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.

Under-Breeding Ourselves Out of Existence

A View from London

Growing up in middle-class not-so-frum Jewish London, I noticed that families with more than three children were very rare. In my childhood I knew only two families with four children – they were treated with awe – and none at all with more. Although this is just my own observation, this situation has changed little among the mainstream of British Jewry: indeed a number of parents of four children have told me their peers regard them as odd.

I was interested in a recent study published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicating that Jewish women in Israel give birth, on average, to 2.8 children. This compares favourably with the average of 1.5 children per women in Europe and points to steady Jewish growth into the next generation. But these figures must be heavily skewed by the high birth rate among the burgeoning religious section of the populace, in which families of 10 or more children are common. Studies suggest that the birth-rate among the less religious is low: while the overall trend may be upwards, the constituency of the population is gradually becoming more religious.

These statistics brought to mind a discussion I had a year ago with a leader of a non-Orthodox Jewish organisation in the UK. He told me that an expert in population statistics from the USA had visited his synagogue and explained to the congregants the inevitable consequences of low birth rate for their community in: their eventual disappearance. While, apparently, no-one could refute his argument, they rejected his suggestion that survival was contingent on having more children!

It is apparent that all sections of the Jewish world from the moderately Orthodox leftwards are in danger of extinction, which is attributable, at least in part, to a low birth-rate. Let’s suppose that the average family in those parts of the Jewish world has 1.8 children, slightly above the overall European figure. While this is my own conjecture, it seems reasonable based on studies of similar communities in the USA and the decline in numbers recorded by the research of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. This will lead to a significant reduction in the number of people in just one generation. An average birth-rate of two would still lead to a net loss as sadly there will always be those who do not survive or do not reproduce themselves.

When combined with other factors, however, the reality is much grimmer. With intermarriage on the increase to an alarming degree and many not marrying at all, it is clear that those who choose to have fewer than three children are actively contributing to the demise of the Jewish world.

An important point must be interjected: many members of the community would dearly love to play a part in building the Jewish future, but are unable to find a marriage partner or are incapable of having children (or as many children as they would like). They must be treated with great sensitivity; any criticism levelled here is certainly not directed at them.

I have a hunch that even three children per family may be too few to secure a strong Jewish community into the future. Many segments of the community in the UK are under-reproducing themselves out of existence. As I discussed with my non-Orthodox friend, we can forget issues of theology, commitment to Torah values, etc., as indicators of the Jewish future, since all but the Orthodox are going to disappear anyway due to lack of numbers.

This problem besets the middle-ground of the Jewish world, even though in the UK, most such people are affiliated with the Orthodox world. ‘Mainstream’ Orthodox organisations like the United Synagogue (for which I work) are struggling to maintain their numbers. The bulk of our members follow the same patterns of reproduction as the rest of the populace, where late marriage, high intermarriage rate and small families are common.

Only the Orthodox part of the UK community is dedicated to building the Jewish future in this way. They alone as a group are committed to reproducing sufficiently to actually increase the numbers of the Jewish people. They recognise that the rewards of raising a large family outweigh the practical difficulties involved and are prepared to dedicate many years to child-raising, ignoring the limitations on personal autonomy in order to play a responsible role in populating the next generation. And while far from zero, the rate of intermarriage in those communities is very low indeed.

Many outside the Orthodox world do not want to hear this message: every Jewish family must attempt to raise at least three children, preferably more. I implore each couple I marry to have one more child than they had originally planned for the sake of the Jewish people. Those who do not take family-building seriously are an endangered species. This is a message that the observant community understands and must somehow sell to the rest of the Jewish people. If we can do this, whether by teaching or by example, we will yet make the greatest possible contribution to Jewish survival.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Herd Mentality

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Tolerance and disagreement

The astonishing capacity of Judaism to welcome disagreement, tolerate and even validate a range of views (albeit within the system) on almost every issue is, in my opinion, one of its greatest strengths. Yet it is, perhaps, the most sophisticated aspect of real Torah thought; the Talmud (Chagigah 3b) acknowledges that it takes tremendous wisdom and effort to think this way, yet it is vital to learn to do so.

It is fascinating to note then when an outstanding attribute is native to the Jewish people, even outsiders can recognise it. A year ago, I read a fascinating book called ‘The trouble with Islam today’, by the controversial author Irshad Manji, which contains a number of really thought-provoking observations. In a chapter provocatively called ‘Seventy virgins?’ she considers the subject of herd mentality:

What I knew was that believers in the historically ‘reformed’ religions don’t operate on a herd mentality nearly as much as Muslims do. Christian leaders are aware of the intellectual diversity within their ranks. While each can deny the validity of other interpretations – and many do – none can deny that a plethora of interpretations exists. As for Jews, they’re way ahead of the crowd. Jews actually publicise disagreements by surrounding their scriptures with commentaries and incorporating debates into Talmud itself. By contrast, most Muslims treat the Quran as a document to imitate rather than interpret, suffocating our capacity to think for ourselves.

Now, Manji is hardly an expert on Judaism, but her comments really set me thinking about the parameters of tolerance and disagreement within Jewish thought. That more than one view in halachah (Jewish law) can be tolerated within the system is apparent from the proverbial ‘elu v’elu’ (a statement acknowledging that more than one view can be the ‘words of the living God’) but the imperative to accord respect to other views is less well known. In summarising three years of disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (the schools of Hillel and Shammai), the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) comments:

As both (the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai) are the ‘words of the living God’, why did Beit Hillel merit that the halachah (Jewish law) be fixed according to their view? They were gentle and tolerant and they taught their own views and those of Beit Shammai and even expressed the views of Beit Shammai before their own view.

In his introduction to BeReishit (Genesis) the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, pre-eminent 19th century European sage) suggests that lack of tolerance for Torah viewpoints other than one’s own is the very cause of destruction. Writing about the religious leadership of the Templeera, he observes:

They were righteous, pious and toiled in Torah, but they were not diplomatic. Because of the hatred in their hearts for one another, they suspected anyone who conducted his religious life not in accordance with their view of being a Sadducee or a heretic. As a result, they came to horrible bloodshed and every known evil, until the Temple was destroyed. This vindicated what happened to them (the destruction of the Temple). Since God is upright he does not tolerate such ‘righteous’ people unless they are also diplomatic, not crooked, even if they act for the sake of heaven, for this causes the destruction of creation and the ruin of society.

I realised why I was thinking about Irshad Manji this week: her observations were dredged from the depths of my mind by my sadness at the monochromatic nature of much of the contemporary Jewish world, especially in Israel. Her comments depict the Judaism I know and love, the one I see in the Talmud and classic Jewish sources, the one taught me by my own rabbis and role-models, the one I try to practice and teach my children and students. They don’t, however, describe the Jewish world I see around me, one in which authoritarian pronouncements have become common, strongly-worded decrees seem to limit thought and practice, and variant opinions and their exponents are trashed, not discussed. We have reached the stage at which there is only one ‘acceptable’ view on most topics, the opinions of previously-well-respected Jewish thinkers are no longer considered party line; we have our own censored publications to ensure that no-one finds out about them anyway. Suggesting that this impacts only on a small part of Israeli society is to bury our heads in the sands of a global Jewish reality.

Hardly a week goes by without another decree: a few weeks ago it was the banning of higher-education courses for Israeli women, last week, the emphasis on policing ‘kosher’ clothes shops in religious districts. Is Manji right? Are we really ‘way ahead of the crowd’? Only just, I fear.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Nine Men And A Boy?

Do we still need one?

It is a tense moment. Nine men are waiting for a ‘tzenter’ – a tenth man to make up the Minyan. Will one turn up, or will the regulars and the man who came to say Kaddish go home disappointed?

From Talmudic times, the rabbis have attempted creative solutions to this problem.. In the Talmud (Berachot), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi indicates that one may add a pre-Bar Mitzvah boy to nine men to make the Minyan. As a matter of interest, the same section of the Talmud records that Rebbi Eliezer once arrived at a Shul to discover that it was one man short of a Minyan. Apparently, he manumitted his gentile servant (thus completing his conversion to Judaism) in order to make up the Minyan! While it is unlikely that the second case will ever be germane in the 21st century, the first proposal could be useful.

Actually, the Talmud discusses whether or not these suggestions were ever intended to be viewed as legally valid. This debate continued into the mediaeval halachic literature. While Rabbenu Tam (a grandson of Rashi) rules that in principle, one could include a boy in a Minyan, a number of major early halachists, including the Rosh and the Mordechai, contend that he never actually allowed it in practice. In fact, the Rosh himself disputes the halachic validity of including a boy at all.

The Tosafists mention the practice of including a boy who is holding a ‘chumash’. The ‘chumash’ mentioned is actually a scroll, not the type of printed book that we know today by the same name. Rabbenu Tam views this as nonsense; he asks, ‘is a chumash a man?’ Nonetheless, the idea appears to be based in a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, and despite Rabbenu Tam’s disapproval, is cited by a number of later sources.

The Shulchan Aruch, published in the 16th century, mentions the practice of including a boy, but points out that it is incorrect, as demonstrated by the fact that is rejected by many significant halachists. However, the Rema (Ashkenazi gloss) adds that while in principle he agrees with the Shulchan Aruch, there are those who are lenient and will include a boy in an emergency, even without a ‘chumash’ in his hand.

Later sources qualify what is already a limited application of this leniency: the boy should be at least of an age when he understands that the prayers are directed to God and only strictly obligatory prayers should be recited.

The possibilities that there will be no Minyan, perhaps no Torah reading and that eventually the Minyan may fold are considered by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to be ‘emergencies.’ Based on a careful study of the sources, he allows his respondent to rely on a boy to make a Minyan. He prefers that the boy be 12 years old (almost an adult) and while acknowledging that the ‘chumash’ trick is not really necessary, favours ‘giving him a Sefer Torah’ to hold. And of course, one may only use one boy in this way; no source will allow a small group of men to include two or more boys!

The Tools Of War

Football and its folibles

The World Cup has just ended, bringing the planet’s greatest football tournament to another nail-biting finish. It’s no secret that I’m not a football fan, but I observe, albeit with incredulity, the enjoyment that so many people get from watching it. Relaxation is most important in a pressured world and the show that has just come to an end has given millions of people a pleasurable diversion from real life for a few weeks.

But while there is much to admire about the skill of the footballers themselves, as well as the dedication of their fans, there is also a great deal wrong. The fact that the captain of the losing team could be sent off for assaulting another player during the final match and yet still be declared the best player of the contest, speaks volumes. The minor matter of the arrests of numerous England fans in Germany following their team’s defeat by Portugal and the disturbances in Jersey (whose population is 10% Portuguese) around the same time also bear mention. The fervour with which the fans approached the contest and the extent to which the media focused its attention on what is, after all, just a game, is quite remarkable. And fortunate is the country whose time zone is such that the matches fall out of work hours; when play is on during work-time, the number of ‘sickies’ mysteriously sky-rockets.

The number of football headlines may be extraordinary, but the nature of the coverage is no less remarkable. Each match is subject to the most intense analysis imaginable; it goes without saying that every possible aspect of the game is scrutinised. Before kick-off, we are treated to analysis of the selection of players for a team and how their morale is affected by the weather, the behaviour of their fans and a host of other factors. Once the match is in progress, we can read or watch a blow-by-blow account of the game so far, in depth critique of the captain’s strategy and share the pundits’ predictions for the remainder of the game. The slightest irregularity is subject to intense consideration; was the referee justified in castigating a particular player, was a tackle motivated by malice, the likely prognosis following a player’s injury, according to four different experts. On this theme, in the weeks leading up to the contest, the extent of interest in Rooney’s damaged foot was quite obsessive. When the match is over, the recriminations against the losing side begin; resignations, similar to those following lost elections (vis Beckham’s tearful exit), are not unknown. And of course, every moment of the game can be replayed in excruciating slow motion as we are encouraged to consider the long-term significance of a team’s victory or defeat for a national team and its supporters. When a team wins, the reports of the huge celebrations remain prominent for nearly as long as the parties themselves.

These are, quite frankly, the journalistic tools of war, for the only other human endeavour subjected to so much media scrutiny is war itself. When nations are at war, every detail of strategy and shot fired may affect the destiny of an entire people. As such, healthy media reserve the most penetrating tools of analysis for war, yet they are used, de rigueur, to describe the fortunes of 22 men kicking a ball around a field. The conclusion of this is inescapable – football is considered by a significant section of the populace to be of immense importance; the result of a big match really matters to people. It shapes their self-image, their pride in their country and their attitude to other nations. The celebrations of victory, often involving parading the champions as though they are war heroes, reflect the pride and sense of nationhood conveyed by success in a major tournament.

While many will pass all this off as harmless fun, I’m not convinced at all. When the emotions raised by merely observing a game are on a par with those engendered by war, we have lost something vital to the wellbeing of society. Many people really believe that supporters of other teams are baddies; how could they not be, as they are on the ‘wrong’ side. This leads to violence and to occasionally disturbing incidents of xenophobia. While (à la 1970’s cult film ‘Rollerball’) there are those who argue that containing these sorts of feelings within a sporting environment prevents them from spilling into the streets, it is obvious that societal sanction of such sentiments increases, rather than reduces, their nefarious influence. And blurring the distinction between those things that are truly life-significant and those that are actually just fun diversions from reality, has far-reaching consequences in all aspects of life.

Most troubling, though, is what the supremacy of football reveals about those people who believe in it - a profound lack of exposure to what we might term ‘real experiences.’ Whether the intense fervour of Man’s yearning for God, the challenge and meaning in developing a successful monogamous relationship, from a Jewish perspective: the celebration of a family Shabbat or the emotionally draining cycle of Tishrey festivals – so many in our disconnected world are denied ‘real experiences.’ Much of modern life consists of shallow, synthetic encounters; watered down emotions, superficial relationships and phoney ideology. In fact, the Western World almost completely fails to cater for what may be the most basic human necessity, the need to sense meaning and purpose in life. But the desire to identify with a cause and to experience meaning through it does not disappear because a society denies its existence. It will, automatically, find another expression. So profound is this human need that the media, conmen and others who recognise it will exploit it for their own disreputable ends.

The application of the tools of war to football matches is a symptom of an ailing society, one in which Man’s yearning for meaningful existence finds its expression itself through a game, but not in reality. And as society becomes more fragmented and superficial, the significance of events like the World Cup will surely grow; for those living in the UK, the spectre of the 2012 Olympics seems not all that far away…..

Thoughts On 17th Tammuz

Alan Senitt

This year, the start of the Three Weeks comes at a time when tragedy is in the air. The horrific bombings in India and the appalling murder in Washington of Alan Senitt, a prominent Anglo-Jewish activist, have hit the headlines in the last few days. The disturbing escalation of the conflict in our beloved Israel, however, is probably where much of our attention is focused.

From time to time, I get asked whether in the modern world we really need the Three Weeks of mourning for the Temple in Jerusalem, which begin today with the Fast of Tammuz. This year, that question seems entirely redundant, as there is so much obviously wrong with our world. The imperfections, lack of harmony and hatred seem to more evident than ever; this year, we have a lot to think about between now and Tisha B’Av.

Our prayers and thoughts are with the people of Israel, the family of Alan Senitt and the victims of the Mumbai carnage. We will add a chapter of psalms to the synagogue service once more in the coming weeks, as a prayer for peace, but our main responsibilities lie within our own lives. The elimination of conflict in our world starts on a small and personal scale – improving our relationships with our spouses and children, treating those who are unlike us with more respect, evincing greater tolerance for those of other beliefs. Judaism believes that the micro-act has macro-ramifications. If small-scale quarrelling leads to global conflict, then achieving small-scale harmony is the starting point for healing our world. The Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, yet use small personal, examples of dissent to illustrate their point.

May there be a rapid end to the conflict in Israel and harmony between peoples everywhere.

Karpas And The Wait For Dinner

When's Dinner?

And now the fifth question – when do we eat? This question, a joke of course, should actually help us to focus on a vital Pesach theme: the extent of our ability to delay gratification for a higher purpose.

More than just a commemoration, every festival is intended to help us recapture a major event of Jewish history and internalise its message. As the Exodus was the moment of the founding of the Jewish people, Pesach is an opportunity to consider what it means to be a member of the Jewish nation. What character traits are we to inculcate and which areas of personal growth are we to spotlight at this time of year? What will we have gained from all the intense preparations, from the Sedarim, the vast expense and effort? If all we will be left with after Pesach is exhaustion and a few extra pounds to shed, will it be worthwhile?

The ability to delay gratification is a key determinant of adult human behaviour; it distinguishes us from everything else in the world. Animals are driven by irrepressible needs; hunger, fear, the urge to reproduce. Once a need arises, its fulfilment becomes paramount; all energies are channelled into its realisation. Babies are scarcely different; when little Jimmy is hungry, tired, cold or has a dirty diaper, nothing will divert him from screaming until he gets what he wants.

In contrast, adults have a sense of higher meaning and value, which can often be strong enough to enable us to delay realising our immediate personal needs in lieu of achieving something of greater overall significance. There are dozens of examples of this phenomenon, ranging from the simple decision not to eat another piece of chocolate, to complex life-choices in which personal needs are completely marginalised in favour of national or even world improvement. This is, of course, a function of the struggle between the physical and spiritual drives; while Judaism prioritises the harmonisation of the two, there are occasions in life when the higher, spiritual yearnings must overcome and sublimate the lower, physical needs. The extent to which we are capable of doing this determines just how successful we really are as human beings.

As popular psychologist M. Scott Peck puts is. ‘Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with.’ (The Road Less Traveled) I think that Jewish sources would view it quite differently. While initially there may be a sense that one is scheduling the pain before the pleasure, the capacity to do so is one of the most profound human achievements, one that transforms the ‘pain’ into purpose and possibly a higher form of pleasure itself.

While central to meaningful human experience, the ability to delay gratification doesn’t come easily. We don’t naturally graduate from childhood into mature and disciplined altruists. What we gain at adulthood is the capacity to control ourselves, but development in this area is a lifetime’s work. One need look only at advertising and the media to see that immediate gratification with no consideration for the consequences is very much in vogue. High-risk sports, sexual exploration and many other activities that focus solely on immediate gratification are as popular as ever. The descent into instant fun and the consequential move away from the development of quintessential human sensitivities is all too easy. And we have all experienced people consumed with physical needs of one sort or another – they are unstoppable until they have what they want. In position as major leaders, such people can quite literally destroy the world; they nearly have on a number of occasions.

The Jewish people are expected to be the world experts in the field of delaying gratification, when necessary, to achieve higher goals. All humanity was originally destined to be proficient in this area, as evidenced by the prohibition of eating from the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Seen through Kabbalistic eyes, God did not demand that Adam and Eve forever deny themselves the fruit, only that they wait to eat it until after the first Shabbat. Had they demonstrated their ability to postpone their desire to eat it in order to fulfil God’s will, they could have enjoyed the fruit legitimately. Instead, they were expelled from the Garden, forever changing the course of history.

As the nation of the Torah, the Jewish people are charged with the task of restoring, by example, this capacity to the whole of humanity. This began at the Exodus, the birth of our people. Our ancestors clearly demonstrated the capacity to wait for redemption, to tolerate the backbreaking Egyptian slavery, to put their dearest yearnings for salvation on hold until the right moment. Some members of the tribe of Ephraim had not been able to wait and had escaped before the appointed time; the Talmud records that they sadly died in the desert. Even when the time for deliverance seemed to be at hand, the Israelites’ ability to wait enslaved until God was ready for them was tested to the limits. No sooner had Moshe introduced himself to Pharaoh than the slavery deepened; the Jews were no longer given straw, yet were expected to maintain the same level of brick production. Just when they thought the end of the slavery was in sight, they discovered that they had to wait a little longer. When the Exodus finally occurred, the nascent Jewish people were already well-trained in the art of waiting.

Each Pesach, and especially on Seder night, we are afforded a unique opportunity to relive those crucial final moments in Egypt. The lessons learned there were so central to our national and personal mission that we must revisit them every year to ensure that we are attuned to our key Jewish responsibilities.

This message is most obviously expressed in the structure of the Seder. We begin the evening in much the same way that we would commence any Shabbat or Yom Tov. Kiddush is followed by hand-washing, in preparation for the meal. But instead of eating the matzah and commencing the delicious Yom Tov feast, there is disappointment in store. Each person gets a small piece of vegetable dipped in salt-water (known as Karpas), then the matzah is broken, as if to eat it, but then hidden away and the plate containing the Seder foods is removed from the table, to be replaced with story books! We are tempted into thinking that the meal is coming (the fifth question – when do we eat?); we are taken to the point when the food is almost in our mouths and then told that we will have to read the story of our ancestors’ miraculous escape from Egypt before we can actually have the meal. The Karpas makes matters worse, for it is a salty hors d’oeuvres; not only do we prepare for the meal and then take the food away before eating it, but we make the participants extra-hungry before doing so!

This is all part of a genius plan to ensure that the annual re-enactment of our redemption inculcates within us the same sense of priorities as the original Exodus experience. We have waited all day to start the Seder, we are hungry, delicious food odours are wafting from the kitchen and all the ‘let’s eat now’ switches have been thrown (Kiddush, hand-washing, hors d’oeuvres, breaking matzah). Pavlov would have been proud. Yet something much more important than food must happen first – recounting the story of the Exodus. Understanding our roots, the very fibre of our national being, the unfolding Divine plan for Mankind, God’s miraculous intervention in human history and the very concept of purposeful freedom – all of these must be achieved before we may begin our meal.

On Seder night, we sacrifice our need for immediate gratification (having rather cruelly stimulated it) to the noblest ideal; transmitting the wonders of Jewish history and our unique relationship with God to the next generation. This should inform our sense of priority in all our endeavours, throughout the year. We have seen that developing the capacity to delay gratification is central to the Jewish understanding of real achievement, defines us as a nation and contributes to rectifying the primeval sin of the Garden of Eden. If we finish this Pesach having learned, even a little, to delay our immediate needs long enough to pursue some of the majestic goals of Judaism, then it will all have been worthwhile.

Have a kosher, joyful Yom Tov and meaningful and uplifting Sedarim.

Based on a sermon for the first day of Pesach at Golders Green Synagogue, a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review.

How Flexible Is Your Judaism?

Movement and Tolerance

Those familiar with the cycle of Torah readings will know that at this time of the year, we read about the construction of the Mishkan – the portable desert Sanctuary that accompanied the Jewish people throughout their wanderings. At first glance, the minutiae contained in the hundreds of verses dealing with the Mishkan seem complex and, dare one say, tedious. Yet part of the brilliance of the Torah is that even the most arcane passages convey profound and accessible truths applicable in any circumstance.

The nerve-centre of the Mishkan was the Aron, a container that housed the tablets brought by Moshe from Mount Sinai. In common with the other Mishkan utensils, it was fitted with rings into which carrying poles were inserted; when the Jews travelled through the desert, the Aron would be carried by four bearers. Rather oddly, the Torah instructs that despite their obvious function, the poles were never to be detached from the Aron, even when it was at rest in the Mishkan. This contrasts with the carrying-poles for the other utensils, which were removed and stored as soon as the journey was over.

The Talmudic sources question how the poles could be made so that they couldn’t be removed from the Aron. Apparently, their ends were thicker than their middles, so once the poles were forced through the rings, the Aron could slide around on them but never actually fall off.

Now all this seems obscure, irrelevant and so far removed from 2006 that you may even have stopped reading. But please don’t, because, believe it or not, this ancient building instruction contains one of the most fundamental truths about Judaism and the survival of the Jewish people. Bear with me!

The permanently attached carrying-poles testify to the unqualified portability of Judaism. The relevance and applicability of Judaism is absolutely independent of place and time. While, of course, Judaism is ideally lived in the Land of Israel, it is always possible to pick up the Torah (the contents of the Aron) and move it to new surroundings. No matter where we end up, we can set the Torah down and immediately make it the focus and driving force of our lives. Throughout our long and often torturous history, we have lived in places that have been friendly to us as well as those that have been hostile; we have encountered theologically sophisticated as well as primitive peoples, lived through eras that were technologically advanced and others that were functionally backward. We have been hosted by nations sympathetic to our spiritual pursuits, those for whom they were utterly alien, places where we were respected as people of God, others where we were viewed as the devil incarnate; environments where the beliefs of the locals enticed us away from our faith, still others where they offered nothing whatsoever of interest to us. The common feature shared by these disparate national experiences is that the Torah has been successfully transplanted into each of them. Part of its genius is its immense portability – whether in sixth century Babylon or 21st century New York, the Torah has been equally applicable, inspirational and indispensable to the Jewish experience.

A sad fact of Jewish history is that we have needed to travel from place to place to escape persecution; we have had to demonstrate the portability of the Torah in every century, for our past is littered with tales of displacement, expulsion and flight from discrimination and hatred. To ensure our spiritual survival, we have ‘lifted the Aron’, often at a moment’s notice, set it down in new surroundings and then began the arduous task of building a new Torah-centred life from scratch. This is a truly remarkable, and perhaps one may suggest, miraculous achievement, one that for at least for me, testifies to the historical truth of the Torah and the eternal survival of the Jewish people.

The nature of the carrying-poles educates us how this is to be done – remember that they were thick at the ends and thinner in the middles, enabling the Aron to move about on them without ever falling off. This teaches the critical concept of the need for flexibility within certain boundaries; the Torah itself has many different valid expressions, corresponding to the different positions that the Aron could occupy on the poles. It is hard to overstate the importance of this to a mature and properly-functioning Jewish community. The fact is that there are many manifestations of authentic Judaism. Of course, they all share the core belief in the historical truth of the Sinaitic revelation and the eternal imperative of Jewish law; nothing without these can be considered Judaism. Yet within these parameters, Judaism contains a great wealth of styles, philosophies, attitudes, complexions, emphases and even variations of observance. All of these are part of the amazing, and unsurpassable multichromatic Divine system we call Judaism.

Differing manifestations of Judaism (all, of course, committed to the core principles outlined above) are required in different places and times. In some societies, such, as I believe, our own, a whole range of different types of Judaism will be required, sitting comfortably next to each other, benefiting immeasurably from each other’s company. While the truth of Torah is absolute and eternal, it is hardly likely that the same style of Judaism would have suited 12th century Provence as 19th century Galicia.

The idea of flexibility (albeit within limitations) is fundamental to the survival of Judaism. The Aron could only be carried to its next destination because it could move about on the poles; without this latitude, attempts to carry it would have resulted in the poles snapping and the Aron being left behind. This conveys a stark message – that portability is absolutely contingent on flexibility. Lack of flexibility will result in the Aron (and the Torah it represents) remaining forever at its previous location, absent from its rightful place as the focus of activity at all future destinations. In short it could spell the death of Judaism.

Sadly, in parts of the Jewish world today, we see a tendency to ignore this truth. There are many people who believe that Torah can be anything one wishes to believe, whatever one chooses to observe, a kind of insipid humanism with a Jewish flavour added at will. By denying the fundamentals of Judaism, they have, in effect, detached the Aron from its poles, for they believe that the Torah can be prostituted into anything they wish.

Yet at the other end of the Jewish world there is another, quite different, but almost equally worrying, phenomenon - the trend to extreme rigidity in Halachic practice and Jewish outlook. By this I mean the promotion of the attitude that there is only one right way to observe Judaism, only one way to view the world through Jewish eyes, and only one mode or style of Jewish life that is really ‘correct’. In reality, in most areas of observance there is a range of practices, as well as a variety of philosophic positions on almost every issue, all within the parameters of Judaism. We deny the validity of other authentic expressions of Judaism at our peril, for once we ‘shtetelise’ it to the extent that observance in any other form is unimaginable to us, we endanger the very future of the Torah world. If we link Torah observance to specific conditions, be they socio-economic, cultural, educational, or any other, we jeopardize the portability of Torah, for when they change, as they must, Judaism disappears together with them. When we force the poles into the Aron so that it cannot move about, we deny ourselves the flexibility that has enabled us to carry the Torah with us proudly through history.

It is vital that we capitalise on the immense cultural heritage that we have gained from our travels through history. The Jewish world is immeasurably enriched by every experience that our past has thrown at us. We should enjoy, explore and revel in every nuance, style and custom gained on our journey. But when our Judaism becomes contingent on a certain set of external factors, when only one way of doing things becomes conceivable, the existential warning sign should light up.

We should have known this idea from the experiences of recent history, profited from the sad example set by a generation of European Jews who left their Judaism in the shtetl; learned the lesson of those who threw their tefillin into the sea as they approached the United States. But not all of us have internalised this message; the attempt by some to turn Jewish practice and thought into an unbending monolith is testimony to that.

We have much to gain from investing our energies into developing a diverse and heterogeneous Jewish society and a great deal to lose by not. We live in a dangerous and unpredictable world, one in which we cannot be sure of our long-term security wherever we may be. We hope and pray that we will remain comfortable in our host countries, but history has taught us that we must be ready to travel at any time. Are we up to the challenge? Is our Judaism portable? Only flexibility within the system will ensure its portability. Our very survival may depend on it.

Based on a sermon given at Golders Green Synagogue on 4th March 2006 a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review

What Is Permitted Inside The Eruv?

Carry on Shabbat

While the North-West London eruv was still a dream, a number of wildly inaccurate suggestions were made as to what would be allowed on Shabbat within it boundaries. Some claimed that the laws of Shabbat wouldn’t apply within the eruv, allowing a Shabbat trip to the shops, while others suggested that Jewish law would be suspended completely, presumably enabling the eruv-dweller to eat non-kosher food or even rob banks! What does Jewish law actually allow inside an eruv?

In fact, the existence of an eruv around an area impacts on only one aspect of Jewish law within it – what one may carry on Shabbat. In the absence of an eruv, on Shabbat one may not transport objects through the street, whether by hand, in a container, pocket or by any other means; this includes pushing a pram. An eruv (when used in this sense) is a boundary constructed around a Jewish district, utilising existing buildings and, when necessary, poles and wires, to turn the whole area into a single ‘private’ domain. The eruv thus encloses an entire neighbourhood, within which one may carry outside one’s house in the same way as in one’s own home or garden.

This means that within the eruv, one may carry objects that are needed for use on Shabbat. These include house keys, glasses, food and Shul-items, such as a Siddur or Tallit. It is permissible to take a book and a drink to the park, carry clothes, such as a coat, which will be worn later on Shabbat and transport essential medicines. One may also push a pram or wheelchair.

There are, however, some objects which may not be transported, even within an eruv. On Shabbat, one may not prepare for another day; therefore, it is not permitted to carry anything that is not needed on Shabbat itself. For example, this means that it is problematic carrying a house key to Shul when one will not return home before Shabbat ends. Another type of prohibited act is one that Jewish law considers a ‘weekday activity’, and thus damaging to the atmosphere and contrary to the spirit of Shabbat. Examples of this are riding a bicycle or kicking a ball in the street. As an umbrella may not be opened or closed on Shabbat, it is not permissible to carry one, even within an eruv.

Finally, many objects are designated as ‘muktzeh’ by Jewish law. This means that they may not be moved at all on Shabbat, as their nature or purpose is incompatible with Shabbat. Relevant examples are money and credit cards, mobile phones, cigarettes, matches, electronic games, cameras.

If unsure about a specific action or whether it is permitted to carry a certain item, ask your rabbi!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

Children In Shul

A child's haven?

One of the curiosities of Anglo-Jewish synagogues is their members’ ambivalent attitude towards children. It is common for synagogue regulars to bemoan the dearth of small children in the Shul, worried that their absence indicates the imminent demise of their community. Yet when they attend, and worse still, behave as normal children, the regulars tut and grumble that they are too noisy! This is partially a British phenomenon: many restaurants in this country are unwelcoming to children, family tickets at attractions are absurdly expensive and baby-buggies often won’t fit through shop entrances. Yet since it is obvious that the presence of children is a sine qua non for a healthy community, the issue of children’s involvement in Shul life is worth exploring.

The United Synagogue in which I grew up, in common with most similar Shuls, ran a children’s service, which I thought was rather good. Almost none of the children who attended went to Jewish schools, so learning the prayers and songs in a structured atmosphere was the thing to do. In retrospect, there was another reason for this format – the main goal of the children’s service was to train the young participants for a life of adult Shul attendance. We dare not trivialise the need to raise children who will be comfortable with synagogue services and possibly even able to run them, yet it seems to me that times have changed, but in many places, children’s services have not.

It is to our collective credit that a much higher proportion of children from the mainstream community now attend Jewish primary schools, where they receive a daily dose of tefillah in some kind of structured atmosphere. Since davening and school go hand-in-hand, attending a regular Shabbat children’s service smells suspiciously like school on a Saturday, a major disincentive to attendance. Add to this the hardly controversial observation that while some (like me) were drawn in to synagogue life by the formal children’s service, the proportion of those who have scarcely attended Shul since childhood is alarmingly high. Put another way, the old-model children’s service did not produce a generation of Shul-able (or even Shul-going) adults. Were that the case, today our Shuls would be overrun; sadly, bar a few notable exceptions, they are not.

It is clearly necessary for children to be occupied with some age-appropriate activity, for while some will want to sit with their parents, many will quickly become bored in the Shul, and others may come without adults at all. Yet I don’t think that the Shul should be a childfree zone – some kind of balance between attending the adult service and a junior programme seems appropriate.

To my mind, the purpose of children’s programming is to enable the kids to have a really great time while on the Shul premises, while to some degree expanding their knowledge and love of Judaism. I feel that the formal service should be abandoned in favour of fun learning, including quizzes, drama and games, all with an educational bent, focused on the weekly portion, the season or a challenging issue from a Jewish perspective. There will, of course, be some Shabbat tefillah, but the overall content and style of the event should be as different as possible from that of the children’s regular school day. If at all possible, several smaller, age-appropriate groups should replace a single service – how can one provide an engaging experience for an eleven-year-old and a four-year-old together? And to give it the right feel, I think that the term ‘service’ should be abandoned in favour of ‘programme’ or similar.

I want the children to leave Shul happy and exhilarated, having had a chance to spend time with their friends, run about to release some energy, learn something new and have a great time. Let them be sorry that the programme has finished for that week and full of anticipation for the next one – in short, Shul needs to be turned into a place that children see as fun and cool, to which they will want to bring their friends. It’s true that they will make lots of noise and won’t spend more than a short while davening, but does that really matter? Give them positive experiences as children and they are much more likely to come back as adults. Childhood moments are formative – a good experience now will probably lead to proper involvement later.

It goes without saying that these programmes must be run professionally – modern children are experts at complaining if things aren’t quite up to scratch! There should be prizes and attendance incentives, as well as that old Jewish favourite, food.

I appreciate that this model won’t suit all communities – in some, a lower proportion of children attend Jewish primary schools, and so a more tefillah-focused content may be appropriate. In others, it may be very hard to identify suitable madrichim who are young, dynamic and capable of imparting a love of Judaism to their charges. In still others, the small number of children may not allow the division of the programme into several groups.

Yet in principal, the central need is to change focus– by giving children a true children’s experience, they will want to keep coming back to Shul – as children, youth and then later as excited adults.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.