Dunstan Road's Three Embraces

Centenary Sermon

GGS 20/06/15

Shehecheyanu, Vekiyamanu, Vehigiyanu Laz’man Hazeh

I know that everyone here joins me in thanking God for having brought our community in good health to a vibrant 100 years young.

As well as marking our centenary, this week has seen the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta.  It is noteworthy that 100 years ago as we were founded, the 700th anniversary Magna Carta celebrations were cancelled due to the First World War.  That sobering thought provides an opportunity for reflection on how the world has changed in the 100 years that have circumscribed the life of our community to date.

This is not merely a curious coincidence, but a matter of great significance in the context of our community.  The importance of Magna Carta can’t be overstated: it had many flaws and foibles, but it remains the basis for the common freedoms, justice and fairness which have long characterised this wonderful country, the epitome of malchut shel chesed – a kind, benevolent jurisdiction within which we and other minorities can practice our religion freely.

At first glance, this seems scarcely worth mentioning, but throughout history, Jews have experienced prejudice and disadvantage in their host countries.  As we give thanks today to God for 100 years of the Jewish settlement and religious life in Golders Green, we owe much to the religious and lay visionaries who founded this congregation – and bless their memory today – yet we also give thanks for the conducive, loving and nurturing environment in which our great community has thrived.

I am often asked why wine is used to celebrate special occasions in Jewish life.  Whether it’s at a major life event such as a wedding or a brit or to mark the passage of time (kiddush to commence Shabbat and Yom Tov; havdalah when they conclude; seder night, etc), wine plays a major role.  The Vilna Gaon (d. 1797) offers an illuminating explanation for this.  He notes that there are two ways to understand our relationship with time.  The first recognises that everything in the physical world, including human beings, have a period of vigour after which they slowly decline into oblivion.  The second offers a more otherworldly perspective, in which we start life relatively ignorant and undeveloped and as we age, increase our spiritual capacities, and sensitivities.  The second, of course, is a Jewish way to conceive of the passage of time – as each Shabbat, festival cycle and major life-event passes, we ought to be aware of our growing spiritual capabilities.  As the only thing in the physical world that improves as it ages, wine represents our aspirations and encourages us to bear in mind Judaism’s mission for the spiritualisation of the material world.  In short, wine is perfect to convey the message that we get better as we get older.

It is in that vein that I invite everyone present to join me in celebrating the fine, delightfully-aged wine that is the Golders Green Synagogue, our beloved Dunstan Road community.  I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s an unpretentious but full-bodied vintage, one worthy of our love and gratitude.  We all feel deep appreciation for a century of Jewish history, tefillah, Torah study, fine leadership and inspiration.

What then are the unique selling points of our community?  How have we managed – with God’s help - to re-energise our congregation over the past few years?  What has enabled us to witness major membership growth, oversee the refurbishment of our infrastructure, build the wonderful Rimon School, and with a Shul bursting with young families on a Shabbat morning have been delighted to appoint Rabbi Sam and Hadassah Fromson to partner in developing the community?

I expect that every congregant past and present will have a different answer to this.  However, I will just mention three.  I’ve called them the three embraces:

·        First – the uncompromising embrace of serious, authentic Torah ideas. Communities that embrace learning and demand very high-quality content from their rabbinic leaders, thrive.  Torah lies at the heart of Dunstan Road.

·        Second - absolute embrace of a non-judgemental inclusivism.  We are delighted to welcome and provide high-quality Jewish life in all senses of the word for people of every level of commitment, belief, involvement and knowledge.

·        Third – the willingness to embrace tensions and recognise that we live within complex realities.  We recognise that our lives are characterised by competing demands: spiritual vs. physical; traditional Jewish life vs. modernity; subordination to community needs vs. expressing individuality.  Rather than denying these tensions or pretending that we can resolve them all, we acknowledge and embrace them and appreciate the creativity they engender.

We are proud to embrace these ideas, and I am proud to commit us to constantly bettering our provision in them all. And I am confident that they lie at the heart of our success.

It has been an extraordinary privilege to stand at the helm of this community for more than 12 years.  And it has only been possible in partnership with a host of remarkable individuals.  In my role as a rabbinic mentor, I’m often asked for advice in handling difficult lay leaders, but I can’t offer any, at least not from experience.  Vicki and I salute you and thank you from the bottom of our hearts; may God bless you all with health, success and the energy to do even more for our community.

Join with me in wishing our community lechaim, arichat yamim and a hearty mazal tov as we start our second century.  Thank you.


Isaiah's Comfort and Today's Prophets: a Message of Hope

Sermon Notes 09/08/13 - VaEtchanan & Nachamu 5774

The palpable sense of relief that generally follows Tisha B’Av is absent this year.  I usually feel that having spent three weeks contemplating the destruction of the Temple and other horrors of Jewish history, I’ve met my obligation and can leave Tisha B’Av refreshed, ready for the summer holidays and with one eye already on Rosh HaShanah.  This year, however, given the recent conflict in Israel and the shocking increase in anti-Semitism in Europe, the air is heavy, laden with uncertainty and ambivalence – almost guilt – at having moved back to normal life post-Tisha B’Av.  It feels to me that the notoriously flimsy boundary between valid criticism and naked anti-Semitism is in danger of collapse.

This past week, the spectre of divestment from Israel again raised its head.  I suspect that for many it will be the anti-Israel instrument of choice for in the months ahead, in preference to the rather more demanding option of reasoned discussion.  Those it affects most are our students on campus, who often find themselves on the front line of anti-Israel hostility. Even if their convictions are strong, their Israel experience is characterised by the constant need to justify and defend.  The opportunity that I had as a student to create what Ambassador Daniel Taub once described to me as ‘my Israel’ narrative – the space that allowed me to consider what Israel meant to me, what I aspired for it to be and what my role might be in attaining that – is commonly denied our students, who are constantly on the back foot.

It is in that vein that we turn to today’s haftarah, the first of the so-called ‘seven of comfort’ read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShanah, selected from the 40th chapter of Isaiah.  It starts with the famous line:

נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם

Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

To whom is God is addressing His words – who should comfort My people?  The Aramaic Targum offers the obvious answer – God is speaking through Isaiah to His prophets:

נבייא אתנביאו תנחומין על עמי

My prophets! Prophesy comfort to My people. (Targum Onkelos ad loc.)

This reading (also favoured by Rashi) does not address the repetition of the word נחמו – comfort, something that can only be understood properly with reference to the next verse:

 דברו על לב ירושלם... כי מלאה צבאה כי נרצה עונה כי לקחה מיד ידוד כפלים בכל חטאתיה

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem... her time of estrangement has been fulfilled and her transgression has been forgiven, for she has been doubly punished by God for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2)

It seems that the Jewish people require a double measure of comfort because their punishment has been doubled, a view validated by midrashic sources (e.g. Midrash Tanchuma Devarim 1).

Whatever the intention of the verses, we are only too familiar with this ‘double punishment’ – the media distortions, the obvious double standards of Israel’s detractors (where are the mass demonstrations against daily massacres in Syria and exterminations in Iraq?) and the frequent uncritical adoption of a single version of a war narrative, when, as always, there are multiple perspectives.

If we are subject to ‘double punishment’, we need double comfort, as God demanded from our prophets.  They must replace pain with comfort, negativity with positivity and despair with hope.

But today there are no prophets and so the call of Isaiah must go out to their modern-day substitutes – the leaders of our communities.  That call is not restricted to rabbis or other formal leaders, but it goes out to everyone engaged in Jewish life who is able to do something.  All of us can write a letter to an MP or minister, respond to a blog-post, speak out sensibly against all bias and bigotry, attend an event, support communal efforts to counteract the negativity and inspire others to do likewise.

An unfathomable aspect of the current situation is the unwillingness of many free-world leaders to articulate something obvious.  Many of those who violently attack and seek the ultimate elimination of the State of Israel, and especially their financial backers, harbour the same long-term intentions towards Christians and, indeed, the whole of Western society.  As much as we worry about events in Israel and Europe, we are not oblivious to the brutal, barbaric persecutions of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq.  I believe that Israel and the Jews are just first in line; in reality, the very fabric of our society is imperilled for all people, regardless of faith or creed.  Emphasising these threats is one way of focusing the attention of others.

Yet as well as highlighting these wrongs, we must double our message of hope and comfort.  If the pain is doubled, the message of hope must be doubly powerful.

The importance of articulating the message is highlighted by Isaiah a few verses further into his prophecy:

על הר גבה עלי לך מבשרת ציון הרימי בכח קולך מבשרת ירושלם הרימי אל תיראי

Ascend a high mountain, herald of Zion.  Raise your voice powerfully, herald of Jerusalem.  Raise it, do not be afraid... (Isaiah 40:9)

 We have to carry our message of hope to high places and speak it where it can be heard.  We should never underestimate the impact we can have, nor where we have friends – sometimes critical friends – but friends nonetheless.  They are everywhere, members of every religious groups – Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists – and of none.  They exist at the workplace, among journalists and at universities.  We must redouble our efforts to build friendly, functional relationships with them, even when we disagree about Israel, or, indeed, anything else.

This is one message of hope.  The other is that that our voice, even if it small, cannot and will not be silenced.

נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם

Self, Family and Children

Sermon Notes 17/08/13 - Ki Taytzay 5773

This week’s parashah includes more mitzvot than any other in the Torah – somewhere between 70 and 85, depending on how they are counted.  They cover the entire range of human activity – from marriage and divorce to business ethics; from warfare to the correct treatment of animals; from hygiene to public safety and purity – and they appear to be assembled somewhat randomly.

Yet Devarim is a single text – Moses’ great valedictory sermon – and as such, forms a cogent whole, which means that the order of the mitzvot in this parashah is significant.  The rabbis interpret some of the juxtapositions quite creatively; two follow.

The parashah begins with three consecutive mitzvot: a) how to treat the beautiful woman captured in war; b) the prohibition of disinheriting the son of a hated wife in favour of the son of a beloved wife; c) the elimination of the rebellious son.  The rabbis comment:

The Torah speaks only to the evil impulse, for if God does not permit the beautiful captive, he will marry her anyway.  Yet if he marries her, he will come to hate her and will eventually father a rebellious son with her. (Rashi to Devarim 21:11, paraphrasing Midrash Tanchuma Ki Taytzay 1)

The parashah ends with two mitzvot: a) the requirement to have honest weights and measures; b) the obligation to wipe out the memory of our arch-enemy Amalek.  The rabbis comment:

If you deceive people with weights and measures, you will worry about the assault of the enemy. (Rashi to Devarim 25:17, paraphrasing Midrash Tanchuma Ki Taytzay 8)

These explanations may seem a little far-fetched and devised solely to explain away the juxtaposition, but I believe they are underpinned by a profound, yet simple, psychological message, one that is certainly germane to the upcoming Yom Tov season.

A common Chassidic interpretation of the ‘war’ with which our parashah begins is that is refers not just to an external war against a physical enemy, but to the internal war that each of fights with our own demons.  Going ‘out to war’ is a symbol for the inner struggle that constitutes a good part of all of human experience.  And if we don’t win the battle against crass desires, selfishness and the tendency to exploit others, we risk transporting the unresolved demons into relationships that could fail, and, in turn, dumping the problems on to our children.  This is the meaning of the juxtaposition of the three mitzvot at the start of the parashah.  Similarly, when we exploit others by robbing them with dishonest weights and measures, we should recognise (and fear) that we have really fallen victim to the demons within – the Amalek that prompts to behave selfishly and destructively.

The fact that the Torah worries not just about how we behave, but also our motivation, is illustrated by the final phrase of the mitzvah of restoring lost property, also in this parashah.  Having told us that we must not pretend that we haven’t seen the item, rather attempt to return it to its owner, the Torah says:

לא תוכל להתעלם (Devarim 22:3)

This phrase is usually translated as ‘you shouldn’t hide yourself’, or similar, but it really means ‘you should not be able to hide yourself’ – i.e. you should not be capable of turning aside when you encounter an item that has been lost by another.

So the Torah regulates how we think – in this case, about a lost object – but this is only illustrative.  We need to understand what motivates us: why and how we think about things, and to try to uncover what unarticulated needs or desires prompt us to act.  Only then can we avoid pernicious chains of experience in our lives and the lives of those we love.


Dancing in the Vineyard Today

Sermon Notes 20/07/13 - VaEtchanan and Tu B'Av

With Tisha B'Av behind us and a delightful cluster of weddings this year, today affords an opportunity to discuss a little-known day in the Jewish calendar: Tu B'Av, the 15th of Av.

Said Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel: there were no festive days for Israel like 15th Av or like Yom Kippur, on which the daughters of Jerusalem went out dressed in white and danced in the vineyards.  What did they exclaim?  Young man, please direct your eyes this way and decide what to choose for yourself. (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:8, paraphrased)

It is remarkable that the Mishnah places Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year and Tu B’Av, a day completely forgotten until modern times, side by side.  And equally remarkable is the unexpected dedication of Yom Kippur, a fast day usually associated with introspection and abstention, to matchmaking.

Yet putting each of these days into its original historical context will explain their connection and unexpected focus.  Yom Kippur is of course, the anniversary of the day on which God finally forgave the Israelites for making the golden calf, hence its selection as the annual day of  national atonement.  But the origins of Tu B'Av are more obscure.  The Talmud (Ta'anit 30b) offers a number of possibilities, one of which is that it was the day on which those condemned to die in the desert 'stopped dying'.  Rashi (ad loc.) cites a midrash which explains that each year on the evening of Tisha BAv, the anniversary of the fiasco of the spies, some of those doomed to die in the desert would lie down to die.  But on Tisha B'Av of the 40th year, no-one died.  Assuming that they had miscalculated the date, they tried again the next night, and the next, but again, no-one died.  Finally, when they saw the full moon on 15th of the month, they knew that the decree had expired and all those remaining could now enter the land.

So both Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av are days of affirmation - festivals of survival.   Either the sin of the calf or the debacle of the spies could have ended the Jewish people there and then, yet we survived and thrived.  In that sense, Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av are, indeed, the greatest moments of the Jewish year.

And when we affirm our survival, sometimes against all the odds, how do we celebrate?  By creating opportunities for singles to meet, to create loving, happy relationships and build new families.  We refute the prospect of our demise by making shidduchim.

In our community and across the Jewish world, it has never be more difficult for singles of all ages to meet each other.  Many live increasingly busy, atomised lives and create complex personal realities that are difficult to match with others. Yet most would dearly love to meet someone with whom to share their lives and despite all their professional and personal accomplishments, cannot.

There are many events in the Jewish community designed to bring people of all types together - dinners, trips and classes as well as agencies and individuals geared to this purpose.  Some are well established, others, like the shidduch.im initiative, are new.  (Don't assume that matchmaking is only for the very observant - singles from across the spectrum can benefit from a sensitive introduction).  All deserve our support and encouragement, and with God's help will facilitate many matches.

But I remain convinced that the best way for singles to meet is round your table, at your social event, through your introduction.  By which I mean that everyone in the community ought to be creating opportunities and comfortable spaces in which those who would so like to meet a life-partner can get together.  It's the responsibility of all of us, one that represents the greatest and most powerful affirmation of the Jewish future and our way to ensure that everyone has a chance to dance in the vineyard.

'Autopilot' and the Spiritual Quest

Sermon Notes 04/05/13 - Behar-Bechukotay 5773

If you walk in My statutes, observe My commandments and perform them. (VaYikra 26:3)

This verse, which opens the second of today’s parashiot, is subject to much discussion in the classic sources.  A key difficulty is the unexpected use of הליכה – walking – to describe adherence to statutes, divine laws for which no reason is known.  Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (commentary ad. loc) explains that הלך means to ‘move towards a goal’.  Spiritual life involves constantly moving towards spiritual ambitions, relentlessly striving to attain communion with the divine, exemplified by the statutes.

This interpretation is supported by a beautiful midrash:

If you walk in My statutes… As the verse writes: I considered my way, but I returned my feet to Your testimonies. (Tehillim 119:59)  King David said, ‘every day, I decided that I would walk to a particular place or home, but my feet brought me to the Shuls or Yeshivot’.  As the verse says: but I returned my feet to your testimonies. (VaYikra Rabbah 35:1)

This reading identifies a phenomenon we might term our ‘autopilot’ – the direction in which we are led when we aren’t thinking by habit and subliminal interests.  I recall a long-retired senior colleague who mentioned that his car ‘went to Bushey on its own’ – that is, wherever he started driving, he ending up steering towards the Jewish cemetery in Bushey (outskirts of London), somewhere, sadly, he had frequented throughout his career.

King David records that despite his plans, he always found himself automatically led towards houses of prayer and Torah study.  As such, the midrash has reinterpreted the phrase ‘if you walk in My statutes’ as an exploration of our subconscious desires.  Have we sufficiently internalised our spiritual mission that we follow it without concentrating, even when we’re focusing on something else?

This passage is always read soon before Shavuot (see TB Megillah 31b and Yad, Tefillah U’Nesiat Kapayim 13:2).  The obvious rationale for this is that it contains the rebukes that are the consequences of disobeying the laws given at Sinai.  But perhaps there is another reason – prior to renewing our connection to the revelation and its laws, we are encouraged to consider where our true loyalties lie, those best characterised by where our ‘autopilot’ takes us.

Holiness, the Jewish State and a Rendezvous with History

Sermon Notes 20/04/13 - Acharey & Kedoshim / Yom HaAtzmaut Shabbaton 5773

This week’s parashah starts with perhaps the most famous exhortation in the Torah:

Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them: be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. (VaYikra 19:2)

This raises the perennial issue of the nature of holiness.  It is discussed by the mediaeval philosophers and has major ramifications for the State of Israel.  Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari) understood that holiness is innate not just to God, but also to people, places and even languages.  He believed the Jewish people and the Land of Israel to be intrinsically holy, in comparison with other peoples and lands.  In contrast, the Rambam (Moreh Nevochim) believed that only God is inherently holy.  For the Rambam, holiness is not innate, but instrumental – the Land of Israel offers the best environment (determined by climate, resources, location, etc.) for practising Judaism’s lofty spiritual goals.  Similarly, the history, experience and temperament of the Jewish people best empower us to pursue the objectives set out in the Torah.

The Kuzari's view has largely prevailed and informs much of modern thought about the role of the Jewish people and the contemporary state.  Yet it can be dangerous if misapplied – a view that sets one people or place as holier and somehow better than others risks fostering a destructive sense of superiority and triumphalism, and encouraging people to fight the wrong battles with the wrong people.

I believe that despite its marginalisation in recent centuries, the rationalist, instrumental perspective of the Rambam should be re-examined; it has important lessons to teach a modern, fractious Jewish state.

An important 20th-century philosopher who donned the Maimonidean mantle in this respect was Professor A.J. Heschel.  In his monograph, ‘The Sabbath’ he notes that the:

Holiness of the land of Israel is derived from the holiness of the people of Israel. (The Sabbath)

For Heschel, the laws and ideals of land, and, by extension, the state, must reflect the moral values and spiritual aspirations of the Jewish people: an ethical monotheism that recognises the divine image present in every member of society and strives to bring blessing upon them all.  The land’s holiness is not innate – it is a reflection of the moral conduct of its inhabitants.

In Heschel’s later book, ‘Israel: an Echo of Eternity’, written following his visit to Israel just after the Six-Day War, he adapts the answer to the Kotzker Rebbe's well-known question ‘Where is God?’ (Wherever you let Him in):

God is no less here than there.  It is the sacred moment in which His presence is disclosed.  We meet God in time rather than in space, in moments of faith rather than in a piece of space. (Israel: an Echo of Eternity)

But if God is mostly encountered in time, rather than space, what of a Jewish homeland, now the State of Israel?  It must certainly provide the Jewish people with a haven from persecution, as Herzl intended.  It must be a place where Jewish life, observance and culture can flourish and where true Jewish ambitions can best be expressed, as articulated by Ahad HaAm and later, in a more religious iteration, by Professor Eliezer Berkovits.  It must be a place where foreign influences can be cautiously filtered and incorporated where appropriate, rather than being the prevailing Weltanschauung, as they are in the Diaspora.  And it must encourage and implement Messianic aspirations for the Jewish people and for the world.

True to his Maimonidean leanings, Heschel explains the creative potential of the land for the Jewish people:

For the Jewish national movement, therefore, the land of Israel was not merely a place where, historically speaking, the Jews had once dwelt.  It was the homeland with which an indestructible bond of national, physical, religious, and spiritual character had been preserved, and where the Jews had in essence remained—and were now once more in fact—a major element of the population.  It is here where the great works of the Jewish people came into being: the Bible, the Mishnah, the Palestinian Talmud, the Midrashim, the Shulhan Arukh, Lurianic mysticism.  No other people has created original literary works of decisive significance in the land of Israel.  The words, the songs, the chants of Jewish liturgy, which have shaped the life of prayer in both Judaism and Christianity, were born in the Holy Land.... It is not only memory, our past that ties us to the land; it is our hope, our future. (Israel: an Echo of Eternity)

Heschel also coined a beautiful phrase to describe the role and aspirations of the State of Israel – ‘a rendezvous with history’, one which must be constantly renewed and reinvigorated.  In a section of ‘Israel: an Echo of Eternity’ by that name, he demands a ‘re-examination’:

The major weakness was to take the State of Israel for granted, to cease to wonder at the marvel of its sheer being. Even the extraordinary tends to be forgotten.  Familiarity destroys the sense of surprise. We have been beset by a case of spiritual amnesia. We forgot the daring, the labor, the courage of the seers of the State of Israel, of the builders and pioneers.  We forgot the pain, the suffering, the hurt, the anguish, and the anxiety which preceded the rise of the state.  We forgot the awful pangs of birth, the holiness of the deed, the dedication of the spirit.  We saw the Hilton and forgot Tel Hai.

The land rebuilt became a matter of routine, the land as a home was taken for granted.

The younger generation seeing the state functioning normally has the impression that this has been the case all along.  They have no notion of the distress and strain, of the longing and dreaming of generations. The miracle of Israel became a state like all states, with neither mystery nor sacrifice permeating it.   Habit is our downfall, a defeat of the spirit.  Living by habit is the destruction of creativity. (ibid.)

My generation (I was born a few months after the Six-Day War) have no recollection of a time when one couldn’t hop on a plane and visit Israel; when we visit Jerusalem, we need a tour guide, rather than a military vehicle, to point out the Israeli-Jordanian pre-’67 battle-lines.

Yom HaAtzmaut is a great opportunity to consider the real potential of the Jewish state and to ensure that we never take its existence – so long a distant hope – for granted.  Nor for that matter, our responsibility to build a land and a state that truly reflects the values of the Torah and the Jewish people – a life of holiness and a way of being that elevates us and all of humanity.

Moshe and the Fallible Leader

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.

Freud devotes his work to just that – a demolition of the traditional picture of Moses.  Briefly and scarcely doing Freud justice, Moses was an Egyptian, who strove to impose a form of pre-existing Egyptian monotheism on a fractious group of ex-slaves.  Unable to tolerate his demands, the people rebelled and murdered Moses.  Because of the heinous nature of their crime, they sublimated, but did not totally eliminate their memory of it, which has resurfaced in Jewish national angst throughout history and manifested itself obliquely in the origins of Christianity.

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.

Seder and the Body-Soul Experience

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 experience.

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 daybreak.

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, human world.

In a fascinating essay, Professor Eliezer Berkovits discusses the function of mitzvah observance.  He insists that:

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.

Sermon Notes 01/12/12 - VaYishlach / Tefillah 6

תפלה: Kavannah, the 'Prayer Problem' and Shabbat

This is the final instalment of my thoughts on Tefillah, which began here.  The other instalments in the series are here, here, here and here.  Much of what appears here is in response to positive feedback.

1)  Throughout this series, I’ve spoken about spontaneity, but how does the fixed prayer service allow for this?  Professor A.J. Heschel suggests that it can be found through kavannah – focused, intent-filled prayers rather than rote recitation of the text.  Only kavannah can constantly reinvest familiar prayers with new meaning.  Heschel paraphrases the early 19th-century Chassidic classic, B’ney Yissaschar:

To be able to pray is to know how to stand still and to dwell on a word.  This is how the worshippers of the past would act: ‘They would repeat the same word many times, because they loved and cherished it so much that they could not part from it’. (Man’s Quest for God, p. 34)

Of course, this is just to illustrate the principle – it is neither desirable, nor in most cases, even permitted to actually repeat words during prayer – yet, B’ney Yissaschar teaches that it’s possible to savour every word and find new meaning each time it is said.  The words may be the same each time we read them, but the meaning with which we invest them can, and should, change each time.

The indispensability of kavannah to the prayer experience is highlighted by another pithy line from Heschel:

To pray with kavannah (inner devotion) may be difficult; to pray without it is ludicrous. (ibid. p. 53)

How does one maintain the need for kavannah, against the obvious tendency to retreat into rote prayer?  An answer may lie in a phrase that appears above the ark in many Shuls, including ours:

דע לפני מי אתה עומד

Know before whom you stand

The enormity of standing in the presence of the divine is often lost on us – after all, we’re at home in the Shul, as we should be, and as God surely wants us to be.  Yet remembering that the primary function of prayer is to allow us to commune with the divine is central to the success of the entire enterprise.  See the first in this series here for further thoughts on this from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik.

2)  This leads on to a difficulty with the ‘simple prayer’ model, which was raised by a correspondent, who asked me to address:

...the disjoin between the central apparent content of the request and the modern explanation of what prayer is about – critical self-assessment.

This is actually a pre-modern concern: Rabbi Yosef Albo in his Sefer HaIkarim (Book of Fundamental Principles) asks a question which may be summarised as:

If God gives us what we need and does not give us what we don’t need, then if we genuinely need something, we will receive it whether or not we pray for it; if we do not need it, we will not receive it whether or not we pray for it.  As such, there is no purpose in praying. (Based on Sefer HaIkarim 4:18)

So what is the point, for example, for praying for those who are ill?

Two resolutions are commonly advanced to this conundrum.  The first, offered by Albo himself, is that pray is really about critical self-assessment and personal development – by recognising that God is the source of wealth, health, etc., the supplicant undergoes a process of self-transformation which produces a ‘new’ person who will merit a new set of blessings from God.  This is known as ‘rational prayer’ – it is intellectually attractive, but seems to be highly-counter-intuitive and very far from a normative understanding of traditional sources about prayer.  A second option is what might be termed ‘mystical prayer’ – the words of the liturgy when uttered correctly reconfigure the spiritual worlds, allowing a specific flow of blessing to come into the world.  Many find this view emotionally comforting and inspirational, yet intellectually unconvincing.

While these difficulties remain unresolved, it is likely that all of us maintain inconsistent views of prayer, uneasily melding the ‘simple’, ‘rational’ and ‘mystical’ models.

3)  Finally, I suggest that we should view the Shabbat prayers as especially important to developing our relationship with God.  From Rabbi David Abudraham, the 14th-century liturgical expert from Seville:

יש שואלין מה ראו חכמים לתקן בשבת שלש תפלות משונות זו מזו אתה קדוש. וישמח משה. ואתה אחד. וביום טוב לא תקנו אלא אחת אתה בחרתנו לערבית ולשחרית ולמנחה. וי"ל מפני ששבת נקראת כלה והקב"ה נקרא חתן תקנו אתה קדשת על שם הקדושין שנותן החתן לכלה. ואח"כ ישמח משה על שם שמחת החתן כלה... ואח"כ אתה אחד על שם שמתיחד החתן עם הכלה.

One may ask why the Sages saw fit to institute for Shabbat three prayers that are different from each other – ‘You  are holy’ (Ma’ariv), ‘Moshe will rejoice’ (Shacharit), ‘You are one’ (Minchah) – whereas on Yom Tov they instituted only one – ‘You chose us’ – for Ma’ariv, Shacharit and Minchah.  Perhaps it is because Shabbat is described as a ‘bride’ and the Holy One, may He be blessed, is a ‘groom’, the Sages established ‘You are holy’, corresponding to the betrothal which the groom gives to the bride; after that, ‘Moshe will rejoice’, corresponding to the rejoicing of the groom and bride’… after that, ‘You are one’, corresponding to the moment when the groom and bride consummate their marriage. (Abudraham, p. 147, free translation)

I first learnt this beautiful idea many years ago.  I think about it often and it has strongly influenced by conceptualisation of the Shabbat prayers.  It’s a good place to end this series with the brachah that each of us find meaning and purpose in our prayers and may they always serve as a vehicle for a mature and developing relationship with God.

Sermon Notes 24/11/12 - VaYetze / Tefillah 5

תפלה: Private and Public Prayer – the Challenges

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here, here and here.

At the start of this week’s parashah, we find Ya’akov unexpectedly stopping his journey for the night; as he lay down, he made a makeshift pillow or barrier from stones.  Based on a difficulty in the text, Rashi comments:

The stones began to squabble, each saying, ‘let the righteous man rest his head on me’.  God transformed them into a single stone... (Rashi to BeReishit 28:11, based on Chullin 91b)

A parallel midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 68:11) casts Ya’akov wondering whether he would simply transmit the monotheistic ideal to a single inheritor, like his father and grandfather before him, or if he would be able to establish the twelve tribes of Israel, the beginning of the Jewish People.  When

...the twelve stones amalgamated, Ya’akov knew that he would establish the twelve tribes.

This midrash highlights a general difficulty with religious life – maintaining the correct balance between individual aspirations and one’s membership of a people or community – a group with a single, shared purpose.  This is especially acute when it comes to prayer, as highlighted by the following message which recently appeared in my Inbox:

Are you going to touch on how to daven in a collective where the man behind intones out loud and out of tune, your neighbour comes to shul for social reasons and someone's gorgeous child decides it is screaming time? How to use the mantra of familiar prayers as a launch-pad to lift you over and above the immediate interruptions and distractions of praying in a kahal? That's the baton I would so like you to pass on so that I do not continue to believe I can best step out beyond myself when I am by myself.

The question is not easy to answer, but a good starting point is acknowledging that from time to time I also have the same thoughts – while I love our Shul, sometimes private or spontaneous prayer works better for me.  I suspect this is true for all of us.

Not talking during davening may seem novel to some, but is really essential for creating an appropriate environment as well as showing respect for others and their own ‘prayer space’.  I know that the urge to talk In Shul can sometimes be overpowering, but when it strikes, please consider going out until it passes.

It’s also important to remind ourselves that public prayer was never intended to replace personal and spontaneous prayer.  In fact, they are interdependent.  The Rizhyner Rebbe told the story of a small Jewish town which had almost every amenity – a bathhouse, cemetery and even a hospital, as well as every artisan, except for one – there was no watchmaker.  Inevitably, all the clocks became increasingly inaccurate with no one to repair them.  Some people chose to let their clocks just run down, but others decided to keep winding them every day even though they showed the wrong time.  One day, a watchmaker appeared in town and everyone rushed to him with their clocks.  The only one he could repair were those that had been kept running; the abandoned ones had become too rusty.  The application is obvious – to keep our ‘prayer’ faculty well-oiled, we must maintain our regular public prayers, even when they seem substandard and fall short of our expectations.

These ideas are thoughtfully explored by Professor A.J. Heschel:

We have stressed the fact that prayer is an event that begins in the individual soul. We have not dwelled upon how much our ability to pray depends upon our being a part of a community 

It is not safe to pray alone. Tradition insists that we pray with, and as a part of, the community; that public worship is preferable to private worship. Here we are faced with an aspect of the polarity of prayer. There is a permanent union between individual worship and community worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other. To ignore their spiritual symbiosis will prove fatal to both...

Those who cherish genuine prayer, yet feel driven away from the houses of worship because of the sterility of public worship today, seem to believe that private prayer is the only way. Yet, the truth is that private prayer will not survive unless it is inspired by public prayer. The way of the recluse, the exclusive concern with personal salvation, piety in isolation from the community is an act of impiety... (Man’s Quest for God, pp. 44-5)

I am particularly taken with Heschel’s assertion that personal prayer cannot survive unless it is inspired by public prayer.  Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik develops the need for prayer with a community to ensure that we do not become too entrenched in our individual needs:

The prayerful community must not, likewise, remain a two-fold affair: a transient "I" addressing himself to the eternal "He."The inclusion of others is indispensable. Man should avoid praying for himself alone. The plural form of prayer is of central Halakhic significance. When disaster strikes, one must not be immersed completely in his own passional destiny, thinking exclusively of himself, being concerned only with himself, and petitioning God merely for himself. (The Lonely Man of Faith)

Of course, public prayer, with all its challenges, is actually a collection of private prayers, and is dependent on each individual for his or her contribution.  On this, Heschel again:

Even the worth of public worship depends upon the depth of private worship, of the private worship of those who worship together. We are taught that the fate of all mankind depends upon the conduct of one single individual, namely you. (ibid. p. 46)