeling that something has gone wrong’? It is good news that several of the justices felt that there may be a problem with the law. However, while any legislative remedy will certainly be very challenging, we will need to muster the support of those who are able to influence this process to ensure that Judaism is treated on a par with other faiths.

Jewish schools like JFS will now have to continue with the chaotic practice test forced upon them by the ruling. While compliance is, of course, mandatory, it undermines everything that the Jewish schools’ movement holds dear: the universal delivery of Jewish education to Jewish children regardless of practice or affiliation. Yet the Jewish community is renowned for its resourcefulness and ability to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Orthodox synagogues have been inundated with new families seeking schools’ ‘practice certificates’ for their children. Many have no previous affiliation to the Jewish community and their attendance at the synagogue is an unparalleled chance to reach out to them and share with them the beauty of Jewish life and observance. It may well be that this unwanted and unfortunate decision has quite unexpected consequences.