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Radio 2 Vanessa Feltz Show
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What to do if you don’t like all the Simchat Torah frolics
Simchat Torah is an emotional day, concluding the Tishri Yomtov season and ending the entire festival sequence that started with Pesach. As its name, Joy of the Torah, indicates, it’s a day focused on the Torah, when we complete the annual cycle of Torah reading and begin it all over again amid singing, dancing and communal festivities.
Yet lovely as it sounds, some are at best ambivalent towards Simchat Torah, others even regard it as an annoyance. Some of my most loyal congregants, among them daily attendees, arrive very late on Simchat Torah and others fail to turn up at all. And I’ll admit that in the years before I was a communal rabbi, on Simchat Torah I attended a “naughty boys” minyan that completed the hakafot — dance-circuits — in 15 minutes and had me home for kiddush by soon after 10am.
Of course, by the time Simchat Torah arrives, people are shuled out after a long and gruelling Yomtov season and nothing less than a day off shul will satisfy them. And it’s also obvious that no experience, however exciting, can work for everyone. Nonetheless, some aspects of the way we celebrate Simchat Torah should be re-examined in the hope of making it more attractive.
I am not a member of the “more is more” club. If dancing on Simchat Torah for an hour is enjoyable, it does not follow that two or even three hours’ dancing is more enjoyable. In fact, it can easily turn into a drag. In some shuls, Simchat Torah celebrations are even longer than Rosh Hashanah services and are chaotic experiences, major disincentives to participation, especially when, as this year, Simchat Torah falls on erev Shabbat.
The Torah reading often takes far too long (there are ways of speeding it up) and long before it’s over, people have lost interest and wandered off to the kiddush. Shuls should publish clear timetables and have enjoyable hakafot that are not too long and allow people to get home at a reasonable time.
This leads inexorably to the subject of excessive liquor consumption on Simchat Torah. There is no basis for the drunkenness that prevails in many shuls: Simchat Torah is not Purim, the only day in the year on which inebriation is sanctioned, even then in the very limited context of home feasting.
The spectacles of adults sneaking whisky bottles into services and intoxicated teenagers staggering from shul to shul are hardly among the most edifying of the Jewish year. And while there is no harm in adults having a glass of wine or the odd lechaim (it’s actually a mitzvah to drink wine in moderation at Yomtov meals), what has evolved in some places is a Simchat Torah that is too much simchah and not enough Torah, akin to barmitzvah celebrations that are too much bar and not enough mitzvah.
For many women, much of the Simchat Torah service is boring and frustrating. While some are entirely comfortable watching their menfolk sing and dance, others would love to dance with the Torah themselves, in celebration of their connection to Jewish life and learning. Many shuls have recognised this need as part of the extraordinary transformation of women’s Torah study that has taken place in recent decades and make separate provision for women’s dancing with Sifrei Torah on Simchat Torah.
And what about those — men or women — who for whatever reason, don’t dance? Some are physically unable to dance and others simply dislike dancing. And some can’t dance but don’t know it (always the fellow next to me).
The Torah itself reminds us that it is the “heritage of the community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4), the legacy of every member of the Jewish people, irrespective of age, gender, state of health or competence at dancing.
For those seeking an alternative, some shuls provide learning programmes to coincide with the dancing and Torah reading. I think there is room to expand this to include family programming and introductory Torah classes, as well as encouraging private study. And while these shouldn’t detract from the main event in shul, they should be professionally run and of a high standard rather than a lifeless alternative for those who can’t be bothered to dance or do anything else.
We may take as the role model for brief hakafot and alternative modes of celebration no less a figure than the Vilna Gaon (died 1797). It is said that on Simchat Torah he would emerge from his private study to dance with tremendous passion for a short while and then return to his learning. If you currently feel disenfranchised by the end of Yomtov, these relatively small changes might just restore the simchah to Simchat Torah.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle
Full Programme - All Welcome
Tisha B'Av 5773
Sermon Notes 01/04/13 - 7th Day Pesach 5773
The Song at the Sea is prefaced by the phrase:
…they (the Israelites) trusted in the Lord and in Moshe His servant. (Shemot 14:31)
The equation of God with Moshe troubled early commentators. The Targum Onkelos renders the verse ‘they trusted in the Lord and in the prophecy of Moshe His servant’, whereas the mediaeval commentator/grammarian Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra rereads it as ‘they trusted in the Lord and that Moshe was his servant’! The almost complete absence of Moshe from the Haggadah is often cited as a deliberate attempt on behalf of the text’s authors to move the spotlight away from Moshe, the human intermediary in the story, and focus exclusively on God’s direct intervention in bringing about the plagues and the exodus.
Recent problems both in the rabbinic world and beyond naturally lead us to question the role of charismatic leaders and recognise the inability of their most devoted followers to accept that they may have erred. Of course, these issues are nothing new; indeed they are as old as Moshe himself. Let me first examine two famous, diametrically opposed visions of Moshe, both offered by Jews of rather different allegiances.
Sigmund Freud opens his final major work ‘Moses and Monotheism’ as follows:
To deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest of its sons is not a deed to be undertaken lightly-heartedly especially by one belonging to that people. No consideration, however, will move me to set aside truth in favour of supposed national interests.
Of course, this narrative is utter anathema to a believing Jew. Yet it raises important and pointed questions about how we view leaders in general and Moshe specifically. Interestingly, Freud himself is aware of the inadequacies of his own thesis; as he says in a footnote:
When I use Biblical tradition here in such an autocratic and arbitrary way, draw on it for confirmation whenever it is convenient and dismiss its evidence without scruple when it contradicts my conclusions, I know full well that I am exposing myself to severe criticism concerning my method and that I weaken the force of my proofs.
All of which makes one wonder why write the theory at all, given how successfully Freud undermines his own ideas.
At the other end of the spectrum, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov proposes a view that makes the ‘tzaddik’ virtually infallible:
Every ‘tzaddik’ in the generation is an aspect of Moshe – Messiah (Likkutey Moharan I:2)
Rebbe Nachman’s writings are permeated with this and similar ideas (he clearly regarded himself as the near-perfect ‘tzaddik’), a perspective on leadership that many of us likely find deeply worrying, as it can so obviously lead to abuse by a charlatan or his followers.
So is it possible to forge some
middle ground – to devise a model that produces leaders who are inspirational
role models yet accountable; capable of strong, assertive leadership, yet who obviously
share the frailties and is subject to the same temptations of other human
beings? Actually, one needs look no
further than Moshe himself for inspiration.
At the end of Rabbi Yisrael
Lipschitz’s commentary to Nashim, the author cites an un-sourced, rather controversial
midrash (it is missing from some editions).
Briefly, it tells the story of an Arab king who wanted to know about the
character of Moshe, the great leader who had brought the Israelites from Egypt
with signs and wonders. He dispatched a
painter to the Israelite camp in the desert to prepare a likeness of the great
man. When the painter returned with his
work, the king gathered his experts to pass judgement on the character of
Moshe; they universally agreed that he was a wicked man: arrogant,
mean-spirited and angry. The king
rejected their opinion and turned on the painter, assuming that he had been incompetent. Yet the painter insisted that he had painted
Moshe accurately and that the experts must have misinterpreted his character. Unsure who was correct, the king travelled to
meet Moshe himself and determined that the painter had depicted him
accurately. The king questioned Moshe
who admitted that all of the deficiencies that the experts had identified were
indeed native to his character, but that through a long process of self-development,
he had conquered them and transformed his personality. (Tiferet Yisrael to
Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14)
This midrash offers a new
perspective on Moshe and a model of sustainable leadership. The leader is human, yet is a role model of
self-development; he or she is immersed in Jewish knowledge and has developed
an understanding of the world through the eyes of the Torah that can be brought
to bear on individual and communal issues, yet is subject to the same lack of personal
objectivity and failings as other human beings.
We should not forget that according to Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, Moshe spoke
with difficulty precisely to remind the people that he was a fallible human
being – not the originator of the divine message, but merely its amanuensis
(Derashot HaRan 3)
Maintaining the right leadership
balance is a ubiquitous problem, but one that remains central to the Jewish
experience. Ernst Sellin, who influenced
Freud’s view of Moshe wrote:
The final and most important question for all research into the Israelite-Jewish religion will always remain: who was Moses? (Cited by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in ‘Freud’s Moses’)
Deciding who our Moses will be may
be just as important for us.
Sermon Notes 26/03/13 - Pesach 5773
Near the start of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari (1:11), the king of
the Khazars asks his rabbinical interlocutor why God introduced Himself at Mount
Sinai as architect of the Exodus rather than creator of the world:
I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Shemot 20:2)
The rabbi (ibid. 12) answers that an experiential attestation (the
recipients of the revelation had seen God’s hand in Egypt) is more powerful
than an intellectual proof, which can be subject to refutation. This principle is important in understanding
the role of the Seder and its unique combination of ideas, rituals and
Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, a second-generation disciple of the Vilna
Gaon, reminds his readers throughout his ‘Yad Mitzrayim’ Haggadah commentary that
the concepts explored and promoted by the Seder – that God controls nature, that
He can choose at any moment to overturn the natural order and that He intervened
in Egypt to free the Israelites from bondage, thereby precipitating their independent
nationhood – are the very core of Jewish belief.
But, following the Kuzari, these ideas must seem real and not remain merely
in the realm of the intellect. This objective
may explain the Haggadah’s requirement that:
Even if we were all sages, all erudite, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, we would remain obliged to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt... (Haggadah, s.v. ‘Avadim Hayyinu’)
This is illustrated by the story of the five Roman-era rabbis:
It once happened that Rabbi Eli’ezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi El’azar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining [at Seder] in Beney Berak. They were telling the story of the exodus from Egypt all that night until their disciples came and said to them, ‘our teachers, the time for the morning Shema has arrived’. (ibid. s.v. ‘Ma’aseh B’Rebbi Eli’ezer’)
The Seder is not simply about acquiring information or even ideas, but
about experiencing them in ‘real’ time and space. It is unlikely that the rabbis discovered any
new information in the story, yet they discussed and relived the old tale until
This serves as a paradigm for all of Jewish life – Judaism certainly demands
of its adherents that they understand and internalise a number of profound beliefs,
yet it also requires us to actualise these beliefs within our very physical,
In a fascinating essay, Professor Eliezer Berkovits discusses the
function of mitzvah observance. He insists
Since man is neither only soul nor only body, but both joined together, both these constituent elements must be related to God, each in a manner adequate to its own nature. On the level of the soul, the relationship is spiritual and conscious, but it cannot be expressed in action; on the level of the body, the relationship has to become “materialized” in action.
These two expressions of the religious life are not meant to exist parallel to each other as the religion of the soul and as that of the body. The mitzvah is the union of the two... In its ideal form, the mitzvah is a deed; and, like all true deeds, it is of the spirit and of the body at the same time. (Law and Morality in Jewish Tradition, reprinted in Eliezer Berkovits, Essential Essays on Judaism)
Berkovits uses this typology to launch a stinging attack on Kant’s idealisation
of the separation of mind and body in religious life (citation from Immanuel Kant,
Religion Within the Limits of Reason):
It is comparatively easy to serve God as a spirit; the challenge is to
serve him in the wholeness of man’s earth-bound, and yet soul-indwelt, humanity.
Immanuel Kant once wrote: “The true
[moral] service of God is... invisible, i.e., it is the service of the heart,
in spirit and in truth, and it may consist... only of intention.”’ This, indeed, is the noble formula for the
historic bankruptcy of all “natural,” as well as “spiritual,” religions. The invisible service of God is the
prerogative of invisible creatures. When
man adopts such service for himself, he makes the dualism of his nature itself
a religion. He will expect Gesinnung
(sentiment) and noble intentions of the soul, and will readily forgive the
profanity of the body; he will have God “in his heart” and some devil directing
his actions. He will serve God on the
Sabbath and himself the rest of the week...
Contrary to Kant, Judaism teaches that man’s “true service of God” must
be human. It should be invisible, as man’s
soul is invisible; and it should be visible, too, because man is visible. It must be “service of the heart, in spirit
and in truth” as well as of the body. It
must be service through the mitzva, the deed in which man’s spiritual
and material nature have unified. It is
a much higher service than that of the spirit alone. It is the religion of the
whole man. (ibid.)
Seder, the annual membership ceremony of the Jewish people,
exemplifies this harmonistic approach and recommends it as a model for all ritual
throughout the year.