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A Sabbatical Trip to my Alma Mater
I have recently spent a week in Gateshead, a Yeshiva town in the north of England, where my wife and I lived when we were first married and I was a student at the Gateshead Yeshiva. I remain eternally indebted to Gateshead for the outstanding Torah education I received there, and particularly for the encouragement I received to develop into an independent rabbi and halachist. Yet it was the first time since my departure for the rabbinate some 13 years ago that I’d spent more than the odd day there.
On the surface, very little has changed in Gateshead: the same spiritually-striving and hospitable Torah families hidden behind gloomy ‘Coronation Street’ terraces; the same economic challenges. Yet the community has doubled in size since the early 90s, necessitating expansion into areas that were once exclusively Geordie, and there is a greatly enhanced infrastructure including a community health-centre (in our former home). But the most significant ‘news’ has been the appointment of Rabbi S.F. Zimmerman as town Rav following the passing of the esteemed Rabbi Rakow. A brilliant, articulate and thoughtful American, he seems to have struck just the right balance between preserving Gateshead’s conservative character and instigating changes vital for the community’s development. These include modernising the education system by facilitating alternatives to long-term Torah study for adults, and encouraging working families to settle and start businesses in Gateshead, fostering greater religious and social diversity and increasing local prosperity.
I am delighted that I found the experience overwhelmingly positive: I was royally hosted by dear friends, sat in my former seat in the Yeshiva for Shacharit, and enjoyed a visit to the colossal Lehmann’s bookshop, where I picked up a couple of hard-to-come-by mediaeval commentaries on Rashi. I also had the privilege of private meetings with the Rav, the Rosh Yeshiva and the Yeshiva’s spiritual supervisor. Of course, much of this is nostalgia: it felt good to retrace familiar steps and to show the children where ‘Daddy used to learn’.
I was especially struck by the mature attitude of many of the people I met when confronted with someone (me) whose outlook and objectives differ considerably from theirs. I recall that this had always been my experience in Gateshead, especially at the Yeshiva. When I joined in 1990, I was several years older than my class-mates; they had strong backgrounds in Torah learning, I did not; whereas my wife and I had recently graduated from Oxford, most of them had no intention of attending university; they wore the sombre ‘yeshiva kit’, and I was none too keen on the dress-code. But from the very first day I was welcomed as a full member by staff and students alike.
Those contrasts of twenty years ago are now more manifest. I spent the entire week in Gateshead working on my doctoral dissertation. It is well-known that the ‘Yeshiva World’ tends to view academic Jewish studies with distrust, and the potential holder of a ‘Rabbi Dr.’ moniker with suspicion. Yet everyone, without exception, from the people I met casually to the Rav, were interested in what I am doing, and genuinely enthusiastic about my achievements.
My experience was repeated in conversations with old friends, some of whom have children of the same ages as ours. I was asked a number of times what our eldest daughter Michali, who is now in school-year 11, will be ‘doing next’. Here, the differences couldn’t be more pronounced: it is the norm in Gateshead for children to leave school after GCSEs to go to yeshiva or seminary, whereas Michali is choosing her A-Level subjects in preparation for university. Again, I found the people with whom I spoke to be supportive and encouraging, even though Michali’s plans diverge so greatly from what they would consider appropriate for their children.
I think that this phenomenon reflects the fact that the Gateshead community contains many people who are not just thoroughly decent, but happy and secure with their own life-choices. I’ve noticed that unhappy and insecure people within our religious world feel a need to run down others in order to validate their own positions; those who are secure can celebrate the choices of others, even when they strongly disagree with them, without feeling threatened. And while I’m sure that that there are those in Gateshead who do not behave like this, I have realised that this is why I have continued to feel comfortable with the people there, despite the considerable gulf between our aspirations.
Thinking more broadly, this is a good working model for cross-communal cohesion. Even those individuals and communities with radically different styles and understandings of the world can peacefully co-exist, but this is unlikely to happen unless their leaders are happy and secure with their own identities, and make this manifest in the message they preach. Regrettably, this is uncommon – in many places, religious life thrives on delegitimisation. Much rests on our ability to convey a sense of contentment and joy to our children and students.
I was encouraged by my visit to Gateshead: for all its pious insularity, it is a community of people who appear to be secure in their choices, something that can only contribute to harmony in an otherwise fragmented religious world.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle here.
‘Illiterate Jew’ is an oxymoron. (Attributed to Lord Jakobovits)
Literacy is not a luxury; it is a right and a responsibility. (Bill Clinton)
Torah, Torah, die beste sechorah – the best merchandise. (Yiddish saying)
Promoting Jewish literacy – familiarity with classical Jewish texts and the ability to manipulate them – is something that every rabbi holds dear. Happily, the recent growth in Jewish schooling and other educational initiatives has improved Jewish literacy within our mainstream communities, which had for years viewed synagogues as the sole panacea for their existential ills.
Yet there is a recurrent issue with the relatively low level of textual Jewish studies taught in high schools serving the centrist Anglo-Jewish communities. This is evident from my numerous conversations with British students about their post high-school experiences in Israel: I have lost track of how many times I have heard bright and motivated British teenagers grumble that they lag behind their American fellow-students; this is corroborated by their perplexed and rather frustrated tutors.
It is important to recognise that the US Jewish high school system differs greatly from ours: the separation of Church and State there means that the schools operate independently from the mainstream system, which apart from making them eye-wateringly expensive, allows them to determine their own agendas. Although UK graduates generally perform better in secular subjects, there is no escaping that notwithstanding the opportunities they have had for extra-curricular learning, ‘text clubs’ etc., the alumni of our schools are usually much less Jewishly literate than their US counterparts.
I have previously mentioned my view that the greatest impediment to Anglo-Jews engaging seriously with Jewish observance and Torah study is the certainty that it will inhibit, rather than enhance, their life-aspirations. This conviction lies at the heart of the Jewish literacy issue: parents and even some educators associate textual competence with religiosity and poor social integration; as such, they resist including too much of in the school curriculum. As far as many Anglo-Jews are concerned, Jewish literacy is only for ‘frummers’. I have even heard from directors of school Jewish-studies programmes that they are often pressured by parents and board members not to increase the quantity or intensity of their provision.
In contrast, many American educators have realised that Jewish literacy is actually the entrée to every aspect of Jewish life. They understand that training their students to read Bible commentaries and Talmud, as well as teaching them to speak good Ivrit, are valuable ends in themselves – they regard them as indispensable components of a decent Jewish education. Interestingly, this attitude cuts across the observance spectrum: Orthodox high schools that would describe themselves as ‘very modern’, along with Conservative educational institutions, devote many curriculum hours each week to high-level textual study. They realise that every facet of their students’ Jewish lives is enhanced by being able to understand and discuss Judaism ‘in the original’. Irrespective of their commitment to observance, ‘textual aficionados’ gain an unmediated appreciation of their Jewish origins and identity, connect profoundly with other Jews and communities around the world, form a unique bond with Israel and its people, and, quite simply, internalise a deeper sense of the history, development, challenges and aspirations of the Jewish people than their less-literate friends. It is clear that many American Jews, irrespective of their degree of commitment and conviction, buy into the idea that proper Jewish literacy enhances their lives and expands their horizons. Sadly, there is no equivalent educational culture among their British counterparts.
Our children have a right to real Jewish literacy and it is our responsibility to deliver it. Our communities face many challenges; meeting this responsibility is one of the biggest. Some adult education centres are pioneers in this field; I am proud to be associated with a number of transformational programmes. I am also aware that some established schools are improving their textual provision and imagine that the newer ones will build their curricula around it. But until real Jewish literacy is a central aspiration for our children, they will always be playing ‘catch-up’.
I understand parental resistance to intensive textual study: it can seem alien, consumed with obscurities, and for many who have managed adult Jewish lives without it, a diversion from reality. Yet in reality, attaining Jewish literacy is a, perhaps, the focal aspect of the ‘Art of Judaism’: Torah study, more than any other endeavour, including even prayer and mitzvah observance, paints the world ‘Jewish’. It’s not just about the language, although that’s clearly very important, but about the excitement of learning to see every part of the human condition through a Jewish lens.
At the end of a list of important social responsibilities, the rabbis add the dictum ‘but the study of Torah is equal to them all’, on which the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism) comments that ‘through the Torah, everything can be fixed’ – Torah study opens doors to every aspect of Jewish life.
 Mishnah Peah 1:1; TB Shabbat 127a
The Merchant of Venice
Some pupils at the Yesodey Hatorah girls’ high school not too far from where I live have attracted UK and international news overage (see, for example, here, here, here and here) over their refusal to answer examination questions about Shakespeare. Apparently, the pupils declined even to write their names on the papers, in protest at Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, despite the fact that they had not even been studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and that by doing so they would forfeit the entire examination. As a result, the school has fallen drastically in the performance tables (it was, quite remarkably, first in the entire country last year and is now 274th albeit out of over 3000).
I should interject a word here about the school system in the UK. Many Jewish schools here have what is known as voluntary aided status, which entitles them to state funding for buildings, general studies teaching and a host of other things, leaving the parents to pick up the tab for the Torah curriculum. Of course, this requires the school to meet government educational standards in all relevant areas. The examination in question was a standard government test on material for which the Shakespeare section is a mandatory part of the syllabus.
The principal of Yesodey Hatorah, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, has been interviewed several times about this curious episode, including on the prestigious BBC Radio 4 ‘Sunday’ religious affairs programme. (You can listen to the interview here: click on the link for ‘Shakespeare and anti-Semitism’). He walks a fine line between supporting the girls in their principled stand, while indicating that he doesn’t really agree with them. It is clearly not the school policy to eschew Shakespeare, since it has bought into a system that requires his works to be taught; at the very least it tolerates its inclusion in the English syllabus and assumes that its students will do likewise.
I think that the issue as to whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite is irrelevant – it has been debated for centuries. My own opinion (to the extent that I know enough about the subject to have an informed one) coincides with Rabbi Pinter’s. While the portrayal of Shylock has anti-Semitic overtones, there are also very humane, sensitive (dare one say philo-Semitic?) aspects of his character. The bard lived in an age when anti-Semitic sentiments were common; actually it is likely that he was writing with little first-hand knowledge of Jews, as he lived at the end of the 16th century, long after the expulsion in 1290 and some while before the resettlement in the mid-17th century. As such, I am not inordinately troubled by Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism.
However, two other aspects of this incident have given me cause for thought. First, even if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, should this influence whether his works ought to be taught in Jewish schools? Second, should a school support pupils’ principled objection to a syllabus item even if by doing so it significantly damages the school and its reputation?
Tacking the second question first, one could argue that the students (and their parents, who are reported as supporting them in this case) are bound by some kind of understanding with the school, in which they have agreed to engage fully in the stated programme of study. They ‘breach’ this ‘contract’ if they do not participate in the examinations. I don’t accept this argument, as I feel that the very essence of a quality education must encourage a degree of independent thinking and allow for the students to take informed decisions, especially when they are fully aware of the consequences. This is all part of growing up, something which a school must foster; in that respect, Yesodey Hatorah and Rabbi Pinter should be very proud of their students.
Yet there must be limits to this type of freedom within an educational environment. When I was at high school, one of my co-students became an anarchist, changed his name from Darren to ‘Grover Herbivores’ and refused to wear shoes. This provoked consternation and, finally, rage from the school administration, which eventually excluded him from school life. While this extreme example is no more than quaint, it illustrates the fact that conscientious objection to accepted school norms must have limits, otherwise the institution become ungovernable. Of course, at least in the minds of the students, there is a perceived moral dimension to the Shakespeare issues which is patently absent from ‘Grover’s’ unwillingness to wear shoes. Nonetheless, there has to be a balance between personal expression and potential damage to the school resulting from the students’ ethically motivated objections. If students fail to sit examinations or perform very poorly in them the school will eventually be subject to government scrutiny, which will influence the life of every student in the school. Striking that balance is very difficult – this is a genuine clash between private and public need. We all draw the line in different places, but I would advocate maximising the students’ opportunity for personal expression (based on informed choice and awareness of the consequences), only invoking the need for public responsibility when the potential damage is significant. I, like Rabbi Pinter, do not believe that to be the case in the recent school case.
However, before voting too firmly for the girls of Yesoday Hatorah, I would like to challenge the notion that if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite (accepting this for the purposes of this discussion), Jewish schools should not study his works. I find this incomprehensible, especially in a complex and open world where it is impossible to avoid a broad range of views about Jews and, indeed, everything else. Surely studying Shakespeare, even if one vehemently disagrees with his premises, is of great educational value anyway. Perhaps ‘The Merchant of Venice’ should be discussed in a Jewish school in the context of a lesson on the history of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the students should be encouraged to debate whether Shakespeare actually was an anti-Semite and if so, consider from where he derived his information and attitude. Are we so weak-minded that we need restrict our syllabi to the comfortable, familiar and unchallenging? I certainly hope not.
A while ago, a feature article published on the website of the UK Telegraph newspaper asked, ‘what is the most annoying phrase in the English language?’ Suggestions included ‘chill out’ and the replacement of ‘now’ with ‘at this moment in time’. The posting, before it disappeared, elicited over 2000 comments from readers, each of whom mentioned a pet hate. A random glance at them yielded such expressions as ‘all intensive purposes’, ‘fell pregnant’, ‘blue-sky thinking’ tautologies such as ‘potential risk’ and the use of the soccer-player’s favourite phrase ‘at the end of the day’, which, it was claimed, actually means nothing at all.
The observant world is blessed with a number of eloquent speakers and writers who are outstanding advocates for Judaism. Their sensitive and lucid writings have drawn many hearts towards authentic Judaism and, when necessary, they articulately defend the Torah from outside attack: we would be a poorer community without them.
Yet the standard of their written and spoken English is scarcely reflective of the majority within the observant community; even in English-speaking countries, low standards abound. À la Telegraph, one could prepare a list of the most annoying phrases used by members of the religious community. My bête-noir is the common misuse of the word ‘by’, as in ‘I’m eating by the Cohens this Shabbos’ and ‘we daven (pray) by the Oshplotzer Rebbe’. This may be correct syntax in Yiddish, but is it English? Some even seem to be unaware that the words ‘takke’, ‘mamash’ and ‘ziche’ may be unfamiliar to the plumber.
In some parts of the religious community there is little appreciation of the value of using clear and accurate English and examples of frum-speak are common. Numerous English-language books and journals are filled with basic spelling errors (don’t the authors use ‘spell-check’?), inaccurate usages, and scant attention to English syntax, quite apart from the limited and simplistic vocabulary. How should one respond when one’s children notice simple spelling and grammatical errors in the school-worksheets prepared by their teachers? In a masterful exposition of this problem (aptly named: ‘Tefillin in a brown paper bag’), Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote in reference to the contents of an Orthodox periodical:
The alphabet and the words were English, but the sentence structure, the rhythm, the syntax, the tone, were of another language altogether.
Perhaps we have forgotten that many books and articles on the market are commonly read by the less observant: in fact, the literature is frequently prepared with them in mind. For them, weak English is often a real turn-off, as they inexorably associate the message with the medium: bad English equals bad message. Some recent ‘outreach’ publications suffer from this deficiency: notwithstanding the time and resources that have been devoted to their publication, I suspect that they will have little impact on their target audience. Rabbi Feldman again:
Beyond theory, the use of deficient language has practical negative consequences as well, for it prevents us from preaching to anyone but the Orthodox choir. Intelligent, educated non-Orthodox Jews will surely be put off by the argot which passes for much of Torah Judaica today.
Some opine that at least within the observant community, this is unimportant: provided the intended audience understands the message, who cares if the English is poor? It is difficult to treat this seriously. A well-known Jerusalem Rosh Yeshivah remarked that it is hard for him to understand why anyone would aspire to speak English poorly. Why, he asked, would one aspire to learn English from people who speak it badly; why would one want to ignore the nuances of expression available in English and communicate in a puerile or ambiguous manner?
Does anyone truly believe that simply because the audience is familiar with the ‘lingo’, the use of poor English has no consequences? Language is not merely a means of communication, but exposes the outlook of the speaker:
Every language expresses the core ideology of the nation (that speaks it) according to its Weltanschauung and in accordance with its grasp of the essence of reality: from this emerges its language. (Telshe Rosh Yeshivah, Shiurey Daat, Likutim)
Every language connects the core (of a person) with the external world…. (Shem MiShmuel, Devarim 5676)
If a language reveals the essence of the speaker’s world view, perhaps it follows that a limited vocabulary and the use of clichéd phraseology is reflective of tired, uncreative thinking and narrow horizons, hardly noble religious aspirations.
Negligible attention to presentation and slapdash English spill over into other areas of life too. Do we fool ourselves into thinking that when our children neglect English, this has no impact on the quality of their Torah achievements? Children are unable to compartmentalise their experiences – if they see sloppy presentation in one part of their schooling, it will affect others: is it too daring to suggest that users of poor English may become inexact Talmud readers?
Inaccurate English is most often caused by laziness and occasionally by a smidgen of arrogant superiority that allows people to think that they can get by without bothering to master the language. Simplistic English has a different source: inattentive reading, which leads to careless use of syntax and scant attention to the subtleties of language. Carefully reading a range of appropriate literature is the only way to develop a sophisticated and nuanced approach to the use of the language.
We need to produce more journals, children’s books, English-language scholarship and fiction that are engaging, rich and nuanced, and exposing our children to them, as well to a carefully-selected range of general literature. This will contribute to broadening their horizons and improving their capacity for self-expression and excellence in Torah learning. And without doubt, it will help us to extend our influence far beyond its current confine.
In an attempt to catch the last moments of holiday spirit, my wife and I took our children to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in West London on the day after Pesach. It was a magnificent day, matched by the beauty and diversity of the displays at the gardens. I hadn’t visited Kew Gardens for many years and had forgotten just how glorious it is. Our children, while initially reluctant to be schlepped along, enjoyed themselves in the end. A couple of comments they made there prompted me to write.
We were visiting the palm house admiring the trees when my elder son, who is seven, pointed at a gigantic leaf and asked, ‘Daddy, if this were Romaine, how many kezaytim (olive-volumes) could you get from that?’ This was a reference to the quantity of lettuce required for bitter herbs at the Seder. The answer, of course, was hundreds, but that is beside the point.
A little later, we were standing near some steps leading up to a building. At the side of the steps was a smooth concrete incline topped by a horizontal slab. Two of our daughters, aged eight and seven, observed that the structure looked like the altar in the Temple</st1:place></st1:city>. When I smiled uncomprehendingly, they kindly explained that the incline was the ramp leading up to the altar and the slab at the top was the altar itself. Obvious, really.
All this gave my wife and me much pleasure: we are blessed with great kids who are a credit to us and to their schools. My students constantly laugh at how much the children are like me. To a degree they are right, yet in so many ways, they see the world through very different eyes to mine. To be sure, I am the product of many years of intensive Yeshivah and Kollel education, yet I did not begin my development in the same type of family or schooling to which they are exposed and do not see the world in the same way that they do. We are fortunate to live in a Jewish community where we can provide our children with an outstanding, balanced education: their school day may cover a spectrum from a Rashi to arithmetic, Mishnah to music, cholent to Tchaikovsky. Nonetheless, they observe the world primarily though the prism of the Torah: their first understanding of every encounter involves a halachic (Jewish legal) or hashkafic (Jewish conceptual) perspective.
I do not, and probably never will, look at a tropical plant at Kew Gardens and automatically think ‘quantities for bitter herbs’. My eight-year-old daughter was slightly bemused by the fact that I did not instantly recognise the concrete structure outside the temperate house as a miniature altar.
‘Echad Mi Yodea’ (who knows one?) is a curious song appended to the Seder. It’s a little like ‘The house that Jack built’, progressing from one God, through two tablets, three forefathers, etc. and ending with the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy. The great Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, zt”l, offered a wonderful insight into why it appears at the Seder: it is a type of Jewish word-association game. In the regular version, I say ‘fork’ and you say the first word that comes into your mind, perhaps ‘knife’, and we continue from there. The Jewish version, sung after a long night of absorbing the wonders of Jewish national origins and praising God, is ‘Echad Mi Yodea’. When I say ‘one’, the first thing that should pop into your mind is ‘God’, ‘four’ should be ‘matriarchs’, ‘seven’ ‘Shabbat’, etc. It’s a kind of test as to how successful the Seder has been.
In the same vein, the development of what my wife cleverly termed ‘Halachic Child’ is a good indicator of the Jewishness of the child’s home and schooling. It’s not to say that the child will not also think of ‘The Beatles’ in response to the number ‘four’ or ‘wonders of the ancient world’ for ‘seven’, but it’s the first answer that counts. I’m so proud of my children.
Can the message of Pesach retain its value and meaning in the world of 2007 – a world of MRI scans, al Qaeda and Richard Dawkins? This is not just a question about Pesach, but also about the whole of Jewish life and thought. If Pesach is no longer relevant to our children, then we have no hope of successfully promoting the concept that the Jewish past must inform the Jewish future. If we find ourselves unable to relate to the national life of the Jewish people, if we fail to be inspired by its achievements and governed by its rules, then we may as well shut up shop now, and go with the flow of assimilation. The Pesach experience, especially the Seder, is seminal to the process of what is sometimes called Jewish Continuity. In its true form, Jewish Continuity is certainly a precious goal, something for which we all strive and hope. Every person reading this wants to have Jewish grandchildren who are not merely Jewish by name, but have a sense of Jewish history, an appreciation of Torah concepts and ideals and at least a modicum of observance, all coupled with the will and enthusiasm to impart all of that to their children.
It is clear that in Anglo-Jewry we have not broadly succeeded in doing this. To be sure, the observant community is growing in leaps and bounds, but elsewhere, in the heartlands of Anglo-Jewry, the message is not getting through. To be sure, there are many notable exceptions: Shuls, communities and outreach programmes that have had a major impact, but many places, the prognosis looks dire.
One of the keys to success is persistence. There is a beautiful parable for this, which will make things clearer. (It also involves a frog, which makes it suitable for Pesach!) A frog once fell into a bowl of milk. It realised that it had no hope of survival, as the milk was deep and the walls of the bowl too high to climb – the best that could possibly managed would be to tread water / milk for a while until exhaustion would set in and drowning became inevitable. So, thought the frog, why bother – I might as well drown now and save all the trouble. He shut his eyes, stopped struggling and drowned. A second frog fell into a bowl of milk. After making the same assessment as his lantsman, he closed his eyes and drowned. A third frog fell into a bowl of milk, but this one was a fighter. He paid no heed to the hopelessness of the situation, and ignoring all evidence to the contrary, remained convinced that he would survive. So he paddled and kicked with all his might, determined to keep going. As his flailing became more and more vigorous, the milk began to turn into butter and when most of it had solidified, he simply climbed out, tired, but alive to jump another day. The application of the parable is clear – continuous efforts, despite perilous conditions, are likely to produce some results. The Haggadah tells us:
In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself as if one has personally come out from Egypt…. Not only did the Holy One, may He be blessed, redeem our ancestors, but He redeemed us with them…
Can we really see the exodus as a personal experience – didn’t it happen over 3300 years ago? The truth is that unless we see Judaism as an experience of the here and now, we are finished. History is interesting, but by definition, it lives in the past – in books and memories, but not in the present. We can’t sell people a history book as a lifestyle, unless the experiences are direct and meaningful today.
Pesach and the Seder represent for us the conjunction of history and present. Rabbi Berel Wein, a well-known contemporary Jewish thinker and historian, points out something very interesting about his own family Seder. He notes that as a child, he sat at his grandfather’s Seder, at which his grandfather recalled his own childhood experiences with his grandfather, a man who could remember the great 19th century ethical teacher, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. At Rabbi Wein’s Seder, he sits with his grandchildren, who will be able, in due course and God willing, to share stories about their grandfather with their own grandchildren. Thus at one current Seder, we can see an experience potential spanning several generations. As Rabbi Wein points out, very few (less than 20) such structures are needed to bridge the gap between the exodus and the present day.
But to create meaning across the generations, tremendous effort is required. Indeed this only has meaning if the imperatives, ethics and goals of the past are shared with the present. Otherwise, in our minds, grandfather’s grandfather is a dinosaur, an artefact from a long-dead age, while grandchildren’s grandchildren inhabit a future unimaginably different from the world of today. The redemptive spirit of Pesach seeks, through our own efforts, to redress this – it links us to our past and, perhaps more importantly, it helps to assure our future. Only if we take Judaism and its wealth of ideas and experiences seriously can we say that we ourselves have been redeemed. We always have the chance to start afresh – to be redeemed and commence the path of spiritual growth once again. If we are prepared to do this, we, like the frog, may be able to climb out of the milk once and for all and create an unshakeable link across the generations. This is true Jewish Continuity.
The religious scruples of a Muslim police officer recently made headlines when she refused to shake hands with Sir Ian Blair at her passing-out ceremony. She asserted that her faith barred her from physical contact with men other than her husband or family members. This is reminiscent of the 2004 statement by President Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines warning men not to kiss her as a form of greeting. She announced, 'please, all the men in the country, so that I would not be rude to you, do not make kiss kiss with me’.
Jewish law has a strict code of conduct governing interactions between the sexes. Halachah expects care when it comes to physical contact with others, fully cognisant of the non-platonic potential in every touch. While in our society, contact in the form of shaking hands or even kissing has been desexualised, Judaism wishes us to remain sensitive to the majestic potential in each touch.
Contact between members of the opposite sex is forbidden, excepting close family members, where relationships are absolutely platonic. Restricting even casual contact to the marital relationship assures that the mildest touch can be replete with love and meaning. Judaism believes in powerful and passionate intimate relations and takes great care to ensure that every ounce of sensuality is reserved for marriage.
How far does this restriction extend? Halachah forbids any contact between the sexes that can be construed to be ‘derech chibah’ – holding any pleasurable or sexual suggestion whatsoever. This clearly forbids greeting others by kissing them, and, at least according to most halachists, prohibits even casual contact in the form of a handshake. If necessary, as in the case of the Muslim police cadet, one may have to explain oneself to avoid embarrassing others, or, by holding something in each hand, engineer a situation in which handshaking can be avoided altogether.
Yet some current halachists suggest that the handshake that commonly introduces business and social meetings is utterly devoid of sexual meaning. It is simply a means of activating a communication and is not ‘derech chibah’ at all. Accordingly, in this narrow circumstance it would be permissible to shake hands. A common compromise involves not instigating the handshake, but taking a hand offered to avoid embarrassing its owner. It should be emphasised that while this view is commonly relied upon, is not reflective of the view of the majority of halachists. It is however, the view of a respected minority opinion, and indeed, the view of my own teacher.
These restrictions do not apply to a doctor’s examination, as the halachah assumes that the doctor is immersed in his or her professional duties, which eliminates any concern. Whether they apply to other ‘professional’ circumstances, such as at the hairdresser’s, is a subject of discussion too.
Celebrating the conclusion of the Talmud
‘Why does our rabbi study Talmud?’ a perplexed congregant asked his synagogue’s chairman. ‘I thought he was already qualified!’ Traditional Judaism has always seen lifelong Torah study as absolutely indispensable to its vision of the world. The Shema itself requires us to strongly impress the Torah upon our children and to speak of it in every possible circumstance. The Mishnah describes Torah study as ‘equivalent to all of the Mitzvot’ and the Talmud prefers one who learns to one who observes, as ‘study leads to action.’People are often surprised to discover that my greatest passion, and that of many of my colleagues, is studying and teaching Torah. Perhaps the greatest challenge of a rabbi’s professional life is finding enough time to learn and thereby continue one’s life-goal of plumbing the depths of the Torah and deepening one’s connection with the divine.While there are many areas of Torah study, including Bible, Jewish philosophy, Jewish law and ethics, high-level learning most commonly centres on the Talmud. Judaism teaches that the revelation at Sinai was largely comprised of ‘the Oral Law’, a dynamic, all-encompassing repository of law, ethics, theological principles and esoteric ideas. This was meant to remain unwritten, scrupulously handed down by successive generations of teachers to their disciples. A century after the destruction of the second Temple, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi realised that this transmission was threatened by dispersal and persecution. So he wrote a terse form of the Oral Law, known as the Mishnah. Its analysis, discussion and clarification in the Torah academies of Israel and Babylon over the following centuries were codified as the Talmud by the sages of the early 6th century. Scrutinising, interpreting and most of all, absorbing oneself in the sea of the Talmud forms the basis for most Jewish learning today. Yeshivah students may devote as much as eight hours a day to its study. But it’s not easy; it can take years to master its complexities.One way in which I further my own learning is through ‘daf yomi’. One of the most remarkable study projects ever devised, it unites people around the world in studying a daily folio-page of Talmud. As it contains close to 3000 pages, the entire cycle takes seven and a half years. Hundreds of daily shiurim worldwide teach the ‘daf’, as it is affectionately known. Wherever you are, the shiur will be studying the same page on the same day. As well as the shiur-goers, thousands (like me) study privately, in small groups, at lunchtime, while travelling, by listening to a recorded shiur, or even over the Internet.The daily ‘daf’ is not a substitute for deeper study – there are pages that I should have learned better and others, I will admit, barely recall. Yet it has allowed me to maintain daily study despite a hectic schedule. It has also enabled me to acquaint myself with areas of Jewish thought that I would otherwise never have seen. And it has become part of my life – at the top of every day’s schedule is the ‘daf’; when I travel, my miniature tractate accompanies me, and my congregants would be surprised not to see me peering into a text whenever I get the chance. The famous author Herman Wouk, a ‘daf yomi’ aficionado, remarked that the Talmud was in his bones, ‘elegant and arcane ethical algebra,’ quintessentially Jewish, fun and holy besides.The 11th cycle of daf yomi will end on 1st March. Huge celebrations are planned in the UK, Israel and around the world, wherever the daf is learned. There will even be one in Lublin, where it all started. The biggest event will be in the USA, where an expected 120,000 people (of whom I will be one) will gather for a mega-siyum (concluding celebration). I am very excited – proud that I have actually seen it through, thrilled to have shared an experience with countless Jews around the world and overjoyed to attend the biggest siyum in history. But most of all, I can’t wait to start again.
Daf Yomi was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the pre-war head of the Yeshivah in Lublin. In 1923, at the first congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna, he proposed a daily page-a-day Talmud study programme, known as daf yomi. Scholars and laymen alike study the daf and finish the entire Talmud in seven and a half years. Daf yomi has grown into a worldwide movement, with shiurim and followers in every major Jewish community in the world. Many Jewish calendars now include the daf schedule and the current cycle has seen significant growth in the number of devotees.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle; it is reprinted with permission.
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.