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 07/05/11 - Emor

Responding to the Downfall of the Wicked

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

The recent death of Osama bin Laden should prompt us to think about the appropriate way to respond to the elimination of evil.  How should we feel when arguably the most hated man on the planet meets his end?  What is our reaction to footage of Americans uproariously celebrating the news of bin Laden’s demise?

Of course, it is impossible for those not directly affected to appreciate the full impact of his heinous deeds – the US itself and not just specific Americans were terribly traumatised at what they have viewed as an attack on their very way of life and ideals.  Yet, it still behoves us to consider what may be a proper and spiritually-sensitive approach to such events.

An obvious starting point is the Book of Mishlei, which insists that: ‘When your enemy falls, do not rejoice; do not let your heart rejoice when he stumbles’ (24:17).  This verse is supported by the Talmud’s observation that when the Egyptians drowned at the Reed Sea:

The angels wanted to sing.  God said to them: ‘My creations are drowning in the Sea, and you want to sing?’ (Megillah 10b)

This concern for the fate of the Egyptians is reflected in the abbreviation of the celebratory Hallel Psalms said on the latter six days of Pesach.  At the Seder, we spill a few drops of wine from our cups when mentioning the ten plagues to recognise the Egyptians' suffering.

Yet there seem to be another stream of sources.  Although the angels were not allowed to sing at the time the Egyptians drowned, Moses and Miriam led the entire nation in Song the very next day; we celebrate the downfall of Haman on Purim, often with wild abandon.  Another verse in Mishlei (11:10) suggests that 'there is joy when the wicked perish', and the Talmud notes that:

King David did not say ‘Halleluiah’ until he saw the downfall of the wicked, as the verse says: (Tehillim 104) ‘May the wicked perish from the land and let the wicked be no more; bless the Lord, My soul, Halleluiah’. (Berachot 9b)

These sources do not actually contradict each other.  However despicable a human being may be, and however much better the world is without them, their death should always be tinged with sadness.  At the moment of their demise, the possibility to admit their wrongdoing and do whatever they can to rectify it is lost forever – that is not a time for celebration.   Indeed, Beruriah, wife of the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Meir, pointed out to him that it would be preferable for his oppressors to repent rather than be eliminated.  He accepted her viewpoint, prayed for mercy and they repented of their evil ways. (Berachot 10a)  This is why it was not appropriate for the angels to sing while the Egyptians were drowning.

Once the moment has passed, however, it is appropriate to celebrate – but not the enemy’s death.  Instead, it is correct to be glad that the good-evil balance has shifted in favour of good, and that as a result, we are a little closer to achieving our spiritual objectives.  We should be glad that bin Laden is no more, yet saddened that his death was the only way in which to eliminate the evil that he represented.  The rejoicing at the Sea and Purim focus not on the removal of our adversaries, but on our survival.

In the same vein, the classic commentary Metzudat David notes that the reason there is joy when the wicked perish is 'because while they are yet alive, they harm people'.  Sadly, in most cases, only the death of the wicked removes the evil from the world.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner explains that there are moments in history when it is possible to gain a brief glimpse of an idyllic world, in which the good are rewarded and the evil get their come-uppance.  The spectacular downfall of the wicked, such as happened at the Sea, qualifies.  As such, when King David visualised the elimination of the wicked, he felt motivated to say ‘Halleluiah’ for the first time.  For a fleeting instant, the world was set to rights

But Psalm 104 is not a vengeful song of the victor, but a beautiful paean to God’s complete control over the wonders of the terrestrial and celestial realms.  The psalmist used the downfall of the wicked to emphasis his conviction that it is God, not Man, who runs the world – this is expressed in every facet of existence, from the majesty of the mountains to the chirping of the birds, and most certainly in the eventual demise of those who commit evil.

Our response to the death of bin Laden should be gladness at the elimination of the wickedness he perpetrated, muted by the realisation that there is a great deal of evil left to combat and much work to be done to bring God-awareness to humanity.

Thanks to Rabbi N.S. Liss for helpful suggestions

A Torah Haven in the Geordie Heartlands

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.

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.

The Art of Judaism

Prologue – learning from everyone

Ben Zoma asked, ‘Who is wise?’ He answered, ‘Someone who learns from everyone’. (Avot 4:1)

The problem to be faced is: how to combine loyalty to one's own tradition with reverence for different traditions? (Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘No religion is an island’)

I’ve often thought that Anglo-Jewry, and especially the United Synagogue, is vague about what it actually stands for.  We’re good at defining what we’re not – not too frum, not too Zionist, and generally not too excited about overt expressions of religiosity – but rather poor at settling on who and what we are.  In a world where attractive alternatives to Orthodox Judaism abound, it is unlikely that we will successfully capture the hearts and minds of educated people (who, like all of us today are ‘Jews by choice’), without a clear sense of who we are and what we stand for.

We have a wide range of self-descriptions for our spectrum of the Orthodox world.  These include ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’, ‘Torah u-Madda’, and ‘modern’, ‘open’, ‘centrist’ or even ‘contemporary’.  Whatever the description, they all believe in two key principles: the historical truth of the Divine revelation at Sinai and the binding imperative of halachah, as understood by the Talmud and other traditional sources, as discussed in more detail here.  While scholars continue to discuss the  ramifications of these ideas, they remain the indispensable tenets of normative Judaism.  As such, they are the principles on which the United Synagogue stands, together with the rest of the Orthodox world.

However, I don’t plan to add yet another designation to the burgeoning lexicon of ‘Orthodoxies’.  Instead, I have in mind a broader project, which leads me back to the theme of this series – ‘The Art of Judaism’.  If the centrist Orthodox community is to have a distinguishing motif, I suggest that it should be ‘to learn from everyone’, in the words of Ben Zoma.  While this can include those within and even outside the Jewish world with whom one may fundamentally disagree, in this series I will focus on the plethora of ideas, outlooks and approaches within the Orthodox world.  The epigraph from Professor Heschel refers to tolerance of traditions outside of Judaism, but I have taken the liberty of applying it within the Orthodox world.

If Judaism is an art-form, then producing an appealing and sophisticated picture requires us to paint with every shade in the ‘paint-box’ of the Jewish world; this means recognising that each part of the traditional world has something to contribute to a modern ‘post-denominational’ Orthodoxy, even if we do not accept any one in its entirety.  While not an exhaustive list, our outlook will certainly draw on the warmth and traditionalism of the Sephardim, the Litvaks' utter commitment to Torah study, the infatuation with God and love of every Jew of the Chassidim, the great Jewish philosophers' intellectual rigour, the passion for the Land of Israel of the Religious Zionists, Chabad's sense of mission, the synthesis of Torah and modernity of the Modern Orthodox, and Rav Kook's mystical zeal and  revolutionary belief in the Jewish people.

I will draw my inspiration from these and other traditions and others in the forthcoming articles, the first of which will discuss Shabbat and self-awareness.

The Art of Judaism

Introduction

Be of glad heart, those who seek God… (Psalms 105:3)

Life is too short, or too long, for me to allow myself the luxury of living it so badly. (Paulo Coelho)

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about the religious complexion of Anglo-Jewry and why so few of us seem to engage seriously with Jewish ideas and observance.  Of course, many are very generous to Jewish causes, identify strongly with Israel and ‘drop in’ on various festival and life-cycle observances, and all of us enjoy the odd Jewish gastronomic experience.  Yet it is fair to say that despite feelingly proudly Jewish, for most of us, this does not translate into observance or an interest in learning more about Judaism and its approach to life.

This is not a new phenomenon and many explanations have been offered for it.  A popular suggestion is that most Jews simply know very little about Judaism and what it has to say about the world.  Although the recent proliferation of Jewish educational opportunities has improved things considerably, I think that the actual cause of disinterest in Judaism runs rather deeper.

I’ve realised that many of us perceive the prospect of increased involvement with Jewish life as an impediment to achieving our most important life-goals.  As someone who loves Judaism with a passion and has the great privilege of living as a ‘professional’ Jew, this is a difficult thing to admit, but  I’m convinced it’s true.  For those who have thought about it, greater identification with the Jewish world through observance of Jewish law and Torah study is considered stifling a life-option that prevents, rather than facilitates, personal fulfilment.

Torah study is considered a dreary endeavour, focused on antiquated ideas and rules; Jewish law a ‘dead hand’ preoccupied with minutiae that have no relevance to the modern world .  For example, a common view of Shabbat observance is that it consists of a group of random and irritating restrictions, producing a frustrating experience far removed from one’s aspirations for a day off from work.  Scrupulous kashrut observance imposes on one’s social and professional life, not to mention one’s vacation options, and religious life appears to revolve around attendance at synagogue services that even those  familiar with liturgical Hebrew would find it a struggle to sit through.  And I admit that there are members of the religious world who reinforce this view; we have all come across those who seem judgemental and unsophisticated and, sadly, some who are obviously rather unhappy and unfulfilled.

Yet I think that this perception is a distortion of what properly understood and sensitively deployed Judaism can enable us to achieve.  Far from frustrating one’s objectives, serious engagement with Jewish learning and observance offers a powerful opportunity for the realisation of the ideals to which all of us aspire.  While these obviously vary from person to person, they likely include: raising balanced and well-mannered children, developing appropriate values and priorities, sensitivity to the lives and needs of others, social justice and improving the lot of the less-fortunate, contributing to one’s society and to the betterment of humanity, and gaining a sense of the purpose of life and what lies beyond it.  Most importantly, it will certainly include the attempt to attain self-knowledge and to grapple with achieving a sense of personal mission, which empower one to make a unique contribution to the world.  And while happiness and self-fulfilment are not the explicit goals of Judaism, it is correct to say that when its project is properly implemented, contentment and a sense of meaning are a natural consequence.  As King David said, ‘be glad of heart, those who seek God’.

But to achieve this, I suggest a different approach to Judaism and its potential is needed – this demands treating it not as an obligation, but as an art-form.  To master it requires commitment, patience and the investment of time and resources; in common with all worthwhile art-forms, Judaism enables its connoisseurs to understand the mind of its (Divine) creator and be profoundly transformed by the encounter.

In this new series of articles, I will attempt to explain this alternative approach to Judaism and to demonstrate how its majestic ideals can enhance and elevate every aspect of life.  I have entitled them ‘The Art of Judaism’ to reflect this goal.[1] Do join me on what I hope will be an interesting journey.


[1] I am grateful to Rabbi Dr. Steven Gaffin for agreeing to the use of this series-title: several years ago he and I dreamt up the idea of referring to Judaism as an art-form.

The Rock-steady Suspension Bridge

On principles and acknowledging difference

The recent Supreme Court ruling in the JFS case has inevitably re-awakened the topic of the relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox denominations.  Many column inches have been dedicated to schools’ admissions policies and other ramifications of the judgement.  Little space, however, has been devoted to explaining the deeply-held principles that underpin Orthodox Judaism; these are obviously inextricably linked to the JFS case and why it came to court.

While Orthodox thinkers may disagree about all manner of issues, they are united in their commitment to certain key defining principles.  Beyond the obvious beliefs in the existence of God and human accountability, these principles may be encapsulated in the following sentence.  Orthodox Judaism believes in the historical veracity of the revelation at Mount Sinai at which God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, and accordingly in the eternal binding imperative of all of halachah (Jewish law), as understood by the Talmud and traditional sources. These ideas are the essence of Orthodox Judaism; all other matters, including the contentious ones, such as the standards of observance required for conversion, flow from them.

The truth of these assertions has been vigorously protected from their detractors for centuries, yet corroborating and defending them (and I believe that they can, and must, be defended very robustly) is not my purpose here.  What is vital is the fact that for me, as well as for every other believing Orthodox Jew, these principles are central to our religious life, and consequently not negotiable.

I am realistic, however, and recognise that sadly, some do not accept these ideas.  The United Synagogue, while proudly Orthodox in its beliefs and objectives for its members, has always welcomed people who represent the entire continuum: those of every shade of observance and conviction, and those of none: that is its raison d’être.  Yet I feel passionately that the greatest achievement of the United Synagogue is its establishment of a non-judgemental environment in which Jews, whatever their beliefs, can share the privilege of being part of the Jewish people and where they can progress towards greater commitment and observance as equal partners on their Jewish journey.

Yet the simple fact is that the Reform and Masorti movements base their religious lives on different principles to those held immutable by the United Synagogue and the rest of the Orthodox community.  As evident from any number of publications and movement websites, Reform does not claim to believe in the historical veracity of the revelation, while Masorti’s redefinition of ‘Torah from heaven’ completely repudiates traditional interpretation.  These alternatives not only reject the very basis of Orthodox Judaism, but attack the foundations upon which every one of its laws and ideas rest.  Consequently, the other movements have beliefs, aspirations and halachic requirements that differ vastly from those of Orthodox Judaism.  It is, of course, the prerogative of each movement to define its own beliefs and practices, but there are clearly intractable disagreements between them that penetrate to the very heart of Jewish belief and identity.

But even when we disagree profoundly, this need not stop us from engaging in courteous, mutually-beneficial conversation.  We live in a small community where despite our intractable differences over almost every aspect of Judaism, we must try to co-exist harmoniously.  While, paraphrasing the words of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, we are committed to different dimensions of experience, we all profit from civilised conversation, joint representation, and pooling of resources where possible.  Yet it is obvious, at least to me, that any discourse must be based on the principle that each party acknowledges the beliefs of the other without attempting to undermine them.  In short, each must deal with the other on the understanding that it is unthinkable to expect them to forgo beliefs fundamental to their religious identity.  Of course, this does not preclude the possibility of inspiring others to change their views, but ‘outreach’ and meaningful communication between groups with firmly-held and diverse beliefs are entirely different.  Paraphrasing the words of a well-known Muslim story-teller, dialogue must not seek to debate, deny or convince, rather engender understanding and co-operation when it is possible.

Professor David Gelernter, in the final footnote of his recent book ‘Judaism: a way of being’ (Yale University Press, 2009) suggests that ‘if mutual respect is a suspension bridge, it requires two rock-steady foundations of self-respect to support the towers’.  I think that this is a good working model for respectful interaction between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements.

It is clear that the movements have different beliefs, practices, objectives and membership criteria, something that we are often reluctant to face.  Yet I am certain that rather than producing friction between us, recognising this reality is the key to meaningful and tension-free discourse.  Only where principles are stated and differences acknowledged and respected, can a space be created which allows mutually-beneficial conversation to flourish.  It would be wrong of me to speak on behalf of the other movements, but from the Orthodox perspective, this means that purposeful discourse with the Reform and Masorti movements must be based on their accepting that we are committed to the Orthodox version of belief and halachah with all their ramifications.   Of course this includes the unpalatable fact that we cannot, nor will ever be able to accept non-Orthodox conversions, nor will lobbying us to do so in schools, Shuls or elsewhere do anything other than create tension and make communication more difficult.

I accept that confusing messages about conversion have emerged in recent years from the Orthodox authorities in Israel and elsewhere.  This is unacceptable and something that needs to change so that the public have a greater degree of clarity about what is involved.  I hope very much that this will happen over time.  Yet some have mistakenly conflated this lack of transparency with the matter of the validity of non-Orthodox conversions, with which it is not connected.  And it is clear to me that the Orthodox world must accept, at least for the purposes of meaningful communication, that the standards, beliefs and focus of religious life of the other movements are different from our own.

For all concerned, this may be a hard pill to swallow, but it is unavoidable if we are to be partners in those areas where we can cooperate.  We cannot continue craving the religious legitimisation from each other that will never be forthcoming, nor trying to score points in public battles in which both sides will inevitably be seen as losers.  The sooner we acknowledge our differences and their principled nature, the closer we will come to building those ‘rock-steady foundations’ to ‘support the towers’ of a disciplined and loving Anglo-Jewry.