Rabbi Andrea's Sermons
23rd April 2022 / 22nd Nisan 5782
"LET MY PEOPLE GO"- AND THE MISSING BIT.
It is safe to say that today is not the most attended service of the year. There are several reasons for that:
The first is what I call the ‘Pass-over Hangover’. We have had, in rapid succession: Pesach -one Seder at home, then a service here the following day, followed by the community Seder, then the last day of Pesach, and then today another Shabbat... it is a massive series of religious services, and understandably at a certain point, one feels it has been enough. The ‘Dayenu’ mood kicks in!
Then there is the complicated issue of the end of Pesach. Since the beginning of the Diaspora, those Jews who lived outside of the Land of Israel celebrated the most important holidays - such as Pesach - with two days of celebration. Before the invention of the press, the first day of each month was proclaimed after reliable witnesses had seen the new moon in the sky over Jerusalem. Communication in those days was a complicated affair, and the news of the sight could take more than one day to reach all the communities in the Diaspora. Extending the time of the holidays for two days was a way to ensure that the festivities were observed by everyone.
We Reform Jews acknowledge that no one is at risk of losing connection with Jerusalem nowadays. Everybody knows the Jewish date, and no one is at risk of celebrating a Jewish holiday on the wrong date. There is no need any more to double the first day of Pesach.
But the Orthodox disagree. So they keep two days of Pesach at the beginning, followed by the seven days required by the Torah. We keep one day, followed by the seven. So today, for us, is the first Shabbat after Pesach. While the Orthodox synagogues in the Diaspora still observe the last day of Pesach, with different prayers and a different Torah reading. Next week, they will read the Torah portion we have read today, and we'll have to wait for the Summer to re-align ourselves again.
The whole issue is very complicated. There is massive confusion regarding which holiday it is today: Shabbat for us, Pesach for the Orthodox, and a bigger mess around what we celebrate. Small wonder that so few people decide to go to shul: they do not know what they should do!
And the contrast is striking. A few days ago, the AJEX hall was packed for the Seder. Today it's the first Shabbat after Pesach and look how few we are.
But I think that there is something more profound, perhaps more disturbing than simple confusion or exhaustion at play here.
What indeed have we celebrated on Pesach? This is a simple question. On Pesach, we celebrate our liberation from slavery in the Land of Egypt. We do so (as good Jews) by eating particular foods and participating in a codified ritual.
But that is just the beginning of the journey. It is well known how the journey begins. The scene of Moses saying to Pharaoh: "Let my people go" is impressed on our minds. There is also, as we know, a famous song (which by the way, this year came under attack because it is an Afro-American song and we Jews should not appropriate it.) But to quote the song misses the point. Because, firstly, the Seder is not about "Let my people go". We do not even evoke that famous dialogue during the Seder. And secondly, the quote is incomplete. The full Biblical quote is: "Go to Pharaoh and say to him, 'This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: "Let my people go, so that they may serve Me". The bit missing from the song is: "so that they may serve Me". This makes a real difference. On Pesach, we celebrate freedom - who does not like it? Of course, the Seder is well attended. But then the journey begins, and the journey's goal is "to serve Me", to serve God.
And this is possibly the reason why today the synagogues (ours included) are not as crowded as they were during the Seder. Because this understanding of freedom, freedom as a condition to serve God, is not as easy to understand and possibly not as palatable or attractive.
Freedom is undoubtedly a fantastic concept and an inspiring idea. But are we, human beings, ever, really, totally free? More than a century ago, a guy who was born Jewish, Karl Marx, discovered that our ideas and choices, which we often think are purely rational, are influenced by the social class we belong to. And a few decades after him, another Jewish guy, Sigmund Freud, discovered how our mind is influenced by impulses, fantasies and desires of which we are not always aware. It's not a coincidence that these two were born Jewish. Even if both of them probably never attended a Seder in their lives, they knew the Haggadah message. Namely, that absolute freedom does not exist. Freedom is, in fact, a process not a goal.
Let's get back to that Biblical quote: ‘Let my people go to serve Me.‘
What does it mean to serve God? First of all, it means not serving other human beings - like Pharaoh and the Egyptian taskmasters. This is what we celebrate on Pesach. Or, better, this is what we teach to our children and ourselves during the Seder. We are not born to serve other human beings but rather to serve God.
And then? Then, just like in those days, the journey continues. Tikkun Olam, making this world a better place and working in partnership with God is undoubtedly one of the many ways to serve God. And prayer is another way - even if it may seem difficult or exhausting on days like this, after a whole row of services.
The main problem in the contemporary Jewish world is that too often we see an opposition between these two ways to serve God - Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and Tefillah (prayer). Jews who care about prayers (and synagogues) look at those Jews who believe in social justice as if they were not authentically Jewish. And Jews who base their identity on Tikkun Olam too often disregard prayer as a superfluous activity, almost a waste of time. And in creating this opposition, both sides forget that social justice and prayer stem from the same root and have their origin in the same commandment: "Let my people go, to serve Me", and both have their role in the journey of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom, from passivity to responsibility, from darkness to light - a journey which our ancestors began many, many years ago and which we commit to continue.
9th April 2022 / 8th Nisan 5782
Time for Pesach Cleaning
As Pesach is approaching, I want to give some advice for the Pesach cleaning. But, before that, let me say a couple of words about what's happening in Ukraine.
What's the narrative of this war? It's straightforward. Putin has invaded Ukraine because he's a pan-Slavic nationalist and wants to strip the Ukrainians of their right to self-determination.
But what do the Russians think about this conflict? What is the Russian narrative of the war? What story does Putin tell the Russian citizens?
It seems to be a compelling narrative. Despite the sanctions and the increasing international isolation, Russian citizens support the war, still believing that Putin is a good president. How did he persuade his subjects that this war was worth the sacrifices?
Russian soldiers are fed with a peculiar narrative. They believe that they are going to Ukraine on a humanitarian mission. They believe the soldiers bring blankets and food to the local population, besieged and persecuted by Nazis.
This is what ordinary Russians are told. They say that Ukraine has been conquered by the Nazis. Those racist parties have imposed a fanatic ideology. Ukrainians have become racists (perhaps they always have been). The Far-Right rules the country together with the American Nazis. The Far-Right Parties have imposed censorship, and all opposition voices are censored. The Ukrainian Army is guilty of war crimes. The Russian speaking minority are at constant risk of being massacred or expelled from their homes.
I know, it sounds delusional. And actually, it is delusional.
Now listen to this narrative: Far-Right now rules Israel. The current Israeli Government is the most Right-wing in the history of the country. They have imposed a fanatic ideology called "Zionism"; a racist, supremacist ideology. Israelis have become racist (perhaps they have always been). The Far-Right rules the country together with American Evangelicals. The Far-Right parties have imposed ruthless censorship, and all the opposition voices are censored. Arab Israelis are in constant danger of being massacred or expelled. The Israeli army is guilty of war crimes.
Of course, this narrative about Israel is delusional, as delusional as the Russians' depiction of Ukraine. But it does not sound delusional like the other - because we are used to it. The BBC and the Guardian peddle parts of this narrative when they talk about the Middle East. And so do a plethora of so-called humanitarian organisations, such as Amnesty International. This series of lies are repeated at every meeting of the United Nations.
The Russian narrative and the anti-Israel narrative have many elements in common. That is because Israel and Ukraine, as imperfect as they are, both are democracies. While Russia is not a democracy. And the Palestinian movements that promote the anti-Israel narrative are likewise, not democratic. Like many non-democratic narratives, both the Russian and the Palestinian are based on demonisation. They turn the other, the opponents, the enemy, into a satanic character. Ukraine is ruled by fanatic Ukrainian nationalists and American Nazis to the Russians. To the pro-Palestinians, Israel is led by fanatic Zionists and American Evangelicals.
When you are dealing with the devil, compromise is not possible. We have seen how the Russians deal with the Ukrainian civilians. We are familiar with the passion for violent attacks by Palestinian nationalists and Islamists.
Both the pro-Russian and the pro-Palestinians have an absolute obsession with Nazism. They are fighting a perpetual war against the Nazis in their fantasy, and their enemies are all Nazis. Zelensky is a Nazi, they say. And of course, Netanyahu also was a Nazi, remember? The whole Ukrainian Government are Nazis. And so is the Israeli Government. And what about the Israeli Army - the army with the largest number of Jewish soldiers in the world? For the pro-Palestinians, it is a Nazi Army. The Ukrainian Army? Of course, for the Russians, it is a Nazi Army. Those who support Ukraine? All Nazis, of course. Those who support Israel (including me)? Nazis, as well. (Yes, I have been called a Nazi. More than once).
The two narratives are similar because the people who say this and believe what they say (the narrators, for a better word) have a similar mind-set. They are equally obsessed with Nazis.
And quite often, they are the same people. Probably you have better things to do than following the activity of Jeremy Corbyn, John MacDonnell, Diane Abbot and their supporters (some of them Jewish, unfortunately) on social media? If you do, you will notice how difficult it is for these pro-Russian supporters to write the word Russia. They always call for the end of the war; they want peace; they condemn "both sides" as if there was no clear distinction between an aggressor and a victim in this war. But because the aggressor is Russia, they are reluctant to name it.
Neither is this a purely British phenomenon. Putin has his share of supporters among the Italian politicos and academics (more than in the UK). Every evening, they repeat the same "bipartisan" pieces of pro-Putin propaganda during talk-shows. And they are also, of course, always ready to condemn Israel. And just like Jeremy Corbyn’s acolytes, they are always eager to show empathy towards the terrorists - if the victims are Israeli, especially if the victims are Jewish.
I will talk about the cleaning for Pesach in a moment. But before I do that, I would like to pose a question on the topic of Pesach: Who is the modern equivalent of Pharaoh?
I think that Vladimir Putin ticks many of the boxes. He's a despotic ruler. He is surrounded by yes-men who hesitate to give him bad news, such as the real picture of military losses in Ukraine – just as Pharaoh’s men were reluctant to tell him about the plagues in Egypt. Like Pharaoh, Putin sees himself as a great ruler. He believes himself to embody the spirit of a whole country. Putin has not ordered his people to build pyramids… yet. But how similar they are.
Let me make this clear. There are supporters of this modern Pharaoh, this war criminal, Vladimir Putin, here, in the UK. You can spot them easily: they always hesitate to condemn, they always speak about two sides, they dilute the responsibility of Vladimir Putin and of the Russians, even when Russian spies murder people in the UK with chemical weapons.
These are the same people who oppose Israel. They jump on the bandwagon of anti-Israeli hate, and often organise rallies and demonstrations against Israel. Because they are against the existence of every democracy, like Israel or Ukraine.
And here's my advice about Pesach cleaning. It's time to get rid of the influence of these haters of democracy, of these enemies of Israel, and of Vladimir Putin's supporters. When we clean our houses for Pesach, we get rid of breadcrumbs and leavened food because this was the food of the Egyptians. The Egyptians invented bread; this is well known. Even now, bread produced in Arab Countries, in modern Egypt, is the best bread in the world. We don't want traces of that culture, of this food, in our houses during the week of Pesach. Because in Egypt, the rule was the worship of power, ruled by a dictator, at the top of a whole societal system based on slavery. And this is the society whose influences we banish from our home.
The time has come to banish the influences of those who peddle the pro-Putin and the pro-Palestinian narrative in the Jewish community. Let us remember that a few years ago, there was even a Seder (which I hesitate to call such) in Jeremy Corbyn's presence - and who else was there? We want to know! Because the Haggadah they used (which I hesitate to call as such) was a contemporary pro-Soviet, pro-Putin, pro-Palestinian, pro-terrorist Haggadah.
We have to cleanse our communal home of these influences, all traces of slavery, and this totalitarian mind frame. We need to get rid of this leavened food, the hametz. There's no point expressing support for the Ukrainians and their struggle for freedom if we continue to host in our midst friends of Putin and the Palestinian autocrats. Honestly, the time has come for proper Pesach cleaning.
May this Passover be a real Festival of Freedom.
2nd April 2022 / 1st Nisan 5782
They are at it again. And won’t prevail
Palestinian terrorism is back. Israel is currently being hit by a wave of terror attacks that have killed at least 11 people. Not all of them were Jewish, but Jews were the main target of all the attacks.
Are we heading towards another Intifada? This is very difficult to tell.
The big news is, of course, that Israel has now more friends in the Arab world than ever before. A full-scale confrontation between Israel and the Muslim world is now unlikely. But this new scenario triggers frustration from Iran and its allies. Moreover, as we have learnt over the past decades, Palestinian terrorists are attention-seekers and media-addicts. The world's attention is currently focused on Ukraine. This last series of attacks may originate from an attempt to get the attention of European media and journalists. It is all so difficult to tell.
Yet, I think we should be grateful to Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the antisemitic Muslim terrorist group Hezbollah. Yes: grateful. You understood correctly. Some 20 years ago, Nasrallah explained with extraordinary clarity the causes, the goals, and the strategy of Palestinian terrorism. His explanation was as follows:
"We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because we love death, and they love life."
These words are evil, but also ring true at the same time. Evil because this is, literally, a glorification of death – just like the Fascist slogan used during the Spanish civil war last century: "Viva la Muerte!", which means "Long Live Death". But also, Nasrallah's words contain a truth. We Jews, indeed, love life.
The Jewish toast is "Le-Chaim!" - "To life!". The first commandment human beings receive in the Book of Genesis is "be fruitful and multiply". Every religious prohibition must be suspended to save a life - the principle of Pikuach Nefesh. These elements of Judaism point out how our faith is a celebration of life. A celebration of this life, of this world, of the time we live in - not of the afterlife, not of life in another dimension.
But celebrating life, the life that we live in this world, does not mean that our life is always perfect, good, and safe. There are indeed moments when life is at risk and when our bodies encounter death or other dead bodies. Moreover, human bodies have the power to give life, to expand life. This power – to deliver babies or to engage in marital relations - makes us similar to God.
This must be stressed clearly: honoring the dead, preparing dead bodies for burial, having marital relations, and delivering babies are all religious obligations. Judaism does not see these activities as a source of shame. On the contrary, our faith is, as I said, a celebration of life and of the power to give life. But because these activities involve an extraordinary power, in Biblical times (the time of our Torah portion) a series of rituals of purification were prescribed that allowed the Israelites to return to regular religious life after they had experienced it. These rituals were performed when the Temple stood in Jerusalem and are described in the Biblical text, such as in this week's Torah portion.
These rituals are often interpreted as if Judaism believed that human bodies, especially female bodies, were impure and Israelites were obsessed with sexual purity. But these rituals must be understood as a way of celebrating life and the human power to give life, and Judaism values such power enormously.
We do not perform these rituals anymore. Nonetheless, we still study these rules and read the portion of the Torah that describes and prescribes these rituals in order to educate ourselves on the Jewish attitude towards life. This attitude is counter-cultural.
Think of how antisemitic terrorist organisations celebrate their young martyrs. They are presented as pure, and children are unfortunately educated to look at them as an example to follow. This is incredibly perverse but (again) it is perfectly consistent with the ideology enunciated by Mr Nasrallah. They love death, and they hate us Jews because we Jews love life.
This week we have not only read about the rules for purification after childbirth, but being Rosh Chodesh, we have also read the short paragraph that describes the creation of the moon, which regulates our calendar.
Why are we commanded to base our calendar on the moon? Why do we not base our calendar on more permanent and visible elements, such as the sun? Why don’t we follow the Roman calendar, based on the Sun, which later became the Cristian calendar and is the one in use today in all the countries of the world?
In the Midrash, there is an incredibly profound answer to this question: ‘It is because we Jews are like the Moon.’
There are moments of history in which, like the moon, we must go into hiding. At these times we are not visible, either because of (God forbid) persecutions or assimilation. But again, like the moon, these moments end and are followed by our return.
Our enemies try to suppress us. But they fail, and we resist, and just like a full moon, each month we become visible again, to inspire poets, to move even less spiritual people, and to bring their thoughts to God.
Jewish survival is not a miracle. It is a certainty.
So, tell the terrorists that death will not prevail. Because we Jews love life.
19th March / 16th Adar II
After Purim, Pesach
Some months ago, a prominent British Jewish intellectual called me a sex addict "like all Italians" on Twitter.
It was an excruciating moment: being targeted by racism is never a pleasant experience. But also, as any mental health professional knows, sex addiction is a severe problem. It causes endless pain. Sex addicts are unable to commit. The more they suffer from loneliness, the more they try to compensate through casual and degrading relationships, which only makes issues more serious.
Sex addicts cause suffering to others and to themselves. They turn people into objects. They deny other people humanity and they deny their own humanity too.
Despite that authoritative source (and the institution that actually shields him), I am sure I am not a sex addict.
The only addiction I suffer is from yerba mate, the bitter caffeinated drink which to my palate tastes better than tea. (I know, it’s blasphemous to tell an English audience that I don't like tea...)
Perhaps the most famous sex addict in the Bible is one of the characters in the Megillah: King Ahashverosh, the Persian Emperor. We read the story on Purim last week, but let me recap.
The story begins when King Ahashverosh orders his wife Vashti to dance naked in front of his guests. When she refuses, he gets rid of her. He replaces her with a harem of beauties selected via competitions held throughout the cities in his kingdom. Among them, Esther becomes the favourite, but Ahashverosh still continues to see these concubines whose feelings he does not take into consideration. To tell it as it is: he rapes these women.
The task of administrating the kingdom is left to officers and dignitaries, of which Haman and Mordechai are the most famous. Apart from banqueting with guests and raping concubines, King Ahashverosh does nothing. This is the behaviour of a sex addict.
The paradox of King Ahashverosh is one of the many funny bits of the Purim story. King Ahashverosh is one of the most powerful men in the world; he can have whatever he wants and can do whatever he wants. But he is not free. He is actually a slave of his own sex addiction.
In the treatise on Megillah, the Talmud says that we should start thinking about Pesach at the end of Purim. I know you will reply “We know! We’re on the case!”. You all have received the invitation to our second night Seder. And I am sure that the most organised among us -such as my wife- are already drawing up invitation lists.
But the connection between Purim and Pesach is not only the time for preparation. There is a stronger, deeper connection between the two holidays. Because both holidays are about freedom.
Freedom is one of the themes of Purim. At the end of the story of Purim, after the massacre has been averted, Jews are again free; free to live and free to practice their religion.
And freedom is also the main theme for Pesach, the night when we re-enact the process of our liberation. We open the narration indeed with the very famous formula: "Today we are slaves, tomorrow we will be free".
We are so used to this formula that we do not pay much attention to its wording. Nonetheless, I think it's worth asking a question. Why do we say that we are slaves? We are not!
Yes, slavery is still one of the tragedies of the contemporary world, but we ourselves, sitting comfortably around the Pesach table, are free persons, free men and women, free human beings.
What's the point, then, to tell us, and others, that we are still slaves? Slaves of what?
To answer such a question, let us think of Ahashverosh: he's a free man and a powerful man. But he is a slave of his own sex addiction.
Because of his addiction, he is also easily manipulable, first by Haman (booooooh!) and then - thank God- by Esther, who persuades him to retract the order of extermination.
In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the story of Pesach, Pharaoh is affected by a similar addiction, not to sex but to power. Because Pharaoh wants to keep them as slaves, God punishes his people and his family with the plagues, each one more severe than the one that came before. But Pharaoh persists in keeping the Israelites slaves, even if members of his own family die. Pharaoh is a slave to his addiction to power.
We have to understand slavery in this way: not as physical constraint and subjugation to taskmasters armed with bullwhips: which is a situation that does not affect, thank God, many of us.
In Biblical context, being a slave means being at the service of our own impulses; not being able to control them, not being able to follow morality.
The freedom we are talking about, the freedom we will celebrate on Pesach, is the freedom to behave morally, to choose our own morality, to follow our own laws, to worship our God.
Yes, the words of God to Pharaoh, via Moses, which we read in the Biblical text, and the Haggadah, as well as in a famous song, are: "Let my people go". But the text in Exodus continues "to worship Me" – meaning, to worship God,
What Moses says to Pharaoh is not ‘Let my people go free’, but rather ‘let my people go so that they can worship me, to become servants of God and not of human beings.’
This is freedom, in the Biblical understanding. The freedom to choose our morality, the freedom not to assimilate, the freedom to be ourselves and not to become what others want us to be. In other words, the freedom to follow the Jewish moral law and not the law of the non-Jewish majority.
Freedom in Biblical terms, the freedom to choose our own morality and not the law of the people, is a freedom that must be fought for every day. It requires resistance against the pressures to conform, to be "like the others", to assimilate.
And here's the point about Purim. On Purim, we read the story of a Jewish woman who, indeed, refused to assimilate and chose to follow Jewish morality.
It is not a very famous passage in the Megillah, but it is very important, so let me remind you.
When the decree of extermination has been issued, Mordechai meets with Esther and tells her: ‘Do not think that you can escape your destiny by denying your connection with the Jewish people, by pretending you are not Jewish. Because the Jewish people will survive nonetheless, but you won't be part of it anymore. Therefore, do your part. Go, speak to the king on behalf of the people, of your people, and do your best to change the king's mind and to reverse his decision.’
As we know, this is precisely what happens.
Up until that moment, Esther, the king's concubine, is a "Persian queen of the Jewish religion". She still prays even when she's in the harem. At that moment, she becomes Esther, the Jewish queen.
Despite all the pressure from the external world, despite the fact that Jews have been just sentenced to death, Esther embraces the Jewish destiny. She dares to talk with the king, and in that conversation, she reveals to him not the fact that she professes the Jewish faith (Ahashverosh does not care about religion). She reveals what she is, her ethnicity, her identity, the people to whom she belongs.
This was the moment when Esther chose her morality - Jewish morality. She chose to reconnect with her people. This was the moment when she chose to become free.
As I said before, this is not a very famous passage in the Megillah, but nonetheless it is crucial, and it is the turning point of the whole story because it introduces into the story the theme of ‘freedom’ - which will be the central focus of Pesach.
Over the next weeks we will prepare for Pesach, cleaning the houses from chametz, leavened food, and cereals.
I hope it will also be a time, following the example of Esther, for all of us to reconnect with our people and our community. I hope it will be, for all of us, a true festival of freedom.
12th March / 9th Adar II
RESPONSE TO TWEET BY ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
‘Deeply shocking and saddening to hear that even in a welcoming, multicultural city like Brighton, synagogues still have to have security on their sabbath because of antisemitism. We must work towards a situation where Jewish people can worship without fear of abuse or violence.’
Archbishop of Canterbury@Justin Welby,
5 Mar 2022
To The Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
On a Sabbath day in March 1959, John XXIII stopped the papal procession to bless the Jews at the exit of the Great Synagogue in Rome. That simple gesture was the beginning of a new era in the history of interfaith relations. That episode came to mind when reading your tweet of 5th March 2022. We truly treasure such heartfelt support.
Physical protection of this kind is a sad need for Jews in every country, with the exception of Israel.
Every Jewish activity, religious, social, or educational, requires the help of professionals and volunteers who, together with the police, take care of our safety. This even includes religious schools, Your Grace. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews have found shelter in this country since the XVIII century, today we need to invest resources to protect our children. The Brighton & Hove Reform
Synagogue that you referred to, which you were saddened to see being guarded by a security team, has been threatened by Far-Left extremists twice in 2019.
This situation is not peculiar to the United Kingdom. It is a feature of contemporary Jewish life.
Terrorists have assaulted kosher shops in Paris, Jewish museums in Belgium, and synagogues in the USA. And in Rome, on that very spot where the Pope had blessed the Jews in 1959, Jews now need the protection of armed guards.
Israel is the only country in the world where this does not happen. Jewish life blossoms in Israel. Despite internal tensions, sometimes voiced beyond its borders, Israel is an island of freedom, where Jews'
religious rights do not need to be negotiated.
Every Jew has a different relationship with Israel, and we sometimes disagree among ourselves about
Israel. Very often - too often! - we find it difficult to communicate why the existence of a Jewish State is so important.
Because of this, criticism of the State of Israel hurts the feeling of all Jews. Such criticism is rarely aimed at specific policies. It increasingly legitimises those who question Israel's right to exist, right to defend Jewish religious life, and to give shelter to Jewish refugees from all over the world.
Christian communities live as minorities throughout all the Middle East. Like every minority they have legitimate rights and, possibly, complaints. However, worldwide, including England, antisemites and
opponents of Jewish self-determination are eager to exploit these complaints.
The Christian communities in Israel do not need armed protection by the police. The only exception to this is when a large crowd is expected, such as for the (Orthodox) Holy Fire in Jerusalem. The Israeli law protects the religious rights of the Christian communities.
Your Grace, we are men of faith. We know that our words have effects beyond our control. We are familiar with the noblest expression of the human soul - and the solidarity expressed by your tweet really humbles me. However, we also know how our words can be misconstrued. And this is exactly what has happened - I am so sorry I have to point it out – in response to your observations about the "threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land", which were publicised in December 2021.
So to put it clearly: the existence of a Jewish State does not threaten the Christians. More than 180,000 Israeli citizens are Christian; the community has grown in number and their quality of life has improved. Indeed, in a recent survey, 84 per cent of Israeli Christians said they were ‘satisfied with their life’ (including the 24 per cent who were ‘very satisfied’). Apart from tensions that occasionally happen, these are solid, indisputable facts.
Equally undeniable is the sense of security that Israel's existence provides to Jewish communities worldwide, including the British Jewish community.
We appreciate the support of our volunteers who are forced to stand outside guarding our synagogues rather than joining their families for the religious services within. Our life would be far more difficult without their hard work. However, there would be no Jewish life without Israel. This fact is
acknowledged and proclaimed by many in the Christian community. How beautiful it would be to see you and your community join with these sentiments.
Rabbi Andrea Zanardo
26th February / 25th Adar
ON THE EVENTS IN UKRAINE
כל העולם כול וגשר צר מאוד והעיקר, והעיקר לא לפחד, לא לפחד כלל.
"All the Universe is a very narrow bridge,
and the important thing is never to be afraid,
never to be afraid".
How often these words have given me courage and inspiration.
Not only to me. They are part of the afternoon liturgy for Yom Kippur, the moment of the day when we begin to see the end of the fast, and we look at the following months, and we hope to have learnt from self-examination.
It is one of the many profound passages by Rabbi Nachman from Breslav, one of the spiritual giants of Hasidism, the Jewish mystical and pietistic movement that arose in the 18th century in Western Ukraine.
Rabbi Nachman is buried in Uman, a small provincial town that is sleepy all year round. Once a year, on Rosh ha Shanah, Uman becomes the centre of a vibrant pilgrimage. Thousands of Breslover, disciples of Rabbi Nachman, come to Uman from Israel, the USA, and worldwide.
It is a kind of Hassidic Woodstock. They pray, dance, and sing in honour of their great teacher, who taught the world that "to be always happy is a great mitzvah, a great religious commandment".
מצוה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד
"to be always happy is a great mitzvah, a great religious commandment".
Rabbi Nachman wanted his final rest to be in that small Ukrainian town, next to the martyrs of an anti-Semitic massacre that took place just before his birth.
Think about this. A joyous gathering of Jews, every year, on the very same place where victims of an antisemitic massacre are buried. It affirms Jewish values. It is a gigantic ‘L’Chaim!’ - "To Life!", in a place where death once claimed victims. It's a huge, resounding ‘Am Yisrael Chai!’ - "the people of Israel live!", that literally lasts for days, every year.
Truly Ukraine has a special place in the heart of the Jewish people. It's the Country where most abject episodes of anti-Semitism took place, as well as a place of highest affirmations of Jewish spirituality, of Jewish vitality.
Ukraine is now going through one of the darkest pages in its history. Russian nationalists have always coveted it. It is now subjugated by an army, led by one of the most corrupt dictators that Russian history has ever produced. And Russia has produced many.
When I watched the speech given by Vladimir Putin before starting the military operations, two things struck me most: The first was the claim that Khrushchev was wrong to transfer Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. Wait a minute, I thought. Putin is saying that Khrushchev was wrong For those familiar with history, condemning Khrushchev means going back to what was there before. And before Khrushchev there was Stalin.
I realised I was seeing a declaration of Stalinist faith, the homage paid by a corrupt autocrat to a bloodthirsty genocidal criminal.
Something else struck me too - and not only me. Namely, the ease with which Vladimir Putin talks about Nazism as if it was a current and present danger. According to Vladimir Putin, the current Ukrainian government is led by Nazis. Even if the Ukrainian President is Jewish!
This kind of rhetoric is familiar to us in the UK. Remember when Leftists told us, day in and day out, that Jeremy Corbyn "hasn’t got a racist bone in his body" because his parents had met on Cable Street? And yet, everybody who disagreed with Jeremy Corbyn was branded a Nazi. Even if they were Jewish.
That is a remarkable Stalinist contribution to the history of ideas—the invention of Jewish Nazis.
Because indeed, the attribution of Nazi traits to one's opponents is quintessentially Stalinist. Stalinists live in a permanent mobilisation against the perennial, continually growing, always incumbent, Nazi enemy.
Unfortunately, this is how people live in Russia today. This is the official narrative: Putin is fighting against the forces of Nazism - the eternal evil, on behalf of the Russian people - the eternal good guys. And if a journalist dares to contradict the official narrative, well, he, or she, disappears.
Pan Slavic nationalism raised its head as early as the 1990s in the Balkans. It is superficially repainted in red, the colour of socialism. But its main drive is the conquest of territories, territories to be subjected to Moscow, the Tsar and the Orthodox Church.
Those of a certain age remember the same kind of rhetoric that came from Serbia and its extremists. Everyone who opposed Serbian nationalism was labelled as a ‘Nazi’. Croatian, Bosnian, Kosovo Muslims were all, invariably, Nazis, and barbarian collaborators of the omnipresent SS.
It is true that in Ukraine today, as in Croatia yesterday, there are Far-Right organised groups, often militias. They are everywhere. We have them in England, too. But it is incredibly dishonest to make these parties coincide with the totality of public opinion. It is a widespread trick. It is practical; it serves to recall the militants and motivate them to refuse any compromise. It's often rhetoric.
But those who live within the Pan Slavic nationalist ideology believe it in total good faith. At this very moment, Russian soldiers are driving tanks that have entered a sovereign country, Ukraine. They believe that allies of Adolf Hitler lead Ukraine, and that the Ukrainian government is preparing to carry out a Nazi genocide against the Russians. And after decades of propaganda they believe that nay means is legitimate in such a war, even disregarding international conventions.
Pan-Slav nationalism is not good for the Jews. Eastern Europe is dotted with cemeteries where the Jewish victims of real Nazism are buried.
But also - as in Uman - Jewish victims of pogroms led by Pan-Slav nationalists in past centuries. In their ideal political order, there is no place for us Jews.
We are always regarded with suspicion because, for the Pan-Slav nationalists, we represent modernity, the rights of the individual, liberalism... in short, everything that they deem threatening.
For decades, the West has tried to ignore the dangers of Pan Slavic nationalism. This has been for various reasons. We thought that the market economy would have brought prosperity and democracy to these people who had been oppressed by Communism. We had sound economic reasons, interests such as gas. And of course, there is the collaboration with the mafia, which in those parts of the world rules and prospers.
The point is that Pan Slavic nationalism is dangerous for Western democracies. And it is not good for us Jews, even for those Jews who manage to adapt themselves to a Pan Slavic system of power. For this reason, we Jews feel that the West's reactions to the invasion of Ukraine are too few and too weak. Because we know the danger of this nationalism.
A few generations ago, our ancestors moved here from that side of the world. They came here precisely because those tensions were already stirring at the end of the nineteenth century. Now we have a State where Jews fleeing Ukraine can find refuge. But even that State, unfortunately, has to deal with growing and increasingly organised Pan-Slavic nationalism.
I wish I could conclude this sermon with hopeful or inspiring words, such as the beautiful phrase of Rabbi Nachman.
כל העולם כול וגשר צר מאוד והעיקר, והעיקר לא לפחד, לא לפחד כלל.
"All the Universe is a very narrow bridge, and the important thing is never to be afraid".
But at this moment, I am afraid. Like all of us, I am terrified for the future of Ukraine, of Eastern Europe, and of all the communities that are part of it, first and foremost the Jewish community.
Therefore, I invite you to join me in this prayer for peace, from our tradition.
May the maker of peace in the highest bring this peace upon us, and upon all of Israel, And let us say Amen
עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל עם ישראל אמרו אמן.
5th February / 4th Adar
WHAT IS THE HOLOCAUST?
It depends on who you ask. You can ask Whoopi Goldberg — an actress who adopted a Hebrew name to be successful (which should say something about her opinion about our people). Last week on TV she explained that the Holocaust was when white people did bad stuff to other white people.
And if this seems to you massive nonsense, the explanation was worse.
When that lady with the Jewish family name tried to explain herself, she told the following story: if she — a Black person — is walking with a Jewish friend and a bad guy of the Ku Klux Klan comes on horseback, the Jewish friend is safe, while she, because has darker skin, must run away to defend herself. Mrs Goldberg ignores - or pretends to ignore - that the first victim of the Ku Klux Klan was a Jew called Leo Frank, lynched by the mob in 1915 in Marietta, Georgia.
How offensive this so-called explanation is. In these months, the visibly Jewish people, Orthodox Jews, those Jews with a particular type of beard and clothing, are particularly exposed to racist attacks, by the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Semitic gangs with darker-skinned affiliates.
How dare she say that Jews are safe?
I keep reading that Whoopi Goldberg has been naive. I find it hard to believe. Whoopi Goldberg is not naive. She is a brilliant actress and a very intelligent woman. She has elevated herself from a drug addict born in a council house to a Hollywood and Broadway superstar. She has published several books, fiction and nonfiction. Like everybody in that business, Whoopi Goldberg knows about public relations. Moreover, she has been working in the film industry since 1965 and knows very well what the Holocaust was.
But for a substantial part of the American Far Left, the one that can afford going to the movies, the Holocaust was a white-on-white crime. An episode of inter-white relations. Stuff from the past. They don’t care. The serious stuff is elsewhere, they say. The serious crimes are those committed by white racists against black people.
I believe that Whoopi Goldberg has tried to reach out to precisely that kind of audience, a few days after Holocaust Memorial Day. As I said, she is competent in PR matters.
In other words, she minimises and trivialises the greatest crime in human history. She does so to please her public, which expects from her precisely that minimisation, that trivialisation. Go on social media and see how much she’s admired, now.
I believe that the time has come to clearly state that this ideology that divides the world into always oppressive whites and always oppressed blacks is a colossal mystification. And it is also dangerous for minorities like us: Jews, Asian Americans, or Roma, Balkan people, and generally speaking, all those who experience racially motivated persecutions, yet are not dark-skinned.
Such an ideology is deeply offensive to Holocaust victims, as we have seen. And it is also in contrast to Judaism.
Let’s look at this week’s Torah portion.
To begin with, a word of caution. This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, has the reputation of being very dull. But it is an undeserved reputation.
At first reading, indeed, it seems just a list of the materials used to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable altar that the Israelites carry with them when wandering through the desert.
Inside the Mishkan, there are the Tablets of the Law.
In the Mishkan God manifests Himself. And this is the reason why the list of the materials is so detailed. The great Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explained it very well.
We are talking, ladies and gentlemen, of the spiritual equivalent of the space shuttle. A spaceship must have everything in its place, perfectly functioning, even the smallest bolts and screws. Otherwise, it becomes dangerous to get on board and fly to space. If one single bolt of the space shuttle is out of place, the space shuttle does not start.
Here we understand the insistence on the minor details, detailed technical information, and the meticulous lists of materials. It’s the equivalent of the space shuttle. It must be perfect!
Furthermore, these different materials can be compared to different types of Jews, different personalities, different ethnic groups in our community.
Now, look at Exodus 25:8 “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”. This passage, “build Me a sanctuary so I may dwell among them”, explains the reason for which we Jews exist.
I apologise if I appear ethnocentric. You know, I am a Rabbi, and I am convinced that our religion is right. How strange I am.
Our faith says precisely: that we Jews exist so that the whole of humanity — Jews and non-Jews — can continue to believe that One God exists, somewhere, even if they decide to observe monotheism in another way (Islam, or Christianity. We don’t ask them to become like us).
We Jews are like the Mishkhan, We remind humanity, who wander in a spiritual desert, that there is One God, whose Law we follow as best as we can.
Let’s get back at this point to this praise of diversity that this seemingly repetitive list of materials inspires in us.
Some of these materials are problematic. Meaning that we don’t know what they are. They are mentioned at 25:5, “tanned ram skins, dolphin skins”, says the translation, but it is inaccurate.
According to the Talmud, these animals no longer exist. They were created and placed in the desert so that the Israelites could use them to build the Tabernacle.
These mysterious animals were created to ensure that the presence of God continues to dwell amid humanity. I hear you asking: “What?” And let me reassure you. This is a metaphor.
The Rabbis in the Talmud read this Biblical passage, a list of materials used to build the holiest object in the world, as a metaphor.
This metaphor teaches us something very profound. It teaches the value of diversity. It teaches that the Jewish people, this portable altar for humanity we belong to, is composed of different people, different ethnicities, different cultures, and different colours.
Indeed, the Rabbis teach that these skins of these mysterious animals - improperly translated as rams and dolphins - have an important feature: their colour.
They are colours - the Rabbis explain- that the human eye cannot understand, that human words cannot describe. They are colours that change constantly; and they are colours in contact with the Divine.
This is beautiful praise of diversity and an encouragement to welcome the diverse: if we meet a Jew who does not match the colours we expect, we ought to remember that God has created that Jew that way, and that Jew, like us, is part of this magnificent Tabernacle that is the People of Israel.
I don’t know if it ever happened to you to find yourselves in the central street of Jerusalem, e.g. Ben Yehuda Street, and to look around.
When I am there, I’ll admit, I am full of admiration.
Admiration for the diversity of complexion, of colour, of accents: Indian Jews, North African Jews, Hungarian Jews, Israeli Jews… all united by this mysterious thing, “being Jewish”, so difficult to summarise and explain.
Being a religious person, I connect this “thing” of being Jewish to a Divine Revelation that happened some millennium ago. We are all Jews, despite the different colours of our skins, because we all spiritually descend from those persons who were there when Moses received the Law, twice. You’re allowed to disagree anyway. After all, why have a Rabbi if you cannot disagree?
Anyway, that admirable and inspiring unity in diversity is there for everyone to see.
As I said a few minutes ago, this extraordinary diversity and, at the same time, this unity, is in profound contrast to the ideology professed by that lady who chose for herself the name of Mrs Goldberg.
She believes in a perennial struggle between good Blacks and evil Whites.
According to her, the Holocaust was a crime committed by Whites against other Whites. It was not serious and tragic like the crimes committed by White racists against Black people
The marvellous diversity of the people of Israel, the vitality, and the unity of the Jewish people are, of course, the polar opposite of the project of extermination of the Jewish people, which was the Holocaust. Israel is many things, but it is also the Jewish response to the Holocaust.
As I say, in the Diaspora “never again the Holocaust” is a prayer, But from Israel is a warning. The existence of Israel has permanently changed the way we Jews respond to antisemitism.
Perhaps the time has come for those people from within the Jewish world who pursue this latest ideological fashion, “woke” I think it’s called, to do something truly revolutionary.
Open the Torah and the commentaries and start studying. with other Jews, as we Jews of every colour do, you know: just from a couple of millennia.
In other words, as the Rabbis say, go and study! And work for the unity of the people of Israel instead of introducing further divisions based on skin colour. This ideology that fetishises the colour of the skin leads to offending the memory of the victims of the Shoah. I cannot imagine a more serious betrayal of Judaism.
This is not to say that we should give up on inclusion. Quite the opposite. Making our communities really pluralistic, really similar to the Mishkan, is a moral imperative and I know there is a lot of work to do, and we are not always doing our best.
I know from personal experience. I have received racist abuses from other Jews (politically progressive — and they say we don’t get irony). I have been called a gangster and other terms from the racist anti-Italian repertoire.
In a Talmud class, we were given an article of the New York Times that described the New York Syrian Jewish community (refugees and children of refugees) as a bunch of backward new money, with their golden amulets on their hairy chest, suspicious of anyone outside their community and obviously racist. I was the only Sephardi in the room, and I had to endure two hours of crass anti-Sephardi racism and of course praise of the blasé cosmopolitan progressive New York Ashkenazi post-Zionist intellectual world.
So you see, I am familiar with the challenges of inclusion.
But nothing good can be achieved if we forget the purpose of being Jewish to adopt the latest ideological vogue.
We are Jews not because our faith gives us a place around the table where Critical Race Theory is discussed. We are Jews because of that commandment, to build a tabernacle, expression of the unity of our people so that God will continue to dwell among humanity.
29th January / 27th Shevat
ABOUT HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY
A few days ago, it was Holocaust Memorial Day. In a couple of days, we'll hold our own ceremony in Brighton. It will be open – this is very important - to all the citizens.
Because Holocaust Memorial Day is for the general community. We Jews commemorate the victims of the greatest genocide in human history, on a specific day in the Jewish calendar: Yom ha Shoah.
Before I go on, I want to explain why the Holocaust is the greatest crime in human history and why we Jews should not be afraid to state this in public.
The horror of the Holocaust is not a matter of numbers. In terms of numbers, there have been genocides far more deadly in human history. The extermination of the more than 50 million American natives comes to mind. Also, nobody counted how many people were murdered in Africa or deported as enslaved people. They were indeed more than 30 million. And please don't forget good old Comrade Stalin with his more than 20 million victims. Or the 15 million Chinese who died of starvation under Mao Zedong. These genocides, and many others, outnumber the one decreed by the failed painter with one testicle and his cronies.
Yet, the Holocaust is a unique event in human history. Not for its numbers, but for its logic. All the massacres I have numbered above - and many others - were driven or dictated by the economy. By imperialism. By colonialism. By the will to appropriate resources. Or the fantasy to create a completely self-sufficient Communist utopia. I am an old Marxist. I know that human history is driven by the economy. And economy motivates all the horrors of human history, including all its genocides. Except one.
Because from an economic point of view it makes absolutely no sense to load people on a train in Thessalonica to carry them to die in Poland, 1,500 kilometers away.
It’s an absolute waste of resources. It just does not make sense. Even more during wartime, when resources are, by definition, limited. From a strictly economic point of view, it does not make sense that the convoys directed to the camps always had precedence over trains bringing soldiers to the Russian front. Even when Germany was losing the war.
And this horror, this unexplainable horror, went on for years.
This is madness. Organised madness.
If we focus only on the numbers, we lose sight of the horror of the Holocaust. It defies every logic, but at the same time, it was accurately, efficiently, rationally organised.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, we, people who live in the Western world, remember this organised horror and madness and - this is the part I find very problematic – we are supposed to learn the lessons from the past.
But to learn what? If I may ask.
When Holocaust Memorial Day was instituted, the assumption was that the more we talk about the Holocaust, the more we educate people not to repeat the horrors of the past. This learning exercise has been prepared in a very careful and accurate manner. By learning about the Holocaust in all its small details, we are supposed to learn the values of tolerance, inclusion, multiculturalism and hope.
A monument to such an effort is the Holocaust Museum in Washington, perhaps the most famous Holocaust Museum outside Israel. It is massive. The history of the Holocaust is narrated very accurately, in excruciatingly painful details.
Someone has calculated that a visitor who wants to read every line of the panels on display in the Holocaust Museum in Washington will need more than two weeks to conclude the visit.
After such deep immersion, you're supposed to emerge permanently vaccinated against antisemitism.
And so, let me ask: did it work? Do we live now in a more tolerant society, more multicultural, or - dare I ask - less antisemitic than it was in 2005 when Holocaust Memorial Day was instituted?
Ladies and gentlemen, let me remind you about a man called Jeremy Corbyn, who was about to become Prime Minister in this Country.
A proportion of his followers talk about the Holocaust only to parrot the Palestinian propaganda, according to which Israelis are worse than the Nazis. Others do not talk about the Holocaust at all: they believe that Holocaust education is part of a Zionist conspiracy.
Oh yes, we are happy that Jeremy Corbyn did not become Prime Minister. But the speeches given these days by his cronies - Chris Williamsons, Richard Burgon and John McDonnell - are simply terrifying, as redolent as they are of antisemitic stereotypes. If they were in charge, such nonsense would circulate with Governmental approval. Luckily, we have escaped such shame.
But we should ask ourselves: how was it possible that these people found themselves in the anteroom of power for such a long time, challenged by no one except us Jews? I thought that British people – accurately educated – have learnt to recognize antisemitism! There is clearly something in the education about the Holocaust in the UK that simply doesn't work. And I suspect that this "something that doesn't work" is that we put too much stress on survivors.
The Holocaust was not a place where people survived. Surviving was an exception.
It's fine and good that students meet with survivors. But we should teach the students that surviving was not the rule. Yet, teaching about the Holocaust has become teaching about Jewish survivors and righteous Gentiles, forgetting that they, too, were exceptions.
One of my favourite writers, Howard Jacobson, has written extensively about Holocaust education as the opportunity for Europeans to absolve themselves. I am not following him in his cynicism (you should read him anyway). The bravery and courage of those who stood against the crowd should always be honoured, precisely because they were exceptions, not the rule.
But think about it: those survivors whom we meet almost invariably come from Western Europe. It should be said that before the Holocaust, a minority of Jews lived in cities in Western Europe. Masses of Jews lived in rural Poland, Romania, Ukraine. And they did not survive. No one rescued the masses of Jews in remote villages in Eastern Europe, where the local peasants were more than happy to get rid of the Jews.
Yes, there are survivors who came from that world, that vast region of Eastern Europe that was Poland or Russia or Hungary, depending on the time of day. They survived mainly because the Nazis did not have time to finish the job, and massively, they tried to emigrate to the Land of Israel. And this is not - let's be honest - the most glorious page of British history.
I'm afraid that we forget what the Holocaust has been by turning it into an opportunity to educate the European youth on the values of tolerance. Frankly speaking, there are so many other opportunities in European history to teach the values of tolerance. Think of the religious wars in England and in France in the 16th and 17th centuries. Think that at a certain point, after centuries of blood-shedding, Catholics and Protestants realized that people who have a different opinion regarding whether Jesus is really present in the Eucharist could be citizens of the same State. It was an extraordinary discovery and actually the birth of religious tolerance.
Do you want an event to use as a teaching opportunity about tolerance? The end of the religious wars in Europe is a good start.
But of course, there are not survivors around. And crucially, there are no righteous Gentiles we can honour for that.
You see, I'm a Rabbi. I live in the Diaspora, and my work is to remind the Diaspora that we have a Jewish calendar patterned along the cycle of the Torah readings. Holocaust Memorial Day is not part of the Jewish calendar. It has been established on the civic date of the liberation from Auschwitz. Properly said, it is the Christian date. The so-called ‘civil calendar’ numbers the year from the birth of Jesus. It is a Christian calendar. Anyway, 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day, does not fall every year at the same point of the cycle of Torah reading.
Our calendar does not include Holocaust Memorial Day. 27th January is not a Hebrew date. This means that every year in the Shabbats around Holocaust Memorial Day, we read from different portions of the Torah.
I think that this year there is a profound contrast between the Torah reading of this Shabbat and - on the other side - Holocaust Memorial Day. Holocaust Memorial Day is meant to teach tolerance, which as I said, I find uncomfortable.
In this week's Torah portion, there are many mitzvot, religious commandments, and today we have read some of them. Most of these commandments are about the difference between Hebrew slaves and Gentile slaves. I hear the alarm bells ringing from our contemporary sensitivity. Why read this stuff? Are we about to teach that slavery is legitimate? Or that there should be discrimination between Hebrew workers and foreign workers?
Of course not!
Thanks to the interpretation of the Rabbis, the Oral Law, this piece of ancient Middle Eastern legislation, has become the most humanitarian and decisive condemnation of slavery. I hope I will soon have the opportunity to teach how this fascinating intellectual process has developed (you know, it’s called: Judaism). But think about this: the distinction between a Hebrew slave and foreign slave, in a Hebrew text, is there to teach the Hebrew reader, that is us, that "you also can become a slave". It is not by chance that it is found in the same Torah portion that orders to not oppress the stranger "because you also have been a stranger".
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, all these passages about the Hebrew slaves are there to teach the Hebrew of today the virtue of empathy. Empathy between Jews. Because you obviously feel empathy first and foremost for the members of your family, for your community, for your tribe.
Empathy does not mean "recognising the common humanity." This “common humanity” is quite an abstract concept (and indeed there is no Hebrew equivalent). Empathy means being able to feel the feelings of other human beings, without leaving out the concrete particularity, such as, for example, being Jewish. Here's the paradox. By insisting on “common humanity” and of course “many other genocides”, we are forced to leave at home our specific history, our memory, our identity.
We are required to forget being Jewish.
Here's a highly disturbing episode.
Four years ago, a Jewish employee at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam (the most visited Holocaust Museum in the world) was forbidden to wear his kippah because - he was told - the open exhibition of religious symbols could upset the visitors. And please note that the Anne Frank Museum offers the visitors explanatory leaflets in all the languages of the world (Arab included). Except for Hebrew.
This is what happens when you turn the Holocaust, the persecution of the Jews, into a tool to teach the values of religious tolerance. The Hebrew language and the Jewish religion become symbols of divisiveness. Do you want to affirm the “common humanity”? You have to silence your particular Jewish identity.
Does it mean we have to stop commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day and stop holding these ceremonies at Meadow View, which should be - in theory - open to all citizens, but as you know, only Jews go? Of course not! If anything, we should hold the flag in spite of those who want to turn such a day into a commemoration of Palestinian suffering, as certain people in our city are already preparing to do.
But because I'm talking to my community and this is a Jewish community, I wanted to share with you, my discomfort. One of my predecessors, Rabbi David Mayer, used to say that almost all Jews can say the name of five concentration camps, but few Jews can name the Hebrew names of the five books of the Torah.
There is so much more to Judaism than the memory of the Holocaust. We cannot make our identity coincide with the Holocaust. It will be offensive towards those Jewish masses in Eastern Europe for which the Torah was literally life, and who perished during the most horrendous genocide in history, which still we struggle to understand.
By all means see you tomorrow at the cemetery but also, hopefully, see you soon in shul.
15th January 2022/13th Shevat 5782
HOW ODD / FOR GOD
I like to introduce myself sometimes as a recovered Marxist. That is because, in my younger years, I have been a Marxist. It was part of the package -so to speak - when I was an academic. Then I realised that Marxism is very similar to a religion and a very boring one.
More a cult than a religion indeed. One of these faiths that grants to its followers a sort of superior knowledge, by which they believe they can understand and explain everything
For example, Marxist scholars base their understanding of ancient history on the never-ending conflict between the urban proletariat and small landlords. And Marxist scholars of Jewish history do precisely the same with the Talmud.
I don't know how the sparse biographic notations in the Talmud about this or that Rabbi can provide a basis for determining whether the Rabbi was a member of the urban proletariat (or a small landlord), but what do I know is: I am just a Rabbi.
Obviously, Exodus is the most beloved book by Marxist scholars. Especially its first part and the description of slavery in Egypt. There you have oppressors and oppressed, slaves and slaveowners, and (they think) nothing else.
We are talking of slaves whose living conditions deteriorate over time. We explain that such oppression is sanctified and legitimised through religious belief. We read that the Pharaoh did not let the Israelites go because the ruling class needed slaves; it needed a cheap workforce.
For a Marxist, it's a bonanza.
To be clear, I have nothing against this; indeed, I am flattered when other communities find a source of hope and inspiration for their creativity in the Bible, in our Holy Book.
But in the stories of the slavery of our ancestors in Egypt and of their liberation, there is much more.
The passage that describes how God heard the cries of the Israelites and then intervened and liberated them through miracles is a source of hope for oppressed communities. But the sad fact is that historically God did not intervene to deliver any other people.
It's not that Judaism tolerates slavery, not at all. The point is that God intervened, through miracles, only to liberate the Jews. Us. Only us.
In other words, the point - and the discomforting problem - is:
This apparently simple tongue twister indicates something very profound. Let's have a better look at the story.
One detail escapes the attention of those Biblical scholars who read Exodus only as a history of liberation. And it is in this week's Torah portion, in the part that we have read.
Picture the scene. The Israelites are busy organising the Exodus from Egypt, gathering what they can in a very rushed way. As we remember every year on Pesach, when we eat matzah, the Exodus happened very quickly; the Israelites went away in a hurry, they brought with them whatever they could, even the unleavened dough. Nonetheless, while everyone is rushing and hurrying, Moses takes some time to collect the bones of Joseph. The text informs us - we have seen it - that Moses took the bones of Joseph together with him.
While the Israelites are trying to gather all they need for such a long journey, their spiritual guide wastes precious time to gather some old bones?
What's going on?
It's a question that many commentators have tried to answer in detail, and each of them has words of praises for Moses. This is understandable; let's not forget, he's doing a mitzvah.
(By the way, during our morning services, we looked at these explanations when we read the study passage. That's for those who say they cannot wake up and join at 7:30 am. Try to do it some time, you can learn something, Beside that, we are nice people.)
Anyway, the main point is that Moses recognises the importance of Joseph. He cannot imagine the Israelites travelling through the wilderness towards the Promised Land without the bones of Joseph.
Why? The life of Joseph, you see, is peculiar. He has lived in Egypt, a very class-based society (worse than England), first as a slave, then as a prisoner, then as Pharaoh's advisor. Very few other Egyptian natives have experienced so many conditions, one would say: have lived so many lives, in Egypt, in so many different social classes.
Yet, Joseph never forgot that he was a Jew. In this way, Joseph sets a precedent, establishes a model for us in the Diaspora. Regardless of what we do or our social status, we are still Jews. We identify primarily through our ethnic or religious belonging rather than professional or social status. So this is Joseph, who keeps the memory of his Jewish life while in exile. Small wonder that Moses wants him to be with him and the people while they move towards the Land.
But there is more.
Who, specifically, is Moses? Which family does Moses belong to? I know it's a bit of a tricky question, but you have a Rabbi to provide answers to the tough questions, and that is: Moses is a Levite. Moses is a descendant of Levi.
Yes, Levi: the great antagonist of Joseph. The main adversary of Joseph is among his brothers. The Talmud explains that when Joseph told of his dreams to the brothers. Levi was the most loudly to scoff:
"You've dreamed these sheaves bowing down to your sheaf. Do you think that will happen to you! Do you really believe you'll rule over us?"
This, astonishingly, is precisely what did happen when the brothers came to Egypt searching for food in times of famine, and Joseph was a ruler, and they did not recognise him.
By taking care of the bones of Joseph, Moses emends that mistake, that sin if you prefer, committed by his direct ancestor against Joseph.
Moses carries physically what remains of Joseph. And spiritually carries the past of the Jewish people.
Do you remember the other dream of Joseph?
The sun (father), the moon (mother), and eleven stars (brothers) bowed to Joseph himself.
Which is impossible. The moon and the sun never appear in the sky simultaneously! It counters the laws of nature!
But, ladies and gentlemen, this is precisely what is happening now. The Israelites. led by Moses, bow to Joseph, to his remains, by carrying the coffin with them into the wilderness towards the Promised Land.
By carrying Joseph, Moses links the deliverance of now to correcting a grave mistake of the past. And Moses shows that loyalty toward the heritage of Israel and towards the Divine promise is strong, very strong. Stronger, even, than the laws of nature.
As I said before, I consider it an honour that the history of the liberation of the Jewish people is an example, a paradigm, and an inspiration for the freedom of other communities and, God willing, of all humanity. Exodus is a majestic and inspirational Biblical book that genuinely speaks to all humankind and carries a universal message.
But read in proper context, it also has a specific message for us Jews. It encourages loyalty to our heritage. It tells us that no future liberation is complete without connection to the past, nor is it really possible.
8th January 2022/ 6th Shevat 5782
ON AN IMPORTANT BIRTHDAY
We celebrate a birthday this weekend: 80 years ago, a group of Rabbis and lay leaders founded the Association of British Synagogues, which later became Reform Synagogues of Great Britain and, from 2005, the Movement for Reform Judaism.
As a denomination, Reform Judaism dates back to the late 18th Century, when German Jews founded synagogues where modern science was accepted, and prayers were said in the local language. For the record, in the same years, further east, in Belarus, the Chabad Movement was at its incubation stage. Believe it or not, our brand of Judaism is older than Chabad! The foundation of Reform-oriented synagogues in England - such as West London, Manchester and Bradford - took place later. And only 80 years ago, this synagogue established a joint body, initially to support Jewish education in the time of war, then for broader purposes.
There's an article in this week Jewish Chronicle by my illustrious colleague Jonathan Romain. There you can read the basics about the history of our denomination. But I don't want to talk about history. Instead, I ask you to figure out what a Reform synagogue looked like 80 years ago and compare it with what a Reform synagogue looks like today. Just imagine having two photographs in front of you, side by side.
One is black and white, and it is a photo of a Reform synagogue in the 40s. The other is in colour, and it is a photograph of a contemporary Reform synagogue.
You will see striking differences.
In both photos, men and women sit together, but in the black and white picture of 80 years ago, there still tends to be some sort of separation between genders. For example, there are more women than men in the kitchen, volunteering for the Kiddush. They are called indeed "the Ladies guild". While in the room for prayer, where the service is held, the males dominate. There are no women on the bimah; the Rabbi, the wardens, those who are called to do mitzvot, and those who are called up - they are all men.
Let's look at a more contemporary and colourful photo. We see women called to the Torah, receiving honours, doing mitzvot, acting as wardens and leading the service as Rabbis.
The dress code has also changed. 80 years ago, many men wore the top hat, tallis tended to be smaller, and the Rabbi often wore a clerical collar. Today top hats are out of fashion, the style is more relaxed, and the ladies often wear the tallit. Tallis, on the whole, are more colourful.
The different clothing reflects a difference in backgrounds. 80 years ago, many of us were immigrants, or children of immigrants, who aimed to become proper British gentlemen of the Jewish faith (hence the fascination for top hats). Today we are British citizens and children of British citizens. English society is considerably changed. It has become more egalitarian, more inclusive, and we are happy to share these values. We also do not aim anymore to become "British gentlemen of the Mosaic faith", and we are delighted to wrap ourselves in large tallitot.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if a Reform Rabbi of the previous generations would enter a Reform synagogue of today. Imagine Dr David Wolf Marks, the 19th century Rabbi of West London Synagogue, entering this shul. He opposed leyning the Torah portion because it could lead to grammatical mistakes. He hardly could recognise this place as belonging to his same tradition. And those Rabbis and lay leaders who 80 years ago established the entity that later became the Movement for Reform Judaism? Even they would have some problem fitting in our very egalitarian yet traditional synagogue.
This brings me to a very famous story.
In this story, God brings Moses, several centuries after his death, to listen in to one of the many discussions taking place in the class of Rabbi Akiva - a Rabbi who lived in the First Century of our era.
Moses listens to Akiva, who talks and talks, explains and expands many rules and halachot. But Moses does not have a clue what is going on. What is taught in that class sounds utterly foreign to him. He is completely lost. He does not get what Akiva is saying and cannot understand what he is talking about.
"When Rabbi Akiva arrives at the discussion of one particular topic, his students ask him: "My teacher, from where do you derive this?" Rabbi Akiva replies: “It is a halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai". In the story, we are told that “when Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he was to receive". [Talmud Bavli Menachot 29b]
This is the essence of Judaism. The continuity of tradition and its never-ending evolution.
Moses was Moses, the greatest of the prophets and the wisest of human beings. Still, even he would not have been able to understand how Judaism has evolved. And Judaism was the religion he had "founded"!.
But when God tells him that all these rules are rooted in the Torah that he had received on Sinai, in other words, when he is reassured of continuity, then this puts his mind at rest.
So what were the reasons that 80 years ago, different synagogues and different individuals put aside their differences and founded the Association of British Synagogues, which would later become the Movement for Judaism? - And there were theological and ideological differences!
If you read the article in the Jewish Chronicle, you can see the differences in approach between different Rabbis. On one side, the more traditionalists, who do not want to stress the differences with Orthodoxy, on the other side, those who want more autonomy. All of this was somehow complicated by that well-known professional disease of many rabbis - which is a rather cumbersome ego.
But ideological differences were set aside because these founders knew how important it was to provide a Jewish education to our children. It was then a very urgent task, given that many children had been evacuated, often without their families Today, education is where we spend, or rather I should say we invest, a large part of our resources. Education is the reason why many families choose to affiliate with our synagogues. When we are lucky, they remain even after the bar or bat mitzvah of the youngest son (or daughter) is celebrated, done and dusted.
I have never met Rabbi Van Der Zyl, or Rabbi Maybaum, the founders of the Association of British Synagogues. Their students have been my teachers. They were retired (hence they had time to teach at Leo Baeck College). I don't know how these forefathers of Bristish Reform Judaism would have felt had they had the opportunity to enter any contemporary Reform synagogue. But I know that, by recognising how much time and energy we invest in Jewish education, they would certainly feel at ease like Moses in that Rabbinic story. Because their teachings have not been forgotten and because we continue to raise Jewish children and Jewish students as we Jews have done, generation after generation.