Friday, 18 August 2017

On the appeal of Fascism - Thoughts on Charlottesville and Deuteronomy

David Runciman, a political scientist at Cambridge, coined the term ‘dictator envy’ to articulate the way in which those who wish to live in a democracy look at a complex problem and wish someone strong and powerful would come along and sort it out. It’s not, said Runciman, that we actually articulate the desire to live in a dictatorship - but we harbour a desire that something or someone could save us the trauma of having to deal with complexity ourselves.
I first came across the phrase ‘dictator envy’ in an 2013 article. I wonder how Runciman reflects on its creation today. It might be that last November the greatest democracy of our age gave in to the desire to have a strong leader ‘just come along and sort it out,’ in the process damning the democratic deficit such a decision left in its wake.
That certainly seems to be the appeal of the Alt-Right/neo-Nazi absurdities witnessed in Charlottesville. ‘They won’t replace us,’ the marchers chanted; prompting liberal voices to pour scorn on the simplicity of their mantra; ‘who’s the “they”?’ ‘Replace as what?’ Scratch the surface of the neo-Nazi rhetoric and it descends into either gross-oversimplification or such a democratic deficit as to terrify anyone who values human equality.
And so to the Torah; ‘If a prophet should appear in your midst, giving you a sign, and the sign, they spoke about, came to pass, if they call you to worship other gods, do not listen to the voice of that prophet.’ (Deuteronomy 13:2-4 abbreviated)
Accept, for a moment, that the Torah’s understanding of, ‘worshipping other gods,’ equates to the greatest of any sin (as Maimonides would wish us to do), and the point becomes clear. When a charismatic leader, or force, appears and seems to capture a moment - don’t listen to that voice when it’s a voice that leads one to a path of sin. Don’t be misled by charisma, apparently accurate prognostication, or even the successes of short-termism. The right and the good thing remains the right and the good thing even if the signs of the moment suggest otherwise.
Now, perhaps, revisit the notion of ‘worshipping other gods.’ An idol is the infinite rendered in finite form, the incomprehensible presented as comprehended. Idols are the simple solutions to the problems of a world we cannot fully understand. This is both the reason idols are wrong - as in doomed to fail, putting aside any moral or faith-based issue with statues of gods - but also the reason idols prove so attractive. Complex solutions to complex problems aren’t as sexy as a simple solution. That doesn’t make the simple solution correct. Indeed it might be that the simple solution can be immediately discounted simply because of its simplicity.
The answer has to be that we train ourselves to resist the appeal of the simple now understood as the idol. The answer, perhaps, lies in allowing ourselves to believe in the radical monotheism of our faith. We believe in a god without form, beyond our ability to control or even comprehend. True monotheism is, or at least, ought to be, a training in an existential humility. Faced with a complex problem, and the problems facing the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville are the same complex problems that face all us, we need to train ourselves to abstain from the charismatic appeal that calls us towards evil. We need to resist the calls of the false prophet.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Knocking From the Inside

“I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I've been knocking from the inside.”

I’ve always loved this short poem by the thirteenth-century Islamic poet Rumi. It captures my contemporary existence so accurately. Here I am teetering on the edge of lunacy - the emails, the emails, the emails. I spend my days attempting to make sense of it all; trying to impose myself on this complex world and the even more complex people who inhabit it. Knocking, Knocking, Knocking.

I wish I could access the Persian, a little. I wonder if the original ‘Knock’ might carry a sense of a person pushing to open a door that needs instead to be pulled. Gary Larson has a cartoon that captures the moment with his characteristic crispness - the entrance to a School for The Gifted has a big sign on the door reading pull, and the student is depicted pushing with all their might. I think of the cartoon every time I push at a door that needs to be pulled - in the spirit of the day, I confess it happens often. And not just at literal doors. At least, it turns out I am in good company.

For here is Rumi - one of the great spiritual teachers of all time - knocking, knocking, knocking. He’s desirous of being let into some other quarter, a new place with the promise of answers and ‘reasons,’ but he is on the inside already. Maybe we all are - already on the inside. Maybe there is nowhere else to go to realise whatever we are going to be capable of realising. Maybe to access the ‘reasons,’ maybe to become the person we wish to be, what we have to do is stop knocking and pull on the door we have been pushing against for so long. Our future doesn’t live in some other quarter. It doesn’t even live in our past. It lives in us. We are here already.

The task of the day is to stop knocking, stop questing after something somewhere else. And instead be here, making a space in which to realise you are and you have everything that you need. You are already inside.

Monday, 7 August 2017

This is who we are, this is what we want to be.

It’s seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah
I’ve written these weekly words for non - or not yet - New Londoners. Please take a moment to pass this message to anyone you think would appreciate being part of our communities for the celebrations to come.  Indeed, sending this to five people who could join us could be the greatest possible boon you could offer to the future of this wonderful community.
To those I haven’t met ... yet.
Come join us, at New London Synagogue - for the celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur especially.
Changing a lifelong Synagogue affiliation can be a daunting prospect. Attending a Synagogue for the first time is even more daunting. But the New Year calls on us all to be a brave. We are summoned to reflect on who we want to be and asked with whom we wish to stand - among our fellows and before a God (indeed a God some of us don’t believe in). Who or what do we want to be closer to, who or what do we want to step away from? New London is a place to wonder at these questions in the company of a wonderful chazan and in an atmosphere that inspires and even demands an openness of heart and mind.
A recent Jewish Policy Research report recorded growing numbers attracted to Masorti Synagogues. We know that - and it’s great news for us. But also plummeting numbers leaving the United Synagogue, and falls in the numbers attracted to Reform and Liberal communities. That’s not good news for the future of our faith, and the rise in affiliation to Masorti doesn’t come close to making up for declines elsewhere. My hunch is that many of those turning away from Synagogue based Judaism are no longer finding the voice of Judaism they grew up hearing compelling or inspiring, and with so many other calls on our time, they are drifting away. While there are many, many attracted to good Orthodox, Reform and Liberal communities, there are also those who are looking for a Hebrew, classical approach to liturgy combined with an openness to what it means to be a Jew of the twenty-first century. That’s us. That’s what we are trying to be. And if that is you, do consider joining us.
You can find out more about our services and even buy tickets through our web-page - or please do drop me a line - and if there is anything I can do to help you chart a path through this wonderful time, it would be an honour,
Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 21 July 2017

A History of Pointless Hatred
We are deep into the ‘Three Weeks,’ a time marking the destruction of the Temple-based Jewish life and the expulsion of the Jews from our ancient land. The Talmud blames our exile on ‘Sinat Chinam’ (Yoma 9a-b) - literally ‘hatred given freely’. There are a number of tales and utterances scattered across the Rabbinic oeuvre which cast light on what this excess of hatred might have been, or perhaps re-articulate what the problem - so severe it could lead to such destruction - actually was. We also have the remarkable testimony of Josephus, the Jewish-born Roman historian, who paints a dramatic picture of life in Jerusalem before and during the Roman siege on the city and its destruction.

This week, in Shul, I want to look at these sources with both a historically critical eye and a religious neshamah. Next week I’ll try and use such truths as we can from history in an analysis of our contemporary successes and failings as the Jewish people, both in and outside the modern State of Israel.

And then on Monday night, 31st July and Tuesday morning 1st August, we will commemorate together the 9th Av, the destruction of the Temple. More info here about what is always a deeply moving and important moment in our yearly cycle as a community.

All welcome,

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

On Welcome and Relationships Between Jews and Non-Jews - A Special Invitation to Join Rabbis Jeremy Gordon and Amichai Lau-Lavie this Saturday.

I’m delighted that two good friends of New London will be back this coming Shabbat. Natasha Mann is  Bat Bayit of the community, now a Rabbinical Student at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. We will also be joined by Rabbi Amichai Lau Lavi of Lab/Shul in New York. Amichai has long had a reputation as one of the most creative and provocative leaders of New York Jewry; he’s the founder of Storahtelling and an inspirational figure for many. In recent months he’s been circulating an argument claiming that the Biblical notion of the ‘Ger Toshav’ - resident alien - provides a mechanism for doing something that for so many, and for so many years, has been a taboo within traditional Judaism - officiating at marriages between Jews and non-Jews. It is a huge issue in American Jewry - see here for more. His is not a position I agree with, either personally or on behalf of the community, but many of the issues Amichai raises - the failure of threats of exclusion to reduce levels of intermarriage and the necessity of recognising the significant Jewish commitments that exist in many intermarried families - are vitally important.

In Shul, on Shabbat, Natasha and Amichai will join me for a discussion on being a welcoming community. All, of course, most welcome.

On Shabbat afternoon, from 5-6:30pm at my home, Amichai will present his paper on the Ger Toshav and we’ll have an opportunity to discuss both the paper and the broader issues it raises. In particular, I want to welcome couples and families of both Jew and non-Jews and others particularly interested in this issue. Please do let me - rabbi[at]  know if you can join me.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

On The Kottel and Unrequited Love

 It’s a bit like when you think a girl you like likes you, only to discover they were only interested in your money. When it comes to a decision as to whether to hang out with you, or someone else, they choose the other guy. Sure they’ll tell you to your face that you are important to them, but it just doesn’t feel that way.

I’m having a tough relationship with the State of Israel this week. I love Israel. I’ve spent over three years of my life in the country and probably just as many hours back in England advocating for her, thinking about her and learning her language and ways. This week, as a Masorti Jew, I’ve had - we have all had - two significant snubs. On Sunday, led by the Israeli Prime Minister, more power was placed into the hands of the Ultra-Orthodox on an issue around conversion courts and then came a second Netanyahu-sponsored decision to suspend plans to build a suitable space next to the Western Wall that could be used by those who didn’t wish to pray according to ultra-orthodox rites.

Together with my Reform and Liberal colleagues in this country I’m angered and hurt. We are not alone. Natan Sharansky, celebrated Refusnik and former MK, forged the carefully balanced plan for a permanent pluralist space at the Kottel. He has reacted furiously. The leadership of the Jewish Agency cancelled a gala dinner with the Prime Minister in protest. Within Israel, the suspension has been opposed by those on a spectrum as broad as the leadership of the modern-Orthodox Tzohar organisation and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

But the thing that makes this snub feel most like a trauma of teenage love is the experience that wells up when I consider the other suitor. What does she see in him?! The Ultra-Orthodox leadership, who have fought tooth and nail against this plan, are hardly dashing suitors. They are prepared to prop up the Netanyahu-led government for whatever the kosher version of pork-barrel is, but their vision of a Jewish State is not only alien to me, it’s alien to even the most avid fan of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

So what do I do? I’m not giving up. I’ll share some of my pain in a forum like this. I’ll take up my cudgel in defence of Israel and her current political leadership a little less readily. But I won’t walk away. I need Israel and while I am prepared to admit that those who live in her borders, and certainly those who serve in her defence, deserve a far greater say in her future than I, I will insist on speaking up for the version of Israel that I believe in. That’s certainly what I plan to share with the Israel’s Ambassador next week when some colleagues and I will be making the case that Israel’s rejection of its aspiration to be a home for all Jews is a terrible mistake. If you want to share with me your thoughts - to share with Ambassador Regev - please do.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 16 June 2017

On Homosexuality and the Pressure Put on Relgious Leaders

Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi community of this country gave a speech in which he spoke warmly about some issues around homosexuality. He went far too far for a number of ultra-orthodox Rabbis, in this country and abroad, who have taken against him. He’s been referred to as a ‘heretic,’ ‘unfit’ to serve as Rabbi and even - gevalt - ‘more poisonous that Louis Jacobs’ (sic. as I believe you have to say at this point).

I don’t want, here, to restate my own understanding of the Bible’s approach to homosexual desires for intimacy. For what it’s worth I feature in a BBC Documentary on the subject viewable [here -]. I’m more interested in the application of pressure on Rabbis. It is, of course, something our founder Rabbi and the founder members of this community knew well. Pressure hurts - of course it does - and when the pressure is applied to the very heart of everything you have given your life to, besides from the professional and personal impact, that pressure can be deeply wounding. But some kinds of pressure help. They clarify; not only one’s own position but also one’s sense of integrity. ‘The good thing about being in hot water,’ Rabbi Louis Jacobs used to say frequently, ‘is that it keeps you clean.’ I think he meant that being in hot water ensures one has the opportunity to realise one’s deepest commitment to the pursuit of truth. When personal deceit is an easier option than the truth of hot water one finds out what one truly stands for and what one is prepared to sacrifice for one’s integrity.

Louis, of course, walked away from the attempts of the ultra-orthodox to persuade him to be silent, or recant. As did the 500 founder members of this community. That took incredible courage. And I salute all to found the strength to that step, our founder Rabbi most of all. But there is a cost also in bowing when pressures applied by others. The cost of apologising and recanting what one believes to be true is not only an internal one. It strengthens the hands of bullies and those who wish one no good fortune. You bow to pressure once and the pressure will come again and again.

I’m reminded of a letter written by the former Israeli Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, who refused to back down from an issue involving Mamzerut. “I’m delighted [he wrote to the JTS professor, Saul Lieberman] to note that I have never felt myself so free to deliberate, to teach, to make legal decisions as I see them, according to my own deliberations. I have been set free, blessed be God, from all the impure notions that they continually pursued me with – what would this one say, what would this lot say, or that lot – now I am fulfilling the Gemorah which states that Rabbi should judge only on the basis of what their own eyes see. [Citing BT Sanhedrin 6b. The letter was published by M.B. Shapiro in Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox].”

Hazak, hazak v’Nithazek - we sing at the end of each book of the Torah - ‘Be strong, be strong and be of courage’. It’s based on the blessing Moses gave to Joshua before he took on leadership of the Jewish people. It’s the best thing to wish any Jewish leader.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jeremy
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