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.

Sermon Notes 28/01/12 - Bo

Of Darkness, Rationalism and Jewish Leadership

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

The last three plagues are described in the first part of this week’s parashah.  A controversial approach to the ninth plague – darkness (Shemot 10:21-23) – appears in the Torah Temimah.  This work, published in 1902 by Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein of Pinsk, comments on selected midrashim verse by verse.  Analysing a midrash which claims that the darkness was ‘as thick as a coin’ (see Yalkut Shimoni to Tehillim 105), Rabbi Epstein says the following:

Were I not afraid to produce an entirely novel approach, I would have said that the darkness was not in the air, but in the Egyptians’ eyes – a kind of cataract obscuring their pupils.  The rabbis point out that this cataract was tangible and was ‘as thick as a coin’. (Torah Temimah to Shemot 10:21, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)

Whenever a rabbi introduces an observation with the phrase ‘were I not afraid… I would have said’, he knows that what he is about to write will is contentious.  Indeed, some critics viewed Rabbi Epstein’s understanding as an unacceptable deviation from ‘normative’ interpretation; to this day, some ultra-conservative groups treat the entire work with suspicion.

In fact, Rabbi Epstein was merely following a well-trodden, but unpopular, mode of interpretation, one based firmly in the writings of the Rambam:

It is incumbent upon us to combine Torah and rationalism, to explain matters as naturalistically as possible.  Only when something is absolutely inexplicable by natural means, should one say that it is a ‘miracle’. (Rambam, Epistle on the Resuscitation of the Dead, section 2, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)

The Rambam means that one should only resort to a complex – supernatural explanation – of any event described in the Torah – when all simpler – read: naturalistic – explanations have been exhausted.  I would term this a Maimonidean version of Occam’s Razor.

While of course, the opportune appearance of targeted cataracts can only be attributed to divine intervention, Rabbi Epstein’s explanation minimises the miraculous nature of the plague of darkness by rationalising it as far as possible.  Apparently, this was something that Rabbi Epstein’s detractors found unforgivable.

This long-forgotten controversy highlights the tension between rationalistic and super-rationalistic approaches to Judaism that have existed since long before the publication of the Torah Temimah.  It lies at the heart of the radically different world-views of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari and the Rambam’s Moreh Nevochim – Guide for the Perplexed, and continues today.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the rationalistic approach to Torah interpretation and Jewish thought is in retreat and has gradually ceded to the super-or even anti-rationalism which now characterises much of Orthodox society.  This is evident in every area of Jewish life: the content of popular works; the adulation of leaders; the immense growth in segulot – spiritual remedies of the ‘give your money to this cause and you’ll find a spouse, have a baby, be cured of an illness, or make a living’ variety.

There are too many negative spinoffs of this phenomenon to consider in a short space.  They include the unwillingness to contextualise talmudic texts describing the observable universe and the subsequent rejection of the need to reconcile Torah with scientific discoveries, a naive, romanticised understanding of world history and a hagiographic approach to the lives of Jewish leaders.  All of these and others make some prevalent forms of Jewish life deeply unattractive to thinking people and mean that there is little opportunity for those already within the system to find answers to genuine questions.

But a particularly worrying consequence of the super-rationalistic approach is the manner in which leaders of some parts of the community are appointed and the uncritical way in which their performance is evaluated.  Sadly, rabbinical leaders are not always chosen because they have the appropriate qualifications, can identify with the lives and concerns of their charges and will fight for them.   And when they remain silent in the face of injustice, as has happened too often in recent times, their disciples are willing to attribute this to the rabbis’ higher knowledge or holiness rather than to a failure of leadership.   And while, of course, every system of governance can be abused by its leaders, Jewish leadership should be a beacon of good sense, fairness and transparency, not words one would immediately associate with some contemporary leaders.

A return to rationalism, a neglected, but bona fide Jewish alternative, is sorely needed, especially in Israel.  It’s not the answer to every problem the Jewish world faces, but it will go a long way to making authentic Orthodox Judaism more attractive to intelligent people, better able to face the social and intellectual challenges of living a religious life in a modern world, and, perhaps most importantly, more capable of producing leaders who will actually lead our communities. 

תורה תמימה, שמות י:כא

ומבואר במדרשים שהחושך כעובי דינר, וכלל הענין מופלא מאד, דמה שייך להתפיס שיעור ממשות בחושך, וגם צ"ע דלפי פירש"י שהיה כל משך המטל"ע כולו לילה ולא היה יום כלל א"כ נשתנו סדרי בראשית , וזה קשה מאד שהרי הקב"ה הבטיח לנח ולבניו ויום ולילה לא ישבותו.

ולולא מסתפינא להמציא דבר חדש מאד ה"א דענין החושך היה לא באויר רק בעיני האנשים, והיינו שהיה מתוח תבלול על אישון העין, ואמרו חכמים שאותו התבלול היה נמוש ביד וגם היה כעובי דינר, וניחא הכל.

רמב"ם, מאמר תחית המתים, קטע ב'

ואנחנו נשתדל לקבץ בין התורה והמשכל וננהיג הדברים על סדר טבעי אפשר בכל זה, אלא מה שהתבאר בו שהוא מופת ולא יתכן לפרשו כלל אז נצטרך לומר שהוא מופת.

Sermon Notes 07/01/12 - VaYechi

Where are the Leaders?  Shoftim, Shotrim and the Current Crisis

 If you’d have wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but…

I’ve just spent a wonderful week in Israel with our third daughter, Tomor Chemdoh, as part of her Bat Mitzvah celebrations.

During our stay, there was a mass rally in Bet Shemesh against the behaviour of a particular group of the Charedi locals.  Ostensibly provoked by an incident in which a man spat on a school-girl because he disapproved of her attire, it was really the result of months of tension generated by a sect of zealots who often use violent means to impose extreme standards of modesty on the rest of the community.  The actions of these self-styled ‘Sikrikim’1 have distressed and infuriated their victims and have attracted international interest (the rally was the second item on the BBC News website the following day).  They have also led to pointed questions about the direction and future of the Charedi communities, and indeed the entire Orthodox world.

Some people are exercised by the fact that the frum community has spawned these extremists, but I am not.  Every group gives rise to a certain number of crazies who will attempt to attain their narrow, dysfunctional goals by whatever means, irrespective of whom they hurt or the damage inflicted on the society they insist they are protecting.  I am much more troubled by the failure of the community, particularly its leaders, to deal properly with the extremists.  A society is judged not by whether it produces radicalised lunatics, but how its leaders respond to the danger that such people pose.  By that measure we are currently failing.

The Torah articulates this clearly: ‘You shall appoint shoftim ve-shotrim - judges and enforcers - in all of your gates’ (Devarim 16:18).  A Torah-based community can only function successfully when the judges - its religious leaders, and the enforcers – its police, work together to ensure that law and order is maintained: protecting the weak and dealing appropriately with troublemakers whose behaviour threatens to destabilise society or oppress groups within it.

While in modern Israel, the religious leaders are not the lawmakers, nor are the police their agents, both have an important role to play in eliminating the canker of extremism and the primitive and often deeply misogynist behaviour (many of their antics are geared to eliminating women from the public sphere) that often follows in its wake.  In a religious society, especially a contemporary Charedi one, the rabbinic leaders are alleged to reign supreme, yet when it comes to the Sikrikim, most rabbis have either been silent or have issued feeble statements that they cannot do anything to restrain them.2  The police have also claimed that they cannot control the zealots.  Yet the Torah expects the rabbis and the police - the shoftim and the shotrim - to work separately or in collaboration to facilitate a just religious society; right now this means ridding it of these sectarians.

Not that this vindicates their lack of response, but I suspect that the police are concerned that their intervention will be counterproductive; there have been statements to this effect.  Like other volatile groups, the extreme edge of the Charedi world is easily radicalised; indeed, there were at least two sizeable counter-demonstrations soon after the Bet Shemesh rally.

As for the rabbis of some Charedi communities, I regret that I must interpret their impotence in one of the following ways: a) they fear the physical consequences of speaking out3 against the Sikrikim; b) they are apprehensive about the professional consequences of condemning them - i.e. they risk being marginalised and losing their own authority; c) like the police, they believe that their intervention will fail or even exacerbate the problem; d) they actually approve of the Sikrikims’ objectives in ‘purifying the camp’, if not the means they use to achieve them.  Unfortunately, it is hard to escape the conclusion that silence from a rabbinate that has vociferously declaimed on such diverse topics as army service, concerts, mixed-seating on buses, the denier of hosiery, secular education, mobile ‘phones and the validity of scientific enquiry, may indeed indicate tacit approval.  I hope that I’m mistaken about this.

Yet whichever of these is correct, and it is probably a combination, the picture is not pretty.  Leaders who are frightened of their constituents or are too weak to act decisively against a public perversion of Jewish values and the consequent mass Chilul HaShem are part of the problem, not the solution.  It is fascinating, albeit predictable, that even in a community where Da’as Torah4 supposedly determines the ‘correct’ view on every topic, presumably including the appropriate way to behave towards those with whom one disagrees, the leaders cannot really control extremists.  Perhaps this exposes something about the Charedi world that is obvious in more democratic societies - despite appearances to the contrary, the authority of the leaders derives from the will of the people.

Leaders must speak out against injustice, irrespective of the personal cost.  They must teach that the ways of Torah are pleasant and peaceful, that Torah societies are compassionate and tolerant, and a light to, rather than a blight on the modern world.  They must show that the Torah demands high standards of interpersonal conduct from its adherents and that its leaders harshly condemn and punish those who distort its message.

The fact is that in the case of the Sikrikim, there is safety in numbers: there are hundreds of prominent Charedi rabbis - yeshivah deans, halachic decisors and Chassidic Rebbes.  If they would sign strongly-worded letters of censure and publicly condemn the perpetrators after every incident much could be achieved quickly.  They should also deny known trouble-makers the essentials of Orthodox life - community membership, inclusion in a minyan, aliyot, and even refuse them business and burial - the old-fashioned cherem (ban of excommunication issued against miscreants to deprive them of social and economic opportunities).  And most importantly, the rabbis should work together with the police to identify, apprehend and punish this scourge on the religious world.  And even though this strategy will never be entirely effective, it will shown beyond a doubt that Orthodoxy and its teachers utterly repudiate these contemptible people, something which, rightly or wrongly, is being questioned at the moment.  Then with God’s help will we succeed in restoring the sense that a real Torah society is headed by shoftim ve-shotrim.


1.  The word is a corruption of the Latin ‘Sicarii’, an extremist Jewish group active against the Romans immediately before the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.

2. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and a small number of other important rabbis have spoken out against the Sikrikim, but there has been mostly silence from the primary leaders of the Lithuanian-Yeshivish and Chassidic communities.

3. Sadly, this is no idle concern.  There have been some ugly incidents when the property and family members of outspoken rabbis have been threatened; one well-known rabbi who spoke out on a previous occasion had to go into hiding for a week following the publication of his remarks.  Much more seriously, there was even the horrific murder last year of a prominent Sefardi rabbi by a demented ex-follower.

4. The doctrine that rabbinical guidance determines the ‘correct’ approach to every issue, even those outside of narrow halachic parameters.

Sermon Notes 15/10/11 - Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot

Gilad Shalit: Rejoicing After The Deal Is Done

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

I have taken a couple of days to process my own feelings about the impending prisoner exchange in Israel, which will include the return of Gilat Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity.  By Shabbat Chol HaMoed I felt able to offer some thoughts on an extraordinary moment in Israel’s history.

I saw a quote from MK Yisrael Hasson which sums up my stance beautifully: הלב שמח, הראש דואג  – the heart rejoices, the head worries.  Who is not filled with delight at the prospect of Gilad’s return – a Jewish boy, a soldier captured protecting our land, will soon be freed and celebrating with his family?  Yet who is not also consumed with angst at the prospect of releasing 1000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were responsible for major terrorist atrocities?  And perhaps more worrying, what are the longer-term consequences for Israel of vastly inequitable deals such as this?  It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a victory for Hamas and an incentive for further abductions.

Jewish sources have long debated this issue.  The most well-know case was that of the 13th-century German-Jewish leader, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who was kidnapped in Lombardy in 1286.  Tradition has it that a huge sum was raised to ransom him, but he refused to allow the community to pay the money for fear of encouraging other abductions.  Even after he died in prison in 1293, his body wasn’t released for burial for a further 14 years.  In more recent times, the view of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, a world-leading American scholar, was solicited during a 1970 Arab plane-hijacking.  One of the passengers was Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, a famous Rosh Yeshivah and Torah personality.  Rabbi Hutner’s students were considering raising a large ransom for his release, but Rabbi Kaminetsky opposed this move.  He argued that in wartime (and he considered the ongoing Arab-Israeli hostilities to be such a situation), the delivery of a ransom strengthens the enemy’s position, something unconscionable, no matter the alternative.

Yet in my view, this position, while compelling, is only relevant pre facto and must not determine our response to the Shalit deal post facto.  This distinction is informed by a halachic rule about what one says about a poor purchase made by a friend – while beforehand one may say that one doesn’t like the item, once he or she has purchased it, one must set aside one’s reservations and be unfailingly supportive and positive.

The agreement over Gilad Shalit’s release is done.  Whatever our misgivings about the deal and its consequences, we must all now thank God that it has happened and enthusiastically celebrate Gilad’s imminent return to his family.  Any other response would devalue the significance of his release, spurn the efforts expended by so many on his behalf and divide the Jewish people.

Sermon Notes 19/03/11 - Zachor and Purim

Purim, murders in Itamar and catastrophe in Japan

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

The past few days have been filled with tragedy: in Japan: first the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami which have destroyed countless thousands of lives, I have already posted a little about the unfolding tragedy in Japan here; we must continue to pray for the wellbeing of the survivors, for a successful resolution to the nuclear emergency there and to assist in whatever way we feel we can.

And then, in our beloved Israel, the despicable, unspeakable terrorist murder of the Fogel family in Itamar has shaken us all and our thoughts are with the surviving children and other family members.  On Parashat Zachor are we in any doubt that ‘in every generation they stand up to annihilate us’ (Haggadah) and that remembering the evil of those who will ‘destroy, eliminate, murder all the Jews, women and children’ (Megillah) is just as relevant today.

In the light of this, it is very difficult to be in the mood for Purim – it hardly feels like a time of celebration and victory, with Japan devastated and orphans mourning the victims of another senseless attack.  Yet how can we not celebrate Purim – which recognises Jewish survival throughout history, despite all the odds?

I suggest that what all of us feel at times like this is a sense of hopelessness – a fear that we are, in fact, subject to purely deterministic forces and random chance.  We are despair that nothing we do really makes any difference – if any of us just ‘happened’ to be in North-Eastern Japan last Friday morning or in the wrong house in Itamar last Friday night, we too could have been killed.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (commentary to VaYikra 11) explains that the laws of impurity governing human remains are intended to address precisely this issue:

The human corpse calls attention to a fact that is liable to foster the misconception that is called impurity.  For the fact is that, when a corpse lies before us, a human being has succumbed to the compelling physical forces of nature.

But the following is also true: The corpse we see before us is not the whole man, nor even his essence.  For man’s true being cannot be touched by the power of physical forces.

These are the truths that must be impressed upon the mind of the living person who faces the phenomena of death.  For whereas death brings to mind man’s frailty and his submission to the forces of nature, man must stand tall in the midst of the physical world, proud of his vital freedom.

The notion that we are subject to random forces entirely beyond our control engenders religious and moral torpor and is the antithesis of everything Judaism holds dear.  It is also the ideology of Amalek: Amalek ‘chanced upon you on the way’ (Parashat Zachor) and Haman cast lots to decide when to kill the Jews.  As such, while Purim (and Zachor) certainly remember the evil acts of our enemies past and present, it is also an affirmation and celebration of the most important religious idea of all: the rejection of determinism and randomness.  Of course, this leaves serious theological questions about the nature of calamity and the lot of its victims.  Yet while mustering the strength to celebrate will certainly be more difficult than usual, this Purim offers an unprecedented opportunity to affirm and celebrate the role of God, meaning and purpose in every moment of life.

Israel Sabbatical

Israel Sabbatical Thoughts and a Pressing Need

Having been in Jerusalem for most of the winter, I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel, my love-affair with it, and how that plays out in our lives in the UK, where we actually seem to live.  Before sharing these, a little about what I did when not sitting the library staring at a laptop.

Although I usually visit Israel frequently, I hadn’t been there for two consecutive weekends in at least 20 years; this meant that my visits usually follow a pretty conservative schedule.  But during my Sabbatical, I made it to a reasonable number of places around the country, mostly near to Jerusalem, although I did tour in the Galil and venture to the wilds of Ma’ale Gilboa.  I particularly enjoyed visiting the Neot Kedumim nature reserve and hiking to Sataf, although, for the record, I’ve still never been to either Eilat or Bnai Brak.  I’ve had wonderful Shabbatot with friends in Modi’in, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Kfar Sava, Efrat, and in various Jerusalem districts, as well as at Kibbutz Lavi.  I’ve generally preferred to ‘sit in the audience’, although I did speak one Shabbat at the Eretz Hemdah community in Katamon; I also delivered a Friday-night shiur in Kfar Sava and I lectured to a post-graduate group at Bar Ilan University about the challenges facing Anglo-Jewry.  In Ramat Beit Shemesh I was asked unexpectedly to speak at a Kiddush, although after I’d finished, I discovered that they’d confused me with someone else!

But the abiding memories of my extended stay will be of the pleasure of just being there: the sheer numbers of Jews; the view from the bus window of the incredibly beautiful Harey Yehudah; daily duchaning, the melting pot that is the National Library of Israel, where everyone from Chasidic men to non-religious women share ideas in a tolerant and open environment; the deafening Sephardic music so beloved by taxi-drivers; the small Shul which attracts the weirdest group of people imaginable; the American Christians on a solidarity tour wearing tzitziot tied to their belts; the man who could ‘prove’ to me that my watch didn’t need a new battery (and was right).  It cannot be overemphasised that Judaism and Jewish life thrive best in Israel, not elsewhere, and although we do our utmost to create vibrant, meaningful Jewish experiences in the Diaspora, often even succeeding, they will always be a pale reflection of the ‘real thing’.

This thought leads me to more weighty matters.  I have watched from afar the recent controversy over remarks about Israel from Mick Davis, a prominent Anglo-Jewish lay-leader.  I won’t evaluate the entire saga here; both the Chief Rabbi and the Israeli Ambassador offered considered responses at the time, as did pundits from across the political and religious spectrum.  The debate will undoubtedly rumble on as to whether it is appropriate to criticise Israeli government policy, and if so, how, by whom, and in what circumstances.  There is nothing new about this.

The Chief Rabbi was correct to point out that the debate over Davis’ remarks is a ‘sideshow’ (albeit one worthy of serious debate), given that many of Israel’s enemies base their policies on their principled denial of Israel’s right to exist.  Yet this opinion is no longer confined to Arab administrations and would-be governments: while even a few years ago, questioning Israel’s legitimacy only occurred on the fringes of the British media, it is now disturbingly mainstream.  And if, with a heavy heart, I admit that not all forms of anti-Zionism are anti-Semitism, denying Jews a right accorded to other peoples - self-determination in our historic homeland - surely is.

We dare not be oblivious to the impact of media delegitimisation, as well as from boycotts and anti-Israel campus activity.  It has a ‘drip-drip’ negative impact on every member of the community, especially on those without strong convictions or a good grasp of the facts.  It is no longer uncommon to meet Jews, especially young men and women, who have unintentionally internalised the narrative of Israel’s enemies, and at best are embarrassed by Israel and ambivalent about her legitimacy.

More important than debating the rectitude of criticising Israel, and perhaps even more pressing than fighting external threats, the community needs a strong and effective strategy to ensure that Jews of all political and religious affiliations are convinced of the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel and will promote and, when necessary, defend it.

Tenach, ancient and modern Jewish history and political thought are no longer just part of a rounded Jewish education, but are indispensable for meeting the exigent realities of an Israel-hostile environment.  Many of our schools and other educational institutions already do this, some admirably.  Yet it needs to be pushed higher up the agenda, especially among university and high-school students and in communities where few children attend Jewish schools.

Success in this area also confers other advantages.  It transcends denominational and political feuds – a left-leaning liberal and a staunch religious-Zionist rightist may disagree fiercely about almost every aspect of Jewish life and certainly about how Israel should respond to its challenges, but can share a belief in  the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the Land and the synergy between Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people.  But most importantly, mobilising a corps of informed, Israel-positive activists, who comprehend and unabashedly celebrate the miracle of the Jewish return to the Land should enable us, rather than our detractors, to frame the Israel debate.

A long-awaited trip to Israel

In Israel with Tehilloh

My second daughter, Tehilloh, is very excited, as in about a month, God willing, she and I will be spending eight days together in Israel. She will become Bat Mitzvah at the end of June, and this trip to Israel, her first, is her special birthday present from me and my wife.

I have the privilege of visiting Israel often, but for various reasons, my wife gets there only occasionally, and my children not at all. As such, it is a challenge to ensure that our children share our passion for Israel and remain aware of the fact that Israel lies at the centre of all Jewish religious, political and national aspirations. It is too easy for them to spend their childhood in the comfort of Golders Green without properly understanding the importance of Israel and the focal role that it ought to play in their lives and objectives. How does one convey to children living in a Diaspora that is largely happy and supportive of their religious lives that living outside Israel is not ideal? How does one teach Diaspora children to comprehend the miracle of the Jewish return to the Land, celebrate Israel’s successes, commiserate with her failings and identify with Israel and Israelis? How does one make them appreciate that the heart of the Jewish people beats not in Golders Green or Boro Park, but in Jerusalem?

One way that we have devised is to try to take each child for a private, intensive tour of Israel as the main part of the celebration of their religious maturity. I took our eldest daughter three years ago, but I hope that as we get further down the family, my wife will be able to take some of the children for their special tour. The rest of the celebration will be modest – a dinner for family and friends and a Se’udah She’lishit hosted by our community – but the trip to Israel is seen as the ‘big’ experience. While we are there, I hope to take Tehilloh to key places of religious and historical interest (she’s been researching where she would like to go), see some friends, engage in a chessed project and visit a couple of famous people. But mostly, I want Tehilloh to have a fabulous time soaking up the incomparable atmosphere of the Land, to experience its smells, sounds, people, craziness and Jewishness so that she too will get the ‘Israel bug’ that will fill her dreams and aspirations, as my wife and I did years ago. I am confident that this trip will do the job and enable her to understand why when I return from one trip to Israel, I can’t wait to plan the next.

As you can tell, I’m as excited as Tehilloh, even though I’ve done it all before, not least to get eight whole days of private daughter-daddy time. But most of all I’m excited and blessed to have the opportunity to contribute to strengthening Tehilloh’s Jewish identity and helping her to build her connection with our Land.

Rabbi in Israel - War in Gaza

In Israel during the Gaza operation

I am sitting in the National Library at the Hebrew University on the third day of a visit to Israel. I am in here to catch up with young people from my community who are studying at various institutions in Israel, but have dedicated today, the Fast of Tevet, to rest and to some private study. Yet instead, I feel motivated to write a short post about the atmosphere here. In the interests of brevity, here are a few points that have stuck in my mind:
  • Every minyan I have visited is saying a 'Kapitl Tehillim' - a chapter of psalms - after each service, every day, followed by a prayer for the wellbeing of Jews everywhere. For your interest, so far I have been to a shteibl in Meah Shearim, the minyan of a prominent Chassidic Rebbe, a religious Zionist Shul and the minyan at the Hebrew University library.
  • There is a hand-written note pinned to the door of the lift in the building where I am staying, advertising opportunities to send non-perishable food to soldiers in Gaza. Apparently, there are many such notices, as well as those volunteering to deliver the goods.
  • I spoke yesterday to the head of a 'hesder' yeshivah; some of his students have been drafted and he is expecting most of the rest of the yeshivah to be called in the event of a prolonged or expanded conflict. This is the vision of the 'hesder' programme: enabling its students to combine Torah learning with military duty.
  • I also spoke yesterday to a prominent so-called anti-Zionist rabbi who told me that he has encouraged his community to recognise what he called the 'miracle' in the south of Israel: the incredibly few casualties in the wake of 1000s of rocket attacks. He pointed out to me that while many in the Israeli media are observing that this is 'abnormal', that is insufficient - we must see the hand of God in this phenomenon.
  • How meaningful the additional prayers for the fast day seemed this morning; the primary purpose of a fast day is introspection - I found this rather more manageable than usual. These selichot also contain texts that were, perhaps, easier to absorb than usual: references to the siege on the Holy Temple and our hopes that fast days will be transformed into moments of rejoicing.
  • I was particularly startled by the word חמסנו - we have acted aggressively - which appears in the alphabetic confession said on fast days (every day in some communities). והמבין יבין.

I am impressed by the sense of calm and normality which seems to exist. Of course, for those with husbands or other family members in the IDF or who live close to the area of hostility, it must be a nerve-wracking time, yet Israelis have learned (sadly) to live normally, despite stress and uncertainty. But most of all, I am struck by the sense of unity and real care and fervent hope expressed by everyone here, of whatever stripe or allegiance within the religious community. I'm pleased that I've been here during this difficult time, as I've learned a lot of good things about Israelis and Israeli society.

May the hostilities end soon and the casualties be very few. May we also value the precious unity that this campaign has engendered and realise that it needn't take a war...

Under-Breeding Ourselves Out of Existence

A View from London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Herd Mentality

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Tolerance and disagreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents