Friday, 12 May 2017

Why Keep Kosher - Questions from a 6 Year Old

I had the following mail, from a parent of a bright 6 year old in the community,

[My six year old daughter] keeps asking me why Jews can’t eat ham. I don’t know how to explain it. Other than the “because it is not kosher and this is what it says in Torah/G-d says etc” 
We spoke after Cheder yesterday about how kosher things to eat have to have cloven hooves and chew their cud like cows. And pigs don’t chew their cud. So we cant eat them. We can eat cows because they chew their cud.
 And I said it was probably came originally from long ago when people wanted to avoid sickness. And animals like shellfish (which are bottom feeders, so can carry more disease), and pigs, which used to live in people’s houses and people would get a lot of diseases from them.
 Then she says , well why do Christians eat ham, if it could make them sick? And I get stumped what to say.
 I told her I would ask you.



Actually, I posted the question on Facebook and had a huge response


But this is my answer


So ...

There are usually three answers given to the question, “Why do anything Jewish?”

The first is the simplest and probably the oldest. God said, therefore do. God is our creator, God brought us out of the Land of Egypt, from slavery to freedom and brought us Sinai where we accepted a deal (or more precisely a covenant - the Hebrew word is Brit) - God would be in a special relationship with us, and we would accept the obligation to observe the things God commanded (the Hebrew word is Mitzvot). Whether any particular commandment (Mitzvah) makes sense to our own minds is not important. The important thing is, this is the deal, and we say, ‘yes.’

The second reason is that following the Mitzvot is a kind of training and reason for specific Mitzvot is just not important. One important Rabbi called Mordechai Kaplan (who was born 130 years ago) said we do Jewish things because we want other people who also do Jewish things to think we are good Jews. This reason has very little to do with God. It has very little to do with why we would eat chicken, but not bacon. It has a lot to do with the power of being part of a community. This is connected to a slightly different version of this reason - that doing Mitzvot trains us to behave well. To be a good person, I think, you need to be careful about what you say and how you act, and the food you eat. Again this reason doesn’t explain why we eat chicken, but not pig, it’s more about always paying attention to what you do. For example when men go into a Synagogue they cover their heads. But when Catholic men go into a Church they will take anything on their heads off. The important piece isn’t whether there is or there is not something on someone’s head, but whether we are training ourselves to show respect in a House of God. We sometimes call religious Jews observant. In part this means keeping Mitzvot, but also, I think, it means observing what we do and the impact of what we do on the world around us.’

The third reason is that there are reasons for doing Mitzvot.
Sometimes the Torah tells you the reason why doing a particular Mitzvah is good. For example the Torah says that you should always put a fence around the roof of your house so no-one can fall off.
Sometimes the Torah doesn’t tell you why a particular Mitzvah is good (for example the Torah says you should honour your parents. It doesn’t say you should honour your parents because your mother carried you for nine months in her womb, gave birth to you, and then - hopefully along with your father - took care of you as you become an adult.) But you can, pretty easily, work out a reason like that.

However there are a lot of Mitzvot that aren’t obvious. There are even moments when the Torah says to do something that might seem not good. For example the Torah seems to say it’s OK to kill someone who picked up sticks on Shabbat, or a child doesn’t always do what their parents tell them to. This is where it gets very complicated.

There have been some Jews who have been rational about the reasons behind Mitzvot. Being rational means explaining things in ways human minds can understand. The most famous of these Rabbis is Rambam (who died 800 years ago). Rambam went through every Mitzvah in the Torah explaining everything in rational ways (though he doesn’t think you should ever kill someone even if they don’t do what their parents tell them). Rambam is the most famous Rabbi to have said that the problem with eating pig is that it isn’t healthy. However Rambam’s approach made some other ancient Rabbis furious. They wanted to know how Rambam, a simply human being, felt he could truly understand what God - GOD - was thinking when God gave the Torah to Moses. They were also very worried that if times changed (for example pigs were no longer dangerous to eat) Jews might start eating pig - which they thought would break everything Judaism stood for. In fact, pigs are not as medically dangerous today as they were and some religious Jews do eat pig. These Jews are ‘Reform.’ Reform Judaism believes that if times change and old reasons no longer apply you shouldn’t keep following traditional Mitzvot. Reform Judaism started over 200 years ago and some Reform Rabbis don’t think it is important to keep Kosher. Others do - for some of the other reasons discussed here.

Some of the reasons Rabbis give for keeping specific Mitzvot are very thoughtful. Some are more playful. For example we can only eat animals which has a cloven hoof and chew the cud. The pig has a cloven hoof, so you might think it’s only half not-kosher. But eating pig has always been a huge no-no for Jews. In the greatest collection of Rabbis’ reasons - the talmud - there is a suggestion that the big problem with pigs is that they lie with their cloven hoofs point out towards us, as if to say, ‘look at me, I’m Kosher,’ when really what is inside reveals that they are not Kosher. So the pig is pretending to be something it is not. I like that story, but it’s not the reason I don’t eat pig. I think reasons are important and I think it’s good to think about why we do things, but we shouldn’t always try to make Mitzvot completely understandable, because religion is about a God and a Universe we don’t - and can’t understand completely. Mystery is OK.

Some Jews have not worried about why we should keep specific Mitzvot, instead saying that we should follow all Mitzvot because good things will happen to us if we do. The second paragraph of the Shema promises that if we keep the Mitzvot there will be food for us to eat, and if we don’t there won’t be. This would work, as a reason, if good things always happened to people who keep Mitzvot. Unfortunately bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. A lot of people, Jewish and not Jewish, spend a lot of time struggling with this. One solution to the problem of bad things happening to good people is to believe that eventually good things will happen to good people, even if bad things are happening now. Some good people are prepared to wait until they die for good things to happen to them - this is usually called a belief in Heaven. Some people believe that there will be a time when a person will appear who will solve all these problems and the world will be a place where only good things happen to good people - this is usually called a belief in the Messiah.

Another way Jews say keeping Mitzvot is good has to do with reasons that are not rational - they are reasons that exist at the edge of what humans can understand. Sometimes these reasons are called ‘hidden,’ or ‘secret’ or, using a Hebrew word, ‘Kabbalistic.’ For example one Kabbalistic idea behind lighting Shabbat candles is that the flame of the candle rises up and draws down the flow of energy from God into the world. According to Jewish law you are not supposed to study Kabbalah until you are 40 and these ideas can be very complicated, but the idea behind a lot of Kabbalah is this; all religious Jews believe in ‘One God,’ but Kabbalists believe that there are different sides, or aspects, existing within God and that the various different sides don’t always fit perfectly together, or that the energy that is supposed to flow into the world gets blocked and stuck. This is why the world doesn’t always make sense. This is why bad things can happen to good people. Sometimes it is explained that there is a male and female side to God, sometimes a side that is totally beyond any understanding and a side that is like a friend you can talk to or pray to. Kabbalists explain that by performing Mitzvot we can mend the broken parts that exist within God or help the flow of God’s energy into the world. Or if we break Mitzvot, for example by eating pig, we drive God’s presence further away from the world. 

I think it is possible to want to keep Mitzvot because of reasons that cannot entirely be understood. This is the belief that keeping Mitzvot is good, for me, for the Jewish people, for the world and even for God. In fact, that is what I do.

I hope that helps.
Shabbat shalom

Jeremy


Thursday, 20 April 2017

Parshat Terumah - The Sanctuary is a Woman

(Sometimes sermons are more and sometimes less written out. This one descends into note form, but is one of the things I've been more proud of, of late.)

The Mishkan - sanctuary, the place for the settling of Divine presence while the Children of Israel wandered in Sinai - is the single greatest focus of the Torah.
Beginning with Parashat Terumah there are ten consecutive parshiot dedicated to explaining why and how it was built and functioned ... and all this bearing in mind it takes the Torah a mere 10 verses to tell the story of the Tower of Babel.
For a Temple based religion this enormous concentration of energy on detailing the Mishkan makes a certain amount of sense. The Mishkan becomes the blueprint for the Temple, built, served in and protected in very similar ways. But when the Temple goes, when Rabbinic Judaism moves on - what do you do about all this discussion of Mishkan?

Perhaps most significantly the Mishkan becomes an archetype for contemporary Jewish existence, just as the Mishkan was X, so we today should be X and so on. This is Midrash - the Rabbinic drawing meaning from the ancient words of the written Torah into contemporary days. And here’s the surprising thing. One of the most significant tropes in Midrashic commentary on the Mishkan is the feminisation of the Mishkan. I’m going to share some of the Rabbinic material in Judith Antonelli’s Torah Commentary, In the Image of God.

‘What did Mishkan resemble?’ asked the Rabbis[1], ‘A woman who goes in the street with her skirts trailing after her’ - that’s a reference to the overhanging curtain at the rear of the building.

In describing the curtain at the front of the Mishkan, Rashi uses the analogy of ‘a bride with a veil covering her face.’ The stitching together of the curtains is compared to the attachment between ‘a woman and her sister.’ Perhaps most tellingly the Talmud[2] compares the poles of the ark, which pressed through and protruded beyond the covering over the Holy of Holies, to ‘two female breasts’ - that one drew the attention of Immanuel Levinas who considers that passage in his famous collection of Talmudic Readings.

Antonelli even brings an analogy from the Zohar which suggests that ‘all women stand in the image and form of the altar,’[3]

She creates what I think is her own parallelism between the Mishkan and this post-Temple Jewish existence reading the flour of the daily Minha offering, the blood from the regular sacrifices and the everlasting light that shone over the Mishkan as corollaries of the classic triumverate of Halachic obligations for which women were and are particularly associated - the flour for making Challah, the blood for menstrual purity - Niddah, and the light as the Shabbat candles. It’s a provocative Midrash; if the Mishkan, with its flour and blood and light, is the central organising pivot of the entire written Torah then these three contemporary Mitzvot of Challah, Niddah and candles become ever more boldly acclaimed as the centre of contemporary Jewish life.
There’s certainly truth in that. Growing up I was entirely unaware of the laws of Niddah, menstrual purity, but the other two obligations, Challah and Ner were indeed the cornerstones of my Jewish existence.

For Antonelli this womanisation of the alter, the Mikdash and all connected to it, points to the way; ‘the Mishkan maintained the cosmic purpose of the matriarch’s tents’ of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. It is a structure to allow the presence of the Divine amongst the people, that’s the comforting immanent aspect of the Divine understood as the Shechinah - a feminine noun of course, and related to the only one of the seven lower aspects of the Divine which is understood as the feminine. In the time of Mishkan and the Temple - this analogy suggests - the central space of Jewish life was feminine, God’s feminine aspect dwelt in a tabernacle designed as a woman to hold that very female kind of comfort. And today?

Should Rabbis like me make more a deal of the centrality of the female in preserving and fostering continued Jewish life, yes of course.

But when I read all this feminisation of the Mikdash I wasn’t only moved to celebrate the centrality of woman in this narrative of Jewish life. I was also troubled by this niggling concern.

After all, all these analogies and comparisons are authored by the very Rabbis who, on different folios of the very same books, will compare women to ‘a sack of blood’ or would suggest that anyone conversing with a woman is engaging in acts of a lewd nature. There are some wonderful moments of what we would now call gender equality, or human rights as applied to women in the Rabbinic canon, but these texts I love, written by men alive millenia before the term feminism was coined, are just not a feminist blueprint.

As touched as I am by the notion that entire apparatus of Mishkan is designed to highlight the role of women’s contribution to Jewish life there’s something else I feel when I consider these Rabbinic texts.

The purpose of the Mishkan is to be settled by God - penetrated one might even say. The Mishkan is the shell into which good stuff is poured. If one could imagine the Mishkan alarmed by what is to come at the moment of its inauguration perhaps the most obvious Midrash would borrow a phrase from advice Edwardian mothers would give their daughters on the eve of their marriage - ‘lie back and think of Sinai.’
Moses has personality, as does Aharon, as do his sons. They do things and say things and cause things to happen. The priests have what is referred to in gender-criticism as agency. They are the subjects of verses. The Mishkan is silent, it, or she, has no personality, it is the passive bearer of what is done to it, it is the slate on which the men draw. Perhaps, viewed this way, these Midrashim which imagine the Mikdash as a women with skirts - with breasts, become less a celebration of womanhood, and more discomforting, maybe these midrashim should strike us as voyeuristic, sleazy even, especially in the context of the totally male dominated worlds of discourse in which they arose.

Let me share another text from the massive Rabbinic corpus shared by Antonelli;
In Shmot Rabba[4] the Rabbis tell a parable of a King who’s only daughter was to be married to another King who intended to return to their own country to be with her. The father of the bride could not bear to part with his daughter, yet couldn’t prevent the husband from taking her away, so the father tells the husband, ‘Wherever you live, have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter.’

In this text the first King is God, the second is the People of Israel who marry the Torah and take her away from Sinai. God wants always to be able to be part of the wandering of the people and so ... the Mishkan. It’s a beautiful parable. But it also illustrates dramatically the blank nature of the woman - she is owned by the men and passed from one to the other, indeed forced to accommodate both her owners.
I wonder if there is something in the etymology of so many of the Hebrew words for male and female.

Male is zachar - the term in cognate languages form what my Biblical lexicon modestly refers to  as the ‘male organ’[5] Female is Nekeivah - literally ‘pierced.’
I’m not sure it’s helpful to take that particular linguistic idea any further.
But there’s a similar problem

Man and woman - ish ishah
Husband and wife - baal ishah - man becomes a master, the woman's true existence is revealed only in her marriage! Hmmm.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf that states that the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken.
Edward Spair that is who was born in Poland in 1884 whose first language was Yididsh.
Arrival.

With language like this, with cultural and history like this any surprise that when the male Rabbis of the Talmud discuss marriage they open their conversation like this;

‘A woman is acquired in three ways - with gold, with a document and with intercourse’ men, of course, aren’t acquired in the same way, not at all. Women, in traditional Jewish are passive, they are acquired, they don’t acquire. They lack agency. Their voices are not heard - they are even commanded to be silent in the presence of men, kol ishah evra, say the Rabbis - the voice of a woman is licentious.

Here’s the problem, the maleness of Judaism, the way in which women are the passive, silent vessels for the male active performative important stuff, is so steeped into Jewish history and life that it can’t simply be ‘got over.’

Needs to be a clearing of the decks for a different kind of Judaism that is much more committed to hearing the voices of all Jews - certainly the voices of 50% of the Jews who have never been seriously listened to. I am, this community is, by nature conservative. We don’t like wrecking balls applied to what makes us comfortable. But, when it comes to the historic absolute androcentricity of Judaism, I don’t feel there is another choice. We have to deconstruct. We have to overturn. We have to be bold in saying we welcome the active, vocal, performative involvement of women - or otherwise we remain the other thing - the male dominated and male dominating patriarchy which requires women to lie back and think of Sinai.

For those for whom that process is painful and uneasy, I’m sorry. But our future as a religion of rational contemporary value is at stake, for both our sons and our daughters. And even ourselves.

Shabbat shalom




[1] Shab 98b
[2] Yoma 54a
[3] Zohar II:102b
[4] Shmot Rabba 33:1
[5] BDB 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

A New Maggid for the End of Pesach

Arami Oveid Avi

The opening line at the heart of the telling of the story of the Seder doesn’t mean An Aramean tried to kill my father. For what it’s worth the Hebrew for an Aramean tried to kill my father is ‘Arami Ratza Lhaaveed et Avi.’

Arami Oveid Avi means my father was a wandering Aramean.
The authors of the Haggadah have pulled a fast one. They set the verse up to mean something it simply doesn’t mean with an introductory line about Laban, and so, in a moment, this verse becomes a verse about how in each and every generation someone has risen up against us to destroy us.

But the original meaning is clear, it’s been clear to every Biblical commentator who has ever commented on it. The verse appears at the opening of what is called ‘Parshat Bikurim’ - the section on the first fruit. At the time of presenting the first fruit to the Priest in the Temple a Jew would come before the priest, with their basket of fruit and repeat our story, as Jews - Arami Oveid Avi, Vayered Mitzraima, Vayigar Sham Bimtei Meiat - our ancestor was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypr, and dwelled there few in number - the rest we know.

The original verses refers to Jacob, Israel, who left Israel and went down to Egypt because of the famine.

In the Seder the original verse gets tweaked a bit to emphasise the ‘in each and every generation someone has stood up against us to destroy us,’ part of being Jews which may well, indeed be true.

But I want to retell the story of the Seder fixing this Rabbinic sleight of hand, returning this verse about wandering to be a verse about wandering. And I want to save my Rabbinic sleight of hand for another verse, at the end of this passage of the Haggadah. As if Rabbinic sleight of hand was a joker one can only play once.

One other element will also have to be part of my retelling of the Seder. I’ve been here - on this sceptre’d aisle for some time now. My great-grandparents arrived here. So to truly capture the essence of being a wandering soul I’ll avail myself of narratives from those whose wanderings are more recent than mine. So a seder where, in each and every generation we wander.
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
My ancestors wandered - we’ve become too accustomed to the fun parts of Fiddler on the Roof - the dancing with bottles on our heads, the chorus line ‘Tradition’ - but the reality was hard, even in the best of times, and the best of times where too few.

Here is the poem Simon Frug wrote in the aftermath of the 1903 Pogrom of Kishinev.
Streams of blood and rivers of tears, deep and wide they flow and roar, our misfortunes, great and timeless, has laid its hand on us once more.
Do you hear the mothers moan, and their little children cry? In the streets the dead are lying; the sick are fallen down nearby.
Brothers, sisters please have mercy! Great and awful is the need. Bread if needed for the living. Shrouds are needed for the dead.

Of course our ancestor, Jacob, left his homeland because of famine, not violence. But then in this strange contemporary world in which we live one so often seems bound up with the other.

Just this week the International Development Secretary Priti Patel visited the largest refugee camp in the world, Bidibidi in Uganda, home to some 280,000 refugees from South Sudan. They have no food, no water - or rather nothing that has not been brought in for them by development and care agencies. But the cause of their fleeing is violence.
וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל
And in that new land we helped. Jacob arrived in Egypt at the instigation of his son, Joseph, Second only to the King, the man who could understand the strange dreams, the man who could structure the famine-resilience effort that saved Egypt.

And in this new land we helped. As Jews we have much to be proud of. There’s a wikipedia page of British Jewish scientists, noting, the 14 Nobel prizes won, there Chemists like Rosalind Franklin - part of the story of the discovery of DNA, and Ernest, latterly Sir Ernest Chain, who discovered how to isolate and concentrate penicillin. I could have gone for the British Jewish comedians, the British Jewish captains of industry, the British Jewish heroes of philanthropy ... In this new land we have helped.

It’s not just the Jews. Refugees make contributions to the society in which they find themselves and not just in that demeaning phrase of doing the jobs no-one else wants to do. Refugees light beacons for everyone else; perhaps driven by the need to make something of their lives, perhaps driven by the insecurity that propelled them - us - to this country. I, for what it’s worth, have a theory that the way refugees make contributions in society after society, in generation after generation, is not just because of a drive, but because of the way our experience of being from outside allows us to see things insiders might miss. Being an outsider is a gift. A gift for the societies fortunate enough to open their arms to strangers who might speak with funny accents, who might eat funny foods and might do things differently from the so called ‘proper’ Brits.

You see we ‘soujourn’ - us wanderers. Again, I’m not so sure about the commentary in the original Haggadah that connects the phrase Vayigar Sham to a temporary relationship with the country in which we find ourselves. I think the better contemporary translation would be to suggest Vayigar Sham means we were there as ‘hyphenated’ members of society; both British and Jewish. Just as so many other wanderers maintain a hyphenated identity. It’s not that we are treasonous, it’s not that we are disloyal to our gracious hosts. It’s that we are more than one thing. As identity is these days.
וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

But it isn’t, this hyphenated identity safe. We are too easily scapegoated. Picked out for our difference.

And there rose a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph - it’s the saddest verse in the Torah. It reminds me of the life of Jews in 12C Britain. Here we were, unable to own land, working as merchants, financing the life of society in which we lived. And then the political mood changed and we were out. Not before 49 levies to raise money from us, and various other ignominies - In 1218, Henry III of England proclaimed the Edict of the Badge, making England the first European nation to require Jews to wear a marking badge. You do know we were expelled from here in 1290? Michael Prestwich in his book on the Life of Edward I records the, perhaps apocryphal tale of a captain taking a ship full of Jews to the Thames, en route to France, while the tide was low, and convincing them to go out for a walk with him. He then lost them and made it back to his ship quickly before the tide came back in, leaving us all to drown.

That story reminds me of the deaths of the 21 undocumented cockle picking immigrants who were drowned in Morecombe Bay. In each and every generation.

It’s not that the there haven’t been those who have risen up against us in each and every generation. But I wonder if reasons of economic short-sightedness and short-term political expediency have had at least as much to do with our experience of being sinned against than any of the more classic markers of antisemitism. Certainly it feels as if economic short-sightedness and short-term political expediency are at the heart of a contemporary response to refugee-seekers in this country today.

VaYaReiU - the Egyptians did evil - they did worse to us than we deserved. Hava Nitchachma, come let us get wise and see how we can turn this situation to our advantage, the Torah reports the Egyptians saying about us. I know, you can imagine some ancient anti-refugee political faction opining, setting the mood of a country against the hyphenated strangers in their midst. And so the abuse and the deprivations and even the murder came.

And still they come, from generation to generation and from place to place.
Until ...
God steps in.
יוציאנו ה' ממצריים--לא על ידי מלאך, לא על ידי שרף, לא על ידי שליח, אלא הקדוש ברוך הוא בכבודו.

"The L-rd took us out of Egypt," not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself!
"I will pass through the land of Egypt," I and not an angel;
"And I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt," I and not a seraph;
"And I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt," I and not a messenger;
"I- the L-rd," it is I, and none other!

So now I want to play my joker, the Rabbinic sleight of hand I’ve kept back for this moment.

As a child I remember this part of the Seder. All this ‘I’ and not something else. And, as children do, I misunderstood the Rabbinic purpose of all this ‘I’ and not something else. I thought it all meant that I had to see myself as if I myself had to be part of the redemptive story. I had to be part of rescuing the Children of Israel in each and every generation from the experience of oppression as the result of wandering.

Actually, I’m not so sure I did misunderstand my role in being a partner in the work of making the world a better place. That is, after all, the Jewish way. We don’t wait. We roll up our sleeves.

I remember one of my first Jewish teachers, Rabbi Laurence Kushner making a point about how we - each of us - are made in the image of the Divine. He asked us to hold up our hands. There, he said, you are looking at the hands of God.

Here’s my joker, my Rabbinic sleight of hand.
Let this verse - Ani Adonai - I God, come to mean that I am the one who partners with God to bring light where there is darkness and freedom where there is slavery. For when there is no ‘I’ acting, there is no God acting either. We have seen that too many times.
So this is the job.
To be the hands of God.
God has told us what to do - to love the stranger and refuse to oppress the stranger for we do understand the experience of the stranger in a strange land.
And all that is required is that now we act.

Brings me to welcome the support of the New London Synagogue Asylumn Seeker Drop In.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Who Will Teach Me To Wonder? - Sermon Version Shabbat Parah, Parashat Hukkat

Who Will Teach Us To Wonder

When, Jack, you and I sat and thought together about your Devar Torah we went through the piece you read from the Torah scroll. The strange tale of a cow, killed and burnt, whose ashes are sprinkled in the water to make someone ritually contaminated by death ritually pure.
I asked you if there was anything in the story you found interesting. And you said, with characteristic insight and honesty, ‘no.’

So we changed tack, and you got to give a terrific devar torah on the terrific story of the golden calf. And though your devar torah was indeed terrific, it means I’m left with the cow ash.

Thanks.

This tale of cow ash is undeniably odd. It’s odd to imagine there is something contaminatory about death, and odder still to think that ash from a cow, mixed in with cedar and hyssop and scarlet stuff should do anything to remove such an odd affliction. The good news is that I’m not the first person to struggle for a way of relating to all this oddness.

Here’s a Rabbinic text, about a rabbi who was alive 2000 years ago.

An non-Jew asked Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, ‘This is a bit like witchcraft. You bring a cow, burn it, grind it, take its ashes. If one of you is defiled by a dead body you sprinkle two or three drops on them and say to him, ‘You are pure.’ Rabbi Yochanan asked him, ‘Have you ever seen a man possessed by the demon of madness?’ ‘Yes’ he said. ‘And what do you do? ‘We bring roots and make them smoke under him and then we sprinkle water on the demon and it flees.’ Said Rabbi Yochanan, ‘let your ears hear what you say with your mouth. It is the same for this spirit of uncleanness [and he explains the odd ritual away. But then the Midrash continues]
When the non-Jew left, Rabbi Yochanan’s students said to their master, ‘Master, you pushed off this man with a straw, what explanation will you give to us?’ he said to them, ‘By your life, it is not that death defiles, nor that this water purifies. The Holy Blessed One says, ‘I have laid down a Hok - a decree [it’s not to be understood, it’s something to be followed even though you cannot understand it].[1]

The key word is the Hebrew word hok - something that cannot be understood and isn;t designed to be understood. The ritual of the cow is a Hok. The fact that it doesn’t make rational sense isn’t because it’s stupid and the fact that we - not even Jack - can understand it - isn’t because we - and certainly not Jack - are stupid. Rather this hok is something not to be understood.

I’m interested in what it means to have things, in our lives that we understand, to have things in our lives that we strive to understand and - most of all - what it means to make a space for things that cannot be understood.

I’m aware suggesting we make space for things which cannot be understood is counter-cultural, especially for a Synagogue full of people who understand so many things and quest to understand so much more.

I’ve nothing against the quest to understand. In fact questing to understand the world and everything in it is one of the most exquisite things a person can do with their lives.

I get that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, each one a direct descendent from one single zygote - that’s extraordinary.
I get that every atom in every one of these cells was already present at the very beginning of time and that therefore each of my 37 trillion cells is, in some sense, recycled star dust.

There is nothing wrong with the quest for greater and greater knowledge, and if I had one thing to say to neurologists attempting to understand the nature of brain-damage, or civil engineers attempting to work out how best to build buildings that can withstand the destructive power of an earthquake it would be to say, go, go, go, lives depend on your passion to understand more.
But ...
There is a but.

The but is that as we understand life we have this tendency to turn life into bits of data we can compute, manipulate and control.
And even if there is something out there we can’t understand yet, if we think that this thing is there capable of being understood if we just tried a little harder, we start treating everything in life as a bit of data that can be manipulated and controlled.
We start to think that life can be calibrated and controlled.
And here’s the scary thing for people who like to calibrate and control.

The really important things in life are not quantifiable, they are not measurable and they are certainly not capable of being manipulated like pixels in a computer programme or the spread of bonds and stocks in our investment portfolios.
And the reason the really important things in life are not capable of being manipulated is not that we aren’t clever enough yet.
It’s because the really important stuff in life is beyond control.

The gift of love is not manipulable.
The ability to feel joy isn’t controllable.
You can’t measure artistic worth on a spreadsheet.

Wonder isn’t something that can be programmed.
Really this is all about our ability to appreciate wonder.

There are loads of people telling us to try to understand more, and control more, and learn more. There are loads of people telling us if only we tried a little harder we would do better in these exams or that six-month performance review and all the rest of it.
But who will teach us to wonder?

Who will teach us to appreciate that the world is not ours to control.
It’s ours to protect and serve.
Who will teach us that time isn’t simply a unit of production to be set into a productivity spreadsheet, but rather the essence of human life; time is to be celebrated and marked, not put to the service of commercial gain.

We’ve got the balance wrong - too much seeking to control and not enough wonder about that which is beyond control.
We need more people to teach us about wonder.
It’s a subtle point I’m trying to make,
It’s one thing to work to wipe out polio, or tackle malaria or cure cancer, but somewhere we, in our comfortable Western existence, seem in danger of forgetting that death isn’t something to be eradicated as if it were an infectious disease. Death is at the very heart of what it means to mortal. We can eat more fruit and veg, exercise, treat and cure more and more disease, but we can’t escape what it means to be mortal, unless we turn ourselves into something no longer human. 

Death is a wonder, a Hok, something to defeat understanding. That’s why death is so scary - not because we can’t understand it yet, but because it is beyond understanding.
That’s why we need a ritual to help us deal with our inability to understand death.
That’s why that ritual, itself, needs to escape understanding.
That’s why we need a Hok featuring cow’s ash.

And here’s the real problem of forgetting about wonder and thinking everything falls into the twin categories of controllable and almost controllable;
by promoting the notion of control we strip out our appreciation of wonder from the world.
If we say the really important things in life are the things we can measure and control we are in danger of arriving at our deathbed proud, or ashamed, of the amount of money in our bank accounts.
And no-one arrives at their deathbed counting how much money they have in their bank accounts.
It’s really not about the stuff we can measure.
It’s really about our ability to wonder.

I did something I don’t usually do, when thinking about this sermon.
I googled the question, ‘who will teach me to wonder?’
And there, answer number three was a link to Psalms 119:27.

Let me tell you about Psalms 119:27.


It’s not an easy verse to translate, something like this;
Bring me to understand the path of what you demand of me and I will chat with your wonders.

The leading Rabbinic commentary Malbim points out the importance of it being the PATH of the precepts. It is, for Malbim the path up Mount Sinai, the path that leads beyond human understanding.
We seek an understand of that we know we cannot understand.
It’s a little paradoxical.
We address ourselves to the path up the mountain knowing that there are truths beyond human grasp.
And the reward is we get to be in 'siach' - in conversation - with wonder, with mystery.
We don’t get to understand, we certainly don’t get to control.
But we do get, in fleeting moments of insight, a sense of being in conversation with that which is wonder.

The great American writer, William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, tries to explain the sort of momentary encountering of the ineffable that is at the heart of great moments of religious insight. The word James uses is noetic - these are kinds of understanding that cannot be spelt out in letters, they cannot be published as respectable scientific literature or made subject to double blind testing of hypotheses and controls.
Noetic experiences are beyond language, beyond measurement, they are experiences of being in siach - being in conversation with wonder.
When an artist, when asked to explain their painting responds, ‘I can’t really explain it in words, if I could have explained it in words I wouldn’t have had to paint it.’ She is talking about a noetic truth.
And noetic truths might just allow us to make sense of our lives in ways even more important than the quest for measurable knowledge.

So, Jack, all of us, let us do lots of great, inspiring, life-saving science. But let us also keep a place for wonder. Let’s keep looking for opportunities to walk paths that don’t reveal all their secrets even under the most powerful of microscopes. Let’s lift up our eyes to wonder in the hope of a siach - a conversation with that which is noetic - beyond.

Because if we lose the ability to wonder, if we lose the ability to appreciate that which cannot be comprehended, we lose the ability to treasure all that is most special about our humanity.

Shabbat shalom



[1] Bemidbar Rabbah 19:8

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Who Will Teach me to Wonder

Thinking about the impossibility of understanding the Hok of Shabbat Parah and falling in love with Psalm 119:27
דֶּֽרֶךְ־פִּקּוּדֶ֥יךָ הֲבִינֵ֑נִי וְ֝אָשִׂ֗יחָה בְּנִפְלְאוֹתֶֽיךָ׃
I can't really translate it properly (yet), something like
Bring me to understand the path of what you demand of me and I will chat with your mysteries
Malbim points out the importance of it being the PATH of the precepts. It is, for Malbim the path up Mount Sinai, beyond human understanding.
And I love the reward, to be in 'siach' - conversation - with ultimate mystery.
It's not a verse I've ever really considered before - comes in that monstrously long Psalm you just want to skip over. But I think I've just stumbled over my new favourite articulation of my relationship with Mitzvot.
And how did I stumble over this jewel in the rough?
I googled, 'who will teach me to wonder' and this verse, courtesy of some angel buried in Google's algorithm waved their wand.
So I post the story on-line
Ahhh, the life of a C21 Rabbi.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Coming Soon - Pesach

My thanks to everyone involved in making Purim at New London such a fabulous experience.
And now Pesach!

First night Seder is Monday night 10th April. If you are looking for hospitality, or able to offer hospitality, please let me know.

The New London Communal Seder, led by Cantor Jason and I, is Tuesday night 11th April. Booking is open and we urge anyone planning on coming to book in time to allow proper arrangements to be made for catering. It’s a terrific night and members and guests are all invited. More info here.

Our flagship pre-Pesach event, the Taste of Refuge Seder, has already sold out. My apologies for those who had planned to book later. We will share reflections and also some of the materials we will be using after the event.

Shabbat 1st April will focus on preparing for the Seder. I will be teaching and have some terrific material to share as part of the services. All welcome.

Shabbat 8th April will feature, after the service, a communal sing-a-seder-along with Cantor Jason. Bring your favourite tunes.

The 2017 NLS Pesach - Guide to Kashrut is now on-line. For more on selling Chametz through me, look out for subsequent mailings sent to this list.

Other things to look forward to in the coming month;
29th March the book launch of New London member Anne Summers’ terrific Christian and Jewish Women  in Britain 1880-1940. More here.

Monday morning 10th April, 7:15am, Shacharit featuring a Siyum on the occasion of the Fast of the Firstborn, all (not just firstborns) warmly invited.

Purim, in the best possible way, was chaotic. And now the journey to Seder - order. May that journey be matched by an equal journey from darkness to light and oppression to freedom for all.
It’s my honour to be able to share this journey with you all,
Chag Kasher V’Sameach - A happy and kosher celebration,
Rabbi Jeremy



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