A Journey to Jewish Mazursky

‘Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Joy’ premiered at a special showing in London last week.  At the end of the film, the middle-aged Jewish woman sitting a few seats away turned to me and asked, ‘What did you think of it, then?’ When I suggested that I needed a while to digest my experience (code for: I don’t want to tell you), she launched into her disapproval of the Breslovers (‘They’re nothing like any Hassidim I’ve ever come across’), the fact that there was filming on Rosh HaShanah (untrue: the cameras stopped at sunset and resumed after Yom Tov, although there did seem to be footage from the previous Shabbos), and, finally, of me, for failing to express an opinion of the film (I would have thought that someone like you – i.e. bearded – would know much more about it). Going to see Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Joy’, was, like the film itself, an extremely Jewish experience!

The film, a trailer for which can be viewed here, records the participation of Hollywood director Paul Mazursky in the Rosh HaShanah 2005 pilgrimage of Breslover Hassidim and ‘fellow-travellers’ to the grave-site of Rebbe Nahman (founder of the Breslov movement) in the Ukrainian town of Uman. Rebbe Nahman encouraged his followers to celebrate Rosh HaShanah at his burial place and in the post-Communist era, this has grown to attract tens of thousands of pilgrims. Mazursky, who describes himself as a secular Jew, was encouraged to make the trip by David Miretsky, his orthodox optometrist in LA, himself a regular visitor to Uman.

The film is light on detail about Breslov: one gleans little sense of the radical nature of Rebbe Nahman’s teachings or what distinguishes Breslov from other Hassidic groups. Yet it highlights one area (mentioned in the film’s subtitle – ‘a journey to Jewish joy’) for which Hassidey Breslov are famed: ecstatic joyfulness at all times. The teachings of Rebbe Nahman are replete with this theme; the lifestyle, aspirations and music of the Hassidim express it in practice. It is this constant happiness that intrigued Mazursky and motivated him to explore a world so distant from that of his comfort zone in Beverley Hills.

There is a nice balance between footage of Uman and clips of Mazursky himself at home in Hollywood, post-Uman, neatly groomed, hair dyed (he is much greyer in the film and had a goatee beard and his arm in a cast following a fall), commenting on the experience and how it had affected him. There are also some clever contrasting scenes: en route to Uman via Kiev, Mazursky’s group had a lay-over in Munich, during which they managed to squeeze in a visit to the Oktoberfest. Beer-drinking and mixed dancing contrasted well with the later scenes of all-male ecstatic Hassidic prayer and dancing. Later in the film, we are treated to a glimpse of the rather normal-looking traders of gentile Uman (just down the road from 25,000 bouncing Breslovers), and hear their views on the annual Hassidic invasion.

However, most of this could be described as light entertainment: the film scarcely scratches the surface of the powerful spiritual nature of Rosh HaShanah in Uman. Apart from a few glimpses of religious yearning, mostly contributed by David Miretsky, we are shown what seems to be a very happy, somewhat shallow and more-than-slightly mad group of people. The profound nature of what is, by all accounts, a life-changing experience, is largely absent. While this may be due in part to the lack of filming on Rosh HaShanah (something that wasn’t mentioned in the film), there was still a (deliberate?) failure to explore the real depth of the experience.

Despite this, I liked the film not so much as an accurate portrayal of Breslov and the Uman-pilgrimage (which it is not), but for the insight it offers into the emotional life of the director himself. Mazursky is rich, famous, hysterically funny and well-liked, yet he is searching for something ‘bigger’. While he never mentions it explicitly, his words and face speak volumes about the emptiness that permeates his life. He admits that while visiting Uman did not make him religious, it touched his heart and that he had become more respectful towards the observant. More than anything, Yippee is a diary of Mazursky’s struggle to find deeper meaning within an outwardly fabulously successful life that seems hollow on the inside. In that respect, if in no other, it is touching and fascinating.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

A Visit To Sochaczew

A day in Poland

Last week, I fulfilled a long-held desire – to visit the ruins of the Jewish cemetery in Sochaczew, a town some 40 miles west of Warsaw. With a Jewish population of over 3000 prior to its destruction by the Nazis during the Holocaust, Sochaczew was known as a centre of Hassidic thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries (as well as being very close to the birth-place of the composer Frederic Chopin).

The Rebbes of Sochaczew were world-renowned thinkers: the first was the son-in-law of the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Bornstein (d. 1910), known as the ‘Avney Nezer’ after his monumental collection of halachic responsa; he was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Shmuel (d. 1926), known as the ‘Shem MiShmuel’ after his nine-volume collection of discourses on the Torah and festivals. Representing a rare blend of intellectual, psychological, esoteric and inspirational material, the Shem MiShmuel rigorously analyses Midrashic sources, which are used to offer a creative approach to understanding Biblical narratives.

Around fifteen years ago, I was introduced to the writings of the Shem MiShmuel by a friend in Gateshead, and I have been a devotee ever since: his ideas have heavily influenced my own thoughts. My younger son is named for him, and as I am about to embark on a major research project into his writings, it was a privilege to be able to visit Sochaczew to daven at his grave and that of his illustrious father.

On my first visit to Poland some years ago, it struck me that the Holocaust happened very close to the UK – it took just two hours by plane to get to Warsaw from my home in London. This visit brought home again how easily the Nazis might have been more successful in their attempts to invade England, in which case my grandparents could have been victims of the Nazi’s death camps. Yet for reasons we can never know, it was European, rather than British Jewry who fell victim to the horrors of the bestial murder-machine.

My travelling companion and I found the visit to Sochaczew powerful and intense, yet it was outwardly unremarkable. There was no crying, no grand gestures, no throngs of people and nothing even slightly remarkable to look at. The cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis, but since then, a memorial wall to the murdered Jews of the locale and a memorial made from fragments of desecrated tombstones have been erected. The graves of the Rebbes have recently been restored, and an ohel (small building) constructed over them. We were only in Sochaczew for an hour, during which time we said some Tehillim, prayed for various people and davened Minchah. But the most powerful part of the experience was learning two short essays from the Shem MiShmuel, standing close to his grave: it was a truly memorable moment, one that I hope to repeat quite soon. There is something indescribable about standing in a small building in the middle of a field in a hick-town in the Polish countryside next to the grave of a man who made a real contribution to Jewish thought, while studying his very words. Therein lays the beauty of great ideas: they are eternal. The Nazis may have deported and murdered the Jews of Sochaczew and even attempted to erase every trace of Jewish habitation there by destroying the cemetery, but the ideas of the Shem MiShmuel exist for ever in the thoughts of his spiritual inheritors.

For photographs of my trip, please look here.

For more information about the destroyed Jewish community of Sochaczew, please look here.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Hard Questions About Kiruv

Motivation in Outreach

I have been involved with formal and informal outreach for more than 15 years but have only recently started to ask myself a few pointed questions, which I share, anticipating that they will be of value to others.

How do we ensure that those we help to become involved in Jewish observance stay tolerant of others who have not taken the same bold steps as they? Surely we don’t want Ba’aley Teshuvah (the newly observant) to regard their family members as sinful failures. It is likely that their childhood homes were the incubators within which they learned a sense of social justice, the pursuit of truth and the dedication to family values and were therefore indispensable to their ultimate discovery of a Torah lifestyle. Do we, as the facilitators of religious seekers’ spiritual growth constantly emphasise this, or do we see their families as opponents to be defeated?

Perhaps worse, it seems that the newly-religious sometimes maintain their relationships with non-observant friends simply to try to make them religious. It seems improbable, but is it just possible that we encourage it? Picture, if you will, Bob and Jenny, old friends of John (now Yochanan) and Sheila (now Sheindy). Bob and Jenny are unlikely to feel kindly disposed to their newly-religious friends (or indeed Judaism at all) if they discover that Yochanan and Sheindy have only remained in contact with them in the hope of making them frum.

While it is beneficial to develop a confident and firm attitude to one’s own Jewish life, will the products of outreach also remain open-minded towards those who have adopted a different style of Orthodoxy from their own? This can be very painful: I recently heard of a case where two scarcely-observant friends from a traditional community became religious and went off to Yeshivos in Israel: one to a modern-style establishment, the other to a Charedi institution. The acrimony between them over religious issues is now so ingrained that when they come home for vacation, the local rabbi struggles to contain their feuding.

To what extent do we encourage our charges to recognise that integrating key aspects of their previous existence into a newly-observant life is indispensable to mature religious development and a healthy emotional future? People who come late to Judaism are often strongly attached to certain expressions of culture such as art, music and literature, and also to sport. Might it be a little off-beam (and not such great psychology) to encourage them to relinquish these when they become observant? For a time, the excitement of their newly-found Torah life will carry them through, but afterwards, sometimes years on, an inexplicable sense of emptiness may develop. If not addressed, many of us have seen this develop into unhappiness and even doubt about the fulfilment offered by a religious life-style; in extreme (but not uncommon) cases it may lead people to re-evaluate their original decision to become observant. And, crazy at it might seem, addressing this pain may well involve advising people not to adopt new religious stringencies or say more Tehillim (psalms). It could even mean helping them to reintroduce long-abandoned cultural experiences into their lives, albeit with careful guidance. Could The Beatles, Monet or the Boston Red Sox be part of the solution, rather than the problem? Despite conventional wisdom, might it be better to help the newly-observant recognise that they can be fully-fledged members of the religious world without discarding major aspects of their previous lives.

But most importantly, do we constantly re-examine our motivations in helping others to become more observant? Do we focus on them as individuals or see each of them as an opportunity to make another ‘notch in the shtender’? Is it faintly possible that some outreach is conducted with the objective of turning people into a pre-determined product which merely mirrors the kiruv-professional’s own life-style and affiliation? Many people are critical of a certain Chassidic group, whose objective appears to produce new members of the sect, but might some parts of the kiruv world be doing the same thing? Are religious neophytes just potential new members of our group, to be steered into a particular life-style and social-setting? Might, we perhaps without even realising it, envisage the newly-interested couple a few years into their religious journey living in a certain neighbourhood in a certain type of home, their children attending a certain type of school, with certain rabbis advising them, with certain aspirations: he learning in a certain type of institution, wearing a certain type of hat, she pushing a certain type of baby-stroller while wearing a certain type of hair-covering?

To be fair to the incredible outreach professionals who dedicate their lives to sharing the beauty of Judaism with others, many potential Ba’aley Teshuvah are drawn to monolithic parts of the religious world without much encouragement. They may consider what is on offer there ‘more authentic’ with the perceived benefits including rigidity of lifestyle and the comfort of not having to make one’s own decisions. Yet, if we actually encourage that outlook by role-modelling the religious world in that way, we may risk a potential tidal-wave of disaffection and disillusionment ahead of us.

There are, of course, many possible causes of religious disenchantment, including those completely beyond the control of the outreach professionals who engaged the Ba’aley Teshuvah in the first place. These may include pre-existing emotional instability, the unexpected pressures of living in religious society, the disappointing discovery that the Orthodox world isn’t actually perfect, and even a sense of personal failure in comparison with one’s perceived religious responsibilities. Each of these deserves a separate treatment, but we will focus here on religious disillusionment stemming from the outreach process itself.

I hope that it’s not too controversial to suggest that the objectives of outreach are to help each Jew reach his or her full potential as a human being, ultimately through Mitzvah observance and Torah study. Presumably we should get to know those who seek our guidance: learn to love them as individuals; discover their interests, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. Developing a sense that the religious needs of each person we meet differ considerably from those of every other can be difficult, but might we be doing those with whom we work a disservice by adopting any other approach? The Sages teach:

When a man mints many coins with one stamp, they all look the same, but while the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is He, minted each person with the ‘stamp’ of Adam the First, no one looks like any other. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

If God created us as individuals, it should be the role of those privileged to help His children along their journey towards Him to foster that individuality. Shouldn’t we try to craft a tailor-made religious path for each of our students? Despite the complexities of doing this, it might just enable them to benefit from the wonders of Torah life without stifling their personality or crushing their need for self-expression.

Is it just possible that the multi-chromatic vision of the Jewish world isn’t the common one in the kiruv scene because some of those in charge don’t subscribe to it? Some of us may have come to believe that there is a single optimum way to be a Torah Jew: one ‘correct’ approach to all Jewish issues, one best way of observing halakhah (Jewish law), one ideal mode of living and one supreme authority for Jewish life. May I suggest, perhaps contrary to prevailing norms, that a kiruv operative would see it as a sacred duty to learn about (and hence validate) the range of Jewish possibilities and to incorporate that into his or her kiruv practice. After all, the magnificent system of thought and practice called Judaism really does have a multiplicity of expressions. Finally, might an outreach professional who thinks that it is his or her mission to turn an eclectic group of non-observant Jews into a bunch of religious clones be in the wrong job?

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

From Beneath My Desk

Tisha B'Av 5767

Certain key occasions in the Jewish calendar invoke strong memories of my seven years in Gateshead Yeshivah. One of my teachers assured me that by spending Yamim Tovim and other special moments in the Yeshivah, I would have a store of powerful experiences on which to draw in later years: I am truly grateful for that advice. I constantly try to recreate those powerful moments in my community, something from which I know my congregants have benefited, perhaps without realising. And even when that isn’t possible, I can retreat into the realm of inspirational memory and lift almost any occasion for myself and my family.

Tisha B’Av is one such day: each year, from Rosh Chodesh Av, two memories are especially vivid, each associated with Kinnot (dirges read on Tisha B’Av lamenting the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and other Jewish calamities). The Kinnot are perhaps the most demanding texts of our entire liturgy: many of them are written in difficult Hebrew, and are replete with obscure scholarly references that require considerable Talmudic and Midrashic background to appreciate fully. Indeed, rather than plough through all of them, many Shuls (including my own) elect to read only a selection of the Kinnos, accompanied by explanation and elucidation (a job that the ArtScroll edition of the Kinnot has made much easier). The Kinnot are potent, elegant, yet very challenging.

My first recollection is of sitting on the floor as a sign of mourning beneath the desk at which I normally davened (prayed) in Gateshead Yeshivah at about 11am on Tisha B’Av. The Kinnot were well underway, and I admit that I was struggling to maintain my interest in the reading. By this time the sun had risen sufficiently to shine in my eyes through the very large front-windows of the Yeshivah. Remarkably, this coincided with the recital of the famous Kinnah, ‘Tsion’, by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (author of the Kuzari), a few translated excerpts of which follow. For a full text, see here.

Zion, will you not enquire about the welfare of your captives? Those who seek your welfare – they are the remnants of your flock….

You are the royal house; you are the throne of the glory of God, so how could slaves have sat upon the thrones of your nobles?

I yearn to be given the chance to wander in the places where God appeared to your visionaries and emissaries….

This lament, apart from being outstandingly beautiful, marks a radical change in the tone of the Kinnot: up until this point they are about destruction, misery and exile, but beginning with ‘Tsion’, they express hope and yearning for a better world. It is hard to describe the impact that the concurrence of the sun shining and the majestic poetry of Yehudah HaLevi had on me. It created a sense of optimism, divine love and context to the hopeless gloom of Tisha B’Av that has stayed with me: I hope that I have managed to convey something of that feeling in words.

The second memorable moment arrived at the very end of the Kinnot, with the reading of ‘Eli Tsion’, a poem detailing all the tragedies of the Temple for which we should weep. It offers a glimmer of hope, in that it compares the tribulations of our history with the pains of child-birth: the torment is not futile, but heralds the rebirth of Am Yisrael: some excerpts follow. For a full text, see here.

Wail, Tsion and her cities, like a woman in child-birth; and like a damsel girded in sackcloth (crying) for the husband of her youth….

(Wail) for Your name, which was desecrated in the speech of those who arose to torture her; and the supplications of those who scream out to You: turn Your ear and listen to her words.

Although the text is powerful and, at least for me, summarises the themes of the entire corpus of the Kinnot, the most well-known aspect of ‘Eli Tsion’ is its tune. This poignant melody somehow synthesises the calamity of Jewish history with our unshakeable confidence in a magnificent future. Regrettably, it has been turned by some into a kind of pop song, sung at an inappropriate tempo, robbing it of its depth and power. During my years in Gateshead, ‘Eli Tsion’ was led by Rabbi Zeev Cohen, who sung it movingly in a high-pitched and haunting fashion, in the Lithuanian style: in one short rendition, he had captured the essence of Tisha B’Av. For a similar (albeit lower-pitched and slightly faster) version of ‘Eli Tsion’, listen to this, a recording of the late Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, zt”l leading a responsive reading of the Kinnah in Boston in 1978. I cannot lead the poem as beautifully as Rabbi Cohen, but his interpretation has inspired my own reading.

Most importantly for me (and I hope for my congregants and students too), the memories of Tisha B’Av in Gateshead Yeshivah encapsulate the very spirit of the day: redemptive mourning.

May this, truly, be the last Tisha B’Av.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Most Annoying Phrases

Poor English

A while ago, a feature article published on the website of the UK Telegraph newspaper asked, ‘what is the most annoying phrase in the English language?’ Suggestions included ‘chill out’ and the replacement of ‘now’ with ‘at this moment in time’. The posting, before it disappeared, elicited over 2000 comments from readers, each of whom mentioned a pet hate. A random glance at them yielded such expressions as ‘all intensive purposes’, ‘fell pregnant’, ‘blue-sky thinking’ tautologies such as ‘potential risk’ and the use of the soccer-player’s favourite phrase ‘at the end of the day’, which, it was claimed, actually means nothing at all.

The observant world is blessed with a number of eloquent speakers and writers who are outstanding advocates for Judaism. Their sensitive and lucid writings have drawn many hearts towards authentic Judaism and, when necessary, they articulately defend the Torah from outside attack: we would be a poorer community without them.

Yet the standard of their written and spoken English is scarcely reflective of the majority within the observant community; even in English-speaking countries, low standards abound. À la Telegraph, one could prepare a list of the most annoying phrases used by members of the religious community. My bête-noir is the common misuse of the word ‘by’, as in ‘I’m eating by the Cohens this Shabbos’ and ‘we daven (pray) by the Oshplotzer Rebbe’. This may be correct syntax in Yiddish, but is it English? Some even seem to be unaware that the words ‘takke’, ‘mamash’ and ‘ziche’ may be unfamiliar to the plumber.

In some parts of the religious community there is little appreciation of the value of using clear and accurate English and examples of frum-speak are common. Numerous English-language books and journals are filled with basic spelling errors (don’t the authors use ‘spell-check’?), inaccurate usages, and scant attention to English syntax, quite apart from the limited and simplistic vocabulary. How should one respond when one’s children notice simple spelling and grammatical errors in the school-worksheets prepared by their teachers? In a masterful exposition of this problem (aptly named: ‘Tefillin in a brown paper bag’), Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote in reference to the contents of an Orthodox periodical:

The alphabet and the words were English, but the sentence structure, the rhythm, the syntax, the tone, were of another language altogether.

Perhaps we have forgotten that many books and articles on the market are commonly read by the less observant: in fact, the literature is frequently prepared with them in mind. For them, weak English is often a real turn-off, as they inexorably associate the message with the medium: bad English equals bad message. Some recent ‘outreach’ publications suffer from this deficiency: notwithstanding the time and resources that have been devoted to their publication, I suspect that they will have little impact on their target audience. Rabbi Feldman again:

Beyond theory, the use of deficient language has practical negative consequences as well, for it prevents us from preaching to anyone but the Orthodox choir. Intelligent, educated non-Orthodox Jews will surely be put off by the argot which passes for much of Torah Judaica today.

Some opine that at least within the observant community, this is unimportant: provided the intended audience understands the message, who cares if the English is poor? It is difficult to treat this seriously. A well-known Jerusalem Rosh Yeshivah remarked that it is hard for him to understand why anyone would aspire to speak English poorly. Why, he asked, would one aspire to learn English from people who speak it badly; why would one want to ignore the nuances of expression available in English and communicate in a puerile or ambiguous manner?

Does anyone truly believe that simply because the audience is familiar with the ‘lingo’, the use of poor English has no consequences? Language is not merely a means of communication, but exposes the outlook of the speaker:

Every language expresses the core ideology of the nation (that speaks it) according to its Weltanschauung and in accordance with its grasp of the essence of reality: from this emerges its language. (Telshe Rosh Yeshivah, Shiurey Daat, Likutim)

Every language connects the core (of a person) with the external world…. (Shem MiShmuel, Devarim 5676)

If a language reveals the essence of the speaker’s world view, perhaps it follows that a limited vocabulary and the use of clichéd phraseology is reflective of tired, uncreative thinking and narrow horizons, hardly noble religious aspirations.

Negligible attention to presentation and slapdash English spill over into other areas of life too. Do we fool ourselves into thinking that when our children neglect English, this has no impact on the quality of their Torah achievements? Children are unable to compartmentalise their experiences – if they see sloppy presentation in one part of their schooling, it will affect others: is it too daring to suggest that users of poor English may become inexact Talmud readers?

Inaccurate English is most often caused by laziness and occasionally by a smidgen of arrogant superiority that allows people to think that they can get by without bothering to master the language. Simplistic English has a different source: inattentive reading, which leads to careless use of syntax and scant attention to the subtleties of language. Carefully reading a range of appropriate literature is the only way to develop a sophisticated and nuanced approach to the use of the language.

We need to produce more journals, children’s books, English-language scholarship and fiction that are engaging, rich and nuanced, and exposing our children to them, as well to a carefully-selected range of general literature. This will contribute to broadening their horizons and improving their capacity for self-expression and excellence in Torah learning. And without doubt, it will help us to extend our influence far beyond its current confine.

Sacred Or Superficial?

A Visit to the 'Sacred' Exhibition

Encouraged by a number of my congregants, my wife and I recently visited the impressive ‘Sacred’ exhibition at London’s British Library. Billed as ‘the rarest and most exquisite sacred books and manuscripts presented and explored, side by side, in a major UK exhibition for the first time’, it didn’t disappoint. Balanced between Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books, the 202 exhibits are absolutely magnificent (get a taste of them here) and left me wanting to return to see them again soon. As the exhibition doesn’t end until 23rd September, if you live in the UK or are planning to visit, do make it a priority. I hope to get there at least once more.

I was especially taken with the calligraphy, the accuracy and beauty of which defy description. I am not particularly skilled with my hands: I actually struggle to read my own handwriting. In comparison, the control, artistic flair and accuracy required to produce an illuminated manuscript are quite breathtaking. I am, of course, familiar with beautiful safrus (Hebrew sacred calligraphy), but I have never been exposed to exquisite scripts from other religions written in other alphabets; I found learning about their manufacture fascinating (see here) and consider the final products a remarkable testimony to human ingenuity.

The layout of ‘Sacred’ is also most attractive: the manuscripts are interspersed with religious artefacts, all of great beauty and some of major significance (for example, an original entrance-curtain from the Kaaba in Mecca). There is also tasteful background music, as well as carefully arranged lighting and projections; it’s clear that a huge amount of thought and effort has gone into arranging the exhibition.

While, understandably, great care was taken to avoid mentioning areas of violent religious conflict, the curator was bold enough to address an obvious question: why there are so few very early Jewish manuscripts. In at least one place, the display informs the reader that the extreme rarity of early Jewish manuscripts is explained by the practice of mediaeval Christian authorities of collecting them up and burning them.

The exhibition is not perfect, of course. I was irritated by some of the display panels referring to aspects of Judaism in a rather simplistic and only partially-accurate manner: I also felt that some of the interactive computer displays about Judaism lack depth and substance. I am insufficiently knowledgeable to assess the quality of the displays and computer materials dealing with Christianity and Islam, but I could well imagine a scholar from one of these traditions expressing the same frustrations.

My enthusiasm for ‘Sacred’ is also tempered with some reservations about its objectives. The exhibition is supported by a number of foundations whose mission is to promote understanding between members of different faiths. In a difficult world, where religious tensions run high and especially in the <st1:country-region st="on"><st1:place st="on">UK</st1:place></st1:country-region>, where the benefits (or otherwise) of multiculturalism are the topic of weekly high-level concern, this is certainly a vital and responsible ambition. However, there is a huge gulf between developing mutual respect, understanding and intelligent dialogue between the faiths (an objective that I whole-heartedly endorse) and advancing the notion that what divides the faiths is slight, perhaps even only a matter of style and cultural expression (one that I reject).

One can assert one's beliefs without compromise, even reinforcing why one rejects other religious convictions, without losing one’s tolerance and even acceptance of those who strongly disagree. The differences between the beliefs, practices and aspirations of the different faiths are huge; even the nature of God Himself is hotly disputed, never mind how one ought to live one’s life. We deal ourselves and our attempts at interfaith harmony a serious blow if we pretend otherwise. Reducing religious differences to externalities is unhelpful and misleading.

Perhaps I am over-sensitive, but ‘Sacred’ smells to me a little like an attempt to promote the ‘we’re all really the same it’s just a question of style’ ideology. Rather than being grouped by faith origin, the manuscripts are displayed according to eras, progressing from Jewish through Christian and Muslim tracts. One of the reasons for this is clearly to allow a comparison of the calligraphy of different periods, but to me it also conveyed a sense of ‘look how similar they all are.’ Moreover, I felt that some of the displays went out of their way to present the small number of similarities between the three religious traditions, rather than offer a more balanced picture. For example, as depicted in one of the video displays, Jewish, Christian and Muslim wedding ceremonies do indeed have more than a passing resemblance to each another. However, when it comes to any kind of serious issue, such as basic theology, festival celebration, Messianic belief, and even the value and function of the Bible itself, they differ vastly. And the final computer at the exit leaves the visitor with the explicit message that there is so much that the faiths share, much more than what divides them: in some ways this is true, but in so many other senses, it is not.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Halachic Child

Great kids!

In an attempt to catch the last moments of holiday spirit, my wife and I took our children to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in West London on the day after Pesach. It was a magnificent day, matched by the beauty and diversity of the displays at the gardens. I hadn’t visited Kew Gardens for many years and had forgotten just how glorious it is. Our children, while initially reluctant to be schlepped along, enjoyed themselves in the end. A couple of comments they made there prompted me to write.

We were visiting the palm house admiring the trees when my elder son, who is seven, pointed at a gigantic leaf and asked, ‘Daddy, if this were Romaine, how many kezaytim (olive-volumes) could you get from that?’ This was a reference to the quantity of lettuce required for bitter herbs at the Seder. The answer, of course, was hundreds, but that is beside the point.

A little later, we were standing near some steps leading up to a building. At the side of the steps was a smooth concrete incline topped by a horizontal slab. Two of our daughters, aged eight and seven, observed that the structure looked like the altar in the Temple</st1:place></st1:city>. When I smiled uncomprehendingly, they kindly explained that the incline was the ramp leading up to the altar and the slab at the top was the altar itself. Obvious, really.

All this gave my wife and me much pleasure: we are blessed with great kids who are a credit to us and to their schools. My students constantly laugh at how much the children are like me. To a degree they are right, yet in so many ways, they see the world through very different eyes to mine. To be sure, I am the product of many years of intensive Yeshivah and Kollel education, yet I did not begin my development in the same type of family or schooling to which they are exposed and do not see the world in the same way that they do. We are fortunate to live in a Jewish community where we can provide our children with an outstanding, balanced education: their school day may cover a spectrum from a Rashi to arithmetic, Mishnah to music, cholent to Tchaikovsky. Nonetheless, they observe the world primarily though the prism of the Torah: their first understanding of every encounter involves a halachic (Jewish legal) or hashkafic (Jewish conceptual) perspective.

I do not, and probably never will, look at a tropical plant at Kew Gardens and automatically think ‘quantities for bitter herbs’. My eight-year-old daughter was slightly bemused by the fact that I did not instantly recognise the concrete structure outside the temperate house as a miniature altar.

‘Echad Mi Yodea’ (who knows one?) is a curious song appended to the Seder. It’s a little like ‘The house that Jack built’, progressing from one God, through two tablets, three forefathers, etc. and ending with the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy. The great Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, zt”l, offered a wonderful insight into why it appears at the Seder: it is a type of Jewish word-association game. In the regular version, I say ‘fork’ and you say the first word that comes into your mind, perhaps ‘knife’, and we continue from there. The Jewish version, sung after a long night of absorbing the wonders of Jewish national origins and praising God, is ‘Echad Mi Yodea’. When I say ‘one’, the first thing that should pop into your mind is ‘God’, ‘four’ should be ‘matriarchs’, ‘seven’ ‘Shabbat’, etc. It’s a kind of test as to how successful the Seder has been.

In the same vein, the development of what my wife cleverly termed ‘Halachic Child’ is a good indicator of the Jewishness of the child’s home and schooling. It’s not to say that the child will not also think of ‘The Beatles’ in response to the number ‘four’ or ‘wonders of the ancient world’ for ‘seven’, but it’s the first answer that counts. I’m so proud of my children.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Shabbat And The Single Jew

Just Shabbat

Much has been written about the predicament of mature singles in our communities, their frustration, sense of helplessness and feeling of exclusion from mainstream Jewish life. However, the religious fallout of long-term single-hood is less frequently addressed: singles commonly suffer from a lack of inspiration and religious burn-out. I would like to address one aspect of this troublesome phenomenon.

Many men and women use Shabbatot as opportunities to attend singles’ events geared to helping them find their life partner. These occasions are often professionally run and claim a good number of successes. While in principle they are a ‘good thing’, singles who attend them regularly are in danger of turning Shabbot into a means, rather than an end.

The purpose of Shabbat is no more than Shabbat itself: affirming one’s belief that God created the universe and building a joyful relationship with Him through the observance of the Shabbat laws. This tremendous experience is an end in itself, yet for many on the singles circuit, Shabbat has become a means to finding a mate, no longer an opportunity for spiritual enrichment. Shabbat is the cornerstone of Jewish observance and of the Jew’s rapport with the Divine: its proper observance and the integration of its message form the basis of a healthy religious identity. Robbing Shabbat of its power by using it as a means to achieve something else will have devastating religious consequences. A Jewish life lived over an extended period without a ‘real’ Shabbat will feel dull and uninspired; the person concerned may never realise why.

For some the need to use Shabbat in this way is so acute that missing a Friday night event may lead to a feeling of angst: if only I had gone along I might have met the ‘right’ one. The single person seeking a partner is caught on the horns of a dilemma: attending deprives Shabbat of its full meaning; not attending leads to feelings of torment that perhaps one has not explored every possible avenue. By way of example, a woman approached me recently for advice about attending a Purim party. She knew that there was only a slim chance of meeting someone suitable there, yet she felt that not going would leave her wracked with guilt. She took my advice and didn’t attend, instead devoting the evening to Purim pursuits: she later mentioned that focusing on the day alone enabled her to experience her most meaningful Purim for years.

Well-organised singles’ events have proved successful in introducing people who will eventually marry each other. They are often run by dedicated volunteers whose dearest wish is to contribute to the Jewish people by relieving the plight of singles who so wish to marry. Yet by running too many of them on Shabbat they unwittingly rob the day of its majestic potential for their clients. Perhaps more of these wonderful events could be held on weekdays, with just a handful on Shabbat.

One need not feel guilty or sad that a Shabbat has passed without finding a wife or husband. Of course, it would be wonderful to meet one’s bashert (destined one) en route, but it is not the purpose of Shabbat, or for that matter, Yom Tov, Purim or Chanukah. (In ancient times, it was an objective of Yom Kippur and the 15th Av, but that is another story!) To be healthy, holistic Jews we require inspirational, self-contained Shabbat and Yom Tov celebrations. We don’t need to use Friday night dinner to speed-date, Seder night as a chance to meet a girl, or Purim to surf the parties.

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

A Grave Business

A Visit to Tiberius

I am enjoying the privilege of showing my eleven-year-old daughter around Israel and yesterday we spent the day grave-hopping in the Galil. We had a wonderful time, which both of us found highly educational, yet something disturbed me – the proliferation of ugly mechitzot (barriers dividing men and women) at gravesites. I found it particularly unpleasant at the grave-site of the Rambam.

I last visited the grave of the Rambam in Tiberius some years ago and remember it well. One leaves the road and walks up a gentle incline between fourteen pillars each engraved with the name of one section of the Rambam’s magnum opus, ‘Mishneh Torah’. Passing the resting places of the Shelah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the great 17th-century mystic) as well as those of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and other sages of the era of the Mishnah, one arrives at the grave of the Rambam at the top of the incline. The tombstone is quite distinctive and the inscription reads, ‘from Moshe (the original Moses) to Moshe (the Rambam), no-one arose as great as Moshe’.

This preamble is intended to indicate the beauty of the site and how the area has been carefully landscaped to honour the remains of the Rambam in the most apposite manner. Regrettably, the site has been completely spoiled by the metal barrier that now bisects the grave stone itself, ruining the architecture and obscuring the famous inscription. Barriers of this kind have sprung up all over the place to ‘preserve the sanctity of the site by preventing men and women from mixing’.

I am in favour of care and sensitivity in these areas of Jewish life. I appreciate that gender mixing is fraught with problems and needs to be carefully controlled and that visitors to holy sites need to pray and think in a synagogue-type atmosphere. However, a degree of common sense and self-regulation is necessary to avoid a slide into extremism. People had been visiting the grave of the Rambam for centuries quite successfully before the erection of the mechitzah. I think it is safe to say that they managed to achieve their goals there by voluntarily finding a space to daven (pray) undisturbed. The segregation of such sites is considered by some to be a sign of a Jewish world that is stronger and more confident in its Yiddishkeit (Judaism). I feel that the opposite is true.

It is apparent that among a growing segment of the observant world, there is no recognition that architecture and other cultural manifestations may contribute to religious inspiration. Obviously, they have to be crafted to ensure that they remain within the parameters of halachah (Jewish law), yet when carefully devised they can enhance our spiritual world immeasurably. Some of those policing our world see one part of the picture (the need to regulate gender interaction), yet are oblivious to, and even actively reject, any concessions to wider sensitivities: further incontrovertible evidence of rising religious myopia.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents