It's the dawning of a new era?
There is one reason why we Reform Jews are uncomfortable with the Book of Leviticus and with Torah portions such as the one that we have just read, and it is this: the Temple.
We do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and in some prayer books even the references to Jerusalem have been diluted.
To be honest, we are not the only ones. It is safe to say that many Orthodox, or more traditional Jews, do not take the references of the Temple literally, but consider them as metaphors as the end of religion wars. They do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple, but rather, like us, for a future of peace and reciprocal understanding.
Of course we Jews mourn in our prayers the destruction of the Temple. But how many of you were in Synagogue, sitting barefoot on shiva chairs, last Tisha beAv, in August? Very few. We do not mourn the destruction of the Temple properly. Through the centuries of Diaspora and Exile, Judaism has reinvented itself, synagogues and shuls have replaced the Temple, prayers have replaced sacrifices, Mr Cohen and Mr Levi do not exercise their services in the Temple but rather they earn their living like all of us. Rebuilding the Temple and returning to the Land of Israel were not among our priorities.
True, there have always been Jews living in the Land of Israel, but for centuries the majority of the Jews worldwide had tried to adapt themselves to the life in the Diaspora and make the most of it.
Contemporary Zionism, the movement for the self-determination of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, had been a minority among the Jews people, for many many years. Things have changed dramatically only with the growth of European anti-Semitic forces which have literally forced many Jews to emigrate to Israel, sometimes quite reluctantly.
Jewish life has been compared, over the last decades, to a circle with two centres, Israel and the Diaspora. Israel is the centre of the Jewish world, where the State calendar is Jewish and where Hebrew is the official language. But Judaism as a culture, and as a religion, has blossomed in the Diaspora, thanks to synagogues, Jewish schools and Jewish institutions.
Think about the history of our Synagogue, At the time of its foundation, several families pledged to offer money so it was designed as the magnificent and strong building that it is, with the stained glass windows we all know. For the generation of our founders the centre of Jewish life was the Diaspora. But then the Six Day War erupted and many of the resources that were destined here went elsewhere, to support Israel and to guarantee its survival.
It is one among many examples of what it means to be part of this circle with two centres, Israel and Diaspora. They complement each other, although a certain tension is always there. Everybody with Israeli relatives knows it well, often they tell you "why don't you move here, why do you want to continue to live as a minority?"
So, to sum up: Judaism has been centred around the Temple, then the Temple was destroyed, the Jews went all around the world and the centre of Judaism became the Synagogue. Then some Jew who, generally speaking, did not like going to Synagogue, started moving back to Israel but without rebuilding the Temple, and we have been living in this situation for a while.
The Destruction of the Temple had been a catastrophe, to be sure, but it has also been a revolution, the beginning of a stage of Jewish life that has lasted for millennia. So now what?
I think we are probably at the beginning of a new stage in Jewish history. These innovations we have been forced to adopt, streaming services, moving classes on line, where possible, have been discussed at length, in this Synagogue too, but there was a general reluctance to embrace them. We decided, because of the pandemic, we had no alternative. But you know what? These things are here to stay. Even when we will return in our building in Palmeira Avenue, I think we, like many other Synagogues in the world, will continue to stream services. We have reached out to a larger number of congregants, and among them people who cannot move from home and precisely for that reason are in need of a spiritual community to connect to.
I used to daven alone three times a day. Now I daven via Zoom and there is always someone else there, which means that without the service on line they would probably not daven at all. When we will return in our Synagogue I don't think I will stop connecting via Zoom, to people who cannot come to shul
The same goes for classes. I used to give classes to a small group and now people from London join in; the audience is larger.
There is a different sense of closeness. When I chat with people via Skype it is always less formal, more relaxed, more open. We see each other's environment. Our community experiences a new sense of connection when we do Havdalah, and it will be the same when we will have our Seder on Thursday.
This technology, that we have had to embrace, because of the pandemic, is changing our religious life.
To be clear, I think that synagogues will continue to exist. Nothing replaces the feeling of actually being in place, shoulder to shoulder with other fellow Jews. But a larger number of Jews will be reachable, plus we will have the chance to see each other more often, and to support each other more effectively, just by being in contact as we are doing now.
There is nothing good in a pandemic. But there was nothing good in the destruction of the Temple, either. We have a date in the calendar to mourn it but nonetheless, Judaism reorganised itself after the destruction of the Temple, and it was able to build a circle with two centres, something impossible from a logical point of view. But we do not do logic, and this is the secret of our survival.
May we continue to be non-logical and more technological, and see you at the next virtual minyan, or at the Seder, or the Havdalah, or... did you notice how many more opportunities we have, now?
So, where are we now? I mean, today, the last Shabbat of March 2020. This is easy to answer. We are stuck at home, The rules have become tougher since last week, when accessing the shul was still possible. Now it is not. We have set up this system, with Zoom. Thank God for this wonderful new technology, and what a wonderful thing it is being a Reform Jew, and being allowed to do this on Shabbat.
We are stuck at home, and we'll probably stay as such for a long time, Pesach included. Uncertainty is the dominant feeling. We don't know when the quarantine will be over and what sort of world we will find when, hopefully soon, we will be able to embrace our friends and families anew.
What we used to take for granted has become uncertain. We don't know what we'll find at the supermarket or what we will receive with the next delivery.
There is another feeling we are experiencing, and it is boredom. We don't know how to fill our days now that we are confined at home. There's a huge offer on the TV, and classes and lectures of all possible kinds, and many libraries have made their digital content available. Never in history have so many books become available for free.
But let's be honest, we do not enjoy all these cultural experiences properly, (books, movies, plays...). We are forced to return to all of this, for lack of alternatives. We have to find ways to fill our days.
So here we are: stuck at home, uncertain and bored.
And where are we, with the Torah reading cycle? This week we begin the reading of the Sefer Vaykra, the book of Leviticus. Leviticus is, it's safe to say, not an inspiring book. It's all about rules for sacrifices!
Leviticus is not Genesis. Genesis is about the Creation of the Universe, and then about the first couple of human beings, and then about the first Jewish family, the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs. It's a wonderful reading, full of deeply psychological insights and layer after layer of family dynamics.
Neither is Leviticus Exodus. Exodus is the story of a people, the formation of the Jewish people, and the escape from slavery. It is a wonderful story of liberation that actually has inspired many other liberation movements in human history. The Puritans who found the United States of America saw themselves as Israelites, leaving the European Egypt, in search of a Promised Land. Centuries after, the Afro American community, reclaiming civil rights, also adopted the narrative of Exodus for themselves, and rightly so. They were all descendants, sometime grandchildren, of enslaved human beings. As were we, which we remember during Pesach.
But then you have Leviticus, whose reading begins today and it is not inspiring like Exodus, or fascinating like Genesis. It is about rules for sacrifices and rules for purity, a very dry and boring reading.
Boring like our days can be in this hopefully exceptional time.
In fact, Leviticus is such a boring reading that, when the whole Torah was divided in weekly sections, to combine in non-leap year, the majority of portions to be combined were of Leviticus! As a result, Leviticus is the book of the Torah we are less exposed to; we manage to conclude its reading in a couple of months. Compare that to the twelve weeks of Genesis! Moreover, we usually read Leviticus while Pesach is approaching and already in Medieval times, sermons given in this part of the year were mostly about the preparation for the holyday and not about the actual content of the Torah reading. Rabbis knew that it was a boring reading and did their best to protect their flock from the exposure to its boredom.
Nonetheless I think there are two very important things about this book that we usually forget.
The first is that it is a central book. Literally, there are five books in the Torah, we have read the first two and this is the central one, following which there will be another two. In Judaism what is central matters. Think about Shabbat. It is the centre of the week. On Wednesday our preparation for Shabbat begins, and actually during the following two weekdays, Thursday and Friday, you can wish Shabbat shalom. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday we still live in the Shabbat atmosphere we have experienced, with the memory of it still with us.
Or think of the menorah, a Jewish symbol. It stands on its central pillar. There are seven branches, seven lights, three on one side and three on the other, the central light is connected to the ground and actually holds all the others together.
Shabbat and the menorah; both Jewish time and Jewish space reminds us how important the centre is.
So, do not forget how important the centre is in Judaism. There is a reason why Leviticus is the central reading in our Torah and so important; because it is about gratitude.
The reason why most of the sacrifices described in Leviticus were performed was because of gratitude. Think about the sacrifices which we have read today, the shelamim, a word that comes from shalom, peace, completeness. It has been translated as "sacrifice of well-being" because these sacrifices were offered when the ancient Israelites, had something to celebrate in their own family. The same kind of feelings that we experience when we are happy for having achieved something important in our life, (a wedding anniversary, a new job) and want to share the joy and the gratitude with our friends and family.
Gratitude. Let's try to think about reasons to be grateful, during these days of worries and boredom. We are grateful to be alive, we have reason to hope that the Corona virus will be defeated and that the dark times will be over and we will have reasons to celebrate. We are grateful that we know at least how to contain the disease and limit its contagion. And we are grateful that technology provides us with the means to alleviate the strictness of these rules, so that we can connect with our community, with our ancient words of prayer, and also, with a book that can sometimes be boring (like our days) but can still teach us many things.
Be safe, be grateful.
When I was an academic, which was decades ago, irrelevant pieces of research were labelled as "laundry bill".
A typical case of a ‘laundry bill’ was, for example, a study on the favourite dishes of the economist Vilfredo Pareto. Yes, someone really spent time to dig the culinary tastes, (and the passion for alcoholics), of this famous sociologist, but such a study has certainly not increased our knowledge of his life and thought.
Another example, I came across was the calculation of the number of bricks used to build the Ducal Palace of Modena. I am all in favour of the Ducal Palace of Modena, but I must admit I don't see how knowing its detailed number of bricks can increase my appreciation for that masterpiece of Italian baroque architecture. A ‘laundry bill’, indeed.
The opening part of this week's Torah portion is likely to trigger similar feelings of boredom or even irritation. Vayekhel- Pekudei, the conclusion of the Book of Exodus, frankly speaking, is quite a boring bit of Torah. It is the record of the expenses for the materials: gold, silver and copper, used to build the Mishkhan, the Tabernacle of the Covenant, the priestly garments, and the furnishing for the Tabernacle.
Not only is it a very boring piece of reading, it is also repetitive, because the same list of materials and craftwork can be found in other parts of the Torah, as a set of instructions. These two bits of text are actually very similar to each other. They are also often quoted by Christian scholars who like to see the "Old Testament," (our Torah), as a patch of outdated historical documents, to be replaced with a New Testament. See, they say to us, these lists of materials, and artworks, have nothing spiritual or inspiring. They are part of the Torah because of some mistake of the copyist who, at a certain point in history, thought they were important, or holy, and included them in the Holy Book.
These scholars may have a point, if it is true that Ancient Middle Eastern mentality worked in such a way, (of which I am not). But I prefer to point out an element in the text which make it very meaningful and inspiring for us all. Even today, and I mean today, March 2020, for us at the Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue. And that is the conclusion of the Torah portion, (not part of what we read today), which is also the conclusion of the Book of Exodus. Once the Tabernacle is completed, and the expenses are paid, the Divine Presence enters the Tabernacle, and will guide the Israelites in their wandering in the desert. When a cloud lifts up from the Tabernacle the Israelite set them in motion, and the days when it does not, they stay in the same place, sometimes for months, sometimes for less time.
To the external observer it was certainly a strange sight. A people journeying through a desert just following a cloud!
But for the Israelites, according to their own perspective, or narrative, (a term that is fancied today), this cloud was a sign of Divine Glory and Divine Protection, from the same God who had delivered them from Egypt and drowned their persecutors in the Sea of Reeds.
Let us think of where we are now.
We are also at a beginning of a journey through the desert. The Covid 19 pandemic is turning our cities into a desert. The duty of social isolation is actually making our life similar to a desert. Shops, pubs, offices, religious buildings, one after the other are closing and will be locked from now on. Less and less people will venture out of their homes. It is a desert.
We ourselves have to navigate through such a desert. We do not know how long this pandemic will last and meanwhile we have to learn how to navigate through it, how to keep us and our families safe and healthy, how not to lose touch with the demands of the society, such as attendance at school, participation in social life etc.
We experience the same fears as our ancestors. We look at the empty shelves of supermarket with the same feeling experienced by our Biblical ancestors wandering into the desert, when and if they have to stop and settle in some barren place.
The fear of the plague, of the pestilence, is well known to Judaism. In the Hashkivenu prayer, that we recite in the evening after the Shemah, to ask God for protection during night time, (See in our Prayer book at pg.136), we mention kherev, which here is translated as "disease" but elsewhere as a plague or pest. During Avinu Malkheinu, which we sing on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we ask God to protect us from the magepha, which is the pestilence. For centuries we Jews have prayed to God asking for protection from contagious diseases. They have always been around, like today the Covid 19 is around, dangerous and mortal. Our Tradition has always known about it.
This, I think, is an important teaching from our Torah portion. The importance of prayer, the need for comfort and protection from the same sources that shielded our ancestors during the wandering in the desert and in exile. Avinu Malkheinu and Hashkivenu are prayers composed in the Diaspora, when we did not have a State to take refuge. For centuries, our weakness made us extremely vulnerable to attacks, even from invisible and unpredictable enemies, just like we are all, like all humanity is, exposed to the Covid 19 pandemic.
Prayer is the resource that our tradition puts at the disposal of those who, like everyone, live in fear of the contagion. Prayers and hopes. Prayers, to ask divine protection. Prayer, to know and feel that you are not alone.
This is what I am doing from now on. I will be available for prayers, three times a day, as per our Tradition. You can reach me via Zoom, which is incredibly easy to set up. You can wear tallit or not (in the morning), your choice. You can wear tefillin, and I can teach you tefillin for the morning prayers.
You don't have a Siddur? We can deliver it to you, or you can access the online version https://www.reformjudaism.org.uk/online-siddur/
Details and instructions are on our web site but feel free to contact me at any time.
Let us pray together and may the Almighty listen to our prayers.
I believe that many of you already know the new guidelines with which we hope to contain the coronavirus epidemic in our communities. Just before Shabbat an email was sent out from our office, and for those who do not have access to email will receive it in a printed form. Today, and moving forward, we need to be cautious and learn to refrain from otherwise instinctive gestures, such as kissing, embracing or hand shaking. I, of course, hope the emergency will pass and we will return to be physically effusive as after all we are Jewish! But somewhere, in the back of my mind, I wonder how many of these changes of our habits will be permanent and stay with us when, as we all hope, the emergency will be over.
Many contemporary habits and gestures in our daily life seem natural to us, but they have an origin. They have been introduced at a specific point in history, for specific reasons, and then have stayed, even when the context changed significantly.
The military salute in its present form of the right hand on the forehead, originated in Medieval times when knights greeted each other by raising their visors to show their faces, and be identified as friends and not the enemy. Some scholars maintain that the left-hand traffic, the way people drive their cars on the road in England, dates back to Medieval times, when knights and pedestrians needed to keep their swords in the right hand and pass on the left for self-defence.
As you see, the origins of these habits date back in time of war, when lives were in danger and threatened, like today with the coronavirus epidemic, so I wonder if the habit of hand shaking is doomed and the future generations of humanity will greet each other in a different way.
A similar kind of evolution can be tracked for many of the rules for purification that are listed in the Torah.
A good example is the parah adumah, the red heifer, which we have read today, to kick off our spiritual preparation for Pesach.
Its core rule is the need of purification after having touched a corpse. A quite understandable need and a matter of public health, especially in the warm climate where our faith comes from. Corpses are contaminating and can pose serious threats to public health. Hence the need for quick burial, so typical of our faith.
Let me digress for a moment by mentioning the mass graves in Iran, where the victims of the Coronavirus are currently buried. There are plenty of photos taken from satellites, yet the Iranians deny the evidence. The media, as we know, prefer not to criticise too openly the Iranian despots, and so people (usually members of religious minorities) have to continue to live in the proximity of these mass graves. So much for the Iranian regime that, so we are told, is gradually evolving towards democracy.
Anyway, back to our Torah portion. In Middle Eastern climates, corpses are dangerous, so a quick burial is requested because of health reasons, and whoever touches a dead body must go through a procedure of purification. This is the visible core, the most ancient element of the whole ritual described in this paragraph. The process of purification requires spending days in isolation, bathing in running water, and being sprinkled with "water of separation", which is water with hyssop, a plant which was a well-known antiseptic. All of this makes sense if we consider the procedure as a way to be sanitised. It includes seven days of isolation which is understandable because it is what we do, even today, to protect our communities from contamination.
But in the ceremony, there is another element, which is a bit mysterious. The "water of separation" meant to purify those who have touched a dead body, included the ashes of a very rare animal, a completely red heifer born from a completely red cow. This has nothing to do with hygiene and public health. It has more to do with religion and spirituality, than keeping people safe from the contact with dead bodies.
Why a heifer and why a red one? There is not a straightforward answer and even Rambam, who is very fond of rational explanations, could not find a proper answer.
Rabbis and commentators have of course provided their own, and there are plenty. Which is not surprising: it is a mysterious subject, literally related to life and death. We are dealing with a process of purification from the contact with death, with dead bodies, and this process involves the ashes of a dead animal.
That is to teach that absolute purity, absolute purification, is not possible. Exactly when you want to purify yourself from death, from illness, or from weakness, you have to remember that death is still there, it is part of the process and it is part of life.
Absolute purity is impossible.
Which brings me to this consideration. A few days ago, a group of extremists, who call themselves Jews and radicals, violently disrupted a talk at the Jewish Book Week. They did not like the two authors who were giving the talk, Douglas Murray and Melanie Philips. The two speakers were accused of being racist and Islamophobic plus some other -phobic which is fashionable to accuse people nowadays.
Admittedly, they are not my favourites either, although Melanie Philips wrote a wonderful passage on bereavement that can be found in our prayer book on page 532 (and I hope no one will suggest to MRJ that we have to purify our prayer book). But certainly, both Philips and Murray must be allowed the chance to defend themselves from these hateful accusations, especially in a Country where even the most rabid antisemite is allowed to address the public and call himself "anti-Zionist".
The bullies and the thugs who disrupted the debate (and were rightly booed from the audience) must be asked: What do you want? Which kind of ideological purity do you want to dictate to the Jewish community? Do you want to turn the Jewish community into a place for purity, and to forbid any kind of contamination with ideas you don't like?
I am not arguing that these folks are "bad Jews". They probably think they are not, and that the "bad Jews" are those who contaminate themselves by listening to, and perhaps questioning, Douglas Murray and Melanie Philips.
Well, they are not. The majority of the Jewish community does not regard Melanie Philips or Douglas Murray, with whom perhaps we disagree, as some kind of contaminating dead bodies from whom we are supposed to keep at a distance. That is because Judaism teaches that a complete distance is impossible to achieve and even when we think we have become absolutely pure, guess what, impurity is still around.
Those Jewish radicals are not good, neither bad Jews. They simply must do their homework better!
7th March 2020
For those who know Italian culture, there is something eerily familiar in the images that we see these days from Milan: the empty streets, the few passers-by in places that are usually always crowded...There is an immediate association with the 1630 plague, via a 19th century novel, and several 20th century movies. Let me explain. The 1630 plague is a memorable event in the history of Milan: almost half of the population died in a few months. It was vividly portrayed in a 19th Century masterpiece of Italian literature, I promessi sposi ("The Bethroted") by Alessandro Manzoni, which is required reading for every 10th grade student. Such a well-known novel has become the subject for several movies, all set, as the novel is, in Milan. The very same places, that are in the novel, are usually bursting with life and packed with businessmen and tourists. But in recent weeks, they are deserted and ghostly, as in the novel by Alessandro Manzoni, or in some of the movie versions. Manzoni wrote his novel in 1827, but the description of the plague is incredibly vivid, as it is based on chronicles that are contemporary to the events. Those pages inspire and raises questions even today. For example: The Archbishop of Milan, known as a holy man, called for a procession, because he believed that the plague could be stopped by display of religious piety. Needless to say, the gathering of so many people, at the peak of Summertime, provided the ideal setting for the contagion and made things worse. All true history. By telling this episode, Manzoni, himself a religious person, advocates the progress of science against religious superstitions.Not all the Catholics of his time were ready to digest such a message. Things are obviously different for us Jews. In these hours we do not ask forgiveness for our sins, we do not look at plagues and illnesses as punishment for our sins, but we encourage scientific research and we are confident that a cure, and an immunisation will be discovered soon, perhaps by Israeli scientists.Other famous pages of Manzoni's novel are particularly interesting today, in these times of fake news. According to popular belief, the plague in 1630 was spread by shadowy characters, who walked around Milan anointing the doors with a poisonous unguent. Hence their name, untori, anointers. It was, obviously, a legend, but because it was widely believed, innocent people ended up burnt on the stake, after a quick staged trial. Justices and public officers did not believe in the existence of "untori": they just wanted to placate the mob and give to them a feeling of safety. A pillar was erected on the place of the execution, the "colonna infame", infamous pillar. It was supposed to memorialise the anointers' crime. It became an admonishment to judges and magistrates to fulfil their mission with integrity and not to rush to condemnation. just to please the mob or public opinion. For a strange turn of history, the main University's Law Faculty, opened its premises not so far from the colonna infame, some decades after the 1630 plague. Law students and magistrates literally have walked by it for generations.
It worked as a warning to judges, present and future, that their mission was and is to establish justice, not to please the crowd. Because when the crowd feels to be in danger, feels threatened, or insecure, either for real or imagined reasons, it is never a good thing. Then the people look for a scapegoat, usually a weak minority, and demand justice, while in reality they are looking for blood.
There is a Chinatown in Milan. Families with a Chinese background have been living and running shops and businesses there for more than a century. It is usually bursting with life and packed with passers-by and businesspeople, running around all the time.
These days it is deserted. It looks like a ghost city. Shops are closed and few people walk around the streets.
It does not need much imagination to understand why. The Chinese, or better to say: the Italians of Chinese origin, are terrified to become the scapegoats of the epidemic.
While it is certainly true that the epidemic started from China, it makes absolutely no sense to blame those Italians of Chinese origin who have been in Italy for many, many years and never visited the Country their families are from. Nonetheless, the fear is there, and the hard working, very united and loving Chinese families now live in fear of being singled out or even physically assaulted.
Here too, Judaism has several things to teach us. First of all, our historical experience of being victims of bloody legends such as the untori, anointers. Jews did not live in Milan in 1630: it was a Spanish dominion, and Jews were forbidden to live in Spanish dominions from 1492. But historically, in Medieval Europe, Jews have been victims of precisely the same hateful violence, based on superstition and scapegoating. Of course the difference in religious attitudes regarding personal hygiene did not help. Christians were afraid of nudity and did not bath often, while Jews used the mikveh regularly. Hence, in time pestilences, far less Jews died than Christians. Which to the Christians, sounded as a confirmation that Jews were spreading the poison!
Corona virus is not causing the same number of deaths that the 1630 plague caused. But already we see, in social media and on the Internet, attempts to blame an entire community and to scapegoat them. Already we see legends around.
It is our duty, as Jews and as human beings, in time of pestilence, to stand against superstitions and scapegoating. To reaffirm our trust in science and scientific progress. The Corona Virus will be defeated. Scientist, perhaps Israeli scientist, will find the proper therapy and the proper immunisation. And please do not waste your time believing in conspiratorial legends that blame the USA government, the Chinese government or whatever. Remember, every time we start thinking in a conspiratorial way, we allow antisemitism to slip in. Because, just like with the AIDS epidemic, first someone blames some evil USA scientist, then someone else "uncovers" some strategy by the USA military and in the end, guess what, they blame Israel, that is the Jews.
While we do our best to protect ourselves from one of the most contagious infections of the last decades, let us keep the human inclination to look for scapegoats, under control.
Let us be vigilant, let us pray, let us be hopeful.
And may this illness come to an end soon, speedily and in our days.
1st February 2020
The Trump plan, the desert and a white coffin.
There is one reason why I am sceptical towards the attempts by the European Left to bring an end to the conflict between Israel and the Arab world.
Not because the same people believe they know how to bring peace in the Middle East, so far have not been able to end the conflicts in their own home, in Europe, such as in Ireland or in the Balkans.
I mean: if you are not able to keep your own house in order, why do you think you are entitled to sort other people’s houses. It's just common sense. But this is not the specific reason why I do not trust the European Left's intervention in the conflict in the Middle East.
They reason why I don't trust them is actually very small, and white. It is a baby size white coffin that was left on the stairs of the Great Synagogue in Rome in 1982, during a Trade Union's rally.
A small coffin. White. Empty.
A few weeks after that hateful rally, a Palestinian commando assaulted the Great Synagogue in Rome. It was Shabbat. It was Shemini Atzeret, the day when children receive a special blessing, according to the Rome custom. The Synagogue was packed with 300 worshippers, and among them 50 children. The terrorist threw bombs and opened fire with machine guns. 37 people were seriously wounded, and a child, two years old, was murdered.
The white coffin left empty by the Trade Unions a few weeks before was now full.
It’s true the terrorists escaped: five Middle Eastern men managed to escape after an attack, in the centre of Rome, with police literally at every corner at noon (because of terrorist threats, remember? This was the 80s, in Italy). Not to mention the police surveillance car, that was in front of the Synagogue every day but, for some strange reason not on that day, Shabbat, Shemini Atzeret, 1982.
Another strange coincidence: a few weeks before the attack, Yasser Arafat visited Italy. He was welcomed as a head of State (which he was not) by several leaders and in Parliament, and then he went on to the Vatican, to receive the same kind of hospitality.
This is precisely the reason why I cannot trust the European Left. That small white coffin.
I do not want to judge the Palestinian terrorists. It's not my job. I am not Palestinian. I was not born in a refugee camp. I don't want to judge; that is the job of the police and the justice system (hopefully the Israeli judges).
My judgement, more: my condemnation is for those trade unionists who left that white empty coffin in front of the Synagogue. For those militants who shielded their comrades while they were leaving their gift on the stairs.
And I judge in the same way, in the harshest way possible, those Leftist militants who, after the terror attack, and the murder of a 2 year old Jewish child, declared on TV that they were regretting having protected persecuted Jews during WWII, "because now I see what they do in Palestine".
I cannot judge the terrorists. I do not know why they have chosen this way. I can judge their actions, not their personality. Perhaps they did not have choice.
But those Leftist anti-Semites who supported the terrorists, who justified them, who offered the Palestinian terrorists their understanding, and their empathy that they denied to their fellow Italian citizens, this to me is unforgivable.
They did not grow up in the misery of a Palestinian camp. They had access to the same source of information as I had. They could read the same books I read. Nonetheless. their ideology had blinded them to the point that shooting Jews when they come out from a Synagogue, and murdering a child, seemed morally justifiable "because of what the Jews do in Palestine".
Rome, 9 October 1982. My generation of Italian Jews have grown up in the shadows of that terror attack. That was, and is, on our minds whenever we see the police stationed outside the Synagogue. The first thought is always: Thank God they are here, today.
The bitterness and the disappointment, that many British Jews feel today towards the Labour Party, is what we experienced 40 years ago, and the peak was exactly at that time: Rome, 9 October 1982.
And so, if you ask me whether we should trust an orange haired American President, who seems to be able to persuade the main sponsors of Palestinian terrorism to spend their money elsewhere; or the leaders of that European Left who, some decades ago were more on the side of Palestinian murderers than on the side of the Jews and of the Israelis, I have no doubt, that whatever comes from the American president seems to me more reasonable and doable than whatever comes from the friends of Hezbollah, Hamas or Yasser Arafat, may his name be forgotten.
The Torah portions we read during these weeks narrate the foundational event of the history of the Jewish people: the exodus from Egypt. As everybody knows, the Israelites had to go through the desert before reaching the Land of Israel and becoming free. Why is the desert needed to conquer freedom? I mean: God is Omnipotent, why didn't He choose to liberate the Jews in any other way? Like overthrowing Pharaoh, and putting Moses in his place? Why did the Israelites have to wander through the desert?
The reason is that they had to get rid of Egyptian culture, of Egyptian ideology and of Egyptian mentality. In a contemporary world, this is equivalent to shutting up the media, the news report, the Internet... all the sources of information that want us to believe that the Jewish State cannot live in peace with its neighbours unless all the requests of the Palestinians are met. Unfortunately, this is the message from the media. Israel must give up, the Palestinians must receive, however, whatever Israel gives up, it will never be enough. But we do not have to listen to the media and to the monotonous, eternal blaming of Israel.
In my own personal desert, walking towards the Land of Israel, this time I choose to trust the Americans.
And hope for the best.
25 January 2020 / 28 Tevet 5780
Bishvil Mah - a sermon before Holocaust Memorial Day
I am tired of Holocaust Memorial Day.
Don't get me wrong. It is good that there is such a day in the civil calendar in the UK and elsewhere. Of course, we have the duty to commemorate the darkest pages of human history, the Nazi Holocaust and, as per the official definition, the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. Possibly without making comparisons between different historical contexts and possibly without competition between different kinds of victims. Comparisons and historical context are a matter for the academics and scholars. Holocaust Memorial Day is time for mourning, reflection, and commemoration.
But let me tell you a story. When I was in Israel, I used to volunteer in a nursing home. I went there every other Shabbat to do havdalah with the guests. There was this elderly Holocaust survivor, Mar Itzak, Mr Isaac Freudenthal. He spoke several languages: Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, French, German. English and even a bit of Italian. Itzak was in a wheelchair but his mind was as sharp as ever. Once I explained to Itzak the whole concept of Holocaust Memorial Day, the day to remember the victims, to pay honour to the survivors and to make sure that the future generations understand the causes of the Holocaust ... and then Itzik commented with a question, in Hebrew bishvil mah? "for what?"
And you know, the memory of that question, formulated in Mar Itzak's prickly voice, has never left me. Bishvil ma? For what?
For which reason should we remember the Holocaust? Is the lesson of the Holocaust being learnt by anyone? By the general society? By the Western world? By Europe? Is there anyone with full sanity of mind who can honestly state that anti-Semitism is less a threat today to the life of the Jewish community than it was, say five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago? Holocaust Memorial Day has been established according to the assumption that people can learn from their mistakes and become less racist, less violent, less prejudiced over time.
This is a community with quite an aged Jewish population, (thank God, it means we live longer!), and as a Rabbi I meet with many Holocaust survivors and their families. None of them is optimistic. I have never met with one single survivor, or with any family member whom I can call optimistic, agrees with the belief according to which Holocaust Memorial Day has been instituted.
Anti-Semitism is still around. There's a lot of antisemitic propaganda on the Internet, sometimes masqueraded as criticism towards Israel, and increasingly more explicit. Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, where communications are more direct, and more personal, is a recruiting ground for anti-Semites. Day in day out new guidelines are announced; they announce anti-hate politics; we all hope that antisemitic propaganda disappears... but it does not.
Of course, no one suggests rounding up and deporting the Jews from any Country, but anti-Semitism is still acceptable, and some politicians call for support from anti-Semitic voters. They mock the concerns expressed by the Jewish institutions, or say bluntly, pretending to be brave, that they are not going to be intimidated by wealthy bankers, or by foreign Countries. (they mean Israel and its supposedly omnipotent lobby).
Therefore the question that Mr Isaac Freudenthal raised on that Saturday evening in Jerusalem still resonates in my mind. Bishvil mah? For what?
Add to this that the original purpose, commemorating the Holocaust, had morphed throughout the years by the addition of other tragedies and other genocides to be remembered. The official list, the genocides listed on the Holocaust Memorial Day web site includes, besides the Holocaust and other Nazi-ran massacres, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and Bosnia. With all due respect, this looks like an arbitrary list. Why not the Armenians? 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Turkish Army between 1915 and 1918. Why is this massacre is not included in the official list? Adolf Hitler himself, in 1939, while signing the extermination order of the Polish Jews, said "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians". That was an immediate precedent of the Holocaust, but these victims are not remembered on Holocaust Memorial Day. And the reason is always the same: no one wants to upset the Turkish Government, who never admitted responsibility of the massacre, let alone compensated the victims. The Turkish official narrative is that the massacre never happened. These were only war operations, after all it was WWI. And this too is chillingly similar to the Nazi German version of the Holocaust. War operations.
This is only one case. But there are other genocides that have not been included in the list, victims that are not commemorated, because of political reasons: Native Americans, for example. And precisely for political reasons, that have nothing to do with human rights, there are various groups who want to be included, such as the Palestinians, as if having been victims of a genocide gives you some kind of political power. Which is precisely an anti-Semitic trope: the Jews, say the anti-Semites nowadays, exploit the guilt of the Gentile in a very organised way and have even managed to have a State.
But I want to be clear. I am not suggesting retracting from Holocaust Memorial Day. I do not want us to boycott, or not to take part to civil ceremonies of commemoration. I myself have been invited to co-officiate one of these ceremonies in Haywards Heath on Monday, and of course I have accepted the invitation and I am honoured to do so.
We must do so. We must take part in the commemorations, even if the recurrence is, shall I say, politically flawed.
You have heard one or more variations of the anti-Semitic trope "Jews are doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them". Last week we also heard it on the BBC, during a reportage from Jerusalem, while the camera was showing the image of the Yad Vashem.
This piece of anti-Semitic propaganda is a much too pervasive narrative and we have the duty to counter it whenever it is possible. Anti-Semites use Holocaust Memorial Day to spread their hate: yes, it is really that bad. And we cannot afford the luxury of letting them continue.
Primo Levi once said: "It happened, it can happen again. This is all we survivors have to say". And we Jews have the duty to do the same: to be there when the "Holocaust" word is pronounced and is in danger of being exploited. To explain and point out what exactly the Holocaust was and why, given how pervasive anti-Semitism still is, it may happen again.
We must do it. We must be there. We must speak out loud.
We get the irony.
They say we Jews don't get irony, but this week's Torah portion is deeply ironic. Think about it.
It is the story of a Jewish baby, Moses, who is adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh. Pharaoh is an enemy of the Jewish people and is the cruel King who decreed the death of all the Jewish babies. And his daughter raises a Jewish baby, who will then grow up into an adult leader….and he will lead the Exodus of his people.
That's the Torah reading, in a nutshell: the enemy of the Jewish people raised in his palace, within his own family, a future leader of the Jewish people.
This is deeply ironic. Not only ironic, it is also subversive.
I think that being subversive is the most important feature of Jewish humour.
Other kinds of humour are different. For example, Wikipedia explains that:
British irony is about the absurdity of everyday life, the awkwardness of navigating the class system, or expressing embarrassing views in a polite and constructive way.
Jewish humour, on the other side, has to do with anti-Semitism and persecutions. Possibly the saddest themes in the world.
But it's a fact, we Jews laugh at our enemies, especially when they are powerful.
The stronger our enemies are, the more we like to have fun at them.
For example, the Communist Soviet Union was heaven on Earth for Jewish humourists, and it was where the saga of Rabinovich took place. The most famous episode was the story of the Internationalist Socialist Orchestra, in which all the nationalities of the Soviet Union are represented. You had Rostov the Russian, Makarenko the Ukranian, Achdian the Armenian and Rabinovitch... the fiddler. That was from the time when Stalin had forbidden the Jews to call themselves a people, as it could lead to Zionism.
Another glorious era for Jewish humour was in Medieval Spain, when Jews were often forced to convert to Christianity and after that, subject to special investigation by the Inquisition. To become a Christian meant being baptised and have your name changed. So, you have the story of the Inquisitor, who is carrying on with his usual rounds of inspections when he sees a recently Christianized Jew eating a beef steak on a Friday evening, when Catholics were forbidden to eat meat. So, he enters the house of the Jew and addresses him furiously. But the Jew explained to the priest that that was not a steak, it was a fish. He had indeed baptised the steak, changed the name from beef to fish, and now he is allowed to eat it because, well, now it's a fish!!
This is probably the most important feature of Jewish irony, of Jewish humour. It exposes the cruelness, the small mindedness, the hypocrisy of our enemies, while at the same time it points out our humanity, or simply put our good reasons, and why the anti-Semites are both stupid and wrong.
I myself have used this sort of parody when I was so frustrated by the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn who, in order to attack me on social media, had literally made up racist "anti-Palestinian" tweets that I had never written, (to which they replied that I had cancelled!). I set up a parody account to tell the world that these Corbynistas belong to the Flat Earth Society, and I knew because they had written tweets and subsequently very cleverly, cancelled them. They also knew for sure that Elvis Presley was still alive, as it was evident in tweets that they had then cancelled. Oh, and I have evidence that Israeli settlers had taken over the Moon and expelled the local native population. The proof? The Moon is deserted! Isn't this the evidence that the Zionists had massacred the original inhabitants?
I tried, and I still I try, to follow an irreverent and quite established tradition of Jewish humour.
I cannot say how successful this attempt of mine was to follow a Jewish tradition that is quite irreverent, (I cannot say respectable!), but the point is that tradition of irreverent humour exists, and it is authentically Jewish: indeed, you'll find it in our Holy Book, specifically in this week's Torah reading. The very ironic story of an enemy of the Jewish people, a King nonetheless who, without realising it, raises and educates, in his own palace, a future leader of the Jewish people, someone who will undermine and challenge his authority.
And here's something really surprising: Pharaoh never realises that Moses had been educated as an Egyptian prince. Even during the frantic conversations that precede the Exodus from Egypt, there is no indication of Pharaoh’s surprise, or disappointment. But we would expect that! I mean, he is a King, and a member of his family is heading a revolt of slaves. And these slaves are rebelling against specifically that King, his law and his authority. Every teenager is a bit rebellious and enjoys testing the boundaries to infuriate their parents (tell me about it!). But this passage of the Torah is well beyond family dynamics. It is about politics, and religion: the Israelites, in the name of their One and Only God, are rebelling against Pharaoh’s authority that is sanctioned by the Egyptian religion, with all its plurality of idols and gods. Nonetheless, despite this enormity of the challenge and the high level of confrontation Pharaoh is imperturbable, he does not even take notice at how that leader of the rebels is literally his own family.
I believe that Pharaoh, the Egyptian King, the Monarch everyone believes is the son of God, is a neurotic individual, obsessed by his own power. He feels himself compelled to show off his authority. During the plagues he behaves erratically. First, he refuses to let the Israelites go, then after the first series of plagues he changes his mind and lets them go. And then he changes his mind again, and sends his own soldiers, the most trained and efficient of them, literally to die, drawn in by the Sea of Reeds. This is not consistent, balanced, responsible behaviour. This the behaviour of Pharaoh, who was clearly neurotic and mad.
So, it is no surprise that this man had no time for human relations. That he did not feel anything for his family. He cannot show weakness, he has to run (dictatorially!) a whole Empire. It is not surprising that he did not recognise Moses, even if Moses had been around the palace for many years.
Pharaoh, the King who does not even recognise his own family, is clearly the opposite of a Jew: the enemy, an anti-Semite.
And speaking of anti-Semites: yes, we Jews can get British irony, contrary to what a notorious anti-Semite had claimed once. But the fact is that the irony that we find in the Torah, is more beautiful, deeper, and more spiritual. And we get that too.